My father died on January 28, 1999 when he was 51 years old. His cause of death was listed as ‘heart failure’ which has always felt somewhat deceptive since most people die when their hearts fail to continue beating. In reality, complications from uncontrolled diabetes had caused my father’s steady decline and ultimate demise. My father underwent valve replacement in his late thirties to repair the damage caused by the rheumatic fever he had as a child, and between his weakened heart, the diabetes gifted to him by both his parents, his chronic asthma, and pack-a-day smoking habit, he was a bit of a medical disaster to say the least. When people die quickly, or pass away peacefully after a long life, folks remember them for what they accomplished and how they lived their lives. When someone dies young, or after a prolonged and difficult illness, people tend to focus only on the way they died, as if there was not a life lived before sickness.
Three years before he died, when my father was one year younger than I am now, he went into the hospital for what was supposed to be an outpatient procedure. We didn’t know it at the time, but my father had been experiencing TIA – or the mini strokes that sometimes come hand in hand with Type 2 diabetes, and even a small procedure under general anesthesia came with giant risks. The doctors were never too sure of exactly what happened, except that something had gone wrong during the procedure, and that they couldn’t wake him for a while, once it was done. Eventually told us that they believed he had suffered a TIA while under anesthesia, but we were never entirely sure.
The next three years were a nightmare, an endless series of indignities and trauma for our entire family. My brother and I were left to deal with the brunt of it as my mother either felt ill equipped to deal, or wouldn’t. We reluctantly moved my father into a nursing home at 50, when the pockets of dementia that we insisted were there finally showed up on a brain scan. It’s hard for me to think about how my father must have been feeling and how much he understood, and so I try not think about that at all. It’s also hard for me to make peace with the fact that a man who took great pleasure in his friendships and his ability to connect with others died completely alone.
My father died in a hospital room in the middle of the night. There had been so many hospital stays, close calls, and near death experiences over the past three years, that we had stopped spending the night with him on every visit. My father’s funeral was early the next day, so early in fact that we were unable to get the news of his death out fast enough for people to make it to his funeral. My father had always talked about being buried in Israel next to his parents, but my brother believed that since my father had been alone in death, he should be buried closer to home where we could visit his grave more often. With the help of his father in law, he purchased a plot in an ultra Orthodox cemetery in upstate NY without talking to me first. When the funeral ended, my brother told me that I was not allowed to go to the burial as only men were permitted to accompany the body. The men were gone for a very long time, and I wondered what could possibly be taking so long. When my brother finally returned, he explained that the cemetery required that Taharah be performed there immediately before the body is buried, and not before the funeral as is typically the custom. It was one final indignity for a man that deserved so much better.
When my synagogue, the Park Slope Jewish Center, formed its own Chevra Kadisha I immediately signed up to join. Life and death may be messy and chaotic, but the rituals that surround caring for the dead are calm and beautiful. In the years since the Chevra has been active, I have performed quite a number of Taharot, and I marvel at the sense of peacefulness and closure that each one brings for me. Taharah is about cleansing and purifying the body to prepare it for burial, but for me it is also about honoring and comforting the soul as it begins its transition. I can’t go back and insist that my father be treated with the dignity and respect he was denied for the last three years of his life, but every Taharah I do feels like a reparation.