This piece was published in the Pasadena Star News on November 16, 2003.
He waited until he had symptoms before he went to the doctor. My father, like many men, avoided physicians, diagnostic tests and regular medical check-ups. If he had had the screening examination for colon cancer, admittedly an unpleasant procedure, he would not have spent the last years of his life feeling sick and miserable.
I got my first colonoscopy in 1998, the year my Dad was diagnosed with colon cancer. The procedure itself is easy – the doctor gave me a nice dose of drugs and I had a very
pleasant slumber from which I did not awake until it was over. In the recovery room the
nurse told me the drug gives patients temporary amnesia. When she showed me the
color photograph of my rectum and colon I was glad I couldn’t remember it.
I know many people like me who are on the other side of fifty and have not undergone
the procedure. They grimace and groan when I regale them with my tall tales of how
famished I get after a full day of a liquid diet and how I follow it with a phospho-soda so
potent I can actually feel it going through my guts. Maybe I shouldn’t brag about the
gory details, but the story has a happy ending when I tell them I came out clean – meaning they found no polyps, a potential precursor to cancer.
In exchange for a little over twenty-four hours of hunger pangs, topped off by chemically induced diarrhea and an enema, I have five years of peace of mind. Five years in exchange for twenty-four hours of discomfort is a good trade off. Memorial Sloan-Kettering doctors believe that regular colorectal cancer screening could reduce U.S. cancer deaths from this disease by half, and could prevent many cancers from ever developing. Every time I undergo the screening test, I place myself in the healthy half.
I had my second colonoscopy a few weeks ago and again went through the unpleasant preparation necessary to get ready for the test. When I had the test in 1998, two of my co-workers were pregnant. They passed the ultrasound pictures of their unborn babies around the office. “Hey, I have a picture of my insides too,” I boasted. “Want to see it?” The answer was a resounding: NO!
As I prepared for my second colonoscopy, those ultrasound images are now five-year-old children who are preparing to start kindergarten. Reflecting back on the years that have passed since my colonoscopy is not exactly like reminiscing about childbirth or a wedding anniversary but it did make me stop to ponder my father’s fate.
If he had had the cancer screening in time, he would still be alive today. He would
have attended his grandson’s wedding and would still be in the beautiful home he built
on top of an Arizona mountain with views of the desert below that he so loved. My
devastated Mother would not be alone.
I will continue to get the colorectal cancer screening as often as my physician recommends it. True, it can’t protect me from other cancers or a variety of diseases or accidents that might kill me. But it will protect me from my father’s fate and so I do it partly in his memory.
I drove my husband to the outpatient surgery center last week for his screening test. The nurse remembered me. “Hey, weren’t you just here?” she asked. I told her my husband and I get the colonoscopy done at the same time so we can get if over with. “I get my screening test every five years but I can’t get my husband to do his,” she sighed.
Too bad, I said to myself. When screening tests are available that could potentially add years to a person’s life, he owes it to his family to undergo them, no matter how unpleasant. If you haven’t had the test and your doctor has recommended it, stop and think about what you were doing in 1998, and how much your family would have missed you these past five years. Then go call your doctor.
This piece was published in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles on
December, 22, 2006.
Note: The Recycler was Craig's List, before the internet. Before iPhones, we listened to music on the radio in our cars.
I was very sad when I put an ad in the Recycler for my beloved Christmas dishes, but it was time to part with them. I had converted to Judaism two years earlier but kept the dishes stored in the back of the linen closet. I wanted them to go to a good home.
The dishes represented another part of my life, a part that was past, and I had to move on. I was never a devout Christian, but we always had a tree when I was a kid, and Santa Claus came every year. The Christmas dishes were a gift from my former mother-in-law. She gave me a place setting every year.
Having celebrated Hanukkah only two times, I was still new to its joys. My latkes were greasy. I stumbled over the dreidel song, but still sang along easily with Christmas carols on the radio. The menorah, with its nine tiny candles, was not as festive as the neighbor’s house that glittered and shone as bright as a Las Vegas casino.
As I considered giving up the dishes, I remembered the story of Ruth and Naomi. When Ruth declared to her mother-in-law, Naomi, “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God,” I wondered if she took a plate or two with her as she departed. Conversion is a commitment to a new life, but also requires relinquishing some remnants of the old life that are deeply ingrained. It takes time.
