Is it Still Okay If Your Father Cries?
The phone rang. It’s a call I’d been dreading. “Well? Pick it up
already,” my wife exhorted. Bobbie, my dad’s wife, was calling
as we had agreed she would in the event of a life-threatening
emergency. My father, whose condition had been progressively
worsening, was dying of stage four colon cancer.
“Alan, I’m taking your father to the emergency room at
Prentice Hospital. Oh my God! The paramedics have arrived.”
I ran out the door to the hospital.
“Dr. Busch? Hmm, Dr. Busch?” the receptionist repeated while
scanning her patient admissions print out. “Patient’s first
“Albert,” my father’s name shot out of my mouth. The
receptionist, a young woman, in her mid-late 20s, with
painted nails, gingerly keyed 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 swiveled in
her chair and pointed, “Turn right at the hallway.” I dashed off
forgetting to thank her.
“Dad’s inside,” Bobbie gestured, nodding her head toward the
door. “My God, what am I walking into here?” I wondered,
drawing a deep breath and swallowing. Bobbie followed me in.
The windowless room was cramped, clutter strewn all over the
place. An extra gurney with a broken wheel, several wheelchairs
and a portable weight scale made it seem more like a storage
closet than a treatment room. The fetid air was hot.
I saw 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 had lost so much weight, he began to look as if he
were fading away. His skin fit him about as well as an over-
sized suit. His neck sagged and his legs had become spindly,
their skin tightly stretched and transparently thin.
Two nurses had just finished their second clean up when I
walked in. Soiled linens, towels and wipes littered the floor. A
momentary calm passed, just seconds before the third torrent of
severe loose bowels attacked my father, only ten minutes after
his arrival. The nurses responded swiftly and unaffectedly. I
watched them with awe and thanks. Their professionalism
comforted and assured me that Dad was in good hands. Sarah,
the head nurse, who was busy rifling through the cabinets for
additional adult diapers, fresh gowns and bed sheets, suggested
we leave. However, she nodded approvingly when I remained at
my father’s side. Bobbie stepped out.
“Alan?” Dad whispered as he grasped my hand with his
powerful clench, a good sign.
“Yes, Dad, I’m right here.” We both managed a little smile. The
“Dr. Busch?” inquired 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
“Benjamin Finerman. Aleichem shalom,” he returned the
greeting. “Dr. Busch,” he addressed my father, “our chart
indicates a few complaints about profound diarrhea, high fever,
dehydration and urinary tract infection.”
“Just a few complaints indeed!” my father chuckled in
appreciation of Dr. Finerman’s understatement.
“Dr. Busch,” he continued. “We’ll be admitting you as soon as
the paperwork is processed.” He turned to me and whispered:
“May your father have a refuah shleyma.”
Within half an hour, patient transport moved us to room 1676
where we spent the next thirteen days. Dad’s first two days were
grueling, while the nights were relentlessly demanding,
interminably long and mostly sleepless. What little sleep we did
get was repeatedly interrupted by Dad’s incontinence
emergencies. Thankfully, he’d always fall back asleep quickly
after we had finished cleaning him up. How long until the next
one? Sometimes five minutes, ten minutes, an hour or two …
I began watching Dad while he slept. Gone his once cheerful
face, now gaunt and expressionless. This is how he’ll look when
he dies, I suppose, I thought to myself. I try to block such
thoughts, but they intrude upon my privacy nevertheless.
This was to be my dad’s last battle, waged against a mean-
spirited side effect of his chemotherapy regimen. His cancer?
Frankly, we didn’t talk much about it. Sure, the doctors
happened by, examined him and evaluated the status of Dad’s
tumor. His prognosis was dim. We understood that and didn’t
quarrel about it. What troubled us was the unrelenting nature of
his incontinence, which was turning my father’s remaining time
into a living hell. Aside from the several medications the doctors
had prescribed, there turned out to be no offensive measures any
of us could take. Our only plan was to defend ourselves
whenever it pleased to ambush us. Since Dad’s body no longer
signaled any advance warning, we were stuck fighting a
"Call the nurses, Alan!” my father demanded.
"Dad, I can take care of this by myself.” I reasoned back.
