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Heart of the Matter

Searching for safety—in a doctor’s office, or at a firing range—in a time of heightened risks

by
Lisa J. Wise
March 13, 2024

Only one of the double doors to my beloved synagogue has a handle now. I did not understand the reason for this asymmetry, feeling slightly off balance each time I approached. But then it was explained that the other door’s handle had been removed for safety, to ensure we cannot be locked inside against our will. Climbing the stone steps each Saturday to attend service, it’s as if the door is winking at me conspiratorially.

Entering the building, I’m greeted by a kind, smiling, uniformed security guard in a bulletproof vest carrying two firearms. I’ll never get used to the incongruity of ammunition welcoming us to a house of peace. Even a sanctuary is no longer a perfect sanctuary. Even in Philadelphia, there is no refuge from ruthless terrorists who massacre innocents, kidnap hostages, rage a monstrous pogrom in our times, in our homeland. Our hearts broke collectively on Oct. 7.

On Nov. 5, 2023, I got a WhatsApp message from a close friend who’d created a new group. The profile pic was an old-timey, sepia-toned photo of Annie Oakley. I was intrigued.

Hi Ladies,
We are putting together shooting classes for those who are interested.
Please fill out this Doodle form, thanks!

Jewish women I’d known for over a decade—accomplished professionals, devoted mothers, religious people I’d never imagined holding a weapon—chimed in by text. Every one of these women had young children at home. Their reaction to terrorism, and a frightening rise in global antisemitism, was to learn how to shoot. And they invited me to join. I watched as they signed up enthusiastically.

Great idea!

I’m very interested and would love to participate.

Thanks for putting this together!

After thinking about it for an hour, I joined the fray: Thanks so much for spearheading!

As Patient No. 1 in a brand-new clinical trial, I swallow a handful of experimental chemotherapy pills every day to curb my incurable yet treatable lymphoma, Waldenstrom’s macroglobulinemia. After 10 months, the drugs are working. Everything looks fabulous in the cancer department and my disease is under control. Hallelujah!

But a CT scan of my chest offered mixed news: Although menacing cancer nodes had thankfully shrunk, unwanted plaque was collecting in my arteries. I was deemed at-risk for coronary artery disease. This news arrived in the patient portal right before Thanksgiving. I refused to acknowledge it. The kids were coming home, there was stuffing to make and pecan pie to bake. At-risk was not on the menu.

Hi group, seems like Sunday works for many of us and I’m working to coordinate another slot for a group who prefer a weekday or morning, please fill out the Doodle! I got the following (very moving) message from the range owner, which I have to pass along: “As this is a Jewish women’s group—and our company will not put ourselves in a position that results in us profiting from the fear and danger created by terrorist organizations and their domestic sympathizerswe will only charge cost for this group training … and that will include 25 rounds of 9mm and 15 rounds of 5.56, 1 hour of classroom instruction, 1 hour of range time, eye and ear protection, rentals, and instructors.”

When my nurse’s email popped in the portal, I tried not to be alarmed: “Hey, you might want to check this out. It’s not our area of expertise but you should definitely call your internist about this plaque we’re seeing in your arteries on that last CT scan! Not an emergency, but move on this as you might need a statin.”

How did she know I was in denial and stalling?

Is there an age minimum for shooting?

Age minimum is 11.

My internist ordered another CT of my heart. I reminded myself this was not an emergency (fire alarm protocol: Walk don’t run). But I didn’t like where this was going. They scheduled the scan far too quickly, squeezing me in that same week. It’s never a good sign when hospitals rush.

Hi everyone! Looking forward to tomorrow. I was chatting with a couple of women at synagogue today who hadn’t heard about the class but were really interested—is there still any room in either class?

Yes, there’s plenty of room and I’m opening another class due to high interest. Please have them get in touch with me.

Does anyone want to carpool? I’m happy to take some folks

It was inconceivable that there was something wrong with my heart. I refused to accept that it was medically lacking and a potential threat to my well-being. My blood? Yes, of course, we all know that’s problematic. Generations of ancestors have sported blood cancer. But … my heart?

Shooting my first round, with an instructor by my side, was not fun. It was haunting. This was no game.

My heart is the body part I like the most. It can never be too big (like my thighs) or too open (like my mouth) or too unruly (like my hair) or too unforgiving (like my lower back). It is always tender, generous, and loving and it has served me well these 57 years. It would not betray me.

On Nov. 19—four days before my follow-up CT scan—our group went to the shooting range for an introductory lesson.

This was not my first time in a shooting range. When celebrating our twin sons’ bar mitzvah in Israel in 2010, we all learned how to shoot the day after visiting Yad Vashem. Never again.

Now my sons and I like to drop by a range to fire a few rounds while on vacation. I don’t admit it in polite company, but I’m a pretty good shot. It’s empowering to hit that bullseye dead on. Drawing up to eye level, I become a titaness, fearless and free, in control, untouchable. I’ve considered framing my best practice target and hanging it up in my kitchen. Chef’s prerogative.

But that night, we were not at the range for sport. We were there for a purpose. We all knew someone who’d been killed or kidnapped. Our family and friends wore IDF uniforms; zero degrees of separation from trauma. I joined nine other women in the lobby, some in long skirts and hair coverings, others in jeans, a few carrying their own locked gun cases. I scanned their faces, thinking of their bustling homes full of school-age children. As the oldest woman and sole empty-nester there, I was also the only one wearing hot pink Doc Martens and a matching “peace, joy, and love” scarf.

