My wife Minna likes to joke that the first username she chose for our online grocery shopping account was savemymarriage. It’s funny because it reflects an absurdity that happens to be true — despite our deep love for each other and the strong fundamentals of our marriage, the tension and fights over grocery shopping were threatening to tear us apart.
And, so, there we were, just about a week ago as I am write this, facing the difficult reality that I was going to have to go into the hospital for an indeterminate amount of time. I would therefore not only not be available to help with grocery shopping or childcare, but would need tons of attention and care from Minna. If our marriage could barely sustain the stresses of grocery shopping, how were we supposed to get through this?
* * *
Everybody knows that planes crash. The statistics tells us it’s tons safer and more reliable than any other way of getting around, but “tons safer” is not 100%. How is it that these modern marvels of aluminum and carbon fibers sometimes end up in bits on the ground?
My father of blessed memory, an engineer from the tip of his toes to the top of his head, loved this question. “No matter how many backup systems you have, the day will come when they will all fail, “ he taught me with the serious yet playful tone that he reserved for the great truths of life.
So, I’ve walked through life with a deep respect for the value of “backup systems” in preventing disasters of all sorts of, both personal and professional. I’ve tried to walk with creativity and intention. Having to go into the hospital wasn’t a total surprise. I even asked my wife, if this was a good week to do it given everything she has on her plate. She said, yes. So, it should have been okay.
And, yet, in the middle of the night on Shabbat after having returned from the hospital that morning after a four-day stay, I found myself bawling uncontrollably in our bed for a half hour after finally articulating to Minna a bitter feeling that had been eating me inside for days. “You left me alone in the miyun [Hebrew for triage or ER],” I cried to the love of my life. “The only people life alone in the miyun in this country are the people who are all alone in the world!”
As I was crying I thought of the middle-aged Orthodox woman who found me less than a week before sitting by myself afraid and suffering untreated on a stretcher in the hallway of the miyun that first night. She introduced herself to me in friendly way and then said, “Are you alone here?” In that moment, I recognized her as a fellow spiritual care professional, as a chaplain patrolling the aisles of the miyun in search of those most in spiritual need. When I answered, “My wife and daughter are at home,” she reacted the way a professional should have, in my view, and heard me as rejecting her care. She bid me goodbye by wishing me a good day and good health. But I don’t think she believed me. I don’t think she believed I had a soul in the world.
Nobody in this country of strong family ties is in the miyun alone; and nobody can do well medically here without the advocate of a family member protecting them from being forgotten in a place like that miyun, a place full of family members desperately and loading pleading their loved one’s cause withs staff. Call me weak if you want, but few people, and few marriages, can long stand the feeling that one is all alone in the world.
How could this have happened? How could it have happened that my wife left me there in the miyun to move things from one apartment to the other while juggling the childcare help she could find? How would it be that potentially dangerous medical decisions were being made for me by doctors I had not the strength to pursue and ask all the necessary questions? How could it be that we hadn’t finished the process we were in then of moving between apartments before taking me to the miyun, and had instead left some key final tasks for Minna to handle alone? We couldn’t have predicted the phone call a couple of hours after entering the miyun asking us to come pick up our toddler daughter. But why weren’t we more ready? Why was the failure of one system like her regular daycare place enough to send our marriage, our most valuable possession in my view, instantly to the edge of the abyss of a crash?
* * *
Growing up I can remember two particularly powerful and inspiring women in my orbit. One was Mrs. Scarlatti, the mother of my best friend. She was a housewife of the old school and ran one tight ship. Her food felt and tasted like love. Everything was clean. You know not one dime of her household budget was ever wasted.
The other was my Aunt Bryna of blessed memory who died much too early from breast cancer when I was in college. I don’t know what generation feminist she would be considered today, but through the mists of childhood memory I remember her as an unstoppable feminist force and devoted Jew — a mother, too, but as someone who was devoted beyond her family to working to make the world a better and more just place. As an adult, I always wanted to be with someone I could look up to in the way I looked up to Bryna, someone who would, in their own, way be a force and inspiration for a more just world.
