Adam Keller, September 2021
and the Cancer
I saw Beate for the first time at an evening hour on February 14, 1986, at a conference hall in the Dutch town of Amersfoort. On the morning of August 6, 2021 I said goodbye forever, knowing I will never ever see her again, at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv. In between these two dates there were thirty five years of a wonderful togetherness, the most happy marriage imaginable. (To be precise, these were thirty five years – and a half. I would not have given up this last half a year, not for any price. This half a year included some of our most wonderful moments.)
Beate was a cancer patient for 21 years out of our 35 years of marriage. The last fifteen were stage 4 cancer which is the highest. Not many stage 4 cancer cases survive for 15 years, she was a bit of a medical miracle. Even more remarkable, for 14 of these 15 years, she was mostly unaffected by the cancer and could live a normal active life. Indeed, there were whole weeks where I hardly thought of my wife’s cancer. I remember one evening when we were sitting in our favorite vegan restaurant in Tel Aviv and eating a very good meal and feeling happy and relaxed, and she took out of her bag a box with two small pink pills and took them with a glass of water, and I thought: “Could anyone looking at her right now guess that they just saw a stage 4 cancer patient taking chemotherapy?”
Oncologists at Ichilov were actually competing with each other to get Beate as a patient. She was a very interesting case medically, and I think it also gave them a good feeling to have a patient who was doing so well for such a long time. They have so many cases which are much worse and so often meet people who suffer horribly and for whom not much could be done.
Beate’s long survival was partly due to the cancer in her body being a relatively “lazy” one, spreading only slowly. She used to joke about her “roommate” and say “He knows that if he kills me he will die himself, so he is not in a hurry”. But it was not only the relative luck of having a “lazy” cancer. Beate helped that luck by being very critical of the oncologists, not taking anything for granted, refusing treatments which she thought unreasonable, stopping treatment for a time when she felt the side effects increasing and then resuming it when the cancer increased. She called this “The Zig Zag Method”. She always said that many cancer patients die of the treatment rather than the cancer itself.A good friend of ours who died ten years ago was one very clear such case. In Beate’s opinion, dying of chemotherapy was more painful and messy than dying of the cancer itself.
I was present when Beate told an oncologist “No, I will not do this. I think it will do me more harm than good”. And the oncologist said “All right, I rely on your judgement”. I think very few cancer patients – or any kind of patient – get to hear such words from a doctor.
And Beate also made a very big effort to live a healthy life and eat healthy food and take long walks in the night with me. She used all kinds of alternative and complementary methods but was very critical of them too. She used to enter all kinds of websites advertising supposed miracle cures for cancer, look very carefully at what they had to offer and why they said it would work, and she would order only one of a hundred such Miracle Pills on offer on the net – and then try to take a careful look to see if they really had an effect, otherwise they would go to the garbage. Beate made such extensive study of the subject that I think she knew about cancer more than anyone who is not a trained oncologist. She was for years actively participating in an international online network of breast cancer patients, offering useful advice and words of support to others less fortunate than herself. I estimate that at least five of her fifteen years of surviving as a stage 4 cancer patient were due to her own tireless efforts and struggle.
But we always knew that even medical miracles don’t last forever and that even a lazy cancer would eventually get to a vital organ, and that is what happened this year.The cancer got to her lungs.The right lung collapsed completely within a few months and also the left one was affected. Walking any kind of distance became a great effort for Beate. Even so, we continued to have our vegan restaurant evenings. There was the evening when we found the restaurant where we wanted to eat unexpectedly closed, and she suggested that we go to another one, three city blocks away. In her condition that was an enormous distance. I was surprised and asked “Do you think you can make it?” She said “Sure I can”. And she did. Determined, she walked on and on without stopping, refusing to rest on a bench, and eating with great appetite when we got to the other restaurant. For a Stage 4 cancer patient with ruined lungs, that was running the Marathon.
In these final months she was inspired by her very musical daughters and granddaughters and took up playing the piano after a 45 years break. We got a simple electric piano which could be easily ordered and delivered to the house. She could master only a few simple tunes, but did them beautifully every evening. Afterwards we would sit eating watermelon and listening to classical music concerts and recitals on youtube. This continued until our last evening at home.
