“Mom lets me stay up late!” David screamed.
“That’s her problem. Turn off that TV and go to your room and get into bed. It is too late for a seven-year old boy to be up. You have Sunday school tomorrow,” countered his father, Mark, trying to keep from losing his cool altogether.
“You can’t make me. I’m not going to bed. You’re not my dad anymore!” he shouted.
Mark, a big powerful man, suddenly slammed his fist down on the cluttered table in the small apartment. A glass, precariously balanced on a pile of dirty dishes, jiggled off and shattered on the floor. “I sure as hell am your father, and I will be for as long as you live, no matter what. Now get into bed while I clean this up. And watch where you step,” he ordered.
Frightened by his father’s anger and the shattered glass, David scooted to his room, carefully avoiding the area of broken glass. “Brush your teeth. I’ll be in to kiss you goodnight in a couple of minutes, as soon as I sweep this up,” Mark added.
Ten minutes later Mark entered the spare room where David slept. The room was bare. A suitcase with David’s weekend clothes lay open on a folding table. A few toys and games were strewn about. David was in bed, which was little more than a camp cot, with his special animal, some Beanie Baby whose name Mark could never seem to remember. Mark picked up storybook lying on the floor. “Wanna story?” he asked.
David nodded. Mark read the story and hugged and kissed the boy before tucking him in for the night. “No matter what happens between your mother and me, you are my son, and I am your father, and I will always love you, always,” he said quietly yet emphatically, and then turned out the light.
Back in the kitchen, Mark finished cleaning the dishes, threw out the pizza box, and dropped empty soft drink bottles into the recycling bin. He tried to sort out his angry feelings, but there were so many of them, he didn’t know what to be angry about first. He was furious with Myra, his ex-wife, if she was letting David stay up late.
And who knows what ideas she was putting in his head if David thought he wasn’t his father anymore? The hefty child support payments Mark made to cover David proved to him more painfully than anything else that he was David’s father. It had been Myra’s idea to have a child in the first place. From the time Mark was a kid, he had never gotten along with his father. So Mark didn’t really want children, but Myra talked him into it. Now he was paying the price and would pay for the rest of his life, he thought.
Despite his reluctance to have a child, Mark had grown to love David and tried to be a good father, although, admittedly, he really wasn’t very good at it. He had forced himself to play those silly toddler games with colorful plastic sorting pieces, but he never got into it with any natural enthusiasm and would stop playing as soon as he could find an excuse. At home, he preferred to be left alone to fool around with computers or watch sports on TV or just read a book. Maybe when David got older, the two would toss a football or baseball around, Mark had always hoped. They tried, but Mark didn’t have a lot of patience with the boy. His own father didn’t have much patience with him either, he recalled. His father, the successful big shot who had been a cheap bastard with his family for as long a Mark could remember, had barely spent any time with him at all while he was growing up. Anyway, at the least he hoped he could be a better father to David than his father was to him. And he certainly didn’t want to resent David over the support payments, but …well, he would try.
Then there was this crummy apartment with castoff furnishings and stuff he could pick up cheap. The money thing again. If he wasn’t sending Myra so much child support each month, mainly to support that damn house she insisted they buy, he could have a better place for himself, not some cheap apartment right off the highway. He didn’t plan to bring David here very often because it just wasn’t much of a place for kids. Here was this big complex of junky apartments populated, it seemed, mainly by divorced dads. They didn’t even have a crummy playground nearby.
Mark was at work a few weeks later when his father called. Mark, a senior software engineer and a project leader at a hot, fast track high tech company, worked in a small cubicle with a dozen engineers in their cubicles surrounding him. Sitting at their workstations, the engineers couldn’t see each other, but they could hear just about everything going on in nearby cubicles, so phone conversations, especially personal phone conversations, were awkward.
