During these past weeks, since my car crash, I have had two profound experiences I want to share with you:
- Brief lightning flashes of excruciating pain,
- Long days and weeks of love renewed and deepened.
When I had my surgery for resetting my broken leg, one of the elements—which no one mentioned ahead of time—was that under general anesthetic, to prevent my body's contaminating the operation process with unplanned urination, the surgical staff installed a urinary catheter.
This means—I am simply being clear here—the insertions of a small, stiff rubber pipe into the urethra, that tiny tube that opens for men at the tip of the penis. The tube reached back through my body toward the bladder, and of course channeled all urine in an orderly way into a bag that can be emptied.
In most cases, the catheter can be removed shortly after the operation, and the body resumes normal urination.
But in my case, the remaining effects of anesthetic—and who knows what other aspects of my own body—prevented my urination from resuming.
But this can't be allowed to go on very long—more than eight hours or so, in fact—because the body would be poisoned by its own waste products.
So the catheter had to be reinserted. This time with a local topical anesthetic gel, but without general anesthetic or any nerve-block like it.
So for about half a minute, I lived inside a lightning flash of unutterable pain.
In describing this since—especially to men—I have seen them scroonch up, in what some have said was the "archetypal' fear of castration. But make no mistake – what I experienced was no "archetypal fear" but sheer physical pain—the worst of my life.
It didn't end there. The catheter that the urology residents at my hospital used was a short-lived kind. (There could have been another choice—a "Foley catheter'" that can remain in the body, causing little or no pain after its painful insertion, for at least another week.) My body did not respond the way it was supposed to. Once again, they had to reinsert a catheter. Once again, that lightning flash of excruciating pain.
Once again—this I did not and do not understand—the catheter they used was a short-lived kind, not a Foley. Once again, my body did not respond the way it was supposed to. Once again, they told me a reinsertion would be necessary.
This time I challenged them to hear my lived and living experience, instead of simply proceeding on the basis of their medical knowledge. I did not challenge the importance of their knowledge or the necessity of my having a catheter that would save my life from the waste products my own body generates. I simply said they needed to hear what was also at stake for me in the moments of insertion.
Some of them heard me deeply and fully. But not all. Even then, one M.D. when I said this had been the worst pain of my life, asked me, unbelieving, "Worse than your broken leg?" I answered, more calmly than I felt, "Absolutely. Far far worse."
So now they agreed it should be a Foley that might give my body more time to recover its usual ability to urinate. And I talked in depth with my daughter Shoshana—who is a physician—and with Phyllis. Shoshana suggested that Phyllis draw on her experience and ability as meditator / chanter. Together we decided that Phyllis would sit with me to prepare for the insertion by chanting a chant of Rabbi Shefa Gold's—set to a passage of consolation from Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs --- "Zeh dodi, zeh re'i --- This is my Beloved, This is my Friend."
And here the story takes an important turn toward its other side—the side of love, the side of God. Since the car crash and the birth shortly afterward of a daughter to Phyllis' daughter Morissa, Phyllis had been reshaping her work life to enable her to meet in love the family needs. We had begun to spend more time together, really together, not just side-by side in the same room, than we had in decades. Phyllis had been reading aloud to me two amazing "children's" books by Blue Balliet that Shoshana had given us after reading them with her own nine-year-old- daughter Yonit. We had been getting to know and love each other at a new level through the enchanted, enchanting medium of these books.
Now for half an hour we chanted together this chant of love, for the half-minute of terrible pain we held each other's hands and looked into each other's eyes. Phyllis said she could feel in her own body the shock I felt in mine. And for me the pain was terrible, but slightly less so than it had been before. "Utterable," you might say, rather than "unutterable."
I got my first chance to teach at least some of the meaning of this story. The medical school associated with the hospital where I had been going through all this asked some patients, including me, to be interviewed by four first-year students about our experiences. I told them I had agreed in honor of Shoshana Waskow and her husband Michael Slater, whose journey a generation ago through medical school I had watched with great excitement. And, in tears, I told them the story of my pain and the different ways different doctors had responded. I explained that I hoped that as they themselves became physicians, they would never forget the importance of integrating patients' experience with medical knowledge.
Even there, the story doesn't stop. Even a week on the Foley catheter turned out not to be enough time for my body to recover—nformation that could only be reached by withdrawing the Foley and waiting to see. So once more there would need to be a reinsertion. Once more we prepared to chant.
Phyllis said she did not want to use the same chant this time, out of concern that I would so combine my terror and pain with it as to hate the chant itself. Instead she used another chant of Shefa's Elohai nishama sheh'natatah bi, tehorah hi: My God, the breath you have placed within me is pure."
For an hour we chanted, as I looked deep into her loving and beloved face, knowing utterly that those two hazel-green eyes were the eyes of a loving God, seen face to face. Turning upside-down the Torah passage so as to say, "if you look upon My face, you shall live."
And this time, the Rehab Center where I now am found a nurse more gentle and more skillful at reinserting the catheter than the advanced hospital urology resident MD's had been.
So I not only survived but feel less driven by the terror that had haunted me. Tonight, before she left for home, I asked Phyllis to marry me anew. She said yes. And it's not just her. I find myself watching with awe and love the flood of suffering and compassion that I see all around me in this center. In my family and close friends. And in all of you who have taken the trouble to call and write and help.
But that's another story.
With blessings for a year and a life of giving and receiving good—