Edmund Wilson called it a "shock of recognition," the realization of a truth that you knew but did not previously recognize. It took me twelve hours to be shocked into realizing that the small pain in my right shoulder with radiating lines flying out from it across my chest might be a heart attack. Then it took fourr days to get to a doctor and a hospital, have tests, wait for results, get scheduled, and undergo surgery requiring six by passes. I did inquire when I woke up if they had contacted the Guiness people to see if anyone had topped me.
Unfortunately, the surgery was just the beginning. I had a series of bad reactions, so far requiring four stays in the hospital, having needles stuck into my back and side and up and down my arms.
Of course, coming face-to-face with age, illness, and mortality is difficult for everyone. I experienced it, though, not just as a person but also as a writer. I had the energy to read and watch television but not to shape sentences and paragraphs.I couldn't write for months.
It was my cardiologist who told me to work on another book. Indeed, he got animated, declaring it as a medical necessity for me to begin writing again, to take my mind off my body's betrayal. That day I contacted my editor and got approval to write a book about American Jewish films. I'm going to begin writing that book soon.
That was good, but I had a deeper emotional need. I began thinking about a novel I had written just before the attack. I had put it aside, ignoring it in the face of grappling with survival. The Land of Eighteen Dreams is an episodic novel made up of eighteen chronologically-conected stories, each of which is self-contained. All of these episodes concern Lily, who grows from age eight to adulthood, and her grandfather. His stories distill the inherited folk wisdom of Eastern European Jews and serve as an ongoing account of American Jewish life.
I sat there and read the novel again. I had set the early part of it in Queens, where I grew up next to La Guardia Airport. I used to duck when the planes flew over. I had included some of the neighborhood characters, such as Dan, the Ice Cream Man who gave quizzes and then gave free ice cream to those who answered correctly. His first question to me was "How much is 8 and 6?" I pondered long and hard before answering, wondering if the laws of mathematics had changed since I learned how to add. They hadn't, and I got my ice cream.
Flooded by memories, I wanted to publish the novel. My agent was kind and was willing to approach publishers. But here my health became a giant barrier. I wasn't allowed to drive. I was too weak to travel. I couldn't visit potential editors. And, worst of all, I couldn't participate in the required active promotion of a book. There was going to be no novel because of the heart attack.
A friend of mine came over for a visit. He had published various novels and even had one made into a television movie. Now he was self-publishing. I'd never considered doing so but there was a logic to the approach for this novel. I found a reputable place (one that didn't accept all that was submitted) and arranged for the novel to be published.
I've just gotten the first copies in my hand. And holding them led to its own shock of recognition. When I woke up from my operation my daughter Rachel Eddey told me she had that day sold her first book. When I was in the hospital again my son, Michael, got tenure. When I was in the hospital a third time, my daughter Elana told me she was pregnant. We've since found out the baby will be a girl named Lily, named after my mother, as I had done with the character in my novel.
And that is the mystery, this linkage between horror and happiness. And so I hold my novel and wonder about it all.
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