In March this year, I sent my aunt Edna a large bouquet of flowers to her home in Israel, to wish her a happy 70th birthday. Attached to the flowers was an invitation to spend a two-week holiday with me in Australia at a time that suited us both. She called immediately to thank me and tell me that she was delighted to accept the invitation.
Edna is my mother’s sister and has been a constant throughout my life; in celebrations, in sadness and in everyday matters, she has always been present.
A number of years ago, shortly after my mother passed away, Edna and I began an earnest and honest dialogue which bridged over geographical and generational divides. It is an ongoing conversation which encompasses politics, poetry, family, religion and music; a free flowing exchange of ideas, memories and observations. More recently, we jointly constructed an on-line family tree, tracing a complex life story of our ancestors in pre-war Germany.
There are so many other things I can tell you about my aunt. I could mention that she is an accomplished cellist; that she travels the world; that she reads prolifically on many subjects; that she is a towering intellect.
Without wishing to slip into superlatives, Edna really is an extraordinary person.
I could tell you that at the age of 65 she went back to university and gained a doctorate; or that two months ago she decided to learn to play the viola da gamba and sent me a photo of her playing this very old baroque instrument which is extremely hard to play.
I could also mention her son, Dror, who, aged three, was diagnosed with profound autism. At a time when parents of autistic children were blamed for their children’s condition, Edna became a true pioneer in improving facilities for, and an understanding of, autism in Israel. She founded and was principal of the very first school for children with autism in Israel, where they were introduced to arts and music as part of an integrated education program. Many autistic adults in Israel owe their good fortune to her intervention. Today my aunt is an authority on autism and the author of numerous books on the subject.
Despite her share of adversity, I have never heard Edna bemoan her fate, or utter a word of complaint.
Even when her daughter embraced an ultra-orthodox brand of Judaism and unceremoniously severed all ties with the entire family, Edna carried her pain stoically, with dignity and fortitude.
I could tell you that she has always displayed a genuine affection for, and interest in, her nieces and nephews. She is the only person I know who actually buys the Jerusalem Post to read my articles. Edna is the sort of person who would readily lend you a hand, an ear or a car.
There are many other things I could mention about my aunt, such as her generosity of spirit, her ironclad discretion, or her self-effacing humour. She is the antonym of snobbery; her friends are regular, down-to-earth people, despite the fact that she knows many people sporting prestigious titles, sitting in high places. Few know that she has employed the same cleaning lady for over three decades although – as she puts it – the said cleaner ‘has stopped being effective’ long ago.
But what I most need to mention is that less than two weeks after Edna’s 70 th birthday, I received another email from her. ‘Dear family and friends”, it read, “I am sorry to inform you all that I have been diagnosed with breast cancer.”
I can barely describe what happened next. It is as though a dark, black cloud had descended and wrapped itself around me. For two days I walked around in a stupor, unable to digest the news or contemplate its meaning. Even now, I can barely bring myself to think about it.
When I last called Edna, she explained in her typical composed, understated, manner, that she is about to start chemotherapy; she is aware of the risks and the side effects of this procedure. “I have already bought a wig”, she mentioned. And I could not help but weep as I thought of her beautiful blond hair and her warm smile, both of which will soon disappear.
“I am embarking on this journey,” she told me, “without a moment’s hesitation”. And I was lost for words, full of awe, wondering why it is that bad things happen to good people.
I write this so that you all know what a special person my aunt is, and that she is not just a statistic in the literature of cancer.
I write this to pay tribute to my aunt’s amazing courage, dignity and stoicism. What would I not do to make the journey she is about to undertake easier. What would I not give to ensure that the treatment she receives proves effective so that she is with us for many more years to come.
I write this also to those for whom this setting is familiar territory. Each woman with breast cancer is someone’s aunt, someone’s mother, someone’s sister or friend. No man is an island entire of itself, writes John Donne. Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. We really are one human tapestry.
For today’s Pink Breakfast, I urge us all to reach out; to offer support, material and emotional, to the ones we love who have breast cancer; to help them face the many challenges ahead and help them win the battle.
Cancer Council NSW would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we live and work.We would also like to pay respect to elders past and present and extend that respect to all other Aboriginal people.