What I’m Learning about Almost Dying
Some facial paralysis, 32 staples in my skull, and overwhelming concern from loved ones have given all kinds of new meaning to 'the show must go on.'
I was in a very serious car accident less than two weeks ago that required emergency brain surgery, and, as I am writing this, I have 32 staples in my skull and have partial paralysis on the left side of my face. I was 25 minutes away from dying, but let’s start off with the good news!
As a standup comic, that’s what I’m supposed to do anyway. Some people thought this is way too early to reflect on what I’m going through, as I was asked to write about it, but it’s such a time, why not seize it? I can also finally stare at a screen without getting a big headache, so I might as well take advantage. I got a lot of “whenever you are ready” comments, as far as writing about this, all meant with the utmost kindness, but I’m not sure if anyone is ever ready, so no time like the present.
As far as the positives: I can walk. I can see. And my recovery was described as, shall we say, “rare,” when it came to the speed of it, in terms of being able to balance, dizziness, and numerous other things they test. I try to exercise regularly and took some small pride when they started taking my vitals (when I was conscious enough to answer) and they kept asking, “Do you run or something? Do you exercise?” Once I was standing, I was doing regular walking laps around the hallways of the hospital and I’d get some looks from the nurses, all positive, and they could not have been nicer in helping me. Emotionally, there were also positives that I would have never imagined.
As I woke up from the surgery (I have no memory of getting hit by the truck), I remember seeing my parents walking in and my friend Rachel on the phone, and her telling a nurse: “Yes, I’m his sister,” which she’s not, but Rachel is tough as nails, and clearly wasn’t going to put up with whatever technical rules they had as far as visitors. While I was in agony, since I had a tube down my throat and was now throwing up from it, the ICU nurse Kate, kept cleaning it up and fought to get it taken out. She called in a doctor and said my oxygen levels were fine and the doctor agreed, and cleared her removing it. She told me she would still have to insert a tube down my nose and into my stomach and it was going to hurt so I should grab the hand of Rachel and squeeze. I did just that and made it through, and Rachel told me she felt better that I had good pressure on her hand so there was some strength there.
My sister (my actual sister, who is a nurse) showed up after flying in from Massachusetts, and my brother was right behind her coming in from LA. They both told me, “You’re aware there are a ton of people worried about you and inquiring?’ I honestly wasn’t, but after realizing, it obviously gave me hope and I was beyond touched. It mattered to me more than anything that people reached out and their phone calls meant the world. They were worried about “bothering” me as far as calls, etc. but my head hurt, so reading messages on a screen online was harder. My siblings were champs in helping me with that, and I felt determined to try to answer everyone and thank them for reaching out. My sister’s strength is her calm demeanor and level head (no pun intended with the head reference), and I distinctly remember grabbing her hand when she came in and thinking, “Thank God.” My brother’s strength is his intensity, and, when it came to gathering records, making sure the necessary medication was being prescribed, and connecting with doctors I would need when I was released, he was all over it and I didn’t need to worry about it. My parents of course were a whole other level of caring, which I can’t even really describe so I won’t.
Avi Liberman performs at Comedy for Koby. (Yissachar Ruas)
The friends, and some strangers, they allowed in (the friends would sometimes pose as clergy which I thought was hilarious) were also beyond helpful. My friend Max, who is my neighbor back in LA, showed up out of nowhere, and I still have no idea how he got in, but I felt immediate relief upon seeing him, and he went above and beyond and arranged a Hatzolah Air flight back to Houston for me and my family, on a donated jet, which checked vitals while I was on the flight. They even said they could lower altitude if the pressure on my ear and head was too much. It was amazing how much they cared.
Days before any of that even happened, as a practicing Jew when it came to various religious ceremonies, they all of a sudden took on a special importance to me. As Friday night approached, I got worried. Visitors were not allowed after 8 p.m. and the Sabbath was rolling in right about that time. How was I going to recite or listen to the Kiddush, the blessing over the grape juice? Before I knew it, out of nowhere, two young Chabad Hasidic Jews come walking into my room and took over. “How did you guys even get in here?” “We’re officially clergy! We’re on the list and Rabbi Klein at the synagogue in Aventura arranged it!” When they started reciting various blessings, I tried to join in, but absolutely broke down. I could barely get through it.
