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Shelters: What If It’s Not Enough?

This, I believe, is why the High Holidays are followed immediately by Sukkot, the Festival of Booths. Five days after we acknowledge mortality, Sukkot is a celebration of the temporary.

I was sitting across from a new counselor at a cancer camp early September 2017. He had just posed the question that most healers ask at least once, a question that some never stop asking. What does it mean to support others in healing if they may never completely heal? What if our love isn’t enough to make it better?

Milton Marks Neuro-Oncology Family Camp is a camp for families coping with a parent’s brain tumor, while the parent is still in treatment for cancer. I am fortunate to volunteer as the Assistant Director for this community, which provides space for families to connect, grow, and learn together, while supported by mental health professionals, a medical team, artists, bodyworkers and musicians, and an exuberant group of youth counselors.

We were about to begin our staff meeting at the end of a full day at camp when he posed the question. I have seven years of volunteer experience supporting children and families coping with grief and long-term illness and I have worked extensively with emerging adults at Hillels as they ask their own life questions, including this one…and I still don’t have an answer.

This moment at camp resurfaced for me at Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, as we prayed the Unetaneh Tokef: “On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed: who will live and who will die.” Rabbi Alan Lew urges us to see this prayer as an opportunity to confront our own fear of mortality, to face the uncertainty of life and the certainty of death. Rabbi Harold Kushner teaches that God does not cause suffering or death; God is in the loving community that surrounds us when we suffer, in the strength we find to keep going when it feels impossible to live with pain.

Both of these teachings are beautiful, but neither of them answer the question. If we don’t know who will die, how they will die, when they will die – if our love isn’t enough to save people from cancer, from violence, from succumbing to mental illness and taking their own lives – why should we keep trying to heal those who are suffering? What does it mean to work as healers when healing doesn’t always work?

A former camper I’d cared for at a different camp died by suicide in February 2016. He had been grieving the death of him mom at his final camp several years earlier, and I saw the community surround him with love that seemed to, eventually, lift him from his pain. When I learned about his suicide, the narrative that I had built in my mind, in which we had saved this camper from the depths of his grief, seemed to crumble around me. Healers know that making meaning is one of the best ways to respond to personal trauma. We try to tame the universe with stories and structures, making sense out of terrifying disorder. Meaning-making is a way of rewriting a story that ends with loss so that it ends with growth instead. What does this mean for those of us who find meaning in helping others find theirs? And what do we do when they die anyway, whether by cancer or by their own hands? How do we face the bald truth that life is temporary, and that love cannot do anything for a heart that stops beating?

This, I believe, is why the High Holidays are followed immediately by Sukkot, the Festival of Booths. Five days after we acknowledge mortality, Sukkot is a celebration of the temporary. We are each getting closer to death every day. So we sit, eat, sleep, and pray in huts that we build with meticulous care and then tear down one week later. The huts are anything but stable. They only need to have three walls, and by law, we must be able to see the sky through its roof made of branches.

In the end, Sukkot is how I responded to my counselor at Milton Marks Family Camp that weekend, when he asked the question that we all live with. On Sukkot, we build dwellings from scratch, and for a week, family and friends come together in the Sukkah to enjoy delicious meals, joyful songs, and meaningful conversations. It’s a self-built, self-contained experience, a celebration of what we can create together.  Camp is also a temporary and celebratory shelter, built from the ground up by a caring community. For three days, caregivers don’t have to think about who’s watching their kids or their sick partners while they get a massage or engage in art therapy. Patients know that their doctors and nurses understand what everyday life is like for them living with a brain tumor, because the medical team is living on-site sharing the experience. The counselors clear the plates and the cups and engage the children so parents can enjoy a meal together. The children are surrounded by other children just like them. They don’t have to worry about the stares from peers who don’t understand, because for three days, everyone just “gets it.” At MMFC, there are songs, support groups, and a campfire with s’mores. The music team goes room to room singing lullabies for the children as they fall asleep. It’s not all lightness – cancer brings this community together – but I’m reminded of Rabbi Kushner’s version of God when we surround these families with love.

And then, just like that, it’s over. The families arrive on Friday morning and leave on Sunday afternoon. They receive excellent support and care from the team at UCSF during the year and many choose to stay in touch with each other and with the staff. But transforming the art space back into a regular dining hall extension as we clean up after camp reminds me of taking the Sukkah down at the end of the holiday, waking the next day with the alarm clock instead of the sun, and returning to routine meals indoors.

What does this have to do with healers and the urge we have to try and heal people who are, ultimately, unhealable? What can Sukkot teach those of us who like to build new endings based on meaning, in which love triumphs at last? When camp ends and our families go back to their lives, Sukkot is a reminder that the temporary can also be beautiful and extraordinary. It is no coincidence that it comes in the fall, when the leaves turn magnificent colors, and then die.

We can’t keep people alive, no matter how hard we love them. Love can’t stop a brain tumor from growing. Love doesn’t always stop people from ending their own lives. But our love can make people’s lives infinitely better while we’re on this earth together, regardless of how much time we share. So this is the new narrative I’m trying to build – one in which endings come, and so do beginnings, but the part in the middle is what matters the most. One in which we hold a temporary space for our campers that provides them with memories they can carry forward throughout the year. One in which we celebrate Sukkot even though the Sukkah is unstable. It may be a temporary and imperfect shelter, but it’s a shelter as long as it stands. Love can’t guarantee tomorrow for any of us. But for right now, it is enough.

Heather Paul is the Springboard Fellowship Manager for Hillel International, the Assistant Director for Milton Marks Family Camp, and is a rabbinical student in ALEPH’s Ordination Program. You can find more of Heather’s musings on her website: www.scatteredleaves.net.

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