This chapter will appear in the March edition of Poetica Magazine.
Struggling To Do the Right Thing
by Alan D. Busch
“It feels sore,” Dad explained. “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 cancer had worsened
dramatically within the last several days. Dad was being a dad.
I understood what he was doing, he thought, for my sake.
Kissing Dad on his nose turned up the corners of his mouth the
tiniest bit. It was all he could manage. Gone his cheery disposition;
his handsome face now gaunt, frozen and expressionless. He no
This is how he’ll look when he dies, I suppose. I’ve tried
unsuccessfully to block this thought. It is as persistent as it
Dad’s His body was busy shutting itself down. Our every effort to
make him more comfortable served as a bitter reminder he would
not be going home again. Shouldering this emotional burden is
familiar to anyone who has cared for a dying parent in a
I monitored Dad’s decline by the waning strength of his handshake.
He had had such powerful hands. No longer able to speak, his
silence spoke to me. There was nothing more to say.
Dad expressed himself … through his eyes. I saw their tiny twinkle.
He was glad I was there.
It was a time of our waiting.
Dad’s appetite, even for ice cream his life-long favorite, declined
precipitously. His refusal to open his mouth didn’t discourage
me from feeding him. There is something profoundly perverse about
feeding your father with a spoon. Oftentimes it was enough to wet
The High Holidays approached. I struggled to make the right
Should I be in shul or at Dad’s bedside? What if while I’m in shul,
I feared the guilt of a poor decision.
“I’ll be staying here with Dad for Rosh Ha Shana,” I told Ron, my
older brother, who had postponed his flight back home several
times, but could no longer do so.
“If you can’t take care of your father at a time like this, religion isn’t
worth much, is it?” he observed pithily. His face brightened.
“You’ve made the right decision little brother.”
“I couldn’t agree more Ron,” I replied, whose eyes had become
misty. I had never seen my older brother weep. I guess there is a
first time for everything. I turned aside.
“Hey,” he said, gently draping his forearm on the back of my neck
and shoulders. “Thank you.”
The eve of Yom Ha Din drew near. Who would live? Who
would die? Who would be sealed in the Sefer Ha Chaim? I
wrestled with a more intense moral dilemma than the one I had
faced several days earlier. The awesome uncertainty of Yom Kippur
filled me with dread. I knew in my heart where I had to be but felt
compelled to plead for my father’s life before the Aron Kodesh?
I needed guidance.
I called Rabbi Louis. We spoke for an hour. Though his role was
that of my counselor, Rabbi Louis is my friend. He had cared for
his dying father years before, but I could not bring myself to ask
him what he would have done had his father been dying on the eve
of Yom Kippur. I returned to be with Dad still undecided.
“Hello Reb Ephraim?” I called from Dad’s room several hours
before Kol Nidre.
“I apologize,” Ephraim began, “but I’ve been so busy with my
mother. She’s eighty-six and is dying from stage four cancer.
“I’ll be with her at home on Yom Kippur.”
I was thunderstruck. I knew what I had to do.
“Alan, how can I help you? You had a question?”
“I did but you’ve already answered it.”
“The Aibishter sends messengers to help us make the right
decision,” Rabbi Louis remarked when we spoke after yontif.
I made the right choice at this time of extremity in my father’s life.
Together, we reached closer to The One Above than either of us
could have done separately.
I was called to his bedside in the late morning of October 18, 2008.
My wife and I left immediately.
Dad’s end was imminent. Wrapped tightly in clean white
blankets, he had awoken and fallen back asleep several
times. I stood at his bedside. His breathing was unlabored.
A final calm overcame him. We were ready, I suppose.
I looked down into his green eyes to see them close. He appeared to
be smiling, no longer having to bear the pain of having eaten
“too many green apples”.
He suffered no apparent distress that Shabbos morning. Though I
held his hand, he slipped through my grasp anyway.