“Stuff My Father Won’t Tell Me …” Part 1
My cell phone rang on Shabbos morning.
I had put it on the window’s ledge Friday afternoon. I saw my dad’s
phone number flashing.
“Heather, Bobbie’s calling,” I said to my wife.
“Better pick up,” she advised. “You know it’s about your dad.”
"Alan, I’m taking your father to the hospital,” she said tersely.
“I’ll be there as soon as possible,” I responded.
My father suffers from terminal stage four colon cancer.
Bobbie and I had an understanding between us. She knew that she
could count upon me at any time, day or night, any day of the week
were my father’s life in jeopardy. So it wasn’t as if I hadn’t been
expecting a call like this sooner or later..
“It varies with each person,” the oncologist explained about my
father’s prognosis before he was released after thirteen days in the
hospital. “Could be six months, a year or two,” he speculated. When
he shrugged his shoulders with the palms of his hands facing up, I
knew I had heard, as my father liked to say, the “emes”.
Within minutes, my wife and I were headed for Northwestern
University’s Prentice Women’s Hospital. I felt my adrenalin level
soaring, girding myself for whatever this day might bring.
“You were right,” I remarked.
“About the call you mean?” my wife asked.
“Yes, the call, of course. Thank you for reminding me of my
obligation. ”Hon’, when we’re there, drop me off at the ‘ER’.” She
pulled into the emergency room driveway several minutes later.
I ran in and identified myself to the receptionist.
“Hello. My father is here, Dr. Albert Busch.” She typed quickly.
“Yes, Dr. Busch. Exam room four. It’s right around the corner.” She
turned around in her chair. “There,” she pointed, “right down the
hall.” I hurried away. I saw Bobbie standing in the hallway.
“Hi. Dad’s inside,” she said, her head and eyes gesturing toward the
door. Worriment exacerbated by the morning’s fatigue had etched
itself on her face. I girded myself to enter. Bobbie followed me in.
The room was cramped. The air was hot and fetid. Two nurses
attended my father while a third hurriedly searched the cabinets for
more adult diapers, fresh gowns and bed sheets. My father was
battling severe diarrhea, a consequence of his chemotherapy.
Somehow, the lead nurse managed to introduce herself to us amidst
the confusion. I was impressed by her calm command of the
I looked and saw my father as never before. Lying atop a gurney in a
hospital gown, his nurses had no sooner finished my father’s first
clean up when a second torrent of diarrhea soiled everything in its
path. The nurses invited us to leave. Bobbie stepped out. I stayed.
Whatever happened from this point forward, I felt I should be there
with my father at his side. The relentless nature of this diarrhea would
prove to be his most formidable adversary over the next two weeks of
His skin was yellow. It reminded me of the skin tone of the “mesim” I
saw after I had volunteered to help to perform “taharas” for the Jewish
Sacred Society. Severe dehydration and a urinary tract infection
further complicated my father’s medical profile. I was afraid of the
imminence of his death.
“Good morning. Dr. Busch?” a young ER resident entered the room.
“Good morning. I’m Alan Busch. Dr. Busch is my father.” He was a
“thirtyish something”, short in stature, sporting a three day
growth of beard and a black suede kippah. Bobbie mentioned to me
soon after I arrived she had seen an orthodox Jewish doctor working
in the ‘ER’ I guess she thought it would make me feel better. And you
know what? She was right. It did.
“Good Shabbos. Sholem Aleichem,” I greeted him.
“Good Shabbos to you. Aleichem Sholem, he responded. “How is
your Shabbos going?” he asked me tongue in cheek. I liked him. He
“I’ve had better.”
“We’ll be admitting your father as soon as the paperwork is
“You’re welcome. Be well.” Within a half hour “patient transport”
arrived to move us to where we’d be for the next thirteen days.
My father and I are in Room 1676, Prentice Women’s Hospital.
The first few hours have been rough. The diarrhea continues to attack
"Call the nurses, Alan. Please, please don’t do any more,” my dad
"Dad, let me. I'll clean this up myself.”
“I understand and thank you, son, but the nurses are better able and
faster. Let them do their jobs. It’s just not right for you to be doing
He was adamant, but I was determined to care for my father as well as
for my father’s dignity. In deference to his wishes, however, I called
for nursing assistance no fewer than five times between midnight and
6:00 A.M. on each of the first two nights I stayed over.
The oncology nurses and patient care technicians are selfless, hard
working people who are often understaffed and overworked.
They could not get to us in time every time. I lost count of the
number of times my father and I shuffled from the bed to the
bathroom, dragging the portable “post and pole” along with us.
Sometimes we made it. Sometimes we didn’t. Our goal was to beat
back this “Amalek” that had attacked my father’s body.
I watched him for hours while he slept. His drawn face, drooping facial
skin, a mouth that seems to hang open and wrinkled neck painfully
remind me how old and ill he is. My father has lost so much weight
that his skin doesn’t fit him any longer. He seems to be fading
“This is how he’ll look, I suppose,” I muttered to myself. Though I try
to block these thoughts, I cannot. There he lies and I can’t help but
think … God and my dad should forgive me.
