“The Ascent” by Michael (Misha) Shengaout

(Translated by Aimee Roebuck-Johnson)

Why do mountain climbers climb mountains? Can it really be just for the glorious view from the top? Weeks of suffering just for the beautiful scenery at the end of the road? I think the point is the ascent itself. However, life sometimes offers climbs even higher than Mount Everest. Here is the story of one such ascent.

* * *

It was a typical day. Nicholas got into his car after work, drove out of the parking lot, and headed home. It was later than usual and there was almost no traffic. The opportunity to work late not only brought in more money, but also made the drive home less of a hassle. What difference did it make if you left at 6:00 or at 7:30? Either way, you got home at almost the same time.

Nicholas stopped at a red light and waited the three minutes it took to turn green. “Finally,” he thought as he eased into the intersection. Suddenly, there were brakes screeching somewhere from his left. Nicholas managed to see headlights racing toward him and to hear the crash. His entire body was racked with pain and then a merciful darkness overtook him.

“…when he comes to…the impact…multiple fractures…” He was coming in and out of consciousness, fragments of phrases echoing in his ears. Almost every part of his body ached and he was really thirsty. He forced his eyes to open and saw the nurse changing his I.V. He tried to open his mouth to ask for a drink, but all that came out was a weak, scratchy sound. The nurse looked over at him and realized that he’d come to. “You shouldn’t try to talk. You’ve just come out of surgery and you shouldn’t eat, drink, or try to do anything. You probably wanted something to drink. Just open and close your eyes if that’s it.” Nicholas’ eyes were already closing. Now he just had to open them… The nurse nodded, “I understand. I’ll start the I.V. right now and you’ll feel better. It is a saline solution with a pain reliever.” The light in the hospital room was soft, but it still hurt his eyes. Nicholas let his eyes close and he sank into a ring of fiery flares and the dizzy sensation of falling…

When he awoke, it was already mid-afternoon. His mother was sitting near his bed reading a book.

“Mom,” Nicholas whispered.
“Nick, sweetheart, you shouldn’t try to talk,” she fussed. She looked tired and there were dark circles under her eyes.
“What happened?”
“You were in an accident. The truck driver who hit you had fallen asleep at the wheel. They operated on you for five hours and you were unconscious for three days.”
“What do the doctors say?”

His mother’s eyes glistened suspiciously and she looked away. A few seconds passed and it became obvious that she didn’t know what to say.

“Tell me, mom. You know I can take it,” Nicholas croaked.

She turned toward the window and swallowed the lump in her throat. She laid her hand on the bed and began to speak haltingly. “Your back is broken. The doctors have inserted a rod in your spine and put you in a cast. The surgeon said your spinal cord is damaged.” She couldn’t stop the tears any longer, saying, “They don’t think that you’ll ever walk again.”

The meaning of what she had said took about ten seconds to sink in. Then everything started to spin and blur and he felt like he was in the middle of a hurricane. All at once, he noticed the lack of feeling in his legs and then pictured himself in a wheelchair. He pictured the faces of his friends feeling sorry for him and imagined them feeling guilty for being healthy. And the women. All the pretty girls he would never invite for coffee and never be able to touch. The girls who would see an object of pity instead of a good-looking guy. The love that would never happen and the family that would never be. He closed his eyes and he was caught up in a feeling of suspended reality. He heard a ringing in his ears and he started to feel dizzy. Colors faded and he had a hard time breathing while, at the same time, wanting to scream at the top of his lungs. He pulled himself together and said,

“It’s okay. We’ll make it through this. Don’t cry, mom. Go home and get some rest.” His mother started to object, but Nicholas continued, closing his eyes, “It looks like I’m going to be here a while. The reality is that I’m going to need your help a lot from now on, so please go.”

She nodded and got her things, not saying a word. It was obvious that these three days had been harder on her than on him. She closed her purse, kissed him, and left.

