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Did I Tell You I Had Surgery?
By Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro

A priest, a minister, and a rabbi were speaking at a symposium on death.  Each of them was asked to consider the question:  If you were lying in a coffin and people were looking at you, what would you like them to say about you?

The priest and minister spoke first.  Each talked about how they would like the people looking at them to say that they were good men, men of virtue, and that they performed their tasks on earth well, and that they left this world a better place.

Then it was the rabbi’s turn.  “Let me get this straight,” he began.  “I’m in a coffin and people are looking at me.  What would I like them to say about me?  I would like them to say – LOOK, HE’S MOVING.”

This morning, a little over three months after surgery to remove a tumor from my brain, I am also moving.  And that is what I want to tell you about today.  I’ve got a story I want to tell.  Actually, I’ve got a story I need to tell you.

First of all, let me tell you how I learned this story was so important.  Close to seven weeks after my surgery, I was finally able to connect with a rabbinic friend for lunch at Uno’s near the Basketball Hall of Fame.  My friend had already been in touch with me a few times on the telephone and via e-mail, but this was the first time we saw  each other in person. 

We sat down at our table.  We glanced over the menu.  And, at one point or another, my friend asked (as you would expect) how I was doing.  And so I told him.  I  told my story. 

Except I don’t think I stopped talking for a solid 15 minutes.  I talked about being diagnosed with a brain tumor.  I talked about visiting the surgeon for the first time, about the pre-op day, about the day of surgery, about the days after, and I talked and talked until at one point I put the brakes on because I realized I had barely let me friend say a word about himself.  I was more than a little bit surprised by how much I was talking, how much I wanted to talk, how much I needed to talk, to tell the story of what happened to me this summer.

More than a month has passed since that lunchtime conversation, but I still want to tell you my story.  I need to tell you the story.

It all began in late March and April when I had a number of headaches.  At first, I thought maybe I was having headaches because I wasn’t getting enough sleep.  But the headaches didn’t only happen in the morning; they happened at different times including one Friday night during services as I was trying to welcome Shabbat with a smile on my face and a pain between my eyes.  Since I rarely have headaches at all, I finally decided I had to see the doctor.  He did a few tests in the office; he sent me for an MRI.  A few days later he called me to tell me something was wrong.  I had a tumor at the front of my brain, a meningioma; it had to be removed by surgery.

My first words, “You must be kidding. You must be kidding.”

But less than a month later I was at Mass General.  I did have that surgery.  I was a patient like so many of you whom I have visited over the years.

And now, after the strangest summer of my whole life, what can I tell you I have learned? 

Right now – nothing -  because I’m still not ready to let go of the story itself.  I want to talk about the MRI.  I had two of those procedures before surgery.  They aren’t painful.  They simply involve lying still as your body is moved forward into a narrow tube where  various images of the body part in question are produced. 

So what was I thinking about as I lay there inside the machine for the many minutes required?  My father.  You see, my dad (alav hashalom/may he rest in peace) was a radiologist and MRI’s were related to his expertise.  Besides that, lying there even before I knew something was definitely wrong, I still knew I was in trouble, and I couldn’t imagine anyone who would have known what the MRI was and who would have cared more than my dad.  He couldn’t have stopped me from needing that MRI, but if he could have been there to make it go away, he would have done it in a heart beat.

How about the surgeon?  I remember that first visit to Mass General with my wife, Marsha.  It’s a beautiful, modern building.  People are rushing to and fro.  Volunteers give directions through the labyrinth.  The elevators are smooth, quiet, and woosh us up to the floor for neurosurgery.  I’m in a waiting room where the person across from me has no hair and a frightening incision.  I just barely glance at the man over my magazine. 

Then we meet the doctor who couldn’t be nicer or more supportive. It’s just that I’m pinching myself as he puts the MRI image of my brain and its tumor up on his viewbox.  Once again, I’m saying (although this time to myself), “You must be kidding.  You’re going to open me up for six hours.”  This is incredible.  Almost surreal.

