Written by Jonathan Aryeh Wayne, June 13, 2018 & July 11, 2018
“Talk is cheap” and “actions speak louder than words”, that’s what my father used to say to me. I hadn’t really considered the meaning behind those cliches until just recently, when my dad passed away about a month ago. Has my life been mostly all talk and no action? Here I’m standing in front of you today doing one thing I’ve done so well: Talking. But where is the balance? When we actually do something and create change, we not only challenge ourselves to grow and become stronger, but we gain a lot of respect from our peers, our families, and most importantly, ourselves.
I recently had a once, and I do really mean, once in a lifetime opportunity. It was the opportunity to bury my dad in a foreign country across the Atlantic Ocean. Before I helped fulfill my dad’s final wish in his life, I spent nearly 3 days with him at his bedside at the hospice before and after he died. After those 3 days at the hospice, I bought a ticket to Israel, buried my father, and spent another 3 days there, contemplating life and death with several individuals who I met. I was blown away at one point by a conversation I had with a Russian man named Moshe that my dad was good friends with in his life. He told me that after his dad died, he started to act more and more like him, saying and even doing things that his father had done. I never actually thought of this concept that perhaps a parent’s soul or energy might get transferred or absorbed into their child after they died, kind of like a spiritual reunification. He said the shift wasn’t immediate but that it came on gradually in the weeks and months after his dad passed.
In Judaism, it is a great honor to assist in comforting the soul of a recently deceased person, and that includes spending a week in one’s own house surrounded by friends and loved ones partaking in a ritual called “Shiva”. When a person is buried and that person’s soul is no longer in turmoil, it is said that the spirit comes back to the house where it lived.
Making the most out of one’s life doesn’t seem as vital and meaningful until you watch one of your parents die right before your eyes. It was excruciating having to witness the slow but also rapid deterioration of my dad’s health in his remaining few months after he told us he was stricken with cancer. His cancer was terminal and only discovered by the time it had already spread well beyond his esophagus. I dreaded having to walk into the hospice those last few days and seeing that he no longer was able to swallow food or drink water. It was even worse watching him gasping for air as his lungs were drowning in bodily fluids. The worst though was having to eventually see his mind slowly go, as his brain became more and more starved of oxygen. Yet, even a day before he died, he still recognized his family and friends that gathered around him, and still had some semblance of cognition to convey his feelings through body language despite not being able to vocalize his thoughts. When the nurses finally gave him his knockout punch of morphine and drugs to relax his breathing, he was laid on his side with his mouth partially open while his body remained immobile. The only thing I saw him do was lift his eyebrows every now and then while I talked to him for hours. After holding his hands, I kissed him on his head several times. I never had kissed my dad once in my life before that day from what I recall. I found it strange that my courage to express my masculinity had finally been released at this point now, where my dad lay there in a vegetative state for that final night. Yet, I was told that he probably heard us despite the paralyzing state he was in.
When midnight came around, I stumbled out of the building and wandered home, lost in a hazy, murky cesspool of regret and psychological baggage. I couldn’t sleep too well that night with my labored breathing, as I knew that was the final night I would ever see my dad alive. The next morning I awoke dreading that text from my dad’s nurse, Bob, that he was gone. But when I went to check my phone, I saw no update yet. 15 minutes later after having come out of my bathroom, that text message came and it said that my dad was most likely taking his final breaths. My brother had spent the last day and night in that same room with my dad and was there to witness the actual moment of his death. I felt like I wanted to be there but by the time that first text message and the subsequent one announcing his death arrived in my phone, it all happened in about 10 minutes. I wouldn’t have made it over in time unless I had the technology to use teleportation.
My Uncle and Aunt picked me up a half hour later to go to the hospice. We stopped at a Brueggers Bagel shop along the way because my Uncle needed food to calm his intestinal pain. I walked in, ordered an “Everything” bagel with egg, cheese, 2 slices of tomato and mayonnaise.
“How could I eat at a time like this?”, I thought to myself.
The bagel shop employees wished me a “good day”, but if I had told them that I was on my way to see my dad who had just died minutes ago, I believe they would have responded with the words: “I’m very sorry to hear that.”