A Chabad Hasid named Mendy Goren passed away a couple years ago, and I wrote an article about him and, and how much he and his family in Miami meant to me. No surprise that they were instrumental in connecting my family to the hospital and letting others know where I was. His image popped right into my head when they started the service as if he was telling me, “Did you really think I’d let you go without this? I have you taken care of, even from this world!” I even successfully took a small sip of the grape juice and felt like the Sabbath mattered more than ever.
I had some other emotional moments where I broke down, where another friend also named Avi came and did the Havdalah closing service of the Sabbath, and he had no call to do so. I also had a great visit where my friend Achicam, who was also hurt in the accident with me (though he had some broken ribs, thank God, he did not require hospitalization, and is on the full mend) came to visit, and we basically collapsed into each other’s arms, happy that we were both alive. His choice of a Volvo basically saved my life and I’ll forever be grateful.
While this all may sound inspirational and giant pile of good feelings, what I learned is that every sob, ever interaction is not going to be that, and the image I may have of myself of “being able to beat it” could have been just a mirage to help me cope. Was I even being honest?
When I got back to Houston with my parents and brother, I broke down again, but this time it wasn’t a giant pile of hugs and good feelings. I was angry and depressed. Did I even have call to feel that way? After all, I had already bucked some pretty good odds right? Numerous people said I was lucky to be alive, walking, etc. Was I being rational?
This isn’t me!! I’m supposed to make people smile and now I can’t even do it myself!! I’m not some kind of pity case!
I don’t remember exactly what triggered my losing it, but it was a general discussion of treatments, expected time of recovery with my face paralysis, and all my parents and brother were tying to do was help. I began walking around the house screaming, “This isn’t me!! I’m supposed to make people smile and now I can’t even do it myself!! This isn’t me!! I’m not some kind of pity case! I don’t want to be a professional victim!! I’m the guy who bucks the odds not the other way around!!” I got so angry when they wouldn’t agree that maybe I could beat this at some absurd fast rate I picked up a bottle of water (half full at least so it didn’t break open) and threw it on the ground, and actually hurt my arm, I slammed it down so hard. I know they were just trying to avoid disappointed expectations, but I was furious and couldn’t calm down.
When I finally did relax, my dad was also crying, but not because he was sad. He simply said he was grateful I was still alive. He viewed it as such a gift that his son was still here and he was actually relieved I had finally broken down in flat out depression. It showed I was human, and of course, he was right.
After calming down even more the next day, two close friends who are comics, Dan and Ray, group-called me and said they had seen other comics who have had strokes, go on stage, address it briefly and then move on. You only become a victim on stage if you present yourself that way, so… don’t.
I was also fortunate enough years ago to do some shows in Iraq and Afghanistan, where I met some elite soldiers, who I’ve kept in touch with. My buddy Chris called me and he has been through not one, not two, but three traumatic head injuries and he really helped me. He told me to take it easy and that whatever type-A attitude I wanted to display was not the route to take. I was worried I was acting like a big baby, but Chris assured me. “Oh believe me, if you are, we’ll let you know!”
I know it’s only been a short time, but I’ll do the best I can as far as taking stock.
What have I learned so far in going through this and in being right in the middle of it? The obvious answer is of course that I still have a lot to learn. While I’m now embarrassed that I have some shame, in that I can’t even post a picture without the obvious facial struggles, maybe that’s okay. Crying and getting depressed and constantly questioning scenarios in my life are also okay. Let’s be brutally honest. I have a job to do, and aside from spreading joy, love, positivity, whatever you want to call it, part of that job is being a human being, with all the faults that accompany it.
In the end, what has jumped out to me the most is just how much family, friends, and, oddly enough, even total strangers can get you through the hardest times. We have our bad days, no question, but in the end, we can do more than just survive. We can live. Let’s start there, and hopefully we can all learn as we go, and live better, struggles and all.
This article originally appeared in the Times of Israel Blog.