Mark’s mother had died a few years ago after a long illness. Mark and his father disagreed over how to care for his mother at that time. A lot of the disagreements revolved around money; his father, Mark believed, was so cheap he wouldn’t hire decent home nursing care. Mark, who was just starting out, had little money to spare. The issue of spending money on his mother’s care became just another in a long string of grudges against his father stretching back to his earliest memories of birthday parties and school pageants and baseball games that his father never managed to attend.
His father was still living in the house where Mark grew up. It was not far away. Mark could get there in less than an hour, which was the problem. His father called him for every little thing, which took a lot of nerve, Mark thought, for a guy who was never there when he needed him. Mark’s brother was smart; he got a job on the other side of the continent. His father never called his brother.
Mark answered the phone and instantly recognized his father’s frantic breathing. The message came in jumbled, agitated phrases. Cooking lunch. Oil. Accident. Spill. Turned off the wrong burner or maybe he turned on some burner instead of turning it off, Mark couldn’t quite tell. A piercing noise made it even harder to understand.
“What’s that noise?” Mark cut in. Then he realized; it was the smoke detector. “Is there a fire? Is that what you’re trying to tell me? Is the kitchen on fire? Then get out! Get out right now. Hang up and get out! I’ll call the police. Go. Get out of the house.”
Mark slammed down the phone, instantly snatched it up again, and dialed 911. Then he realized that he was reporting a fire in a town fifty miles away. It took a few frantic tries but he finally got through to the local police in his father’s town and reported the problem. Fire engines had already been dispatched, he was told. A neighbor saw the smoke and called the fire department. Mark’s father had gotten out safely.
The fire might be under control but Mark was fuming. His father was losing it. He had been losing it for years. He couldn’t take care of himself. He couldn’t take care of the house. The cheapskate wouldn’t hire any home care. He wouldn’t consider any kind of assisted living. He could manage by himself, he stubbornly insisted. Except he called Mark 20 times a week. And Mark dragged himself over there at least three times a week. Here was a guy who had been so successful–new cars, important business deals, fancy clothes–but wouldn’t spend a dime on decent home care, even for himself. So Mark had to put all his father’s medications into a tray with little compartments for each day’s dosage and his father still screwed up taking his medications. Mark went shopping for him and fixed things around the house and now he almost burned it down. Mark even cleaned the house, something he hated to do at his own house. And what did he get? Complaints and more demands. Not even a thank you.
Mark refused to drop everything and run over there again. Let the neighbor or the Red Cross take care of him for a while. Mark had his own problems. His ex-wife was creating hassles for him. He missed one lousy visitation date. OK, he was sorry. He called. He brought David a new toy. What more could he do? He was leading a big project that would pay him fat stock options and bonuses if his team finished it fast. Big venture capitalists were in on the deal. Talk about pressure. Now his father was burning down the house. Well, screw him.
Another visitation day. Mark planned to take David to a big park with a zoo and paddleboats and a carousel. David was excited. The weather, however, wasn’t promising. They rode the carousel, but before they could go out on a paddleboat it started to rain. They went to a kid’s movie instead and then found themselves hanging around in a mall. Mark was ready to take David home, but Myra wouldn’t be back to receive him for three more hours.
It had been a decent outing, Mark felt, even if the weather screwed up their original plans. But now David was getting whiny and cranky. They had already hit the chocolate chip cookie store in the mall. Mark didn’t know what to do next. “Wanna ride the escalator?” he offered.
“No,” snapped David, with an angry, defiant tone.
“How about a pretend trip in the car? You can sit behind the steering wheel and drive. I’ll be the passenger,” Mark suggested.
“No. I want to go home to Mommy,” David demanded.
“I’d like to take you home, but Mommy won’t be there for a couple more hours so we have to find something to do,” Mark said, exasperation coming through.
Suddenly, David was on the floor screaming and kicking. Mark was embarrassed and confused. “Stop that,” he ordered but immediately knew it was useless. People were starting to look at them. Out of desperation he scooped David up kicking and screaming, carried him to a nearby bench, and rocked him in a tight embrace. David continued to scream and struggle, but gradually he quieted down to a whimper.
