Tuesday, September 01, 2009

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Is it Still Okay If Your Father Cries?

The phone rang. I had long dreaded this call. It’s Bobbie, my
dad’s wife. My father is in crisis. I know this because Bobbie is
calling me. We had agreed she would in the event of a life.-
threatening emergency. “Well? Pick it up already,” my wife

“Alan, I’m taking your father to the emergency room at
Prentice. Hold on. The paramedics have arrived. Oh my God.
Bye!” I left immediately for the hospital.

“Dr. Busch. Hmm, Dr. Busch?” the receptionist repeats while
searching her daily admittance list. “Patient’s first
name is?”

“Albert,” my father’s name shoots out of my mouth. The
receptionist, a young woman, in her mid-late 20s, with
painted nails, gingerly keys in our last name. “B-u-s-h, Bush”.

“No, Miss, it’s B-u-s-c-h, Busch.”

“Oh, okay, got it. There he is. Dr. Albert I. Busch. Treatment
Room number one. Oh my! Right over there,” she swivels in
her chair and points, “Turn right at the hallway.” I dash off
forgetting to thank her.

“Dad’s inside,” Bobbie gestures, nodding her head toward the
door. “My God, what am I walking into here?” I wonder,
drawing a deep breath and swallowing. Bobbie follows me in.
The windowless room is cramped, clutter all over the place.
An extra gurney with a broken wheel, several wheelchairs
and a portable weight scale make it seem more like a storage
closet than a treatment room. The air is hot, fetid. I see Dad
lying atop a gurney several feet away wearing
nothing but a loosely-tied hospital gown, his clothes
unceremoniously stuffed into a clear plastic garbage bag.

My father is fading away. He has lost so much weight his skin
hangs off him like an over-sized suit. The skin of his neck sags.
His legs have become spindly, their skin tightly stretched and
transparently thin. Two nurses are just finishing their second
clean up when I walk in. Soiled linens, towels and wipes are
everywhere strewn about. A momentary calm passes, just a
matter of seconds before ‘whoosh!’ A third torrent of “profound
diarrhea” has attacked my father only ten minutes after his arrival.
The nurses respond swiftly and unaffectedly. I watch them
with awe and thanks. Their tireless professionalism comforts
me. Dad’s in good hands. Sarah, the head nurse, busy rifling through
the cabinets for more adult diapers, fresh gowns and bed sheets, asks us to
leave, but nods approvingly when I remain at my father’s side.
Bobbie steps out.

“Alan?” Dad whispers, grasping my hand with his powerful
clench, a good sign. “Yes, Dad, I’m right here.” We both
manage a little smile. The door opens.“Dr. Busch?” inquires
a young resident, sporting a three-day growth of beard and a
black suede kippah.“Shalom Aleichem. I’m Alan Busch, Dr. Busch’s
son,” I quickly respond.

“Benjamin Finerman. Aleichem shalom,” he returns the
greeting, extending his hand in Shabbos courtesy. ”Dr. Busch,”
he addresses my father, “your chart indicates a few problems
with chronic diarrhea, high fever, dehydration and urinary
tract infection.”

“’A few problems’ indeed, doctor!” my father chuckles in
appreciation of Dr. Finerman’s understatement.

“Dr. Busch, we’ll be admitting you as soon as the paperwork is
processed.” He turns to me and whispers: “May your father
have a refuah shleyma.” Within half an hour, just as he had
indicated, patient transport moved us to room 1676 where we
spent the next thirteen days.

His last battle against profound diarrhea lies ahead. My dad
and I have no plan but to react. There are no offensive
measures we can take. It ambushes us whenever it pleases. His
body no longer signals any advance warning. We are stuck on
the defensive. Although not itself lethal, it is turning my
father’s remaining time into a living hell.

"Call the nurses, Alan.

"Dad, let me. I can take care of this by myself.”

Please, please don’t do any more,” my father pleads.

My protestation weakens.

“I understand your feelings Son but the nurses are better at
this than you. Let them do their jobs. Besides, it’s not right for
a son to help his father in this way.”

