Time to Fly Away
by Rob Wahrhaftig
My eight-year-old nephew Steve often asks me, “Did you get out of cancer yet?” I tell him that you don't exactly “get out” of cancer, that it's not like being in a jail. A jail is where you are put when you have done something wrong, and people with cancer have not done anything wrong. No, having cancer is more like being stuck in a barrel.
In 1989, I was living on a kibbutz (agricultural settlement) in Northern Israel. One of the enterprises on the kibbutz was an olive and onion processing plant. Outside of the factory, there were hundreds of 55-gallon plastic barrels, some sealed with olives curing in saltwater, and some recently emptied. One day while walking by, I heard a loud, thrashing sound and noticed that one of the barrels, standing upright, was shaking back and forth, wobbling furiously.
I approached it, apprehensively, and peeked inside to find a large, white pelican flailing about, trying to spread its wings to take flight. It looked up at me, its mouth opening and closing but not making a sound. A large variety of birds migrate through the Galilee in the fall, many making nearby Mt. Gilboa their temporary home.
One day while walking by, I heard a loud, thrashing sound and noticed that one of the barrels, standing upright, was shaking back and forth, wobbling furiously.
These birds would fly over to the kibbutz to snack on the loose olives and onions that were scattered on the ground or remaining in the barrels. This hungry pelican had gotten in a little over his head, literally, in that he apparently dipped into the barrel for a bite, fell in, and then couldn't get out. He was frantically flapping his wings instinctively, but his wingspan was too large for him to extend fully, and the sides of the barrel were too oily to enable him to use his feet to push off the sides and spring out. He was boxed in, out of options, and despite his best efforts, his prospects appeared dim. He needed help.
I gently tipped the barrel over and lowered it to the ground, and the pelican slid out. It would be a great ending to the story if I could tell you that the pelican turned to me and imparted some mythical words of wisdom. He did not. Instead, after sliding out of the barrel, he simply shook himself off, spread his wings, and flew away. Never looked back. Never revealed the secrets of life. Never commanded me to build an ark.
So Steve, cancer is more like being stuck in a barrel than locked in a jail. When you find yourself in a position like this, you need a little luck, a little compassion, your instinct to survive, and faith that someone or something will tip the barrel over and that you will shake yourself off, fly away, and not look back.
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Rob Wahrhaftig is a mantle cell lymphoma survivor who has recently finished chemotherapy.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2008.