Questions I meant to ask my father
By Gary Rotto
SAN DIEGO — I have come to realize that one can never be prepared totally for someone to die. I thought that I was.
My father lived for over 30 years with congestive heart failure. In May 1981, he suffered a major heart attack. The heart attack was so severe; the attending physicians did not think that he would make it. But he did. Though my dad was not a pet person, especially cats, we joked that he had nine lives. There were at least five other times over the past three decades that we thought we would lose my father. But each time, he pulled through. Usually, he was a little weaker. Certainly, after each of the three hospitalizations over the past few months, he returned home weaker. So his death a week ago was not unexpected.
Over the years, he didn’t thrive physically, but certainly did mentally. The heart attack was so disabling that he was forced into retirement. But the retirement allowed my father to dig more vigorously in the Jewish Thought and Philosophy. My father was always interested in Jewish learning. The heart attack threw his believe system out the window. While he belonged to progressive congregations in his adulthood, my father had a very traditional view of Judaism: if you are a good person, honest in business dealings and treat people well, then God would look after you. So the heart attack didn’t make sense to him. Why would God allow this to happen to me?
My father never waivered from his belief in Judaism and believed that there had to be a way to reconcile the situation. That’s when he discovered the writing of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism. Basically, it wasn’t a matter of God doing things to people; it was people doing things in the world on behalf of God. God was not up on high, but a spark in everyone. Community, working on behalf of community, was the central value. This was what my father embraced. My folks moved to San Diego about a year after the heart attack. And soon after, they encountered Rabbi Ron Herstik and helped to found Congregation Dor Hadash, the only Reconstructionist congregation in San Diego County. I have to wonder what the congregation would have been like without my father as a founding member? It certainly would have looked very different. Would it even have existed?
I’ve always looked as these past 30 years as bonus years. My father had the opportunity to see me stand under a chupah, experience the birth of five grandchildren and read from the Torah when his youngest grandchild became a Bat Mitzvah. He even celebrated becoming a Bar Mitzvah a second time on his 83rd birthday. And as Rabbi Alexis Roberts said at his memorial, he was well prepared, having thoroughly researched and finalized his remarks two years in advance. As my daughter noted, we spent just about every Friday night Shabbat dinner with Grandpa Dan and Grandma Helene. Those Friday nights are permanently imprinted in her consciousness and shape her appreciation of Shabbat.
So I should have been prepared. I thought I was. As late as Thursday, I had a lengthy conversation with my father. Since I visited him later in the day on both Friday and Saturday, he had tired from visitors and was not as engaged. And then he passed away on Saturday night soon after dinner. He had been ready to die for about two weeks. He asked only two things: that he not be in pain and that one of us be in the room with him. Soon after dinner, he asked my mother to hold his hand. And he turned away as if he were taking a nap. He was tired, but not in pain. It’s so rare that we get to go on our own terms. But he did.
Knowing that he was mentally and emotionally ready, allowed me to feel better about the dying process. And though we had several conversations over the last few weeks, sharing heartfelt thoughts about how much we loved each other, about extraordinary things that we did for each other. We certainly knew about those things internally but needed to verbalize them. But I now think about what I should have asked.
- You enlisted in the Army during WWII and were awarded a medal for marksmanship. What did you do to earn that? Have you fired a weapon since the Army?
- You do not believe in an afterlife. And you’re so at peace with dying? How did you get there? How will I get there when my time comes?
- As president of the congregation, what should I say on the High Holy Days to the congregation?
- Whatever happened to the snazzy red car with blue leather seats and with white hardtop that you had after the war?
- What do you wish you could do one more time before you pass on?
- You mentioned that you’d like to go see the beach one more time. Which beach can I take you to?
My father said several times over those last three weeks that he had a good life. He was satisfied. I smile when I hear his voice say that – and I get teary eyed as well. I thought of so many questions to ask him over the Summer and did. And I wish I had thought of those last few questions before his final breath escaped.
I am thankful for the time we had, for those extra thirty years. It’s going to really hit me when we open the Ark for Kol Nidre, call up all the past presidents of the congregation and pass the Torah from person to person … and he is not there to accept it.
I will miss him, but know that his spark is within me and my daughter. He will always be with us.
Rotto is a freelance writer based in San Diego. He may be contacted at email@example.com
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