One cold winter morning, Asher up well before dawn. As he’d been doing since he was a small child, he started his day mumbling the modeh ani prayer thanking G-d for his life .Then he poured water onto his hands using a plastic cup and bowl he stored under his bed. The water would rinse off the evil spirits lingering on his fingertips following sleep. And then he went to the bathroom, ordinary enough except this morning he saw something that made his heart bang inside his chest:something that made his heart bang inside his chest; On the cracked urinal wall, a tiny squiggle of red merged into the pale yellow stream. He squeezed his eyes closed and flushed. The Talmud said that women bled from those places, not men. Maybe what he’d seen hadn’t come from his body. The bathrooms weren’t all that clean; maybe it had been left there by the previous user.
He went back to bed pulling his blanket over himself like tent as if he were a small boy – alone and afraid of the dark. and soon he fell asleep. By the time the meorrer, the student in charge of waking the guys for prayer, called his name, he was certain that whatever it he’d seen was just a bad dream.
The morning began normally; first prayers breakfast, and then Asher and his study partner Ezi together in the study hall slogging through a complicated piece of Talmud about an ox goring a cow neither of them moving from their seats until eleven when they broke for coffee. This morning Asher poured too much milk and sugar into his. The sweet milky drink soothed him.
Just before lunch he returned to the bathroom. He was calm; the morning’s intense study had pushed the fears out of his brain . It shocked him to see that the red squiggle had returned and like the frogs in Egypt it had multiplied. He counted three squiggles no four , no five.
His entire body vibrated as if he’d swallowed a pneumatic drill. As he made his way to the sink he felt himself growing increasingly dizzy and then a murky yellow light flashed before his eyes. The next thing he knew, someone was holding him up.
Had the angel of death arrived to take him ? He was only twenty too. He didn’t expect to be leaving this world so quickly, not before he’d married, become a father, really lived. No, the one holding him was Naftali Eisen – a huge ruddy faced guy who could have been a linebacker, Eisen’s enormous hands digging into Asher’s armpits.
“Thanks, but you can let go now.”
“Just a minute. I want to see that you’re steady. That’s the way I learned it in my first aid course. You know, people often pass out in bath—”
“I’m okay now, really,”Asher tried to wriggle himself lose but Eisen wouldn’t let him go.
Eisen tapped on his cellphone “I’m going to call an ambulance,”
“Please don’t. I’m fine. Let me free….”
“You were this close to hitting your head and bleeding in the brain,” Eisen released one hand and pressed his thumb and forefinger together to demonstrate.
“I get it…” Asher resented being talked down by a dolt. Everyone knew that Eisen had gotten into the yeshiva only because his grandfather had paid for the building.
“I’m calling ,” Eisen pressed his forefinger on his phone.
“No…please don’t. I’m in shidduchim now…” Asher’s voice had a desperate edge.
“Okay…..But promise me you’ll get yourself to a doctor ASAP.”
Asher nodded, but once he got out of the bathroom he realized that getting help was more complicated that he’d imagined. His family GP, Dr. Kramer was out. She was female and a friend of his mom’s.. The other option was Dr.G, Dr. Gartenberg who practiced across the street from the yeshiva. His phone number was posted on the bulletin board outside the study hall. He was controversial. He certainly had his fans but many of the, yeshiva students believed that his medical knowledge came from the days of leeches and cupping. Asher stepped outside the yeshiva to phone. He didn’t want anyone to overhear this conversation. Instead of Dr. G. he reached a female sounding electronic voice announcing extra long waiting times and then a shrill one key rendition of frere Jacques.which played over and over until a human picked up “Come quickly. The doctor can fit you in between patients.” She sounded like a child.
Asher ran across the street to the clinic. The waiting room teemed with people. Every type of person who lived in Jerusalem’; plaid shirted heder boys with runny noses, a Bais Yaacov girl in her light blue dark blue uniform, her hand in a splint ,several hassidim, a stout middle aged woman wearing a hijab, and an elderly couple chatting softly in Russian.
Instead of magazines or a television, Dr. G had a sagging wicker bookshelf stocked with holy books. Asher pulled down a Chumash opening it to the weekly Torah reading; but he couldn’t focus. He closed the Chumash, planted a kiss on its cover, and returned it to the shelf.
He’d been to doctors before always for routine matters, strep throat, a sprained ankle, a checkup, nothing like this. Was that ominous squiggle the calling card of some terrible illness?
