Being Present for Each Other
by Lynne Landsberg
In the aftermath of a traumatic brain injury, a community of faith gave me the strength–the resilience–to rebuild my life.
The 12-foot patch of black ice had concerned [Ms.] Williams-Barber and her neighbors for several weeks…. At 9:30 am, 10 to 15 minutes after a tow truck had removed [the] Mustang [from the first accident] Williams-Barber heard a huge dull thud, ran to open her front door. The driver’s side of a 1988 Jeep was smashed against a tree. Williams heard a little boy inside screaming hysterically. “He was just in dreadful shock,” Williams-Barber said. “We didn’t know if maybe he was bleeding internally. His mother was laying beside him unconscious. He was totally distraught.–Washington Post, January 12, 1999
The distraught child in the newspaper article was my son Jesse, who had just celebrated his eighth birthday. He emerged without serious physical injury. For myself, however, it was an altogether different story. The accident left me with a traumatic brain injury (TBI). I was in a coma for six weeks; initially, the doctors at Georgetown University Hospital were unsure whether I’d live. Once I passed the crucial 72-hour mark still alive, they prepared my husband, Dennis, saying that if I did awake, I would not recognize him or our son.
I did slowly awake, but it was not a classic Hollywood wakeup. It took well over a month for me to go from being able to move my fingers on command to mumbling a word or two.After four months in the hospital, I was finally able to come home. I could not sit up. I could not hold a straw. I was incontinent. I could not feel any emotions whatsoever. For the next two and a half years, I required 24-hour nursing. The nurses were my hands, my fingers, my brain. Five years of intensive rehabilitation have followed. Today, I can dress and take care of myself, speak slowly but understandably, concentrate for more than five minutes, read a few pages in one sitting, walk with the assistance of a cane or arm. (I am also thin–that’s good news. I call it the coma diet.)
Before the accident my life was very hectic. I was the queen of multitasking. In the morning before getting dressed for work, I would listen to my voice mail and note everyone who’d called. As Dennis left for work early, I would feed the cats, get Jesse dressed and take him to school, and then head to the office. Using my car phone I would return phone calls, and dictate letters and speeches to my secretary (on his voice mail).
Before the accident I spent eight years as the associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (legislative director and supervisor of the legislative assistants) and more than two years as the Union’s regional director of the Mid-Atlantic Council (serving some seventy congregations in a six-state area). I used to speak regularly at synagogues or to large Jewish or interfaith groups on social action issues and appear on television talk shows.
I no longer can do a hundred things at once; I can do only one thing at a time. I am no longer out in the world as Lynne Landsberg, the rabbi or the regional director or the social action expert; I’m mostly in my kitchen just learning how to be a functioning human being. Fortunately, I’ve retained my sense of humor.
As my recovery continues, I often reflect on how I managed to find the strength–the resilience–to rebuild my life. I believe the answer lies in three interventions, each informed by Judaism: directed prayer on my behalf, attentive visits, and practical support.
Throughout my entire hospital stay, many prayers were offered for my healing in synagogues across the country and in Israel. At my bedside, rabbis, cantors, and laypeople recited or sang psalms and prayers. Rabbi Danny Zemel sang Shalom Aleichem over and over. My brothers, I am told, were sometimes moved to tears. He would also sing Hineh Mah Tov and sometimes Lecha Dodi. “I thought that any really familiar prayer tune might somehow seep into your unconscious,” he later told me. Other visitors often sang Debbie Friedman’s contemporary musical version of the Mi Shebeirach:
May the source of strength, who blessed the ones before us, help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing.
Bless those in need of healing with r’fua sh’leima, the renewal of body, the renewal of spirit.
And let us say, Amen.
I later thanked Debbie for teaching the Mi Shebeirach to the entire Reform Movement just in time for my accident. It was as if the arms of the Jewish community were wrapped around me, holding me tightly yet lovingly, keeping me in this world.
