Reckoning (to be published by the Orthodox Union) By Alan D Busch
Saturday, February 28, 2009
Rated "G" by the Author.
A father and son talk about important stuff ... this story will be published after Passover of this year by the Orthodox Union (OU) at ou.org in the Shabbat Shalom feature.
I am my father’s witness.
He’s been sent home after spending two weeks in the hospital. Colon cancer is killing him. There is nothing more the hospital can do. We visit with each other three days a week, just he and I, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, from noon until 5 o’clock. We’ve recently completed our eighth week together. He’d agree, I am certain, that it has been the best time we have ever spent with each other.
I've read that a son should ask certain questions of his father. This I have done. I usually initiate the conversation, but there was an occasion or two when my dad beat me to the punch. I’ve always regarded my father as my teacher. Now that our time is running out, I must learn to see things as he sees them, from his inside out and, perhaps with just enough gentle prodding, he'll tell me about the stuff he’s never told me before.
Never inclined toward casual conversation. my father and I have always preferred the weighty dialectic of issues, substance. These eight weeks really comprise our last, albeit extended, substantive exchange, but with one important difference for each of us.
For me, it is a matter of kibud av, my last chance to better honor the man from whom I have fashioned so much of me. For Dad, it is his time to tie up the loose ends, say what has to be said and what he’s wanted to say. When he speaks to me now, it is with what I’ll call a “sense of mission”.
It's been during this time that he has fashioned his cheshbon ha nefesh, his life’s reckoning. It is, I suppose, roughly comparable to a last will and testament but to be opened and read only by The Dayan Emes.
“Alan, come back here in the bedroom.” My dad is not feeling well today. To see him lying in his disheveled sickbed is a disturbing sight. I spot his favorite sweater that he so enjoys having wrapped around his shoulders crumpled up in a ball by the head board. We jokingly call it his “talis”. He wriggles about uncomfortably atop his bedcovers. His head is scrunched up against four pillows, his frighteningly thin legs poke through the ends of the same pajama pants he has worn now for several days. A once robust, barrel-chested man and golden glove pugilist in his youth, my father was someone you’d want to have on your side in a fight.
“Do you remember what you said?” he asked me with a worrisome look. My father is referring to one of the stories he’s been reading that I’ve written about his struggle and our time together.
“How you thought I was going to die that morning when Bobbie (my dad's wife) brought me to the emergency room.”
“Yes, I do remember that all too clearly …”
“Well son, I wasn’t ready to die that morning and, as a matter of fact,” he added, “the thought never entered my head.” I swallowed hard, having just shared a gritty, dramatic moment with my father. “Dad, when I first saw you in that treatment room, I was scared at how terrible you looked. Your skin was yellow, you were burning up from fever and the diarrhea was unrelenting. Truth be told, I thought to myself: ‘This is the end.’ “
Talk of death does not disturb him. He speaks of it almost detachedly, with the calm acceptance of a man who has squared his account with his maker. It’s important that I transcribe the meanderings of his soul before colon cancer takes him from us.
“Dad, are you all right?” He seems not to have heard me.
“Pain in your gut, Dad?”
“Some yes.” He tells me it’s been coming more frequently.
“I took a couple of Vicadin.”
“Dad, what kind of pain is it?”
“It feels ‘sore’.You know, how I felt as a kid when I had eaten too many green apples.”Somehow I was not convinced his grimace reflected a merely “sore” stomach, but I understood what he was doing, he thought, for my sake.
We had gone out in the morning on business which completely wore him out. My father and I had been able to get out fairly regularly until just recently when he seems to have suffered a precipitous decline in his health. Whenever we did make it out, I felt like such a kid walking around with a toothy grin, wearing a t-shirt with an arrow and caption that read: “This is my dad!”
It is very difficult to leave my father today. As sundown approaches on Erev Shabbos, he becomes contemplative, soulful if you will, as if he had already acquired his neshuma yesaira. “You know I was thinking back when you were ababy,” he began. “You were born with a club foot. Did you know that?” he asked, his eyes becoming misty. I’ll miss this part of him most. “No Dad I didn’t,” I managed to choke out those four words. In truth, I had heard it untold times before, but for my father, each time was as if it were the very first.
“And I used to turn your foot and turn your foot, again and again, like this,” he demonstrated painfully and tearfully, twisting his hands in the manner of one struggling to connect two rusty garden hoses into one. It was enough to emotionally drain both of us.
“What time do you have, Son?” he asked me, reaching for the box of tissues on the nightstand.
“4.45! You better get going. I don’t want you to be late for ‘shul’.”
I gathered my things slowly. “Go home Son. It’s getting late,” he counseled.
I turned to leave.
“Alan, thank you,” he said excitedly.
“Have a great weekend,” I said.
“Good Shabbos,” he responded, as if mildly rebuking me. I leaned over.
Kissing me as he had always done, I felt the familiar scratchy stubble of my father’s unshaven face, but not so strangely, it didn’t bother me this time. I inhaled his scent.
Traffic that afternoon did, as I had hoped, run quickly, but it still seemed to have taken me forever to get home.
This is a very moving piece--one of my favorites. If there could be a good way to die, referring to relationships, this would be it. Watch the adverbs at the end of this piece--excitedly, surprisingly quickly--as they seem to stick out and ruin the smoothness of the piece.