Is it Still Okay If Your Father Cries?
The day did not go well for my older brother Ron who had
flown in from St. Louis to help care for our father. Dad is
dying of colon cancer. He fights for his life at Northwestern
University’s Prentice Hospital, in the oncology unit, room
1676. I figured that now with Ron in town, I could take the
day off, having spent every one of the previous forty-eight
hours with Dad. My conscience, however, had other plans for
me. I wrestled with it off and on all day long.
Ashamed of my selfishness, I left my house around noon
and drove as far as the on-ramp to the expressway. Traffic
was backed up for miles. I turned around and went home,
squandering the remainder of the afternoon.
Unaware that Ron had been expecting me, he called at
7:30 p.m. to ask if I would come down for the night shift. I
jumped at the opportunity.
I found my brother waiting for me in the family lounge. He
stepped out of Dad’s room for several minutes after he had
fallen asleep. Worried that he won’t be in town when our
father expires, Ron works hard to expiate the guilt he already
feels. A good and doting son, the manner in which he cares
for Dad reminds me of how he used to watch out for me.
Combining the best of mothering and ‘big brothering’, Ron
reads to our father engaging him in esoteric discourse. I watch
them revel in each other’s company.
A Few Days Before
The phone rang on Shabbos morning. Bobbie, my father’s
wife, was calling to inform me (as we had prearranged) that
she was rushing Dad to the emergency room. My wife and I
left immediately for the hospital. Minutes later, the
receptionist directed me to the treatment room.
“Hi. Dad’s inside,” Bobbie greets me, her head and eyes
gesturing toward the door. I gird myself. She follows me
in. The room is cramped, its air hot and fetid. My father lies
atop a gurney in a loosely-tied hospital gown battling severe
diarrhea. Two nurses attend him while Sarah, the head nurse,
rifles through the cabinets for more adult diapers, fresh gowns
and bed sheets. The nurses’ pleasant professionalism reassures
me that my father’s in good hands. Another recurrence
happens within seconds of the previous clean up. Sarah 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. As my dad understands and I’d soon
learn, unrelenting chronic diarrhea, a side effect of
chemotherapy, would prove to be our most formidable
adversary in the coming weeks.
“Dr. Busch?” inquired the attending resident who entered the
treatment room sporting a three-day growth of beard and a
black suede kippah.“Shalom Aleichem. I’m Alan Busch, Dr.
Busch’s son,” I quickly responded. “Aleichem shalom,” he
returned the greeting, extending his hand in Shabbos
courtesy. ”Dr. Busch,” he addressed my father, “your chart
indicates some problem with chronic diarrhea, high fever,
dehydration and urinary tract infection."
“Yes, that’s correct, doctor. ‘some problem’ indeed!” my
father responded, chuckling at the doctor’s understatement.
“We’ll be admitting you as soon as the paperwork is
processed. 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.
To say the first few hours were busy would constitute a
misleading understatement. ‘Maniacal’ might better describe
them. The diarrhea was merciless. I was so embarrassed for my
dad (and me frankly) that I hesitated at first to call for nursing
assistance and began cleaning up Dad by myself. Physically
demanding and emotionally stressful, each clean up Is a
tiresome repetition of the previous one: helping Dad wash
himself, changing his gown and bed clothes, bagging it all
and calling upon housekeeping to pick up the soiled linen.
And, in case you’re wondering, it’s nothing at all like
changing a baby’s dirty diaper.
It didn’t take me long to realize I had little choice but to put
my embarrassment aside. After all, my father adapted to it
quickly, even telling the nurses one rather ribald joke that
made them blush. My father, May God Bless Him, remains
fully in charge.
"Call the nurses, Alan. Please, please don’t do any more,” my
dad pled with me in a tone sounding more like an order.
"Dad, let me. I can take care of this by myself.”
“I understand your feelings Son but the nurses are better at
this than you. Let them do their jobs. It’s not right for a son
to help his father in this way.”
In deference to his wishes, I called for assistance no fewer than
five times between midnight and 6:00 A.M. on each of the
first two nights I stayed over. Though certain they were doing
their best the oncology nurses and assistants: selfless, hard
working women, could not arrive in time we needed them.
I can’t begin to recount the number of times Dad and I had to
shuffle from his bed to the bathroom, a distance of eight feet
only. Sometimes we made it. Sometimes we didn’t. Despite its
humiliating nature, Dad remained determined to break the
back of this “Amalek”.
He continues to suffer terribly, his spirit wanes, our
desperation heightens. 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
“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 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
“Prayer is like dialing long distance to ‘De Aibishter’”, the
voice of my late mentor, Reb Isser, spoke to me. “Dial His
number every day, Mr. Busch. Remember to daven ‘Shema
Koleinu’ with koach. The lines are always busy, so be patient.
There are lots of callers out there. Leave a message if you like.
He listens and returns every call. Oh, one more thing …
remember the pasuk from Tehilim, ‘HaShem, hoshia, Ha
Melech ya’anenu, b’yom koreinu.’”
The sound of my brother’s voice “awoke” me. "It's so darn
pitiful," Ron remarked, explaining how 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
downhill from the start.
Is it still okay if your father cries?
Do you remember what General MacArthur said about old
soldiers never dying but fading away? Well, as a matter of
fact, my dad is an old soldier, United States Army, Brigadier
General, retired, who is fading away.
His skin does not fit him anymore. He has lost so much
weight that the skin from his neck just sags. His legs and arms
have become spindly, the skin of his legs is tightly stretched
and transparently thin whereas that of his upper arms sags like
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 returned to the same lounge at 3:15 a.m. No other souls but
the sound of Reb Isser’s voice faintly echoing in my memory
and me … “Keep dialing His number. De Aibishter will pick
up. You’ll see.”
“Master of The Universe … I stand before You pleading on
my father’s behalf. He is selfless, loving, generous and has
thus ever been. His kindnesses have benefitted everyone from
his grandchildren to a shivering homeless man to whom I saw
him once give his new long coat straight off his back on a
frigid winter day. Do You remember that? I do. Heal his bowel
so that he may live out his last days in dignity and peace.”
And so, I waited for De Aibishter” to call me back.
Next morning, after two weeks, we left the hospital feeling
ambivalent at best. Dad’s cancer was a foregone conclusion. I
had heard him say on several occasions that he was at peace
with that. I summoned all of my faith that The One Above
hear my plea and answer my prayer. We waited for the
tincture of opium to do its job during his first few tenuous
days at home. And then I got a call …
“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
Reb Isser was right. ‘De Aibishter’ had played back His
messages and had not only heard my prayer … but granted it.
Alan D. Busch