By the end of the first two days, I had reached my limit. I needed to
go home. My wife, Heather, came down to pick me up. Bobbie had
arrived earlier so I did not feel guilty about leaving.
“Dad, I’ll be back on Thursday.”
“No problem, son. Go home and rest." Had I refused to take a break,
my father would have “kicked me out”. He seldom thinks of
“Heather, let’s go for a drink.” I felt ready to collapse not so much
from physical fatigue as from emotional exhaustion.
“I saw a nice little place at the corner. What do you say?” She was
agreeable.“This is the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do,” I said,
sipping a drink. Heather ordered a diet pop.
“Come on. Finish up and let’s go home. I’ll fix something for dinner,”
she said. Now that was really welcome news because for two days, I
had eaten nothing but cereal with milk, pudding, chips and fresh fruit.
Mind you, I was not going to starve but the hospital’s “food market”
had a limited supply of kosher items.
We arrived home. I collapsed on the couch. My wife lit some candles,
closed the blinds and put on some James Taylor “cds”. She knows how
much I like him. I cannot really account for it, but there is something
about his music that affects me emotionally. I felt I was just about
ready to burst. By the end of his song “Mean Old Man” (which, by the
way, my father is not!) I broke down sobbing, my shoulders heaving.
I covered my head with the towel my wife had put on the back of my
neck for extra comfort and simply … wept.
I woke up next morning feeling sluggish, still worn out.
"I'll go down tomorrow. It's too darn hot today. The expressway is a
parking lot,” I muttered to myself, trying to assuage my guilty
conscience. I spent the better part of the day fooling myself, looking
for and finding every excuse not to visit my father that day. I called
my brother Ron around 7:30 p.m. He had flown in from St. .Louis
and been with our father all day.
"Hi, Ron, so how was today?"
"Not so good," he sounded worn out.
"Oh ...?" I wanted him to tell me more.
"Can you come down now?" he asked, barely masking an order to
do so. Frankly, I was glad he asked me. Even though my father had
had a bad day, Ron's request unburdened me of my guilty conscience.
I drove down.
"It's just that I've not seen him cry except when he thinks
about Ben (my dad’s first grandson, my first-born son who had died
almost eight years before),” I told my brother Ron. We sat in the
family lounge while the nurses were helping my dad to clean up.
"It's so darn pitiful," my brother remarked.
Tears, let down, disappointment My father cried while sitting on the
commode. The diarrhea was still unabated after five days in the
hospital. It comes when it pleases without warning or bodily signals. I
kept silent. What response is there? Here is a man who is not
afraid of his cancer. He can deal with that.
"It's not the cancer. I accept that. The diarrhea is taking me
downhill," he said to his nephew Robert, my first cousin who is a soon
to retire professor of medicine in Michigan.
Do you remember what General MacArthur said about old soldiers
not dying but fading away? As a matter of fact, my father is an old
soldier, United States Army, brigadier general, retired. And as with old
soldiers, especially those who wear stars on their epaulets, there is no
crying. Reminds me of what Tom Hanks said in “A League of Their
Own”: “There is no crying in baseball!”
Think first about what my father said about the diarrhea taking him
downhill, and then ask yourself this question: when we are babies,
what do our parents train us to do which is our first accomplishment?
No, it's not learning to say "dada” and “mama" or taking our first step
“without holding on”. The answer is ‘toilet training”-achieving
mastery over our bodies, controlling one of its most basic functions
which defines us as “kids” and no longer as “babies.”
In desperation, I called my father’s consulting gastroenterologist at 5:00
A.M. the day before he was scheduled to leave the hospital. The
“tincture of opium” he had prescribed several days before to treat my
father’s diarrhea had yet to produce any positive results.
“Doctor, my family does not think my father is ready to leave the
hospital. There is still no change,” I explained as calmly as I could.
“I’ve tried everything I know how to do, but if the tincture is not
working, I do not know how to stop the diarrhea.”
“There is nothing more we can do for your dad in the hospital,”
admitted my Dad's oncologist later that same day. After nearly two
weeks, my dad went home. Bobbie had arranged to interview a
home nursing technician, Jennifer, that same afternoon.Bobbie hired
her, but after a week at home, the diarrhea began to subside. The
tincture of opium had apparently begun to work. My father no longer
required Jennifer's assistance. By the end of the second week at
home, my father’s bowel movements had normalized.
I began visiting with my father three times a week. We spend much of
our time talking and playing gin rummy. He tells his story and I
listen. Though he tires quickly and his pain from cancer worsens, my
father is happier. It appears the “Aibishter” has other plans for him. He
summed up his feelings succinctly when he told his brother: “Don't
worry Hirshy, I'm not ready to die yet."
If you're looking to measure a man's mettle, examine how he copes
with physical affliction. It is the ultimate test of the substance and
depth of his dignity. My father is the paradigm of a man who has
survived a plethora of challenges not only with his dignity intact but
admired by the many family members and friends to whom he
has provided a remarkable example of stubborn courage.
"So Dad,” I said one afternoon when he seemed ready and able, “I've a
few things I’d like to discuss."
"Okay, go ahead. What would you like me to do?”
"Tell me about the stuff you haven’t told me,” and so we began.