Are you comfortable?
A reasonable question to ask of my 85-year-old father for whom so much has become difficult: hearing, seeing, walking, breathing.
But he’s the one who likes to do the asking, a set-up for a punchline that he’s trained his children, grandchildren, aides, friends and even his rabbi to deliver, with a shrug: Eh, I make a living.
The other day he and Rabbi Dan spent more than half an hour together in the furniture-packed living room of my dad’s apartment. Afterwards, the rabbi told me my father instructed him to practice the joke he wants told at his funeral, with specific directions that the punchline be shouted from the pews by those of us in the know.
Yes, at his funeral. Which, the doctors say, could be days, weeks or a very few months away. The other day my father learned he has a malignant tumor that he decided not to treat. Don’t worry, he said, cancer won’t kill me. Not being able to breathe will.
My father likes to point bit by bit from head to hip, reciting which parts are gone, dead or dying. He outlived his wife, and he’s lived with diabetes, kidney disease, two bypass surgeries, the addition of a pig’s heart valve, macular degeneration, hearing loss, the replacement of a hip and now, cancer. When he tips forward in his medical recliner and suddenly zonks out, we think, today’s the day. Then he gets a second wind in time to catch the Off-Track Betting station’s replay from Belmont. Give me my sheet, he demands, checking to see how well he fared following favorite trainer Linda Rice.
My father had a premature wake of sorts four years ago when the doctors promised he was a goner. Turned out, as the rabbi explained, God wasn’t ready for him and, as my brother assured him, neither was my mother, may she rest in peace. Nonetheless, after being told death is imminent, accepting the end and saying all his goodbyes, it took a while to come to grips with still being around.
This time is different.
And so, Rabbi Dan needs to practice.
The short version: A man is hit by a car and knocked to the ground, horribly injured. Waiting for the ambulance, a police officer takes off his jacket and places it beneath the man’s head. The officer asks the man, “Are you comfortable?” The man shrugs (cue dad’s loved ones): “Eh, I make a living.”
A loving family, which has grown to include his aides, and the occasional exacta bring happiness, but living has become just too hard. Any day could be the one both expected and dreaded. He wants to go, understandably, like my mother: alive in the recliner one moment, gone the next. Regrettable because we didn’t get to say goodbye, but enviable for an apparently quick and painless parting.
I don’t want to lose my father, but for now my hope each day is an affirmative answer to only one question: Dad, are you comfortable?