This happens to me a lot.

I'm talking with someone and sooner or later my illness enters the conversation.

Sometimes I mention it, sometimes they do.

Then they say, "Oh, I am so sorry to hear that."

And I usually say, "Yeah, well, you know, there is much I've gained from the experience, too."

Then they say: "Wow, I bet. You really get to set your priorities straight, huh? Each day becomes really precious, right?"

And I say something like, "Yeah, right." And we move on from there.

But inside I feel sort of diminished. While they're right, of course, it all sounds so pat, so easy.

I imagine a guy who's trekked across the desert, climbed a mountain, dived to the depths of the sea to find a precious jewel. Then he shows it to his friend who says: "Wow, that's really pretty."

Right, really pretty. You shmuck.

What do people think? Do they think that one is told he has cancer and then immediately priorities shift into order, like pieces of a puzzle that magically jump from the jumble and find their place? Do they think that a person is given a diagnosis and then immediately the flowers smell sweeter, anger flees from his liver, and his children no longer try his patience? Sorry, folks, life is not so pat and such transformation and revelation are not like instant soup. One does not walk from the doctor's office with a new life in which the clouds suddenly part and the rays of sunlight dawn.

But then again, what can I expect? How does one describe the journey to find the priorities in one's life? How does one describe the preciousness of each day without using trite words like "precious"?

How many of us have found the preciousness in what we so glibly refer to as precious?

Have I?

I know this much: that the treasure, if it can be called that, lies buried in the depths of the earth, at the bottom of the sea. Once found and brought to the surface it may appear as just another pretty jewel, but the true value derives as much from the search to find it as from what it is that is found.

It may emerge as just another insight or revelation, a new level of understanding or appreciation, but getting there entails a painful examination and sifting of years lived and under-lived.

It is a journey into regret and disappointment, into memories of days lost or at least misplaced. It is the embarrassing recollection of hurt delivered, or of neglect to those and that which one loves most.

It is all that time lying in bed, alone, spent reviewing your life as it was and as it is. Thousands of memories arise as the days and hours pass, and alongside the memories plays a movie that shows how it could have been, how you could have acted; all the times when kindness could have replaced cruelty, when understanding could have replaced injury, when patience could have replaced frustration. A movie in which the camera moves inside of the other to reveal his or her feelings, emotions, hurt, motivations, all the things you didn't see, being so caught up in yourself.

Sure, there are the good memories, too. Lots of them. But the meaningful times your memory brings before you are not the ones in which you enjoyed an especially good meal, or a fun vacation in Mexico, or a beautiful concert; they are the times in which you were generous, open-hearted, thoughtful, good spirited. The times when you gave despite your desire to withhold, the times you were loved whether or not you deserved it, the times when a spirit of unity with G‑d and with your loved ones pervaded the moment.

And these times, the times in which you remember how you acted from your higher self, your best self, set the standard of how you could have been in other times, those in which your selfishness and pettiness won out instead.

Then comes the desire to relive it all, to do it differently, though the impossibility of doing so screams at you constantly.

There is the intense embarrassment of who you've been and the need to find the courage to allow those feelings to be, to wrench your gut and heart with shame and stay there anyway, letting the emotions, unpleasant as they may be, pass through your body like a wave of fire.

One arrives at these priorities as an adventurer, braving the dark caverns not knowing what will be found.

But this is no sought-after adventure. Nothing willed or wanted. It comes in the dark uninvited. It emerges from the loneliness undesired. The images arrive on their own, the memories, the display of wasted days and nights. Wasted in anger, wasted in boredom, wasted in selfishness, wasted in moods and attitudes and self pity.

Then the simple questions arise, clichéd as they may sound: How many times could I have said 'I love you'? Or 'I'm sorry'? How many times could I have risen from myself to pay attention to you? How many days spent worrying about the trivial and inconsequential or striving to meet some image of myself as hero when the simple heroic act of kindness or patience or concern passed by?

These questions arise in fear without answer. They scratch and they dig, they burrow and they hurt. And even to ask them or let them be asked takes every ounce of strength and courage I have. My mind seeks to turn away, to distract itself from the probing, from the finding.

Yet, there is some inner sense that this is the work that needs to be done. That if I am to lie here alone, I am to lie here with purpose; that if this is what arises demanding my attention, then this is what I must attend to.

And when I am lucky, really lucky, there are days I am visited by compassion. Days when I am visited by G‑d and His remarkable understanding and forgiveness. Days and times when I see what was and who I was as all that could have been. These moments of compassion fall rightfully in the category of "precious." That word belongs to them. For it is here, it is then that I have some moment of forgiveness for myself and, with that forgiveness, comes the hope that others will forgive me, as well.

In these moments — too short and far between — I recognize how, when I harden against myself, I see only hardness in the eyes of others; they become the mirror of my own self judgment and unforgivingness.

In the moment of self-compassion comes the openness to receive the love of others, and G‑d knows, in these times of illness it is the love of others I need the most.

But didn't I always?

So with this gift of compassion — G‑d's for me, me for myself — comes love, as well.

And something else, too.


Because while I cannot relive the past, I can live the now. I can begin to direct today's movie in a different way. I can transform that searing shame and regret into the passion of today's moment of generosity. I can do my best, or if not my best, at least I can try. And while sometimes it is still not good enough, it is, I hope, at least better than who I was.

This is what makes the days so precious. They hold the opportunity to undo and correct. They hold the opportunity to be and express today what I withheld or was unable to give and express yesterday.

And this opportunity comes with urgency, because unlike the yesterdays of my memory, I am no longer sure about tomorrow. And while in some ways tomorrow is the greatest gift, in others it is the worst enemy. It holds the illusion that we have time to postpone, time to now indulge in the superfluous — our ambitions and delusions — because, we tell ourselves, tomorrow we will attend to the essential.

We withhold "I love you" because of some infraction of the other — be it wife, child, or G‑d — some irritation or disappointment, some unfilled need and expectation. With this painful discovery of priorities comes new insight to the strength of that "I love you", the same trite "I love you" of songs and movies and novels, the same "I love you" that, like the word "precious", has lost its power and intensity, its necessity and importance. Yet, it is here, in these words and in all the opportunities for their articulation — to loved ones and friends, colleagues and neighbors, G‑d and His creation — that lies the priorities of life.

Does it take cancer to bring such revelation, to reanimate words and sentiments that have become so stale and commonplace?

I don't know. But I don't judge where it came from. I am only so ultimately grateful that it came. And that I have today to try and fill my life with a generosity of heart and spirit that at one time seemed so secondary to all the other things that occupied my time.

It's not so much that I didn't always know these things, but now I know these things. It is not so much that I didn't know what a jewel love was, but I had not yet trekked through the desert, climbed the mountains and dived to the bottom of the sea.