This piece is part of an ongo­ing series that we are shar­ing from Israeli authors and authors in Israel.

It is crit­i­cal to under­stand his­to­ry not just through the books that will be writ­ten lat­er, but also through the first-hand tes­ti­monies and real-time account­ing of events as they occur. At Jew­ish Book Coun­cil, we under­stand the val­ue of these writ­ten tes­ti­mo­ni­als and of shar­ing these indi­vid­ual expe­ri­ences. It’s more impor­tant now than ever to give space to these voic­es and narratives.

It’s not your job to take that into account,” I told Yael as she cried. 

Does that make me a bad per­son? You prob­a­bly think I’m a bad per­son,” she said through her tears. But if they release him for the wed­ding, I just won’t let him go back. I won’t.” 

Yael, of course I don’t think that you’re a bad per­son. That’s the most nat­ur­al thing in the world,” I said. And I meant it. 

But I also thought – and chose not to say – that we can’t have a coun­try, we can’t have an army, if a spouse can decide: I love my spouse too much to let him go to war. If a par­ent declares: I love my child too much to send him into combat. 

Her plans had been rent asun­der. I get it. Decid­ing on a dress, doing fit­tings; find­ing the right locale for an out­door wed­ding; music, flow­ers, trim­ming the invite list, food, favors, divvy­ing up hon­ors. Octo­ber 15 was sup­posed to be a mag­i­cal day for her and Harel, but before it came Octo­ber 7

And now it was Octo­ber 9, and I was strand­ed in Hous­ton, Texas, where I came to be with my dying father. Bruria was on the home front, jug­gling the urgent mat­ters that cropped up, some­times involv­ing a wash­ing machine, oth­er times run­ning with the chil­dren to the safe room, and at oth­er times – pre­sum­ably the most try­ing – long, late-night attempts to help Yael sort through her emo­tion­al over­whelm. And here I was stuck try­ing to help Yael by phone. From Hous­ton, where CNN blared in the back­ground while I moved end­less­ly between Israeli news sources, my feed, and YouTube videos. Way too many YouTube videos. 

It’s your job as his fiancée or wife to say, I don’t want you to go.’ And you can make your best case – to him, to his com­mand­ing offi­cer – as to why he should be able to stay home after the wed­ding and not return to the army. And then it’s the job of his com­mand­ing offi­cer to do the inte­gra­tion: to hear you as Harel’s fresh­ly-mint­ed spouse; to hear Harel, who might say some­thing slight­ly dif­fer­ent from you; to hear anoth­er sol­dier who has five chil­dren at home; and still anoth­er one who has finan­cial hard­ships; and to get direc­tives from his com­mand­ing offi­cers regard­ing the mis­sion, how many sol­diers he needs for the job – and then to decide. He has his job, you have yours.”

I uttered these words against a back­drop of a more gen­er­al feel­ing that I have walked around with for twen­ty-five years into my role as a par­ent: that I’m gross­ly ill-pre­pared for the task. That I’m just going along, writ­ing a makeshift hand­book that I should have received before I got into these com­pli­ca­tions. But nev­er have I felt this so acute­ly – the urgency of the task, my total unfa­mil­iar­i­ty with the ter­ri­to­ry, and the prodi­gious costs of mis­step – as I did in that con­ver­sa­tion on Octo­ber 9 with Yael, and in some of the oth­ers that tagged along it. 

Octo­ber 10. I think that the ques­tion you should ask your­self is: if God for­bid some­thing should hap­pen to Harel, do I want to have con­sum­mat­ed the rela­tion­ship by mar­ry­ing him? But keep in mind the flip­side: if some­thing should hap­pen to him, you’re then a wid­ow, with all that that entails.”

Octo­ber 11. Should I men­tion to her this ad that I saw on Face­book, or is she already so stressed that doing so will push her over the edge? I fear that not men­tion­ing it is neglect­ing my duties as a father. I think you need to think about sign­ing a halakhic prenup so that if, God for­bid, some­thing should hap­pen to him and they can’t find him, you’re not stuck wait­ing or plead­ing your case to be con­sid­ered a wid­ow rather than an agu­nah.”

