A matter of the heart

Harold and Judy Witkov

By Harold Witkov, Special to Chicago Jewish News

As a sixty six year old retiree, I play chess recreationally a few times a week. For the most part, I play in chess clubs that are open to the public and are drop-in. Such was the case, recently, when I did something during a chess game that only a handful of chess players in the history of the game can claim: I suffered a heart attack while playing.

It was late afternoon on a Wednesday.  All the other chess players had already gone home for the day. Kevin and I were the only ones remaining, and we were having one of our typical epic battles.

We were in the middle-game when, like never before, I found myself so extraordinarily invested in the outcome, I started perspiring and feeling adrenaline rushes. My chest felt a dull and strange discomfort, and a slight feeling of nausea was upon me. But these seemed mere distractions. It was only the game that mattered.

And then I saw my opportunity. I could take his Pawn with my Queen and check his King. That would force his Queen to take my Queen and I could then recapture his Queen with my Knight, thus forking his two Rooks. I went for it. The game was mine for all practical purposes; but he wanted to play it out. With every move my symptoms intensified. Finally, he laid down his King and we shook hands.

There was now a pain in the center of my chest. It was not sharp or excruciating, but it was a pain nonetheless. I told Kevin I needed to use the washroom and that I would see him next week; he went home having no clue as to the inward turmoil I was experiencing. Once in the Men’s Room, I threw cold water on my face and drank from the bathroom faucet – all to no avail.

I walked to my car hoping that it was my asthma acting up and a magic cure awaited me inside my automobile. Sitting in my Camry, I drank a full bottle of Gatorade and took two puffs from my inhaler. Nothing changed.  I started thinking the worst. I thought about calling 911, I thought about driving to the hospital. Mostly, in this time of great need, I yearned for the companionship of my wife Judy. I drove home, a 10 minute drive, walked up the stairs, and told the love of my life, “I think I’m having a heart attack.”

Judy drove me to the Good Samaritan Hospital Emergency Room, in Downers Grove. Yes, everything pointed to a heart attack. I had a coronary angiogram that Wednesday evening. And on the following Friday, I had quintuple bypass heart surgery. My last words to my wife, before my morning surgery, were “I love you” and “G-d is giving me an improved heart so I can be more loving.”

My daughter and son-in-law cut short their vacation and rushed home. So many family and friends were pulling for me and my recovery. Loved ones got their loved ones to pray on my behalf. A lifelong friend told me he would ask his rabbi to say Mi Sheberakh for me. A friend of the family, a teacher at a Catholic elementary school, got her whole class to pray for me as well. I was touched to the core. I felt so unworthy. People were praying for me and I did not even know them. The hospital staff was wonderful too, and so caring.  So much love everywhere.

When I came out of surgery, Judy sat by my bedside. Despite my incoherence, she read aloud to me love poems by the Persian poet, Rumi:

I put my heart on this hazardous road

and unshackled it to follow you…

When you come to my mind, my heart starts to pound

and tears of longing drip from my eyes…

If you are a sea, I am your fish.

If you are a meadow, I am your deer…

There is a path from your heart to mine.

My heart knows how to find it.

My Judy watched over me every day I was in the hospital, and five days later, I was discharged. Since then, of course, Judy has been with me, taking care of me, every step of the way.  After 33 years of marriage, I am not at all surprised, for I know her heart was never the one in need of repair.

Chess and life have much in common. In both, it seems as though it’s all about the King, but it is the Queen who moves best and has the greatest strength.

So here is to my Bashert: my wife Judy; love of my life and Queen of my Heart! And here is to all the Basherts of the world!

1 Comment on "A matter of the heart"

  1. Denise Rode | July 9, 2018 at 5:03 pm | Reply

    When I heard this story from Harold and Judy, I knew it would make a great article. I’m happy to see that Harold feels well enough to get back to his writing. What a wonderful retelling of this frightening experience that includes a beautiful love story.

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