Living Waters

At some point in January, my wife, Liza, asked me a simple question: what do you want to do next month to mark the first anniversary of your open-heart surgery? Perhaps in another time and place, I may have suggested a gathering of friends and family to acknowledge this huge moment in my life. Good food, heart-friendly and otherwise, jazz, and lots of hugs, sounded like a fitting way to give thanks.

However, the default format of celebration – easy, defined, fun – was not available to me or anyone else. There could be no party. There could be no libation. And, worst of all, there could be no hugs from friends and non-podded family.

On February 7th, 2020 I had a routine stress test at BI, just days before I was to co-lead a group of our temple teens to Israel. I felt fine as the treadmill sped up, but I didn’t like the way my telemetry was being eyed by the techs in the room. Techs will never divulge the results of a test, but I could tell that something was up.

And there was something up. The cardiologist at the test site told me that he had concerns and needed to know more about what exactly was going on. He called my cardiologist and my primary care doctor. In short order I was taken to the cath lab, prepped, catheterized, all the while, feeling fine.

I received the diagnosis an hour or so later, my daughter Zoe, a nurse practitioner, hovering over me the whole time. My doctor, Johanna Klein, my cardiologist, Loryn Feinberg, and the heart surgeon, Kamal Khabbaz, were unanimous in their recommendation: I needed bypass surgery.

Two weeks later I was in the operating room. The surgery went very well: no complications, no surprises. I emerged from the anesthesia, extubated, and then wheeled to the CCU. The care I received was nonpareil: lots of attention and concern.

As we drove to BI before sunrise on February 21st, the world had already heard about Covid, but few were ready for what would follow. Hospital procedures had not yet changed. No one was wearing a mask. I had copied an article written the day before my surgery by a Harvard Med School professor, David Bloom, fully intending to read it when I got back home. The title was, Coronavirus: We need to start preparing for the next viral outbreak now. The day after I got home on February 25th, the New York Times published an article that said, “In spite of the spread of coronavirus, experts say it’s safe to travel with your children in the U.S.—for now.”

Within a few weeks, everything changed, everything shut down.

As I watched the world implode from my recliner, I wondered if I would ever get out again. Post-op from open-heart surgery, I was at the top of the immuno-compromised list. Cardio rehab was shut down. I felt like Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman, doing pushups for Lou Gossett Jr, and crying, “I got no place to go! I got no place to go!” But, in the end, most everyone was doing the pushups, exclaiming the same sad fate.

The year has been filled with loss and pain, but also with accomplishments and beauty. I’ve done too many small funerals and virtual shiva minyanim, and not enough weddings and babynamings/brisses. I have mourned the loss of loved ones and temple members near and dear to my heart. And, I am fully recovered from my surgery, vaccinated, ready for the next chapter.

So how to mark this most extraordinary year of recovery without streamers and ice cream? I realized that I did not want a party or a gathering, virtual or podded. I needed to turn inward. I needed to connect to the deep trauma my body sustained. I had been cracked open and attached to a machine. I was fully unconscious, of course. But my body, every fiber of muscle and tissue, every cell, was awake. I don’t know the science, but I do know that muscle memory, the deepest level of quantum consciousness, was engaged and traumatized. This may be why so many post-op open-heart patients experience depression. Our bodies have been compromised to save us. I get it. But does my liver?

While I was at Cape Cod this past January, I walked along the shore. It was very cold; the wind tore in from the northeast. Sea ice had formed. I gazed out beyond the ocean’s edge in the harsh grey light. The sea’s surface appeared frozen and unyielding. Yet I knew that, below the surface, the seawater was moving, congealing. And below that, the tide was still pulling the waves, deep deep down to the seafloor. Water, a simple molecular combination, one thing, so many different things, all at the same time.

The water reflected how I felt about my life and the complexities of existence. So simple and finite, so tentative and vulnerable. So weak, so resilient… all in one little life. It was then that I knew how I would acknowledge my year of healing amidst a year of vast destruction and sadness. It would just be me and the waters of the mikveh. I needed quiet time to immerse myself in the truth of my complexities. I needed to ask my body for forgiveness if that makes any sense. I needed to show special respect and gratitude for the workings of the myriad systems that were so terribly stressed during surgery. I had to go to the mikveh to find healing.

I scheduled my immersion for a Friday afternoon, the last appointment of the day. It was cold and thoroughly unpleasant outdoors. When I arrived at Mayyim Hayyim, I felt both at home – I’ve brought so many people there for conversions, I’m on the board – and slightly dislocated. It was very quiet and empty; I’d never experienced Mayyim Hayyim as quiet and empty in the shared spaces.

It was chilly in the building. I thought about the waters I’d looked out at on the Brewster flats in January as I showered and prepared to enter the mikveh. I wondered how the waters here would receive me in the transformative space. I hoped the water would be warm.

I entered the mikveh and recited the traditional prayer for ritual immersion, words I’d guided people through as they entered these very same waters, for conversion. Only now I was saying them for myself. The water was warm and enveloped my body. I went under the water and came up very slowly. And I did it again, seven times, all told. I then stood up in the water, held onto the edge of the mikveh, and I wept. So much sadness spilling out. So much anxiety and exhaustion. I traced the long scar that travels the length of my sternum and recited the traditional blessing that acknowledges the miracle of being alive. My tears comingled with the waters of the mikveh.

I spent about 20 minutes in the mikveh. When I got out, I felt so heavy, so weighted down. It was as if the waters had compressed my body, that my soul had collected the pain of my surgery and the pain of the pandemic. Eventually, my body regulated, establishing a center of balance. I drove home quietly, deliberately. I felt grief and joy mix together, which is, after all, a common Jewish experience.

The sea, the tears, the ice, all a single, simple element. My life: finite, fragile, here and gone. So simple. So complex. So much blessing, all pooled together in living waters.

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