He’d heard stories about young people dying this way. He’d even prayed for them but he never thought he’d be one of them, not now. The Talmud said that a man without a wife lives without joy, without blessing, without goodness. How could his life be over before it really began?
Just then, the secretary called his name and Dr. Gartenberg opened his office door. He was a old, Asher guessed that he was at least eighty possibly more, short, and slightly bent, his leathery face heavily creased and covered with brown liver spots.
“Now tell me, what can I do for you?” Covered by a pair of rimless glasses, Dr. G’s eyes were rheumy and blue.
Asher opened his mouth to answer but no sound emerged . It was as if his throat had collapsed.
“Maybe you want to write it down.” The doctor handed him a pad and a pen and Asher scribbled away.
“Hmm, now I understand.” said Dr. G.
Asher began unbuttoning his sweater.
“No need for that. ” The doctor swiped Asher’s health fund card. and printed out a orders for blood and urine tests and a kidney ultrasound . Above all of them he wrote “dahuf” – urgent.
By the time Asher left the clinic it was dusk. Instead of returning to yeshiva, he took the train downtown and he got off near the shuk, heading to an internet café where the ancient desktop computers were kept in locked cubicles and he could study his condition in privacy. From a site called drugs.com, he discovered this.
Large blood clots can signal a medical emergency. So can blood in the urine that’s accompanied by pain in the back, sides, lower abdomen, or groin. This type of pain may be caused by
• kidney stones
• injury to the kidneys or bladder
• urinary tract infections
• tumors of the kidney, prostate or bladder.
As he read the words his heart beat wildly. Dr. G hadn’t used the word but here it was… yeinah machla, that disease , the Big C? With surgery followed by chemotherapy and radiation, he had a fighting chance; but the side effects were devastating: hair loss –Asher ran his fingers through his thick black hair, impotence, infertility, and those were only if he survived.
From the internet café he headed to the Western Wall, his feet racing through the cold empty streets. The sky was dark; the moon and stars concealed beneath a swathe of rainclouds. The Wall plaza was unusually empty. That afternoon, a high school girl had been stabbed near the spot on which Asher now stood. During morning prayers at the yeshiva, he’d said psalms for her – but that prevent him from coming to the Wall. After all what did he have to lose?
As he approached the wall a tiny droplets of rain covered his head and face. As a child, he thought raindrops were G-ds tears. Standing alone in front of the Wall, he felt G-d crying with him.
Back in his room, Asher lay awake in his bed thinking about tomorrow. Would the ultra sound hurt? Dr. G had given him almost no guidance. The other thing wondered about was the requirement to drink eight cups of water. Would that cause his bladder to explode and would that release a torrent of blood?
From outside of his window he heard a sound truck announcing a funeral. That was nothing new; those trucks came around all the time but now he imagined his funeral being announcing “The funeral for the beloved yeshiva student Asher Tumim….
Two years earlier, Yoni Cohen broke his rope while rappelling and plunged to his death. Yoni Cohen. A nice guy, bright too – but hardly a regular in the study hall. At the funeral, the rabbis made him sound like the best student the yeshiva ever had known. What kinds of stuff would they make up about him?
At least Yoni had gone quickly, probably losing consciousness the instant his head hit the rock, but he wouldn’t go like that . He’d suffer the tortures the medical establishment could inflict and only after that would his spirit be free to depart. Would it be better to go fast? Maybe but he really didn’t want to die at all. Not now. “G-d,” he whispered. “I know I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but please, give me another chance…”
The ultrasound proved to be quick and painless. A young married woman, he knew that from her turban like headscarf, instructed him to pull up his shirt and pull down his pants. Then, she handed him a plastic bottle.
“Smear this on. I know you wouldn’t want me to do it for you.”
On the monitor, his kidneys looked like celestial bodies – white orbs floating in a black sky.The rabbis taught that each person was a whole world. Now he could see that it went farther; that his insides contained an entire galaxy. But then his reverie broke and he remember why he was here lying on his side in the darkened room, his midsection smeared with cold slimey gel.
“Am I okay?” he asked.
She nodded. “Seems fine.”
But, when he visited the men’s room, Asher passed another clot, this one the size of an olive.
Musical Chairs is a novel about a Jerusalem American BT family’s struggle to find a bride for their FFB yeshiva bochur son.
You can read
Chapter 1 here,
Chapter 2a here,
Chapter 2b here,
Chapter 3a here,
Chapter 3b here
Chapter 3c here
Chapter 3d here
Chapter 3e here
Chapter 3f here
Chapter 4a here
Chapter 4b here
Chapter 4c here
Chapter 4d here