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Last Dance

Last Dance

I was totally unprepared for saying goodbye to my father.

by

We have a new grandson, Avraham Simcha. The "simcha" is for happiness. The "Avraham" is for my father, Abraham Majer --"Abe" to those he dealt with in business; "Avremel" or "Avremele" to his close friends.

My father passed away three years ago on a Sunday in May: Mother's Day, as it happened. He was 87 when he died -- not of the prostate cancer he didn't know he had, but with it. A full life, you would say; miraculous, really, considering his history: he'd survived several near-death experiences in the Holocaust that claimed his family, including a wife and two infant daughters. He'd lost my mother to cancer over 30 years ago, and a third wife in a traffic accident.

Retirement had opened the door to memories he'd fought hard to suppress, memories with which antidepressants and our coaxing couldn't compete.

The history took its toll. During the last 15 years of his life, my father suffered from depression, and though he tried to overcome it ("Mir mizzen kempfen!" he'd tell me and my brother in Yiddish -- "We have to fight!"), retirement had opened the door to memories he'd fought hard to suppress, memories with which antidepressants and our coaxing couldn't compete.

Bayze choloimos. Angry dreams.

There were good days, too, when he was the father we had known -- jovial, relaxed in the company of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, telling us stories about his life. He always began in English, but invariably lapsed into Yiddish, his mother tongue, and had to be reminded every few minutes to translate.

There were stories of my father growing up as a child of privilege in a three-story house in Tzrebinia, Poland; as a young man who had a shadchan arrange a match with the young woman working in a bakery who stole his heart ("I bought a lot of pastries," he joked); as a helpless father waving a desperate goodbye to his wife and two daughters as they boarded a train for Auschwitz; as a survivor, bereft of family, who married my mother and found the courage to rebuild his life.

My father's passion was music. He would spend hours in his black leather recliner listening to his tapes, playing conductor and singing along with the Hasidic melodies he cherished. Some of the melodies had stories, too.

"I was with the Bobover Rebbe at the Shabbos tish when he composed 'Yismach Moshe,'" he would say with nostalgia and pride, reveling in the details.

For my father, song and faith were intertwined. One of his favorite tunes was "Ivdu Es Hashem B'simcha," "Serve God with happiness." He would chant it with fervor and an accompanying smile -- "Ivdu, ivdu, ivdu, ivdu es Hashem b'simcha" -- on holidays, on weekdays, whenever he would see a family member looking less than cheerful.

And then my father was diagnosed with macular degeneration, a condition we'd never heard of that soon dominated our lives. Within less than a year he lost most of his sight and sank deeper into depression.

"A blinde is azoi vi a toite," he would tell us. "A blind man is like a dead man."

Not true, we would insist. You can still live a full, productive life. But he could no longer spend pleasant hours engaged in reading stories of the sages, and though he would occasionally surprise us by commenting on something his peripheral vision picked up -- a hat, the color of a dress, the texture of a suit -- the faces of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren had become indistinguishable blurs.

My father couldn't accept his condition. He had no patience for learning how to operate a machine that would magnify words so that he might read them, or for relearning skills that would facilitate his navigation through his darkened world. He could get dressed without assistance, though buttoning his shirt or finding his slippers would often frustrate him. The once-simple act of eating -- locating the now pre-cut food on his plate, successfully lifting a fork or spoon to his mouth -- became an intricate, tedious process. At home it was an ordeal; in public, an embarrassment.

Most days he preferred to stay in his room, out of sight. He would lie on his bed staring at the ceiling or at the wall, or sit on his recliner, listening to CNN or taking some comfort (we hoped) from the cantorial melodies emanating from the tape recorder my brother had modified so that my father could operate the buttons he could no longer see.

Music still soothed his troubled spirit. And on occasion he exerted himself. Four years ago he danced a mitzvah tanse with our youngest daughter at her wedding -- his last dance, as it turned out. A month later, he flew to Detroit to attend my nephew's wedding. It broke my heart to see him walking to the chuppa. He looked so tired, shrunken, his back permanently hunched because he constantly bent his head down to get a glimpse of the floor beneath his feet.

As children of survivors, my brother and I had never known grandparents, so we were emotionally unprepared to deal with an ailing parent. There was anguish and denial and frustration. There was confusion, too: should we push our father to be self-sufficient and independent, or should we assume the tasks he found cumbersome and run the risk that each day he would be able to do less and less? Were we being realistic about his abilities, or were we refusing to accept that the man who had given us life and nurtured us was transforming before our eyes from parent to child?

Most times we pushed.

In my fiction I don't have to push. The grandmother I write, Bubbie G., a widowed Holocaust survivor, is determined to maintain her independence and spirit despite the macular degeneration that is stealing her vision. She is cheerful, resilient, self-sufficient and optimistic because I can manipulate her emotions and actions and I can control the progress of her disease. But her fictional family suspects, as I do, that there are dark days and nights that she chooses not to share with them.

