(This is an excerpt from More Beautiful Than Before: How Suffering Transforms Us )
One the most intimate, heartbreaking and beautiful father-son moments I will always remember began with a phone call.
“Rabbi, do you make house calls?” the man named Mackie 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, urban L.A. 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 Mackie let me in.
“Dad, the rabbi is here to talk to you,” Mackie said loudly over his shoulder. “Go ahead, rabbi. He’s in the living room on the couch.”
Mackie looked much older than when I last saw him. I’d officiated at his wedding some five years before. Now, he was gray and balding. He was tired. When I found his father Bert on the couch I knew why. Bert 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.
Bert, in his diaper, gray sweat pants and undershirt with a leak proof 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 Bert. So in my most compassionate rabbi’s voice I said, “Bert, I’m the rabbi. I know you wanted to see me? How can I help?”
Bert slowly rotated his head in my direction, locked in on me with his huge brown eyes and whispered, “I have to take a crap.”
A Remarkable Dance
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 Mackie. “Uh, I think he has to go to the bathroom,” I said timidly. Mackie sighed and headed toward the living room. I pulled back to watch a remarkable dance unfold.
“Okay Dad,” Mackie 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 Mackie’s help, Bert managed to put both of his stick-like arms around Mackie’s neck and lace his fingers together.
“On three Dad. One, two, three — up we go. That’s it. Don’t let go,” Mackie urged Bert as he slowly lifted him off the couch so that they were now face to face. Bert’s body slumped against Mackie’s. His arms still locked in place behind Mackie’s neck. Mackie’s arms were around Bert’s waist. Then, the dance began — the most tender dance I have ever seen.
“That’s it Dad,” Mackie encouraged, as he slowly rocked from side to side while Bert shuffled an inch or two forward with movement, all the time Mackie with all his strength. Ever so gently, Mackie maneuvered them both towards the bedroom where Bert 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.
The Fragments of a Life
Bert died a week later. When I met with Mackie to learn more about his dad before the funeral, I found out why Bert was living with him. Bert was broke. His first wife had thrown him out for losing all their money on scams. His second wife threw him out for the same reason. That’s when Bert moved in with Mackie.
Bert 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.
And Bert could sell anything. In the ’70s, he was the guy who showed up on your doorstep to sell you a vibrating bed. Just give him a second to set up the demo model in your living room. In the ’80s, it was shoes. In the ’90s, oil well investments. Bert always knew that wealth and power were just around the corner and all he had to do was mortgage the house to get there.
When Bert was dying, Mackie was all he had. Mackie was his only child. They shared the same birthday. They shared the same apartment 50 years ago and now the same house.
When Mackie was a boy, Bert used to come home late from work some nights, wake Mackie up, bounce him in his bed and toss him in the air. Then, “One, two three — up we go,” onto the kitchen counter, feeling 10 feet tall, to dip graham crackers in cold milk. Sometimes, Bert gave Mackie a bath.
In the end, Mackie had to clean up Bert’s messes. There was a beautiful, fearful symmetry to it all. Bert’s wives left him. His friends turned out to be crooks. His son’s wife wanted Bert in a home. But Mackie just hung in there with his dad gathering up the fragments of a life that once was, and placing then in the most holy of places — his heart.
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. Mackie knew what to do. All of us know what to do. We have to reach out, then “One, two, three” and “Up we go,” dancing to a melody only we can hear.
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- The Transformative Power of Suffering
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