The day the Recycler came out, I got a call from a woman who wanted to see the dishes. When my prospective buyer arrived, I welcomed her and showed her the dishes, which were displayed on the coffee table. She sat on the couch and I could see she loved them. I had priced the dishes at a very affordable $100 and she didn’t quibble about the price. I knew she would cherish the dishes as I had. It was at that moment that I fully let go of my old life.
My conversion class took seventeen weeks, but it took much more time to feel, think and react like a Jew. It took years before I said “us,” when talking about Jewish issues.
On the rare occasions when “born Jews” were less than welcoming to me, I felt that sting and reminded myself that, although Jews turn away a potential convert three times, once the commitment is made, I was just as Jewish as anyone. Paradoxically, their rude comments made me feel more Jewish.
I learned that Hanukkah is a minor holiday, as Jewish holidays go. Over the years I have developed a deep attachment to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and began to refer to them as “the holidays,” and no longer use that term to mean Christmas and New Year’s Eve. By the time Christmas comes, my holidays are pretty much over.
In my twenty-two years as a Jew, I have see the commercialization of Hanukkah increase and watched the small displays at bookstores and in mail order catalogues grow every year. I succumbed to their charm and now have Hanukkah hand towels in my bathroom, a battery operated menorah and a small dreidel collection. Even though I enjoy putting the items out every year, I am grateful that Judaism’s most solemn holy days will never be overwhelmed by consumerism, as Jesus’ birth has.
Last year, I threw a Hanukkah party and learned from the hands of a master how to cook latkes. She told me to get a decent food processor as she watched me grate five pounds of potatoes by hand. She taught me how to get them brown and crisp – simply give up on the notion of good nutrition at this time of year and pour on the oil. I can sing Hanukkah songs by heart, though I still sing Christmas carols along with the radio in the car. If Barry Manilow and Barbara Streisand can sing them, so can I.
Occasionally, as I light a candle on the menorah on a dark December night, I think about my former Christmas dishes and the woman who bought them. I imagine that she lovingly sets them on her table, as she prepares her Christmas dinner, and I smile.
This piece was published on December 17, 2000 in the Pasadena Star News.
“How old are you?” the kindergarten teacher asked. “I’m five-years-old,” I replied.
“When were you born?” she further inquired. “Five days before Christmas,” I said, with some pride. She wasn’t satisfied.
“What month were you born in?” she asked. I had no idea. All I knew was that I was born five days before Christmas. That’s what my mom told me and I thought it was a good thing. Now I was confused.
I repeated my previous statement. “I was born five days before Christmas.” Need I say more? “What month were you born in?” She repeated her previous question. I wondered why this silly woman, an adult, didn’t know what month “”five days before Christmas” was in.
After all, Christmas was important. Everyone knew when it was. Why didn’t she? Everyone who has a birthday in December knows the drill. We got cheated; stiffed; hung out to dry by the loving couple who got together sometime in March and, with God’s blessing, started a tiny cell that divided and divided.
That tiny cell became a blessed event deep in the dark days of December. Hopefully, that tiny life lit the night. That special baby was destined to share the spotlight with another baby that looms large on everyone’s calendar, be they Christian, Jew, Muslin or atheist. All of us December babies share the spotlight with a wonderful holiday that no other child born in any other month must share. It is a blessing and a curse.
Babies born on the Fourth of July share it with Uncle Sam. Big deal. Babies born in the spring share it with the Easter Bunny. So what? Babies born on Labor Day may elicit a laugh or two, but never get cheated out of a present. December babies may get shortchanged at a time of year when presents flow, bank accounts get overdrawn and presents are purchased out of compulsion, not need. We got robbed!
I was lucky. My mother was a good mom and always had a birthday cake and special presents for me, five days before Christmas. As I look back, I admire her determination to make my birthday special. With limited resources and five children to buy for, my mom made sure I could look back on pictures of me blowing out the candles on my cake and proudly posing with my very own birthday presents, just five days before Christmas. I cherish those photos.
I will always be grateful to her, and to my dear husband, who never fails to make a very big deal about my December birthday. A child’s birthday is a very special event for the child, the parents, and all the loving relatives and friends.
For those wise and wonderful people who take a moment to recognize a December birthday, for a four-year-old or a forty-year-old, I send a special thanks. For those not so wise and wonderful people who have gotten away with one gift instead of two, I send a swift kick in the conscience.
Give the December loved one his or her due. Make them feel special, just as you make sure all the other birthday babies feel special. Open your heart and your wallet and do unto others as you would have them do unto you . . . as if you had been born five days before Christmas.
This piece was published in the Jewish Journal on December 26, 2003.
Kathleen Vallee Stein