My late father-in-law was a music lover who regularly attended the L.A. Philharmonic, L.A. Opera and musicals at the Pantages Theater. He and his wife traveled the globe so frequently that we were never sure if they were on another trip when we couldn’t reach them at home. One morning, at the age of eighty-four, he went to the hospital complaining of stomach pain. The doctor wasn’t sure how to alleviate his symptom but since his blood pressure was low, he ordered an emergency pacemaker installation. The procedure was scheduled for the next morning. By that afternoon, my sweet papa was comatose in the recovery room, having suffered a significant stroke. 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 they replaced with a transfusion. Needless to say, we switched hospitals, found the missing blood in his chest cavity, had the unnecessary pacemaker removed and began the long road to recovery.
Instead of dwelling in his comfortable home in Marina Del Rey, Grandpapa became a resident of the dementia ward in a nearby senior home. He still had his sense of humor and could play a tango on the piano, but he lived in a fog with no recollection from one moment to the next, no concept of time, no idea of our family details or why he had been confined to this lockdown facility. I spent many an afternoon challenging his recall and regaling the residents with old time favorites at the piano. They may have lost their capacity for the lyrics but never faltered in recalling melodies so deeply embedded in their cerebella. Grandpapa would lead the charge, smiling and singing with radiant, palpable joy.
After two years of limbo, Grandpapa finally succumbed to leukemia. Thankfully, his discomfort was minimal and a day before he died, he was able to hold my hand and tell me how much he loved me. My wife showed me a disturbing video of him from later that day, moaning and miserable. That night I felt a distinct impulse NOT to include him in my refa’eynu (healing) prayer. A few paragraphs later, in sh’ma koleynu, I prayed instead that he be relieved from suffering. I heard a voice in my ear stating, when? My automatic reply was, “Tonight.” I felt an immediate sense of guilt for making such a callous statement. And then a sense of shock when I learned he left the world that evening.
When my own father had back surgery, he shopped around to nearly every top orthopedic surgeon in L.A. until he found one willing to cut into his ailing eighty-five-year-old frame and repair three levels of his lumbar vertebrae. We were overjoyed to see him recover from the spine operation but soon thereafter he needed a knee replacement. Oy vey! 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 sharply curtailed in what seems to be a cruel downward spiral of Job-like proportions.
Why must we endure end-of-life agony? Why must our loved ones witness our demise? According to the Midrash, the symptoms of old age are due to the prayers of our forefather Avraham. He and his son Yitzchak looked so alike they were indistinguishable. Avraham davened for God to introduce gray hair and senior moments to differentiate the aged from the sprightly. I’m sure his beautiful wife Sarah was thrilled when she woke up wrinkled. The sages suggest Avraham initiated aging so people might learn the important lesson of respecting elders. Thanks to Avraham, we know who we need to honor, an important lesson in our youth-driven culture.
God causes us to value our precious resource by limiting the amount we have. 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 for this finite asset trumps the value of longevity. Furthermore, since youthful vigor is fleeting, God created a scenario where we have to suck the marrow out of every life experience while we’re mobile. Why be couch potatoes when at some point most of us will wind up couch bound?
We must seize the day while we can still perform mitzvot. Perhaps we witness the demise of our loved ones in order to promote real service and not lip service. After all, honoring parents made the top ten commandment countdown. Is there a better way to demonstrate respect than caring for the parents who lovingly provided for our needs during childhood? The mitzvah of visiting the sick is not for the sick…it’s for those doing the visiting. In other words, it’s for us to empathize with suffering, reclaim our humanity, feel vulnerable and give. We can’t “outsource” the care that we give to ailing loved ones. When bedridden relatives and friends need us, human compassion transitions from the ephemeral to the actual; “the thought counts” is replaced by meaningful action.
Many 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! But aren’t we here to genuinely love and support one another?
Another crucial question: do we want to wait until our friends or relatives are in the hospital before we spend time with them and say how we feel? Do we want to risk losing them without the opportunity to open our hearts to them?
The gift of a large extended family means my aging parents have brothers, sisters and cousins who are my beloved uncles and aunts. My wife Shira and I are looking at this now octogenarian generation and realizing we have entered a period of our lives that will be marked by funerals. These will be gut-wrenching slashes in the fabric of our universe. Now that the elders are increasingly immobile and ornery, we are less likely to schedule Father’s Day softball games or Chanukah parties. But getting together is more important than ever! After one of our power walks, Shira and I were relaxing on a park bench watching the neighborhood children play. We discussed how we will soon be the alter kakers (old-timers) in the family line. Maybe we are already there! We are also aware that we’ll likely be the ones responsible for keeping the extended family together for Jewish occasions. My own cousins and their kids are so busy, many are intermarried, nearly all have become twice-a-year Jews in spite of their parents’ attempts to keep them connected. We have to go out of our way to schedule family parties and ensure our Shabbat and holiday tables are filled not only with local friends but our easily overlooked relatives.
