Sunday, April 14, 2024 -
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The angels in Gehinnom

People say, appreciate small things in life. “Stop and smell the roses. “Take in the sunset.” That sort of thing. But these are not the truly small things. The truly small things are:

• following a major surgery, mustering the strength to lift one-half cup of water;

• laying on your back for 12 straight days, but then managing to turn and sleep your side;

• managing to swallow a single ice chip without retching;

• forcing on a few written words of the prayers for the first time in two weeks, absorbing them quietly pronouncing them for the first time, no longer trying to pray by heart;

• watching your son fasten the arm tefillin high up near your shoulder and mustering the strength to provide the final tightening of the knot, thereby fulfilling the minimal obligation (the straps could not be wrapped around my arm because it is full of needles and other medical paraphernalia).

• ultimately, being able to put on your own shirt.

These are some of the truly small things. They do not provide the joys or roses of a sunset, or any other joys. They are strictly a matter of will, and of faith in the future. They transport me a few small steps away from the abyss, close to life as I knew it, as it should be, as, the physicians assure me, it will be.

Small steps . . . very uphill ones. I have three needles in my right arm, one in my left arm, three ports in my neck, two tubes in my body, an oxygen tube, a oxygenization measure around one finger, eight leads on my chest, and a catheter; and this was before a complication set in, necessitating two more tubes inserted into a small body space. I was a prisoner; the jail bars were directly on my body.

All this, by a long shot, was not the most debilitating aspect of the prison.

That was the pain.

“On a scale of one to 10, how would you ranks your pain?” the nurse asked.

“Ten thousand,” I said.

I was now on high doses of heavy narcotics. I always feared them and said I would never take them, no matter what.

How foolish I was.

A time and place for everything.

Speaking of nurses. In 10 days I had 20 shifts of nurses, 18 in the ICU. I would rank 19 of these 20 nurses and their medical assistants as excellent or above.


Sometimes expressed as tough love.

Take Maggie. I do not know her last name. I do not even know what she looks like, as COVID regulations required a full mask, no slippages.

By the time her shift rolled around, my arms were bereft of discernible veins (“pin cushion”). No matter.
“‘Magical Maggie,’ they call me,” she said.

She had her own creative techniques for bringing a vein into view.

Indeed, unlike many other mini-stabbings, I hardly felt this one.

I was moved by much more than that.

I was a perfect stranger to nurse Maggie.

So were all of her other wards.

Yet she cared enough to figure out ways to minimize a small part of their suffering. She cared. This was not just a job. Compassion was her watchword.

How could it be otherwise?

All of my nurses, mostly female, some male, encountered people at their worst, steeped in suffering, constantly in need, not necessarily able to be accommodating, unable to repay the smallest fractions of the care extended to them. These patients are in Gehinnom.

The nurses are the angels in Gehinnom.

Or take, for just one other example, Zoe. I can’t explain it. Somehow, she was filled with infectious laughter. Here, in the depths, she unceasingly found some source of humor, of surprise, of incongruity. She was not laughing at you; she had that rare ability to make you laugh, or at least be amused or lightened, along with her.

Not only me, not just the patient, but, I noticed, the other nurses and medical assistants, too.

So now I’m rolling around to Chanukah, past the worst stages, now able to do more than a few small things, eternally grateful for more, and more people, than I can count. I am contemplating the upcoming lights.

They represent the victory of the weak over the strong — surely an apt metaphor of hope for me this year.

But it is not the symbolism that strikes me most poignantly. It is something else.

The light.

The simple, burning lights.

The transformation of the fire that can be the fire of pain and agony into the fire of healing, warmth and regeneration.

A little light — a small thing, indeed.

And a big joy.

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