We live (I must sadly now say “we lived”) on the fourth floor of an old house without an elevator. Every day, she was still able to climb these four stairs. Very slowly, with big effort, but she did. On the day when it was necessary to call an ambulance and get her to the hospital, she still walked the stairs on her own feet. A medic walked behind her, holding an oxygen tube connected to her nose, and she walked slowly down the stairs.
In these last weeks we effectively moved our residence to room 8 of the “Internal Diseases A” section of Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv. I stayed with her all the time, only twice taking a taxi home to get a few things and immediately back to Ichilov. Actually, I felt that “home” was not an empty apartment. Home was where Beate was.
Every night I spread a camping mattress beside her bed, put some blankets on it and slept very contentedly at her side. One night I did a very daring and utterly forbidden thing. In the middle of the night we spread the curtains around her bed and I lay in the bed which was big enough for two, for three wonderful hours. We did no more than tenderly holding hands and a bit of caressing, but it felt like a second honeymoon.I crept out long before first light. We reluctantly decided not to risk it again. Being caught in such a flagrant violation of hospital rules might have led to my being altogether expelled from Ichilov.
The oxygen level in Beate’s lungs was dropping to very dangerous levels. With a healthy person, it should be 95%. A level in the 80s is bad but still tolerable. With Beate, even when she was perpetually linked to oxygen, it was sometimes dropping to 72 or 73. Beate devised some breathing exercises which would raise it. They worked. She would lie down quietly and calmly, with the oximeter on her finger, and I saw the figures jump up from 75 to 85 and 90. But it did not last long, and it was a constant effort.
A radiologist came and told Beate there was still one thing the hospital could try. Five radiation treatments on her neck, on five consecutive days, might have stopped a tumor which was pressing down on a major blood vessel – though it would not have helped her ruined lung.
I urged her to try it, it was the only chance left. We spent a whole sleepless night debating it. She was adamant: “No, I will not do it. If I go lying flat on my back in the narrow inhumane tunnel of that radiation machine, unable to do any breathing exercises, I will not come out alive”. In the end she convinced me. In the morning she told the doctors she was rejecting the radiation treatment. Later on, the friendly radiologist came back and admitted that she was right. The proposed treatment had been marginal.at best. Ichilov had suggested it simply because they had nothing better to offer.
Beate’s grandson Sam, who is a fourth year medical student in Holland, read one of our updates from the hospital, and he wrote to Beate “As a medical student and a grandchild, I am very proud of you.”
Every day she was weaker. She could no longer take even one step outside her bed, her legs would not hold her.Beate did not fear death. She very stoically accepted that it was near and inevitable and tried to prepare me for it, having long calm practical conversations and giving concrete advice – very good advice – about what I should do after her death. There was one afternoon when I burst out crying and crying and crying. Her arms were still strong enough to hold me and her hands were caressing my head. I said while still crying “It is easier to start mourning you when you are still here to consolate me”. She said “Exactly so”.
What she did fear was the loss of cognitive ability, loss of who she was. A very real danger when you have low oxygen in your blood. Two days before her death there was a very frightening incident. She was suddenly babbling gibberish and saying nonsense, like asking if the nurse was har grandmother. Then I could see her making a conscious effort to get hold of herself. She declared “I am Beate Keller” and then named, one by one, her children and grandchildren. I helped her by asking questions “Where do we live?” “What were the names of your parents?” “What is the best restaurant on Ibn Gvirol Street?” to which she answered promptly and correctly. Within minutes, she was completely herself again. But there was no guarantee she could do it again if a second such lapse occured. On the following morning – which was to be the last of her life – she told me she wanted to die before that happened.
On the afternoon of that day she had very happy hours with Elja, her son, and Jedida, one of her daughters, who had come especially from Holland after a titanic struggle with the Israeli Kovid bureaucracy. I gave Beate a cup of tea and moved aside to give her children their time with her, and they sat for hours chatting in Dutch.
At about 10.00 that evening Beate asked me to give her a cup of her favorite vegan vanille pudding. She ate it all, smacked her lips, and said “When I have a dry mouth, I prefer pudding to water. Good night!”. These were her last words.
She put her head on the pillow and was asleep within minutes. At some time during the night sleep deepened into unconcosciusness. By the morning she could not be woken, and she had strictly forbidden the doctors to use any kind of resuscitation on her.
