Choosing Life: The Blessing of Caring for My Father


I live with my parents and my children on a peninsula between the Pacific Ocean and Sydney Harbor. The weather is temperate, never cold and hardly ever hot. The beaches are pristine; people dream of their next saltwater dive and their property values. For thirty years I was ten thousand miles from this Eden where my parents live, until the time came for me to return to care for them and be cared for by them. One of my children came before me and one came after. We are three generations living together in peace.

Dawn. Midsummer. A kookaburra is at my window singing a morning song, as usual, but unfamiliar sounds come from the next room. My father is retching, gasping, heaving. My mother is soothing him. I run to them; my father has been sick all night. I call for a doctor, but it’s a long weekend and no one answers. We are offered in substitute a robot reading a checklist that is supposed to deliver a diagnosis and plan for action. The robot fails.

My father sleeps that day while I watch him. When he wakes, I offer him tea and something sweet. He shakes his head, no. At the end of the weekend, when he is stronger and wanting to get up, a sharp pain spikes through his back. His doctor who has returned from the weekend informs us there’s nothing wrong, prescribes pain medicine and departs for a long vacation. My father takes what the doctor prescribes and falls asleep.

That night he wakes demanding blankets and a hot drink, and when they come, booms out that he needs ice and a fan. He is shivering, shouting, freezing and boiling; a fever spikes. His voice is commanding, and I don’t recognize him. Then I do. He has been transformed overnight into the man he was when I was a child, I recoil, shudder, step back. Then I step forward again. I am my father’s child but I am not a child. I am an adult fulfilling the commandment of honoring my father.

”I had worried about being an adult in my parents’ house, but my worries were misplaced; my parents have given me only pleasure and joy.”

In health, my father is a charming old man, beloved in shul and wherever he goes. He was a different person when we were young. He was an immigrant, a refugee, a survivor of Nazi Europe and of Stalinist communism. In my early years, he woke in darkness to daven before going to the factories to buy frocks for his shop, then went out to teach mathematics at university, then back to the shop to see what was selling, returning to us in darkness, ravenous. He had no energy for anything but his heavy obligations. He earned a living for his wife and children, and for his parents, and there was no backup if he slipped. At work he had to be charming. At home he could be himself—exhausted.

In the years I was away from Sydney, my father stopped worrying about the next meal or rent payment. He stopped working and went to shul however often he wished. He became charming inside the home as well as outside as well as with his minyan men, who adore him. But now he is sick and in pain, and his old self, the surviving self, returns.

Morning. After a feverish night, my father is crying that he misses my daughter, who is away, because only she knows how to rub his back to relieve the pain. We are surprised; he never cries. Should I ask my daughter to come back? But as my father says, and I agree, she has to lead her own life. This illness of my father’s (we still don’t know what it is) may be a marathon. A stomach upset, a fever, a pain in the back, kleinekeit. No need to call a crisis when there isn’t one.

The fever spikes, the pain worsens, and my son and I move my father downstairs from the bedroom into the living room so that we can watch him and let my mother sleep. Days and nights become interchangeable; my father falls into a doze, wakes suddenly, confused. We wake with him, offer a bite to eat, a hot-water bottle. We are vigilant that he doesn’t get up and fall. Falling is a great risk for old people, painful and debilitating.

”I go out and I cry, for the things I didn’t do with him, and for the stories I would never hear. For the thirty years away from him when we could have been together.”

During the nights by my father’s side, half waking, half sleeping, I am far from the sickroom, dreaming about an escape back to my life on Capitol Hill, the wild dance and hullaballoo of Washington DC. I deliberated a long time before leaving that perpetual carnival to return to my parents. I had worried about being an adult in my parents’ house, but my worries were misplaced; my parents have given me only pleasure and joy. What I didn’t imagine was a city where I couldn’t find a shul to daven in, or people to learn Torah with, or places to do chesed. I ache for someone to visit on a Shabbos afternoon and embark on a conversation that goes on and on and never ends.

In that moment of yearning, a friend, an angel, calls from New York. It is deep in the night, but I am alert and ready to continue a conversation we began twenty years before: she is looking for shidduchim for her children. There is no topic more certain to never end than shidduchim. I dip into my list, and offer her riches from my American life, where ideas flourished. At the end of the phone call, although no engagements have been announced, I am rejuvenated, ready for duty.

My father is awake, I close the phone, offer him something to nibble on. When well, my father has a legendary appetite, which he satisfies every hour or two and is immediately hungry again. He doesn’t hold onto an ounce of weight. But since his stomach upset, we cannot coax him to a meal, and even so, his limbs swell as if he were bursting.

In the morning, we look again for doctors, but there are no appointments. We consider the hospital but last time he was there, they said a kosher diet was too complicated and they couldn’t feed him. So he starved. No, I decide, better we should watch him at home.

It’s exhausting taking care of someone very sick; emotions roil, it consumes physical and spiritual energy to keep us afloat. My father drops off to sleep at any time and wakens with a fright. My son and I take turns; someone is watching him always. And my mother keeps the enterprise running: cleaning, shopping, cooking, laundry, the usual, but without our help. It takes three healthy adults to care for one sick person, consuming more energy than any other project I’ve done. There is no room for error.

