Dying Dad: Epilogue

May 27, 1995 My father didn’t much enjoy dying. He didn’t find it interesting, nor did he find it fun. Not even a little, not for one minute, not on your life. Or his. He received his death as an unmitigated, incomprehensible, utterly unfair disaster, like being thrown into the foulest of septic pits, and accordingly he spent his dying days with breath held and sense doors slammed tight, utterly shut down, horrified, helpless, and desperate for rescue. I think his problem was he didn’t understand Daiyenu. It has now been more than six months since his death. When he died, it was autumn and the trees were garbed in their best psychedelic, multi-chromatic foliage. Those leaves offered exquisite yet unheeded example of grace in face of impending death. They trade their working class chloroform-green suits for brilliant vibrant awe inspiring million-colored death robes. At the end of their leafy lives, they had nothing to share with the world except breath-taking beauty. They saved their best and most beautiful for last, then they let go and returned to the earth from which they were born. Within weeks of the funeral, the trees were bare of leaves. As my father fell, so did the leaves, and soon the cold of winter was upon us. One of the things I wondered much about in the aftermath of my dad’s passing was why he found so little support in his Judaic background and from the elders of the Jewish community in which he lived for so long. Actually, the first thing I wondered along these lines was why my father had been so deeply involved and identified with his Jewish heritage in the first place. My father greatly disliked his parents. I wanted to write that he hated his parents, but I couldn’t bring myself to be so blunt. I restrain myself out of propriety, not out of accuracy. In any case, my father’s childhood story was of being endlessly undermined, abused, and shamed by both his parents, and he grew up with a great ill-will towards them. As we waited for the limo to take us to the funeral, I suddenly wondered why my father hadn’t rejected the faith of his parents in revenge and reaction to their rejection of him. But quickly I realized that Judaism was the perfect religion for my father. It is the religion that promises to rescue the oppressed from tyranny. Christianity promises to save you from inner corruption, from the original sin that taints us all. Buddhism offers the hope of

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liberation from the suffering of ignorance, craving, and aversion. Both these religions, one way or the other, offer to rescue us from ourselves. But Judaism always rescues us from others. Moses rescues us from Pharaoh; The Maccabees rescue us from Antiochus, Samson repelled the Philistines, David slew Goliath, Mordecai prevailed over Haman. As they say, in every generation a tyrant has arisen to oppress us, but God always sends a hero to redeem us from bondage. No wonder my father took to Judaism. His whole inner story was about redemption from the bad guys. How he had been oppressed and abused as a child, no one to rescue him, so he fashioned himself the best parent possible. “Even as I have been tormented and abused, so I will protect others from torment and abuse.” As a result my dad was pathologically unable to be mean to us as kids. We were defended against any slight, real or imagined, from any direction, and were rarely made to do anything we didn’t want to. In recent years my father would endlessly recount what bad parents he had had and what a good parent he had been in comparison. It was as if he was trying to rescuing us from the tyranny of his childhood. A bit convoluted but it worked for him. In addition to my dad’s heroic acting out at home, he liked to rescue the oppressed from tyranny on the job too. Even with his imagination, I doubt there was much opportunity to play hero as an insurance salesman, so he switched to a more heroically suitable career as a lawyer. Many times, my dad would express his deep visceral abhorrence of anyone having to spend a night in jail, and it was conversely his greatest satisfaction to ride to the legal rescue, to battle the judge, the prosecutors, the whole criminal justice system, in order to get some guilty-as-hell delinquent back out on the street. When my dad finally was forced to retire from the voluntary defender program, it was a great disappointment to him. It must have felt like God asking Moses to turn in his staff in the middle of the Exodus. So Judaism was a perfect metaphoric match for my dad. Holiday after holiday, we recount the heroic rescue of the Jewish people from outside tyranny and despotism. Not only in the ancient past, in my father’s own lifetime he witnessed the miraculous emergence of the State of Israel from the ashes of the Holocaust. When he finally admitted that he had terminal cancer, My dad kept holding out for his own miracle. He said again and again that it was a miracle that Israel overcame the combined fury of the Arab league in 1967, and where there was one miracle, there could be another. The God of Israel was a god of redemption from tyranny. What chance

