By Rabbi Rachel Esserman
The fall Jewish holidays are normally a time to review the past year and decide what changes we want to make in our lives. But this year, I am also reflecting on two 50th anniversaries that occur this fall. One took place in early September and the other began in either October or November. The first celebrates something wonderful; the second acknowledges a continuing difficulty. Thinking about them reminds me that life is often a mix of wonderful moments and challenging problems.
My first anniversary celebrates the two friends I made my freshman year in college. While they aren’t close anymore, I’ve managed to keep in touch with both of them continuously for 50 years. Abby and I met in the lunch line in our dorm’s cafeteria during our first few days of school. We ate with a third person who neither of us saw again. But Abby and I kept bumping into each other: We separately attended meetings for two different extracurricular activities and discovered (for the only time during our school years) we shared a class. Then one day, Abby showed up at my door (we were on the same floor, but opposite sides of the dorm) and said something along the lines that we seemed fated to be together.
Within a week or so, Abby introduced me to her next door neighbor, Connie. They’d met because they each arrived a day before their roommates. I don’t remember that introduction, but by the end of that year, we were spending a lot of time together. Connie then took a year off for an internship in Washington, DC, but found me a job there her second summer. I roomed with each of them different years (Abby in my sophomore year, and Connie in Washington and during my junior year), something that also helped us bond.
There is something special about friends you’ve known for decades. They become like extended family. Their children are the closest thing I have to nieces and nephews. (Abby has two boys and Connie a boy and girl.) I’m always ready to hear news of their children and now Abby’s two grandchildren. We’ve lived through good times and bad; we’ve sent healing thoughts and prayers when we or family members were sick.
More importantly, they’ve supported and challenged me, although with very different approaches due to their unique personalities. And, yes, I meant challenged me: they made sure that I was honest with myself, in addition to encouraging me to do my best. They’ve also accepted me and loved me even when they haven’t agreed with what I was doing. We’ve allowed each other to follow our own paths due to mutual respect and love.
For our 30th anniversary, I made plaques, one for each of them. The photos were different: I found ones from our college years that showed what we shared. But I used the same quote from Penelope Lively on both because it spoke to the reality of how I felt and still feel: “Friendship is the love that is ignored; people don’t theorize about it. It just goes quietly along, sustaining. Passion spends itself... But friendship is always there.”
The second anniversary I’m acknowledging this fall is not as pleasant: Since 1973, I have suffered from tinnitus (AKA ear ringing, words that do not adequately describe the phenomenon). I learned I had mild hearing loss in either junior high or high school (my mind has blanked out which), but it wasn’t considered a major problem because, in those days, there was nothing to be done but live with it. Certainly hearing aids weren’t recommended. (Thank goodness, actually, because the technology was pretty awful in those days.) The first period of ear ringing lasted for only a short period of time, but then it came back and has never left. Over the years, the ringing has featured several different tones, sometimes occurring at the same time. The noise made it difficult to sleep. It made it difficult to concentrate. It made it difficult to cope, something not helped by the fact the ringing would vary – sometimes bearable and sometimes almost unbearable.
By my last year of college, I was looking into alternative medical solutions to the ear ringing and other developing health problems. My last year of school was difficult: I juggled traveling from Philadelphia to Connecticut for allergy shots, attending class, working at the university and the heart-breaking illness and death of my beloved Aunt Naomi (my mother’s sister), who died during Passover 1977. It took decades before I found ways to cope with the ear ringing, although there are still times it bothers me.
I’m not sure my friends always understood my health problems or the solutions I was seeking, but they each supported me in their own way, something for which I am still grateful. I normally see them about once a year: I do most of the traveling, which can also give me a chance to see their spouses and children. We spent more time together when I was back in the area for rabbinical school, although they now live in different parts of Pennsylvania.
In the past, when I thought about the anniversaries I wanted to celebrate, I used to say that I only wanted to think about having met my friends. But now I think it’s important to note the difficulties of my past, too. After all, having survived 50 years of tinnitus is also something worthy of acknowledgment, if not celebration.