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Sunday, October 22, 2017

It was just four days before Pesach when my phone rang. My father was calling to let me know that he and my mom wouldn’t be joining us for Pesach. He said he was having some “circulatory issues” and would be having additional testing during Chol Hamoed. When I pressed about his condition I got no answers, just that the doctor told him he couldn’t fly. I was mildly concerned but lacked information. He assured me that he’d fill me in on the complete picture after the tests were conducted.

When I called my parents on erev Shabbos Chol Hamoed, my father shared that he was scheduled for open-heart bypass surgery the day after Pesach. He seemed very calm on the phone. I wasn’t as calm and in fact was quite shaken but tried my best to stay strong and encouraging while on the call. Suddenly, my father who has been historically very healthy would soon be having a life-threatening and possibly life-altering operation.

The ironic thing is that my father felt absolutely great. He had zero symptoms pointing to a problem and he had to have the doctor double check the file to ensure he was speaking to the correct patient. In fact, the discovery of the blockages was rather miraculous altogether.

On a flight back to NY in early 2017, my mother picked up a magazine and began to read about a prestigious doctor in New York who manages the comprehensive medical needs of his patients. My mother decided that my father should pay this doctor a visit. After conducting a battery of tests, there was a borderline issue with a calcium result. The doctor was dismissive of the test as a cause for concern, saying it was normal for a man my father’s age, but my mother was adamant that it needed to be further explored.

By her own initiative, she reached out to a renowned cardiologist for further testing. After multiple additional tests the blockages were detected. Unfortunately, less invasive procedures were deemed likely to be unhelpful and the more ambitious approach of the open-heart procedure was suggested. Thankfully, the care at the heart center of St. Francis Hospital in Roslyn, New York was superb and my father is now on the mend.

I recall many years ago my mother discussing being in the “sandwich generation,” concurrently caring for her ailing parents as well as us, her children. Thankfully, I’m not yet there as my parents are both vibrant and healthy; however, this was a unique opportunity to connect with my father and mother and reciprocate years of giving, love and support.

The night preceding the surgery, my father requested of me that my mother not be left alone in the house the evening after the surgery was completed. I realized that the opportunity was not just to be there for my father but also to lend support for my mother in what was certainly a challenging time for her. The primary caregiver is impacted in fundamental ways during an illness and many of us often forget the sensitivity required in being there for that person as well.

The Gemara in Kiddushin (30b) that discusses the mitzvah of honoring parents is familiar to many of us. It lists manifestations of the mitzvah including pouring drinks, providing food, standing for a parent and other critical components. Recently, I returned home one evening and my son Meir Simcha stood up for me. He said the Torah requires it. He then shared with me an acrostic for the word “RESPECT” that he learned in his yeshiva ketana. It stands for Rebbeim, Elders, (older) Siblings, Parents, Environment, Chaverim and Teachers. It is a cute pneumonic device and something in need of reinforcement particularly in our generation where chutzpah often reins.

To be completely honest, honoring parents isn’t always the easiest mitzvah in the world. Familiarity breeds a comfort level that often can be a slippery slope toward unintended lack of respect. As we get older and leave the parental home, not calling enough or not inviting or visiting enough are areas that can be fraught with ill will and hard feelings. The dynamic and relationship between our spouses and parents can also play a role. A wonderful rabbi who would call his widowed mother on a daily basis for years mentored me in my youth. It was something to admire but difficult to put into practice.

This unfortunate heart operation served as a reboot. It was a special opportunity for me to fulfill a precious mitzvah in a very direct and basic fashion. I had the privilege of spending Shabbos in the hospital with my parents and being there on a daily basis for an entire week. It was an opportunity to be an advocate and a companion and reconnect with a unique mitzvah in a substantial way, providing the physical comforts and demonstrative acts described in the Gemara.

It isn’t easy seeing a parent recuperate from illness. It touches a chord of vulnerability of what life would be like if that parent were missing. I have many friends who have already lost a parent. I’m not sure I ever contemplated the full depth of what that must be like for them. This brush with that reality made me keenly aware that precious time gifted to us with a parent is not to be taken for granted.

As my father improved and my presence was less required, I still felt a very strong pull to be in the hospital with him. Maybe it was a desire not to lose the rediscovered connection or maybe it was just a protective instinct, but it was a powerful drive nonetheless. I’m told there is a saying that “one parent can care for 10 children, but 10 children can struggle to care for one parent.” Although maybe some truth is in this expression, it felt terrific to reciprocate many years of care invested in me by my parents.

I have two very special younger brothers who both reside in Israel. They both have large families and it isn’t easy for them to leave their responsibilities and come to America. In truth, it wasn’t always easy for me to leave my responsibilities, both professional and personal, and for them even more so. Still, as they each called daily and followed developments there was a yearning to be present and attentive. Each was moser nefesh to come spend quality time with my parents after my father returned home from the hospital and began his rehabilitation. They both expressed jealousy of my opportunity to have been there for the surgery and immediately afterwards. I guess we all felt this longing to reciprocate the lifelong attention and care that we all have benefited from.

Life is an interesting cycle. We begin as young children and our parents take care of all our needs. They physically, emotionally and financially ensure that we can develop our potential, thrive and give back to the world. Hashem arranges the world in a way that we are often given the opportunity to “pay it forward” but also at times an opportunity to “pay it back.”

Many of us have difficulty expressing our feelings. If we didn’t grow up in expressive environments we can be stunted and it may feel uncomfortable to express basic words of affection toward a parent or even a spouse. Even so, actions often speak louder than words and with powerful commitment, dedication and physical attentiveness we can communicate what is sometimes verbally elusive.

We are in the season where the secular calendar demarcates Father’s Day and Mother’s Day. Although it’s not part of our mesorah to delineate a special day to recognize our parents, I find it valuable to call attention in our frenetic and harried lives to the need to pay closer attention to our parents especially as they and we grow older.

A number of times in his shiurim, I heard Rav Moshe Shapiro, z”l, share the experience of his youth of when he almost drowned. In describing what in essence is “chaim” or “life,” he shared the feeling of coming up for air after almost being consumed and pulled under by the water. Interestingly, many maspidim of Rav Moshe, z”l, used the word “chaim” to describe in one word the essence of which this great Torah personality was.

Having my father’s life placed in jeopardy reminded me of this idea communicated by Rav Moshe, z”l. One appreciates life so much more after coming dangerously close to losing it. The sense of contrast, the before and after, is palpable and powerful. We don’t ask for the test or challenge but there is always an insight, something to take as we move forward. I’m appreciative that my father is doing well and even more so for the chance to fulfill and reconnect with one of the most integral Torah commandments. May Hashem bless my parents with many more years together in happiness and good health and may we as children merit honoring them in befitting ways.

By Rabbi Dovid Cohen

 Rabbi Dovid M. Cohen is the director of community engagement at Yachad, the National Jewish Council for Disabilities and the incoming rabbi of Congregation Ohr Torah in North Woodmere, New York. He is the author of “We’re Almost There: Living With Patience, Perseverance and Purpose” (Mosaica Press 2016).