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The End of Youth

I must admit that as reminders of the end of youth go, one’s first heart attack ranks well above a couple of failed efforts on the basketball court.



ecently, I spoke to a women’s writing group about the joys of writing. Among my main points was that writing makes life more vivid and alive. One reads differently when constantly asking whether one has learned something new to share with others or something that illuminates other issues about which one has been thinking. In addition, one’s powers of observation sharpen when one is always on the lookout for new material.

The danger of those heightened powers of observation, however, is that one can end up turning one’s life into a script for the next column, sometimes to the irritation of other unwitting characters in one’s drama. Despite that warning, I’m going to skip my planned column on Hunter Biden, in favor of writing about my last five days, including two trips to the Shaare Zedek emergency room and the insertion of a stent into one of two blocked coronary arteries on Tishah B’Av.

In truth, I had long planned a piece beginning with an incident that powerfully brought home the fact that I’m no longer young. On a recent family vacation to celebrate a milestone birthday, I decided to join a group of grandchildren on the basketball court, where their lack of experience was evident.

I called for the ball, with the expectation of dazzling the grandchildren with Saba’s ability to still shoot baskets from fifteen feet. To my shock, my first effort fell far short of basket and never reached the height of the rim. My second effort fared no better.

At the time, my morning shiur was studying Shaarei Teshuvah, and had just reached Rabbeinu Yonah’s description of the value of reminders of our own mortality as a spur to teshuvah — now. And it was in that vein that I absorbed the news that I am no longer a candidate for pick-up basketball games.

But I must admit that as reminders of the end of youth go, one’s first heart attack ranks well above a couple of failed efforts on the basketball court.

I’M SOMEONE who has always looked censoriously at all those around the kiddush table eating Yerushalmi kugel and reaching for a rugelach or two, especially if they are already sporting a hefty paunch, and wondered, “How can they be so heedless of their health? Don’t they know that fat around the waist is most predictive in terms of heart attacks?” But here am I — the village scold — with the first heart attack of the bunch. While I don’t expect to become an advocate for unhealthy eating, Hashem definitely showed me that I lack the power to protect myself from all adverse health events.

I’ve also developed the habit of late of asking when new grandchildren are born, “If I make it to 90, will I likely be at his or her chasunah?” I now see that inquiry as more than a little chutzpahdig: Tomorrow is not guaranteed, much less 90.

One more lesson: Pay attention to your body. Last Monday night, I went out with my most frequent walking partner. I initially inquired whether he did not find the heat too oppressive for a walk. He didn’t, and we set off. But before we got to the first long hill, I told him that I didn’t feel like walking any further, and we should just sit down and talk on the bench. I’m pretty sure that he thought I was malingering, and I thought so myself. But by the next afternoon, my wife and I were in the Shaare Zedek emergency room.

The young Arab doctor who handed us our letter of release around eight hours later told us that we should return immediately if the pains returned. By the time I had walked from the second floor to the hospital parking lot, two floors above, I was struggling and should have followed my wife’s advice to return immediately to the emergency room.

But I wanted to sleep in my own bed and keep the appointment with my internist scheduled for early the next morning. Mistake. By the next afternoon, we were back in the emergency room.

Had I been even more attentive, I might have even realized that my lack of resolve in recent months to walk up the four flights to my apartment — something I’ve been doing for years —was itself a sign that something was amiss.

HOSPITALS ARE FASCINATING and frequently uplifting places. The emergency room at Shaare Zedek may, at first glance, resemble the central bus station in Lahore. But amid the tumult, there is a large staff of dedicated people keeping everything going at a rapid-fire clip.

And it is a place of chesed. The young ambulance driver who took me to the hospital returned frequently through the evening with new patients. And when my wife and I left the hospital eight hours after arriving, he was in the emergency room parking lot in the livery of another ambulance service. He, like all the members of Har Nof’s HaChovesh, works hours every day on a purely volunteer basis.

No need to pack food before heading to the emergency room, as one can count on being offered something to eat by three or four chesed operations. On successive days, I had to lean closer to a shy yungerman in a long black coat, in order to determine that he was offering me a sandwich. And on Erev Tishah B’Av, a rebbetzin, who is herself a well-known mechaneches and the almanah of a renowned talmid chacham and tzaddik, came around with grapes to help us prepare for the fast. She confided that she is maintaining a tradition that she started with her late husband, after one of their children was in the emergency room.

Before returning to the emergency room a second time, I called Rabbi Paysach Freedman of Chaim v’Chessed, who was quickly able to arrange the virtual CT I had been told I needed the previous evening, which I had not been able to do. (In the end I didn’t need it, as I had a real CT beforehand.)

There is a certain pleasure in watching people who are excellent at what they do. The two Jerusalem hospitals in which I have spent a lot of time recently both fill me with confidence that we have access to superb medical care. I couldn’t help thinking that if my grandfather — who passed away at 55, after two heart attacks, and whose heart condition I may have inherited — had been born 50 years later, his life might well have been lengthened by decades.

I was amazed that there was no anesthesia during the catheterization and placement of a stent in one of my coronary arteries, and I was able to watch the procedure on a screen to my left. At one point, the supervising doctor told me that they were at a critical juncture and they would appreciate it if I didn’t ask any more questions. I thought to myself that if they can get me to be quiet, there are a lot of people who would like to know the secret sauce.

Any visitor to Shaare Zedek or either of the Hadassah campuses will be struck by the way that Jews and Arabs appear to work in complete harmony and mutual respect and the large numbers of Arabs in senior positions. Both the doctors to whom I spoke on my first visit to the emergency room were young Arabs, and it was the second one who performed the procedure to balloon an obstructed artery. And a chareidi nurse and my daughter-in-law both recommended a senior Arab physician to do the next procedure in a few weeks. Anyone who thinks Israel is an apartheid state should spend a little time in an Israeli hospital.

No hospital visit would be complete without chizuk for one’s emunah. My first night roommate turned out to own the supermarket at which three of my children shop. He told me that he has had six procedures to open his arteries over the past year, and is now moving on to bypass surgery. Walking six to seven kilometers a day apparently was not enough. (Again, we cannot fully control our health.)

But the point he kept emphasizing, while pointing upward, was that everything is in Hashem’s hands. When he told me, “They can take anything from me — my house, my parnassah — but not my emunah,” he was fully convincing.

BY FAR THE BEST PART of my hospital stay was the quality time I was able to spend with each of my children when they came to visit. We had the kinds of conversations that never take place with grandchildren around, even when we are together for Shabbos. The subtle message of our surroundings, that such conversations cannot be taken for granted or pushed off indefinitely into the future, gave them a new depth. (My wife and I fortunately had a full week away together recently.)

The bottom line from all those different conversations was the realization of how blessed my wife and I have been, and how much I want to go on savoring those blessings for years to come.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 972)

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