Our proud, NRA-certified instructor was a veteran professional and true believer, emphatically stressing gun safety and beginning sentences with “this is why the news lies to you about guns.” I didn’t mention my first job in the 1990s, working for Women Against Gun Violence. After 90 minutes of intense instruction in a secure classroom, we got 30 minutes in a shooting range with a handgun and a rifle. When asked why anyone would ever need to use an assault rifle, a detailed, carefully worded explanation was offered. But it didn’t fully register.

If it’s a sin to be proud of your healthy cholesterol levels and low blood pressure, I was guilty.

My family had no history of heart complications at a young age. Our hearts were all good. Then again, my people tend to die young of cancer, so who the hell knows what shape their hearts were in?

Wearing protective headphones, the world became muffled as we were led inside the range. Five booths were set up for shooting with a buddy. It was a squeaky-clean, well-lit, attractive space with safety rules posted everywhere. I let my buddy go first because I was shaking. Shooting my first round, with an instructor by my side, was not fun. It was haunting. This was no game.

It was more than I could take: the deafening sound of five women firing at once … the stinging stench of burnt lead … the bone-rattling bounce of stray ricochets … the maddening beat of heartache, pain, loss, all mixed with fear. The world is a very scary place. These brave women had young children at home, elderly to protect. My heart could not absorb that much suffering.

Halfway through my second round, I fled. Escaping as quickly as I could, I apologized over my shoulder that a Zoom meeting awaited at home. Sitting in my car before pulling out of the parking lot, I put my hand over my heart and counted a few slow beats. Inhale. Exhale.

I was envious of their emboldened and empowered “take back the night” moment. I admired the women’s courageous, action-oriented heroics and was grateful for their commitment to communal safety. But I was done. My heart was shattered into too many fragments. Bullets and targets could not heal it. I did not know what would. Our world is a different place.

Placing my body in a CT scanner, to mechanically peer inside my heart, felt invasive. A betrayal of sorts. “Let it be,” I wanted to protest defensively. I needed my heart to be free, independent, trusted, unquestioned. All of this measuring, assessing, evaluating—even listening carefully to its whispered beat with a suspicious stethoscope—seemed a tad shameful. I was embarrassed for it, for all this fuss.

After the first class, enthusiasm grew. There was a request for additional classes, the WhatsApp group expanded, advanced trainings were in the works.

Sharing another message from the range owner:

“In an effort to do our part to help the Jewish community be empowered to ensure its own peace and security at home and abroad, we will be offering your ladies a student scholarship … in our basic membership, we will give you all the Hero Rate.”

WOW! That is incredibly generous! Curious how many “alums” of this training plan to take advantage of the range’s offer of half-off? I was thinking about it, and would love to do some additional trainings with anyone else who would like to do that.

I’m in! Great teachers! Thx for organizing!

The scan declared an unpronounceable diagnosis: atherosclerosis. Panicky late-night Googling taught me this was a “thickening or hardening of the arteries caused by a buildup of plaque in the inner lining of an artery. ”One in 20 adults was diagnosed with coronary artery disease. Almost 40 million people were taking statins. I had a garden-variety disease.

But it was heart trouble.

I placed my hand over my heart protectively and whispered, “All will be well.” I yearned to leave my heart out of this game entirely. Certain chambers should remain untouched, certain atriums’ dignity left preserved, certain sanctuaries off-limits. I longed for a return of my heart’s privacy.

Yay! Thank you again for organizing! The instructors really were amazing. I’m going to write a Google review 💪

Men’s turn now?

Yup! On it! 👍🏻

Sitting on the edge of my bed, I removed the pill bottle from the pharmacy bag. My doctor called it a “little baby dose.” But even a small crack is still a fracture. Each day for the rest of my life, I must take a tiny diamond-shaped tablet to counteract the likelihood of stroke.

I turned the sapphire blue plastic bottle around in my hands. On my nightstand, two huge bottles of chemotherapy pills watched my every move. Each day I gulped down six of those horse-size clinical trial pills effortlessly. But this little pill was different. This was a statin.

Home is where the heart is. So, what happens when home is broken? What happens when our homeland breaks?

Giving the vial another spin through my fingertips, I played with the word statin until it morphed into titans. I thought of the inspiring stories and videos of ordinary people taking extraordinary action, saving lives, sacrificing lives, replanting, rebuilding, redefining home. I unscrewed the top, plucked out my first dose, and popped it into my mouth. Some things we can fix; some things remain broken forever. I washed down a tall glass of water while thinking about enormous hearts … unshattered, brave, resilient, hopeful, heroic hearts.

Climbing the stone steps to synagogue, I sensed someone behind me. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw a “sister-in-arms.” I smiled conspiratorially as I opened the door wide for us to enter together. Slipping into the sacred sanctuary, we sang in unison: May He who makes peace in the heavens grant peace for us, and for all of Israel. “Amen,” I whispered to the beat of a broken heart.

Lisa J. Wise is working on an essay collection about living with third-generation lymphoma and volunteering to be Patient No. 1 in a brand-new experimental clinical trial.

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