Eternal light (Radical Torah repost)
The end of Esther

Different Strokes

I posted last month that an essay of mine had been published in the February 2009 issue of The Women's Times. The story told in this essay will be familiar to longtime readers of this blog, but a few of y'all asked to see the piece, so I figured I'd share it here now that the March issue is on the stands. Thanks to the editors of TWT for soliciting and publishing the essay.

In June of 2006 I traveled to Montreal to meet friends. When I got off the train, I found that I couldn't speak French. I could hardly hold Ou est le metro? in my mind, and my English wasn't much better. I clung to a slip of paper with my hotel's address on it, and navigated my way via beseeching looks to strangers who kindly pointed me in the right direction.

I unloaded my luggage, met my friends for dinner, and said, "Something strange is going on." They embraced me and pressed Thai food and a beer into my hands. By the time I had eaten half a plate of dinner the mysterious inability to speak coherently had passed. I had a fleeting thought that perhaps I should see a doctor, but I was on vacation in a foreign city with farflung friends; I put it out of my mind. I was thirty-one.

Six months later, on Christmas Day, I lost vision in one eye. We were eating Chinese food and watching a movie when it happened. Half of my field of vision disappeared, as though a veil had descended.

I thought it was a floater. I feared a detached retina. But I didn't want to schlep to the emergency room on Christmas, so I didn't see a doctor until the following day, when the diminished vision didn't improve on its own. A visit to the opthalmologist led me to my first MRI, which showed that the visual problems were rooted in my brain.

The brain scans revealed damage from two substantive strokes and a cluster of mini-strokes in three different areas of the brain. Suddenly my mysterious difficulty with speech in Montreal made a new kind of sense: my first serious stroke, and I hadn't known.

I spent a few days in the hospital. I swallowed a tiny camera to allow doctors to see the back of my heart. I tried to learn how to sleep with a blood pressure cuff auto-inflating on my arm in the middle of the night.

I remember being desperately grateful that I'd already done my year of chaplaincy internship at Albany Medical Center. My year as a hospital chaplain taught me that holiness and comfort can be found in hospital hallways, and that wherever there is suffering and uncertainty there is also—often palpably—the presence of God.

Once the immediate crisis was over, we entered the second phase of the adventure. I started spending a lot of time in doctors' offices. Strokes are rare in women my age, and my doctors agreed that the simple explanations (birth control pills can correlate with stroke; so can hypertension) didn't suffice.

We traveled to Boston to see two different stroke specialists who offered competing theories. I underwent tests and scans, parted with more blood than I really care to think about, and one by one we crossed scary possibilities off the list: there's no hole in my heart, my arteries are in fine condition, I don't appear to have vasculitis, there's a host of genetic factors for which I don't test positive, a mammogram showed no sign of cancer...

The investigations were harder for me than the hospitalization had been. Every negative test result brought some relief; every new possible diagnosis left us tense and shaken again. Part of me feared that the strokes were a sign of something sinister, while another part of me felt certain that they were anomalous and would not return. Trying to balance those two viewpoints gave me a metaphysical headache.

After eighteen months, it became clear that the investigation of my strokes would yield no answers. The strokes are cryptogenic: it seems that we ought to be able to discern their origin, but we can't. Though in theory we've accepted this, in practice it isn't always easy to live with not-knowing.

I spent time with my spiritual director talking about the challenges of what the Jewish mystics call hishtavut, "equanimity." The Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, taught that fear can be a path to God as surely as love can be. Sometimes all of this seemed like an opportunity to practice serenity and acceptance. Other times it made me angry and afraid.

Christmas 2008 marked two years since my last stroke. I’ve sustained no lasting damage. My vision was restored within a few weeks of the hospitalization, and any difficulty I have now in memorizing Hebrew or Aramaic is thanks to my study skills, not my surprisingly resilient brain. Most of the time I don't think about the strokes anymore. They happened, I recovered, we've moved on.

But I take an arsenal of medications every day: blood thinner, beta blocker, calcium channel blocker. My life is different now than it was before.

Some days it seems to me that the strokes brought blessings. I have a new sense of my body as a complicated miracle. I've tried to hold on to that as the immediate sense-memory of the strokes and the testing has faded.

Sometimes I think the strokes taught me something about embodiment, about this existential and theological state of unknowing. Other times their lessons, or gifts, seem pretty distant. Maybe being a multiple stroke survivor will make me a more compassionate pastoral caregiver, though I like to think I was fairly compassionate to begin with.

Jewish tradition includes a blessing for the body (some recite it first thing in the morning; others, every time they go to the bathroom.) The blessing thanks God Who created the human body with wisdom, forming its many organs and openings. We know, the blessing says, that if even one of these were to be open when it should be closed, or closed when it should be open, we would not be able to stand before God and offer praise.

Most of the time our bodies work. It's easy to forget that's a miracle. Sometimes our bodies don't work—and there may be no knowing why. All I can do is be grateful, and try not to forget.

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