Tuesday, September 09, 2008
Where authors and readers come together!
Here is chapter 1 of Stuff My Father Won't Tell Me, a memoir about my father who is telling me his story. I question him, he answers, I listen, he grows weary, I run home to write it all down. It is his way of fashioning a "cheshbon ha nefesh", an accounting of his life. My father suffers from stage 4 cancer ... may he merit length of days.
“Stuff My Father Won’t Tell Me …”
I feared for my father’s life.
"Alan, it’s Bobbie,” my dad’s wife called me early one morning."
“Yes, Bobbie, Good morning.”
"I’m taking your father to the hospital. Please come down.”
“Okay, okay. I’m leaving right now.” I had told Bobbie she should call me if ever she needed any assistance with my father-no matter what time or day it was. You were right,” I admitted.
“About what …?”
“About me picking up the phone.” It was Shabbat morning when I do
not make or accept any phone calls. I make one exception, however. I
will answer calls from my parents and my children.“Well, I had a feeling,” she responded while ably making her way through traffic.
“Well, thank you for that feeling.”
We arrived at Northwestern University’s Prentice Women’s Hospital about forty minutes later. I entered through the emergency room while my wife parked our car in the lot.
“Good morning,” I greeted the receptionist.
"Good morning,” she replied.
“My father is here, Dr. Albert Busch.” She typed quickly.
“Yes, Dr. Busch. Exam room four. Right around the corner,” she turned around in her chair. “There. Right down the hall.” I hurried away. I met Bobbie standing outside exam room four.
“Hi. Your dad is inside,” she said, gesturing toward the door. Her expression looked foreboding. I did not know what to expect, but it couldn't be anything good. I went in. I saw my father, already changed into a hospital gown, lying down atop a gurney, several nurses attending him. He was dehydrated. Fighting unrelenting diarrehia and fever from a urinary tract infection, my father’s skin was yellowish. I had seen that skin tone before when, as a volunteer for
the Jewish Sacred Society, I used to help wash and dress bodies before
burial. I had never seen my dad like this. I feared for his life.“Good morning. Dr. Busch?” a young ER resident entered the room. “Yes, I’m Alan Busch. Dr. Busch is my father.” He was “thirtyish something” unshaved, short in stature and sporting a black suede
Kippah. One bobby pin.
“Good Shabbes. Sholem Aleichem,” I greeted him.
“Good Shabbes to you. Aleichem Sholem, he responded. “How is your Shabbos going?” he asked me tongue in cheek. I liked him. He understood.
“I’ve had better,” half-smilingly.
“We’ll be admitting your father shortly as soon as the paperwork is processed.
“You’re welcome. Be well.”
I am here in Room 1616, Prentice Women’s Hospital. It has been a rough first few hours. I’m doing as much as I can. I don’t want to let him down. He’s mostly asleep except when the diarehia makes its presence felt. It comes so fast that there is no chance of making it to the bathroom. I help the nurses clean up. After all, this is my father we’re talking about here. He falls back asleep within seconds.
I look at his face. It’s drawn, his skin sagging under his chin. His neck
is wrinkled. He’s lost so much weight. It’s as if he’s extra skin. I can’t
help it but it reminds me of a turkey’s neck. You know what I mean.
‘This is how he’ll look, I suppose.’ I try to block these thoughts out. I
can’t. There he lies and I can’t help but think. God and my dad should
forgive me. Watching his life come to an ignominious end, ravaged by cancer
attacking his bowel. His intestines are at war against us. He’s lost
control of them. They control him now and are making his life miserable.
"Call the nurses Alan. Please, please don’t do any more.”
"Dad, let me. I'll clean this up myself.” Determined to care of my
father, I lost count of the number of times I changed his gown and
bed sheets. The nurses are giving, wonderful people, but I was frankly
embarrassed for them and my father. “I understand son but the nurses are faster.
Let them do their job.” He was adamant. I stayed over the first two nights.
We must have called the nurses four or five times during the early morning hours to help
us clean up. The unrelenting nature of the diarrhea was demoralizing us.
I watched my father fade away. He had become frightfully thin. After
more than forty-eight hours at the hospital, I reached my limit. I had
to go home. My wife, Heather, came down to pick me up. I was
exhausted physically and emotionally. Bobbie had arrived earlier so I
did not feel guilty about leaving.
