Just over five months ago, I had my first 24-hour on call as a chaplain at a large Trauma One hospital in California. I was so scared. I remember sitting at home the night before, trying to review everything I had learned during the previous month of Clinical Pastoral Education, hoping that it would be enough, certain that it couldn’t be. I didn’t know what awaited me. This first shift happened to be on a Sunday, which meant that for the entire 24 hours, I would be the only chaplain at the hospital. It felt like an incredible responsibility.
That day was difficult, and the night, although relatively quiet in the hospital, was quite loud in my mind as my desire to rest wrestled with my fear of sleeping through a page or a call. I really didn’t need to be concerned, since the one time I got a page, around 4 in the morning, I dressed and was halfway to the relevant unit before I even realized that I was doing.
At the hospital, over the course of my 10-week CPE program, I dealt with diverse experiences of life and death in a very tangible way. I learned from every encounter. I developed immense gratitude for the ability to walk and to breathe and to feed myself. I have many stories from the summer, but they belong to my patients and their loved ones. They aren’t mine to tell. My own story is.
For the last month or so, I’ve been dealing with a spat of health issues. Low grade back pain that I’ve had for over a year flared up significantly, I developed flank pain, I lost weight, and I found myself noting a number of other issues that alone I might have been able to ignore but that together became a beast. I was so scared. I didn’t know what awaited me. I made the mistake of consulting google and convinced myself that I had all kinds of diseases. I became my enemy.
The month was difficult. I went to the doctor (an English-speaking one, thank goodness). On his recommendation, I had more intensive tests done than I have for years. I went to a large Hebrew-speaking health center across town for more tests. I called clinics and my insurance company countless time. I fretted. I cried. As I waited for follow-up appointments and test results and insurance approval, my mind told me “You are Not Ok. Nothing is Ok. Everything is Wrong.”
I tried to keep everything as normal as possible on the surface, but I couldn’t always manage it. I had trouble writing. I had trouble sleeping. I had trouble eating. I couldn’t focus in class. I couldn’t relax at home. Sometimes I would forget that I was worried about my body and I would feel at ease and full of my normal creative energy. Then I would remember and the anxiety would sweep back in. My mind would tell me “You’ve developed a terrible disease while you’re on the other side of the world from your loved ones. Coming here was a mistake. Your body is breaking and you are alone.”
וַיִּוָּתֵ֥ר יַעֲקֹ֖ב לְבַדּ֑וֹ וַיֵּאָבֵ֥ק אִישׁ֙ עִמּ֔וֹ עַ֖ד עֲל֥וֹת הַשָּֽׁחַר׃ וַיַּ֗רְא כִּ֣י לֹ֤א יָכֹל֙ ל֔וֹ וַיִּגַּ֖ע בְּכַף־יְרֵכ֑וֹ וַתֵּ֙קַע֙ כַּף־יֶ֣רֶךְ יַעֲקֹ֔ב בְּהֵֽאָבְק֖וֹ עִמּֽוֹ׃
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר שַׁלְּחֵ֔נִי כִּ֥י עָלָ֖ה הַשָּׁ֑חַר וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ לֹ֣א אֲשַֽׁלֵּחֲךָ֔ כִּ֖י אִם־בֵּרַכְתָּֽנִי׃
וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֵלָ֖יו מַה־שְּׁמֶ֑ךָ וַיֹּ֖אמֶר יַעֲקֹֽב׃וַיֹּ֗אמֶר לֹ֤א יַעֲקֹב֙ יֵאָמֵ֥ר עוֹד֙ שִׁמְךָ֔ כִּ֖י אִם־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־שָׂרִ֧יתָ עִם־אֱלֹהִ֛ים וְעִם־אֲנָשִׁ֖ים וַתּוּכָֽל׃וַיִּשְׁאַ֣ל יַעֲקֹ֗ב וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ הַגִּֽידָה־נָּ֣א שְׁמֶ֔ךָ וַיֹּ֕אמֶר לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֖ה תִּשְׁאַ֣ל לִשְׁמִ֑י וַיְבָ֥רֶךְ אֹת֖וֹ שָֽׁם׃
Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.”Jacob asked, “Pray tell me your name.” But he said, “You must not ask my name!” And he took leave of him there. (Genesis 32:25-30)
The Torah Portion this week, Vayishlach, includes this passage. When I was a child I learned that Jacob wrestled with an angel. But, as is the case with many childhood versions of these stories, the text is more complicated. The text itself says that Jacob wrestles with a man– an איש. Rabbis have gone nuts with these verses for a very long time, and for good reason. Who was this mysterious figure? Was it simply some man? Was it Esau? Was it, as Rashi thought, Esau’s guardian angel? Was it God? Or, was it Jacob himself?
Jacob, after all, is in a tough spot. He is going home to make peace with the brother whose birthright he bought and whose blessing he stole decades ago. He has separated himself from his possessions, his servants, his wives, his wives’ handmaidens, and his children. He intends to meet his brother the following day and has no notion of what awaits him. He cannot sleep. He wrestles until dawn.
Yesterday, I went to an appointment to get the results of the last test my doctor recommended. I sought to keep myself in the present, but the present was frightening, the potential future all the more so. There were so many things to worry about. I wondered if my symptoms were all due to stress. I knew they could be. I knew I could be completely fine. But I could also be dealing with something very serious. I sat in the waiting room, wrestling with my mind, cutting it off whenever it pointed into fear, telling myself “I am about to get more information and whatever it is will be better than not having information.”
The doctor looked at the results. He was silent for a long time. Fear pinned me. The doctor looked at me and spoke incredible words. My body has a few quirks, but nothing appears dangerous. There was, with the exception of PT for mild scoliosis that went unnoticed when I was a teenager, no need for further follow up at this time.
Dawn broke. I didn’t get a new name, but I felt a blessing settle over me. My body has been holding my stress and my grief and my fear, and it is tired and it hurts. Someday, my body may hold serious illness as well. Most bodies do eventually. I can’t know how or when or if that will happen to me.
Jewish prayer includes a number of blessings for physical bodies, and one that I appreciate most, asher yatzar, speaks of the openings of the body, reminding us that if a passageway were to be open when it should be closed, or closed when it should be open, it would be impossible to exist. I thought of that prayer countless times over the summer as I witnessed the marvels of modern medicine opening and closing passageways on the body’s behalf, allowing life to continue and healing to happen. But these passageways are more than just physical, and many times I witnessed patients’ minds opening and closing to the possibilities of healing and of vitality and of hope. As a chaplain, I sought to accompany the patient and their loved ones– wherever their openings and closings– to allow each person to experience what was present, to cradle it with them, and to hand it back to them.
Today, waking up without a doctor’s appointment on the calendar, I felt an openness handed back to me. I let the worry-ridden part of myself pull away from the rest. It is still present, but it is not pinning me down and I am not engaging it on the mat. I am alive. I am here. I am enough. I am thankful.