Stuff My Father Won't Tell Me
Struggling To Do The Right Thing
It wasn’t so much my father’s problem as it was mine.
The commandment to honor one’s parents had always been for me simply …
the right thing to do. Jewish tradition characterizes it, however, as the most
challenging of the Taryag Mitzvos. Anyone who has ever cared for a
terminally ill parent appreciates the difficulty of performing this mitzvah well.
With the approaching Aseres Y’mai Teshuva, I found myself struggling with
how best to honor my father who had been battling colon cancer for two years.
Hospitalized twice since July of 2008, we moved him to a skilled nursing
facility. He lived there for fifteen days before he died on Shabbos. I was at his
My father’s condition made it impossible for him to attend high
holy day services this year as he had in years past. I was unsure whether to
attend services or be at his hospital bedside. I wanted to do the right thing, to
decide upon the right path and soon. “I’ll be staying here with Dad for Rosh Ha
Shana,” I told my older brother Ron who had already postponed his flight
several times. However, after two weeks with Dad, he had to return home.
“I cannot in good conscience go to shul,” I added. Ron’s face brightened as
if to say ‘You’ve made the right decision little brother’.
“Well,” he observed pithily, “if you can’t take care of your father at a time like this,
religion isn't worth much, is it?"
“I couldn’t agree more Ron,” I replied, smiling at my brother’s roughly hewn
pshat of the Fifth Commandment. I had never seen my older brother weep
before. I guess there is a first time for everything. I turned aside. “Hey,” he said,
gently draping his forearm on the back of my neck and shoulders. “Thank you.”
If my father could not come to Rosh Ha Shana, I’d bring Rosh Ha
Shana to him. Hoping to elevate my family’s mitzvah of bikkur cholim to a
Kiddush Ha Shem, I brought a holiday meal to the hospital for my family.
My daughter Kimberly cried. Perhaps the festive food would help to strengthen
our emunah that The Aibishter might still inscribe and seal my father in the
Book of Life.
The eve of Yom Ha Din approached. Who would live? Who would die? Who
would be sealed in the Sefer Ha Chaim? I found myself wrestling with a more
intense moral dilemma than the one I had faced several days earlier. The
awesome finality of Yom Kippur filled me with greater uncertainty and
dread. My father continued to decline. How would I live with myself tomorrow
if I were not at my father’s bedside today? Would I have to plead for my father’s
life before the Aron Kodesh? I needed guidance.
I called Rabbi Louis. We chatted for an hour. I learned how he had cared for his
dying father years before but could not bring myself to ask him what he
would have done had his father been dying on the eve of Yom Kippur.
I went early next morning to visit my father. Time was running out just hours
before Kol Nidre. While my father slept, I called my friend Ephraim, a halachic
Jew, who hosts an on-line yeshiva where I have read some of my poetry and
prose. Preoccupied with his eighty-six year old mother who, like my father, was
terminally ill with stage four cancer, he told me he'd be staying at home with
her for yontif. I was thunderstruck. His timely story of hashgacha pratis
resolved my dilemma.
Rabbi Louis called me motzai yontif. I relayed Ephraim’s story. “Baruch Ha
Shem!” he responded, once more validating his belief that “Got firt da velt.”
“The Aibishter sends messengers to help us make the right decision,”
Rabbi counseled. My right decision enabled my dad and me to reach closer to
The One Above than either of us could have done separately.
I was called to his bedside late Shabbos morning, My father’s neshuma was
readying itself to depart. A sound came from his throat as he drew his
last breaths. A final calm blanketed him. He was warm and at ease.
A part of my father had gone missing eight years before when his twenty-two
year old grandson, my son Ben, departed this world. It's hard to pin down, but I
suspect it left at the same time as Ben's neshuma. Like Jacob who had clung
to Esau's heel, it attached itself to Ben's ha akev shel ha nefesh, the heel of his
soul, taking a little bit of my father with him. Now on this Shabbos
Kodesh, my father would at long last be whole again.
Alan D. Busch