* * *

Two weeks had passed since he was moved from intensive care into the trauma unit. The despair of those first days had given way to a kind of stupor. Nicholas lay on his back and looked up at the ceiling. He didn’t feel like reading, thinking, or even eating. During one of his visits, his father said, “Son, I’m not going to try to cheer you up. You know full well that your mother and I love you. There’s no way I can find the right words to ease your pain. I’ll tell you this: you have to fake it until you make it. If you live like things are all right, then, little by little, they may get better. Keep on living, even if you don’t feel like it.”

So Nicholas kept on living, powered by inertia alone. He forced himself to eat. He made himself laugh about his situation with his friends. He noticed that these jokes eased the tension in their faces and they looked relieved. But all this was just an act. What was really inside him was a dull stupor that alternated periodically with an agonizing feeling of protest against the injustice of fate or life itself. Life had condemned a 27-year-old guy to the fate of a cripple. There would be no running along the beach, skimming the ocean waves with his children. From here on out, his lot in life was to be alone.

* * *

Three months had passed since he left the hospital. Little by little, his life began to take shape. His apartment was set up so he could take care of himself. He got fitted with a motorized wheelchair. He could live on his disability insurance and didn’t need to work. His medical insurance covered therapy treatments four times a week. The truck driver’s insurance company gave him a big settlement since he agreed to settle out of court.

With the details of his daily life in order, Nicholas escaped reality into a world of books. He devoured novels and fantasy stories at an amazing rate. He could live out a life of his own choosing in their pages. Sometimes it hit him hard that, as the imaginary space action-hero in one of his books, he could defeat galactic empires, but in real life it was hard for him even to take a shower. He hadn’t shaved in a while and disorder reigned in his apartment, but he could escape all that by retreating into the pages of his next novel.

Nicholas often thought about ending it all. When he imagined the remaining decades of his life in a wheelchair, the bitterness and unfairness of it all began to strangle him. However, even at his lowest point, he didn’t want to cause his parents any more pain by taking his own life. His friends dropped by to see him sometimes, but he didn’t really make the effort to visit anyone. He had nothing really to talk to them about — the “haves” don’t understand the problems of the “have nots”. His mother came to see him twice a week and always brought some religious pamphlets with her. These books reminded him of Soviet propaganda. She always tried to start conversations about religion with him, but the fact that she couldn’t manage to express her thoughts clearly always drove him crazy and he often ended up shouting at her.

One time his father asked him whether it might be worth it to go see a psychologist. “You know”, he said, “depression can speed you to the grave faster than any car wreck.” Nicholas agreed to go.

In the psychologist’s office, he took one look at the luxurious furniture, smiled and nodded at his wheelchair, “Why don’t we switch Freud’s therapy couch for Nicholas’s easy chair?”

“The patient is cracking jokes, which must mean that not all is lost,” laughed the doctor.

Nicholas spent three hours taking tests, drawing pictures, and answering questions. He didn’t really believe that the psychologist could give him any useful advice or even tell him anything new. It didn’t make much difference either way—his insurance covered these visits. And honestly, the fact that he wasn’t just sitting around passing the time and was actually getting out and doing something broke up the monotony of his life.

Two days after his first visit, the psychologist, Dr. Anders, called him at home. “I’ve analyzed your test results and I have an idea. Before we continue our therapy I’d like you to meet with another specialist that I consider to be my mentor and dear friend. He’s getting on in years and no longer practices psychology, but he would like to meet with you. Come to my office day after tomorrow at 9 am.” Nicholas agreed.

