Trust me, I’m still LUCKY!

In addition to his work as an endodontist, Herb Benkel is a photographer and art collector based in New Jersey. In this piece, he recounts his life journey and reflects on his battles with cancer.

essay — HERB BENKEL, photography — Mark Preston

So, what do you do with life when it hands you a dirty deal? I’ve been lucky most of my life, and at 76, I am totally comfortable, married to a wonderful and supportive woman, and have a grown child that is holding his own.

I survived cancer at only 22 years old, after being married for only one week. Pretty lucky, I think. My wife and I were so young and naive, I don’t think we ever realized my mortality at that point. My wife was totally supportive and was always there for me. She was 21 and amazing. We hadn’t even moved into our own apartment yet, and we were separated for 2+ months while I was being treated as an inpatient. Back then, they kept you in a hospital longer. While in the hospital, we actually watched Joe Namath make the Jets Super Bowl champions that year.

Thinking back to age 6, I remember receiving a ‘Brownie’ camera for my birthday from a cousin. It was the most amazing gift, full of wonder and possibility. I couldn’t sleep all night because of my excitement. That was the beginning of a lifelong fascination with photography, still active in me today. I have posted a photograph online every day for over 1600 days.

After I was married, I got a dream job teaching photography in an art and design high school in New York. Times were tough for New York back then, and the city was almost in bankruptcy. Public schools weren’t being funded properly and teaching looked like it was becoming a dead end. I discussed all this with my wonderful wife and we decided to get me into, and eventually, through dental school, even though we had no money. My wife worked for money, while I worked for grades. I was lucky again. I got in, and got through dental school, and even went on to become a specialist. Through all this, I photographed for art and for money. I always loved photography. My wife and I even volunteered to help in one of the most influential photography galleries in New York in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. It was the Witkin Gallery, a place that is now of historical significance.

"Yoga has saved my life, my relationships and my art, by helping me stay fit at three-quarters of a century old"

Time passed, our child grew and we aged, hardly noticing the time passing us by. We were successful and happy, healthy and fit, but as a dentist, I had back problems. By another stroke of amazing luck, I walked into a yoga class 40 years ago and haven’t stopped aside from during times of hospitalization and recovery. Yoga has saved my life, my relationships and my art, by helping me stay fit at three-quarters of a century old.

I was yet again ‘lucky’ because life throws you nasty curves, and this is rarely fair. We are dealt a hand and must play it out. Whether it’s for the better or worse—that’s your choice! My choice has always been for the better. Bad things happen. Sometimes bad things can destroy your life, but, even in the worst cases, may even result in a positive outcome, through a positive attitude. It’s alway a choice.

In my ‘life’s dirty deal,’ the cancer from age 22 caught up to me in 2015, which eventually led to the loss of my right leg, way above the knee in 2019. It involved 11 surgeries in all. In reality, no fun at all. Now in 2022, I walk with a prosthetic leg, two canes and my Leica camera almost everywhere. I do advanced chair yoga three times a week, and go to a gym three times a week. I’m slow, but can go further, with more creativity than most of my contemporaries. I have constant discomfort and sometimes horrific phantom pain. But it’s ALL good!

I post an image every day to hundreds of followers. I have a great and supportive family and friends who are there for me. Trust me, I’m still "LUCKY!" When I talk about my life to young people, I start by showing my missing parts. I explain that my wife never signed up for my cancer or the loss of my leg. Life is not very fair, but we only get one shot at it. I like to think that all the bad stuff makes the good stuff more precious.

In every bad situation, there is some sliver of good embedded within. Look toward only one moment....NOW! If ‘now’ is not great, push to make it better. If ‘now’ is terrific, savor it. Family, photography, and yoga have been the structural support of my life. What’s yours?

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