Monday, July 24, 2006


“Nothing’s gonna change my world..”
- John Lennon
Wrong-O, John. Something will eventually come along to change your world, and you can’t do a thing about you yourself found out on that December day in 1980.

This Saturday just past, one of our congregants received an unexpected visit from an Unexpected Visitor, and it changed his world.

It was a routine summer Saturday. The Missus and I went to morning services, as is our custom. And I was Rabbi for a Day.

I should explain that, during the summer when there are no B’nai Mitvah on the congregational calendar, it is the practice of our Rabbi to let the inmates take over the asylum. He sits amongst the congregation and relaxes while various members of the laity take over the duties of running the service. The absence of Ordained Clergy poses no theological problem for us Jews, as you do not need to be a Rabbi to conduct a service: everybody is equal when it comes to the ability to talk with The Big Guy. This week, it was my turn to man the pulpit.

Services proceeded without a hitch, and the congregation moved into the social hall for the Oneg Shabbat, the luncheon that follows the Saturday morning service. SWMBO and I did not plan to stick around long, owing to the fact that there is little available there for her to eat while she is still in No-Chew Mode.

Howard, one of the Saturday Regulars and father-in-law of one of our Minyan Boyz, came over to compliment me on having conducted the services without any major snafus. We got into a conversation about the recent events in the Middle East, the main points of which found the two of us in complete agreement. Discussion over, Howard sat down to enjoy his coffee while I went to grab a bagel, all the while thinking to myself how remarkable it was that this elderly gentleman was so intellectually sharp.

Five minutes later, it became evident that something had gone seriously wrong. In the midst of talking with one of his friends, Howard suddenly became semi-conscious, his coffee spilling from his mouth and onto his tie and shirt, his head partially slumped over.

The Unexpected Visitor had just paid Howard a visit.

I ran over to the Rabbi (the real Rabbi) and asked him to find a doctor, then ran back to the table and sat down next to Howard. It was clear right away that he was having a cerebrovascular incident – a stroke. “Call 911! Now!” I said, to no one in particular.

Cellphone usage is normally prohibited on the Sabbath, but in Judaism, the need to save human life takes precedence over adherence to the Laws of Moses.

“Howard! Can you move the fingers on your right hand?” Yes, he could. He drummed them on the table vigorously.

“Howard! Can you move the fingers on your left hand?”


Howard’s eyes had begun to roll back, and we tried to keep him awake as best we could. He retained enough consciousness to dab at his mouth with a napkin and to respond to his name, but he was fading fast. My mind flashed back to a time almost forty years ago, when my Grandpa Abe had had a similar attack. It was scary, seeing that bizarre state of semiconsciousness, the inability to react normally. Back then, my grandmother and I had horsed Grandpa into the car, and she drove at breakneck speed through the streets of North Miami to the hospital, my terrified kid brother cowering in the back seat. It was a frightening foretaste of the stroke that would eventually carry him off less than six months later.

Meanwhile, the EMT’s arrived and quickly took control, hooking up an EKG and administering oxygen. Within minutes, they had Howard loaded on a gurney and whisked out the door, as SWMBO, using her Teacher Persona, herded the small army of curious children out of the way.

While all of this was going on, someone contacted Howard’s daughter and son-in-law. Howard, a widower for the past few years, lived with them on the other side of our neighborhood.

Yesterday we received word that Howard had slipped into a coma almost immediately and had expired peacefully Sunday afternoon.

A shame, this was, yet I tried to look on the good side. Howard had been sitting down when his Unexpected Visitor tapped him on the shoulder, sparing him the indignity and pain of falling. He had not been driving, as he would have been had the attack taken place mere minutes later. He did not linger, as did SWMBO’s grandmother, for four years in a semi-vegetative state. No, his Unexpected Visitor was kind.

This is not the first time I have seen the Unexpected Visitor in action.

Years ago, in northwestern New Jersey, I watched as the father of one of my Racquetball Buddies turned blue and keeled over after playing a few fast-paced games, games that his body was clearly unaccustomed to, unprepared for. The son administered CPR, but it was to no avail.

In the early 1990’s, at a Great Corporate Salt Mine sales meeting, we no sooner had completed the Safety agenda item – a movie about CPR – when one of the kitchen staff burst into the meeting room, breathless.

“The chef is having a heart attack!”

We all though it was a joke, that we were being set up. It was too much of a coincidence, with us just having watched that movie. Wasn’t it?

Everyone sat there as if poleaxed. Finally, I jumped up and ran into the kitchen with one of the other salesmen. Sure enough, the chef was having a heart attack, big as life. I pulled out his dental plates and started CPR. The EMT’s showed up five minutes later and hauled him away. He made it halfway to the hospital before the Unexpected Visitor called a halt to the proceedings. Damn.

Eighteen years ago, I held my mother’s hand as she crossed over into the Undiscovered Country. The Unexpected Visitor was in fact expected that time, although unwelcome. It was the first time I saw the Visitor complete his work, a sight that has been seared into my soul.

The Unexpected Visitor. Old Mr. Thanatos. The dude with the cloak and the scythe, who walks with soft tread. The guy who will Change Your World. He visits us all, in time...and we never know just when he will tap us on the shoulder and ask us to take that forever walk with him.

I’ll think about that at the funeral today.

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