Le Chaim!

04/05/2011 06:39 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Jack Schimmelman Writer. Executive producer and director of new Martha's Vineyard opera entitled 1854.

Life tortures love. This lesson permeates my soul as I move forward against the tide. I wake up recognizing that my breath conflicts with my heart. The moment of pain begins with one eye opened, one eye closed. At that moment war with my molecules is infinite. It wasn't always like that.

One day after hundreds of thousands of Haitians released their mortal coils, leaving their blue green paradise in ruins, I was taken to the hospital approaching the same precipice. I did not think I was sick. Doctors, nurses, even the pigeons sitting on the windowsill told my wife that I was "touch and go." Nurses told me to breathe. When I finally got to the ICU I closed my eyes after two years of struggling to walk, breathe, live. I felt myself leaving. No white light awaited me. No tunnel through which to float towards my ancestors. Just a feeling of relief. Then I thought I could not leave just yet. My wife would be devastated; my child for whom I had been a surrogate father for so long would feel betrayed. I remained coiled within the helix of my DNA. I once again chose to join the band, praying for harmony. My soul stood in the corner of this white, sterile room and through the oxygen mask I noted a series of electric blue smiling ovals.

I was empty. I was overwhelmed with fluid. My lungs were drowning; my heart, pressed by streams of unidentified liquid, was nearly rendered still. If the last two years were arduous, I now faced the improbable task of recovery. Within two days I was released to a regular room, which was empty. I took the bed by the window hoping to find inspiration in the reflection of icicles sculpting the branches outside.

Thus began the parade of nefarious figures who usually showed up at my bedside between 5 and 6 a.m. Sensing another presence, I would open my eyes, and a stranger with a clipboard would ask, "How are you feeling, Mr. Schimmelman?" Caching! Three hundred dollars. Then the flicker of a human blended into the hallway outside my door to awaken yet another patient with the same question.

My lungs cleared within two days, prompting doctors to wonder whether I had had pneumonia or some other disorder. They wondered, then dropped the question. They continued treating me for heart failure. One cardiologist made it a habit to wake me up at 1 a.m. to tell me what he planned to do to me. I tried to understand. I asked questions on the third night. His response was that if I didn't do what he wanted of me, I would die. On the fourth night, when I again asked questions, he told me the same thing with the added convenience of giving me the month in which I would die: April of that year. I thanked him and walked into the patient's lounge convinced that I was having a heart attack. Later on in my journey in the world of Western medicine, I would learn that this way of speaking to a patient was common. I have spoken to several people who have told me the same thing happened to them.

I relied on staff to comfort me. Nurses, orderlies, techs, physician assistants all were kind, gentle people. The nurses especially seem to understand the haunting specter that circled a seriously ill patient. Nurses are the front line of every hospital. They are its face. They make up for many M.D. sins.

When you enter a hospital through the emergency room, you are "assigned" a doctor who knows nothing about you but proceeds to shepherd you through various medical procedures and drugs. Especially drugs. That doctor hardly knew my name. Nevertheless, I was fortunate. A brilliant, compassionate physician named Justine Lachmann took an interest in my case and medically treated my heart failure. She approached my case with great imagination. She saved my life. All the other doctors who drifted in and out of my sight were astounded by my progress.

We are fragile corporal fragments. We bleed, we breathe. When we are pulled into the theater of illness we suddenly, simultaneously, feel our ephemeral immortal pulse. One we measure, the other we sense.

Despite numerous subsequent descents and ascents from the depths, I am very lucky. I am immersed with love. I have a partner who, despite her own fears and horror at the prospect of losing someone she loves much too early, has stood by me. She moves before the mirror of life with great courage, and I am privileged to witness her eternal spark.

It is often said that dying is easy, but life is hard.

Le Chaim!