This year’s blockbuster movie Inception culminates with the image of a spinning dreidel. Though it might not have had the letters Nun, Gimmel, Hey, and Shin on it, anyone who can recall the first time his father spun a dreidel for him, will recognize that moment when the top that seemed to have been put into perpetual motion finally begins to falter.
My father’s fingers were as strong as his will. His dreidel always seemed like it would spin forever. Until the very end.
I still recall his final Chanukah. We left our Manhattan apartment as soon as Shabbat was over so we could light candles with him in his home in Queens, New York, and still return in time for our kids’ Chanukah parties. As soon as we entered the house, however, I knew that something was wrong. He was glaring at me.
“What’s the matter, Dad?” “You know what’s the matter.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Yes, you do.”
We had had this painful conversation before.
“Humor me, Dad. Tell me what’s bothering you.”
“You drove here on Shabbat!”
“What are you talking about? Shabbat ended an hour ago!”
“How could it end an hour ago, when last week it ended this time?”
“They changed the clock!”
He looked defeated, but only for a second. “We don’t hold by that!”
He wouldn’t acknowledge he was wrong, but agreed to proceed with the candle lighting.
As was his custom, he wouldn’t use a siddur. As had never been the case before, he butchered every berachah. My kids looked confused. Under my breath I prompted him. He corrected himself each time, but still wouldn’t pick up the proffered siddur.
Within months we had to move him to a nursing home. Our first visit there was as painful as the one during Chanukah. As we entered his room, we found him lying in bed, with his genitals exposed. Apparently the attendants found that this expedited the inevitable cleanups. It was practical for them, but mortifying for us. To protect my children yet again, I learned to cover up his body, as I had his blessings.
His conversations with his grandchildren were revealing as well. He no longer knew what month it was or what country he lived in; he couldn’t discuss current events or historical ones. His one remaining window of lucidity was limudei kodesh. He could discuss their Torah and Talmud studies with familiarity and enthusiasm. This oasis of competence in his desert of incognizance brought great joy to both him and me on our weekly visits.
At my children’s last visit with him, he asked them what yeshivah they attended. They reminded him they attended The Ramaz School. This forgetfulness on his part didn’t bother them. What happened next did.
He told them that he had grandchildren at Ramaz. They turned to me as their eyes welled up.
“Dad, these are your grandchildren.”
He was as oblivious to my correcting him, as he had been to my covering him. We left earlier than we had planned to. Before we did, however, he had one last favor to ask: “Can you give my regards to my grandchildren?”
I didn’t bother to correct him again. It was the last time they ever saw him.
The last time I saw him was in a hospital bed the night he died, shortly before Chanukah. The intervening months had not been kind. He no longer knew who I was, who his wife was, or even who he was. In psychiatric parlance, he was oriented times zero. He wasn’t capable of speech, or any other cognitive activity. There was only fear in his eyes. He was a once proud animal caught in a trap that he knew he could never escape.
My wife bent down to kiss him goodbye. As she did, his large black velvet kippa fell off. I will always recall what transpired next as a true miracle of Chanukah.
Nun, Gimmel, Hey, Shin. Nes Gadol Hayah Sham. A great miracle happened there.
With his tethered, mittened hands, my father slowly, determinedly replaced his kippa. Though he had forgotten everything and was oriented times zero, somehow he still remembered he was in the presence of God.
I had long ago resigned myself to the fact that he could no longer die reciting Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad!
I had not realized that he could still acknowledge it. His actions spoke louder than any words.
His dreidel might have faltered. Even in the very end, however, it never fell.
Dr. Isaac Steven Herschkopf, a practicing psychiatrist, the president of the NYU Bellevue Psychiatric Alumni, is the author of Hello Darkness, My Old Friend: Embracing Anger To Heal Your Life. This excerpt is from a forthcoming memoir.