A young woman, holding a bag from the bookstore in the mall, watched the scene, first with concern and then with something like admiration. As David quieted, she approached. “Do you need any help? Here’s a clean tissue. Can I get him a drink or a cookie or something?”
“Thanks,” Mark replied, taking the tissue and gently wiping David’s face. “I think we’ll be all right now, if we can just manage for another hour or so.”
“You handled that amazingly well. You must be a wonderful dad,” she continued.
“You kidding? I’m probably the worst dad–or maybe the second worst; my father was even worse,” said Mark, hiding how flattered he actually felt. “I’ll be able to take him back to my ex in a while,” he continued. “I mean his mother,” he quickly added. Mark had begun to notice that the woman was quite attractive in a quiet, unassuming way. She had big round brown eyes and long wavy brown hair pulled back in some kind of fancy braid. He guessed she was a few years younger than he was. With nothing that looked like a wedding or engagement ring on her left hand, he concluded she was single. David was watching her too.
She fumbled in her bag from the bookstore. “Maybe I can help fill some time. I bought this book for my nieces,” she offered, and then addressed David. “They must be about your age. These are stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer, a very famous writer. Would you like me to read you a story, if your dad doesn’t mind?”
David nodded yes. “The teacher read one of his stories in Sunday school,” he added.
“You really don’t have to. I mean, we’d love it, but you probably have to get going,” Mark stammered.
“I’m happy to help,” she said, and began reading. She had a sweet, soothing voice, yet quietly expressive. By the time she was finished, David had fallen asleep in Mark’s arms.
“I’m sorry,” Mark started to apologize. “He’s been under a lot of stress lately, with the divorce and all.”
She dismissed his apology. “I expected it might relax him, and I’m not surprised he fell asleep,” She did not, however, get up to leave.
Mark and the woman, Shira, sat on the bench and talked for the next couple of hours while David slept, snuggled on Mark’s lap. Shira was a Hebrew teacher who recently started a job at a nearby synagogue school. Mark tried not to bore her with the details of his divorce and his father. Instead, they talked about the Internet and education, about what little he knew of Jewish Web sites, the weather, apartment hunting, and the usual things people talk about when they are first getting to know each other, feeling out common ground. After the hassle of his divorce, another relationship was the last thing on Mark’s mind, but he couldn’t help notice that this woman was warm and kind, smart, and very attractive. Her eyes, he thought, we deep beckoning pools someone could fall into and never want to leave. Before they left the mall, he learned she usually attended Shabbat services at the same synagogue where she taught during the week. The synagogue wasn’t far from Mark’s apartment.
A few days later Mark was standing in the kitchen of his father’s house. He recalled its better days when his mother was alive and healthy. It was so spotless then; someone literally could eat off the floor. Now Mark wouldn’t even eat off the table. “You can’t stay here by yourself,” Mark insisted. The wall behind the stove was burned and peeling. He had cleared out the debris left from fighting the fire and cleaned the kitchen as best he could, but it still reeked of smoke and sooty grime seemed to cling to everything. “Don’t you understand how close you came to a disaster?”
His father seemed utterly unfazed by the fire. “You’ll have to fix that wall,” he said.
Mark was losing his patience. “Aren’t you even listening to me? You can’t live here alone because you can’t take care of this house or yourself. You could have been killed. You could have burned down the whole damn neighborhood. Listen, you cheapskate; either hire somebody to come in here and help you or move to some kind of home. Anyway, I’m tired of fixing stuff for you. Fix it yourself,” Mark said vehemently.
His father wandered away. He picked up an old pan that had warped in the heat of the fire. “Your mother got this pan from her mother when we got married,” he said. Mark knew the old man would now drift off into reveries of the old days. He generally ignored these ramblings. None of those memories included anything about Mark and his brother Steven or their years of growing up. As far as Mark could tell, the good old days started and ended before Mark and Steven arrived on the scene. He and his brother counted for nothing.