And, also — being under the influence of so much of the inheritance of the 1960s counterculture — someone who was maybe a bit of hippie (which Bryna herself most definitely was not), someone who in no wise was slave to the dominant materialistic values of the USA, someone who had fundamental values that were more spiritual than material.
And I wanted this person to be Jewish, to want to build a Jewish home together. And, if I was allowed to hope for something even higher, I wanted someone who could be a partner in ministry, a bit in the model we know of the married couple running the Chabad House, but a much more egalitarian and contemporary expression of the same. Someone, like the very great songfinder, voice teacher, and services leader herself who has chosen to make her life with me, my great Minna, Rabbi Dr. Minna Bromberg. Someone who, we dream in our new apartment near the Pardes Institute that we will be moving into in October who can send out incredible projections of the sounds of Kabbalat Shabbat from our balcony over the roof of Jerusalem. Someone who can be my partner in Torah.
People like Mrs. Scarlatti know how to move things through the physical world. They know how to plan and prepare. But I did not marry Mrs. Scarlatti. I knew what I was doing. I chose this. I chose to be with this unbelievably wonderful soul who knows so much more about how to move souls than and voices than the other things of the physical world.
* * *
Despairing, back in the miyun that first night, I somehow got Minna to come back. A downstairs neighbor — like a real-life angel — agreed to watch our toddler daughter. In the middle of the night my אישת מלחמה — my warrior wife, with her Hebrew superior to mine — came back and argued with the overworked doctor on the shift. They finally followed the instructions the evening doctors had left behind, and gave me my Lasix by IV.
Minna left and I fell asleep. I awoke maybe a half hour later to the Lasix doing exactly what it’s supposed to do — forcing my kidneys to pee off the excess fluid that had blown by poor body up into a kind of overstuffed balloon. Man, I had to go. But I was connected to an IV that was on an unmovable pole. Even though I knew I didn’t know what I was doing, I decided in my haze to disconnect myself. I unscrewed the IV tube. And there was blood. Flowing out of my arm at a high rate onto the floor.
Somehow, I didn’t panic. I realized that if I raised my arm up it would stop. Now I was just blood (and urine) covered and more embarrassed than anything else. How in Hebrew to call out for help — I chose a shy, gentle, סליחה, צריך עזרה — “Excuse me, I need help” — over the more dramatic, “Save me!” of הצילו. The nurse and aide who came and helped me were nothing but kind. “הכל בסדר, Everying is okay,” the aide, one of the many Arabs working there at Shaarei Tzedek, said. Everyone — from the attending physicians to the guys cleaning the floors — was great to me at Shaarei Tzedek. I felt like they treated me — and each other — every step of the way as a human being with rights and with dignity. I’ve been around hospitals enough to know how deeply dehumanizing they can be for both patients and their workers; I’m grateful to have been someplace where an attitude of service to the Holy One was just in the air.
* * *
I finally got moved out of the miyun to an internal medicine ward. I woke up on Tuesday morning feeling both activated and endangered by the success this powerful medicine, this Lasix, was having in drying out my flooded body. We — me and my very-much-not-Mrs.-Scarlatti of wife — desperately needed help, I thought. Not just to save my life. To save our marriage. Because no marriage — no matter how well constructed overall — can withstand a partner feeling as abandoned as I did in that miyun. At 6:33 a.m. Jerusalem time on Tuesday, I put out a FB message to Minna, her mom, and my mom that was meant to express my desperation:
“Good evening the grandmoms of [our daughter] who are in the United States. This is the patient. The one in the hospital. The one who fears that his incredibly wonderful wife has not fully communicated to our family members that we are in the middle of a medical s*** storm. . . . we are desperately in need of any kind of help that you can give. Now. So please talk to each other. Now. Find out if one of you can figure out a way that makes any sense for one of you to get on a plane and help us physically right now. . . . . Please. We’re in a s*** storm here.”
