Tuesday, December 30, 2008
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“Al Ha Nissim”
For better or worse, Ben, my first-born son, had always been like his father, as was I like mine. As a kid I fondly recall my father’s homiletic teachings about which he remarked “aren’t worth a hill of beans” if not attached to good deeds. “Words are cheap son. Actions speak louder. Remember that!” We had just left his office and were on the way home when a bedraggled, shivering, gaunt man with the butt of a cigarette hanging from his lips approached us. His thin, dirty jacket reeked of tobacco and alcohol. “Here, my man. Take this,” my father reassuringly said while removing his long coat and draping it around the shoulders of this fellow. “Be well,” he added with a faint smile. He took me by the hand and headed to the underground garage where he had parked his car. “Daddy, aren’t you cold?”“A bit son, but I would have frozen had we walked past that man without responding. Giving is more blessed than receiving, sonny boy.”
A Generation Later
It was that time of year, the month of Adar, when we are bidden to be joyful. Purim lay just around the corner, affording us an opportunity to help needy Jewish families enjoy a “chag sameach” by performing the mitzvah of “matanot l’evyonim”.
I ran across an easy hamantschen recipe while flipping through the pages of the Purim edition of the JUF news magazine. “That’s it!” I declared. After Ben and I picked up a few items at the market, we set out immediately to mix and knead enough dough for five dozen hamantaschen, each filled with a half teaspoon of jam. Though I could have easily bought them ready-made, choosing the easier path was not the lesson I wanted Ben to learn. Besides, isn’t homemade always better? We divided up the hamentaschen into twelve plastic bags, tied them off with those “twisty” ties you get with the trash bags and drove to The Ark, a Jewish social service agency in Chicago, that had organized the delivery of holiday food baskets to the Jewish needy. By the early afternoon, Ben and I had brightened the prospects of a chag Purim sameach for twelve families.
Six Years Later
That year I volunteered once again to deliver Purim food baskets. Ben agreed to accompany me on one condition- that we not bake hamantaschen as we had done six years before. He asserted that at eighteen years of age, he was way too old for that “kid stuff” We had had a great morning albeit without homemade hamentaschen and were on our way back to The Ark when an alarming pause abruptly ended our conversation. Not having answered my previous question, I turned to Ben and saw something unlike anything I had ever seen before. Ben’s body had stiffened and begun jerking spasmodically like a steam pump grinding to a halt for lack of oil. Looking bewildered and trapped in a body from which he could not escape, he turned to me in desperation, bewildered yet hopeful as if to say: “Dad, I sure hope you know how to deal with this!” Truth be told, I didn’t. I had to always remain on alert with Ben, diagnosed with juvenile diabetes when ten and a half years old, because he often suffered from hypoglycemic shock unexpectedly in the course of conversation. You could be chatting with him one moment and, in the next, he might be writhing in the chaos of low blood sugar. That’s how frightfully unpredictable it was, but what I had seen that morning was unlike any hypoglycemic episode of Ben’s I had ever witnessed. I had seen enough of them to know. What’s more? He had eaten lunch not more than an hour before the attack.
They say the first time is the worst. Terrorized by this unfamiliar demon, I responded to it the only way I knew. I rushed into a nearby restaurant panic-stricken. “I need a regular cola now,” I shouted to the counter person. “Please hurry. It’s an emergency!” I ran back to Ben. Forcing the straw between his lips, I hoped, probably unrealistically, that if it were diabetes related, the cola would at least spike his blood sugar. He instinctively began to suck on the straw although, I feared, it wasn’t doing him any good. The nightmare ended after five minutes. We drove home exhausted, bewildered and scared. The attack kept on recurring so often that I lost count. Whenever it started up, I’d hold on to Ben with a gentle bear hug to restrain his arms so that he not hurt himself and to let him know I was there. I whispered in his ear quite a lot that terrible day. Ben’s mom and I agonized for several interminable hours. “What was happening to him?” we wondered while awaiting the one call from Ben’s doctor that would have authorized our son’s referral to the hospital. It never came. When our patience had nearly exhausted itself, we left for the emergency room. We’d deal with the insurance company later. As for Ben, not one complaint! He never became despondent or depressed though, as strong as he was, I am sure the tireless presence of chronic illness wore him out at times. Ben lived without self-pity. Embodying the virtues of self-reliance and courage, he was the sort of person to remount his bicycle quickly after he had fallen off, always ready for the next patch of rough road. After some six hours in the treatment room while Ben, his mother and I awaited the results of a battery of tests, the doctors diagnosed him with Epilepsy. Epilepsy! As if Ben were not burdened enough by diabetes. We were, naturally, devastated. The seizures continued inexorably for several days. Not until after a series of trial and error, did Ben’s neurologist, an arrogant man whom I disliked, find the right dosage to treat Ben’s seizures.
In the spirit of the joy and miracles of Purim, I’ve looked for the silver lining of that day twelve years ago when Ben experienced his first epileptic seizure. It may seem paradoxical, but what I do know is that Ben’s epilepsy strengthened his spirit even more than had the juvenile diabetes with which he had been diagnosed when only ten and a half years old. He was a young man who showed us how to endure chronic illness with dignity and grace in the too few years that were ours to be with him. Perhaps there was some hidden significance that his mom and I had named him “Benjamin”. Like Mordechai Ha Yehudi, of the tribe of Benjamin, my son taught us-by his refusal to bow down to a false god, whether it be chronic illness or Haman Ha Rasha-to discover therein the paradigm of our spiritual strength.
Al Ha Nissim
Adar-Hebrew month of Purim
Purim-Jewish holiday based on biblical Book of Esther
chag sameach-happy holiday
chag Purim sameach-happy Purim
matanot l'evyonim-gifts to the poor
hamantaschen-traditional Purim cookies
Mordechai Ha Yehudi-Morcdechai the Jew, hero of the story of Purim
Haman Ha Rasha-Haman the Evil One, who sought to destroy the Jews of Persia.