To Our Health

I really wish I could fly. In the meantime, I'd be happy just having better hearing.

One cannot truly say that death becomes a person. As Hanoch Levin, who passed away prematurely due to a serious illness, once said: Everyone wants to live, in any situation, at almost any level of suffering. "At least he didn't suffer," we say to the newly bereaved, or "That's how I'd like to go - suddenly, without knowing what's about to happen to me" (though not at age 57 necessarily ). But, really, none of us, apart from truly suicidal types, genuinely wants to die. Not in this or that way, and certainly not in the foreseeable future.

On the other hand, we are taught to cope with and get over other people's deaths quickly - especially if the person in question wasn't particularly close to us. "He's no longer suffering," we say to ourselves and others. Or we will comfort mourners by commenting: "The good thing is that her suffering is over, and she didn't want to be a burden on others." We might even spout some appalling nonsense about God taking the best ones first.

A week ago, I watched journalist Ilana Dayan interviewing Dov Lautman on television. Lautman, a leading industrialist, has a degenerative disease that has disabled him, and today relies on the assistance of others and on special equipment. However, his lucid thinking, his vision, hearing and sense of smell have not been impacted at all, and he insists that he still finds pleasure in life.

But Dayan is a hard nut to crack. She insisted on finding out at which stage of disability Lautman would want to end his life. Had I not known that Dayan is a good person, I would have come away with the impression that she was pressing him to fit some theory she has about her own life, wherein should she (God forbid ) find herself in such a position, she would not want to go on living.

Many people have such thoughts. Visits to nursing homes trigger gloomy musings about the fragility of our existence, about the distance between an independent life and an existence devoid of dignity. We stroll down the boulevard and see a cluster of wheelchairs filled with elderly people with vacant gazes, accompanied by Filipino caretakers, and we say to ourselves that we wouldn't want to live in their situation. We look at the nurse who comes into the room to change the diaper for someone who until recently was the manliest of men, and ask our children to "turn off the machines" if we should ever end up in such a state, heaven forfend.

But these are the thoughts we have when we are healthy and independent, and cannot conceive of ever really becoming weak and dependent on others. Indeed, the truth is that even very sick people, people who are completely disabled, people in terrible pain - all want to live.

Lautman had to defend himself to Dayan. To no avail, he claimed that he could still enjoy life: He could still see things, talk with people, read, think. Dayan, seemingly unimpressed, persisted: "If you could choose one muscle that would function normally again, which would it be?" And then she explained that she really wanted to know which kind of movement that he is unable to make now, would he like to be able to make again. Lautman finally gave in and admitted he'd be pleased to be able to walk again. Aha! Just as Dayan suspected from the start, he wasn't really "enjoying" being disabled.

"And which muscle would you like to work?" I asked Vita, as we sat in a cafe by the marina. Vita said she'd like to be able to raise each eyebrow separately.

"For me the answer is very simple," I said. "I'd like to have some triceps, so I wouldn't have these saggy upper arms. And the movement I wish I had would be the ability to do a headstand. Or ride a bike."

Anat said she would just like to have any muscles at all and that it was amazing how the older you get, the more relevant such questions become. Specifically, she, who suffers from a "frozen shoulder," would be happy with "a range of movement that extends beyond the shoulder."

IllustrationAvi Ofer

Ronza claimed he wasn't interested in muscle functioning, but said he knows which supernatural power he'd like to have: a special kind of X-ray vision that would allow him to look at every passing woman and see her with no clothes on.

"How insulting!" said Anat, his wife, but Ronza insisted that it was a noble and socialist cause, "because let's say a girl is coming toward me whom everyone thinks is so beautiful and only I see that she doesn't have a nice body. Or the opposite: There are women who aren't considered pretty and whom nobody looks at, but I can see that they really do have a great body or gorgeous skin, and I can remedy the injustice."

Anat said that if she could be an animal, she would be a bear. Shula said on the phone that she would choose to be a whale "so I could finally feel what it's like to be fat and not have to answer stupid questions about it."

Vita said she'd be a sloth or an anteater, Ronza agreed he'd want to be a squirrel, but Anat protested when I told her I really wanted to be a kangaroo. "Your children are too big already to be in your pouch, and you're not the least bit bouncy," she pointed out.

"But I'll be bouncy when I have the sort of superpower that I want - the ability to fly, to leap high and far, and if possible, also to high-dive into the pool," I replied.

"In your case," Anat said, "It would be great if instead of having some supernatural power, you could just hear well."

"What?" I asked.

She explained that if I heard as well as other folks, I wouldn't have to ask an acquaintance three times if the man with the graying temples who was accompanying her was her son: "You would have heard her say the first time that he wasn't her son but a friend, and maybe you also might have noticed that he is about her age and was very embarrassed by your questions."

In other words, I am seen and unseeing - and heard but unhearing! Maybe God's capabilities could do with a little sprucing up, too.