* * *
Help is now indeed on the way. Minna’s mom is due here within the next 24 hours as I write this, and we know we are lucky that we have someone who can come. Even though I have been out of the hospital since Thursday afternoon (as I write this Saturday night), we have so many needs, not the least of which is just to feel less alone amidst this.
And, still, I wonder, could we have done a better job of communicating the urgency and intensity of our need? Should I have told people that the fighting between the two of us had become so intense that any kind of support might help avoid “total system failure” and a crash of this thing — surely the most valuable thing I possess — we call a marriage?
* * *
In his recent Netflix comedy special, Chris Rock works through the experience of the breakup of his marriage. “You got to keep f***ing,” he advises couples who want to stay together. He adds, “there is no equality in a relationship. It’s like, ‘We equals.’ No, you’re not. You’re both there to serve… You’re in a f***in’ band. And when you’re in a band, you have roles that you play in the band. Sometimes, you sing lead. And sometimes, you’re on tambourine. And if you’re on tambourine, play it right. Play it right. Play it with a f***in’ smile.”
Rock, I think has a couple of things right here. The first is not so much about sex per se I think, Rather, it’s about whether you have a basic physical affection for each other. Do you like to touch each other. Does it feel good somehow just to be together. [As far as my relationship, with Minna, I can give us a “check” here.]
On the second — the tambourine — I think he’s on to something, but he’s also missing a key part of it. He’s right in that you need to be supportive of your partner’s dreams not just in the relationship but also out in the world. But playing tambourine isn’t enough. That is, unless it is genuinely the best contribution you can make. But, if you’re a person of energy and talent — like Rock and like myself and like my Minna — you need to give something more than just swinging the tambourine. You need to believe in the art and work in the world of that other person. You have to be able to genuinely look up to them with admiration and adoration the way I looked up to Bryna as a child. And Minna now.
And even with all of that on our side we could still crash the plane under the strain of something like my hospitalization.
Could someone have helped us, could someone have stepped in with that kind of organizational energy and skill in the physical world that a Mrs. Scarlatti knew how to provide? In theory, maybe yes. Maybe a lot of congregations out there — maybe even in a kind of paid staff position like a church parish nurse or social worker — can respond quickly to the kind of emerging needs my family had when my body filled up with fluid.
Maybe. But I am a super private person who doesn’t want other people going through my things. I’m hard to help.
How do we talk about the strain that illness puts on marriages? And how do we figure out how to provide support that is help, and not overwhelming and intrusive in a way that will drive the likes of me away? Childcare, of course, is always a welcome help in a crisis to those with kids and I am super grateful to the incredible people who stepped up to help us in those first few days. Helping people is hard. Sometimes the thing a person or family needs the most is to left alone in quiet and isolation. That’s what I announced on Facebook as we headed home on Thursday afternoon. But I just meant for the next couple of days. Don’t think because a person needs quiet at a particular moment that they wouldn’t welcome your company and help later.
My health? Well, they didn’t cure me there at Shaarei Tzedek. They weren’t trying to, I don’t think. They were doing the same thing the doctors I trained with in the States would have done with a patient who presented with fluid overload. They tried to “tune me up,” to reverse the fluid buildup while trying to move closer to diagnosis, to figuring out how I got into this trouble in the first place and how it might be prevented from happening again.
What they found, as best I understand it, is that all my major organs — especially my kidneys and my heart — have taken a massive beating from the way I’ve treated them in recent years. But they also found that there’s a lot of residual strength remaining in this man who happens to be determined to live and to have a lot to live for. No end stage disease.
Our marriage, our precious marriage. It’s also taken a beating like my heart and kidneys. But, I’m happy to say, no end stage disease.