“Please, please don’t do any more Son,” my father pled,
weakening my protestation.
“I understand your feelings, but the nurses are better at
this than you are. Let them do their jobs. Besides, it’s not right
for a son to help his father in this way.”
Though I did not doubt the oncology nurses were doing their
best, they could not always respond to our calls in time,
especially in the early morning hours when regular staffing
was cut back. And I understood that. So the job of Dad’s clean
ups came back to me. I couldn’t begin to recount the number of
times Dad and I shuffled from his bed to the bathroom while
dragging that awkward “post and pole”(as one nurse called it),
to which Dad’s saline drip and heart monitor were attached. It
made the eight feet from his bed to the bathroom seem like a
nearly impossible distance and sometimes, well… sometimes we
didn’t make it. Each clean up proved to be 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, Dad remained
determined to reach the bathroom in time and thereby regain, at
least, partial mastery over his body.
The doctors had no answers, their treatments continued to be
ineffective. “There is nothing more we can do for him here,”
my father’s oncologist concluded. My father was not ready to
go home, but the hospital was ready to release him the next day.
Time was running out.
So, 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,” I began. “The “tincture of opium” you prescribed for
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 my wit’s
end, ready “to strangle” anyone who crossed my path.
“I’ve tried everything I know to do,” he admitted, “but if the
tincture is not working, I do not know how to stop it.” My
“The prognosis varies with each person,” the same oncologist
explained later that morning, responding to our request for a
consultation. “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 while 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 lost in thought …
“Prayer is like dialing long distance to ‘De Aibishter’, the
voice of my late mentor, Reb Isser, reminded 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 “woke me up”. He had brought
Bobbie her coffee, then came looking for me. We sat down
together. "It's so sad," Ron remarked, but quickly added that at
least he and Dad had made it to the bathroom in time that
“You did? I was hungry for some good news. “That’s great to
“Wait. There’s more,” he cautioned. “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 said barely above a whisper. He detailed
the rest of the day to me, one that had gone from bad to worse.
That evening, he went back to Dad’s apartment to sleep while I
stayed at the hospital with our father.
Is it still okay if your father cries? I wondered later that night
while I watched Dad sleep. I glanced at the clock radio, 3:00
a.m. It had only been an hour or so since the last attack. Outside
our door, I watched as the early morning nurses’ aides
scurried about from room to room. I saw Barbara, a heavy set
woman in her mid-forties, who had begun her second week with
us as Dad’s night nurse. I liked her. “Everything good in here?”
she whispered, peaking around the corner. “Good morning,
Barb. Yea, we’re good for another hour or so. I’m going to step
out for a bit, okay?” “No problem,” Barb answered, “I’ll look in
after him. You go ahead.”
I walked over to the same computer lounge. It was about 3:15
a.m. No other souls were about but me and the whisper 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 began my silent prayer …
“I do not presume any merit of my own. My father, Avrum ben Rose, calmly awaits his end of days. He has taught me this lesson of faith and trust by his personal example. Please 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
As the days wore on, I summoned all my faith certain that
The One Above had heard my plea and would answer my prayer.
Dad’s first few days at home were tenuous while we waited for
the tincture of opium to do its job. Then the phone rang …
“Good morning Alan!”
“Dad?” I answered, surprised by the call itself and the upbeat
tone of his voice
“So Dad, what’s …?”
“It’s worked! He interrupted excitedly. “The tincture, Son, has
finally kicked in,” he blared so loudly I had to remove the phone
from my ear. “So Dad, tell me how you feel?” I asked, sharing
his excitement. “Sonny Boy, I feel … I feel,” his voice
cracking ever so slightly. “I feel … like I’ve so much to be
My father chose life while he was dying. Cancer was killing
him, an unalterable fact he accepted with majesty and grace. The
profound diarrhea, though a formidable opponent, had been
vanquished by a combination of his sheer drive to emerge the
victor and, b’esrat HaShem, the blessed power of prayer.
When Dad died on Shabbos morning, October 18, 2008, I held
his hand and watched as he gently departed this world, a man at
peace whose dignity had been restored.
Alan D. Busch