Getting Through the Night

by Brian on March 13, 2009

in A Parent in Israel

It was Purim evening and Jody and I went dancing. It was an exhilarating night out as thousands of revelers, young and old, from around the country, came to shake and bounce and twirl to free form world music until the wee hours of the night at the post-Megillah Boogie Jerusalem annual extravaganza. We stayed until 2:00 AM.
When we got home there was a message on our answering machine. It was from my mother. Her words were stark.

The doctors didn’t know if Dad would make it through the night, but he did, and now he was in stable condition.

Wouldn’t make it through the night? The previous update was that the surgery he had to remove fluid from his collapsed lung had gone well, that he was weak but in good shape. When we left for Boogie, all signs were that things with my father were looking up.

I called my mother on her cell phone. It went into voice mail. I called my brother. His office manager said he had stepped out to lunch. I was plunged into uncertainty, lacking the basic data to even know how to feel.

When I finally spoke to my mother, she explained that my father wasn’t able to breathe but, ultimately, the doctors got his airways open. The severity of the attack, however, suggested that the cancer was moving more aggressively than originally thought. They would have to wait for the oncologist to know the full story.

My brother has been doing a great job trying to get answers. He camped out in the office of my father’s primary care physician until he squeezed himself in between appointments.

For me, it’s been incredibly frustrating being so far away and knowing so little. My mother said not to get on a plane…yet. My brother was more pessimistic. He felt that my father had already given up and was not fighting anymore. He had no appetite and was getting weaker and weaker.

When I spoke to Dad last night, though, he actually sounded pretty good, like his old self.

The oncologist finally came the next day. He said he’d been waiting on tests that had to be done outside of the hospital (why he couldn’t have communicated that instead of leaving us all in the dark for a week, I don’t know).

The news was good and bad. Dad wasn’t in immediate danger. He’d be starting chemo immediately, which hopefully will dry up the fluid in his lungs. But the cancer wasn’t curable, the oncologist said. The chemo could buy him another six months, maybe a year but not more.

When I told the kids the situation, 11-year-old Aviv asked if the treatment would hurt. We said yes. He then asked why his grandpa would want to put himself through such suffering if he knew he was going to die anyway.

Maybe he wasn’t ready yet, I responded. Maybe he needed time to say his goodbyes.

That’s not going to be so easy for my father and me. Since we made aliyah, our communication has mostly been via email – jokes, personal updates, political rants. Now, it seems, the relationship needs to be flipped on its head, morphing from analytical to emotional overnight.

But how do you suddenly talk about feelings vs. facts after so many years? It might be easier if I lived nearby, but popping in for a few days and then flying out again makes the task doubly difficult.

In the meantime, I’m trying my best to participate in his care from afar, Yesterday, I checked out the local synagogue websites.

My mother called a Rabbi Schlesinger from Congregation Beth Ami, a Conservative synagogue, to discuss burial options. There is no Jewish cemetery in their area, he explained, nor any Jewish funeral homes. There is apparently a small Jewish section in the Santa Rosa cemetery.

To my surprise, though, there is a cross-denominational Chevra Kadisha which helps families make arrangements and advises them concerning traditional practices and requirements. This includes shmirah (guarding) and taharah (purification) of the body, preparing condolence meals, and putting together a minyan to say Kaddish.

There’s also the local Chabad emissary who arrived in the hospital on Purim day bearing hamantaschen and singing cheerful songs. He told my mother he’d be available to help with whatever they needed. I’m not a Chabadnik by any means, but bless them for the outreach they provide.

Before Dad took this turn for the worse, I suggested he write a blog himself, to chronicle his experience, like Rivka Matitya who I wrote about here last week. Dad was, after all, a journalist, working for the San Francisco Examiner for nearly 35 years.

He didn’t sound particularly interested. That’s not surprising. He’s got so much hitting him all at once right now. And it’s only been a week since the initial diagnosis. So for now at least, my posts, from 7,000 miles and 10 time zones away, will have to do.

I want to end by thanking all of my readers who have written with words of support over the last week. It means so much to me in this state of confusion.

I’ll be in touch again soon.

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