Spine trouble

A Jewish-Muslim story of healing.

Dad and mom walking me down the aisle at my wedding. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Dad and mom walking me down the aisle at my wedding.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘Show me where pain is,” said the physical therapist with a foreign accent that September.
Where wasn’t it? I was stressed because my father was in the hospital after a near-fatal heart attack. I injured my back so badly I could barely walk or get on the plane to visit. My husband Charlie was elsewhere, on a month-long Singapore business trip, when my editor rejected my next two projects. A decade of success felt over.
I prayed that Kenan, the spine specialist at the nearby rehab center, could help. With a baby face, Chinos and a soccer jersey he looked like a teenager. In sweats and an oversized top, I felt ancient.
“I have a disc tear,” I told him.
“Which discs? I need MRI printout,” Kenan said. “Would not guess. Will not make worse.”
His mangled tenses and missing connectives were oddly charming. Was he Middle Eastern? “My dad is a doctor. He read my scan. He knows.”
That summer my cantankerous Jewish father had a near-fatal heart attack, miserably morphing from physician to patient with a cane at his own Michigan hospital.
When I called, he trashed my last autobiographical book from bed. So his last words to me could have been “that crap you waste your life on.”
I dialed my cell, relieved my father picked up at home. No matter how old or estranged we were, I still wanted him to save me.
“Daddy, I forgot my MRI,” I regressed. “The physical therapist won’t touch me without it.”
“Good, someone with a brain,” barked Dad. I handed Kenan the phone and they talked for ten minutes.
None of my other medicine men consulted my father.
It seemed sweetly old-fashioned. When I was 13, he’d scare off my dates answering the door in his boxer shorts, smoking a six-inch cigar. His heart was recovered enough to be protective.
Afterwards, when Kenan asked how I’d hurt myself, I shrugged. “I was swimming laps, speed walking, kick boxing every day.”
“Kick boxing! You are 50. College teacher, not athlete.”
He read my chart. “Twisting horrible for back,” he scolded. “Especially at your age.”
“Why don’t I just kill myself now?” I joked.
“No, do not.” His tone was alarmed. “Don’t worry, we figure out.” Stretching me on a low table, he pulled up my left leg. I gasped at the sharp ache.
“How old are you?” I interrogated him for distraction.
“Where are you from?” “Left leg worse than right.” He scrawled notes. “I’m 30. Bosnian.”
“Exiled during the war? Have you visited?” “You always so nosy?” “Twenty years as a journalist,” I answered.
“Went last month with brother and dad.”
“Are you Muslim?” I asked. He nodded.
My body tensed. I had many close relatives in Tel Aviv. After 9/11, living near the World Trade Center, I secretly feared I had become Islamophobic. I decided to avoid talking religion or politics.
“Do bridges. Like this.” As he lifted my stomach, I spied a tattoo under his shirt. Didn’t Islam ban body ink, like traditional Jews in my clan? As he left to assist another patient, I pulled a stack of student essays from my purse to grade.
“What you did on summer vacation?” he asked when he returned.
“Actually my first assignment is: write three pages on your most humiliating secret,” I said.
“You Americans,” he scoffed. “Why would anyone reveal that?” “It’s healing.” I left out my psychoanalyst’s theory that my intensity brought out everybody’s twisted darkness.
“Don’t worry, I never spill,” Kenan said. “I keep to my chest.”
Why was he so closed off? “Didn’t your mother go back to Bosnia?” I kept pushing.
Finally he answered. “She said, ‘I’d rather be dead than go back there.’ She get wish. Died of cancer five years ago. I blame mass murderers who started war and destroyed her life.”
He sounded traumatized by his past.
“Write about going back to your homeland without her.”
“I do not write. I fix backs,” he snapped. “Turn for side lifts.” As I struggled, he moved my leg up and down.
“You’re very weak.”
“I’m not!” I insisted. “I just couldn’t exercise for four months.”
“Come twice weekly, you improve.
But you must listen, trust me. That will be hard for you.”
“You think I’m fixable?” Kenan nodded. “But there is a lot of damage here.”
I was thinking the same of him.
That night he emailed to check on my back. For inspiration, I forwarded my student Danielle’s published essay about how, on Yom Kippur, she ate cheeseburgers with her mother, a Holocaust survivor, in a twisted commemoration of her father’s suicide on the holy day, years earlier.
“Touchy,” Kenan responded. I gathered he meant “touching.”
A week later, I lay flat, in agony as Kenan hooked me up to electrodes. He surprised me by handing me his three typed pages. He’d recounted returning to Bosnia that August, two decades after the ethnic cleansing campaign he’d witnessed at 12. He took a picture of the concentration camp his brother and dad survived, stood on the grave of the karate coach who betrayed his family and then confronted the neighbor, Petra, who’d stolen from his mother. No wonder he was reticent. He’d survived a holocaust. In 1992. He was like the male, Muslim Anne Frank – who lived to tell the story. “Secret humiliation here.” He pointed to his line about wanting to barge into Petra’s home to reclaim his mom’s belongings, then drag Petra out by her hair to throw her on a meat truck, as Christian Serbs had done to his people. I starred specific details, corrected spelling and tenses, scrawled “flesh out” in the margins.
