Kissing my dad on his nose seemed to elicit a smile, albeit
a very faint one It was, however, about all he could manage at
the time. I had experienced a moment like this before when I
spent several minutes kissing my son Ben’s nose shortly after
he died on an operating table in Cook County Hospital eight
years before. They had such similarly handsome noses, Dad and
Ben, each with a gentle rise in the middle.
My father was hospitalized twice in 2008. Between them,
he spent two months at home during which time he and I visited
with each other on a regular basis three, sometimes four
times per week.
By the end of his second hospitalization in September of
2008, my father’s condition had worsened so much that Bobbie,
Dad's wife, decided to move him to a skilled nursing facility.
Caring for him at home-even with the assistance of a visiting
hospice nurse, would have worn her out in a very short while.
The facility's staff included a physician who made three
cursory visits to my father's bedside over fifteen days,
monitoring his decline. He administered no medicine, conducted
no examinations. As a matter of fact, neither my father’s
oncologist nor his gastroenterologist ever visited my father. I
guess he was already dead in their eyes. It became quietly but
quickly clear to me that Dad would enjoy no more temporary
oases of recovery as he had for a short time during the eight
weeks he spent at home. When I noticed that Dad was not
connected to a mobile drip, it confirmed my suspicion he would
not be going home again.
Dad’s body was in process of shutting down. Though no
longer tormented by severe diarrhea-a cruel side effect of
chemotherapy-that had afflicted him in the recent past-
he stopped speaking, his facial expressions faded away. We
had to intuit his needs. His appetite declined precipitously.
When he had had enough, he could only let us know by
refusing to open his mouth. He even stopped eating the ice
cream that he had always loved. His lack of appetite did not
dissuade me however from continuing to feed him, spoonful
at a time. To wet his lips was often enough. Bobbie and I agreed
one of us would be with Dad day and night.
I I measured my father’s physical decline by the waning strength
of his handshake. Remembering how crushingly powerful it had
been until just recently (in fact, while he was in the hospital, I
challenged him regularly to arm wrestling matches and was
stunned how strong he still was) he could barely hold my
hand by the time he entered the nursing facility. Dad’s frozen
face and impaired hearing left me uncertain whether he heard
or understood me enough to squeeze my hand. Do you know how
it is when a baby’s tiny hand squeezes one adult finger? Have
you ever seen that before? Well, this is about what remained of
my father’s physical capability during the last two weeks of his
life. He would remain bedridden.
To my father movement meant life and he passed away soon
after losing his ability to stand on his own. Although he retained
much of his upper body strength almost to the very end and,
while still able, he’d attempt to swing his legs over the side of
the bed. He couldn't lower the safety rail of the bed; that,
however, did not keep him from trying. So determined was he
that we even exchanged a few words one night around 2 o’clock
in the morning when my patience had worn thin.
My concern was that my father would not receive a kosher
funeral. I raised the issue with Bobbie after we had met with
a social worker. We agreed it was wise to make funerary
arrangements in advance and have everything in place. We would
need only to contact the funeral home when necessary.
We spoke briefly together in the lounge just across the hall
from Dad’s room. I was pleased when Bobbie ceded the final
arrangements to me. Several hours later, a representative of
the funeral home I had contacted arrived at the nursing
facility. Together the three of us made the awful but necessary
arrangements to lay my father to his eternal rest.
Bobbie called me Shabbos morning, October 18, 2008. My
wife and I left immediately. One of the staff nurses had alerted
Bobbie that she thought Dad’s end was near. When I arrived,
Dad was asleep as he had been for the better part of two weeks.
I stood at his bedside by the window. His breathing was quiet.
Wrapped tightly in clean white blankets, I watched for any final
signs. We had anticipated this moment for quite a while. Our
voices were hushed. I took Dad’s hand in mine. His fingers were
limp. I felt for a pulse. Dad was hanging on ever so slightly. I
looked up at my wife and Bobbie. Several minutes passed in
silence. We called for the nurse. My father had passed away
seconds before. He had suffered no apparent distress and was
now at ease. I called the funeral home from the nurses'station.
The attendants arrived about an hour and a half later. They
had run into some traffic on the way down. Bobbie and my
wife left the room when the attendants arrived. Two young
women, dressed in modest black attire, grasped my father’s
bed sheets and lifted him onto the gurney. The transfer was
seamless. I accompanied them down the service elevator to their
van. My father’s body was being well cared for. Of that I was
certain. My wife and I drove home.
I walked over to Rabbi Louis's sukkah. Benzie, Rabbi's
older son, was inside studying. His study partner Jacob was
there too. We spoke briefly while I awaited the right moment to
announce my father's passing.
A drizzle fell. What remainded ofShabbos was chilly ... gray.