Coming Full Circle // My father’s health crisis served as a reminder

By Rabbi Dovid M. Cohen

It was only four days before Pesach when my phone rang. My father was calling to let me know that he and my mother wouldn’t be joining us for Pesach. He was having some “circulatory issues” and would be undergoing additional testing during Chol Hamoed. When I pressed him about the details I didn’t get any answers; all he said was that the doctor had told him he couldn’t fly. He assured me he’d fill me in on the complete picture after the tests were conducted.

But when I called my parents on Erev Shabbos on Chol Hamoed, my father shared that he was scheduled for open-heart bypass surgery the day after Pesach! He seemed very calm on the phone. I wasn’t as calm; I was, in fact, quite shaken, but I tried my best to sound strong and encouraging. It was a shock that my father, who had always been very healthy, would soon be undergoing a life-threatening and possibly life-altering operation.

The ironic thing was that my father felt absolutely great. He had zero symptoms pointing to a problem, and the doctor had to double-check his file to make sure that he was speaking to the correct patient. In fact, the discovery of the blockages was rather miraculous altogether.

On a flight back to New York in early 2017, my mother picked up a magazine and began reading about a certain prestigious doctor who managed all of the comprehensive medical needs of his patients. My mother decided that my father should pay this doctor a visit. After conducting a battery of tests, there was a borderline issue with his calcium level. The doctor dismissed it as a cause for concern, saying that it was normal for a man my father’s age, but my mother was adamant that it needed further exploration.

On her own initiative she reached out to a renowned cardiologist, and after multiple additional tests the blockages were detected. Unfortunately, less invasive procedures were deemed likely to be unhelpful, and the more ambitious approach of the open-heart procedure was suggested.

I recall my mother saying many years ago that she was in the “sandwich generation,” simultaneously caring for her ailing parents as well as us, her children. Thankfully, I’m not there yet, as my parents are both vibrant and healthy. Still, this was a unique opportunity to connect with my parents and reciprocate their many years of love and support.

On the evening before the surgery, my father asked me to make sure that my mother wouldn’t be left alone in the house the following night. I realized that the opportunity wasn’t just to be there for my father, but also to support my mother in what was certainly a challenging time for her. The primary caregiver is impacted in many fundamental ways during an illness, and we sometimes forget the need to be there for that person as well.
The Gemara in Kiddushin (30b) that discusses the mitzvah of honoring parents is familiar to many of us. It lists various examples of how to fulfill the commandment, including pouring drinks, providing food and standing for a parent.

To be completely honest, honoring parents isn’t always the easiest mitzvah in the world. Familiarity breeds a comfort level that can often be a slippery slope leading to an unintended lack of respect. As we get older and leave the parental home, not calling them or visiting them or inviting them often enough can cause ill-will and hard feelings. The dynamic between our spouses and parents can also play a role.

This unfortunate heart operation served as a reboot, providing me with a chance to fulfill a precious mitzvah in a very direct fashion. I had the privilege of spending Shabbos in the hospital with my parents and being there every day for an entire week. It was an opportunity to provide the physical comforts and perform the acts described in the Gemara, as well as to be an advocate and a companion.

It isn’t easy seeing a parent recuperate from illness. It touches a chord of vulnerability of what life would be like if that parent were missing. I have many friends who have already lost a parent; I’m not sure that I ever contemplated the full depth of what it must be like for them. This brush with that reality made me keenly aware that precious time gifted to us with a parent is not to be taken for granted.

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