Think of life as a journey taken in the snow, and all that remains will be our middos footprints….
As we are approaching Tisha b’Av, it is a time for self-reflection and therefore I am more serious, as I look to the unfortunate events unfolding in eretz Yisroel and the wider world. We recall the destruction of both Temples and other tragedies as a result of sinat chinam (baseless hatred), and we must remain vigilant to avoid loshon hora. Mistakes such as these can be unintentional and take but a second, with the consequences lasting a lifetime.
Aside from my own disasters there has been much which affected me this past year, and readers will recall that I lost both parents. In a few months it will be the end of the year for my father, and I have given a lot of thought to unfinished conversations, unspoken apologies and missed opportunities. Of course, I can easily apply these same thoughts to my own family, the key difference being that my children won’t have the benefit of adult maturity, and by that I mean they won’t be 30, 40 or 50 when I’m gone, and will ‘de facto’ have a more immature response to my passing. My column this week is thus more reflective of what lies ahead, and although I’m known to be an upbeat character, there are times where my psyche drags me off the battlements of optimistic denial. I apologise in advance if my soul searching makes for unusually sombre reading.
Over the past few weeks, I have been reading a gripping if somewhat forthright book by Henry Marsh, a retired neurosurgeon, combining anecdotes of his life with fascinating professional insights. In one chapter of Do No Harm [Carcinoma] he talks about his mother’s death from metastatic cancer, which resonated loudly for myself. Marsh also makes observations which I had considered, but parked deep within my own subconscious, in suggesting that a heart attack or stroke, preferably whilst asleep, might be regarded as a ‘good and quick death.’ Of course, the components of this last sentence are at odds with each other, as ‘good’ and ‘death’ don’t belong in the same sentence. As a surgeon dealing with the raw and often brutal manner of hospital deaths, he knows this ‘preferred’ exit from one’s life is unlikely to be a reality for most people, including himself. If anyone could be described as having experienced a ‘good death,’ (and we could hardly ask them) it might possibly include my own mother, slipping away peacefully, her heart finally stopping, like a clock on a timer. It couldn’t have described my father with ALS, or indeed anyone suffering late-stage cancer, and I’ve witnessed both. Dr Marsh described his mother being robbed of the facial features which ‘define one’s personality.’ My father was in that parlous condition when I last saw him, although I knew the wonderful human being, still vibrant and present only a day before, was now finally trapped within his failing body. In that final, 11th-hour monologue (by virtue of chemical subjugation) I tried to create a conversation, of sorts. I hoped he could still hear my voice, but his death was a horror that most could not comprehend, and – as I previously remarked – although none would have let an animal suffer like this, my father would have endured his pain nobly, to his last breath.
I sometimes think of father’s life as a journey, not with carbon footprints, but rather with middos footprints. As he went through the highs and lows of his life, he forged a path of good memories, strewn with good deeds and littered with flowers, representing all the hearts he had touched. This path would likely have taken him into the world to come, where he would have been reunited with the family he had lost, and is now awaiting those still to come. I remember the penultimate time I saw him, when he was still in reasonable shape, and we just sat, holding hands, looking at each other with little dialogue – or just a silence between us. Almost subliminally, we knew what each other was thinking: he was looking at me with sorrow, perhaps for certain missed opportunities, and I was looking at him with deep regret for not appreciating his unvoiced, but unquestionable affection. I loved my parents dearly, but – putting aside the predictable differences and occasional disputes we faced – they weren’t touchy-feely people who wore their hearts on their sleeves. I’m far more the ‘heart-wearing’ type. Nonetheless, I remember as I stood up to leave – worrying that I might never see him again – he stood with difficulty to bid me goodbye, and I enveloped him in a massive hug, and said, ”Dad, I love you SO much. I will always love you.” This sweet, brave man just hugged me back and cried. I tore myself away with difficulty, giving him a big smile as I left. His love for me was often unspoken, but it was there, unequivocally. This unique love of parent and child is one Marsh describes as ‘pure and totally selfless,’ with no ulterior motive. It is hugely different from that of a husband and wife. I remember historically making a 150-mile trip from Aberdeen to Glasgow to see him, when mother rang me to say he had fallen off a ladder. I catapulted myself onto a long-distance coach and rolled into the hospital late that night, to receive a huge grin and almost a telling off for making the journey. We laughed; there was never a question that I would not have come, and he knew it. My inability to be companionable in his last few months of life was largely due to my current illness, and I still beat myself up over it, because he may not have understood my absence, with his unpredictable and deteriorating neurological condition. Even though almost a year has passed, I retire each night, looking at a picture of me sitting with my parents, my mother still with the same perceptive expression and somewhat hesitant smile, and my father looking at the camera with the bright smile, eyes ‘shining-with-pride’ expression that he always wore. It is only their physicality which is gone. I’m sure they hear me speak to them, which I do frequently.
As shabbat ended and I heard maariv, complete with the mourners’ Kaddish, from a neighbouring garden, I transported myself forwards in time, wondering how family and friends might regard my own life, whilst reciting these responses. The cycle of life and death is forever constant, with none of us able to escape the judgement bell when it rings. Since I appreciate that love can be absolute, even if imperfect, I wonder if I’ve told my own children often enough that I care about them, and sometimes I imagine them looking at a photograph of me, much as I’m doing now. I hope they might feel an emotional tug, perhaps laced with a tinge of regret, that we haven’t invested more time in OUR relationship. Imperfect as it also is.
Emotions often run very deep, and I still remember acutely the devastation I felt when my maternal grandmother died, even though I was only 7. I remember the enormous vacuum, the void in no longer being able to see her. But there was a little rainbow following the storm, when my parents brought grandma’s piano home, and that was the catalyst to my musical education and subsequent career. When my own mother died, very suddenly, I’d seen her just the previous week, fully in charge of her faculties, and that ‘void’ was largely absent, although I still wished for more conversation rather than allowing her to sleep or immerse herself in reading, both avocations of the elderly. I should have pressed her to fill our knowledge gaps. The adage of ‘only appreciating something when you’ve lost it,’ is so true. I know as a middle-aged person myself, the value of time needed for relationships. I also admit my own dereliction in not doing more with my children, and wonder if they’ll feel that same regret when they can no longer sit with me, ask about my life, listen to my adventures and value my achievements. Who will tell them about it when I’m not here? Maybe that is why I had the idea of writing an autobiography, to fill the gaps, and give my own children the knowledge which they will doubtless regret not knowing, when I am in my 11th hour, and it’s too late…. Before long we will find ourselves at Rosh Hashanah, and the judgement awaiting us. I think of those who have had a terrible year, and it reminds me to thank G-d daily for the fact I can still celebrate my life. There is a verse in Koheles which reflects a similar sentiment.
טוֹב לָלֶכֶת אֶל-בֵּית-אֵבֶל, מִלֶּכֶת אֶל-בֵּית מִשְׁתֶּה–בַּאֲשֶׁר, הוּא סוֹף כָּל-הָאָדָם; וְהַחַי, יִתֵּן אֶל-לִבּוֹ
which loosely translates as, ‘It is better to visit a house of mourning than a house of joy, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart.’
All that is left of a man – if he is fortunate – is his good name and good deeds. This was true of my parents, and it is also incumbent on me to strive for this, to make a difference to the lives of my own family, to those in our community and across the wider world. Some of this I manage through my journalistic or musical endeavours, and I am grateful to readers who have told me that I give them chizzuk. Whatever I strive for, I must achieve whilst I still have time. If I am fortunate then, like my father, my final cadenza will be a path adorned with hearts, flowers and my good deeds.