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did a lump of cancer cells stand against the might of the almighty? The only trouble was my dad didn’t understand Daiyenu. You know Daiyenu, don’t you? It’s the number one song on the Passover Seder hit parade. Dai, Dai, yenu; Dai, Dai, yenu; Dai, Dai, yenu, Daiyenu, Daiyenu. It’s a song with only one word, and that word is Daiyenu. Hear it once; you know it forever. But my dad never understood Daiyenu. The song is the chorus, but the verse is where it’s at. In each verse, the story of the exodus from Egypt is recounted one step at a time. If God had sent the ten plagues but had not allowed us to take the wealth of the Egyptians, it would have been enough. If God had let us take their wealth, but had not led us into the desert, it would have been enough. Step by step, the song says if God had done this much, but not done what comes next, it would have been enough. Daiyenu means “it would have been enough.” But whenever my dad would lead the Seder, he would always critique Daiyenu. He would point out, year after year, that if God had lead us to the Red Sea but had not parted it, if he had parted it, but not drowned Pharaoh’s army, it would not have been enough. The Jewish people would not have escaped, would have been killed or re-captured, would not have been successfully rescued from tyranny. What’s the point of having a God who sends a hero who rescues you part of the way, then quits when you need him most? No sir, that would not be enough. Not nearly good enough. No way, Rabbi Jose. Thus would my dad point out, Seder after Seder, year after year. Then we’d sing the song, finish the rituals, eat our dinners, and go home until next year. Nobody gave any of it any thought, I suppose. I didn’t. It was just Uncle Dick doing his thing, everybody just doing their thing. It didn’t have to mean anything, just that’s the way the Matzoh crumbles. It didn’t occur to me until now that my dad’s problem in the hospital, besides a belly full of cancer, was that he didn’t understand Daiyenu. He sat in the hospital, and he lay in the hospital, and he waited in the hospital, waited and waited, waited not to die but to get rescued. After all, God always comes to the rescue, doesn't he? He came to the rescue in all those many Jewish holiday stories, didn’t he? He came to the rescue of Israel in 1948 and 1967 and 1973, didn’t he? Why wouldn’t he come to the rescue of poor dying helpless Dickey? Why me, why me, he begged the rabbis to explain to him? Why did he have to die? Why not someone else? God sent a ram to die instead of Isaac, why wasn’t

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a hostage exchange being arranged for him? And the rabbi said, Beats me. I guess the rabbi didn’t understand Daiyenu either. But Daiyenu isn’t there by accident. It’s not a mistake that somehow snuck past the compilers of the Passover Haggadah. Daiyenu is not wrong; it’s just the other point of view. It’s not a contradiction; it’s a paradox. Oh yes, there’s nothing like a savior when your back is to the wall. Nothing like a redeemer when the odds are overwhelming and there’s nowhere to go but down. Nothing like a religion that always comes to the rescue. Nothing like a God who comes through when you’re desperate. With a God like that on your side, you just can’t lose. Win every battle, win every argument, win every bet. It’d be as good as being the grandchild of J. Paul Getty, or Joseph Kennedy: you could run red lights, cheat on your exams, shoot heroin, rape your dates, and then get bailed out at the last minute. It’d be a hell of a popular religion by any measure. Just it doesn’t work that way, does it? Getty’s grandson lost an ear and more to kidnappers; one of the Kennedy grandkids overdosed on heroin. God might have bailed out Israel in 1967, but where was he in 1945? Why the Jews of Europe? Why not six million other innocent people? Why, why, why, why, why? Because it just isn’t that simple. We work for God; he doesn’t work for us. Sometimes we get rescued, sometimes we get screwed. And sooner or later, the angel of Disease beats us to a pulp, and the angel of Death takes us to God-only-knows-where in a hand basket. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. You throw the dice and win and say Thank God! You throw the dice and lose and say Daiyenu. Good enough. Everybody craps out sooner or later, and there’s always some other sucker waiting to take your seat. Nobody wins forever. If you don’t understand Daiyenu, you can’t love God. If you don’t understand Daiyenu, if you always expected to be rescued, then when God does rescue you, what’s to be thankful about? Sure God rescued me: that’s his job. But God doesn’t work for us, right? Sometimes we get rescued, sometimes we get screwed. I told you that already. It’s better that way. That way, when God does rescue us, it’s a divine miracle. It is an act of God! Divine rescue is never guaranteed; it’s always Grace. “It is not by works that you are saved, it is by Grace.” Sometimes we get rescued, sometimes we get screwed. How many times do I have to say it? When you get rescued, the polite thing to say is Hallelujah: Praise be God. When you get screwed, it’s time to say Daiyenu: Good enough. Hallelujah, Daiyenu, Hallelujah, Daiyenu. Like all magic tricks, it’s easy once you know the secret.