Mark grabbed his father, knocking the pan out of his hand. It clanged onto the floor. “Listen to me, for once. This is serious. You can’t stay here alone, and I’m not going to stay here with you!”
Suddenly his father started gasping for breath and slumped into Mark’s arms. Mark propped him up in a nearby chair. “Where are your pills?” he demanded, as he frantically searched the kitchen. His father clutched at his chest. Mark lunged for the phone and dialed 911.
Today was Saturday, Shabbat. After wasting so much time in the hospital with this father this past week Mark knew he should be at work, but here he was in a synagogue. Mark hadn’t been in a synagogue since the High Holidays months before. He couldn’t remember when he had last attended a Shabbat service that wasn’t also a major holiday. He never even showed up to say the Mourner’s Kaddish, a special prayer, when his mother died, for which he now felt guilty. He scanned the small crowd in the sanctuary. Shira was nowhere to be seen. He slipped into a seat toward the back. Maybe a few dozen people were scattered about. An usher invited him to take an ark-opening honor late in the service. Mark didn’t want to, but he felt it would be ungracious to refuse.
He had arrived early, well before the Torah service began. Mark preferred to arrive on the late side, but he didn’t want to miss Shira. By the time the Torah service began, the sanctuary had become comfortably full. While the Torah was carried around the room, Mark scanned the crowd. He couldn’t spot Shira. The rabbi announced the start of children’s services in another part of the building.
It was a beautiful spring day and without any sign of Shira, Mark was ready to leave, but then he remembered his ark-opening honor and felt obligated to stick it out. Maybe it was better she didn’t show up. He hadn’t figured out how he would approach her if she had been there. He wasn’t even sure he wanted to start something with this woman. Then he recalled how sweet she had been that afternoon at the mall and her delicious eyes. The rabbi began his d’var Torah, a sermon based on the week’s Torah reading, Kedoshim. Mark glanced around one more time. Shira wasn’t in sight. If she wasn’t here by now, he thought, she isn’t coming. The usher was standing by the door so there was no slipping out gracefully.
He wondered how long the rabbi would talk. Probably 15 minutes, he thought, enough for a nap. Then he caught the rabbi say something about honoring one’s parents. “What if one disagrees with one’s parents? How can we honor and revere them, as the Torah commands?” the rabbi challenged.
Just disagrees? That’s nothing. What if the child detests his father, Mark thought to himself. Honor and revere? When he thought of honoring and revering his father, he almost laughed out loud. But he suddenly found himself caught up in the rabbi’s words. The obligation of the child to his parents, the rabbi insisted, takes precedent over financial circumstances, personal feelings toward the parent, and even other obligations. The rabbi recounted recent conversations with adults who came to him confused and conflicted over their obligations to their parents. “Should they give up special ice skating lessons for a gifted child to pay for care for an aging parent? Should they put a promising career on hold to attend to a sick parent who, they felt, had been abusive toward them as children?” recounted the rabbi. Even hardships, the rabbi insisted, do not relieve anyone of the obligation to honor and revere one’s parents. The Torah accepts no excuses. The Talmud recognizes no mitigating circumstances. “Even if one’s father is evil and a man of iniquity, one must honor and revere him,” the rabbi explained, quoting from Maimonides, a great sage. “The most difficult commandment to observe,” the rabbi continued, “may be the one to honor your mother and father.” You can say that again, Mark whispered to himself.
The rabbi’s comments disturbed Mark as he mulled them over in his mind throughout the rest of the service. He resented his father, he admitted, which made him feel more than justified in walking away from any obligation to the man. The rabbi, however, argued otherwise and had a lot of Talmudic sources to back him up. Mark wasn’t a particularly observant Jew, so why should he care what some old rabbis in the Talmud said? Would David honor and revere Mark? Mark couldn’t even tell how much David respected him now after his ex-wife poisoned the kid’s mind despite the fact that he was knocking himself out to support the kid.