I was sitting at her side all the time, but I did not notice the moment when her breathing stopped. At about 9.00 on Friday, August 6 2021, a woman doctor came, examined her and told me she was dead. Then several other doctors came and very warmly expressed their condolences and told me how highly impressed they had been with her.
I was strangely calm and dry-eyed. I had indeed shed my tears when she was still there to consolate me.
The doctors gave me an hour with her, before the hospital staff arrived to deal with the body. I caressed her wonderful hair for the last time, and I told her for the last time that she is the most wonderful woman in the world – though I knew she could no longer hear me. I did not need the whole hour. Beate never liked long goodbyes.
In less than half an hour I told the hospital staff they could come deal with the body, as far as I was concerned.
I knew that that body was no longer Beate. If the Monotheristic religions are right, Beate is now somewhere up in Heaven. If they are wrong, Beate is nowhere – except in my head and my heart, where she will stay until the moment of my own death.
Snapshots from THirty Five years [here missing]
The following is based on words said in the Zoom online memorial to Beate.
How do I sum up in a few minutes thirty five very happy years of a life shared with the most wonderful woman in the world? Let me give some snapshots, in more or less chronological order.
– An international activist conference in the Dutch city of Amersfoort. A Dutch woman gets up to speak. I listen carefully but, I must say, I was not yet in love with her.
– I am in a car, the Dutch woman has offered me a ride. She asks what I will do in Amsterdam and I say I will look for a cheap hotel. She says “No need, you can stay with me”.
– I am in the same car with the same woman six months later, going over the French countryside towards the German border. It is in effect our honeymoon though we are not yet officially married.
– We go into an empty apartment in the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon. There is nothing but an old table and two broken chairs. Beate says: “Here we can build a life”.
– Twenty years later, the same apartment is overcrowded with our furniture and bookshelves and the walls covered with our posters and pictures and newspaper clippings.
– Beate takes a wrong step while helping Palestinian villagers near Jerusalem, and her leg is broken. I go with her in the ambulance to Mukasad Hospital in East Jerusalem.
– Beate says “My leg is healed. I don’t need doctors to get rid of this damn hot plaster. Give me the hammer, I am going to do it myself!”. Afterwards she luxuriates in her first bath for two months.
– We go into an apartment in Jerusalem to meet a three and half years old boy. At first he is very shy, but soon he lets me join him and his toy train on the floor. Beate whispers “Remember, don’t yet tell that you are his father. Leave that to the second meeting”. Half an hour later, Uri tells his mother Rama: “Adam is my friend!”
– We are on the way to Gaza to deliver food. Extreme Right-Wingers block our way, shouting “Leftist traitors!” and one of them tries to grab my bag of supplies. Beate jumps on his back, wildly beating his shoulders and shouting “Leave him alone! Leave him alone!”.
– In a small German town a stall offers nice blue caps with various first names on them. I find one with the name “Beate” and pay the young German woman. She says “Ah, Beate?”. Clearly she is curious about my wife or girlfriend with the German name.
– The time of the Oslo Agreements. In central Tel Aviv opponents of the Rabin government push into a peace demonstration and there is wild confusion. Beate starts shouting “Rabin, Ha’am Itcha” (Rabin, the people are behind you!). Many others join her, and we realize there are many more of us than of them.
– Beate is being operated on, to remove the breast in which cancer was found. The doctor calls me and asks “Are you the husband?” I cry out “Doctor, what went wrong?”. He says “Calm down, I just wanted to tell you it is a complete success.”
– Beate and I take part in a march in central Jerusalem. Activists shout “End the occupation! Make peace!”. Suddenly we hear a far off explosion. An organizer gets an call on his mobile phone and then announces: “A suicide bombing just happened a kilometer from here!’. Confused demonstrators ask “So what do we do now?” and the organizer says “We go on marching, this just shows all the more why we need peace”. Beate says to the others “He is completely right, let’s go on”.
– Uri had refused to join the army and we visit him in the military prison. Beate embraces Uri and he tells her “Don’t worry, I am getting along well with both the prisoners and the guards.”
– A tense nighr at Yasser Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah. I phone the Israeli media: “If Sharon thinks of sending commandos in here, he should know there are dozens of Israeli citizens right in front of Arafat’s office”. Beate is chatting with very young Palestinian militiamen who speak basic English. A few hours later, the two of us watch the first light over the roofs of Ramallah. The commandos did not come
– We sit at our favorite vegan restaurant, contently eating a good meal. Beate takes two small pink pills with a glass of water. I think “Who could have guessed that this is a cancer patient with metastasis in various parts of her body, taking chemotherapy?”
