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The ghost of Hanukkah past

The toughest question was not: what items to keep and what to let go of?

Standing in my fully filled childhood home after my father’s death in 2015, the real kishka cruncher was: which memories to keep and which to let go of? At age 50, my bittersweet job was to partner with my big brother to pack up and chronicle our history.

The electric Hanukkah menorah, found buried in a closet, unleashed a host of hospital memories. From 1989-1995, my mother endured repeating rounds of aggressive chemotherapy.

Fighting the same Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma that took her father’s life at 60, she was diagnosed 30 years after him. Her disease flared on a hellish annual cycle: recurrence at Rosh Hashanah followed by months of chemotherapy, culminating in a ‘Prednisone Pesach’ where cleaning was a biblical reckoning.

That menorah was tucked inside her overnight bag for holiday hospitalizations. My father placed it lovingly in her hospital window. Did he face it outward for the world to see or inward for us to remember? I could not be sure. My mother’s beloved younger sister had just died of breast cancer. We knew better than to count on miracles.

I hated that electric menorah. It represented everything we had lost in a small, cheap, plastic, battery-operated ritual object. We could not celebrate this home-centric holiday at home. We could not light real candles, instead forced to switch on cheesy, faux-flickering flames. In place of singing, the beeping pumps hovered ominously. No cumin-laced sweet potato latkes,perfumed the air, only the harsh stench of antiseptic floor cleaner.

My mom died in that hospital at age 59, decades ago. But every Hanukkah as I light the menorah, I hear her loud, sweet, clear voice belting out the blessings in full Patsy Cline bravado. Joy was her calling card, her everlasting mesorah.

I tossed that electric menorah into the box labelled “Donate;” I instead kept memories of happier Hannukahs. Mom lovingly sings blessings in my ear each year, whispering: never let cancer beat joy. I’d need the advice.

Blessed are You, Lord our G‑d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to kindle the Hanukkah light.

You never forget your child’s first surgery. Even with many more to come.

Our twins’ birth in 1997 brought delight and distress. Abundant double adorableness mixed with unexpected complex diagnoses. Celebrating Hanukkah’s miracles felt like a stretch. My infant son, named for my mother, was recovering from neurosurgery at 5 months. A small electronic shunt was surgically implanted to treat hydrocephalous. It pumped excess cerebrospinal fluid away from his brain and into his stomach. Hanukkah arrived as his rows of stitches were healing.

Lighting candles that first night, my husband defied despair. He danced our baby boys around the living room singing Maoz Tzur (Rock of Ages) at the top of his lungs. A dance-party family tradition was born. My husband instinctively knew that singing about historic pain would speak to our baby’s personal pain; tapping into national oppression would ease private suffering.

Thankfully, the shunt worked diligently, a silent daily savior. What greater miracle could there be? Reciting the second blessing, we understood that it had been written specifically for us.

Blessed are You, Lord our G‑d, King of the universe, who performed miracles for our forefathers in those days, at this time.

Clearing space for a Zoom-friendly home office last April, I unearthed an old incentive spirometer. It had helped expand my lungs after a weeklong hospitalization, during which I missed Hanukkah. At 53, I now share a lymphoma diagnosis with my mother and grandfather: the same wonky blood cells, leading to chemotherapy and missed holidays.

But I’m glad that I didn’t keep that electric menorah for my hospital window. Too much history, too much precedent. I was determined to change the ending, to watch my adult sons embrace their futures.

The pandemic has returned them to our empty nest, which refilled with their size 11 shoes. But my immune system can’t hold a candle to COVID’s complications so I’ve remained under strictest lockdown. As we gratefully gather together to light our real candles at home this year, it will be an act of defiant faith.

Hanukkah arrives in the dead of winter when sunlight is doled out sparingly. We are instructed to strike a match precisely during shortened days and endless nights. We are not asked to celebrate when buoyant bright summer sunbeams find us lazing through long afternoons and jumping off docks into cool lakes;that is too easy. We light when life is hard: lonely, shrouded in darkness, hidden in fraught-filled unknown.

The courage to light the first candle embodies this holiday’s essence. To say: we are still here. There was disease, disability, death. But also promise of tomorrow, hope and prayer for new beginnings. We made it to this very moment. Our hearts may grieve with loss. But we proclaim our presence.

This Hanukkah, I will hear my mother’s voice louder than ever while singing the first blessing. Don’t let cancer beat joy. I will give thanks for scientific medical miracles while reciting the second blessing (adding an inoculation invocation). I will honor today’s precious gift of life, despite incurable cancer and COVID, with the third blessing, the Shehechiyanu.

Blessed are You, Lord our G‑d, King of the universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.

I can already sense the bubbling joy and sweet release of next year’s Hanukkah. Celebrating freedom from fear and liberation from isolation. Hot latkes and pure love perfuming the air. Maoz Tzur, belted out with Patsy Cline-bravado, ringing across our healing world.

Lisa J. Wise, M.Ed. is a writer and cancer support specialist.

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