By Susan Gubar
When I consider how this Hanukkah will be different from all other Hanukkahs, I wonder if my giddiness can be attributed to cancer and the treatments that have governed my life for the past five years.
Some time ago, an email I received from a reader explained that this year Thanksgiving and the first day of will fall on the same date. A 9-year-old, Asher Weintraub, has come up with the idea of a menorah in the shape of a turkey, a menurkey. Never before and never again will the two holidays coincide in most of our lifetimes.
While I reside in a state of anticipatory glee at the visit of my girls and their boys, I loathe the idea of ascribing my pleasure to a horrible disease. How, then, can I make sense of the fact that cancer has apparently given me a number of gifts and opportunities for growth — including a deepening capacity for joy?
Every two weeks, as I leave the hospital with another brown bag of experimental drugs, I consider the nurses and doctors who have performed what seems like a miracle to me. This year, 2013, was supposed to be the year of my death. When diagnosed in 2008, I was informed that I had three to five years left. Because of a clinical trial, I am living on borrowed time, which is experienced as a daily marvel. I realize, of course, that the trial extending my life will not cure me, that recurrence will probably be inevitable, along with palliative end-of-life care. Yet it is precisely this realization that intensifies my gratitude for being able to attend family gatherings at momentous events like a wedding, a birthday or a holiday during a succession of pain-free months.
Without cancer, I would never have encountered the six women in my support group. Nor would we have learned each other’s histories or cultivated the arts of empathy. We do not seek to give what we would want but what we think the person in need wants at any particular stage of treatment.
I have been kept alive by my family, the clinical trial, the support group, and by Tara Parker-Pope, who encouraged me to embark on the Living With Cancer series of essays at just the moment I was accepted into the clinical trial. Lest you judge me daft for ranking a blog among my life-support systems, let me explain that writing these columns and reading your comments — which would never have happened without cancer and without the models provided by the other New York Times writers Dana Jennings and Suleika Jaouad — have buoyed me up and cast me down and kept me thoroughly absorbed every day this year, engaged in what feels like a virtual community.
How can I refuse to grant cancer a positive role in my life, given these substantial rewards? Obstinate, I can and do.
For it is not cancer but rather a heightened sense of impending mortality that bestows these gifts, along with an appreciation of ongoing life never before lived, never again to be lived. Such awareness of embracing the impermanence and unpredictability of life and of those in our lives also sparks the urgency of testimony.
A famous line of poetry by Wallace Stevens — “Death is the mother of beauty” — comes into focus in a new way. Only when we realize not that the other guy is going to die but that I am going to die do we see the beauty of transient existence and the beauty of trying to engage with its every facet, even the most fraught. The exaltation, the sheer pleasure of having been alive, of being alive, catches in the throat, brims tears in the eyes, for which we can only be glad. As for those cherished: no words are commensurate, just a delicate treasuring.
Like a one-of-a-kind existence, a one-of-a-kind holiday makes me think that the question always asked at the Passover Seder —Why is this night different from all other nights? — should be asked not only on Thanksgiving, Hanukkah but on every night.
Never before and never again will I write such a happy essay, I suspect. To celebrate before I return to my usual muddles, I want to rejoice over the potato: a stolid epitome of ephemerality, since it discolors so quickly after being skinned.
My holiday latkes are distinguished from traditional versions in only three modest ways. First, half of the potatoes are finely chopped, half more roughly grated. Second, the pancakes are finished in the oven so the exhausted cook can rest before enjoying them with guests. Third, the toppings are a tad zany. This recipe to serve four can be easily multiplied for more since it uses a food processor.
3 baking potatoes
3 tablespoons matzo meal or flour
2 teaspoons kosher salt
Vegetable oil for frying
1. Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Skin the potatoes and onion and cut into chunks. Using the chopping blade of a food processor, pulse half the potatoes and the onion until finely minced. Using the grater blade, grate the other half of the potatoes. Squeeze as much liquid as possible out of this mixture by pushing it against a strainer or wringing it in cheesecloth. In a large bowl, mix the potatoes and onions with the other ingredients.
2. In a heavy skillet, heat about one quarter of an inch of oil until a fleck of onion sizzles. Put in two tablespoons of the mixture and flatten into a three inch round. Fry four or five pancakes at a time, flipping when golden brown — about five minutes on each side. Lay them on a paper towel and then on a cookie sheet while you do the next batch. The potato pancakes can stay in the oven for an hour.
3. A standard topping like applesauce or sour cream can be supplemented with bowls of chutney, salsa, olive salad, caviar or (yes!) cranberry relish.
Yield: 4 servings
Susan Gubar revolutionized the study of literature by co-authoring the classic feminist text The Madwoman in the Attic in 1979, followed by four powerful anthologies on women’s literature. An acclaimed author and distinguished retired professor of English, Susan has recently turned her fierce talents to writing about ovarian cancer in her Memoir of a Debulked Woman (2012), and in Living with Cancer blogs for The New York Times.
Susan received the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award of the National Book Critics Circle, along with her long-time collaborator Sandra M. Gilbert, in 2012. Her influence as a truth-teller continues to grow.
November 27, 2013