My arms and legs are still paralyzed, and I can only hope that this is from anesthesia. Apparently the operation did not kill me, but there is not yet enough time or information to assess how I feel about that. I can’t breathe, and my vision is distorted by tears.
Before the operation, a nurse advised me that when I woke up I would be intubated and unable to speak. She emphasized that the first thing I should do upon gaining consciousness was to move my hands and feet and lift my head, implying that I should be able to do these things.
I cannot do these things. While choking on the breathing tube, I have barely enough energy to try lifting my hands and feet . . . to no avail. Forget lifting, how about just a wiggle? Nothing. Raising my head is like lifting a bowling ball with a pinky finger.
“Nurse? Nurse? He’s choking.”
We’re in Jerusalem, where we’ve lived for the past four years, so the Russian nurse answers in Hebrew: “Tell him he just needs to relax!”
One conundrum baked into human experience is the problem of interpretation: We don’t know how to comprehend things that happen to us as they are happening. We might speculate about pros and cons, but we have no idea how the consequences will unfold, and these speculations are projections of our assumptions about how the world works. We squeeze the chaotic unfolding of our life stories into familiar narratives.
For me, this is part of the appeal of religion and part of the reason I spent eight years studying to be a rabbi. It provides a narrative of hidden possibility to challenge my default scenario, with its inspiring strains of fatalism, self-judgment and worst-case scenarios. Between these competing mythologies, I remain agnostic, but I root for hope.
And yet! When I arrived in the ER in November and was told that I had a tumor on my heart and an infarction on my brain and that more strokes were probably on the way, it was hard to find a positive interpretation. For a mostly healthy 40-year-old, facing the prospect of open-heart surgery seemed terrifying and bad. Theologically, I do not believe in a punishing God. Still, my insides trembled with the intuition that I was being, at least, harshly tested, that I had brought the test on myself and that there was a very real chance of failure. In other moments, my inner nihilist muscled in: This happens to people. They get sick for no reason; they have strokes and get paralyzed and die. Why should you be different?