* * *

When Nicholas came through the door of the office in his wheelchair, he saw an old man sitting at the desk in a short-sleeved shirt holding a steaming cup of tea with his thin fingers. The dark blue numbers tattooed on his arm caught Nicholas’s eye and he gawked at them for about 10 seconds. He finally came to his senses and was able to tear his eyes away from this symbol of a concentration camp. He met the elderly man’s laughing gaze and felt embarrassed.
“I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll bet that people stare even more at your wheelchair. I’m used to it. Besides, lately folks have started to forget all about what these mean,” said the man with a noticeable accent.
“Is that really from Auschwitz?”
“Yes. Initially from Auschwitz and then later from Buchenwald.”
“I didn’t know the word ‘later’ could be combined in the same sentence with ‘Buchenwald’, let alone with ‘Auschwitz’.”
“You’re right about that! These were probably my lucky numbers. If someone had told me after my first week at Auschwitz that I’d still be alive in four years, I wouldn’t have believed it. By the way, let’s introduce ourselves. I’m Dr. Viktor Frankl.”
“Nicholas.”
“My friend, judging from all the feedback I’ve gotten, you’re smart and, more than likely, you’ve already understood why Dr. Anders suggested that we meet. It’s much easier for me, a person who’s been through a concentration camp, to tell a guy in a wheelchair that not all hope is lost. I have stopped practicing psychology more than ten years ago, but some of my like-minded colleagues and I have an agreement about these kinds of situations. Dr. Anders is a very good specialist. He will help you if you let him. He wouldn’t have even called me if you had come to him with questions. But you came with all the answers. You’re convinced that you’ve got nothing to live for. A visit to a psychologist is just some kind of last box you need to check before you say goodbye to this world. This is a kind of way to have a clear conscience for yourself and your loved ones, a way of saying, ‘I’ve tried everything. Now leave me alone.’ Have I got it right?”

Nicholas was somewhat taken aback by this preamble and involuntarily nodded in agreement.

“So Dr. Anders did have it right,” continued Dr. Frankl. “He called me in not to help you find the answers, but rather to help you find the courage to ask yourself the most important and relevant question.”

At this point he stopped and took a sip of tea. He let the silence stand and was clearly waiting for the obvious question from Nicholas.

“And what is that question?” asked Nicholas finally.

“Is there really nothing more to life than what is below your belt?” the doctor blurted out at once.

Nicholas couldn’t help smiling. The doctor smiled back and, in an obvious parody of Dr. Anders, said, “The patient is laughing at himself, which must mean that not all is lost.” He’d done a pretty good impression of the doctor and they both started laughing. Dr. Frankl took another sip, savoring the aromatic tea. Nicholas tried not to change the mood and asked, “So, you’re wanting to tell me that all is not lost and life could be a whole lot worse, for example in a concentration camp?”

The doctor’s voice took an unexpectedly serious tone, “Yes and no. Yes, all is not lost, although what you take to mean “all” is entirely up to you to figure out. And no, I’m not going to try to persuade you that, compared to life in a concentration camp, your life is perfect. It’s just that Dr. Anders thought, and I agree with him, that certain findings I made there and then could help you here and now. Allow me to tell you a little about concentration camps, about existence completely stripped of everything that makes life worthwhile. Imagine: you are so weak the wind could blow you over and even your feet are bloated from hunger. You’ve tied what’s left of your shoes together with string or made a pair for yourself out of cardboard to walk on the winter snow in the bitter cold. Your biggest dream-come-true would be to sleep an extra 15 minutes or get an extra piece of bread. The worst thing about it is that after a week not only your body starts to go numb, but you also lose feeling in your very soul. You pretty much forget what it’s like to feel happy and the very idea of happiness becomes meaningless for you. The only ray of hope in this hell is the weak hope that you’ll be freed, but it’s hard to see that ray for the smoke from the crematoriums. Your tenuous existence is made up only of suffering that leads you eventually to one of the smoking ovens a stone’s throw away from you.”

“Only someone who’s been through that himself could imagine what those prisoners were going through,” Nicholas interjected politely.

