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Happy Birthday, Mom

By Tzvi Fishman
6/23/2011, 11:31 AM

It’s Mom’s birthday today.  I’m bringing the kids over to the nursing home for a party. I don’t know if Mom recognizes me anymore, but it seems to me that she still remembers my voice. And on some deep soul level, she probably senses that I’m her son. Or at least someone familiar. So I sit with her and hold her hand, and tell her what’s happening with the family, and talk about old times, mentioning names that maybe ring a bell, and I sing her favorite songs:

“Happy birthday to you; happy birthday to you; happy birthday, dear Mommy; happy birthday to you.”  She must remember that one. Anyway, she still likes chocolate ice cream! So, I’ll bring her a small cup for her birthday, when her dietician isn’t looking.

Mom and Dad, back when....

 

Like I’ve mentioned, I wrote a novel, called “Dad,” based on my emotional, roller-coaster experience of bringing my aging parents on aliyah, at the early and explosive stages of Mom’s Alzheimer’s. The first Pesach they were here was wild! I had already slipped a disc in my back, and my wife was already at her wits end, so we decided to spend Pesach at a hotel to make things easier for her, but I never made it through the Seder. Here’s an excerpt from the novel. You can purchase the book online at: https://www.createspace.com/3593637 or find it at Amazon Books with my other titles. I set the story in New York to give it a more universal appeal, and, of course, any resemblance to real people is purely coincidental, especially regarding the wife in the story, Rivka.

 

EXCERPT FROM THE NOVEL “DAD”

After the pain killer started to work, Joseph was able to roll over and semi-stand up from the bed, bending over like a monkey. It helped when he sat in a chair. But all the time he felt like his spine was a fragile column of dominoes that could topple to the floor at any moment.

Through sheer will power alone, he made it to the Passover Seder. True, his son, Zev had to bring him into the crowded, hotel dining room in a wheelchair, but he made it all the same, neck brace and all. How could he not? Along with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Passover Seder was the highpoint of the year.

The dining hall was packed to overflowing. Families sat around beautifully set tables, laden with bottles of Israeli Concord Wine and stacks of matzah. There was a buzz in the air like before a championship heavyweight prizefight. Kids were running around everywhere. Men wore suits, and women were dressed in their holiday finest. Many of the women wore colorful hats. Rivka was the only one in the room with an Israeli style scarf covering her head. There were some scholarly looking Rabbis, grandfather zaidas and grandmother bubbies, baby carriages and strollers. Joseph’s mother also arrived in a hotel wheelchair, bent over just like her son. Joseph had ordered Zev to give her an extra sedative, to make sure she sat passively throughout the Seder and long evening meal. It broke Joseph’s heart to see his once beautiful mother in such a sorrowful state. He knew he shouldn’t alter the dosages that her psychiatrist prescribed, but not every evening was Passover, and he didn’t have the strength for one of her outbursts in the middle of the celebration.

The guest Rabbi was a well-known educator from Israel. A former American, he had learned at Yeshiva University and served as a popular rabbi in Long Island for almost twenty years before moving his family to Jerusalem. His opening speech was inspiring and funny, but Joseph felt a gnawing pain in his neck and lower back whenever he laughed.

The first part of the Seder was a group experience, with the Rabbi reciting the Kiddush over the first glass of wine, and the head of each family repeating the blessing after him. Since the use of a microphone was forbidden on the Yom Tov holiday, the Rabbi had to shout to be heard over the tumult in the hall. In a booming voice, he began to recite the Haggadah that the Jewish People had been reciting year after year, generation after generation, for over three thousand years, recounting the Exodus from Egypt. It was a cherished mitzvah that every father was commanded to perform, in order to teach the lessons of the Exodus to his children on Passover night, so that the heritage of the Jewish People would never be forgotten. When Joseph was growing up, even though his family was never super religious, they always had a festive Seder, reciting the Passover story out of an illustrated Hebrew and English Haggadah, singing “Dayenu” and other Passover songs, while munching on matzah and maror.

“This year we are here,” the rabbi called out. “Next year in the land of Israel!”

The enthusiastic congregation repeated his words, echoing the age-old wish and longing.

Then it was time for the kids to ask the Four Questions, known as “Mah Nishtanah?” in Hebrew. Joseph’s grandfather had called them “The Fir Kashas,” in Yiddish.

