When my husband was diagnosed in July 2009 with esophageal cancer -- a disease with a 25% survival rate beyond 18 months -- my initial instinct was to talk about inner strength. "You're going to beat this," I told him. "You're strong. You're healthy. You're young." I think I was trying to convince myself that he would be ok just as much as I was trying to comfort him.
In his serene way (the neurotic guy from NJ I'd married had become a lot more zen after discovering meditation in his early twenties), he immediately said to me, with a smile, that he was fine, that he was going to be okay, and that he was really more worried about us, his family. I was astounded. As physicians, we were taught in medical school about Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' five stages of grief: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and then acceptance.
"You can't go right to acceptance!" I remember saying to him. "You have to be angry about this! You have to fight this!"
"I don't feel the need to fight cancer," he replied calmly. "Fight comes out of fear of dying. And I don't have that fear."
Don't get me wrong. He was not exactly happy about having cancer. Of course, if he had a choice, he would have preferred to live, and not leave his loved ones. But I found it so incredibly amazing how at peace he was with this journey - not sure where it would take him, but going along with the ride anyway. He wasn't fighting the disease; he wasn't battling it. He was just living with it. While he was going through chemo and radiation, which were brutal, I felt helpless that I couldn't help him. In addition to being a physician -- a healer by trade -- I'm someone who likes to be doing something all the time. It was hard for me to stand by and just hold his hand and love him. It didn't feel like enough.
Throughout treatment, and in the ensuing months, there was a calm that came over him. He had always taught in his workshops and lectures to physicians, medical students and many others in health care that "today is a good day to die," an age-old Native American adage. I think he found it curiously satisfying that in the face of death, he could continue to live each day as he had in the past 30 years, loving and appreciating family, friends, and life, and living without fear. As he reflected back over his life, he realized that he was not the same person as that anxious child growing up in New Jersey. Moreover, the lessons and skills he learned throughout the latter half of his life, living fully, with love and gratitude, freed him from feeling fear of the unknown. Asked if he had a bucket list when he was first diagnosed with the cancer, Lee replied without hesitation that he really did not. There was no need to travel to exotic countries, climb mountains, jump out of planes. He had lived his life, having loved and been loved. No regrets. This was the basis for his book.
On Sept. 20th, 2011, my husband Lee Lipsenthal--physician, teacher, healer, devoted father of two--passed away from complications of metastatic lower esophageal cancer. The miracle that I had hoped for did not happen. He was prepared to die, but I was not prepared to let him go. I miss him terribly every day. I have read, and re-read Lee's book many times. I can hear his clear, strong yet soothing voice recounting our story, and my heart aches for him.
But I also take great comfort in reading Enjoy Every Sandwich. I am grateful for my life with this remarkable man, who loved and adored me unconditionally, and taught me to unconditionally love and adore him. I am reminded of our first dates, when at the end of an evening together, my abdominal muscles were sore from laughing. He continued to make me laugh throughout our married life, and I am grateful that he taught me how to savor every aspect of our life. I will always remember his genuine smile and hearty laugh.
Before he passed away, I promised Lee that I would help him spread his life-affirming message of the importance of practicing gratitude, connecting with our loved ones, and living each day to the fullest, to enjoy every sandwich, every ingredient, be it bitter, sour, spicy, or sweet, layered in that sandwich of life--a guaranteed path to a life well-lived.
For more information and to read an excerpt, visit www.enjoyeverysandwich.net