Thursday, March 17, 2011

Birthright Israel: We’re Coming Back (Part II of ?)

Read this first:
Birthright Israel: We’re Coming Back (Part I of ?)

We stood in the 115-degree heat ready to climb a mountain in the desert. Cancer had been growing in my hip without my knowledge for at least six months. At first my hip had hurt only when I ran; then when I walked up steps. By this point my hip hurt even in a resting position.

That wasn’t about to change my decision to climb Mount Masada eleven years ago during a family vacation in Israel. Some tour group members rode the aerial tram to the top. Instead, I climbed the “snake path” in under an hour and then lagged behind as I limped between different rocks to sit on, not wanting my family to see my agony, having to hold my breath every step. It was one of my proudest moments.

Once back on the tour bus, I closed my eyes hoping to black out the pain. When I opened my eyes, many hours had passed, and my intense pain had disappeared.

Up to that point I had assumed my hip had a stress fracture, but now I knew something was really wrong. I finally told my parents about my pain when we arrived home from the trip. Two MRIs, a bone scan, and a few doctor appointments later, I was diagnosed with an aggressive tumor in my iliac crest.

Over the ensuing eleven years, I have become mindful of my different types of hip pain. One type in particular bothers me: the kind deep, deep inside my hip, like I felt after Masada. The kind that I felt before I was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma. The kind that has struck me down with The Fear that my cancer has returned.

Fast forward to my Birthright Israel trip last month.

We woke up after 5:00 am in order reach the summit of Mount Masada at sunrise. We climbed the easier side of Masada, and not the snake path—that would be our way down.

Top of Mount Masada, Israel
We discussed the history of the mountain and how, when surrounded by Romans, the Jewish people who were settled there committed mass suicide so as not to become slaves, despite suicide being a sin. Our group of 45+ stood at the lower terrace and shouted “Masada shall not fall again!” only to hear it echo back. Then “Birthright!” Then “Borrrriiiiiiiiissssssssss!” (our crazy Russian bus driver).

It was time to head down. Two group members rode the aerial tram. I walked down the snake path with the rest. I coddled my leg with the surgically removed hip, and performed the majority of work with the other, feeling a wildfire flaming through my quad. I mostly kept pace with everyone, slowing down just a few people behind me and getting passed by a few others. Once at the bottom, my hip was very sore, and I began limping to relieve stress. I looked back to where I had started less than an hour earlier. I felt refreshed, invigorated, truly alive, and once again extremely proud of my accomplishment.

Walking down the snake path at Mount Masada, Israel
The next day I felt a deep soreness in my hip—a relative to the pain I felt at Masada in 2000. In the past, I would have panicked with The Fear. But time heals, and so this occasion I knew my hip muscles and joint were simply overworked and needed a rest. I kept limping. No cancer; no panic.

I limped to The Western Wall—the holiest site in Judaism—when we visited two days later. It is customary to write a prayer on a slip of paper and place it in the wall’s cracks. I wrote for God to keep my family healthy. Cancer was not on my mind; neither was my hip. I closed my eyes, placed my hand on the wall and said the Shema, the most important prayer.

I stepped away from the wall and read some additional prayers from the prayer book. Hundreds of deeply religious men were davening around me. The air was saturated with the buzz and energy of prayer. I’m not very religious, but it’s hard not to feel so at the center of the world.

I turned around and limped back to the group. When my hip is sore, I may limp subconsciously for a while, even in the absence of pain. Dozens of cautious steps later, I stood upright, went through the motions of my full gate, and stepped forward. Then again. And again.

For the second time in my life, soon after climbing Masada, in the Land of Israel, my deep hip pain disappeared.

Keep reading:
Birthright Israel: We’re Coming Back (Part III of ?)


Rach said...

Ben, this is really cool. Even though we were there together, I obviously has no idea what was happening with you at the time and I love being able to read it here. Keep it up, this is great!
-Rach G

Benjamin Rubenstein said...

Thanks, Rachel. More to come.
PS: I miss Boris deeply.

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