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.”
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
we know the name of the man? No. Does the anonymous stranger
make all the difference? Yes.
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
I have done is to recognize once more how unimaginably complicated
life is, how fragile, how awesome, how frightening, how amazing life
wish life made more obvious sense.
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.
I can’t make that happen. I also know it won’t
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.
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.”
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.”