            But three weeks later Marsha and I are back.  There is a day for pre-operative work.  Mass Gen wants to get to know me and so they do as they take my blood pressure, grab some blood, and ask me maybe a thousand questions about myself, my medical history, and the medical story of my parents.

            Here’s something I don’t remember.  We stayed at a Holiday Inn the night before surgery, but I don’t remember almost a thing about that night.  I only know that early on Thursday, June 3, I’m back at the hospital for the real thing.  I change into one of those hospital gowns.  I give my clothes and wedding ring to Marsha.  She’s gone, and I’m being wheeled at what seems like break neck speed towards the operating room. 

            I’m praying, by the way.  I’ve taken a few Hebrew phrases that I love with me in my heart, and I’m reciting those phrases over and over and over.

            Outside the OR, I meet the anesthesiologist and one of the nurses who will be with me for the operation.  They make small talk with me.  They joke with each other (After all, it IS just another day at work for them.)  Then, we’re inside the OR and someone asks me if I can move myself from the gurney to the operating table, which seems to me to be about 6” wide.  I comment, “This looks like the television show, ER. Don’t they move the patient?”  “No,” comes the reply.  “ER looks like us.  You move yourself.” 

            And that’s all I remember until I hear voices calling my name from what seems like a hundred miles above me.  I feel as if I have to climb up out of a watery place, and I answer them, and I’m back.  I’m alive.

            It’s not over yet.  I’m in a hospital room for three days only separated from an older gentleman who’s had a minor stroke, but he and I don’t even manage to speak until the very last morning when I’m about to be discharged.  It’s not that he and his family don’t seem to be warm human beings.  I’m just not able to consider much more than the position of my pillows.  I’m deep, deep in my bed on my back trying to get well.

            Then there is the nurse around 4 a.m. in the ICU who wakes me to take my blood pressure.  She discovers I’m a rabbi and strikes up a conversation about Judaism and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem.  My last morning around 3 a.m. another nurse shows up to take blood.  He too realizes I’m a rabbi, and he wants to discuss the differences among Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Jews. 

            One afternoon, when my eyes were closed because of pain, the only thing I wanted was some chocolate cake.  I remember my sister-in-law, Marsha’s sister, getting some cake from the cafeteria and feeding it to me.  She did it spoonful by spoonful.  It was a quiet moment out of a long hospital day that, for whatever reason, lingers with me – as does one other encounter.

            This goes back to the pre-op day.  I was poked.  I was probed that day.  And at one point I found myself sitting in a sterile, very empty hallway waiting for a CAT scan.  The occasional technician went by, but I wasn’t altogether sure they hadn’t lost me in the bowels of Mass General.

            Then along came another patient.  He sat down beside me and struck up a conversation.  I don’t remember if I said a word, but I do remember him talking.  He told me he had had several CAT scans.  He told me they were nothing to worry about.  He also told me that he had had successful brain surgery, that I needn’t worry about that either, that everything would be OK.

            Here’s the strange part.  I don’t remember what the man looked like.  I don’t remember if he had a CAT scan before mine.  I don’t even remember where he went. 

            I don’t remember anything about him…..except that he was there with his message and then gone…like Elijah. 

That’s how Jewish legend presents the prophet Elijah.  He is expected to visit our Seders because he is supposed to be the one to announce the coming of the Messiah when the whole world will be free.  But legend also places Elijah in a hundred other places.  He shows up when someone is in distress.  He shows up to act on behalf of the poor or the defenseless.  He also appears when a message needs to be delivered.   Elijah brings hope and comfort.

            And maybe that morning, in the hallway of Mass General, Elijah did that for me.  Or if it wasn’t Elijah, then maybe it was someone else who simply read my face and had his own bit of Torah to teach me.  It doesn’t matter that he didn’t know me and that I never caught his name.  We were two human beings and, in his own way, he became my Elijah.  He was the right person in the right place at the right time.

            Do you remember the early part of the story of Joseph?  I’m thinking about the episode in the Book of Genesis where Jacob, the father, asks Joseph to find out how his brothers are doing as they pasture their flocks.  Joseph heads out looking for his brothers who could be anywhere in the hills of Canaan and Joseph gets himself lost.  That is when the Torah says, “A man came upon him” and asked if he could help.  The man then proceeds to give Joseph directions that allow him to find his family.  It’s this man who   allows the story of Joseph to unfold as it ultimately does.