When I finally walked into that hospice room, I saw my dad’s body covered in a white sheet with the outline of his torso vaguely familiar. The air conditioner had been set to a chilly 65 degrees and there was a stillness in that room. My brother and another man who was hired by a Rabbi to watch my dad over the Sabbath, were sitting in the room reading psalms from a prayer book. I felt a deep sadness in that moment as I had never seen my dad not breathing before. The men left the room so I could have a moment with my dad, but I didn’t know what to say. I lifted the sheet slowly and uncovered his head and arm and for 5 or 10 seconds I looked at him. His face appeared to have a sense of peace. That was enough for me. I cried quite a bit that day, much like I did the day before as well, because it was mind-boggling to see one of my parents lying there dead. At the same time, I was having an emotional catharsis. I never really had allowed myself to cry in front of anyone before. My brother was there with me and we hugged and talked and sat in that hospice room with my father’s corpse. Bob, the nurse, consoled us, and several other religious men the previous day had helped ease the transition for us.
For Orthodox Jewish people, it is forbidden until nightfall to move or touch a body in any way if the death occurs over the Sabbath day. I sat there with my brother from early afternoon until 10 o’clock at night when Rabbi Wasserman finally wheeled in a gurney and removed the body from the room with his helper. I was the last person there at that point and I was told that I should gather any of my dad’s remaining personal belongings. I put his slippers in a plastic bag, I opened a drawer and took out the phylacteries and prayer shawl in a bag he had used to pray with, I retrieved his pajamas that he never got around to wearing, I took his cellphone, and finally his eyeglasses, that he’d never wear on his face again. That was especially hard. His glasses! He used them to see through, to read papers and people, to save and heal, to pray and ponder. I put them on my face for a moment. The last thing I did was place a pink rose that was in his room the last few days on that now empty bed that he had been lying on all that time. Such a pity. I had taken that single rose and put it up to my dad’s nose two days prior so he could smell it. I took one last photograph of the room before I left. In the days leading up to his passing, I had obsessively shot a number of pictures and audio recordings of my dad. It wasn’t enough, it would never be enough, there was always more I would have wanted.
Not more than an hour or so later, Rabbi Wasserman notified numerous rabbis and synagogue members that a makeshift memorial would take place at Shaare Torah synagogue in Squirrel Hill. I quickly called a number of close friends of my dad’s and invited them to attend. At around 11:45 PM, after arriving there with my mother and brother, we took each one of her arms and walked up to the entrance, where my sister was waiting for us. A modest plywood coffin holding my dad’s body was wheeled out of an adjacent building and accompanied us into the synagogue’s banquet hall. When we entered the hall, there might have been over one hundred and fifty people already there. We sat in the first row of chairs and several rabbis talked before my brother and I spoke for several minutes.
I had no speech prepared and no words to embellish the tragedy of the moment. I spoke from my heart, I delivered a humanistic perspective of my father, and told the crowd that he was a kind, compassionate, funny, reasonable, loving man. He was a deeply religious man too, and had ideals and love for the Torah, yiddishkeit, emunah, betachin, emes, and nachas all wrapped in one. What I didn’t say in those few minutes was that I had always assumed that my dad and I didn’t have a good understanding of one another. Days later in Israel, Moshe the Russian man corrected me that my dad achieved a lot of clarification with using very few words. My dad wasn’t a man who would talk about details or about trivialities or anecdotal curiosities. He said little but accomplished much in “doing”. He took a lot of words and made them succinct, whittling them down into lines or single sentences, or in other words getting right to the point. Moshe said: “He realized the importance of putting deep ideas into very concrete terms.”
His friends in Israel reminded me that when my father decided to follow his idealism, he bought an actual house in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank of all places. Did it matter that my dad’s idealism may have been flawed or biased towards Jews or that he became part of a radical right wing political movement led by the controversial Rabbi Meir Kahane in the 1980s? Regardless of my dad’s beliefs, he followed through with action, and not just talk. His friend Lenny, a Jewish settler, who became one of my dad’s closest friends in Israel, said that at the time there was nothing there but a barren wasteland of sand and dust, yet my dad wanted to own real estate in Israel. Today, this settlement of a handful of people has grown into a thriving town of thousands. Perhaps my dad was ahead of his time and saw a real investment before many others did. Moshe stated:
“Your father was dedicated and determined to own a house… and he felt Israel was a very important idea for him. He wasn’t the kind of guy who would get up on a podium and wave his hands and talk about Zionism. It was deeper than that… he just went and he did it and put his money where his mouth was.”
It will always baffle me that his unconditional love for his fellow Jews made me see his view as a double standard. As a Universalist, I didn’t agree with much of my father’s political views towards Israel and how he viewed the situation between the Israelis and Palestinians. When I asked my dad recently why he never wanted to travel to other countries or explore the world, he said that he had found the one place on Earth that mattered most, and that was Israel.
