A Celebration of Life

Found In: Healing from Illness

Tags: havdalah, cancer

By Nancy H. Wiener with Judith Tax | Complete Ceremony

Each year, as the anniversary of Judith's mastectomy approaches, she remembers the shock and horror that she experienced when she first heard the diagnosis. With the first anniversary, concerns about recurrence or metastasis loomed large, overshadowing the gratitude and pleasure she also felt. As the first decade ended, the balance shifted; each anniversary brought with it painful memories that were increasingly dwarfed by a palpable sense of relief and gratitude. Each subsequent year we marked with a minor, private celebration.

As the eighteenth anniversary approached, we spent a great deal of time discussing the passing of so many years, her changed sense of self and life, and the genuine realization that, indeed, a lifetime had passed since the surgery. We decided that this milestone called for a celebration. However, a simple party did not seem appropriate. Marking this anniversary was an existential experience; it was about life and meaning and a radical change in perception. Consequently, as Jews who mark all times and seasons in specifically Jewish ways, we felt that finding or creating a Jewish way to celebrate this unique, joyous moment was very important.

Judith and I spent a great deal of time discussing her need for this ceremony. We selected Motzei Shabbat, because Havdalah seemed a powerful symbol for the separation of one lifetime (an eighteen-year period) and another. We agreed that merely celebrating Havdalah did not seem enough. Judith was clear about who she would like to have with her and what tone she would like the ceremony to have. Beyond that, she decided that she would like to be an active participant in the ceremony, but not be actively engaged in the creation of the ceremony. She wanted to be able to experience it, without having preconceived expectations or images intrude. We were gathering with friends, qua family, to give thanks for Judith's life and to affirm all of the strands of her life as essential elements of a beautiful, coherent whole. The ceremony was to be personal and self-revelatory. As the day approached and Judith began to experience the emotional power the upcoming ceremony had for her, she requested that the ceremony not demand that she read or speak individually; she was afraid that she would be too overwhelmed by emotions to be able to speak. With all of this in mind, I created a special pre-Havdalah ritual that involved the crafting of a Havdalah candle. Without words, Judith could create a beautiful new triple-wick Havdalah candle which would symbolically capture this extraordinary moment of healing and celebration. The Havdalah ritual itself was intentionally simple. It was done primarily in song, utilizing just the Hebrew prayers contained in Gates of the Home, to allow the familiar ritual to offer its soothing and hopeful presence. Special English segments of the service were written and extemporized to highlight the special nature of this particular Havdalah celebration.

Niggun (setting for Psalm 150)

Leader:

In the Jewish tradition, each letter of the alphabet has a numerical value. The letters that comprise the word life, chai, have the numerical value of eighteen.

Tonight, eighteen years after Judith's mastectomy, we gather to celebrate life, and to share with her a deep sense of Thanksgiving.

Eighteen years ago, a lifetime ago, you did not know if your life's time was coming to a close. Eighteen years ago, your life was forever altered.

Leader:

Your understanding of your own vulnerability of the power of faith and love and care, were radically transformed. Your images of self and body, images of relationship to self and to others, were profoundly challenged. Before your own eyes, you felt as if you were watching your life unraveling.

All:

And yet now, a lifetime later, what might have been lost has been renewed, the body whose shape has been altered has found a new form, and the fullness of life has been restored.

Leader:

In front of you are wicks and wax. As you symbolically weave the different strands of your life into a single candle, we are reminded that what you and we do with the strands of our lives is up to us. It is in our hands.

(All in attendance stand and form circle around person weaving candle: And as we stand around you now, we hope to affirm for you and for all of us that we are not alone. We are surrounded and supported by friends and family as we each respond to our own life's journey. Within ourselves and through our relationships with others we transcend the physical and find a sense of wholeness, integration, and well-being.)

Leader:

As you begin the weaving, we all pause to reflect on what we are grateful for in our own lives.

Reader(s):

Look at this day,
For it is life,
The very life of life.
The realities and verities of existence,
The bliss of growth,
The splendor of action,
The glory of power--

For yesterday is but a dream,
And tomorrow is only a vision.
But today, well lived,
Makes every yesterday a dream of happiness
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.

Look well, therefore, to this day.

Give thanks. Why?
Does God need our praise? No. We do.
To awaken to
Wonder to holiness to God.

Sanskrit Proverb

It is good to give thanks for through thanksgiving comes awakening.

All:

Song:

Niggunim (until candle is completed)

(when candle is completed) Psalm 150

Havdalah

(The traditional prayers of Havdalah are all sung in a dimly lit room.)

Special Additions: (once the candle is lit)

Leader:

As we pass this lit candle around the circle, we ask each person who holds it to share either a memory they have of a time spent with during these past eighteen years or to share their own sentiments of gratitude for Judith's life.

(Prior to the singing of Eliahu HaNavi)

Leader:

This week as we sing Eliahu HaNavi, we hold fast to the joy and gratitude we feel so acutely tonight and look toward a day when the whole world will be able to come together as we have, embracing and supporting each other, to give thanks for universal healing.

Note

The candle was prepared by:

  1. Warming three rectangular sheets of beeswax (which is very pliable)
  2. Placing a wick on the long edge of each rectangle and rolling each rectangle into a taper
  3. And, lastly, taking the three tapers and braiding them together. Beeswax candle kits are available in craft stores and via craft mail-order outlets.