Viva Hammer and her father

Shabbos approaches and I call a rav about what I might be allowed do for my father. The week before, he had asked for warm food and I refused, reminded him that it was Shabbos. The rav isn’t available, so I look up the halachah myself. The week before, I wouldn’t have admitted my father was a choleh she’yeish bo sakanah, a sick person in danger, but this week I know he is. I open the Shulchan Aruch. “For a person who is seriously ill, it is a mitzvah to violate Shabbos. One who rushes to do so is praiseworthy; one who takes the time to ask is a murderer.”  A murderer.

My father’s constant refrain to us: v’chai bachem, to live in the mitzvot, with them, through them. U’vacharta b’chaim, choose life. He who was a witness to death in his youth, is a fighter for life in his old age.

I had been wrong the week before; I should have heated food. This week, with his skin stretched to bleeding, his breath uneven and short and his fever spiking throughout the day, I know my father’s life hangs in the balance. I do for him that Shabbos what I’d never done before for anyone. It is a strange experience, and I have to remind myself each time I do a melachah I am not breaking Shabbos for my father, I am observing Shabbos for my father. And I make sure he doesn’t see what I am doing, so he won’t know he is so sick that Shabbos is adjusted for him. My obligation is to maintain his dignity, to keep him believing he will recover, and be well again.

On Sunday, the heilige Sunday, the doctor who is on vacation calls us. When does such a thing happen in Australia? When? When the results are bad. My father has heart failure and lung failure, and his white and red blood cells are way off. He also has a broken vertebra in the lower back. What does the doctor recommend? We ask. He doesn’t know what’s wrong, but maybe some medicine. We ask about going to specialists. Good luck getting appointments, he replies.

And so I embark on the rite of passage of every child of aging parents, sitting in the waiting rooms of expensive doctors. The expensive doctors say maybe it’s lung cancer, maybe it’s heart failure, maybe it’s blood cancer, maybe it’s something else. They don’t know. They look at me with a question mark. They smile at my father from a great distance. There are no answers.

My father looks at me and whispers, They don’t know what they’re talking about. He is getting weaker, but not in his mind. At home he tells me stories of his childhood before the war, of cheder and the friends who didn’t come back from the deportation, his brothers who didn’t come back. He offers testimony of worlds that are gone. I go out and I cry, for the things I didn’t do with him, and for the stories I would never hear. For the thirty years away from him when we could have been together.

”This was my opportunity: to recognize that this is why I am here, to walk my father to shul, to take care of him when he is sick. There is nothing better, nothing more important, nothing that will last longer.”

I want to take him back to shul once more to say goodbye. We walked to shul every day together. Next to him in shul I learned the Alef Bais. Now we walk from the dining room to the living room, his legs swollen and heavy, then he sits and falls asleep. He is not happy, he says; he is miserable, he says, but he is alert. My mother is baking scones. I sit by my father’s bedside reading him the parashah, which he used to do with me when I was a girl. Each of us is in the presence of our last hour. Every hour a chance. This is where I belong, in this place at this time. My father is still with us and we are keeping vigil, watching.

That night, my son makes a chair bed for my father so he can sleep upright, breathe more easily and not irritate his spine. My father gets down into it and rests, his breath becoming shorter, his limbs more limp, life seeping out of him. My son and I look at each other, and we nod. We message family wherever they are and tell them to come. Over the next week they do, and we circle round each other, in a daze of exhaustion, fear and disbelief. My father is confused about the influx of people, but he is too tired to inquire.

When we are not with family, we are ceaselessly with doctors who have no ideas. The last one is a pulmonologist, who patiently explains to my father that he has an unusual case of pneumonia. It probably came from aspiration during the upset stomach on the long weekend in midsummer. When the lungs cannot work, the heart cannot work, and then the body swells up and the fever spikes. In an old person, an ordinary upset stomach can disrupt the fragile balance. The pulmonologist prescribes medication. We go home.

Coming out of my father’s crisis is like coming off a rocking boat; the earth still moves beneath my feet. The sickness does not pass quickly. My father was very ill and we were with him. It was exhausting and confusing and something we moderns are less prepared to face than the innumerable other crises we manufacture. But the Torah talks extensively about how, as we age and face the end, we can pass on to our children what is essential: u’vacharta b’chaim, choose life.

My father comes back to us again, but we are not the same as before. Sometimes we are given the chance to become different from what we have been. And to move onward. This was my opportunity: to recognize that this is why I am here, to walk my father to shul, to take care of him when he is sick. There is nothing better, nothing more important, nothing that will last longer. Here is the home where I belong, even if I am restless and seek more. The other things I seek might be good, but they are not essential. Essential now is taking care of my parents as they take care of my children and of me.


Viva Hammer is at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute of Brandeis University and the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.




This article was featured in the Summer 2024 issue of Jewish Action.
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