restricted access Choose Life: Three Creative Women Dance with Death
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Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women's Studies & Gender Issues 12 (2006) 242-259

Choose Life:
Three Creative Women Dance With Death

Love of my life, I am crying; I am not dying: I am dancing . . .Come to your life like a warrior; nothing will bore you; you can be happy.

Chris Williamson, "Song of the Soul"

"If we are all facing death, then we all have to decide." What is a worthwhile activity, and what would lead only to irrelevance or regret? When the matriarch Sarah dies, the Torah counts her life this way: "The life of Sarah was 100 years and 20 years and seven years." Why the triple repetition of the word "years"? The sages answer that Sarah truly lived every part of her life: She was intently young, intently adult, intently old." 1

Mystery with a Capital M

When my college-aged daughter was diagnosed with cancer, Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen's books of essays 2 strengthened me with their wise counsel. Thankfully, my daughter was cured, but a few years later, when my husband was dying of cancer and up at night in pain, I read those same short essays out loud to him. I remember gratefully that he was soothed by Remen's words.

What provides solace in such difficult times?

Remen, who describes herself as "a physician, a therapist to people with cancer and a teacher of other physicians," has helped redefine what healing is and what medicine can accomplish. Her work with the sick and dying, and her own personal history of coping with severe chronic illness, have led her [End Page 242] to believe that "Life is not defined by science but by Mystery"—the Mystery, never solved, that lies "at the heart of the will to live."

In Remen's stories, the doctors often don't know why someone has died or what has caused their recovery. She tells of being asked questions like: "What does my diagnosis mean?" "Am I dying?" "What happens after death?" Over and over, she has to tell the patient that she doesn't know. For Remen, that lack of knowledge is not a failure, and the story doesn't end there. When people are permitted to speculate and ponder the unknown, to wonder and question together out of mutual concern—that, Remen suggests, often turns out to be the medicine that is needed. Therein lies the difference between cure, which may not be forthcoming, and healing, a sense of wholeness that can be present even in death.

Remen's insights are emblematic of the innovative work of three extraordinary women who, in keeping with Remen's standard of creative response to infirmity, have each given me some essential sustaining courage when my own life turned hard.

Coming from different professional frameworks—Miriam Lippel Blum is a Jewish educator, Mary Felstiner a feminist historian, and Faye Kahn a performer/playwright—each woman imbues her writing with exceedingly forthright personal experience, and surprising humor. Their offerings not just of words, but of the whole of their lives—their wounds and their wisdom—contribute to the growing body of feminist Jewish storytelling that is a healing art in itself.

Humor and Lightness

Miriam Lippel Blum, 45, was first diagnosed with diabetes when she was 10. We met 20 years ago, just after her first heart surgery. As we sat around our Shabbat table, during the silence between ritual hand washing and the blessing of the bread, we could hear the rhythmic whooshing of her artificial heart valve.

While she was in the hospital, she started to chronicle the dreadful side effects of the disease. As we got to know each other, we often discussed my paintings about my mother's illness and her writing about hers. Though she was suffering from the same disease portrayed in them, Miriam did not shy away from my "Life Support" series of paintings and drawings and was willing to engage with the emotionally painful images. [End Page 243...