In the last few weeks before my father passed away, I frequently found myself thinking about souls and space suits.
Our bodies can’t survive in the vacuum of outer space, where there’s no air pressure, oxygen or water. We need protection from extreme hot and cold temperatures, radiation, even space dust. That’s why NASA provides astronauts on missions with space suits.
Similarly, our souls aren’t equipped to survive on their own in a finite physical world. Our souls are non-physical, contain something of God’s infinity, and also have unique missions to complete. So when a soul is sent into our world, God gives it a “space suit” we call the human body.
Now, when a space suit is defective, astronauts can’t just sit around the space station and mope. They still have a mission which only they can carry out. Astronauts and mission control have to figure out a solution and fix up the gear, improvising and adapting as they go.
Our human bodies are also very frail, prone to injuries and sickness, vulnerable to our unhealthy habits. And my father’s “space suit” was very problematic almost all of his life. You see, dad caught polio when he was seven years old. His spine curved, hunching his back and twisting his rib cage to press against his lungs. Kids with polio found the cards stacked against them from an early age, but dad, like so many others affected by those polio epidemics, pushed on as best he could.
Indeed, dad persevered, graduating from pharmacy school and working as a “floater” in Baltimore-Washington area drug stores. He was on his feet all day, but he liked helping people. He met my mother while visiting Israel. Dad later heard about an opening at the Food and Drug Administration which intrigued him and got the job. He scrutinized data sent by drug companies seeking approval for their over-the-counter medicines and stayed with the FDA for 30 plus years.
Along the way, he went to law school at night, passed the bar exam, and practiced law on the side. He loved life, especially going to Oriole games and the beach during the summer. He listened to John Philip Sousa’s military marches, Fats Domino and classic movie soundtracks on a massive reel-to-reel player. Dad was active in Baltimore’s Ner Tamid Synagogue, clipped coupons with a vengeance, avidly completed crossword puzzles, and often enjoyed a midnight snack of ice cream eaten straight out of the tub because it really is more enjoyable that way (sorry, mom).
Dad was a rock of stability, providing for a wife and four kids. I never heard him complain about his polio or express self-pity.
But as he got older, post-polio syndrome kicked in. Dad’s spine began curving in again and his lungs stiffened. Doctors discovered a nerve in his diaphragm was damaged, making it harder for the diaphragm to do its part helping dad’s lungs breath properly.
Rather than throw in the towel, my father got a portable air ventilator and shlepped it to work, court, ballgames, shul and vacations. He’d putter around the house dragging his air hose along.
To keep the spine from further curving in, doctors clamped to a rod placed in his back like a vine to a trellis. I was told that if his skin had been able to stretch further, he could’ve been perfectly straight — and significantly taller. I can only imagine.
As for the nerve in his diaphragm, dad could only place his hope in stem cell research. But he understood the breakthroughs he needed were unlikely in his lifetime.
And dad adapted.
As his strength ebbed from the diminished breathing, he got a scooter. Mom became an ace at getting it in and out of their SUV with the help of a special lift and knew dad’s ventilator settings like the back of her hand.
When my parents moved to Florida and dad couldn’t see his beloved Washington Redskins on local TV, he’d take the scooter and ventilator to a sports bar where he and his buddies could watch the games live and cheer the burgundy and gold. At the Delray Orthodox Synagogue, dad insisted on chanting his bar mitzvah portion from the Torah one Shabbat even as he held a breathing tube in one hand. My father’s feistiness prevailed and I’m told he read quite well — but it was the last time he read from the Torah.
Every time I saw him, I couldn’t ignore his increasing reliance on both his ventilator and scooter. But in February, at the age of 75, he traveled to London for my niece’s bat mitzvah. Having all his kids and grandchildren together gave him so much joy.
It was dad’s last hurrah.
Heading home, flying somewhere over the Atlantic, he had difficulty breathing. The pilot made an emergency landing in Boston where dad was diagnosed with pneumonia. He would spend the last six weeks of his life in intensive care, first at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and then at University Hospital in Newark, NJ.
I can’t tell you how many times the ICU doctors, nurses and therapists ICU would tell me how amazed they were at the life my father led despite his polio. “I looked at his chart and what he’s done with his life isn’t supposed to be possible,” I was repeatedly told.
But it was possible. Dad not only did it, I often took it for granted.
When astronauts complete their mission, they return their space suits and go back to their lives. And when souls complete their mission, we return their bodies to the earth. Dad completed his earthly mission on the 13th day of the Hebrew month of Nissan and we buried his body in Florida the next day.
But his soul soars now.