The usher suddenly tapped Mark on the shoulder. He had been so wrapped up in his thoughts he lost track of the service. He had to open the Ark. He hurried to the front, opened the Ark, and turned around to face the congregation. Far in the back he saw a pack of young children. Standing among them was Shira. She saw him, smiled, and waved discretely. A few minutes after Mark returned to his seat; Shira led the children to the front to lead Adon Olam, the last prayer. When the service ended, she rushed up to him.
The next week was a blur. Mark spent what seemed to be hours on the phone with the hospital staff, doctors, social workers, and kitchen contractors as he scrambled to piece together some kind of arrangement for his father. Meanwhile, it was crunch time for his project at work. Management was applying the pressure. Venture capitalists, he had heard, were threatening to pull the plug. Mark was putting in long days and nights.
Mark wanted to put off dealing with his father for a few weeks, but the hospital was determined to release him. The insurance companies weren’t going to pay to keep him in the hospital a moment longer than necessary. Mark dashed out of work for an urgent meeting at the hospital. The only solution he could come up with was that his father, whether he liked it or not, would have to cough up some money and hire home care. Medicare or one of those government programs might cover some of it, but it didn’t matter. Mark didn’t have the time to screw around with his father now, so the old man had no choice.
The meeting at the hospital was tense. Crowded around his father’s bed, the social worker explained the situation. Some administrator-type brought in a bunch of forms and explained the limited home care covered by the insurance company. When they left, Mark stared at his father. “You’re going to have to pay somebody to come in more often than the insurance company will pay for. I can’t come by every day to check on you.”
“I’m not asking you to. I’m not asking you for anything. I’m not asking anybody,” retorted his father. “I’ll manage.”
“Bullshit. You’re always asking for everything. Do this. Do that. Fix this. Change that. You can’t manage to make a meal. You can’t keep your medicine straight. You can’t clean up after yourself. Just ask the fire department about how well you manage by yourself,” Mark exploded. “You’re just going to have to dig into your pocket and pay for some home help, you stubborn cheapskate.”
His father turned away. His body shuddered slightly and Mark could hear a whimpering sound. “Are you having another heart attack?” Mark asked. His father shook his head no. That’s when Mark noticed the tears. He had never seen his father cry. He couldn’t imagine his father ever crying. Not when Mark’s grandparents died. Not when Mark’s mother died. Never. But he was crying now.
“I can’t hire anybody. I don’t have any money,” his father said quietly.
Mark was flabbergasted. All those years. All that running around and not being there. He was supposed to be doing big deals. Making big money. And there were fancy suits and gifts of jewelry for his mother and nice cars. “But I thought you had money. What did you do, gamble it away or something?”
His father shook his head. “We spent it taking care of my parents first, your Bubbie and Zadie, and then mother’s parents, Oma and Opa, as they got old. Neither of them ever had very much. By the time mother got sick we didn’t have anything left. Your mother and I agreed that we didn’t want to be a burden on you and your brother, not the way our parents were on us,” he said. “I guess it’s time for me to die.”
“No, I didn’t mean that. I didn’t know,” Mark stammered. He didn’t know what to say. He was confused and angry. He suddenly pictured himself mortgaging his entire life. For what, to support a father who didn’t give a damn about him when he was growing up and an ex-wife with rich tastes? “I gotta get back to work. We’ll figure something out,” he said, almost spitting out the last words.
When the weekend rolled around Mark knew he should go into work. There was just too much to do. The project team had gotten signals that a rival might get up and running first, which would be disastrous. But this weekend Mark was scheduled to take David. Myra had made her own plans. If he stood the kid up again, Myra would haul him into court or worse. But what was he going to do with the David? He planned to park David in front of some video games while he worked from a computer in his bedroom. Then he remembered Shira. Mark decided to return to the synagogue with David.
“Synagogue?” David asked, making a sour face.
