I am a Zionist because of my son, Taylor. His spirit and his struggle led me to the only people, the only nation on earth, that share the essence of both. On this, his birthday, let me explain.
When Taylor was nine years old, a huge tumor was discovered in his pelvic dish. It was an especially insidious cancer, one in which tumors calcify, turning into bone, stabbing from the inside out. My immediate concern was not only for Taylor’s body but also for his spirit. Witty, curious and charismatic, he loved people and life. What good, I wrote to friends and family, if his body is healed but his spirit is crippled? Please, pray for both.
In the two years that followed, everyone prayed and fought and fixed their hopes on physical recovery. Almost no one did the same things for his spirit. And so Taylor and I became a team, fighting for each other’s inner man. Early on, I shaved my head. When he first saw the new look, Taylor deadpanned and said, “Now both of us are MIB’s. Kinda like the movie, Men In Black. Except we are Men In Baldness. You are Agent B and I am Agent T.”
Three months after diagnosis and initial treatment, his case was transferred to Herbert Schwartz, Vanderbilt’s chief of orthopedic oncology. When Taylor and I went for a consultation, Herb’s kindness was expected. It was, however, a kindness that did not preclude breathtaking clarity. I was warned about this. “It is because he’s Jewish,” several whispered. After months of patronizing prevarication, plain-speaking clarity was sunshine and fresh air. But the news we heard was dark. “The tumor has grown,” he said. “In order to remove it, I probably will have to remove the left of side of your pelvis and so, of course, your leg as well.”
When Schwartz left the room, we cried and prayed, then headed out the door. Passing by the surgeon and his retinue of residents looking up at scans upon a lighted wall, Taylor stopped them all and said, “Dr. Schwartz?” Every head turned. “If you do have to amputate my leg,” he continued, pausing for effect, “do you think you could get it stuffed so that I can hang it over my fireplace at home?” Turning with a grin, Taylor walked away.
Four days later I walked into surgical recovery. Vastly diminished but with the tumor removed, I did not know if Taylor knew the leg was gone. His eyes were shut. An oxygen mask blew on his face. Leaning down, I said, “Honey, I’m here; I love you.” He responded with a halting rasp, “Now… I should… be able… to get… a really… good deal… on shoes. At least 50 percent off.” Just a few days later, he accepted an invitation to speak to first year medical students. That afternoon he hopped up on a treadmill and using armrests, walked. In less than six weeks he was climbing trees. “It’s easier on one leg,” he explained. “I can get places where I could not get with two.”
Taylor’s body was diminished but his spirit was enhanced, radically enhanced. In spite of heartbreaking pain, shocking loss and eventually death itself, Taylor always rejected despair, always chose life. For my part and more often than not, I fought. I challenged our doctors, our culture, our religion and our God.
One Fall day, eighteen months into Taylor’s war with cancer, a war his body was losing, my Christian congregation held a prayer meeting. It began with at least thirty minutes of “praise and worship” music. I did not sing along. When asked to speak, I stood and said, “Right now, God is my Opponent. Like Jacob, He insists I wrestle with Him. And so I do, I do.” Everybody squirmed. Almost everybody; one man smiled. Taylor’s Jewish surgeon, Herb Schwartz, was there. Afterward, he shook my hand, looked me in the eye and with a sympathetic twinkle said, “Nice speech.” He was the only one who understood.
Taylor’s death, four days before his twelfth birthday, made me an amputee of sorts. Unlike Taylor, however, it took years instead of days to embrace life. Paradoxically, or so it seemed to me, wrestling with God, the very thing that pushed community away, rescued my faith. God never gave answers to my questions, at least not the answers I wanted. But he always let me know his pleasure when we wrestled. It was as if over and over again he said, “Welcome to My heart.”
I also discovered a community that supported the integrity, the necessity of this wrestling match. The culture of Judaism, religious to non-observant, affirmed this kind of struggle as a necessary part of life, of learning how to live again, of celebrating life. It is a spirit that from the ashes of horror gave re-birth to a nation. Born an amputee, this nation stands and perambulates in ways the rest of world cannot comprehend. And it does so with chutzpah, blessing that world with life: economic life, technological life, scientific life, agricultural life, spiritual life. It has the very same spirit as my son. How can I not love it? I am a Zionist …for life.
Originally published by the Jerusalem Post at http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Op-Ed-Contributors/Why-I-am-a-Zionist-355307. Special thanks from the author to the Jerusalem Post's Steve Linde and Seth J. Franztman