COMMENTARY: A brief brush with my own mortality

NEW YORK — April 3, 2013 is now permanently deposited in my memory bank as the day when I stared … Continued

NEW YORK — April 3, 2013 is now permanently deposited in my memory bank as the day when I stared death in the face. And death blinked.

I’ll be honest. Facing unexpected triple bypass surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital, I thought I might die as I was lying on a gurney headed into the operating room. But it was not the first time I had an unexpected brush with mortality. It probably won’t be the last.

In 1961, when I was an Air Force chaplain stationed in Asia, I was aboard a C-124 aircraft that had lost three of its four engines and we had to make an emergency landing in Korea. The crew chief warned us to get our parachutes ready. Thankfully, I never had to answer the question “to jump or not to jump.”

I was more frightened years later, when I participated in civil rights marches: in 1964 in Hattiesburg, Miss., just after three civil rights workers had been killed; and in 1987, in Forsyth County, Ga.

As a rabbi, I have witnessed other people’s deaths (mostly in hospital rooms) and officiated at countless funerals. But it’s different when facing your own. Is there anything beyond this life? Is there a calming blissful feeling as recounted by people with near-death experiences? Will I “see” my deceased parents and brother if the medical team loses me on the operating table?

Or is death the end of all sense perception and consciousness? Is it akin to the “blankness” — feeling and remembering nothing — that patients experience with deep anesthesia?

Despite the religious teachings about heaven, “eternal life,” and the “world to come,” maybe death is like the eons of time that transpired before I was born and which I’ll never know about. Maybe it’s just oblivion and emptiness.

I wondered if that day was when I’d finally have an answer.

I had met earlier with my surgeon, who had performed more than 1,500 bypass operations. The physician’s professionalism was reassuring, but I was more comforted by holding hands with members of my immediate family who accompanied me to the double doors of the operating room.

Finally, the doors opened and I was pushed inside. It was a remarkable sight. The halogen lights on the ceiling reminded me of those bright headlights on high-end cars. There were perhaps 10 people in masks and gowns in a flurry of activity around me. Someone was adjusting what appeared to be a TV monitor, someone else whispered reassuring words into my ear, another person placed my arms onto metal supports, and two tiny tubes were inserted into my nose to provide extra oxygen.

Yet the whole thing felt like I was wearing bifocal glasses. I watched them, but I was also seeing the Hebrew text of the famous Jewish High Holiday prayer that ponders the eternal question: “Who shall live, and who shall die?” in the year ahead.

Was this “my time?”

In the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Judaism teaches that a person’s name is inscribed in the Book of Life for the coming year _ or not. Would I be?”

The answer came some hours later when I awoke from the operation in pain, coughing and with multiple tubes  inserted into my battered body. I was dazed, but alive. Korea, Mississippi, Georgia and now New York City. I had yet again escaped my inevitable and inescapable fate, at least for now.

Will the entire experience fundamentally change my life, my behavior, and my actions? Perhaps. And I hope so. But being fully human, I doubt it.

(Rabbi Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser, is the author of the recently published “Cushing, Spellman, O’Connor: The Surprising Story of How Three American Cardinals Transformed Catholic-Jewish Relations.”)












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  • Rongoklunk

    It’s interesting that you don’t expect to live on after death –you just hope you do. But you’re not convinced.

    Well neither am I. But I am convinced that death is death. And I think that’s why we invented God and an afterlife, so that we can always hope that maybe death isn’t necessarily death. I would say the ancients gave it a good try. They invented more than 3500 Gods, which shows how desperate they were to ‘avoid’ death.

    But nowadays with science and commonsense teaching us about the real world – and how it works, we realize that death is death for all living things. But I’m ok with that reality. If that’s the way it is then I accept it. Why not ? It beats making up comforting tales of everlasting life after death. That’s cowardly and childish and terribly irrational — especially the bit about an invisible skygod watching over us. How absurd.

  • ThomasBaum

    You wrote, “But nowadays with science and commonsense teaching us about the real world – and how it works, we realize that death is death for all living things. But I’m ok with that reality. If that’s the way it is then I accept it.”

    This is your belief and that is fine but as far as “If that’s the way it is then I accept it”, your acceptance or rejection has absolutely no bearing on something that is true including the existence of God.

  • Rongoklunk

    I don’t think there’s no God, I know there’s no God. The very idea defies everything we know about reality. No God was ever seen by anybody, ever. No God was ever heard from, ever.

    Even the pope never saw one. But along with those facts is the fact that our ancestors were forever inventing them – by the thousands!! This shows clearly that inventing Gods is what we humans do. It is a preoccupation of the fearful mind. There is absolutely every reason to believe that the current God is also a product of the human mind – like 2+2=4.

    If the ancients had never ever invented a god, that would be different. But they did invent Gods- ALL THE TIME.

    And that’s why I know there is no God. It adds up better than magic.

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