            Do we know the name of the man?  No.  Does the anonymous stranger make all the difference?  Yes.

            Is it possible that every one of us has met a stranger who made a difference, although the stranger might not have known what he did?  Is it possible that every one of us has played the same role for others?  We’ve been there, said something, done something that was inconsequential for us, but meant the world for the person we touched.

            I think that’s so.  I think it happened to me.       I think, in a way, that there was a kind of magic to my experience in the hospital and after.  

            It could have been otherwise.  I have visited so many of you or your loved ones and seen how illness becomes a nightmare.  There is no dignity and there is no easy ending, and, above all else, there is no rhyme or reason, why some people are favored while others are not. 

            That is why our Rosh Hashanah prayer book drew a very honest image in the U’netane Tokef prayer several minutes ago.  The prayer imagined this day and this season as a time when the whole universe from the angels on downward trembles.  After all, who knows what will happen this coming year?  Who knows who will have success and good health?  Who knows who will suffer disappointment or even have brain surgery?  Who knows what life has in store next year or even tomorrow?

            No one does and, when all is said and done, I can report to you that my surgery has not taught me how to penetrate this mystery.  People ask me, “What have I learned from my surgery?”  And I know they mean well.  I think they even hope I’ve discovered some answer to the why’s and wherefore’s of life.

            But I haven’t. 

            All I have done is to recognize once more how unimaginably complicated life is, how fragile, how awesome, how frightening, how amazing life is.

            I wish life made more obvious sense.

            I wish those of you who have chronic illness or love someone with chronic illness could be guaranteed that it will all go away in the space of three months or even a year. I wish that those of you whose lives are turned upside down by family stress or financial setback could see everything set right.  I wish everything that hurts so many of us would really go away. 

            But I can’t make that happen.  I also know it won’t happen.

            Although perhaps there is something we can do together, that will take the edge off  our pain. 

It won’t cure life’s brokenness, but maybe what we do as a community will help us transcend ourselves for a moment, help us find some solace and strength for whatever the New Year holds.

I’d like to be the catalyst for the moment.  I’m going to do this by doing something I’ve never done before.  I’m going to offer myself the first aliyah this morning.  I’ll say the Torah blessings and that will then allow me with you and for you to do what Judaism calls…BENTSCHING GOMEL.  I’m going to say the prayer that is supposed to be said by someone who has escaped danger or returned from an illness.  That’s called Bentsching Gomel.

But here’s the key.  A person can’t do this Gomel-“I’m safe” prayer on his or her own.  It’s not like reciting the motsi or another blessing that can be said anywhere anytime.  This Gomel-Thanksgiving prayer is different.  You can only say it if at least a minyan of Jews is present, which is to say a community must be there.  Plus the community must respond with its own set words.  First a, then b.  First me, then you.

The person who is recovering gives thanks to God, but the circle isn’t complete until the community listening joins in to affirm that life will go on and goodness lies ahead.

The point is that I need you, friends.  I needed you for your good wishes all through my illness and recovery.  I needed you for your prayers.  I needed you to hear my story this morning.

In fact, we all need each other.  I can’t be whole without you.  You can’t begin to become whole without all of us.  I start the blessing, but you, my friends, you complete the blessing because in life people are the blessing.  An Elijah for me in the hospital, many Elijahs going this way and that in everyone’s life making whatever we manage to do possible.

Rabbi Chayim of Tsanz used to tell the story of a man lost in the forest.  He wandered for several days until he finally met another.  He called out, “Brother, show me the way out of this forest.”  The man replied, “Brother, I too am lost, I can only tell you this.  The ways I have tried lead nowhere; they have only led me astray.  Take my hand and let us search for the way together.”

Rabbi Chayim would add, “So it is with us.  Life is immense.  Life often overwhelms us and when we go our separate ways, we may go astray.  Let us at least join hands.  Then we can look for the way together.”

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