By-pass heart surgery was scheduled a week before Rosh Hashanah

    September 2009            
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Opinion & Society


Waiting For An Epiphany

By Martin Lindauer

Facing death, I wondered when my life would pass in review. By-pass heart surgery was scheduled a week before Rosh Hashanah, a solemn occasion when, according to Jewish tradition, God weighs our deeds and judges who will live and who will die. The convergence of medical and spiritual events prompted me to revise my Will.

Reflecting on what could be my last words, I gazed out the hospital window at what might be my final sunset. I vowed to appreciate this moment every day--if there were any more to experience in my future. I promised to give thanks for the simple things in life, the roof over my head and the food on my table, swore to take long walks in the park and commune with nature, and pledged to spend more time with my grandchildren.

I awoke in the recovery room and exulted silently. I was alive! Almost simultaneously, I was struck by the flimsiness of my existence. Death was no longer an indefinite "later" but a span measured in years. I was mortal, the future was uncertain, and life could no longer be taken for granted. The doctor had assured me that I would have a normal life-span, but he did not convince me.

The eve of the Jewish New Year was an appropriate time for soul-searching, an opportunity to explore a new beginning. I stopped fidgeting over the itchy stitches in my chest, pushed away questions about the dinner menu, restrained myself from asking the nurse when I could go to the toilet on my own, and shifted mental gears.

Perhaps my fellow patients had some useful ideas. I eavesdropped on their conversations in the cardiac recovery ward. "I'll be fishing more," an elderly man stated. Another reported his intention to quit smoking. Others chatted about changing their diets and getting more exercise.

I heard nothing, though, about altering values, revising goals, or modifying life-styles. Not a word about improving relationships or rearranging priorities. Instead, the patients dwelled on how lucky they were to be alive, the absence of chest pain, and the pleasure of walking without having to stop and rest. Most gossiped about the nurses and bragged about their doctors.

I turned to my cardiologist, an experienced observer of hundreds of cases like mine, and asked, "What sorts of plans do your patients make after their surgeries?"

The doctor thought for a moment. "Well, many say they'll cut down on fatty and salty foods and join a gym." He frowned. "Unfortunately, most don't stick to their diets or stay on a workout program. I guess it's hard to alter old habits even if means saving your life."

Not me, I thought. I would be different. How could I not revise my life after my heart had been stopped, blood redirected, and consciousness suspended? Momentous events like these, I felt, must have serious and lasting consequences.

Despite my heightened motivation, the interview with my doctor, and the survey of fellow survivors, no major improvements sprang to mind. I was not overweight, I ate the proper foods, I swam twice a week at a gym, and I was not a smoker. Fishing, bowling, and golf were not on my list of recreational activities. I could not see myself following faddish diets or transforming myself into a bulky weight-lifter.

Maybe I should stay the way I am, I rationalized. A radically new way of life might have unwanted consequences or negative side effects, like new medical problems. Who knew what unexpected changes might happen to my personality?

Rosh Hashanah passed and I was released from the hospital. But the calendar forced my self-examination to continue. In a few days it would be Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, 24-hours of fasting, after which God "closed the book" on what lay ahead for me in the coming year.

I spent the day in the synagogue with my children and grandchildren surrounded by a prayerful congregation of supplicants. But the solemn services, followed by a joyful dinner to break the fast, failed to stir any new ideas for a fresh start or a blueprint for the rest of my life.

The time for making New Year resolutions passed.

I slept overnight in my son's house. Before driving me home, he studied the city map, looking for the smoothest ride. My chest was still sore from the operation. My son's finger traced the maze of streets and intersections on the unfolded AAA map until it fell on the expressway that skirted the city. "It's a longer route than city streets but it'll be less bumpy. We'll take it."

I leaned over and noted that the highway's straight trajectory went through brown and yellow swatches on the map, the cartographer's designation for the unpopulated foothills that surrounded the city. The palette of muted colors was edged with wavy topographical lines that represented a range of craggy mountains on the uninhabited edge of the map.

The empty expanse triggered off memories of the Biblical tales recited during the High Holy Days just past. I imagined the patriarch Abraham wandering through the barren lands of Canaan, his flock of sheep grazing on parched land, tents set amidst sandy wastes, and the sacrificial ram entangled in the dry brambles of Mount Moriah. I was reminded of Hagar and Ishmael's banishment into the wilderness. I recalled the readings from the prophets Samuel, Jeremiah, and Isaiah.

I stared at the road I was about to take, and wondered, half-seriously, if a walk in the desert would inspire a new direction for my life.

Martin Lindauer has previously published short fiction with a Jewish theme in The Jewish Magazine and Poetica. His other work can be found in Slab, Ha! Oracle, and elsewhere. Comments appreciated:


from the September 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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