October 15, 2011

It was Friday morning. Dr. Liu knocked on my door with the report that my white blood cell count was low, but not too low to prevent me from going to Hong Kong for Yom Kippur and a welcome respite from the hospital. I had just started my first rest week between cycles. The nurse unhooked me from the bottle of 5fu chemo that had been my constant companion for the previous 14 days. Although the bottle weighed nearly nothing, my body felt a visceral lightening. I flapped my arms like a bird, eliciting a strange look from the nurse. “Free!” I sang out loud. “I’m free! Free! Free!”

Thus liberated, I made my way across the border and into the international mecca of hyperstimulation, wealth, shopping, food, and high finance that is Hong Kong. The van dropped me at the airport, and while asking the beautiful, English-speaking woman at the information booth directions to the train that would whisk me to downtown Hong Kong and my friend’s son’s apartment, my eye couldn’t help but wander to the shiny shops and restaurants lining the departure hall. I thanked her for her directions and walked the opposite way toward the glimmering promise of European cafes, beautiful shops, and international newsstands. I moved like someone in a daze, the possessed, like one who had wandered days in the desert and wasn’t sure if the oasis were real or the bittersweet fiction of the delusional.

But of course it was real. And it was all laid out behind shiny glass display cases and written on menu boards just for me. I chose an Italian café and pondered my choices, thinking I should make the prudent selection of a salad. Just as I was about to tell the hipster with his thick black glasses my order, my body issued me a very important message, a revelation you might say, that stopped me dead in my tracks from ordering the little plastic bowl of green lettuce, tomato, and demure cucumber. After almost three weeks in southern China I was hungry. No, I was ravenous. I had turned into a 5’2, 104 pound stomach with eyes. Throwing all caution to the wind I ordered a humongous turkey sandwich, with cheese, and davka this on the eve of Yom Kippur. But like I tell you, I was voracious and maybe just a bit out of control, although I refused the pickle and didn’t even bother looking at the desserts though they winked at me with their silky pink and chocolate confections.

Remember, this is the woman who had hardly eaten a piece of fruit in the last year a half. A woman who ate only millet bread and bypassed every loaf of fresh, crusty sourdough at the farmers’ markets. In Hong Kong you might say I became a different woman, a woman who joyously gobbled up a sandwich. A woman who not only smelled a glass of wine – my way of imbibing for the last 18 months – but actually drank one.

Did I feel strange? Did I feel afraid? Well, I would be lying if I told you that I ran into the arms of fresh-baked raisin bread, molten chocolate cake, cups of fresh-brewed coffee, even vegan, sugar-free, gluten-free chocolate cake without a touch of guilt. But if I did feel guilt it certainly couldn’t compare to the giddiness I experienced the entire four days I was in Hong Kong. English-language magazines and bookstores! Taxi drivers I could communicate with aside from flashing my little card that reads: “Please take me back to Renkang Hospital.” When I show this to the Chinese taxi drivers I feel like a school child whose mother forces her to wear a name and address tag on a piece of yarn around her neck.

I confess I was happy for the Western influences that permeate Hong Kong, from the 1 million expats to the shopkeepers with impeccable English, organic hamburger joints, health food supermarkets, and the numerous well-groomed dogs that people carried in their arms or took for walks on leashes. Naturally, a city needs to have a certain level of wealth to afford a luxury like a pet, and Hong Kong with its Ferraris, models, and wealthy businessmen is just the city for miniature dogs peeking out of large, plaid purses.

The wealth also overwhelmed me. I think I felt more culture shock going from the factory town of Houjie with its thousands of migrant workers to Hong Kong than when I first arrived in China. My first days and weeks here were an adjustment primarily to hospital life and the cancer treatment. I was a frog in a pot set over a low flame gradually becoming accustomed to my Chinese surroundings, whereas the radical change to Hong Kong jangled my nerves. But if I couldn’t relate to the Louis Vuitton flagship store or the Rolex shop where one watch probably costs as much as my entire medical bill in China, I was a grateful and willing participant in the city’s culinary offerings.

Of course, the main purpose of my trip was to observe Yom Kippur with a Jewish community. During Rosh Hashana I longed to hear the sounds of the high holiday liturgy, the haunting music that stirs the soul. I sliced up apples and served them with honey, but the nurses wouldn’t touch the strange food. My Australian and American buddies on the hospital floor loved it, though, and dipped their apples with abandon. So when my first cycle break happened to coincide with Yom Kippur, I knew I had to attend services.

As you may know, Yom Kippur is a fast day. It’s a day to purposely empty oneself and disengage from worldly needs to better attune to prayer. It’s a day we reflect on all the ways we’ve been out of alignment or out of connection with God, and pray for forgiveness. More than that, we hunger for our lives, praying to be included in the Book of Life, for a good and healthy life, for at least another year. As I sat in the women’s section of the Hong Kong Chabad Ashkanazi service, all of this was on my mind. Of course. Living and dying are on my mind a lot these days.

But sometime in the early evening, just before the last service in the long day, my thoughts began to drift to steak. Not just any steak, but a tender, choice cut of meat that would cut like butter and melt in one’s mouth. Maybe with a touch of pepper sauce? A spread of roasted garlic?

My soul renewed, it was time to eat. I hurried off to meet Gilly, my generous mensch of a host, who took me out for a meal that would have made my father proud, meaning we ordered a lot of food in a trendy restaurant. Salad. Bread with roasted garlic. A nine-ounce steak for me (which I polished off). Sea bass for Gilly (not as good). Roasted potatoes with rosemary. Molten chocolate cake. And the thing was, after all that food, I wasn’t stuffed. I could have eaten more! Plus I was following doctor’s orders. All five of my Chinese doctors, in fact, have told me to eat meat just about every time they see me.