Though I have no doubts the oncology nurses are doing the
best they can, they cannot always respond to our calls in time,
especially in the early morning hours when staffing is cut
back. And I understand that. And so it comes back to me.
I can’t begin to recount the number of times Dad and I have
shuffled from his bed to the bathroom. Dragging that
awkward “post and poll”(as one nurse called it) to which Dad
is attached by his saline drip and heart monitor makes the
eight feet from dad’s bed to the bathroom seem like … well,
sometimes we make it. Sometimes we don’t. Each clean up is a
tiresome repetition of the previous one: helping Dad wash
himself, changing his gown and bed clothes, cleaning the
floor if necessary, bagging it all and calling housekeeping to
pick up the soiled linen and freshen up the room. Despite the
embarrassment of it all, Dad remains determined to reach the
bathroom in time and thereby regain, at least, partial mastery
over his body.The doctors have no answers, their treatments remain
ineffective. “There is nothing more we can do for him,”
according to my father’s oncologist. My father is not ready to
go home, but the hospital is ready to release him tomorrow.
Time is running out.In an act of desperation, I called my dad’s
gastroenterologist at 5:00 a.m. and left an urgent message with his answering
service. He called me back within minutes.

“Doctor, the “tincture of opium” you prescribed to treat my
dad’s diarrhea hasn’t worked. There is still no change,” I
explained as calmly as I could. It wasn’t easy. I was at wit’s end,
ready “to strangle” anyone who crossed my path.
“I’ve tried everything I know to do, but if the tincture is not
working, I do not know how to stop it,” he admitted. My
heart sank.

“The prognosis varies with each person,” my dad’s oncologist
explained later that morning. “This could go on for three to
six months or even a year,” he added, shrugging his shoulders
and turning up the palms of his hands.Dad was getting sleepy.
We all needed a break. Ron, my older brother, went downstairs
to get a coffee for himself and Bobbie. I wandered over to a
computer lounge with a picturesque view of Lake Michigan.
If only I had been able to enjoy it. It was one of those moments,
you know, when you just stare out of the window …
“Prayer is like dialing long distance to ‘De Aibishter’”, the
voice of my late mentor, Reb Isser, spoke to me. “’Call His
number’ every day, Mr. Busch and remember to pray with
your heart. You may get a busy signal, lots of folks trying to
reach Him, so be patient or leave a message. He returns every

The sound of my brother’s voice “awakens” me. "It's so sad,"
Ron remarked, remarking that he and Dad had made it to the
bathroom in time that morning.

“You did? That’s good news!”

“Wait. There’s more. Dad told me he needed to sit for a while,
and that I should lie back down for a few more minutes. He’d
call when finished. Shortly thereafter, I heard him quietly
crying.” Ron detailed the rest of the day, one that had gone
from bad to worse.

Is it still okay if your father cries?

I watch him for hours while he sleeps. His once cheerful face is
now gaunt and expressionless. This is how he’ll look when he
dies, I suppose. I try to block such thoughts, but they intrude
upon my privacy nevertheless.I glance at the clock radio, 3:00 a.m.
Outside our door, I catch a glimpse of the early morning nurses’ aides
as they scurry about from room to room. Barbara, a heavy set woman
in her mid-forties, currently assists Dad. I like her. She is good
at what she does and seems to care about my father.

I return to the same computer lounge at 3:15 a.m.
No other souls but me and the sound of Reb Isser’s voice
faintly echoing in my memory… “Keep dialing His number.
De Aibishter will pick up. You’ll see ...”

“Ribono shel Olam … I do not presume any merit of my own.
My father, without rancor, awaits his end of days. He has taught
this lesson of faith and trust to me by his personal example.
Please help my father, Avrum ben Rose. Heal his bowel so that he
may live out his last days in dignity and peace.”

And so, I waited to hear from Him “who heals all flesh and
performs wonders.” As the days wore on, I summoned all
of my faith that The One Above had heard my plea and would
answer my prayer. We waited for the tincture of opium to do its job.
Dad’s first few days at home were tenuous.

And then the phone rang …

“Good morning Alan!”

“Dad?” I answered, surprised both by the call itself and the
upbeat tone of his voice, “So Dad, what’s …?”

“It’s worked. The tincture, Son, has finally kicked in,” he
blared so excitedly I had to remove the phone from
my ear. And kicked in it had, my father’s happiness … well, it
skyrocketed. “So Dad, tell me how you feel?” I asked, sharing
in his excitement. “Sonny Boy, I feel … I feel,” his voice
cracking ever so slightly. “I feel … like I’ve so much to be
thankful for.

My father’s struggle reminds us of the importance of
choosing life when sickness all too often extinguishes hope
and all is given up to surrender. In my father’s case, cancer was
killing him, a fact he recognized and accepted with calm and
grace.The diarrhea, on the other hand, represented a formidable
obstacle which we overcame by the combination of my
father’s sheer drive to emerge the victor and the power of
prayer. When he passed away on Shabbos morning, October
18, 2008, he did so as a man at peace whose dignity had been

Alan D. Busch

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