Later that night after the memorial ended as quickly as it had begun, I rushed to find an airline ticket to Israel to accompany my dad’s body to the funeral. I had less than 12 hours until my flight was supposed to leave and I had never in my life bought a ticket on such short notice. My younger brother Aaron was intending to join me for this trip as well, as otherwise we wouldn’t be able to live with ourselves had we chosen not to go. My mother was too exhausted and my sister stayed behind to watch over her. My brother and I were never really that close and we had never taken a trip together ever before. What an amazing bonding opportunity we were about to experience!
The next day we boarded the plane to JFK airport in NYC, waited several hours and then took the 11 hour El Al flight to Tel Aviv around 6 PM. My dad’s body was down below in the cargo hold as we sat in coach class, soaring up to 35,000 feet in altitude. How weird. I felt like telling people sitting near me on the airplane that our dad had joined us for the trip and was down below in cargo, and that we were taking him with us so he could be buried in Israel. It was probably the most uncomfortable plane ride of my life. All around me were young people excited to be visiting Israel maybe for the first time on their “Birthright” trip, and here we were sitting with our deceased father in another part of the airplane and that we were heading there to bury him. With all of the countless trips I took with my dad to Israel in the past, I never thought our final trip to Israel would be with him lying in a coffin.
When our plane finally landed at the airport near Tel Aviv, exhaustion of the past sleepless nights caught up to me. I knew I wasn’t going to get much of any sleep or relaxation on this brief trip. It was a sacrifice I was willing to make so I could honor my father. I ultimately discovered that I also had gained a great deal of newfound respect from various people as well. I realized now that in order to be respected and admired, you have to go out and do things, and take real action. That’s probably what my dad wanted to see me do the most, to get off my lazy fat ass and find meaningful work, to stop killing time sitting at coffeehouses and pontificating about the universe, to utilize my full potential and take my creative talents and make money and have a family. Suddenly now I’m starting to see the clarity in his reasoning. What good is a man if he doesn’t make something of himself. To go out into the world and make things happen is the true meaning of accomplishment; and it doesn’t have to be me setting the world on fire, as my friend Ovadiah in Israel wisely told me.
My brother Aaron and I disembarked from the 747 airplane carrying 400 people (plus my dad), and we made our way out of Ben Gurion airport, before we got ourselves a taxi to the cemetery in the town of Beit Shemesh. It was a 25 minute cab ride and it cost 340 shekels (which is about $120), but money wasn’t a factor when you’re racing to accomplish a great deed. When we arrived at the funeral home in the cemetery, two Haredi (or Ultra Orthodox) Jewish men were sitting in the office on this hot sunny day. My brother and I quickly changed out of our clothes. We also hired a videographer at the last minute to document the proceedings. As I changed in one of the air-conditioned back rooms, I heard a vehicle drive up. I opened one of the little narrow windows and saw a van. I had a feeling it was my dad. A little bit later, I walked out of the room and in another adjacent room I saw my dad’s body wrapped tightly in a white sheet along with his prayer shawl. Rabbi Potash, one of my dad’s closest friends in Israel, arrived shortly thereafter with nearly 20 other Haredi Jews. A small portion of my shirt underneath my front right collar was cut with a knife and I was told to tear off a 4 inch strip (I learned it was called “Kriah”), and I was advised to wear the shirt every day for the next 7 days to show people I was in mourning. After Rabbi Potash spoke eloquently about my father, I spoke for about 8 minutes and my brother spoke for even longer.
We walked outside and into the sweltering sunshine ahead of the funeral procession consisting of about 25 men. There was not a single woman in sight, save for an old aquaintance named Meirah who I contacted that lived in Beit Shemesh (but she didn’t walk with the procession). The next 20 or 30 minutes were surreal as could be. These Ultra Orthodox Haredi men who I never met before, performed a deeply religious ceremony consisting of prayer, circling the grave, digging the earth and filling the 5 foot hole. I chanted a prayer called the Kaddish numerous times. Towards the end, my brother and I walked together hand in hand with one final march before the men stood in two rows facing us on both sides. It was a patriarchal system of the highest order and reminded me of an episode in Star Trek: The Next Generation, when a group of male Klingon aliens provided honor for Worf by having him walk down a line as he was zapped with painstiks. The ritual known as the “Rite of Ascension” was about being able to endure intense pain while expressing one’s true feelings in the process of becoming a warrior.
Worf said out loud: “Today I am a warrior. I must show you my heart. I travel the river of blood…”.
The intense pain of losing a parent may not have made a warrior out of me just yet, but as I gazed out into the golden hills full of trees overlooking Jerusalem, I felt the sense that the next chapter of my life was about to begin. My emotions were laid bare to the world, my pain was brought to the surface, and my life just got a little thicker much like the skin I’m covered in.