And that’s what Hong Kong did for me. It ignited my appetite. It woke me up to life. When mom was sick, we all felt peace when she maintained her usual gusto for food, but when her appetite diminished we knew she was in trouble. Food is the foundation for life. It felt decadent and terribly wonderful and exactly right to indulge in so much life.

Suddenly in the disorienting position of tourist, I followed the direction of my appetite, from taking myself out to various cafes and restaurants to wandering the streets of Hong Kong. One afternoon, I followed my curiosity to Lantau Island, a short ferry ride from Hong Kong, to see the famous Tian Tan Buddha, the 112-foot tall seated “Big Buddha” that was commissioned by the monks of Po Lin Monastery. The rain had driven away most of the tourists, so the normally mobbed destination was blessedly quiet. Once I walked past the tourist shops and mini theme-park-like area at the entrance to the plaza, the atmosphere became reverent and peaceful. Looking down upon us with his benevolent gaze, one hand up to remove human suffering, the other resting on his knee to signify human happiness, was Buddha. No matter where you were, Buddha loomed above.

I continued to let my instincts lead, and soon I left the open plaza and walked on a narrow trail headed to the Wisdom Path. A monk in gray robes with a black umbrella and large rucksack on his back hurried ahead of me, most likely toward the nearby Zen Monastery. Aside from him, I didn’t see another soul on the path. I had just left one of the most densely populated cities in the world to find myself virtually alone on a forest path hugging the side of a mountain on an island in the South China Sea. The juxtaposition was breathtaking. I had found solitude in nature. My heart was ready to explode with joy, only I found myself in tears.

“God,” I began, “Why is this happening to me?” “You gave me these two beautiful children, and will you let me live to raise them? To see them graduate from school? Get married?” All of my Hong Kong indulgences had been washed away and I stood raw and open in the heavy mist demanding that God give me a sign to show me how this will all turn out. To show me that I will heal and have my life. On that path with its brilliant green bushes and trees and tea plants, the tears streamed down and mixed with the rain as I walked along, pleading out loud with God.

The trail opened to a clearing and before me stood large planks of wood, rising out of the earth, standing at attention like solitary sentinels. The Wisdom Path, planks of wood etched with the words of the heart sutra, with its quiet presence on the slope of the rugged mountain was in some ways more awe-inspiring than the Big Buddha. I walked the path, marveling at the beauty, feeling the quiet consciousness that infuses this land where monks have been meditating for so many years. I felt the strange sense that I had been here before, perhaps even in my dreams.

And it was here that God answered me. It was in the quiet of the mountain and fog and rain with the words of the heart sutra surrounding me that I realized all of the moments of grace, the helping hands, the innumerable prayers, the donations, gifts, and kindness that our family continues to receive with unprecedented generosity, this is God’s blessing being carried out by so many human hands. I understood that we are the ones doing the work of the divine. We are the ones to ignite and carry forth the spark.

I felt that I could disappear forever into those pristine mountains, perhaps join the monks and enter the veil of silence. But life awaited me back in Hong Kong. More meals and shopping and soon I would ride the bus back over the border to the hospital and begin my next cycle. I don’t know the outcome of any of this. I hardly know what will happen today. I couldn’t have imagined last Yom Kippur that I would spend break fast this year unabashedly devouring a huge piece of meat at an upscale restaurant in Hong Kong, nor do I know what great adventure awaits me next. But I know it will be an adventure, as long as I continue to follow the lead of my appetite, my hunger for life.



  1. Dear Shira,

    Your words touch my heart and lift it high. This was such a sensuous post, in so many ways. I love that you follow the lead of your appetite, I’m trying to keep up because I just love to be with you! 🙂

    Lots of love, girlfriend.

  2. Dear Shira,
    I’ve been checking the blog daily for your next entry. I am so glad to hear your beautiful voice again. You are truly a gifted and gorgeous writer, my dear. Your spirit is glowing in every word.

    Know that you are very much missed and so very, very loved.

    Keep on keeping on, lovely one.

  3. Hi honey,
    As always, your words are a healing balm. Thank you. May you remain ravenous.
    Meet you in the dreamtime.
    All my love,

  4. Shira,
    Through Randi Cohen and Ellen K-G I have been getting snatches of news on you. I finally got onto your blog and spent hours reading every single post from beginning to now. It is an amazing journey and I’m in awe of the way that you have handled the it. This post was really beautiful. You are a gifted writer, thinker and healer. Thank you for sharing this.
    Sending healing thoughts and prayers.

  5. Shira Love,
    so so so good to hear your voice. selfishly love that you have a nurse named Sophie. Know that you are in my heart always and on my mind many many times a day. can’t wait to share a fabulous meal togther soon
    love you. love you, love you!!! – sophie

  6. Dear Shira,

    Your courage
    is breath-giving

    You are loved
    all ways


  7. breathless, again, after devouring this latest post. lucie & i, too had been waiting for the next one… and you delivered with heart-rending aplomb. we’re thinking of you often, sending heartfuls of love.

  8. Hi Shira –

    Nina Englander’s patient, Bonnie, here. I am left breathless by your gorgeous writing, and very hopeful that your remission will last long enough to see those little boys of yours, marry. I am sending you love, and prayers and a huge cyber hug. When you come back, I would love to spend some time with you. I am sharing your letter with my circle. Continue expecting miracles.


  9. Shira, Your journey is inspirational. Our prayers for you continue. All the best. Health, health, health. Love, Cousins Carol and Bruce Targoff from MD.

  10. Dear Shira,

    You are amazing – a true warrior. I eagerly await your next post – and am sending you prayers, love and healing thoughts.

    Erin D.

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