by Sam Glaser
My father in law was an active music lover who regularly attended the LA Philharmonic, LA Opera and musicals at the Pantages Theater. He traveled the globe with his wife so frequently that we were never sure if they had disappeared on yet another trip when we couldn’t reach them at home. Six months ago he went in to the hospital complaining of stomach pain. The doctor wasn’t sure how to alleviate his symptom but declared that his blood pressure was low and he needed an emergency pacemaker installed. The next day the procedure was scheduled and by that afternoon he was comatose in the recovery room having suffered a significant stroke. It turns out that the doctor botched the surgery, attaching the lead wire to his vein instead of an artery and sending the resulting clots mainlining into poor grandpapa’s brain. The hospital staff couldn’t find the missing three liters of blood that they had to replace via a transfusion. Needless to say we immediately switched hospitals, found the missing blood in his chest cavity, had the unnecessary pacemaker removed and began the long road to recovery.
Six months later he is still not sure who we are when we visit. Instead of dwelling in his comfortable four-bedroom house in Marina Del Rey, he is the resident of a dementia ward in a nearby senior home. He still has his sense of humor and can play a tango on the piano. But he lives in a fog with no recollection from one moment to the next, no concept of time, no idea where his wife is or why he had been incarcerated in this lockdown facility.
My own father just had back surgery this week. He had to shop around to nearly every top orthopedic surgeon in LA before he was able to find one willing to cut into his ailing eighty-five year old frame and repair three levels of his lumbar vertebrae. Yes, we are nervous and concerned. Thank you for praying for his and my father-in-law’s well being. Your prayers matter! My dad’s back is just one of the multitude of maladies that wreck his days and keep him swallowing Oxycontin. For all his health issues he still maintains his Dodger and Laker season tickets, trades on the stock market and teaches a monthly Jewish history class. But his pleasure in life is intensely curtailed in what seems to be a cruel downward spiral of Job-like proportions.
I share with you this saga not only to urge you to appreciate your moments on this planet and hold the ones you love. I also want to analyze why we might have to endure end of life agony and force our loved ones to witness the indignity of the ultimate ride. According to our tradition, the symptoms of old age were given to us due to the prayers of our forefather Avraham. He and his son Yitzchak looked so alike that they were indistinguishable and Avraham prayed that God should introduce gray hair and senior moments to differentiate the aged from the sprightly. I’m sure his beautiful wife Sarah was thrilled when she suddenly became wrinkled. Many sages argue that Avraham was actually praying that mankind learn the important lesson of appreciating elders. So we can say that at least there’s a consolation prize to losing our ability to play tennis and surf…thanks to Avraham, we now know who to just honor, an important lesson in our youth driven culture.
Clearly God wants us to value our precious time by limiting the amount we have. Just like absolute power corrupts absolutely, an endless supply of time might cause us to take it for granted and ironically, cripple our ability to get anything done. The importance of gratitude seems to trump the value of longevity. Furthermore, since our health is a temporary asset, God created a scenario where we have to suck the marrow out of every life experience while we’re still mobile. Perhaps that’s why we have this unique human quality of having regrets. One might wonder why so many of us remain couch potatoes in our youth in spite of the fact that at some point most of us will wind up couch bound. In one of the ski movies that I scored, narrator-producer Warren Miller exhorted the audience to get out and ski or “you’ll just be another year older when you do.” My kids, who assume they are immortal, laugh at me when I beg them to join me on a hike, bike ride or to jump in the ocean. They return to their computer screens annoyed at the interruption, not realizing that at some point they will long for the day that their dad wanted to take them on an outing.
Perhaps we must witness the demise of our loved ones in order to press us into real service and not lip service. After all, honoring parents made the top ten-commandment countdown! What better way to demonstrate respect than when parents (who lovingly provided for your every need during your childhood) are now in need themselves. The mitzvah of visiting the sick is not for the sick…it’s for those doing the visiting. In other words, the mitzvah is for you to empathize with suffering, to reclaim your humanity, to feel vulnerable and to give. When your loved ones are really hurting you can’t “outsource” the care that you give them. We have doled out shifts to be with my dad post-surgery this week. I could perceive this responsibility as a burden or as a treasured opportunity to be there for my sweet papa and to fulfill this awesome mitzvah. When you have bedridden relatives and friends who really need you, human compassion transitions from the ephemeral to the actual; “The thought counts” is trumped by meaningful action.