Especially important to me was the presence of my family. Within two hours of the accident, my 80-year-old father was on a plane from West Palm Beach to Washington, DC. He moved into our house and sat in my hospital room every day for the next four months. Knowing that Dad, Dennis, and my two brothers Jonathan and Michael were there filled me with warmth; it was as if I were curled up in the family lap. Jesse did not visit until the last few weeks; the doctors felt that an 8-year-old would be traumatized seeing his mother in a coma or with a feeding tube in her stomach, a ventilator in her throat, IV tubes in her arms, and a pressure monitor sticking out of her skull.
Not long after the accident, Amy Scheinerman, a rabbi I barely knew, went online asking her fellow clergy to recite psalms daily on my behalf. A great many people volunteered, and Rabbi Scheinerman assigned all of our tradition’s 150 psalms. When I came home from the hospital, almost everyone sent me copies of “their” psalm along with beautiful, evocative letters. Rabbi Elias Lieberman, who was reciting Psalm 17, wrote on July 31, 2001: “I knew that, initially, you were in a deep coma. The closing line of this psalm [“And let me, when I awaken, see nothing but the light of Your face”] spoke to me every time I held you in my thoughts and prayers….I could well imagine that one day you would open your eyes, emerging from the dark of your coma, and see the light of God’s face reflected in the faces of your loved ones.”
In the hospital, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism helped to regulate the flow of visitors. The room was often full. The hospital lobby attendant who signed in visitors told my father that I often had more visitors than the rest of the patients in the hospital combined! I don’t know if my father was giving out free food, but my room was quite lively, regardless of whether I was conscious or unconscious. Friends, colleagues, and loved ones held my hand, told me stories, coaxed me with humor, and included me in their conversations and laughter even when I could not respond. One friend walked into my coma room, bent over my bed, and commanded: “Lynne, wake up! You’re missing the Last Call Sale at Neiman’s!” Another visitor was a former RAC legislative assistant, Lisa Selfon, whom I had visited in a hospital a few years earlier after she had been struck by lightning. I think one of us must have said, “We have to stop meeting like this.”
On a Friday afternoon about three months after the accident, board members of the Union’s Mid-Atlantic Council brought a challah to my hospital bedside. They helped me recite the Motzi, and we broke bread. It was the first time since my accident that I had said anything in Hebrew. Reciting a prayer in Hebrew, in community, helped me realize, later on, that during my entire crisis period I had been on the receiving end of the mitzvah of bikur cholim, compassionate and involved visitation of the sick. Each visit diminished my feelings of isolation and affirmed my connection to the world I had known before my brain injury. While I was in the hospital, those who fulfilled this mitzvah brought the world to me. Once I was settled back home, my visitors brought me to the world.
With their very practical support, the Jewish community helped deliver my family from the abyss and ushered me into the next stage of recovery, the post-hospital period.
While I was in the coma, Temple Micah’s caring committee, called Hineini, had gone into action, mobilizing the congregation to cook Shabbat dinners for my three guys: my dad, my husband, and my son. Every Friday, a dinner would arrive, along with a challah, candles, and wine for Kiddush. And after I came home, the meals kept coming, until, with tremendous help from my nurse and Dennis, I was able to prepare our family’s Shabbat dinner. It would be for me a crucial step forward, as well as the first sobering realization that I would never again be able to do things as I had done them before the accident. People who suffer traumatic brain injury have to reconnect the brain to the body, and that entails relearning everything. I had to relearn how to walk, relearn how to talk, relearn how to concentrate and read, relearn the fundamentals of how to take care of myself.
