One of the most intimate, heartbreaking, and beautiful responses to pain I will always remember began with a phone call.
“Rabbi, do you make house calls?” the man named Mike on the other end of the phone wanted to know. “My dad was never religious, but he said he’d like to see a rabbi before he dies. He’s living with us now. He has no place else to go and he can’t get out any more. It’s cancer. Please?”
The address was up a winding canyon—a winding urban LA canyon—traffic whizzing by, houses packed up against each other like so many kernels on an ear of corn. The front yard was brown and weedy, with a broken sprinkler and a folding chair off to the side. I knocked and Mike let me in.
“Dad, the rabbi is here to talk to you,” Mike said loudly over his shoulder. “Go ahead, Rabbi. He’s in the living room on the couch.”
Mike looked much older than when I last saw him. I had officiated at his wedding some five years before. Now he was gray and balding. He was tired. When I found his father, Bud, on the couch, I knew why. Bud was in the last stages of lung cancer, his skin thin, spotted, and brittle as a dead leaf. His body was mostly bones and his face so gaunt his eyes seemed too large for his head. I sat next to him, yet a universe away, in my navy suit, crisp white shirt, polished shoes, and dimpled tie. Bud, in his diaper, gray sweatpants, and undershirt, with a leakproof pad beneath him, looked at me. He had no idea who I was or why I was there. Although he wasn’t in pain, every gesture, every syllable, took more strength than he had to spare. I wanted to help Bud. So in my most compassionate rabbi’s voice I said, “Bud, I’m the rabbi. I know you wanted to see me. How can I help?”
Bud slowly rotated his head in my direction, locked in on me with his huge brown eyes, and whispered, “I have to take a crap.”
I said I was here to help, I thought to myself, but there’s a limit. You want to talk theology, you want to pray, you want to plan your funeral with me—I’m game. You want me to change your diaper—I’m out. I went to find Mike. “Uh, I think he has to go to the bathroom,” I said timidly. Mike sighed and headed toward the living room. I pulled back to watch a remarkable dance unfold.
“Okay, Dad,” Mike said, facing his father on the couch and bending over. “Put your arm around my neck. Come on, Dad. Put it up there. That’s right. Come on. Now the other one. Don’t let go, Dad.”
With Mike’s help, Bud managed to put both of his sticklike arms around Mike’s neck and lace his fingers together.
“On three, Dad. One, two, three—up we go. That’s it. Don’t let go,” Mike urged Bud as he slowly lifted him off the couch so that they were now face-to-face. Bud’s body slumped against Mike’s.
His arms were still locked in place behind Mike’s neck. Mike’s arms were around Bud’s waist. Then the dance began—the most tender dance I have ever seen.
“That’s it, Dad,” Mike encouraged, as he slowly rocked from side to side and Bud shuffled each foot, still grasping Mike with all his strength. Ever so gently, Mike inched them both toward the bedroom, where Bud could lie down and have his diaper changed.
“That’s it. Good, Dad. Now I know why Mom said you were such a great dancer.” Side to side. Inch by inch. The old man and his middle-aged son, holding on to each other against the sadness and the ache—swaying to a melody only they could hear.
Bud died a week later. When I met with Mike to learn more about his dad before the funeral, I found out why Bud was living with him. Bud was broke. His first wife had thrown him out for losing all their money being suckered into scams. His second wife had thrown him out for the same reason. That’s when Bud moved in with Mike. Bud had a joke for every occasion. He was down and out so often that he had a special place in his heart for anyone in trouble. He couldn’t do a favor for you fast enough once you asked him. He was a snappy dresser, loved elephants, could fly a plane, and man, could he dance. Bud always knew that wealth and power were just around the corner. All he had to do was mortgage the house to get there.
When Bud was dying, Mike was all he had. Mike was his only child. They shared the same birthday. They had shared the same apartment when Mike was a young boy, and now they shared the same house as Bud was nearing the end of his life. When Mike was young, Bud used to come home late from work some nights, wake Mike up, bounce him in his bed, and toss him in the air. Then “one, two three—up we go,” onto the kitchen counter, Mike feeling 10 feet tall, to dip graham crackers in cold milk. Sometimes Bud gave Mike a bath. In the end, Mike had to clean up Bud’s messes. There was a beautiful, fearful symmetry to it all. Bud’s wives left him. His friends turned out to be crooks. His son’s wife wanted Bud in a home.
But Mike just hung in there with his dad, picking up the shards and shattered pieces, gathering up the rubble of a life that once was, and protecting it in the most holy of places—his heart.
Pain is an intimate invitation. Pain can bring us closer to the people we love. @wbtla (Click to Tweet!)
We all know someone whose life is shattered. The elderly, shattered by age. The lonely, shattered by divorce and loss. The frightened, reduced to rubble by malignant cells gone mad, the accident, the sudden turn of fortune, the fallout from an embarrassing indiscretion. Mike knew what to do. We all do. When trouble comes, let’s hold on to each other and then, “One, two, three,” up we go, swaying to a melody only we can hear.
Excerpted from More Beautiful Than Before; How Suffering Transforms Us.
Steve Leder is the Senior Rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles and the author of such critically acclaimed books as The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things and More Money Than God: Living a Rich Life without Losing Your Soul. He is a graduate of Northwestern University; studied at Trinity College, Oxford; and was ordained at Hebrew Union College. The winner of numerous awards for his interdenominational and cross-cultural dialogue, Leder has been a guest on CBS, ABC, NPR, PBS and featured in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times among other places. He lives with his family in Los Angeles.
Image courtesy of Tim Gouw.