In the early stages of my father's diagnosis, we sought help and hope from a Roxbury Drive world-renowned retina specialist who, despite performing a surgical procedure, was ultimately unable to deliver either. I don't fault the specialist -- he did his best, though his manner could have been warmer -- but the memory of one appointment fills me with pain and helpless anger.

We had been waiting for some time in reception, my father and I. His lips were parched from one of his medications. He was thirsty. When I asked the receptionist for water, she filled a teeny cup and handed it to me with an annoyed, dismissive look. Twenty minutes or so later my father needed more water.

"I'll go," he told me, his hand stopping me as I started to rise.

Steadying himself on his cane, he shuffled to the reception window. He looked tiny, frail, the slope of his shoulder that had been shattered in one of the labor camps more pronounced. He handed the woman the small white cup. "Can I have some more water, please?"

I couldn't see his face, but I knew he was smiling. Even when he wasn't feeling well, my father was a charmer to his many doctors and their staff, and they were all fond of him.

I did see the woman's face. Lips pinched with impatience, eyes rolling. I heard her say, sternly, "Mr. Majer, next time you come, bring a water bottle."

I should have defended him. At the least I should have told her, "Wait till you grow old." Instead I swallowed my indignation, my father shuffled back to his seat and sipped his water, and eventually we saw the doctor.

That was several years ago, and I still regret my silence. Months later I had an appointment with my internist, whose offices are in that same Roxbury Drive building. In the elevator after my appointment, I debated for a second, then pressed UP instead of DOWN and mentally rehearsed what I would say to the blonde receptionist. I would pull her aside and address her privately. I had no interest in embarrassing her. I wanted to enlighten her, to urge her to treat another old man or woman with more compassion and gentleness.

She was no longer there.

The woman who had replaced her looked at me curiously, and I left realizing what I should have known all along:

Most times we don't get second chances.

If we had known how quickly our father would leave us, we would have pushed less and pampered more.

If we had known how quickly our father would leave us, we would have pushed less and pampered more. If we had known, we would have spent more time with him, taken more walks, invited him to share more stories, sat with him while he listened to his beloved tunes. If we had known, we might not have been so strict in enforcing a diet, restricted to thickened liquids, that was supposed to prevent him from aspirating food into his lungs to prevent pneumonia, but that cheated him of the few small remaining pleasures in his life. A cheese Danish. A slice of gefilte fish with a heaping mound of red horseradish. A cup of plain, cool water that would trickle down his throat and quench his constant thirst.

On a Shabbat morning a few weeks before my father left to enter the hospital, never to return home, I crumbled a few pieces of cheese Danish into a cup of thickened coffee and sat with him while he drank the mixture. When he was finished, I helped him stand. He wobbled for a second, then straightened up. We stood there for a moment, my arms around his thin waist, his on my shoulders. He smiled at me and chuckled. It was a sound I hadn't heard in some time.

"Mir vellen noch tantsen," he told me as he kissed my cheek.

"We'll still dance."

In the hospital and afterwards, in the convalescent home, my father began his last journey. It pained us to see him slip away. We took a small measure of comfort when he responded as we sat or stood at his bedside and sang Hasidic melodies. His eyes would flutter. His lips would move. His fingers would tighten around mine.

Weeks later, on Rosh Chodesh Sivan, six days before Shavuot, he was gone.

I miss my father. I miss the twinkle in his eyes, his voice, his music. I miss his Yiddish -- the words and idioms that lose some ta'am (flavor) no matter how precise the translation; the droll humor; the way he embodied a world gone, a generation slipping away.

Six months ago we welcomed Avraham Simcha into the family. I hadn't known what my son and daughter-in-law would name the baby, but I had hoped.

"I added the 'Simcha,'" my daughter-in-law told me at the bris, after the naming.

In my head I could hear my father singing. "Ivdu, ivdu, ivdu, ivdu es Hashem b'simcha..."

"It's perfect," I told her.

Courtesy of World Jewish Digest.

Published: November 12, 2005


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Visitor Comments: 33

(33) Anonymous, June 18, 2008 11:00 AM

i'm smiling as i wipe away the tears your essay evoked. may we never forget the carpe diem, that we must enjoy every moment life offers us, the sad ones along with the joyous ones.

(32) Anonymous, June 16, 2008 3:13 AM

Just finished reading Last Dance and it brought tears to my eyes and fond memories of my father who passed away many years ago. Thank you !

(31) Yisraela "Izzy", June 14, 2008 10:02 AM

May your grandson, Avraham Simcha, truly be blessed with joy, and in his eyes, may you see your father dancing.
Blessings of peace to you and your family.

(30) Anonymous, June 12, 2008 2:53 PM

Carpe diem!!!!

reading this story, i had one big sob. i cried for all the opportunities that got away and bec we don't get a second chance. and i cried bec it took so long to realize that all we have is this moment and we have to take full advantage of it. and need to stand up and show we care and have compasion.

(29) Anonymous, June 12, 2008 10:19 AM

beautiful

Thank you for sharing this beautiful and well told story of your holy father and new sweet grandson.

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