Life Watch

June 25, 2010
Dear Ones,

On the Shabbat before last, my father was taken, at two a.m, to Mt. Sinai Hospital by ambulance for an angiogram. As he was wheeled out of the operating room, he overheard the surgeon say, “He’s got three blocked arteries and has to have a bypass.” At that moment, my father decided he would go for it. without the procedure, he could have a heart attack at any time. Furthermore, shortness of breath and dizziness were distressing him. Why not take the risk and pain if it might bring at least one more life-filled day?

In the end, he didn’t have the choice. My father is such a lovable man that all his caregivers really cared. They so wanted to offer him that one good day that they kept testing him and hoping for different results. The day before they had scheduled the surgery, they had to tell him that he hadn’t passed the last test. At 86, his spirit didn’t match his body; he wasn’t a good candidate.

How did he take the news? He said, “I’m relieved. That would have been a helluva surgery.” If he was disappointed, he didn’t share it. He’s part of that glorious generation that isn’t into kvetching and fear.

I’m grateful to be here in New York with him at this time. We spent a wonderful Father’s Day that included Ivan and Caroline, his Carolyn and her family, as well as my sister, Linda and her family. In a bright yellow polo shirt, he radiated love as his eyes swept over all of us frequently, smiling and beaming.

So it’s hardly a death watch but a life watch here. I’m watching a person who always enjoyed and appreciated life, doing it with even greater gratitude. Every morning he awakens is a miracle. Once easily irritated and impatient with “stupidity”, he is now all-accepting of the humanness that interconnects us. He appears to be in a gentle ecstasy, like a newborn, without claim, meeting the radically amazing world.

My father is experiencing life in a new place, and he is surrounded by many who love him and wish him well. When he returned to the assisted living residence, he was greeted like Henry V at Agincourt. There is sorrow as well as solace in all this, of course. Who is ever ready to let go of pleasure? My father has had a great time and is naturally reluctant to leave the party. But we don’t talk about the next chapter. We don’t even get into intense philosophical discussions as we once did, waving our hands and shouting not in disagreement but in shared passion.

No longer needing to be the quickest extrovert, my father is now being called to know himself differently: Bill Treiber the elder, is the one who is met, not the one who runs to meet. This is not to say that he has become still and quiet. Being active is his way. He’s still bustling about, albeit with a slower bustle. He accepts what must be not with resignation but with a little chutzpah that reminds him and us of who he is. Since I claim this characteristic, it’s been remarkable to observe my father navigating this part of the journey as I probably will.

Many of us in the community either have lost parents recently or are bearing witness to the decline of our once all-knowing, all-powerful parents. If we’ve enjoyed good enough relationship with them, we still miss them terribly.

As I face the bracing reality of losing my father–may it not be soon–I’d like to eulogize my father now, tell him all he means to me, but that’s not our way and we both know how much we love each other. But I want to tell someone and I have you! I cannot see God’s face but I see yours, Heschel wrote. Knowing that I am amidst those who are with me on this journey comforts me. Thank you for your concern.

When I remember my summers in Massapequa, I am walking towards the water with my father after dinner. He lets the dog off the leash in the vacant lot, takes a drag on his Camel and begins to answer one of my questions, e.g. “How do we get over missing people who aren’t with us?” (I only spent summers with him and it was the best part of my childhood. I missed him a lot.) He says that life is so rich that we can find substitutes for what we no longer have. As long as memory lives, so will he. Meanwhile, I’m going to see him on Thursday and maybe I’ll ask him who might substitute for him in my life.

Thinking of you on the fifth floor in a friend’s apartment on the Upper Eastside on a bright and sunny summer’s day.

Peace and Love,
Rabbi Malka Drucker
PS–I read the above letter to my father to be sure it was all right with him to share. Here is his answer: “When I lost my father, I couldn’t turn to my mother or religion. I found solace in doing things I enjoyed. I went to ball games, I fished….”
“Are you saying that you didn’t turn to another person for comfort?”
He thought a moment and said, “People were there and helped. And I helped myself.”
“I disagree with the word ‘substitute.’ We survive loss because we return to new experiences and because of how we learn from loss.”
“That’s true,” he exclaimed. “I think of Blanche so much it’s as if she never died.” Blanche was a beloved young and fun sister-in-law who died at 36. You’re right, Malk. No one could take her place.”
How lucky I am to be able to finish a conversation with my father 45 years later.