A Celebration of Life
By Jay Rapoport
December 1, 2016
Today I flew to my hometown for the memorial of a colleague’s husband and family friend, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a little over three years ago. A few weeks ago, when treatment options were finally exhausted, he moved home to live out his days with his family. The remarkable thing about today’s service was not merely that he had survived far beyond all expectations with this diagnosis, but that he was actually in attendance.
In the midst of planning his impending funeral with his clergy and family, imagining all of the people he wanted to speak and music to be played, an idea was proposed – why wait until he was no longer around? And so they planned “A Celebration of Life” – a living memorial service, in lieu of a public funeral, to be held immediately.
When I told colleagues yesterday about my upcoming travel plans, I didn’t even know how to explain it, and people weren’t sure how to react. As our community gathered in the synagogue lobby outside the sanctuary, the mood was somber but lighter than my experiences with funerals. After all, he’s not gone yet. We were grieving, but not mourning.
All of the speakers, clergy included, marveled out loud at the daunting task of delivering eulogies with the guest of honor present and alert. It brought a touching humor to the affair and smiles to our faces, knowing that the loving words spoken were not just of comfort for us, but of communal appreciation for him to hear about all of the ways he has impacted our lives.
Earlier this year, on the advice of our Education Assistant, Stacy Charnay, I read “When Breath Becomes Air,” the autobiographical reflection of a young brain surgeon diagnosed with terminal cancer, written through the last year of his life. Our guest of honor also wrote about his experiences in a self-published book, “The Cancer Chameleon,” a guide for friends and family dealing with a cancer diagnosis, which drew rave reviews from today’s speakers. In his final years he made a huge impact in his congregation, writing and performing Jewish music and Purim spiels, and committed to making the most of every moment, allowing himself a maximum of five minutes of pity per day.
We never know what each day will bring, but it’s never too soon to share with someone what they mean to you. Both of these men had the rare and unenviable experience of knowing the end was near and acting accordingly. Today’s celebration reminded me of the importance of telling people in our lives that they matter, and what we appreciate about them.
When I travel, everyone always asks me how things are going in Chicago, and here’s what I tell them:
We love Temple Sholom! It’s a great community, I have an amazing team of colleagues, I get to do challenging and exciting educational work with all ages, our daughter Ruthie loves our early childhood program Gan Shalom (and Helena’s JK Religious School class), and yes, I play a lot of music. I’m grateful that my family made the move out here a few years ago and for the constant opportunities to engage, inspire and matter. (And the World Series win didn’t hurt!)
In the spirit of celebrating life, I thought it was worth sharing with you.