“Abba please don’t die; I won’t know what to do,” pleaded my 13-year-old daughter with tears flowing down her face as I put her to bed.
I wanted to quash her fears by promising that there was NO WAY I was going to die anytime soon. But I couldn’t promise it because a few years ago, I had promised that there was NO WAY there would be a terrorist attack where we lived in Raanana. Then that very same week there were three!
My first of two near-death experiences this month occurred when I went flying off my mountain bike, breaking 5 ribs, a thumb and lacerating my spleen. It happened a month ago during my birthday week as I was challenging the fountain of youth by riding down 40 stairs – as you do when you’re turning 16 not 61. They say that 60 is the new 40, but some of us baby-boomers still act like babies with plenty of boom.
Five years ago, I began off-road biking with 4 friends, all “tough guys”: Edi, a former fighter pilot; Roni, a former bodyguard to 3 Israeli prime ministers; Zohar, a former commander of the Sayetet (a.k.a. Israeli Navy SEALs); and Harvey, a 10x marathon runner. I just made the grade as a 7th degree Karate black belt and 2x world silver medalist having received my fair share of hard knocks. Last year, our distinguished biking group whose nickname ranged from the Delta Force to “the dynamic hamsa alter-kakhers” rode from Nahariya to Eilat in 5 days and then over the peaks of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco.
I grew up in the land Down Under (where women glow and men thunder), where the images of tough invincible Crocodile Dundee men are a part of our culture. So it came as quite a shock to suddenly feel the fragility of life when I fell off my bike.
That fateful day I rode down 30 of the 40 stairs but due to my velocity and awkward balance I was catapulted into the sky, somersaulted above the Mediterranean horizon, and then thumped to the ground on my back. With adrenalin still pumping I continued for another 15km before realizing I had wreaked havoc on my body. Soon after I went to the hospital emergency room and, after several X-rays and CT-scans, was admitted into the trauma unit for 5 days of observation. The doctors were afraid my spleen might rupture and then bye-bye Danny.
My recovery has been somewhat Zen-like with a Jewish accent. Every 5 minutes I took a deep breath, the pain in my ribs forced me to say, “Oy! Baruch Hashem, I am still breathing! More so, it gave me the unusual opportunity to observe how I inhale and exhale.
As former chairman of Kids Kicking Cancer in Israel, whose mission is to ease the pain of very sick children while empowering them to heal physically, spiritually and emotionally, I understood the power of one’s breath. In fact, clinical studies have shown that breathing and mindfulness techniques can dramatically decrease pain. Kids Kicking Cancer are now offering free online breath brake sessions for those in pain.
Meditation focuses practitioners on their breathing. While I’ve practiced meditation and Tai Chi over the years, it’s always been difficult to discipline myself to do it regularly. Breathing is an involuntary action, yet due to my accident I developed an acute awareness of the connection between my ribs, lungs and breathing. In a strange way, this new reality has been a blessing. I felt lucky that my close call with death was a one-off event. Surely my Birkat HaGomel prayer in shul and the gratitude to the forces above would get me through this one. Or so I thought.
Exactly 3 weeks after the accident, I found myself in an ambulance speeding back to the emergency room with a fever and dangerously low blood pressure. The hospital was full of people rushing around with suspicious looks. The cleaners, nurses and doctors were all fearing that every new patient was contagious with the coronavirus. There was pandemonium and fear everywhere. Nobody knew who had it but everyone feared they were about to get it. When checked, my lungs and heart seemed normal but my urine showed an extremely high level of infection which was unrelated to the coronavirus. I only learned later on that my condition was life threatening. They immediately put me on a drip with a high dosage of antibiotic. This quick response saved me from joining the statistic of the 40% who usually do not survive this particular infection.
The world is focused now on novel coronavirus statistics: How many infected? How many deaths? And how soon will a vaccine be available? It is easy to forget how other infections killed millions of people in the past, but modern medicine eventually discovered cures. Do not let the fear of the unknown eclipse the reality that a solution will be found soon. It is only a matter of time.
Last week Prime Minister Netanyahu ordered all schools, restaurants and malls closed. This week he announced a full lockdown over Passover. Never since the Jews were in Egypt waiting for the angel of death to pass over their homes were we ever in full lockdown. The fear has reached frightening proportions as nobody knows what to do or what will happen. The lack of control is driving people crazy.
There are 2 lessons I have learned during this time of fear and uncertainty. The first is that it doesn’t matter if you think you are fit or a “tough guy” climbing mountains or fighting battles, we are all susceptible and fragile. The second lesson is that we all have the opportunity to use a tool that we take for granted to deal with pain and stress. It is the power of one’s breath.
So tonight, when I put my daughter to bed, I will tell her, “it’s OK not knowing what to do and it’s OK not having control over every situation. Let’s focus on what we do have control over – our breath (neshima), and our relationships with others that feed our soul (neshama).” The more you are aware of this, the more control you will have over your life and the more fearless, grateful and happy you will be when you go to sleep.