Magazine article Tikkun

High Holy Days in the Hospital

Magazine article Tikkun

High Holy Days in the Hospital

Article excerpt

On rosh hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kip- pur it is sealed. Who shall live and who shall die, who shall perish by fire and who by water, who by Roman soldier and who by cancer. . ."

"No, that's not how it goes," I wearily chided myself from my hospital bed. I knew I was making up my own words. But alone in the wee hours of the morning, as the High Holy Days approached, that was the best rendition of the Uneta- nah Tokef (the central prayer of the High Holy Day service) that I could muster. And my brother Jeffrey later told me that spending the eve of Yom Kippur with me in the hospital was the most meaningful Yom Kippur of his life.

I had been acting strange for a few weeks. I am usually conscientious and punctual, but that month I had slept through work and two piano lessons. My friend Barbara grew concerned and called me, only to learn that I was sitting out- side my doctor's office on a Sunday, confused about why the building was locked. I thought it was Monday. I had been so tired that I had requested medical leave from work to get tested for mononucleosis. Mono was the only thing I could imagine that could account for such relentless fatigue. After Barbara whisked me to the ER for a brain scan, I learned that a brain tumor also has that power. My sister Ann, on learning that I was in the neuroscience ICU, drove down to Virginia from New York in the middle of the night to help.

And so I found myself, several days later, under the sur- geon's knife, just when I should have been getting ready to fly to Boston to attend High Holy Days services with one of my favorite rabbis, Jonathan Kraus, and my best friend, Sandi. Instead, Sandi flew to Baltimore to be with me in the hospi- tal, leaving her family and community to be by my side.

After surgery at Johns Hopkins, I moved to Sinai Hospi- tal in Baltimore for rehabilitation before returning home. My sister Ann, who is Orthodox, was staying with our dear friends of over twenty years in a nearby Orthodox Jewish community. Before I knew it, those friends and others started visiting: all the wonderful people whom I love brought fresh fruit, homemade macaroni and cheese, and funny stories to sustain me during my long hospital stay. They likely had walked one to three miles to visit me, since by tradition there is no driving on Shabbat and many Jewish holidays.

They were also fulfilling the mitzvah (commandment) of bichor cholim, often translated in prayer books as "visiting the sick." I've always been uncomfortable with the term "the sick" because it emphasizes the disease, not the person. But I've developed a new understanding for why it is a mitzvah to visit people who are sick (notice my use of the people-first lan- guage favored by the disability rights movement). The love, visits, and support of my family and friends were critical in keeping up my spirits and helped set the course for my very positive mindset through the months of radiation and che- motherapy that followed.

I had so many people visit, pray for me, and send texts, food, and love, that I dictated an email to my brother on Erev Yom Kippur titled, "The luckiest person in the world." My brother typed as I dictated:

As I lay here in the hospital a few days past surgery, I wanted to share the thoughts going on in my head. Primarily, all I can think is I'm the luckiest person in the world. No matter how I think about this, that's the conclusion I come to. It's not lucky to have a brain tumor or to need emergency surgery. But when I think about all the people I have in my life I couldn't be hap- pier or feel luckier. …

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