Ben Avuyah

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Sunday, December 18, 2005

Sometimes I still get Angry

Here came the tears.

“Will it ever come back”, she asked, with one starting to trickle down her cheek. It was not an easy question to answer but the statistics, the studies, and clinical acumen all pointed in one direction.

“A little bit may return, but it won’t be the way you remember it, not with the same clarity or definition.”

More tears. I handed her a tissue and waited.

She was a well-put together and composed woman of seventy some odd years. And she was handling the news better than most I’ve seen. Her daughter and granddaughter were in the emergency room with her. I was sitting on a small stool across from her bed.

“Is Grandma done now”, chimed the little girl only to be shushed by her mother.

I had just finished conferring with the handful of doctors who had been, like myself, summoned on Saturday afternoon to put their heads together for this unusual ailment. What a horrible situation to have so much combined knowledge, and not an ounce of intervention.

The day had started out normally enough. Chronically late to shul, I had been making the social rounds at Kiddush after davening, catching up on the enclosed events of my insular Jewish community. Updating myself on the friction between this shul and that, weighing in on the Rabbi’s latest speech, and tentatively planning the next basketball league of out of shape, semi-mobile, thirty-something’s who still thought they could run the length of a court.

But then there was that buzz on my right thigh that is my call to arms. I walked to a vacant corner of the shul and spoke over the phone with an Emergency room doctor and, after listening in brief to the details, I told him I would be there shortly. I caught my wife’s eye across the room and pointed to my cell phone…she understood. I brushed past the couple that had invited us for lunch and told them I would be late.

And forty five minutes later here I was at the conclusion of my examination explaining to this lady, let’s call her Mrs. Trudeau, for in truth her name had a French ring to it, that the type of stroke she had just had, was distinguished for having an abysmal recovery rate.

Well I didn’t put in quite those terms, but I didn’t sugar coat it either. I believe that people have the right to truly know what is happening to them. I have always believed it.

“I had thought it was a migraine or something”, she said quietly wiping away tears, “I was just waiting for it to go away, but when I still couldn’t see on Saturday morning I came to the emergency room.”

“Even had we caught it within the first ninety minutes, the success rates of any of our surgical treatments for a central retinal artery obstruction are about as close to zero as they ever get”, I said trying to take the responsibility off her shoulders, “there was nothing you could have done differently that would have prevented this.”

I occasionally have this misfortune, this most humbling of duties, in which I admit on behalf of medicine in general, our impotence, our shortcomings, our fantastic failure at being able to “fix” neural tissue, or any extension of the central nervous system. It makes you wish for a laceration that you can cleanly sew edge to edge, an appendix you can remove in the nick of time, a pneumonia that you can bash over the head with a fourth generation flouroquinolone. But for Christ’s sake give me something I can fix! Not this, not sitting her doing nothing, not supplying tissues from the tissue box. We’ve got to be better than this, we must be better than this…but in the end, we are just not there yet. And it’s frustrating, and hurtful, and it just plain old stinks. Ten years of grueling post college training, and the best therapeutic in my armamentarium is coming out of a scented cardboard box.

Like humanity, the responses patients give to the adversities of life are varied. Yet within the randomness there are patterns.

Would she mount the Judeo-Christian response? Would she tell me how she trusted in God to know better which faculties she needed and which she didn’t. If so I could hold her hand and agree with her, but this had always been a difficult one for me to swallow, even back when I was one of true faith.

Or would her Denial melt into a Despair and Anger at having been so betrayed by her very own flesh?

I didn’t get to find out, she kept a patrician façade throughout our encounter, perhaps saving her true feelings for a more private place and time.

A few words to my colleagues outside her room, we reach consensus on what tests to run, what follow up appointments to make, and a regimen of preventative medicines; and I am back in my car for the drive home.

Now, I will have you know, I have dealt religion its last blow quite some time ago. I have not harbored beliefs of supreme beings, omnipotent rulers of the universe, or Greek goddesses, in the haloed confines of my mind, any more than I have Elvis sightings. Long gone are the days when I actually intellectually believed that someone up there was keeping track of human beings in a little book with a red pen.

But then why am I driving so fast? Why is my hand so heavy on the horn, why are swear words pent up behind my pursed lips, why are my jaws clenched tight enough to make my teeth grind?

Surely some of it is the frustration of being able to do nothing for someone so in need, but there is something else, something deep down.

What if there is a God who is in charge of everything? What if there is an entity of Hashgacha pratis, in which every event on earth is a string pulled from on high by this mighty master? What if every single other person that I know in my life, every authority figure, every one I have ever looked up to, is right and I am wrong?

And doesn’t a small part inside me still think this is true? Isn’t the psychosomatic equivalent of ten-year-old Ben Avuyah still quivering in his boots, submerged in my mind, afraid of the all-powerful God in heaven that smites at a whim. Even having dismissed this concept on the basis of sound rationale that neither I nor anyone else can challenge, isn’t it still at some level part of my very psyche? Have I not been indoctrinated with this concept so thoroughly that it is an unavoidable first assumption even all this time after I have bid it a, not so fond, farewell?

Like a rock in your sandal you can’t get rid of, it just rattles about, chaffing the skin, rubbing it raw.

Who would this guy be any way? This entity everyone else I know believes so completely in. This thing that has never demonstrated omniscience or omnipotence but says you should believe in him anyway, and then goes and puts out your eye, just fucking turns out the lights on you. Yeah, your life wasn’t hard enough, now try it this way!

What should the response be if you feel your supernatural creator just snuffed one of your headlights out for your own betterment? Groveling? Thanking? Begging?

Isn’t it more appropriate to say, “Hey, you piece of shit, I needed that (fill in portion of body)! …Do you mind! …. Asshole!”

Well, what the hell, I know it’s all stupid, because there is clearly no such thing as an omnipotent god of revelation, but what can I do, that outlook is built into me so fundamentally I have to actually work around it to think straight.

I made it home in record time from speeding, drove into my garage so fast I had to hit the breaks hard so as not to end up in my living room, and put the car in park. And here I go, Yarmulke back on, Shabbos coat back on, and off to another meal, where everyone can marvel at the amazing threads that God pulls together to weave the paths of our lives. Why? The proof is that little Moshe Pupick missed his bus, and wouldn’t you know it that was the day of the surprise test he didn’t study for anyway, so bashert! No? Yes! We all marvel.

Everyone but me, that is. I’ll stare down at my plate and hold my tongue, for my thoughts are not acceptable during these conversations. No one can stand to hear them. No one wants to think about them. They are bothersome. They create discord. They create unwanted questions. Questions that have no answers are best not raised, I’ve been told.

Well there’s no one to talk to, just this computer screen to vent my ire on. I don’t know if anyone else experiences what I do, because I am an Atheist, but I guess sometimes I still get angry at God.