When I had been home for about eight months, four mothers who knew me from Jesse’s synagogue nursery school came to visit. They sat with me in my living room and asked if they could help me relearn how to cook. “Relearn?” I exclaimed. “How about you teach me how to cook!” (Before the accident, we usually ordered food in or ate out.) My culinary teachers arrived every Sunday morning, after they dropped their kids off at religious school. Because I couldn’t see well, they typed recipes in large bold type, put them into plastic sleeves, and stored them in a binder. Each time they came, they’d add new recipes, writing them in language that this brain-injured person could follow. For instance, a meatloaf recipe prescribed: “Mix the following ingredients together in a blender or food processor. You may have to mix them one ingredient at a time–eggs, potato, onion, then ketchup.” My tutors started with simple recipes, like broiled salmon, and progressed to more complex recipes, like barbecued lamb ribs, layer cake with fluffy chocolate frosting, and corn bread. (My favorites were the easiest.) The practical support these women, and so many others, freely gave to our family–encompassing everything from running errands to arranging Jesse’s play dates–brought me to the point where I could begin to think about being a productive person again.
In the winter of 2000, when I could walk, though I was still unsteady, Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, phoned one day to say that he himself would drive me and my nurse to Baltimore for the annual Jewish Council for Public Affairs Plenum. On the way, he said, “I want you back at the Religious Action Center as soon as you’re ready.” I gasped. The possibility seemed inconceivable–and yet the thought of my contributing again to the Jewish community as well as the chance to think and learn and become productive again was irresistible–although it made me nervous.
It took a year before I was physically and cognitively able to tell David that I would return to the RAC, but only as a volunteer. I felt as if I should be paying them, because for me this opportunity was “work therapy.”
I began “working” two hours each Monday and Thursday morning. My occupational therapist accompanied me on my first day to set up my workspace. She also explained to David and the senior staff what I could and could not do and that they should always give me feedback, positive and negative. My first responsibility was to call congregational rabbis and ask them about the state of their synagogue’s social action activity and what RAC materials they had found most helpful. In order to prepare myself for making the phone calls, I had to write a script and practice it with my speech therapist. As time went on, I felt ready to return to a position I had held in the past, representing the Union on the Council of Governors of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. A RAC legislative assistant always accompanies me because I can’t listen, join the discussion, and take notes at the same time. Also, I’m not comfortable walking or even hailing a cab by myself. My hours have since increased to about eight a week, and I now have a title; I am senior advisor to the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism.
In September 2001, I received my first opportunity to speak publicly; the Washington Jewish Community Council asked me to deliver a response in honor of my receiving an award for my work in social action. The former Lynne Landsberg used to jot down notes for a talk in the cab on the way over to the presentation. Post-accident, it took me months to write the “response” and weeks to practice. I was thrilled to learn later that David, sitting in the audience, had turned to a former RAC legislative assistant who was now a speechwriter and whispered to him, “Good job!”–and the speechwriter responded: “I had nothing to do with it. That’s all Lynne.”
The fact that the new Lynne Landsberg cannot speak publicly with the ease of the old is just one of a long list of deficiencies caused by my brain injury. As I’ve studied the Mi Shebeirach, I have come to understand that my healing falls into two categories: rifuat ha nefesh, a healing of the nefesh (commonly translated as “soul”), and rifuat ha goof, “healing of the body.”
For me the healing of the body has come far more quickly than my doctors had forecast. I’ve moved from wheelchair and diapers to Ferragamo flats and Armani suits. But my rifuat ha nefesh has been much slower. I think of goof as the outer self and nefesh as the thinking, feeling inner self, and I wonder, what does it take to heal the all-encompassing soul?
I know that healing of the nefesh requires one to accept certain harsh realities. Continued healing is dependent on my emotional ability to mourn the old Lynne Landsberg and to embrace the slowly developing skills of the new Lynne Landsberg. No longer do I measure my successes by comparing them to my former achievements. It cannot be a matter of what I’ve lost, but what I’ve gained: an understanding of how much good is in each and every day and each and every person.
My family and I are continuing on the long, tedious, and unknowable road of recovery. And when I get anxious about the uncertainty of the future, I draw comfort from knowing that the Jewish community will continue to be there for me.