Pray for me, just don’t tell me

All those prayers, and my can­cer still spread. That’s my real ob­jec­tion


Un­til Mon­day of this week, I thought noth­ing worse could hap­pen to me as I pad my way about my daily Hen­don liv­ing than the now­fa­mil­iar rit­ual of peo­ple ap­pear­ing and say­ing: “What is your mother’s name, Dina?” That was be­fore Mon­day.

Let me ex­plain. They do this, th­ese peo­ple, be­cause they want to pray for my re­cov­ery from can­cer, and the ac­cepted for­mat is to pray for the per­son’s health as the “daugh­ter of so and so”.

What’s so bad about that, you’re ask­ing. What’s wrong with folk wish­ing one well, and what’s more, be­ing pre­pared to put the force of their prayers be­hind their wishes?

I’ve had two-and-a-half years to think about it now, to try and for­mu­late the vis­ceral fear and loathing that bub­ble up in my stom­ach (where I keep my emo­tional re­sponses) when­ever this en­counter takes place, and I wres­tle with it.

I wres­tle with it par­tic­u­larly be­cause it’s some­thing I do my­self; ev­ery Fri­day I stand be­fore the beau­ti­ful old sil­ver can­dle­sticks my hus­band’s mother gave me, and I say a prayer for the kid­napped Is­raeli sol­diers. I speak a for­mat­ted para­graph, a prayer that’s cir­cu­lated round the Jewish world and lists the names of the sol­diers miss­ing since 1982 — Tzvi Feld­man, Ye­huda Katz and Zachary Baumel; Ron Arad, miss­ing since 1986; and Guy Hever, miss­ing since 1997.

The names of Gi­lad Shalit, Ehud Gold­wasser and El­dad Regev have not been added to the printed sheet of pa­per I keep near my can­dles, so I’ve writ­ten their names out on a sep­a­rate note.

I think it is a good cus­tom, this thing we Jews do, of pray­ing for each other. I think that if one is in cap­tiv­ity, one of the things that might help men­tally is the sense that your con­nec­tion to the out­side world is not bro­ken, that peo­ple are re­mem­ber­ing and fight­ing for your free­dom. That is the point, re­ally; it is not about God mak­ing mir­a­cles in re­sponse to hu­mans pray­ing, it’s about an ac­tion that means we out here don’t live com­fort­ably while they are in prison. Speak­ing the names out loud, hav­ing to re­mem­ber them, is more, some­how, than just neb­u­lously think­ing of “the kid­napped sol­diers”. We are fickle, on the whole, hu­mans, and we for­get eas­ily.

But there is a dif­fer­ence, it seems to me, be­tween pray­ing for men in cap­tiv­ity and peo­ple com­ing up to sick folk in the streets and of­fer­ing to pray for them. For me, th­ese en­coun­ters felt like black crows swoop­ing. It be­gan swiftly, long be­fore I had come to terms with the fact that I was ill at all. De­nial, maybe, but it’s my cop­ing mech­a­nism — I rec­om­mend it, in fact, re­fus­ing to be­lieve any­thing was wrong with me. Peo­ple gravely of­fer­ing to pray for me filled me with fear, as if th­ese were faces gath­er­ing around my open cof­fin and I was in there, quite live, look­ing up at them.

Ev­ery so of­ten, stud­ies are done ei­ther prov­ing, or dis­prov­ing, that those ill peo­ple who have been prayed for do bet­ter than the ones who have to get by on doc­tors alone. For ev­ery study that demon­strates some pos­i­tive ef­fect, an­other one proves the op­po­site. Of course. Which is why I was sur­prised when a can­cer big­wig from Tu­lane said to me: “We will help you, but in the mean­time keep up your pos­i­tive approach.”

“Re­ally,” I said, “you, a med­i­cal sci­en­tist, you’re telling me this? Be­ing pos­i­tive helps con­trol can­cer?” You know, you’re used to ev­ery man in the street say­ing it, but he’s the first doc­tor I’ve heard it from. “Oh yes,” he said, “we have stud­ies that show pa­tients who know they are be­ing prayed for do bet­ter — and we as­sume it’s be­cause it makes them feel pos­i­tive, and that feel­ing is what is help­ing them.”

But peo­ple com­ing up to me and say­ing they’re pray­ing for me makes me scared. More­over, their prayers are just too much re­spon­si­bil­ity for me to bear. Whose fault is it go­ing to be, I keep find­ing my­self fret­ting, if the prayers don’t work? I know, they’re go­ing to think it’s mine; it won’t be that their prayers were rub­bish, or even, a lit­tle more sen­si­bly, that God doesn’t in­ter­vene with the course of na­ture, which I thought was a tenet of Ju­daism. Oh no, it’s go­ing to be that I wasn’t good enough to be saved. All those prayers, and my can­cer still spread. And that’s my real ob­jec­tion to this whole busi­ness.

An ob­jec­tion that was for­mu­lated tan­gi­bly this Mon­day, when a wo­man said to me, “Dina, should we still be pray­ing for you? Be­cause some au­thor­i­ties say that when it isn’t work­ing, one shouldn’t carry on with the pray­ing.”

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