Meanwhile back at the ranch . . .

About a week ago I was admitted to the hospital for severe blockages in two of my coronary arteries. The doctors inserted three stents in my heart in two separate procedures. The surgeon told my wife “it was the real deal.” He said I was a time bomb, armed and ready to blow. Those cautionary words notwithstanding, my prognosis is great. So long as I take care of myself (you know the litany, exercise, lose weight, lower my blood pressure, and avoid fatty foods), I will live to be an old man.

On the way to Brigham and Women's Shapiro Cardiac Center
On the way to Brigham and Women’s Shapiro Cardiac Center

I felt awful for the entire summer but didn’t go to the doctor because we did not have health insurance (that’s the subject of another story). Back in late May my son asked to plant a garden. We hadn’t done that in a long time, so I said, sure. He and I measured out an area in our back yard and set to work. When healthy, it would have taken me maybe two or three hours of to turn over the soil. I found I couldn’t turn the shovel more than two or three times without feeling sick. Sessions lasted 10 or 15 minutes and ended on the couch with the air conditioner on full blast. My promise kept me at it but that project took over a month to finish.

Some visual irony: Watch your step.

Things got worse from there. Come July exertion became increasingly more difficult. The slightest activity left me feeling like I’d just finished running 10 miles in 90 degree heat with a hangover. Walking like a New Yorker gave way to a more Southern pace, which gave way to “slow down I don’t feel well.” By the summer’s end I broke out into a sweat just shuffling to the mailbox.

All that ended last week thanks to my wife. She found us healthcare. Thanks also go to the big guy in the sky who invited me back for a second act.

There I admitted it. Please don’t run away screaming cliché and complaining that yet another guy has a brush with mortality and finds God.

God found me. The idea that there’s some guy in the sky with a grand plan pisses me off on many levels.  Without resorting to the bullshit faith arguments, I want someone to explain to me how  a supreme being can possibly have enough bandwidth to keep the sun shining and the planets spinning and then pick and choose the joyful and tragic moments in everyone’s life, every day, and every year since creation?   And why me?  How the do I fit into the divine plan? Why waste single byte of bandwidth on me when there are countless humans tragically suffering every moment of every day?  Why did I survive coronary heart disease when my father, his brothers, his father, and countless Cohens from the days of yore all dropped dead young?

I Had a Dream

God got mixed up in the narrative against my will. Dr. Martin Luther King isn’t the only one who had a dream. Just prior to the hospitalization, I dreamed about a conversation with my imaginary literary adviser about an equally imaginary novel. We talked about story arc and themes and the like. When the question arose about what to name my protagonist, the man across the table said, call him Tolah. He spelled it out slowly and repeatedly to make sure I would remember when I woke up.

Tolah, what’s a tolah? I opened my eyes the next morning to the Google search form and t-o-l-a-h spilling from my fingertips. It means worm. Not just any worm, cue the reverb and dramatic music, the crimson worm.

The Crimson Worm

Ancient cloth makers crushed the shells to dye priestly garments red. When it lays its eggs, the mother creates a red shell around itself. After the eggs hatch, the larvae feed on the mother’s living body until they are strong enough to break out of the shell. The word worm appears numerous times in the BIBLE but tolah only in “Psalm 22”  ‘But I am a worm, [emphasis added] and no man; /A reproach of men, and despised by the people.'” (ll. 6-7).

What’s more, religious scholars consider this poem the bridge between the New and Old Testaments and Judaism and Christianity.  It foreshadows Jesus Christ. According to Matthew and Mark, JC utters the very same words upon his death on the cross.

This did not (and still does not) rest easily on my mind. I turned away from God and organized religion a long time ago. Too many unanswered question and too much unassuaged human suffering for me to believe in a supreme being who knows all, sees all, has a plan he won’t share, and who refuses to give a prime time interview with Barbara Walters to establish his bona fides.

Psalm 22

The research pointed to “Psalm 22” so I couldn’t ignore it. Something inexplicable happened when I read it. The narrator of the poem begins with  “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? /Why are you so far from helping Me.” (ll 1-2).

I cried from the first sentence to the last. A profound watershed of relief, a phenomenon I think some people call grace, passed through my being. “Psalm 22” was an ancient blues written at the dawn of the Abrahamic religions. Like all blues its words gave shape to the amorphous and seemingly unending suffering of the last five years and in so doing robbed it of its power.

Indeed, I could have written “Psalm 22.” I have cursed God many times since my wife was wrongly and cruelly bullied out of her job of 22 years as the executive director of a legal non-profit organization by former president. He is an unrepentant and  sociopathic lawyer from Washington, DC who had a reputation within the non-profit legal world as cruel person who enjoyed ruining executive directors.  Upon taking the reigns of the organization’s board, he systematically destroyed her life’s work.