“Yeah, It’s Shabbos, like they talk about in Sunday school. It will be fun,” Mark promised. This time they attended Shira’s children’s service.
Shira again looked lovely to Mark in her long skirt and blouse, her dark eyes twinkling. She welcomed David warmly although David barely remembered meeting her before. She led David into a circle with other children, introduced him and began singing a song. She led them in some prayers. Later they played some games. Finally, she told a story from the Torah. David quickly got into the program. He answered some questions and even joined with a couple of other kids in leading a simple prayer. Mark faded into the background and watched Shira. For the first time in weeks he forgot the pressures of work and his father. She’s magical, he thought. Why isn’t she married, he asked himself. Then his thoughts returned to his project and his father, and it felt like the weight of the world again had been dropped on him.
Shira led the children into the adult service for the concluding prayer, Adon Olam, as Mark had seen previously. David bounded onto the bimah, the raised area in the front of the sanctuary, along with the other children. At the kiddush that followed, David gobbled some cookies and raced around with a bunch of other boys. Mark finally had a chance to talk with Shira.
“You looked wonderful,” Mark said as they slipped to a quiet corner of the social hall.
“Thanks. You look terrible,” Shira blurted out. “No, I didn’t mean it that way. I mean you look really really troubled. Has something happened?”
“Nah, just more of the same old stuff,” said Mark. But he didn’t realize how desperate he was for a sympathetic listener, and he spilled out far more than he intended–the fire, his father’s heart attack, the rabbi’s sermon from the previous week, work hassles, even his father’s financial straits.
When he was finished, she squeezed his arm. “You know, I think I can help you a little bit. David is such a sweet boy. If you and David would like, I’ll bring him to my apartment, and you can do some work or get some rest. I’ll take David to a nearby playground. We’ll have a good time, and you will join us for dinner. I boil up great pasta.”
“You don’t have to,” Mark protested half-heartedly.
“But I want to,” Shira insisted.
Shira’s apartment had a small balcony and a second bedroom full of toys she kept for the times when her nieces visited. The dining area was an extension of the living room. Mark arrived in the evening and read David a story while Shira bustled about in the kitchen. After dinner, David played with toys while Mark helped Shira clean up in the kitchen.
“Both my parents have been dead several years,” Shira recounted. They had died relatively young, in an auto accident right around Thanksgiving. “I never had the kind of problems people have with aging parents, but I also never had a chance to honor them in their old age. I wish I had,” she continued. Mark felt the gentle rebuke.
“I don’t wish he was dead. I don’t know what I wish. I guess I wish he would just go away for awhile, like when I was little. He was always disappearing then,” Mark said, trying to sort out his own feelings. “But that’s not going to happen. I’m going to end up honoring him with my checkbook and all my savings now and for years to come–it’s not such a privilege, I can tell you.”
“I know the money is important. I’m not naïve. I have to pay the bills each month too. But in the end, it is just money. The Torah knew what was really important–the chain from parents to children, from generation to generation. That’s why I said the Mourner’s Kaddish every day for the entire year following my parents’ deaths. Mark, you need to somehow reestablish a connection with your father. Then the money won’t seem like such a burden,” Shira urged.
The next week, Mark thought a lot about what Shira had said. The money remained a concern, but he put some pressure on his brother, who reluctantly agreed to help contribute to their father’s upkeep, at least until some government program kicked in. His brother was even angrier with his father than Mark was. Ironically, Mark found himself defending the old man. “Look, he took care of Bubbie and Zadie as well as Oma and Opa. How much can you expect from the guy?” Mark argued.
The pressure at work was still intense, but Mark managed to cut out on Sunday afternoon and take David to see his grandfather. He told himself it was a way to kill two birds with one stone–check in on his father and do something with David. His father, however, barely knew the boy, and Mark wondered what they would do for an afternoon in the old man’s house.
