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20120430-out-of-egypt-again-and-again-by-richard-chessI / We. Mine / Ours. How wide the expanse between these terms.

When my wife told me, a couple of days before my first appointment with the urologist, she would be accompanying me, I said no.

I had my reasons.

As I lay in bed, half-watching an episode of Seinfeld I had seen countless times before, half-watching her finish her preparations for sleep, I imagined myself at the doctor’s examination room, diminished both by my body’s betrayal and by my wife’s strong, forceful presence there. The doctor addressed his comments to her while I withered in the chair beside her.

That’s what I saw happening were she to accompany me. That was the fantasy that frightened me.

Nothing’s going to happen at this appointment, I said. He’s not going to be able to tell me I have prostate cancer. At the most, he’ll tell me what the next step in the diagnostic process is. He’ll probably just say we’ll keep our eye on this. I don’t need you there.

She wasn’t happy.

The next day, after weighing the consequences of keeping her at a distance at this stage of what could be a challenging process or surrendering some of my control of the situation by letting her in, I chose the latter.

She wouldn’t have it.

You wanna go by yourself, fine. I’m not coming with you.

A few days later, after my repeated, somewhat feeble pleas to her to join me, she agreed.

More than nineteen years ago when she was pregnant with our son, I wasn’t one of those guys who went around declaring “we’re pregnant.” Such language seemed phony to me, a pathetic attempt at equality.

Whose body undergoes dramatic changes during a pregnancy? Not the man’s. Whose emotions are affected directly by those physical changes? Not the man’s. Laurie’s pregnant, I’d proudly say, Laurie’s due in six months, five months, four….

Little has changed in nineteen years—Laurie’s body is hers, mine is mine, though I no longer insist, when we pack for a trip, that my clothes stay strictly on my side of the suitcase, her clothes on her side. Mine. Yours.

So how to explain what changed between that night when I told Laurie “no” and the afternoon, about a month later, when, the results of the biopsy in, we drove to the urologist’s office, prepared with questions for the cancer talk.

We’ll find out what he recommends, we said. We’ll weigh that against what we’ve learned from our family doctor and the materials the urologist provided after we were told that I did indeed have a small amount of cancer. Then we’ll choose the course of action that is best for us.

Why, suddenly, all these first person plural and possessive pronouns? And how is it that they, now, are true?

I can’t remember another time in our marriage—maybe not in my life—when I experienced life without me at the center of it defending and protecting my borders.

But now, if indeed life had a center, it was located somewhere other than inside me. Whatever would happen to this body, this mind would happen to us, to Laurie and me, and to our three kids. And the circle of care and consideration was wider than that, too. The decision would be our decision, not mine.

For days, even a few weeks, I had the strong sense that this body didn’t belong exclusively to me. And this heart: it wasn’t my heart alone. This mind: it wasn’t my mind alone. What a relief it was to know then that I am not confined to my thoughts, my fears, my hopes, my cancer.

Yet I’m certain that on being told that I had cancer, that upon holding in my hands and reading and rereading the irrefutable pathologist’s report—that upon hearing the urologist’s voice speak of my life—with its aspirations and disappointments, successes and failures and potential for success in the future—in the reductive, impersonal language of probabilities and life expectancies, I felt liberated, at least for a brief period, from the narrowness of my self.

“In every generation, a person is obligated to view himself as if he were the one who went out from Egypt, as it is said: And on that day tell your son, saying, ‘For this purpose the Lord labored on my behalf, by taking me out of Egypt.’”

That’s what Jews read every year in the Haggadah, the text that guides us through the long ritual, orderly yet, if it is an authentic seder, unpredictable. Egypt: in Hebrew, Mitzrayim, which means “narrow place.”

By the first night of Passover, I had already returned to Egypt, having contracted back into a state in which life was divided again: mine / yours, you / I. It was my responsibility to ensure that the seder—by which I meant the experience around the table—meaningful conversation, lively singing, heart-felt prayer—was successful. Laurie’s responsibility: cook, arrange the items on the seder plate, orchestrate the meal.

How could I not see that the success of the seder depended on all of it together, the meal and the words, that the ritual was our creation? Our creation: what we, Laurie, me, our son, and all of our guests, our dear friends—at the table and shuttling back and forth between the kitchen and the dining room created together.

What a relief it was, during those precious weeks of uncertainty and vulnerability, to have experienced marriage, to have released the guards and opened the fiercely defended borders of what I had thought was my life, all I knew of life itself.

What a blessing it is to know that Passover comes every year and that the possibility of liberation exists in every moment, including this moment in which I type alone in my study while Laurie gardens in our front yard.

Somehow, despite the appearance of our separateness, I sense it right now: these words are not mine alone but ours, Laurie’s and mine, and I hope, yours, too, dear reader, just as the beauty of our flowering garden is yours, too, neighbor or stranger who happens to pass by, who happens to glimpse it as you go.

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Richard Chess

Richard Chess is the author of three books of poetry, Tekiah, Chair in the Desert, and Third Temple. Poems of his have appeared in Telling and Remembering: A Century of American Jewish Poetry, Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of IMAGE, and Best Spiritual Writing 2005. He is the Roy Carroll Professor of Honors Arts and Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. He is also the director of UNC Asheville’s Center for Jewish Studies.

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