We all hear those stories about bystanders who stand around watching as some hapless victim suffers at the hands of an antagonist. That same thing happened. some 20 directors watched him do it and failed to lift a finger to help. That alone would have been difficult enough but it was only the beginning of what can be described as a first-world hell on earth. So much of what we worked hard to accomplish unraveled.

Somebody Got to Help Me

As Sonny Boy Williamson, a/k/a Rice Miller sang “Ya got to help me, I can’t do it all by myself.” Shortly after that dream, my wife, who’d basically given up on MassHealth, found one last burst of resolve. That led to a nameless state employee who waved an administrative magic wand and approved the application on the spot. The insurance cards arrived in in days and very shortly after that, I was lying in a room at Carl J. and Ruth Shapiro Cardiovascular Center recovering from life saving surgery.

It was a fucking miracle. Everything about me changed. The color of my skin changed. I felt more alert. I literally wanted to dance an Irish jig on hospital room floor with the tubes and electronic leads dangling from my body.

IMG_1354Looking at me this minute, you would never guess that a week ago, I was one strenuous step, one blood-vessel-dialating emotional outburst, one moment away from dying. Don’t get me wrong. I feel blessed. Once the wounds in wrist heal, I’m free to take off my seat belt an move about the cabin. I will see my kids grow up. I still have an opportunity to accomplish some of my unfinished goals.

Yet at the same time I am confused. There is no lengthy and rigorous convalescence, no crucible of pain to make me appreciate the gift of life. The transformation has been so complete and the absence of any perceptible insult to my body from surgery so minimal that I am having a lot of difficulty reconciling what could have been with what is. Never mind the people who will hear me say, I almost died of coronary heart disease and I have three stents in my heart.” They will never connect their perception with the truth.

Chaplain, My Chaplain

Before leaving the hospital I called the Brigham and Women’s chaplain service. God wouldn’t exit the stage. He stood there demanding acknowledgment. Imagine that? The bastard wanted credit.

That sucked because I’d I already devised an intellectually plausible explanation. To wit, I must have heard the tolah story at some point in my life. My mind simply pulled the engram out of deep storage at the right moment. It was Bobbi’s perseverance led to finding the right person at MassHealth. Having studied the heart disease, I knew the signs and symptoms and listened to the warning signs. I was smart enough to go to the doctor and just plain lucky it wasn’t too late.

Hoisted by my own petard, intellectual honesty demanded I hear from the other side. As evidence goes that explanation is based on guesses. The worst part is they stand on equal footing with divine intervention. At least they do for those who are willing to look with an open mind. Therefore, I called the Brigham and Women’s chaplain service.

20 minutes later, a charming and nattily dressed man named Enos Gardnier, Bishop Gardnier, as he named himself arrived in my hospital room.

After establishing myself as a non-judgmental atheist, I shared the story of my dream and caught him up on all that had happened. He listened. He laughed heartily at my jokes. When I concluded my monologue, he said simply, and I’m paraphrasing, you’ve been given a gift and it doesn’t matter why or from whom?

Then he said something that really made me think. God doesn’t always save people for themselves but for others. He asked me what I planned to with my gift. How will I live my life going forward?  I’m thinking to myself gift? Whaddya mean gift? When I come home from the hospital, all those problems will still be there.

He talked about God a bit, in a gentle way. In particular he told me about Abraham, whom he said lived as a pagan but received God’s grace nevertheless because he lived life according to a clear set of principles. God rewarded him for the effort. But mostly Bishop Gardnier returned to the themes of gift and service to others.

I thanked him and promised to read about Abraham in the BIBLE, with an open mind, which, thanks to a great iPad app, I’ve been doing.  So far, it’s been taxing to keep my mind open but I’m trying.

Post hoc

Post hoc, ergo propter hoc is a Latin phrase which means, “After this, therefore because of this.” In rhetoric it’s an informal logical fallacy used to refute poorly researched and understood points. In other words, the dog barked right before I fell off my stepladder and broke my leg, therefore dogs must be bad luck. People draw this conclusion all the time.

I really don’t know what to make of this series of events. Here are the facts: My life has sucked 90-year-old-man-saggy-balls for the last five years. I was sick. I had a dream with a symbol that led me to a bible passage that made me feel good and also made me feel hopeful for the future. Immediately following that I got health insurance in the nick of time, which prevented my untimely death from coronary artery disease.


  • God spoke directly to me through that dream?
  • I experienced his grace?
  • The ball sucking, which by the way isn’t over yet, was all part of his master plan for me and is almost over?
  • My unconscious mind rescued me in a time of need?
  • I’m one lucky son of bitch?

I don’t know? The only thing about which I’m positive is that I am one lucky son of a bitch.

Leave a Reply