“He has his grandmother’s eyes, those deep, dark eyes,” said Mark’s father on seeing David again. “Do you see how much of your mother is in the boy?” he asked Mark. If anything Mark saw Myra written all over David. His father’s remark made him think of Shira’s eyes. Were they like his mother’s? He didn’t know.
Seated in a chair, Mark’s father started playing with the boy. First, he took a coin from his pocket and began doing little tricks with it. He would make it disappear in his hand and then pull it out from behind the boy’s ear. “Do it again, Zadie,” the boy would squeal each time. He never did anything like that with me, Mark thought. He didn’t know his father could even do tricks.
“Here is a game my Zadie played with me,” said Mark’s father. He taught David a hand slapping game, which required fast reflexes. David laughed and laughed as they repeatedly played the game. Again Mark wondered where this game suddenly came from. His father never played it with him or Steven.
“Come on my lap, and I will tell you a story,” Mark’s father offered. David crawled on the lap. Mark’s father starting telling stories of relatives Mark barely recalled. He told of family incidents Mark had never heard. David pumped the old man with question after question, which led to more and more stories. Mark was flabbergasted.
The afternoon flew by. David was reluctant to leave. “Your mother will be waiting,” Mark said, “but we’ll come back soon,” he promised. His father gave David a big hug and kiss, and then turned and gave a hug and kiss to Mark. Mark couldn’t remember when he had last kissed his father.
Mark and David returned repeatedly to visit Mark’s father in the months that followed. The old man poured out stories from his life. David eagerly absorbed every word. Mark listened in astonishment, his emotions careening back and forth between envy of David and resentment toward his father. The father Mark never had but would have loved suddenly emerged in his son’s grandfather; the situation galled him. He also noticed his father growing steadily weaker, almost fading away, as if he were emptying himself into his grandson. The two of them would talk and play while Mark puttered around keeping up the house or, more often, just eavesdropped.
His big project at work finally was completed. It was enough of a success to allow Mark to collect some bonus money. He moved into a nicer apartment, closer to his father. Otherwise, the money was simply sucked up by child support and in the care of his father. Shira was right, he realized, it was just money.
Between his attention to his father and pressure at work, Mark had had little time or emotional energy to invest in developing a relationship with Shira. Attractive as she was and as different as she was from Myra, he wasn’t ready for another emotional commitment. Maybe someday, but not now.
Mark’s father died that fall. A heart attack, an urgent phone call from the doctor, a mad dash from work to the hospital, and some hurried good-byes. Standing by his father’s bedside, Mark saw all the monitors and meters suddenly go flat. “I’m sorry,” said the nurse as she started to pull the sheet up. Mark leaned over, touched his father’s check, and then reached up to gently close his father’s eyes. I really am sad to lose you, he thought.
David was spending Thanksgiving with Mark. He guessed they would go a nearby restaurant. Afterward, they might hit a movie. That morning, however, Mark wanted to take David to a synagogue where he could say the Mourner’s Kaddish for his father. “It is a way to honor Zadie. We’re reminding God how much we loved Zadie and that God should take good care of him,” he explained to the boy. David loved the old man and missed him too, Mark realized. They hurried out to Shira’s synagogue.
“Will Shira be there?” David asked excitedly.
“I doubt it, but I don’t know. It’s a short service. We’ll be there together, you and me,” Mark replied. He wondered how much David missed Shira. Then he wondered how much he missed her. He tried not to think about it.
The Thanksgiving morning crowd was sparse, just over the 10-person minimum required for a minyan, for prayers to begin. Mark and David slipped into the back of the room. Then he noticed Shira sitting along the side. She quickly saw them and waved. David dashed up to her. She swept him up in her arms. “My Zadie died,” he blurted out.
When it came time for the Mourner’s Kaddish, Mark rose to recite the prayer. David jumped up too. Mark held his own son’s hand as he uttered out loud the ancient words praising God, a son’s tribute to his father: “Yitgadal v’yitkaddash shmay rabba … (Exalted and sanctified be His great Name…)