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So that was my dad’s big problem. Not a belly full of cancer, unpleasant though it must have been. His problem was he didn’t understand Daiyenu. Without it, he only had half a religion, and it wasn’t the half he needed at death’s door. Without it, impending death was an irredeemable horror, a complete repudiation of his faith, a dreadful punishment he didn’t deserve, a tyrant free to kick his tragic butt. Without Daiyenu, my poor sad dad died without a moment of peace, without an inch to take an easy breath. After the funeral, droves of relatives and family friends came to my mother’s house to pay respects and mourn the dead. A number of the visitors were learned and devoted Jews. Again and again, I asked why it was that my father was so poorly consoled by his Jewish heritage in the face of death. I complained of the failure of the rabbis to answer my father’s question of why him, why not someone else? No matter how often I asked, no one seemed to know the answer. We all sing Daiyenu every year, all our lives, every year, all our lives. But nobody seems to get it. I surely didn’t. At least not in Hebrew. And now it’s spring again. It was slow coming but those trees, full of color when my dad died, bare and barren throughout the endless winter, are now clad in luminous, verdant green again. Life goes in cycles, I suppose. On the full moon in April, I went home to celebrate the Passover Seder with thirty five cousins and aunts and uncles and nieces and siblings and my mom and no dad. We did the rituals and ate the food and sang Daiyenu, just like always. It was such a big and noisy crowd, it was hard to notice anyone in particular missing. Anyway, the new babies fill in the holes left by the fallen adults. Life goes in cycles, as I said a moment ago. After the seder, I came back to IMS and sat in meditation for three weeks. I wanted to sit at my inner table with the ghost of my father. I wanted to meet the little boy inside me who had lost his great big father. I wanted to hold him and make it safe for him to cry. After the first week of retreat, I became very depressed. I didn’t plan it; it just fell upon me like a dropped grand piano. I didn’t like it. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t meditate, I couldn’t anything. It was just a big heavy blanket of nothing crushing me down against my wishes. Then one day I asked myself what did I expect? Did I expect to explore the immeasurable grief of having my inner little boy lose his great big father, yet do so without running into any unpleasant feelings? What was I? A little boy or a big baby? Both, of course, and more. So I cut myself some slack and made room inside for a little crushing depression. That didn’t make it go away, but it gave me space to cohabitate with it and finish my retreat.

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Still it was a pretty shabby retreat by most measures. I was tired and depressed most of the time, my meditation didn’t get very deep, I didn’t have any clear visits with my ghostly father, or my little boy, or any lucid dreams, or anything. It was just a muddle really; much less than I expected. Big iceberg, I suppose, and barely scratched, at best. What can I say but Daiyenu? Good enough for me. Maybe I’ll get rescued next time. We’ll see.

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