Counting Up, Counting Down


Counting Up, Counting Down


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By Julie Pelic

I step down the curb and enter the crosswalk, placing one foot behind the other, just like the two people on my left. We are a tribe of pedestrians obeying traffic laws as one. We walk in a rhythm together, except each of them is leaning on a cane and I am not. I am heading to my car, parked smugly in the only handicapped parking space on Westwood Boulevard. I imagine the monologue undoubtedly piercing these people's thoughts: look at her, young and healthy, probably using her grandmother's placard for preferred parking.

My black velvet pants swish against my legs in the early spring breeze; my cell phone rings, and I unconsciously pull it from the right pocket of my jacket, grasping the keys to my car and bend to unlock the car door using my unsteady and unreliable left. I lean forward farther, attempting to pull the heavy car door open with the strength of my left hand as I conduct an impromptu phone interview.

I have overestimated the strength and skill of my left hand; I have underestimated the dizziness clouding my mind and my judgment this afternoon. I topple backwards onto the pavement, pressing my left arm into the cement to catch my fall. My shoulder aches with the unexpected jolt, but the person with whom I am speaking never knows that any of this just occurred. I stay on the ground to finish the phone conversation, trying to sound unshaken and professional.

I have taken to wearing jackets and slacks to school this last semester before ordination. I am trying to convince someone – anyone – to take me seriously as a competent adult, not an injured child. I sit on the cusp of my ordination as a rabbi and yet my health problems persist, as though they are shouting out to me and demanding to be noticed, now.

I am becoming a rabbi: someone whose strength and competence provides solace for others. I am falling apart. As I cross the street on Westwood Boulevard, young and healthy looking to the untrained eye, I know about walking with a cane, about riding in a wheelchair, about using a walker. And I just celebrated my thirtieth birthday.

In Jewish tradition, we count the number if days from the moment of our liberation from slavery until the moment that our Torah was given to us. The counting is seven weeks long, and each new day begins at nightfall. We count upwards, and as the days pass the numbers get larger and larger as we get farther away from the realities of bondage. But this year, as they are counting up, I am counting down. Right now there are 10 days, 18 hours, and 59 minutes until I am ordained as a rabbi. The numbers are getting smaller and smaller as the days pass and I become closer to the realization of my lifelong dream of becoming a rabbi.

Amidst my countdown, though, a certain doom hangs over me, as though counting down, rather than up is asking for trouble. In my waking nightmares, I imagine the countdown aborted unnaturally early, as tragedy unexpectedly strikes again, and again. As I pick myself up from the pavement next to my handicapped parking spot, I joke to myself that I'm just waiting for the next shoe rack to drop.

I found out this week that the adorable new dog I "rescued" from the shelter has liver disease and suffers from seizures. My own dizziness and nausea have been unrelenting as I hold the memory of her fluffy white body as it shook violently, uncontrollably in my arms. I held her in my lap, and cood comforting words to her, "You will be okay, everything will be okay." But whom was I reassuring? It is a lie.

What will I do if she is dying? "Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?" asks the poet, Mary Oliver. I remember that my parents once waited in a hospital, awaiting the news of my fate. I had suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm in my cerebellum, undergone eight hours of open-cranial brain surgery, and my life hung in their minds like a terrible question mark. I was their 26 year old baby. They held strong through blood tests, CAT-scans, and countless therapies and medications.

I find out that less than 1/3 of people who suffer brain aneurysms survive, and of that tiny group, less than 1/3 are able to return to a somewhat normal, functional, independent life. People like to tell me that I am a miracle. I remind them that I am incapable of using the left side of my body; that I am dizzy and nauseous at least half of the time; that I have completed countless hours of physical therapy, occupational therapy, vision therapy, speech therapy, hypnotherapy, psychotherapy, cranial-sacral therapy, acupuncture, Feldenkrais, and drug regimes. One young minister, upon hearing my story, says, "And you're still here – that must be so hard." I weep, grateful that she understands both the blessing and the curse, the miracle and the tragedy.

One morning last semester, the alarm pierced me awake at 5:45 am, but it was not the early hour which pained me as I rolled over, pulling the electric blanket tighter under my chin. It was the dream, cruelly and prematurely spliced to a close.

I am at my Ordination. My sister, Ellie, is introducing me, recommending me for my imminent Ordination. I ascend the steps to stand beside her after my name is called:

"Julie is meal worms, earth worms, and larvae. But I love her." This is Ellie's whole speech: these are the last words spoken about me before I become a Rabbi.

What she has said is true: it is more true than anything else is true. I will die; we all will die, at which point we will be little more than worms or maggots, buried in the earth. And she loves me. What Ellie has said is, "life is transient, we are mortal, and I love my sister." Everything else is ultimately an embellished lie, created and maintained for us to believe in our own importance, our ability to live beyond ourselves. Ellie has told the truth. "Julie is meal worms, earth worms, and larvae. But I love her." What more is there to say, moments before something truly incredible, truly life changing takes place?

I realize that this is my Torah. The countdown might have begun when I left slavery behind, when I unwittingly chose life, but I realize that it will not end until I take that Torah into my arms, hold her close to my heart, and mean it when I say, "You will be okay, everything will be okay."


from the July 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine




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