Reckonings: A Language You Understand

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06 Aug 2009

I am my father’s witness.

He’s come home after spending two weeks in the oncology unit. Colon cancer is killing him. There is nothing more the hospital can do. He’s been sent home.

We visit with each other three days a week, just he and I, from noon until 5 o’clock. We’ve recently completed our eighth week together. He’d agree, I am certain, that it has been the best time we have ever spent together.

I read that a son should ask certain questions of his father. This I have done. I usually initiate the conversation, but there was an occasion or two when my dad beat me to the punch. I’ve always regarded my father as my teacher. Now that our time is running out, I must learn to see things as he sees them, from his inside out and, perhaps with just enough gentle prodding, my father will tell me about the stuff he’s never told me before.

My father and I have never been inclined toward casual conversation. We’ve always preferred weighty dialectic of issues, substance. We have a long history of that together.

These eight weeks really comprise our last, albeit extended, substantive exchange, but with one important difference for each of us. For me, it is a matter of kibud av, my last chance to better know the man from whom I have fashioned so much of me. For Dad, it is his time to tie up the loose ends, say what has to be said and what he’s wanted to say. When he speaks to me now, it is with what I’ll call a “sense of mission”.

He has fashioned his own cheshbon ha nefesh, his life’s reckoning. It is, I suppose, roughly comparable to a last will and testament but opened and read only by The Dayan Emet.

“Alan, come back here in the bedroom.” My dad is not feeling well today. To see him lying in his disheveled sickbed is a disturbing sight. I spot his favorite sweater-that he so enjoys having wrapped around his shoulders-crumpled up in a ball by the head board. We jokingly call it his talit.

He wriggles about uncomfortably atop his bedcovers. His head is scrunched up against four pillows, his frighteningly thin legs poke through the ends of the same pajama pants he has worn now for several days. A once robust, barrel-chested man and golden glove pugilist in his youth, my father was someone you’d want to have on your side in a fight.

He grimaced.

“Dad, are you all right?” He seems not to have heard me.

“Pain in your gut, Dad?”

“Some yes.” He tells me it’s been coming more frequently.

“I took a couple of Vicadin.”

“Dad, what kind of pain is it?”

“It feels ‘sore’. You know, how I felt as a kid when I had eaten too many green apples.”

Somehow I was not convinced his grimace reflected a merely “sore” stomach, but I knew what he was doing, he thought, for my sake.

My father looks completely worn out today. We had gone out in the morning to take care of some business. Whenever the two of us were out together, I’d feel like such a kid walking around with a toothy grin and wearing a t-shirt with an arrow and caption that read: “This is my dad!”

Dad has suffered a precipitous decline in his health these last several days. We’re inside now. Even a walk around the block is out of the question.

It is very difficult to leave my father today. As sundown approaches on Erev Shabbos, he becomes contemplative, soulful if you will, as if he had already acquired his neshama yeseira.

“You know I was thinking back when you were a baby,” he began. “You were born with a clubfoot. Did you know that?” he asked, his eyes becoming misty.

I’ll miss this tender part of him most.

“No Dad I didn’t,” I managed to choke out those four words. In truth, I had heard it untold times before, but for my father, each time was as if it were the very first.

“And I used to turn your foot and turn your foot, again and again, like this,” he demonstrated painfully and tearfully, twisting his hands in the manner of one trying to connect two rusty garden hoses together. It was enough to emotionally drain both of us.

“What time do you have, Son?” while reaching for the box of tissues on the nightstand.


“4:45! You better get going. I don’t want you to be late for shul.” I gathered my things slowly. “Go home Son. It’s getting late.” I turned to leave.

“Have a great weekend,” I said.

“Alan, thank you and Good Shabbos,” he quickly added. I stopped.

My father taught me an invaluable lesson when, years before, I was a newcomer to the observant community. I’ve never forgotten it. We had been chatting on the phone for about half an hour. I don’t know how many times I responded “Baruch Hashem” to whatever Dad was telling me, but I must have said it one too many times. My father is a man of calm and patient temperament. It takes a lot to annoy him.

“Alan, speak to me in language with which I am familiar!” he said with a firmness that I had experienced only two or three times before. I had never heard my dad say anything in a mean or coarse manner. This instance was no different, and even when angry, my father’s tone never crossed the divide between “firm” and “rude”. I recall his very polite rebuke to this very day.

Suddenly out of nowhere, “Good Shabbos”. Why?

My guess is that the salutary appeal of the approaching Sabbath may have begun to tug at his heart, perhaps a validation of the difficult choice I had made years before to become observant.

It had been a tiring day. He looked sleepy. I covered his feet with a blanket. They were always cold, he complained. I leaned over. Kissing me as he had always done, I felt the familiar stubble of Dad’s unshaven face, but it didn’t bother me this time. I inhaled his scent.

Just as I turned the knob of the front door, I looked back toward his bedroom. Peeking around the corner to check on me, he waved gently and smiled.

Avi mori”, my father, my teacher, seemed content in the autumn of his days.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.