When the end arrives, the ancient Jewish approach to (aveylut) mourning parallels the findings of modern day psychiatric grief research. Shiva isn’t just for Orthodox Jews—this is a period to rely on the wisdom of tradition, to be open to the guidance of a halachic expert. We mourn heavy and hard initially and then ease back into life over a set time. The stages include: a period of “oninut” between death and burial when despite the mourners’ despair, they must make funeral arrangements. Then there is the post-burial period of shiva for seven days of intense grief when the mourner stays in the house, wears a rent garment (that’s torn, not a rental!), refrains from grooming, wears non-leather shoes, sits on a low chair and keeps all the mirrors covered. Most importantly, mourners allow others to care for them. They typically receive visitors and host a minyan for daily services. If they are capable, aveylim (mourners) lead the davening so they can maximize opportunities for the recitation of Kaddish. The repetition of the refrain, “Y’hei Sh’mey Rabah…” (May God’s great name be blessed forever) allows them to discern that losing their loved one is part of the master plan.
Visitors to a shiva house must remember it’s inappropriate to greet one another or make small talk. It’s not a party. After the minyan, one should sit for a while and allow the mourner to initiate conversation, which is ideally about cherished memories of the loved one.
On the seventh day of shiva, mourners “get up” following the Shacharit service. They change out of their rent clothing and leave the confinement of the home to walk around the block. This ceremonial reentry into the world of the living expresses the mourners’ choice to remain alive, active and engaged with society. The heaviness of loss lingers for the next three weeks, until the thirtieth day, aptly called shloshim. When one loses a spouse, child or sibling, shloshim marks the end of the official mourning period. For a parent, however, a full twelve months of solemnity is observed. The rabbis aren’t necessarily saying mourning for parents is more difficult than the loss of a spouse or child, God forbid. Parents are singled out because they are deserving of the ultimate honor as a result of giving birth, raising, educating and transmitting values to their offspring. And paying for it! Those in avelut for a parent say Kaddish for eleven months and refrain from attending celebrations for a full year, until the first yahrzeit (death anniversary) of the parent.
Remaining present with the inevitability of death keeps us humble. We can never fully complete the task. There is always more to learn and experience. How can we leave this world a better place? Ideally, we prioritize estate planning before the need arises. Hopefully this plan benefits multiple charities with which we were involved. In spite of efforts to the contrary, we can’t take it with us when we go. Billionaire Edward Reichman was a giant in tzedakah and left two wills for his family, one to be opened upon his death and the other to be opened at shloshim. The first stipulated all the standard details and added that he wished to be buried in his favorite socks. The Chevra Kadisha refused to do so and regardless of the amount of pressure applied, no rabbi would step forward to override them. Alas, even with all his power and influence, Mr. Reichman was buried in a simple shroud, barefoot, just like all Jews, according to tradition. Thirty days later, the second will was opened. It said, “My dear children, by now you must have buried me without my socks. I wanted you to truly understand that a man can have all the money in the world, but in the end, he can’t even take along a pair of socks.”
We are born wholly dependent on others and most of us leave the same way. Pain opens doors to prayer, to relationship, to compassion. Shira and I grapple with seeing our once superhero parents become frail. Soon it will be our turn. I hope our kids witness us treating our own folks with love and patience and will respond in kind when we are in need. I hope we merit becoming seniors who are worthy of kavod (respect), emotionally healthy and not too crotchety. At this time when our kids are becoming independent, 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.
One of my studio clients objected to my kids bursting in the room with their urgent needs. Since my studio is behind my home, my children grew up with a sense of entitlement, entering anytime they desired. To maintain a professional work environment, I enacted a strict policy prohibiting their visits any time this particular man was present. All went well until my father showed up one afternoon. I was mortified as he barged in mid-session, made himself comfortable on the couch and reported his gastrointestinal issues in graphic detail. We let him vent and I ushered him out as soon as I could do so in a respectful manner. I then apologized profusely to my impatient client, promising to take those wasted minutes “off the clock.” He replied tearfully, “Sam, you never have to apologize for having your father visit. What would I give to have my dad back, to have him come to my office for even a moment, to give me love, to express support for my undertakings?”
Witnessing my dad’s decline is fueling my mid-life crisis. This crisis is exacerbated by the huge hole in my being since my oldest kids left the nest. In spite of his maladies, my father says he wants to come with me on my concert tours. I wish he could join me on my adventures. I’m so lucky to have had a loving, supportive, concerned dad for my half century on this earth. I’m frustrated my prayers for his well-being seem fruitless. I love him so much. I don’t ever want to let him go.
Teenagers individuate, becoming rebellious, taciturn or worse. This allows parents to stop clinging and throw them out of the house so they can get on to their futures in college. Individuation is a force of nature that is enervating but is also predictable and normal. Similarly, God give us a gradually degrading body so 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 service and kindness we accomplish while in this temporal form. The “dying of the light” is all part of God’s plan. The light of this world pales in comparison to the supernal light beyond. According to the Talmud, for the righteous, the soul leaving the body is like a kiss. May we go “gentle into that good night.” God is good. Life is good. I say rage not…let us engage the dying of the light.
Sam Glaser is a performer, composer, producer and author in Los Angeles. He has released 25 albums of his music, he produces music for various media in his Glaser Musicworks recording studio and his book The Joy of Judaism is an Amazon bestseller. Visit him online at www.samglaser.com. Join Sam for a weekly uplifting hour of study every Wednesday night (7:00 pm PST, Zoom Meeting ID: 71646005392) for learners of all ages and levels of knowledge.