Today, at age 70, you face surgery to remove the cancer that threatens your life. I wish I could be there. Sitting by the phone feels kind of pathetic compared to the endless ways you have been there for me in my life. Your wish that we not crowd around you hovering and fretting is understandable. In my helplessness, I reach for pen and paper.
I just got word from, John (your brother and guardian in this adventure) that they let you WALK to the OR. No way did they let me do that when I was in your shoes just 18 months ago! They had me on a gurney whipping down the hall before panic could set in. Smart, because I probably would have bolted. This is symbolic of your deep strength to face whatever confronts you in life. Even the doctors sensed that you would not run away, no matter what lay behind those doors.
I recently heard Rabbi Lord Jonathon Sacks discuss what the Torah has to say about surviving trauma. When Sarah died, Abraham was 137 years old. He had already survived one trauma, the binding of Isaac. How does a father survive almost sacrificing his only child? Now his life long partner has died. Two traumas involving the people he loves the most. How did he have the strength to survive them?
The Torah says that Abraham, “came to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her”. Then the very next line says, “and Abraham rose from his grief”. Rabbi Sacks goes on to say that from that point forward Abraham “engaged in a flurry of activity with two aims in mind: first to buy a plot of land in which to bury Sarah, second to find a wife for his son. Note that these correspond precisely to the two Divine blessings: of land and descendants. Abraham did not wait for God to act. He understood one of the profoundest truths of Judaism: that God is waiting for us to act.”
You are like Abraham. At a very young age you began to carry others. As much as we love to hear your ‘poor stories’, they are not what a childhood should be. Then your father died. All 8 of your siblings would agree that you carried everyone through a horrible trauma. You let go of your own 20 year old life, dropped out of college, moved home and simply carried them. How you were able to stand tall and move forward under the weight of this burden, I can’t imagine.
Rabbi Sacks points to modern day mentors who overcame tragedy,.. Holocaust survivors. Soldiers who liberated the concentration camps talked about how it changed them forever. How then, did the people who actually survived them cope? How did they move past such trauma?
Many of them refused to speak about the horrors. Not to their marriage partners, or children. Instead, they began to build a new life and a new land. “They looked forward not back. First they built a future. Only then – sometimes forty or fifty years later – did they speak about the past. That was when they told their story, first to their families, then to the world. First you have to build a future. Only then can you mourn the past.”
I knew growing up, without ever being told, that your father’s death was a forbidden topic. Suicide. Even saying it now feels like breaking a code of silence. You did not speak about it until I was grown. Mom remembers when you received the call that summer. You were standing at the table in your apartment where you were both working 2 jobs to get through another year of college. She says you sat down and dropped your head into your hands. Then, as soon as your head hit the table you stood back up and moved on. You began to take care of what needed to be done. She never saw you cry. Not until 20 years later.
I think there may be trauma so great, that to stop and mourn is a luxury you can not afford at that time. You run the risk of getting stuck there. “Lot’s wife, against the instruction of the angels, actually did look back as the cities of the plain disappeared under fire and brimstone and the anger of God. Immediately she was turned into a pillar of salt, the Torah’s graphic description of a woman so overwhelmed by shock and grief as to be unable to move on.” Abraham “set the precedent: first build the future, and only then can you mourn the past. If you reverse the order, you will be held captive by the past. You will be unable to move on. You will become like Lot’s wife.”
I think all these years, I didn’t really understand. I didn’t understand that you protected us all from the horror and trauma that you had to face. You did not allow yourself to become lost in the past. You refused to dwell there. You went about building a future. You had to do this in order to survive. In your quiet way, you and mom got your college education. You kept your mother and siblings from drowning and brought your own children into the world at the same time. Even when I went through eye surgery as an infant and you were told I was blind, you did not falter. You and mom worked and went to classes while never leaving me alone in the hospital for a single minute. In a time that parents didn’t stay with their children in the hospital, you didn’t leave me alone.
Then, when we were almost grown. When all involved could stand on their own two feet. When holding your silence was going to wreck you and the future you had worked so hard to build. Only then did you look back. Only then did you mourn the past. For the first time in my life, I saw you cry. You did not cry from anger or bitterness, but with grief of a boy abandoned by his father.
Your sacrifice gave me a childhood. One that was wholesome and carefree. You made sure I had a strong and loving father to lean on even in my 40’s. You built me a future. Then you taught me how to survive.
We went for a long walk just a few days ago, and you were already listening for a ‘future calling to you’. Something left undone. Something only you could fulfill. Something meaningful to leave behind. Something that would secure a future for both your land and your descendants. Something that you had to beat this cancer so you could build.
Rabbi Sacks explains, “Abraham heard the future calling to him. Sarah had died. Isaac was unmarried. Abraham had neither land nor grandchildren. He did not cry out, in anger or anguish, to God. Instead, he heard the still, small voice saying: The next step depends on you. You must create a future that I will fill with My spirit. That is how Abraham survived the shock and grief. God forbid that we experience any of this, but if we do, this is how to survive.”
I spent my day writing this to you. (There were a few interruptions and loud children running around) I can’t say it was my finest parenting hour. My body was here while my heart was hovering and fretting outside the OR. You made it through surgery and are resting comfortably tonight. I am so thankful. I honestly would not have been surprised if they had reported you walked OUT of the OR after surgery.
Dad, you have faced both tragedy and miracle in your life. You have faced each with grace and quiet strength. You have the survivor instinct to get after building a future when faced with trauma. You are like Abraham. I will always carry with me an image of you WALKING to the OR today. It sums up how you live your life. Walking forward on your own two feet, with quiet dignity and courage to face whatever comes.
Your loving daughter and greatest admirer