“Dad, I’ll be back on Thursday.”
“No problem, son. Go home and rest." Even had I protested, my
father would have kicked me out. He seldom if ever thinks of himself.
“Heather, let’s go for a drink.” I felt ready to collapse not so much
from physical fatigue as from emotional exhaustion.
“I saw a nice little place at the corner. What do you say?” She was
agreeable.“This is the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do,” I said
while sipping a martini. My wife ordered a diet pop.
“Come on. Finish up and let’s go home. I’ll fix something for dinner,”
she said. Now that was really welcome news because for two days, I
had eaten nothing but cereal with milk, pudding, chips and fresh fruit.
Mind you, I was not going to starve but the hospital’s “food market”
had a limited supply of kosher items.
We arrived home. I collapsed on the couch. My wife lit some candles,
closed the blinds and put on some James Taylor “cds”. She knows how
much I like him. I cannot really account for it, but there is something
about his music that affects me emotionally. I felt I was just about
ready to burst. By the end of his song “Mean Old Man” (which, by the
way,, my father is not!) I broke down sobbing, my shoulders heaving.
I covered my head with the towel my wife had put on the back of my
neck for extra comfort and simply … wept.
I woke up next morning feeling sluggish, still worn out.
"I'll be down there tomorrow. It's too darn hot. The expressway is a
parking lot,” I tried to assuage my guilty conscience. I spent the better
part of the day trying to fool myself, looking for and finding every
excuse not to visit my father that day. I called my brother Ron
around 7:30 p.m. He had flown in from St. Louis that morning and
been with our father all day.
"Hi, Ron, so how was today?"
"Not so good," he sounded worn out.
"Oh ...?" I wanted him to continue.
"Can you come on down now?" he asked, barely masking an order to
do so. Frankly, I was glad he did. Even though my father had been
having a bad day, Ron's request relieved me of my self-inflicted guilt.
I drove down.
"It's just that I've not seen him cry before except when he thinks
about Ben (my dad’s first grandson, my first-born son who died
almost eight years ago).
"It's so darn pitiful," my brother remarked.
Tears. My father was crying while sitting on the commode.
Disappointment. Let down. Ten days in the hospital and the diarrhea
is still unabated. No warning, no bodily signals. It just comes when it
pleases. I kept silent. What response is there? Here is a man who does
not care about his cancer. He can deal with that.
"It's not the cancer. I accept that. It's this diarrhea that is taking me
downhill," he said to his nephew Robert, my first cousin who is a soon
retiring professor of medicine in Michigan. Do you remember what
General MacArthur said about old soldiers not dying but fading away?
As a matter of fact, my father is an old soldier, United States Army,
brigadier general, retired. And as with old soldiers, especially those
who wear stars on their epaulets, there is no crying. Reminds me of
that Tom Hanks line in A League of Their Own. “There is no crying in
Think about what my father said about the diarrhea taking him
downhill, and ask yourself this question: When we are just babies,
what do our parents train us to do which is our first really great
accomplishment? No, it's not "Da-da, ma-ma" or our first step
without holding on. The answer is ‘toilet training”-achieving mastery
over our bodies, controlling one of its most basic functions which
first defined us as kids and no longer babies. One of two lead doctors
treating my father told me tonight he has tried everything he knows,
but he DOES NOT know how to stop the diarrehia. "There is nothing more
we can do for your dad in the hospital," admitted my Dad's oncologist.
My father was scheduled to be sent home. After nearly two weeks in the hospital, he came out
"swinging", as I described him to several friends. It appears the
"Aibishter" has other plans for my father. He summed it up rather
nicely when he told his brother: “Don''t worry Hirshy, I'm not ready
to die yet."
If you're looking to measure a man''s mettle, witness how he copes
with physical affliction. It is ultimately a test of the substance and
depth of his dignity. My father is the paradigm of a man who survived
a plethora of indignities not only with his dignity intact but admired
by the many family members and friends to whom he provided a
remarkable example of stubborn courage. Now that he is home, we spend
much of our time talking and playing gin rummy. He tells his story and I listen.
"So Dad I''ve a few questions to ask you."
"Okay, go ahead. Ask away."
"I wanna know the stuff you won't tell me."
(end part 1)