Most of us are entirely focused on our careers or studies and find it difficult to carve out time for the acute needs of community or loved ones. When we do get called upon the subconscious reaction is usually, “what a damn inconvenience!” God seems to throw these footballs in our lap so that we get off the treadmill for long enough to reassess our true goals. Is it “he who dies with the most toys wins” or are we here to genuinely love and support one another? Even the agnostic is filled with a sense of heavenly connection when he or she responds to a cry for help affirmatively. When I am vacillating between making the visit or passing the buck, I stop to think about what might be said when I am eulogized: that I pumped out yet another arrangement for a client’s album or that I was always responsive to those in need? Another question that we are forced to grapple with due the fragility of human life: Do we really want to wait until our friends or loved ones are in the hospital before we take out some time to be with them and tell them how we feel?
I live in the land of smoke and mirrors, otherwise known as Tinseltown or La La Land. Hollywood is all about looks, about the façade. Here, illness and death is hidden, spoken about in hushed tones and clever euphemisms. When I walk down Rodeo or Beverly Drive I marvel at the carefully stretched grandmothers teetering on their stiletto heels donning colorful neck scarves and oversized sunglasses. Who are they fooling? These are the folks that will die in their oversized homes surrounded by paid caretakers…God forbid they become a burden or anyone witnesses their degradation. I am only realizing now that I am fortunate to have this degree of intimacy with my parents and in-laws. If they were to suffer silently surrounded by wealth and the detachment that it can bring, I would never have this chance to get closer to them and respond to the call.
Understanding the greater role that aging and illness plays in society can offer perspective on how to behave when it’s you who is injured. In the past, when I have been laid up, I have felt humiliated that I had to lean on my wife or kids to help me out. It’s not an enviable position to be in a place of weakness or the subject of pity. Now I appreciate that my own malady gives others the chance to exercise patience, to perform acts of kindness. I can use the same paradigm shift to be more compassionate with those who are down for the count. Rather than see my dad as an accident prone annoyance, I can put myself in his shoes, imagining how scared he must be, how despondent he must feel with yet another system failing him, how preposterous it is that this one time captain of industry can’t walk across the living room. People in pain are typically ornery, throwing out barbs, frustrated and hopeless. Caring for them is perhaps the best way to develop the crucial character traits of tolerance and compassion. With this in mind, the most difficult patients can be seen as the most important for our personal growth, testing us to not be vengeful or drag our personal agendas into their care.
Another aspect of the inevitability of death is that it keeps humans humble. We can never fully complete the task. There is always so much more to learn, to experience. We come into this world wholly dependent on others and most of us leave the same way. That’s why it’s called the “circle of life.” Where there is humility there is Godliness. It’s our relentless ego that voids our spirituality. We grapple with seeing our once superhero parents become so frail. Soon it will be our turn. I hope that our kids perceive that we treat our own folks with humility and patience and will respond in kind when it’s their turn. I hope that my wife and I merit to become seniors that are worthy of reverence and respect, that we remain emotionally healthy and peaceful. I find it fascinating that just as my own kids become independent and need us less, that our parents are at the stage where they are becoming needy. God continues to shower us with the gift of being needed! Soon we’ll have grandchildren hungry for attention, God willing!
In spite of his maladies my father still jokes that he wants to come with me on my concert tours or ski trips. Daddy, I’m so sorry…I wish that you could join me on my adventures. I should have insisted when you could. I want you to be out of pain, mobile, active. I’m so lucky that I have had a loving, supportive, concerned dad for my half century on this earth. I’m so frustrated that my prayers for your well-being seem fruitless. I so value your wisdom, your perspective, your newfound love of impressive four syllable words. Keep fighting that good fight, papa! Rage against the dying of the light! I remember the demise of your own mother, how you just wanted to hold her hand in the hospital and not let her go. Daddy, I love you so much. I don’t want to let you go.
Teenagers individuate, becoming rebellious, indifferent, callous or worse, so that the parents stop clinging long enough to throw them out of the house and on to their futures in college. It’s a force of nature that while challenging, is predictable and normal. So too does God give us a body that gradually fails so that at the end of the story we are ready to leave it behind. This world is not the end of the journey. It is but a corridor on the way to a brilliant future of our own making thanks to the acts of kindness and service to God that we accomplish while in this temporal form. The “dying of the light” is all part of God’s plan. And the light of this world pales in comparison with the supernal light beyond. God is good. Life is good! I say rage not…let us engage the dying of the light.