“In some ways, you’re the same kind of prisoner now that I was then,” the doctor objected, “And just like me, you’re deciding what you should go on living for. Life brings each of us joy alternating with pain. Take away the joy and take away even the hope that the joy could come back and life becomes Hell. In that Hell, death seductively holds up an exit sign. S.S. Officers were very able surgeons of the human soul. They amputated our reason for living by taking away every single thing that helped us feel the least bit alive. When they did their job right, a person had a breakdown: no matter how hard they beat him, he stopped getting up. He wouldn’t eat, even if someone offered. He urinated and defecated on himself. Some died within a couple of days. Physical survival was directly correlated with the ability to find a reason to go on living.”

The doctor thought for a moment and then continued, “I’m probably the only living person who looked at the concentration camp not only as a prisoner, but also as a psychiatrist. A few years before the war, I became a physician and then a psychiatrist. I practiced psychiatry and published scholarly articles. Even then I noticed the connection between having reason to live and health. Have you ever noticed that disillusioned people have more drinking and health problems?”

Nicholas nodded in agreement.

“Well now, those people have it even worse when it comes to mental illness. And the question of “What is all this for?” often became a key to their treatment. The interesting thing is that each person’s answer is completely unique: a particular dream of an individual at a specific moment of his existence. One’s answer is to open a bakery, another’s – to see Paris or Niagara Falls. I started researching this with a bunch of surveys, statistics and so on. I’d even started writing a book right before the war. The idea of it was to help patients find their dream, stop drinking, and start living,”

Nicholas started to laugh. The doctor’s eyes danced devilishly. In spite of his advanced age, his gaze was bright, young, and made you feel comfortable, making you forget about the age difference. Nicholas didn’t see a doctor dissecting his soul, but simply an interesting person, someone like a friend. He couldn’t remember the last time he had opened up so much with anyone. He didn’t feel like anyone was feeling sorry for him or was paying attention to him because they had to. He wasn’t afraid of looking funny or stupid.

About that time, the doctor continued, “Before the war I identified two big areas where people usually find a reason for living. One was creating something: work, poetry, drawing, raising children (your own and others’), in other words, bringing something into the world that didn’t exist before. The second area was feelings and experiences. It’s pleasant to spend time with friends, to learn something new, to experience new places and go to Tokyo or Paris. Love fits in this sphere; being with the one you love is an amazing experience, filling life with meaning like nothing else.

Nicholas’s heart sank. “That’s exactly what I’ll never have,” he thought as he was filled with unexpected bitterness and rage.

“But what kind of meaning could there be to the life of an old woman dying of cancer? Or a violent mental patient locked in solitary confinement? They can’t go to Paris. They can’t really create anything because of their pain or infirmity. Is there meaning to an existence emptied of practically everything besides suffering? Maybe it’s better in those situations to put them out of their misery? I racked my brains over this question until life, that cruel but effective teacher, brought me to the answer. In the concentration camp, prisoners often talked about what they would do when they were free. Their internal censor had already deleted from their life the time they were spending in the camp. I understood then that life itself always could have some kind of meaning, even when situated in the suffering of a concentration camp. If life itself doesn’t have any meaning, then it won’t acquire any through the avenues of self-reproduction, or self-portrayals by means of music, theater, or communication with other people. But how can you fill a concentration camp life void of anything good with something of value?”

Dr. Frankl stopped for a moment as if he was experiencing those long-ago days all over again. Nicholas patiently waited for the doctor to continue.

“It’s only now that I’m talking about “meaning” and “point of view” in a coherent way. Then it was all so bad that it can’t even be described. The only thing I did was force myself to believe that there had to be some kind of meaning to all this, some kind of psychological solution. Then finally it came to me one day: I am a Person. No one can take that away from me. I can’t leave the concentration camp, but I can keep my humanity even while surrounded by suffering. When suffering can’t be denied, a person can always rise above it. And even if no one can see this triumph of the human spirit, the realization of this ascent can’t be taken away. This victory will be more permanently etched in the past of the Universe than if it were in a monument of bronze or granite.”

