He’s been sent home after spending two weeks in the hospital. Colon cancer
is killing him. There is nothing more the hospital can do. We visit with each
other three days a week, just he and I, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays,
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’ve ever
spent with each other.
I’ve 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 he 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, he’ll
tell me about the stuff he’s never told me before.
Never inclined toward casual conversation, my father and I have always
preferred the weighty dialectic of issues, substance. 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 honor 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”.
It’s been during this time that he has fashioned his 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 Emes.
“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 “talis”. 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.
“Do you remember what you said?” he asked me with a worrisome look. My
father is referring to one of the stories he’s been reading that I’ve written about
his struggle and our time together. “How you thought I was going to die that morning
when Bobbie (my dad's wife) brought me to the emergency room.”
“Yes, I do remember that all too clearly …”
“Well son, I wasn’t ready to die that morning and, as a matter of fact,” he
added, “the thought never entered my head.” I swallowed hard, having just
shared a gritty, dramatic moment with my father. “Dad, when I first saw you in
that treatment room, I was scared at how terrible you looked. Your skin was
yellow, you were burning up from fever and the diarrhea was unrelenting. Truth
be told, I thought to myself: ‘This is the end.’ “
Talk of death does not disturb him. He speaks of it almost detachedly, with
the calm acceptance of a man who has squared his account with his maker. It’s
important that I transcribe the meanderings of his soul before colon cancer
takes him from us. 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 understood what he was doing, he thought, for my sake.
My father and I had gone out in the morning on business which completely
wore him out. We had been able to get out fairly regularly until just recently
when my father suffered a precipitous decline in his health. Whenever we
did make it out, I felt like such a kid walking around with a toothy grin, wearing
a t-shirt with an arrow and caption that read: “This is my dad!”
It is very difficult to leave my father today on Erev Shabbos. As sundown
approaches, he becomes contemplative, soulful if you will, as if he had already
acquired his neshuma yesaira.
“You know I was thinking back when you were a
baby,” he began. “You were born with a club foot. Did you know that?” he
asked, his eyes becoming misty. I’ll miss this 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
struggling to connect two rusty garden hoses into one. It was enough to
emotionally drain both of us.
“What time do you have, Son?” he asked me, 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,” he counseled.
I turned to leave.
“Alan, thank you,” he said excitedly.
“Have a great weekend,” I said.
“Good Shabbos,” he responded, as if mildly rebuking me. I leaned
Kissing me as he had always done, I felt the familiar scratchy stubble of my
father’s unshaven face, but not so strangely, it didn’t bother me this time. I
inhaled his scent.
Traffic that afternoon did, as I had hoped, run quickly, but it still seemed to
have taken me forever to get home.
Alan D. Busch