In noisy unison, all of the kids in the dining room yelled out the singsong chant:

“Mah nishtanah halaylah hazeh mikol halaylot?” meaning, “Why is this night different from all other nights?”

“Did I ever tell you the joke about the Jew in England who was knighted by the queen?” Harry Friedman asked his son.

“You must have, Dad,” Joseph said, not wanting to interrupt the Four Questions. As best as he could, he leaned over in the wheelchair to show Moishe what he was supposed to read in the Haggadah, but the five-year old had already learned the passage by heart in Heder. Happily, he screamed out the words with the rest of the jubilant children.

Their thunderous cry echoed through the hall, as if resounding from the mountains of Sinai. The volume of the roar penetrated Lizzy Friedman’s doped slumber, awakening her with a start. Holiday or not, it was still the witching hour on her neurological clock. She looked around startled, surprised by the shouting and the size of the crowd. Disoriented and frightened by the unfamiliar surroundings, she stood up from her wheelchair.

“I want to go home,” she said. “It’s too noisy here.”

Without further ado, she started walking away from their table. Instinctively, Joseph stood up to follow her, but with his very first step, he tripped over the foot- rest of her wheelchair. He felt his vertebrae shift out of place like a pack of playing cards being shuffled through the air. With a suppressed scream, he crashed face down onto the floor. With all of the yelling and noise in the room, it is quite possible that only Rivka heard the thud and her husband’s agonized cry. Zev was the first at his side.

“Go get your grandmother,” Joseph whispered, feeling like his head was about to explode.

Suddenly, everyone noticed the commotion. The children finished singing the last question, and a hush spread over the hall. Within seconds, Joseph was surrounded by at least a dozen Jewish doctors. There were three internists, two dermatologists, a pediatrician, a cardiologist, a surgeon, two gastroenterologists, an ear, nose, and throat man, an anesthesiologist, and a shrink. As his luck would have it, only an orthopedic specialist was missing.

“Stay in your seats, stay in you seats,” the Rabbi repeated, as curious hotel guests rushed forward to see what was happening.

Harry Friedman stood up from his chair. It looked like his son was being well taken care of by an entire medical clinic, so he hurried off after his wife.

“Lizzy!” he called. “Lizzy! It’s Passover. Will you get the hell back in here!”

Rivka told Shimon to follow his grandfather.

“It’s OK. I’m OK,” Joseph said. Slowly, he rose to his feet, like a boxer at the count of nine. His forehead was sweating and a trickle of blood dripped out of his nose. 

Gradually, the crowd of doctors stepped back to give Joseph room to breathe. Danny helped his father back to his wheelchair.

“Where’s Grandma?” he asked.

“Zev went after her,” Danny told him.

“What about you? Are you OK?” Rivka asked.

“I’m fine,” he said. “Where’s my father?”

“Don’t worry,” Rivka assured him. “Shimon’s with him.”

People returned to their tables. The Rabbi took charge once again and told everyone to hold up the matzot.

 “I’ve got to go help them,” Joseph said.

“What about the Seder?” Rivka asked.

“I’ll be right back. In the meantime, the kids can follow along with the Rabbi.”

Joseph navigated the wheelchair away from the table. But he was an inexperienced driver and ended up crashing into a lady sitting across the way.

“Next year in Jerusalem,” Danny said, quoting the last sentence of the Haggadah, as he hurried to grab the handles of the renegade wheelchair. With a tug and a push, he shoved his father in the direction of the lobby. Not wanting to miss out on the action, Avi and Moishe jumped out of their seats to race off after them. Even before the Rabbi reached the parable of the Four Sons, Rivka was all alone at their table with the baby. “Some happy holiday,” she thought.

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To be perfectly frank, I was a little disappointed by the few book purchases that were made in response to my previous blog. We can’t complain that there’s not any good literature with real Jewish value if we don’t support our writers. For instance, while my novel, “Fallen Angel” is too risqué for kids, my other books, “Days of Mashiach,” “The Discman and the Guru,” “Dad,” and “Tevye in the Promised Land,” to be reissued soon, make for great summer reading for teenagers, giving them a break from their computers and whatever poison they’re watching (my new release, “The Mouse Made Me Do It! A Torah Guide to Kosher Surfing,” is recommended reading for that.)

A word to the wise is sufficient.