“Why you draw pictures on my page?” He squinted to decipher my edits. “You don’t like?” “Blows my socks off,” I said.
“No good?” He frowned.
“It’s great.” Indeed, after several more revisions together, it ran in The New York Times. I framed it for him. He started emailing me new pages hourly, obsessively. I’d turned my mellow Muslim physical therapist into a neurotic Jewish freelance writer.
AT HOME, I found a piece I’d published in Newsday in 1993 on a Bosnian benefit where Jews like Wendy Wasserstein and Susan Sontag raged against the Balkan genocide, comparing Serbian Milosevic to Hitler. It ran the month Kenan emigrated to Connecticut. When I showed him, he was awed by the coincidence.
Kenan’s mother hoped to chronicle their escape, he said, but couldn’t learn English as she’d battled cancer. Her photo showed a pretty redhead who resembled my mom. She’d warned “never go to someone’s home empty-handed,” like my mother, who’d grown up a poor orphan sent home from school for only speaking Yiddish. Kenan’s hard-working dad advised, “Whatever your job, do your best,” like my father. I was from conservative Jewish suburban Michigan. He grew up Islamic in Eastern Europe. Yet in some ways, it seemed we were from the same close-knit, no-nonsense family.
When I questioned why his parents didn’t ask about his pent-up feelings during the occupation, he said “They were too busy telling me to duck.”
Israel sympathized with the Bosniaks, Kenan recalled. They’d airlifted supplies and took in refugees. His favorite American politician was Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who’d fought to break the unfair UN arms embargo on Bosnia during the war. I felt outraged for Kenan’s Muslim family too. It turned out we were on the same side, against violence and terrorism – toward any innocent civilians.
Twice weekly for a year, he put heat or ice to my back while I edited his pages. After work, he’d sneak to my classes and seminars where he met a literary agent who sparked to his story. Kenan proposed we co-author his memoir. I was reluctant. Though I noticed Kenan’s grammar was improving as my pain subsided. My sessions stretched to two hours. He’d walk me home, continuing the harrowing war saga he’d witnessed at 12 that he now couldn’t stop spilling.
Had I become his Jewish mother or personal femme Freud? “Some annular tears never heal,” said the orthopedic surgeon Kenan recommended I see at the Spine Center down the hall from where we did physical therapy.
“No surgery could help. You might hurt like this the rest of your life.” I panicked, tears blurring the insurance forms I filled out in the waiting room. Kenan, suddenly beside me, handed me a Kleenex.
“I come check on you,” he said.
“My back may never get better.”
“You will heal,” he said. “Some tears do not mend, but function improves.
Strengthening core, stabilize vertebrae... ” I felt comforted by the anatomy jargon in his broken English. I thought of the line from a Bosnian poem “Wounded I am more awake,” which a Jewish author friend had used for the title of a book she’d coauthored with another Muslim Bosnian war survivor.
Coincidence? Her book was third person reporting from an older female journalist’s point of view. I wanted to help Kenan tell his story in his young male voice.
My next session, as I lay on ice, Kenan gave me a gift: a gold Mars astronaut pen. He put a piece of paper on a clipboard to show me I could write lying down without losing ink. “So I can edit your pages flat on my back?” I laughed. “In vacuum, upside down without gravity, under water, in boiling heat and freezing cold,” he said. Sitting on the swivel chair beside me, he asked again if I’d collaborate with him on his memoir.
Twice weekly for a year, he put heat or ice to my back while I edited his pages.
After work, he’d sneak to my classes and seminars where he met a literary agent who sparked to his story. Kenan proposed we coauthor his memoir. I was reluctant.
Though I noticed Kenan’s grammar improved as my pain lessened.
When I mentioned it to my father – a history buff – he jumped on the idea, sending me Yugoslavian history books and links to online articles. I realized he was thrilled that I wouldn’t be writing about him or our family. Then Kenan came over with salty Bosnian food to ask my husband’s permission. “Okay, I’ll trade a year’s worth of cevapi for my wife’s brain,” Charlie joked. After pointing out how sexist it was to ask my spouse for my hand – so to speak – I agreed to try to write the proposal. A book born of trauma, it sold during the blackout week of hurricane Sandy – when my downtown neighborhood had no power. “This is the most pride I ever had,” Kenan said.
“This reminds me how smart and diligent you are,” my father told me. My back stopped hurting; I could speed walk with my students again. I felt energized and hopeful, as if everything could be repaired. Dad thought my ligaments had probably mended themselves.
But I was convinced that reliving Kenan’s suffering together helped us both heal. If Jewish-Islamic peace was possible, it might start the way we did: by respecting each other’s pain.
Susan Shapiro is the Manhattan author of eight books and co-author of The Bosnia List, out from Viking/Penguin in February 2014.