I am my father’s witness.
He’s come home after spending two weeks in the oncology
unit. Colon cancer is killing him. There is nothing more the
hospital can do. He’s been sent home.
We visit with each other three days a week, just he and I, from
noon until 5 o’clock. We’ve recently completed our eighth
week together. He’d agree, I am certain, it has been the
best time we’ve ever spent together.
I read that a son should ask certain questions of his father.
This I have done. Now that our time is running out, I must
learn to see things as he does, from his inside out. And
perhaps with the right amount of gentle prodding, my father will
tell me about the stuff I’ve always wanted to know.
For me, it is a matter of kibud av, my last chance to better
know the man from whom I have fashioned so much of me.
For Dad, it is his time to tie up the loose ends and say what he’s
wanted to say but now with a sense of urgency.
He has fashioned his own cheshbon ha nefesh, his life’s
reckoning. It is, I suppose, comparable to a last will and testament
but “read” only by The Dayan Ha 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 crumpled into a
ball jammed between the headboard and mattress. That same
sweater, that I jokingly called his “talis” and wrapped around his
shoulders, brought him warmth and comfort in the oncology
unit. He often complained about how cold he felt-even with as
many as five or six blankets. Never a good sign I suppose.
He wriggles 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 for the
past 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. Will I experience someday what he
has? I wonder about that often.
“Do you remember what you said?” Dad wondered, referring to
my reaction upon first seeing him in the emergency treatment
“How you thought I was going to die that morning, remember
“Yes, I do …”
“Well Son, I wasn’t ready to die that morning and, as a matter
of fact,” he emphatically added, “the thought never entered my
I swallowed hard. Dad has a certain toughness about him I’ve
“Dad, when I first saw you laid out on that gurney I was stunned
and scared. Your skin was yellow, you were feverish and the
diarrhea was unrelenting.
I remember thinking: “’This is the end.’”
Talk of death does not disturb Dad. He speaks of it openly
with the dispassion of a man who has squared his account with his
Maker. I am reminded the clock is ticking. He grimaces.
“Dad, are you all right?” He doesn’t hear so well any more.
“Pain in your gut, Dad?”
“Some yes,” he winced. “It’s been coming more frequently so 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.” I didn’t believe a word. The pain I saw
on his face was not that of a child who had eaten too many green
apples but of a man whose condition has declined precipitously
over the last several days. My dad was being a dad. I understood
what he was doing, he thought, for my sake. His fatigue comes
on more quickly as each day passes. The short walks we used to
take just a week or so ago are no longer possible.
It is usually difficult to leave Dad in the late afternoon but
especially so on Erev Shabbos. With the approach of sundown, he
becomes contemplative as if he had acquired his neshuma yesaira
before anyone else.
“You know I was thinking back when you were a baby,” he
began. “You were born with a club foot. Did you know that?”
His eyes glistened. I’ll miss this tender part of him most, I think.
“No, I didn’t,” I managed to respond. In truth, I had heard it
countless times. For my dad, however, each time was as if it were
“And I used to turn your foot and turn your foot, again and
again, like this,” he demonstrated, twisting his hands in the
manner of one trying to connect two rusty garden hoses
together. I was emotionally exhausted.
“What time do you have, Son?” Dad asked, 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,” he exclaimed. I began gathering my things slowly. ‘I don’t
want you to be late for shul.’ That stuck in my head.
“Go home Son. It’s getting late.”
“Have a great weekend,” I turned to leave, still focused on his
“Alan, thank you and Good Shabbos,” he quickly added. I
came to a full stop.
When a newcomer to the observant community, my father
taught me an important lesson. We had been chatting on the
phone for about half an hour. Typical of many, if not most baalei
tchuva, I too began mimicking the code language of the
community. While I cannot know how many times I responded
“Baruch Ha Shem” to whatever Dad happened to be telling me, I
do know I said it one time too many.
My father is a man of calm and patient temperament. It takes
a lot to annoy him, but like anyone else, he has his limits.
“Alan, speak to me in language with which I am familiar!” he
said with a firmness that I had experienced only two or three
times before. I had never heard my dad say anything in a
mean or coarse manner. This instance was no different and,
even when angry, my father’s tone never crossed the divide
between “firm” and “rude”. I recall his rebuke to this very day.
Why then the “Good Shabbos”, suddenly out of nowhere, an
expression not found in his lexicon?
My guess is that the salutary appeal of the approaching
Sabbath might have begun to tug at his heart. Like other
members of my family, Dad had had some difficulty at first
understanding and accepting the choice I had made to
become observant. Perhaps it was his way of validating that
We had shared an exhausting day. Dad looked sleepy and
complained of feeling cold. I covered his feet. Leaning
over to where he sat up against the headboard, he kissed me
as he’s always done for fifty-five years. The stubble of Dad’s
unshaven face didn’t bother me this time. I inhaled his scent.
I looked back just as I turned the knob of the front door.
I saw Dad peek around the corner, wave and gently smile.
That tiny moment would be ours forever. Avi Mori
seemed content in the autumn of his days.