Always Beside Me
By Keith Bloomfield
Abe remembered the pains in his chest and back. He had lost consciousness on the way to the hospital and heard only the muffled voices of the attendants once they arrived at the Emergency Room. From what he could understand and remember, the hospital staff did all that they could. He was not having a simple heart attack! That's what he understood when he left that first hospital. He needed surgery and he needed it soon.
He only remembered reaching the hospital downtown and little more. The staff did what they needed to do to save his life and soon he was speaking to a surgeon.
"You're going to need surgery," the doctor told him. "I need to know something about your family. Tell me about your grandfather."
"He died of a heart attack when I was very young."
The doctor's head nodded slowly. "And your father?"
"He had two heart attacks. The second one killed him."
The doctor smiled at him. Abe remembered thinking that the questions were strange and the doctor's response, even stranger. "You've just had your first heart attack. As you can see, it runs in the family. There's an abnormality with your heart and the blood vessels that run to and from it. We can correct them. Unfortunately, we hadn't realized this soon enough to help your father and grandfather. You should let the rest of your family know, and they should be tested."
Both his dad and grand-dad were young when they passed away. Abe expected the same for himself. He was surprised and relieved by what the doctor had told him. The surgery would be performed right after the start of the new year. It was more complicated than expected, but he was alive and was soon released from the hospital.
He had invited some friends to his apartment to celebrate. They were watching a football game when the headache began and he was rushed back to the hospital. The ambulance slid through snow covered streets on an early morning run along highways nearly devoid of cars. "A complication," he thought, staring at the ambulance's ceiling and the flashing of headlights in his eyes. With arms strapped down, for his own protection, he squinted in the glare that surrounded him.
Abe found himself lying on a gurney in the emergency room waiting to speak to someone, anyone about his condition. He was staring at another ceiling and counting the tiles when someone tapped him on the shoulder. He glanced up and saw his dad at his side. A broad smile creased his face.
"How are you feeling?" he asked, his hand still on Abe's shoulder.
"Looks like I'm back into the hospital."
"I know," said his Dad.
"I think it's serious."
"I'm not a doctor. You'll have to wait to hear what the doctors will say," said his father.
He paused, deciding what to say. "She couldn't join me, but she knows what's happening."
"I know, and there's nothing wrong with that. I've been there too. You have to reach down and hold on. Remember, I'm always beside you. Repeat it," he said sternly.
Abe swallowed hard. "You're always beside me."
His dad smiled. "Now don't ever forget it."
Abe silently nodded his head.
His father removed a gold mezzuah from his neck and handed it to Abe.
Abe stared up at it. "I can't take it. You told me it was a present. Your father gave it to you at your Bar Miztvah."
"And I'm giving it to you. Take it." His father folded Abe's hand around it.
Two orderlies rushed to the gurney that held Abe. "We're bringing you upstairs," said one of them. "Everything will be OK."
As he was rolled away, Abe looked over his shoulder at his father. A smile creased his face and his dad waved at him and disappeared in the crowded emergency room. As the gurney entered an elevator, Abe wept slowly and closed is eyes. He knew that his father had passed away nearly twenty years before. Probably, with that same malady that now plagued him. Was this an invitation to join his dad and his mom or something he had conjured up the quell his own fears? He didn't know, but whatever it was, he needed it to get through what he was about to face. Funny, he could almost feel the mezzuah clenched in the palm of his hand. The elevator stopped with a jolt and the gurney rolled out into a brightly lit corridor. That's the last thing he could remember.
The surgery and recuperation were a blur. He felt as though life had become an enormous jigsaw puzzle, with different pieces missing at different times. The results kept changing. The images from his days and nights in the hospital did not. It was strange when he realized that the most important things to him did not really exist. They were like endless loops of film running and rerunning in his mind. He found that he could anticipate what someone would do or say, but he was helpless to make any changes. He had read something about heart lung machines producing bubbles in the brain and the effect these bubbles had until they were finally absorbed by the body. It would certainly explain away some of the things that he was going through. He did not accept it. He had moments of wonderful lucidity when he thought he could solve the problems of the world and times when holding his head up was an overwhelming chore. There was something intangible attacking him, pulling him to the ground, and holding him down. He thought of Yaakov's wrestling match with an angel. How it had changed him, prepared him for what would come next, and how the Lord had promised to protect him. There was a purpose in what was happening to him. As if it were the overture before the concert truly began. If he waited long enough, it would all be clear to him.
It was a cool Sunday afternoon when Abe and his wife drove north to the cemetery where his parents were buried. It had been more than a year since his last visit and his stays in the hospital had clouded his memory. The bushes that flanked the gravestone obscured the family name. He limped back to the car to collect a large pair of pruning shears from the trunk to correct the matter. The limp was slight, but it was a constant reminder of his days and nights in the hospital.
There were no rocks on the gravestone. It had been a while since anyone had visited the plot. Too bad. Abe pulled a tiny booklet from his back pocket and fumbled through it looking for kaddish. He had taken a baseball cap from the trunk and placed it on his head. His wife stood silently next to him while he chanted the prayer. Behind him, stood the sapling that now towered over the concrete bench that first drew his father's attention to that particular spot. His dad thought that he would be able to sit in the shade when he visited his wife. Abe had no idea if he ever did, but he used it when he visited his parents.
Abe bent down, and with a whisk broom, snatched from the trunk with the shears, he swept the footstones that marked the graves where is parents were buried.
"I could have been here too," he said nonchalantly.
"But you're not," his wife said quickly, hooking her arm through his.
" I never told you this, but the day that I went into the hospital, for the second time, I imagined that I spoke to my dad. He stood next to the gurney and we talked to each other. It was a real conversation. I spoke to him and he answered. He looked the same as when I last saw him. He shared with me some of the strength that I always saw in him." Abe stopped for a moment and dried his eyes with a shirt sleeve. "Then before they wheeled me away, he gave me something to help me get through what was happening. Funny, I remember him wearing it, but I never saw it again until he put it in my palm."
His wife looked at him with knit brows. "You never told me that story. If you had, I would have shown this to you sooner. I carry it with me everywhere."
Abe cocked his head as she slowly opened her pocketbook. She rummaged through her handbag and removed something that she had kept in a wrinkled handkerchief.
"We found this in your hand when they brought you upstairs in the hospital. I put in my purse and didn't think much about it until now." She slowly opened her hand and peeled back the corners of the handkerchief. His father's mezzuah and chain rested in her palm. "Heaven knows why we found it clenched in your hand."
"That's alright. I do."
from the Febuary 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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