Opening a Door
by Rabbi Ed Feinstein
On US Highway 101, about an hour south of San Francisco, stands a remarkable landmark: the Winchester Mystery House.
The story of this landmark begins at the end of the 19th century. Sarah Winchester was a beautiful socialite in New Haven, CT, wife of the heir to the Winchester Rifle fortune. In one year, her world collapsed. Both her husband and infant child died suddenly. In her grief, she became convinced that the family was cursed by the spirits of all those murdered by Winchester Rifles, so she consulted a well-known psychic who instructed her that the only way to escape death was to go west, buy a house, and never stop building it.
So Mrs. Winchester abandoned her comfortable society life in Connecticut, moved to the wilderness town of Santa Clara, CA, purchased a six-room farmhouse, and began a 50-year project of obsessive and eccentric construction and reconstruction. At one time, the house stretched over 300 rooms, with staircases into nowhere, doors that opened into thin air, closets inside of closets, and bizarre rooms of every shape and dimension.
The bigger and grander the house grew, the more isolated Mrs. Winchester became. Out of fear, Mrs. Winchester never invited anyone in. In fifty years, she spoke only to two people: her servant and her builder. Her plan succeeded. She eluded death into her 80s. She also eluded life.
The Winchester House is an architectural oddity, a monument to eccentricity. But it is also a poignant symbol of how grief and fear can trap a human soul. Poor Mrs. Winchester, locked inside her ever-expanding house, her ever-growing pain, her ever-deepening sorrow, turning more grotesque and bizarre with each new cycle of fanatical construction.
The bigger and grander the house grew, the more isolated Mrs. Winchester became.
The irony is that during the years Mrs. Winchester pursued her compulsion, a community grew up around her home. If only she had once opened the front door and invited the neighbors in for tea. If only she had once invited the neighborhood children to fill the miles of hallways with laughter and play. If only Mrs. Winchester could believe she was not alone in this world.
As I walked through that strange house, I realized that I know Mrs. Winchester. I am Mrs. Winchester. In my 40th year, I was treated for colon cancer. Four years later, the cancer returned in a much more vicious form. The hardest part was not the surgery, the chemotherapy, the fatigue, or the fear. The hardest part was talking about it to my wife and children – acknowledging that our lives had changed. The hardest part was sharing the struggle. I remember rehearsing my resolution: “I have spent a lifetime learning to be strong; I’m not going to change now.” So I remained stoic and silent ... locked in my own Mystery House.
It is tragic. No one is strong enough to handle life alone, much less a life-threatening disease. My isolation way up in the lonely garrets of stubborn masculine self-sufficiency deprived others who wanted and needed to help me. And while I built this edifice of stoic fortitude with its endless network of catwalks and trapdoors, I was blind to the fact that the cancer had spread, metastasizing to my wife and my children, to my family and friends. Cancer infects the whole family, the whole community. It poisons our hopes, contaminates our dreams, steals our tomorrows. My resolution didn’t shield them. On the contrary, because of my stoicism, they suffered more.
Pity Mrs. Winchester and all who cannot ask for help. Pity them because we really can help each other heal. But that means coming down from the attic; down from the place of false heroism, from obstinate self-possession. It means opening the front door, and letting others in. It means acknowledging how much we need each other. But sometimes, that’s not easy.
Healing is a matter of transcending the loss and accepting the blessings of life, moving from despair to affirmation, from denial to acceptance to celebration. In healing, we learn to endure – to withstand the loss and still fill life with meaning. Even in the face of death, we can affirm life; we can share blessings.
The traditional Jewish prayer is for refuah shelayma, “a healing of wholeness.” We pray, not for a life without suffering – that is not the human condition. We pray for the wisdom and courage to embrace life in the face of death.
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Rabbi Ed Feinstein, a survivor of two bouts of colon cancer, is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, CA. He is author of Tough Questions Jews Ask (Jewish Lights, 2003) and Capturing the Moon (Behrman House, 2008).
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 2008.