The doctor rubbed his forehead and started speaking slowly, so he could choose the right words, “My realization wasn’t the result of a logical chain of thought, but it was preceded by reflection, analysis, and a conscious search. It was a kind of awakening. At first I felt like I was trying to solve a puzzle made up of disjointed pieces and then I suddenly pictured how all the pieces fit together. All at once I understood that no one has the power to take the past away. All of a sudden it came to me that the time I’d spent with my wife and daughters, that sunset over Lake Geneva—those things had been deposited to the World’s Bank of Past Experiences and it would stay safe there for all the eternity. It also became clear to me that no one could force me to lose my humanity. Even if I couldn’t avoid the suffering, I could go through it with dignity. Even if no one ever knew what I’d managed to do, it was enough that I knew about my metaphysical victory over my situation. And in that victory of my spirit, in maintaining my dignity in the face of adversity and keeping my humanity even in Hell, I found purpose in the suffering. And I emphasize the word “Person”, not the word “suffering”.”

The doctor stopped to take a breath. Nicholas’s eyes narrowed as he asked, “So, in other words, you want to say that you found God?”

Dr. Frankl thought for a moment and then spoke resolutely, “I found something. On one hand, the understanding I reached then didn’t actually contain any new information, though as a psychiatrist, I can say with confidence that I couldn’t have caused such an internal transformation in myself. At the time there was a deep internal struggle going on inside me that probably should have broken me. On the other hand, I was on a kind of odyssey, searching for something. At the very moment my strength to continue my search ran out, when I should have sunk into the depths of depression and given up trying and lost any will to live, it was as if something greater than me grabbed the shattered pieces of me and formed them into a new kind of comprehension. Maybe you’ve heard the story about Baron Munchausen who pulled himself out of a swamp by his hair? That’s how I felt … except I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t my hand that pulled me by the hair out of that metaphysical swamp. You know, I think that if you keep on searching for the flame to fire your existence, then same hand will pull you out at some point. If you don’t believe me as a psychiatrist, believe me as a prisoner!”

The two men kept talking for more than an hour. It turned out that Dr. Frankl’s wife and children died during the war. Nicholas was shocked when he found out the doctor was 95 years-old and that he’d just flown in from Vienna to “visit his friends”.

When Nicholas got home he threw the latest of his fantasy novels off the bed and fell right to sleep. The next day he called Dr. Anders and set up an appointment for the following week.

* * *

Almost a year passed. Twice a month Nicholas had an appointment with Dr. Anders. They talked for an hour or two, usually about psychology, philosophy, or religion. Then the doctor would recommend a book for Nicholas to read that touched on a topic they’d discussed in their session. They would start the next session by discussing the book he’d read and then move on to a new topic. Their appointments continued this way for a while. Sometimes they discussed Nicholas’ family and his childhood, sometimes his studies at the university. Sometimes they talked about women. Nicholas learned a lot about himself from the picture that began to emerge from these discussions and readings. He learned that his teenage confidence issues had made him protect himself by running to the other extreme and putting on a mask of superiority. He was often coming across as arrogant and haughty. This combination of insecurity and arrogance got in the way in his relationships, particularly with women. In his heart of hearts he couldn’t imagine anyone liking the real Nicholas, the one without the mask. So he built a fortress around himself so high that, when he hid inside it, it became a kind of personal solitary confinement. The problem was that he stayed inside waiting for some “true” love to come to him, validate himself, take away his fear of showing his true self to the world, and let him out of his spiritual prison. As a result, the shock of his accident and his disability was compounded by the death of his dream of “true” love. He could understand now that his dream could never have come true in the first place. You can love only a real person, not the bars on the window of his heart. Along the way, Nicholas realized that the women who he’d had long-term relationships with had actually really loved him. No matter how hard he’d tried to build a wall around his inner self, they’d been able to see the real person inside the fortress.