– Gush Shalom had sent warning letters to IDF officers who had committed acts contrary to international law. I, as the Gush Shalom spokesperson, find myself the target of very hostile media coverage. The phone rings ceaselessly: “God Damn you, leftist traitor!” “Leftist, we are coming for you!” Beate says: “They can know where we live! The phone company just gives our address to anyone who asks! They may be waiting for you downstairs. For the coming week you’re under house arrest, you don’t get out of the front door. We just don’t take chances!” I say:”It is lucky that our cats were moved to my sister’s home in the Galilee. If we still had cats going out every night, I would go crazy with worry.” Beate says: “Cats know how to take care of themselves!”
– Like on many mornings, I wake up at six and listen to Aryeh Golan’s morning news bulletin.I use earphones on my transistor radio in order not to disturb Beate’s sleep. While listening to the news I hang the wet laundry for which I did not have time on the night before. When I get back to bed, Beate half wakes and asks “Was there anything on the news?” I answer “Nothing special, just the usual nastiness.” I stroke her hair and she falls asleep, and I also go back to sleep for a few more hours.
– Beate says “I’m not sure I’ll get to see my children again.” I say “But the Corona Virus limitations will be dropped within a year, and then Dutch people would be able to visit Israel again.” Beate says “I’m not sure I will still be alive by then.” I rush over and hold her tightly. We both say the same thing in the same moment: “However much time we have left, we will make the most of it, we will enjoy it – every day, every single moment!”
– Our restaurant is unexpectedly closed, and Beate suggests another one, three city blocks away. I am astounded and say “But you now get tired so quickly, can you walk that far?”. She says “Yes I can!” and she did, walking determined and not stopping to rest – though at the end she was totally exhausted.
– The Occupation Anniversary. Beate says: “I am quite tired. I don’t know if I can stay until the end”. We arrive anyway at the rally in the square. Beate takes up a sign “Jerusalem – Capital of Two States” and stands together with our friend Rayna. After half an hour she is exhausted and we take a taxi. That was the last demonstration in which Beate took part.
– We install the electronic piano which we ordered. Beate says “I think I can play quite well, considering that I did not touch a piano for 45 years’ ‘. After playing Beate gets up from the piano and goes to the other room, where she puts on the oxygen processor and installs the oxygen tube in her nose. This is called “oxygen glasses”, since you have to wrap the tube around your ears, like glasses. I go to the kitchen and get slices of watermelon. We sit down and eat watermelon and listen to a Chopin recital on Youtube, and then we go to sleep.
– Uri is visiting from Berlin and tells about his work in a computer games company. Beate calls from the kitchen “Adam, I can make pumpkin soup, but I can’t lift this heavy pot”. I take the pot to the room. Uri says “This smells good”. Beate says “It will taste even better. “
– On Tuesday evening we go out to meet an old friend at a restaurant in Tel Aviv. That was our last eastaurant outing. On the following night Beate tells me: “The situation is getting worse. I think my days of walking around free in Tel Aviv and getting home and then linking to oxygen for only a few hours are over. It’s time to get to Ichilov Hospital”. First we intended to do it by taxi, but Beate feels she can’t afford to disconnect from oxygen even while on the way to the hospital, which means she needs an ambulance. At 4.00 AM we call the medical emergency line. Within minutes, a team of friendly young female medics arrives. Beate says “You don’t need to carry me. I will go down on my own feet”. She slowly descends the four flights of stairs, to the waiting ambulance. Behind her a young medic holds the oxygen tube linked to Beate’s nose.
– a Very late night hour at Ichilov Hospital. I close the curtains around Beate’s bed and crawl in. I repeat for her the words of the old song about the two lovers who were very long separated and who were so happy to meet at last in an old hut that they did not mind the rain coming in through holes in the roof. I tell Beate “This bed is our Leaking Paradise”. Beate says “Yes, the Leaking Paradise is ours” and lightly touches my face.
Here I would like to conclude this collection of snapshots from my life with the most wonderful woman in the world. [Ingrid asked Adam for granting her access to the collection on 21-9-17-.]