An old friend of mine has been in intensive care for weeks. It's a tragedy, because he is in his prime. For a long time he was unconscious, and they thought he would never open his eyes again. I know exactly what this looks like: Too often, and for long periods in my life, I've had to take care of sick people. But I have no idea how it feels. He, however, would have a lot to say about it. He's an expert in these matters. He is an exceptional writer, and almost as good a speaker. He is at his best when he is griping and groaning. Agonies extract from him, as from the entire Jewish people, the best of his humor.
Oy, how we always laughed about his hypochondria. I remember how once, maybe about 15 years ago, a dietician who mistakenly identified me as a celebrity informed me that, based on my style of speech and writing, I was suffering from an unstable blood sugar level, and that she was the person who could offer me an immediate remedy. As chance would have it, I ran into my friend that day in a cafe. When I told him, all chuckles, about the conversation, he told me that he himself urgently needed a dietician's services: He didn't want to worry me, he said, but he had the feeling that he had some sort of serious disease.
We went to together to Ramat Hasharon to see her. I was diagnosed as suffering from "excess estrogen, which is taking over my brain," and he was immediately identified as enjoying an "excessive amount of testosterone, which makes him a real man." We were assigned an impossible diet, which included lamb and pure tehina. For weeks, the dietician called me at home to ask about the condition of my friend, whom she had fallen in love with immediately.
A few years later, following his insistence that he was suffering from a heart disease the doctors declined to diagnose, and that he was likely at any moment to be struck by "a major and cardinal heart attack," we went together for treatment offered by a Jerusalem idol worshiper, in order to stop smoking. Two weeks later, while continuing to puff merrily away, we discovered that we had become the stars of huge ads this healer had published in all the newspapers about his most successful cases. "I almost had a heart attack when I saw my name," my friend told me.
Once, following another pointless and dreary description of the nameless pains of a mutual friend, my friend Anat and I discussed the question of which is more serious, health-wise - almost to pass out, or suspicion of a cancerous growth. Unequivocally, we reached the conclusion that almost passing out is more serious, because suspicions of a cancerous growth can be decided medically, by means of an examination, whereas the almost-passing-out disease is incurable.
I think the two most dangerous diseases I know about are "almost a heart attack" and "almost passing out." These are ailments one cannot recover from, because they have not yet happened; but at the same time, throughout our entire lives, we are on the brink of a heart attack, almost passing out, and even death.
I know, because I grew up being constantly in the shadow of an almost-heart attack and also the "I almost died on the spot" of my father, who always summed up his traumatic impressions by saying, "Another second and I would have died on the spot."
"The fear of the disease is even greater than the disease itself," one of my ex-partners told me once in his defense. He used to torture himself with invasive medical tests in an attempt to diagnose nonexistent diseases, while casting all those around him into a depression. In his case, by the way, it turned out that the discovery of a genuine disease - one whose existence he had not even suspected - did not bring about the coveted relief.
But he was the exception to the rule that for hypochondriacs, the discovery of a real disease always brings relief, accompanied by a feeling of triumph and unmistakable moral superiority. "And all these years you never believed me," my father said when he suffered his first heart attack at the age of 70-something. I told him then that when you start to train 40 years earlier and wait long enough, in the end you succeed. In contrast to his imagined diseases, my father behaved courageously in coping with his heart attack, when, for the first time in his life, he played down the seriousness of his physical condition and developed a sick man's healthy humor, deriving from a fierce desire to get well and return to normal functioning quickly.
My friend, too, had been preparing for many years - too many years - for the calamity that befell him. I am convinced that if he had known that this was in fact what happened to him; if, before he lost consciousness he managed to understand that in fact, just as he had foreseen, he was the victim of a "major and cardinal" heart attack, he would have given us that look of "I don't even want to say that I told you so," of which he is a past master.
The truth is that I am longing to see that look on his face again. As far as I am concerned, he can even say it in Polish, which he doesn't speak, or in Yiddish. "You were right," I will tell him, "and I don't ever want to have to tell you that again."
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