In the course of that year, Nicholas sifted through a mountain of literature, beginning with psychological treatises and philosophy textbooks and finishing with the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, Kabbalah’s “Tanya” and New Age’s “Urantia Book”. Now he read fantasy and science fiction extremely rarely. When he caught himself in the pages of some space adventure book, he slammed the book shut and rolled over to the bookshelf to the literature he was studying. He started to see his friends more often, but they weren’t very interested in discussing what he was reading. That he discussed mainly with Dr. Anders. Life was still pretty depressing, but he was able to get through each day with less and less effort – probably because he was spending less time feeling sorry for himself. Echoing Dr. Frankl, Dr. Anders said during one of their discussions that in order to get rid of a broken dream one has to find a new one. And so Nicholas set about his search.

* * *

After yesterday’s medical visit Nicholas’s back hurt terribly. In the past two years his doctor had tried one therapy after another on his spine. He’d tried treatments based on practically every element in the periodic table. They’d tried hormones, homeopathy, and all other manner of treatments that could qualify as cruel and unusual punishment. The most recent treatment was an injection of a chemical cocktail that included an extract of Nicholas’s own blood. Unfortunately, the only result of the procedure so far had been the pain in the upper part of his body. A crazy thought darted through his mind as they were giving him the cocktail, “I wonder if a person who drinks his own blood counts as a vampire?” And now the pain in his back served as a reminder that he’d not felt anything in the lower half of his body in a long time.

Last night he had a strange dream. He dreamed that he was in some kind of warehouse where he worked and lived with a woman whom he loved very much. He had everything he needed to such an extent that he never even went outside. He was completely fulfilled and happy with his life. In his dream he’d spent his entire life in the warehouse, because the woman was young at first and then got older and older. He found it more and more difficult to move as the dream progressed and then he saw himself at the woman’s bedside as she lay dying. He was seized with grief and despair (he’d even noticed tearstains on his pillow when he woke up). Later he somehow ended up outside—most likely he’d left his home in a fit of grief. He was poor and all around him was a scary world of huge buildings and endless open spaces. Then he somehow ended up standing up at the top of a hill stretching out his arms. The sun was shining and…

An idiotic telephone marketing call woke him up. By the time he hung up the phone he realized that he couldn’t remember the end of his dream. He thought, “How strange—usually you remember the end of the dream and, with this one, it’s the other way around.” He had the feeling that at the end of the dream, he was dreaming of something amazing and something really important.

In fact, nothing was going right for Nicholas that day. As he was getting ready for his breakfast he discovered that his fridge looked exactly like Antarctica—it was cold, white and empty. He rolled out of this front door and headed over to his car. A heavy summer downpour started right as he was halfway between his apartment entrance and his car. Completely drenched, Nicholas got himself loaded into his Honda, started the engine and turned on the air conditioner… only to realize that it wasn’t working. He wiped the condensation off the windshield with a napkin and drove off. Through the streams of water on the outside of the windshield and the streaks inside it, he found it difficult to make out the lanes on the road. He rolled into the grocery store and there he found out that it was struck by lightning earlier that morning and none of the cash registers were working. Hungry, wet, and mad, Nicholas rolled out of the store, wincing from the pain in his back.

The rain stopped. Dark storm clouds rushed to the east and left a beautiful turquoise sky in their wake. The sun shone behind him and an amazing sparkling rainbow spread out in front of him. The picture was spellbinding. He thought of all the stupid inconveniences that had happened this morning. Nicholas smiled and then laughed out loud. He kept on smiling as he rolled along the sidewalk in his wheelchair. He breathed in the aroma of the air, freshly washed by the storm. He felt his heart soaking in the beauty around him. He wasn’t thinking about anything, just enjoying the moment, the sunlight, the warmth … and then he suddenly remembered the ending of the dream.

