Losing a Grandson (revision for publication)
My father is not an atheist-no matter what he may tell you.
He is rather a grieving grandpa who watched his first grandson, my son Ben, die on an operating table at Cook County Hospital on November 22, 2000, a cataclysm which so profoundly shook the fragile architecture of his belief in God I wondered if any of it would remain standing when the dust settled.
Earlier that morning, business had been especially brisk. The phones were ringing off the hooks. I picked up one of the lines to help out. I heard the voice of a stranger.
“Mr. Busch?” he queried.
“Speaking,” I reluctantly admitted for I knew, with a parent’s intuition, he was not the bearer of good news.
“Mr. Busch. My name is Dr. Ibrahim Yosef, chief of emergency surgery at Cook County Hospital.”
“Yes, doctor,” I acknowledged nervously.
“Are you the father of Benjamin Busch?” he asked.
“Yes, I am,” girding myself for the worst.
"Your son has arrived by fire department ambulance-having sustained massive critical injuries in a traffic accident."
At that instant, I felt as though I had been struck by the same truck I later found out had hit and run Ben over.
“Mr. Busch,” the doctor’s voice becoming hurried and shrill, “Ben requires immediate surgical intervention.” I tried to speak but my words were stuck.
“Mr. Busch,” his voice now emphatically urgent, “I suggest you come to the hospital right away!”
“Suggest!” I repeated, digesting the ominous meaning of his
“suggestion” led me to feel certain I knew how this day would end. I sped away to the hospital in a state of controlled desperation.
We had never really sat down and talked about it, as we had so many other life questions, but I feel confident in asserting that my father retained a faith in God although it had never before been so profoundly challenged.
While a team of doctors and nurses worked feverishly to save my son's life,my dad-whom I had never seen pray-cried out to The Master of The Universe to spare the life of his grandson who had been crushed under the rear wheels of a twenty-six feet long moving van. And though he pled desperately with The Almighty for His immediate intercession, it was not meant to be. The spark of life in Ben flickered out.
“I must admit to you, Alan, I don’t understand how you’ve done it,” my father told me on more than one occasion. “Your brother and I were talking about you the other day,” he added, “and we both agree that neither of us could have done what you did.” Knowing the depth of my father’s residual strength, I thanked him but protested that nothing I had done deserved praise.
What my father meant is that, following Ben’s death, I resolved to continue living my life as best I could, a decision I thought was simply necessary for the sake of my other children, my daughter Kimberly and younger son Zac.
My responsibility to them was not only to survive our sudden loss but to lead my extended family in the emotional reconstruction of our lives.
A parent whose child predeceases him does not enjoy a wide range of choices. He can either choose life accompanied, as he will forever be, by the permanent presence of grief or he becomes busy with dying.
I don’t know how it feels to lose a grandson. I regret the fact I never did ask my father about it. How had he coped with Ben’s death? Frankly, the devastation my family was suffering at the time was unfathomable. Ben’s mom and I had divorced several months before prior to our loss which certainly did not make the initial mourning and subsequent grief any easier. I was so preoccupied with recovering my life and struggling daily to watch over my other two children, I did not have much time to spend with my father. He was emotionally devastated, but truthfully, I didn’t know how to deal with the loss of my father’s grandson.
In a letter to a friend dated July 18, 2001, eight months after Ben’s death, my father wrote, “For a while there I was depressed. My grandson Benji was killed in a car accident. He was just twenty-two. I miss him. It left a large void in my heart.” He said nothing more which disappointed me although I suspect he was never quite the same again.
Nearly eight years later, my father and I were chatting one afternoon in his apartment. He’s home now after spending two weeks in the hospital’s oncology unit. My dad is dying of colon cancer and though he’s enjoying a well-deserved respite from his earlier suffering, we know it’ll be all too brief. We’re together quite a lot now, better late than never, I suppose. He’s telling me his story between hands of gin rummy. I deal the cards and listen.
“Have you heard it said, Son, there are no atheists in foxholes?” "Sure. I've heard that."
"Well, I assure you. It's the absolute truth. There were a couple of guys in my company during the war, avowed atheists, or so they claimed. We were gearing up for the Battle of the Bulge. Everybody and I mean everybody had a role in that. Well, after we had engaged the enemy, I found myself in the same foxhole with these two guys, our heads in the mud, enemy fire all around. I don’t know what it was, a grenade, a shell whatever. In my life, I had never heard so much praying.
‘Dear Lord, please get me out of this. I'll be good. I'll never do that again.’ You know the sort of thing that comes out under deep stress.” That previous remark caught my attention, but for the moment I let it go.
“‘Here’s my chance,’” I thought, “’the time was right. Opportunity was knocking.’”
"What is your belief, Dad?”
"Me? I don't believe in God,” he asserted dismissively, without even so much as a pause. My jaw dropped. I was thunderstruck. What about the story he had just told me? Hadn’t it been both an endorsement of belief in the One God and an absolute rejection of atheism? I certainly hadn’t expected such an answer. There was something very wrong here.
Where was the man who had pled before The Master of The Universe for his grandson’s life? Where was he? I wanted to speak to him.
“Were there a God-a caring, loving, parent-like God, He would not allow the terrible things in life to happen,” he asserted. I had heard it before. I think everyone has. It is an argument that demonstrates the impossibility of a belief in God without the faith that sustains it in times of crisis.
“Dad do you recall what you’d said to me after we lost Ben? Well, I have a secret to tell you.” I crossed my arms on the kitchen table and leaned slightly forward. A moment like this had never happened before in our relationship. I wouldn’t have another shot at this.
“You mean when I told you I couldn’t have …”
“Yes, Dad, that’s it. I wanted to tell you then that you had never been so wrong! The source of my strength? You Dad, you’re “avi mori”, my father, my teacher.” I backed off a bit. His eyes had become misty. “That day … when Ben died, I watched you as you pled for Ben, for all of us, and I remember thinking: ‘This is my dad!’ Your strength, the strength of your faith to be able to plead before God, that strength could only derive from God. So when Ben died, in your profound disappointment you set down the strength of your faith. But you know what?” Dad answered me with his continuing silence. “I picked it up and made it my own.” That’s when my father’s silence turned into a smile.
I guess he just didn’t realize what an important lesson he had taught me that day. Despite my father’s earlier assertion that he would not have survived the death of a son, his own actions have disproven his claim. He not only survived Ben’s death but continued practicing dentistry successfully for an additional eight years before he entered the hospital for a urinary tract infection, high fever and incessant chemotherapy induced diarrhea.
You see … in my father’s world Ben was as much his “son” as I and my brothers Ron and Rich are. He routinely addressed Ben as “Benji Son”-his favorite endearment. Whether it was his “Benji Son” for whose life he desperately pled or his own from the ravages of cancer, my father personified, perhaps unwittingly, a basic, unadorned, unarticulated trust in the words of the psalmist: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the mountains: from whence shall my help come? My help cometh from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”
And one more thing … there really aren’t any atheists in foxholes.