Beliefs Opinion

COMMENTARY: A brief brush with my own mortality

NEW YORK (RNS) 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.”)