He remembered how in his dream he’d lifted his arms wanting to fly. The next sensation he’d felt was being enveloped in warm air and soaring on the wind. Then he seemed to feel rather than actually hear someone saying, “Hi!” In this greeting was so much love and warmth that the voice could belong to no one other than that very woman he loved. Only now there wasn’t any grief or pain. He had the feeling that she wasn’t above or below him, but everywhere around him. There was peace, some kind of heightened joy, and a feeling of limitless trust in the rising air current. “We’re always together now. All you need to do is want to fly.” When he landed back on the hill top, his feeling of loss and grief was gone and the houses and streets of the city didn’t seem so huge anymore. He had the feeling that he’d returned to a house he used to live in when he was four years old, only now it wasn’t a huge as he remembered it being. And that is when his dream was interrupted by the telemarketer’s call…

In a little while the sun was eclipsed by a cloud and the rainbow disappeared. Even so, the dream stayed on his mind. Nicholas remembered that he’d not eaten and decided to see whether the cash registers were working. Turning around, he headed back to the store, which he’d driven a fair distance from.

Rolling his wheelchair, he continued to process his feelings. The sensation of flight was a pleasant reminder of his childhood when he’d frequently dream that he was flying. However, he’d never felt this kind of sensation of being surrounded on all sides with concern, warmth, and love. He was shocked by the reality of these memories and stopped on the sidewalk of the store’s parking lot. That early Sunday morning the neighborhood was practically empty and everything that he’d been reading over the past year suddenly clicked for him. Nicholas took a breath, closed his eyes, and said quietly, “I really want to know if You exist. I want to see that which I can’t see with my eyes. I would do whatever it takes, even give my life to find my path and escape my loneliness. If You truly exist, please show yourself!” Part of him felt fairly stupid, calling out to nothing and waiting for an answer from nowhere. However, he was filled with an inexplicable aching for something so close and yet so far. This ache of loneliness was so strong that his eyes filled with tears. He closed his eyes and repeated his words aloud. Then again…

And then a feeling started welling within him. He felt loved, he felt not alone. That, which made him feel that way was closer than next to him – it was within. No one and nothing could take it away from him. It wasn’t words, or a thought, or an emotion, although it was causing all kind of emotions and raced Nicholas mind through all kind of thoughts to try to understand what it was and put it in words. But he couldn’t, although he had never felt anything more clearly in his life. He felt a kind of primordial love that is the source of all the rest of the love in the world. The world that just a moment ago had been limited by his wheelchair had now opened up infinitely.

Nicholas’s body shook from the overwhelming feelings. He saw that path, though he couldn’t explain what the path meant and how to follow it. One thing he knew – whatever that path would be, it had to resonate with the feeling he was experiencing. He felt like he’d been blind his whole life and colors and flowers had always been described to him and then suddenly he was able to see. Nicholas had heard the word “God” many times. Now he started to understand its meaning. “Well, I may not have legs, but I seem to have grown wings!” thought Nicholas.

* * *

When Nicholas arrived at his appointment a few days later, Dr. Anders took a long look at him, smiled suddenly and said, “Hmm, I see. It appears that you’ve come to see me for the last time as a patient.”

“Is it obvious? What do you think you see in me? ”

“I see that you are in pretty good company.”

Doctor Anders spoke through his nose ironically, “Allow me to introduce you to the rest of our guests: Buddha, Mohammed, Plato, St. Paul of Tarsus, Dr. Frankl, and, of course, your humble servant.”

Nicholas kept up the game, answering the doctor, “You think pretty highly of yourself! The only thing that could excuse your sacrilege is adding me to the list.”

The doctor laughed and then got serious, “You probably couldn’t wait for your appointment. I have to warn you that your euphoria will fade in a few months. Even so, I’m sure you’ll figure everything out.”

“How did it happen with you?”

