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What I’m Learning About Almost Dying… And Trying To Live

As I am writing this I have 32 staples in my skull and partial paralysis on the left side of my face.

Two weeks ago, I was in a very serious car accident that required emergency brain surgery. As I am writing this I have 32 staples in my skull and partial paralysis on the left side of my face. I was 25 minutes away from dying, they said, but let’s start with the good news!

As a standup comic, that’s what I’m supposed to do, anyway. Some people think that it’s way too early to reflect on what I’m going through, but it’s such a unique time, so why not seize it? I can also finally stare at a screen without getting a big headache so I might as well take advantage. But when I considered writing this piece, most people around me said, simply and kindly, “whenever you are ready.” But I’m not sure if anyone is ever really ready, so there’s no time like the present.

The good news: I can walk, I can see, and my recovery speed has been described as “rare” in terms of balance, dizziness, and other benchmarks. I try to exercise regularly, and so I have to admit I was proud when, once I was conscious enough to answer, the nurses took my vitals and kept asking, “Do you run or something?” Once I was standing, I was able to do regular walking laps around the hallways of the hospital. The nurses could not have been nicer when it came to helping me.

Emotionally there have been some positive experiences I would have never anticipated. I have no memory of getting hit by the truck, but as I woke up from the surgery, I remember seeing my parents walking in, along with my friend Rachel, who was on the phone and telling a nurse, “Yes, I’m his sister,” although she’s not. But Rachel is tough as nails and clearly wasn’t going to put up with rules about visitors.

I was in agony when they arrived since I had a tube down my throat and had started to throw up. The ICU nurse, Kate, fought to get the tube taken out. She succeeded in getting it removed, but would still have to insert a tube down my nose and into my stomach. She said it would hurt, and that I should grab Rachel’s hand and squeeze. I did just that and made it through.

My sister (my actual sister who is a nurse) flew in from Massachusetts and my brother from LA. They both said to me, “You’re aware there are a ton of people worried about you and inquiring?” I honestly wasn’t, but after realizing that people were concerned about me, I felt hopeful. I was touched. It mattered to me more than anything that people reached out. Most texted because they didn’t want to “bother” me, but my head hurt, and so reading messages on a screen was more difficult.  But my siblings were champs—they helped me read through the messages because I felt determined 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, thinking to myself, “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 took charge so I didn’t have to. My parents of course were a whole other level of caring that I can’t really describe, so I won’t.

The friends and others they allowed in, some of whom posed as clergy to gain entrance (which I found hilarious), were immensely helpful. My friend Max, who is also my neighbor in LA, showed up out of nowhere. I still have no idea how he got in, but I felt immediate relief upon seeing him and he went above and beyond by arranging a Hatzolah Air flight back to Houston for my family and me on a donated jet that included staff to check my vitals. They even offered to lower the altitude if the pressure on my ear and head was too much.

Every step of the way, even as I was reeling from physical and emotional pain, I was amazed by how much people care for me.

Every step of the way, even as I was reeling from physical and emotional pain, I was amazed by how much people care for me.

As a religious Jew, suddenly religious ceremonies took on a special importance to me. As Friday night approached, I worried. Visitors were not allowed after 8pm 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 Chasidic Jews walked into my room and took over.

“How did you guys even get in here?” I asked. “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 broke down. I could barely get through it.

When a Chabad Chasid named Mendy Goren passed away a couple of years ago, I wrote an article about how much he and his family in Miami meant to me. It’s no surprise that this same family was instrumental in connecting my family to the hospital and letting others know where I was. His image popped 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.

Another friend, also named Avi, came to do Havdalah with me even though no one had asked him to. I also had a great visit from my friend Achicam, who was hurt in the accident with me. Although he broke a few ribs, thank God he did not require hospitalization and is on the full mend. When he came to visit we basically collapsed into each other’s arms, happy that we are both alive. His choice to drive a Volvo basically saved my life and I’ll forever be grateful.

While this giant pile of feelings may sound inspirational, what I really learned is that not all emotional moments and interactions are going to be inspiring. Returning home to Houston was the beginning of this realization.

Back in Houston with my parents and brother, I broke down again, but this time it wasn’t a giant pile of hugs and good feelings. This time, I was angry and depressed. Did I even have a right to feel that way? After all, I had already bucked some pretty good odds, right? Numerous people said I was lucky to be alive and walking. Were my anger and depression rational?

I don’t remember exactly what triggered my breakdown, but it was a general discussion of treatments and expected time of recovery for my facial paralysis that was the tipping point. I began to walk 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 my family wouldn’t agree that I could beat the odds at an absurdly fast rate that I picked up a half-full bottle of water and threw it on the ground so hard that I hurt my arm. I know they were just trying to calibrate my disappointment, but I was furious and couldn’t calm down.

I got so angry when my family wouldn’t agree that I could beat the odds at an absurdly fast rate that I picked up a half-full bottle of water and threw it on the ground so hard that I hurt my arm.

When I finally did relax, my father was also crying, but not because he was sad. He said he was grateful I was still alive. To him, that his son was still here was a gift, and he was relieved that I had finally broken down emotionally. It showed that I was human.

The next day, two close friends who are comics, Dan and Ray, called me and said they had seen 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, they said, so don’t. In other words, the way I present myself is my choice alone.

Years ago, I was fortunate to do some shows in Iraq and Afghanistan where I met some elite soldiers with whom I’ve kept in touch. My buddy Chris called me after my accident and reminded me that he has experienced three traumatic head injuries. He told me to take it easy, and advised that showing off my type A personality is not the best route to take.

It’s only been a short time, but what I have learned so far, even as I am right in the middle of it, is that I still have a lot to learn. Right now I’m now embarrassed that I feel shame, that I can’t even post a picture without the obvious facial struggles. Maybe that’s okay. Crying, feeling depressed, and constantly questioning scenarios in my life—maybe those things are also okay. To be brutally honest, I have a job to do, and aside from spreading joy, love, and positivity, I’ve realized that part of that job is being a human being with all of the accompanying faults.

I’m still learning. I haven’t come out on the other side yet. But one thing I’ve realized is just how much family, friends and even total strangers can get you through the hardest times. We will have our bad days, 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.


Avi Liberman is a standup comedian and screenwriter who has recently sold two films. He has arranged the Comedy For Koby Tour tour in Israel for well over a decade. He also has a documentary entitled “Land of Milk and Funny” about the tour. Follow him at avilibermancomedy on Instagram and his website www.aviliberman.com

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