First Person Illness Overseas Underscores Immigrant’s Family Relationships

There’s no doubt that living so far away from my family is one of the hardest challenges that I’ve faced as an Israeli immigrant. I still remember my sendoff in Pittsburgh, where my mom sniffled and held back tears as she stood on her tiptoes and wrapped her arms around me. And I know I’m not the only oleh to experience this struggle. As clearly as I can recall the faces on my immigration flight filled with inspiration, I can also remember the bittersweet tears from those we left behind at JFK Airport that day more than two years ago.

But despite the distance and the infrequent visits, my relationship with my family hasn’t suffered. As a matter of fact, it has flourished since my aliyah. And due to recent family hardships, my father, mother, sister and I have all seen just how solid that bond had become.

Ironically, our family crisis came only two weeks after my wedding this past summer. My wife, Dena, and I were in Jerusalem, packing for our honeymoon in the Golan Heights, when we got the call. My mom was clearly shaken, and quickly passed the phone to my father. In a calm but concerned manner, he explained that after a routine checkup a tumor was spotted in his intestine. He wasn’t sure what the treatment would encompass, but one thing was clear: My father had cancer.

Two weeks earlier my widely smiling father had been riding high on a friend’s shoulders at our wedding with a joy that filled his whole body. Several weeks later that smile seemed like a distant memory as he explained his treatment, which would include chemotherapy, radiation therapy and then several months later, a very delicate surgery to remove the tumor. My father told me that the surgeon was very optimistic since they had caught the tumor early. He never painted himself as a victim. He chose the term “soldier,” described how he was drafted into this — and how he had to follow the doctor’s orders.

At first it just didn’t seem possible. Maybe it was because of the distance, or maybe because of my own fear, but I had trouble really grasping the reality of the situation; I still pictured my dad in his purple shirt dancing at my wedding with that tremendous grin, and wanted to hold onto that frozen image.

If I had been in the United States I surely would have planned a trip home soon after the news. But due to cost and the length of the trip it wasn’t even something that came up for discussion. So I did what I could: I talked with my family on the phone a lot, more than ever before. My father would sometimes give me a rundown of his treatment and its side effects, but many times we would enter into deep philosophical or delicate theological discussions about God’s role in our lives, which suddenly seemed so much more pressing. Countless times he would mention how much he was looking forward to coming back to visit me after he healed.

Throughout the months of painful chemotherapy and radiation, my father was a strong soldier: For a while, he even continued his jogging routine with his chemotherapy pack strapped onto his back, and I never heard him complain about the pain my mother described him going through. But as time went on, and the treatments accumulated, his outer strength started to fade. I started speaking with my mom exclusively more and more, and each time I sensed an underlying tension that was present even in her best moods.

Towards the end of the treatment, most of the conversations with my mother were filled with her tears. I would try to console her, and she maintained her strength throughout; but sometimes it seemed the pain that she described my father was going through hurt her more than it did him. Despite how difficult it became for her, she never made me feel guilty for not being there.

In fact, it was the opposite. Nearly every time we spoke she would thank me profusely, and tell me how lucky she is to have Dena and me for support. When I would tell her how I wished I could be there, she would simply say, “No, you’re doing what you need to be doing over there.”

Until the time for surgery, the distance made the situation much easier for me. After a painful conversation about my father’s condition, I would hang up the phone and go on with my day. But once the time for surgery arrived, a tangible fear started to surface from my subconscious. My sister Jenna and I shared these common feelings on the phone during the surgery, and then we joked with one another and giggled with anxiety; it was the only thing we could do to keep the fear at bay. After the surgery, at 4 a.m. Israel time, my sister woke me up with an update. We laughed again when she explained how our mom bolted across the room and hugged the doctor after he told her the surgery was a success; apparently with her yellow blazer on she had looked like a canary flying around the waiting room.

Certainly the extreme nature of the past few months has brought us all closer together. But each of my relationships within my immediate family has deepened since my aliyah. The inherent difficulty and inspiration of life here pushes trivial matters to the side, and allows for a greater expression of love and appreciation. Even more so now we all see the preciousness of life, and the importance of living one’s dream.

Of course one shouldn’t have to live across the ocean or be diagnosed with a life-threatening disease to experience this kind of closeness. But for us, my life in Israel and my father’s cancer have served as a wake-up call to take a closer look at life and what makes it worth living. And I hope and pray that we will be able to share these lessons as a family for many years to come.

Jonathan Udren is a freelance journalist and editor from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He made aliyah in 2003.

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