For weeks, I told anyone who would listen about my plans to travel to a friend’s 40th birthday party in another state. Each time, I got a funny look – who makes such a huge celebration when they turn 40? – until I explained, “She has cystic fibrosis.”
The look of amazement each time was priceless, as the realization hit of just how momentous the occasion was.
In the words of the birthday woman herself, explaining why she wanted to celebrate what others might rather ignore:
So many people hide from 40, mumble it under their breath or amputate a few years in embarrassment. Not me! I want to have a big blowout birthday bash! All too often people only make the effort to get together for a funeral. What a waste! If there’s gonna be a great big reunion with all my friends and family, I want to be there for it!
When my friend was diagnosed, no one expected her to live past 20. As she grew and fought, as progress was made in treatments, her life expectancy grew with her. And so, for 40 years and counting, with G-d’s help, the world has been that much better because she’s in it. It is a privilege to know her for many reasons that have nothing to do with CF, though her disease has likely contributed to some of her remarkable qualities and perspectives – like those which led her to plan a big bash celebrating her 40th birthday.
I have to mention that I didn’t make it to the party. My husband’s grandmother passed away in a different state. We got the call just as I was about to get on the road and – somewhat ironically, considering my friend’s point above – suddenly there was a funeral that had to take precedence. After indulging our grief for a few moments, it was time for a flurry of decision-making: Fly or drive to New York? Get in the car and drive through the night or sleep a few hours and leave before dawn? Bring the whole family or should my husband go alone?
These decisions can be excruciating, especially when they have to be made quickly, before all the information is in. We had to either get on the road or not, reserve a plane ticket or not, find a friend to watch the kids or not – and then face the frustration of 20/20 hindsight when circumstances changed and left us thinking, “We could have done x differently, if only we’d known y sooner.”
The Gemara states in several contexts that “אין לו לדיין אלא מה שעיניו רואות – A judge has only what his eyes see.” In some cases, this statement refers to an actual judge and literal sight: one examines an object and must determine whether it is pure or impure without worrying that it might look different in the morning. However, the Rashbam points out that one of these occurrences (Bava Batra 131a) indicates the same principle holds true for “matters that depend on reasoning, for one has only what his heart sees.” Sometimes we look at an object with our eyes to decide what it is, and sometimes we look at a situation with our hearts and minds to decide what to do. Either way, despite common wisdom that says to sleep on it, sometimes we can’t – and even if we can, morning comes and calls for a choice. We can only sleep on it so many times before a determination must be made, based on what’s there at the time. And just like that reality is okay in the Gemara’s contexts of halachic rulings, we have to find a way to be at peace with it when it comes to other decisions too. We can only decide based on what’s in front of us.
Back to my friend with cystic fibrosis and her unique perspective.
In some ways, her perspective isn’t so unique; we all know we should value every moment of life. My mother used to tell us, if we dared say anything negative about growing up, “It’s better than the alternative.” She was right, of course, and I think we all know that. Yet we complain about getting older anyway. One person I told about the party, before I dropped the CF bombshell, said “I think I’m more likely to be sad when I turn 40!” Why? Don’t we know each day we continue to live is a miracle and a gift?
Sure, in theory. But a judge has only what his eyes see.
Maybe the difference between my friend and those of us who are blessed with basically good health is that for her, the miracle is in front of her eyes. Always.
Anyone might have an occasional close call – a car accident, for instance – that throws the gift of life in our faces for a moment, and maybe we bentch gomel or even make a seudat hoda’ah to express our newly rejuvenated appreciation of continuing to live. But then we go back to the daily grind, and when the next birthday rolls around, once again mumble the number under our breath or amputate a few years, as my friend put it so colorfully. But someone who fills bookcases with her daily medications, who needs frequent hospital stays, who’s lost friends with the same condition, who remembers being told she wouldn’t live through high school – it’s there all the time. How could someone living such a life ever carelessly say she doesn’t want to grow up, when the alternative is always staring her in the face?
She’s an excellent judge of the value of continuing to live, because her eyes see it all the time. And she’s the perfect person to remind the rest of us to open our own eyes.
I missed the party, but I did get to see a video of my friend’s speech. Not surprisingly, she talked about attitude. Well aware of the realities of her condition, she emphasized that attitude can’t change everything. She also acknowledged that she has bad days and is not always upbeat. But she reminded all of us, as she does every day just by putting in the work to continue to breathe, that we can choose what to do with what we’re given, and change what we can within the realities of what we can’t.
And maybe the first step in adjusting attitudes is to place certain truths in front of our eyes, if they’re not there already. Those of us who are generally healthy can choose to place the reality of the gift of aging in front of our eyes and at the forefront of our consciousness, especially when we get reminders from our own experiences or others’ perspectives. Once we see it, the clarity might fade – or we might find that we can’t unsee it. I don’t think I’ve complained about getting older once since my mother made that comment; once “the alternative” was pointed out to me, I could never see it as sad.
Can we keep that awareness in front of our eyes at every moment, appreciating and celebrating every moment? Probably not. Even my wise friend will tell you she doesn’t. Life can be hard, and it’s not easy – nor is it always productive – to dismiss our challenges with “at least I’m still breathing!”
But whenever we can place that awareness before our eyes, maybe we’ll have some different reactions. Maybe we’ll make some different choices.
All too often people only make the effort to get together for a funeral.
Another friend, who lost a parent not long ago, shared with me that, after realizing how people will drop everything and “just go” for a funeral, she makes it a point to do the same when it’s not for a funeral. For happy occasions, or just because – because each day is a gift to appreciate and use.
Rabbi Eliezer tells us in Pirkei Avot to “repent one day before your death.” The Gemara in Shabbos (153a) relates a follow-up question from his students: How can anyone follow this advice, when no one knows the day of his or her death? Rabbi Eliezer answered, “All the more so! He should repent today, in case he dies tomorrow – and he’ll be found in a state of repentance all his days.”
There are things we all value, things we want to accomplish before we leave this earth. If we can keep the uncertainty of tomorrow in sight, we might find ourselves judging today differently. We might see and take – or create – more opportunities.
I couldn’t make it to the bash, but immediately started planning a visit – before my awareness of the value of such a visit could drop from “before my eyes” to the back of my mind. Another friend and I went the following weekend, in fact. We dropped everything and “just went.”
We can only make decisions in life based on what we see. But sometimes, we can choose what to look at, and just go from there.
Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through www.TorahTutors.org and www.WebYeshiva.org.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.