“I was in Vilnius on business and decided to drop into a local synagogue. You might not know it, but Vilnius used to be a real center of Judaism in its time. I’d never been religious, but always loved history. You can say what you will, but there was plenty of history in that place. I spoke with the head rabbi; he’d been sent there from New York because there weren’t any local rabbis to serve there. He asked me whether I’d ever “put on the tefilin”. I had no idea what he was talking about. It turns out that the tefilin is a little box that holds the scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah. While you pray you tie it on your arm and on your head between your eyes. He explained the idea behind the rite and suggested that we pray wearing the tefilin right in his office. I was in a very difficult period of my life. Even though I felt rather stupid, something inside me wanted to do it. Later I understood that it didn’t matter what I put on or said; the important thing was that I was calling out with all of my heart to something I couldn’t see or hear. By doing that I was expressing my confidence in something immeasurably higher than myself. Anyway, I put on the tefilin and repeated the prayer in Hebrew after the rabbi. Even though I didn’t understand a word of it, I suddenly felt the wind of the ages on my face, the voices of countless generations who’d prayed those prayers before me. I felt that Infinite Being the prayer was meant for.”

The doctor was quiet for a few seconds and then continued, “In the beginning I believed that my experience was the proof that there was only one way to God and I had just taken it. I dedicated myself to studying Hebrew and the Torah. I tried to understand Kabbalah and to drag all lapsed Jews back to the synagogue. However, over time I noticed among some Christians a similar determination to discover and follow The Way. And some of them had a depth of understanding and strength of conviction that exceeded my own. When I read Mother Theresa’s life story, I finally came to terms with the understanding that each person has a unique and complex way of perceiving the world. God takes on the form that each person can understand and accept. Once he fills us in our unique way, he guides us to himself. Think of it as an ascent to the same mountain top starting on different sides of the mountain. There are many routes, but even though the mountain looks different from each side, there’s just one mountain top. As long as you keep it in sight and work your way to it, you are doing all right. Well, anyway, the main thing is that I’m glad that you’ve found yourself again. Keep me posted on what you’re doing and drop by from time to time.”

* * *

Almost a month passed. Nicholas got a part-time job in a computer company that let him telecommute. Besides that he earned some money writing articles about new technology for computer magazines. He’d finished his most recent article a week or so earlier and sent it out to an editor of one of the big magazines, hoping to get it published. After breakfast he decided to check his e-mail to see whether he’d gotten a response. Nicholas rolled over to the computer and turned clumsily, hitting his knee on the corner of the table. He cursed, rubbed his knee, and… froze, not believing what he felt. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine that pain can bring so much joy.

Copyright © 2006-2010 Michael Shengaout
This Translation Copyright © 2011 Tower of Harmony, LLC
All Rights Reserved, used by permission

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Comments

  1. katekresse says:

    oh my , Michael. That is so well-written. Is it autobiographical?

    • mshenga says:

      Thank you for your kind words. Although I have never been physically crippled, this story is (in some way) autobiographical. There are many ways life can break us and then have us healed.

      The scene with the rain and rainbow actually did happen exactly as described. It was June 15, 1993, Kroger on Buford Hwy in Atlanta, and I made a point to remember that date. There were couple other things that happened that day (e.g. my A/C broke, cash machine stopped working as I was about to put my card in it, etc.), but I decided to keep it more plausable by removing some of the actual events!

  2. M says:

    Michael, what a powerful story. I just finished reading a biography of a young man on the run in Nazi Berlin. How this young man persevered( mostly alone) during this nightmare is unimaginable to me. You obviously have some personal insight into the atrocities of the Holocaust.

    A very good read.

    I am a friend of Susan Hawkins. She turned me onto your website. I have enjoyed reading a couple of the short stories and look forward to reading more.

    • mshenga says:

      Thank you for your kind words. Any friend of Susan is friend of mine! We are planning to put out at least one new short story every two weeks (articles and reviews will come more often).

  3. Inna Satunovsky says:

    I. says
    August 18, 2012
    Michael, It is so-o-o great and amazing! It touched me to tears. It encouraged and inspired to keep going.
    The subject of discovering senses of our being, which help us to continue our road, and hold on, when it seems all strength is over, attracts me very much. I am so thankful to get support in your story.
    Keep going!

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