Octo­ber 10. I don’t want to pres­sure her, but I also want her to think about this and under­stand how del­i­cate his sit­u­a­tion is. It’s not that it’s about Dad or his atten­dance, but that’s where we’re hold­ing, and it might make a dif­fer­ence (to him, to Mom, to her, to me) that he was able to watch it. Since the whole wed­ding is being re-invent­ed as a fam­i­ly-only affair in Harel’s par­ents’ gar­den, then maybe you want to con­sid­er mov­ing it up to Thurs­day? Saba is in his final days, and mov­ing it up by three days might mean the dif­fer­ence between his see­ing it and not.”

Octo­ber 10. Abba, I’m not going to get mar­ried if you’re not here,” she said. Well that’s not an issue. You don’t have to decide right now. Even though Saba Melvin’s not eat­ing a thing, he’s con­tin­u­ing to hang on, and the nurse from home hos­pice says it could go on like this for days and maybe even anoth­er week or two. I came to help take care of him in his final days because we thought that’s where we were. If my flights didn’t keep get­ting can­celed, I would have been back home yes­ter­day. I’ll come home so that if you and Harel decide to get mar­ried, you can do so. I don’t feel like stay­ing here just to wait for him to die.”

I got up from the desk in the play­room, walked into the den, and sat in the soft sofa chair that had become my cen­ter point where I would rock back and forth for a few min­utes before shift­ing hori­zons of vision. I reen­tered the emo­tion­al stratos­phere of my par­ents’ sub­ur­ban Hous­ton home. 

Before I can get up, I do a sur­vey of how to pri­or­i­tize the time that I have left here– with­out real­ly know­ing how much time I have left here, since I can’t find an El Al flight back. 

What’s crowd­ing me out of my own space, I think, isn’t the inten­si­ty of any of the emo­tions or demands. It’s their simul­tane­ity. I thrive on down time, the moments in between: some­times carved out inten­tion­al­ly, some­times spon­ta­neous, when the crowd­ed spaces of my inter­nal ter­rain expand like a sponge that has been released from a tight grip. I don’t have any lim­i­nal areas right now. Urgent, intense demands flow at me con­stant­ly, expect­ing mind­less clar­i­ty and my full pres­ence, offer­ing me no time to antic­i­pate, cal­cu­late, or process. 

What would it mean for me to take what I said to Yael and apply it to myself? To forcibly insert paus­es into these tran­si­tion moments, to parse my life right now into bite-size morsels of roles that I have to play? 

Mom’s son. I need to be with Mom. She’s wan­der­ing around the house from room to room, mind­less­ly mean­der­ing between tasks that she keeps repeat­ing. I need to get her out for a walk. I need to help her give more air­time to that voice inside her that knows that she needs to let go, that the end is here, that doing so is an act of ten­der­ness and love – for Dad and for her­self. I need to let her acknowl­edge and accept that she won’t be able to be at Yael’s wedding.

Steven’s broth­er. I need to give him a break. He’s gone into full-time-care­giv­er mode. Order­ing med­ical equip­ment, brief­ing the new care­tak­ers when they come for their shift, coor­di­nat­ing med­ical vis­its, prod­ding Dad to eat some­thing, try­ing to sneak orange juice into his crushed ice that we put in his mouth to relieve him of his thirst. The list is end­less and exhaust­ing. He sleeps with a baby mon­i­tor and keeps one near the ellip­ti­cal! He needs to go for a long bike ride. He needs to go through some emo­tion­al decom­pres­sor, but that’s way beyond my skill set.

Mark’s broth­er. I need to some­how relieve him of the emo­tion­al bur­den he is car­ry­ing. It seems to me that he’s kind of a light­ning rod for all of the emo­tion­al ener­gy float­ing in the Hed­wig Lane ether, and there’s a lot of it, most of which is unac­knowl­edged, an unseen and unex­plored pri­mor­dial dark. So that beyond nego­ti­at­ing his own feel­ings as Dad’s life draws to a close, his atten­tive­ness to Mom and to Dad, each sep­a­rate­ly, is enveloped in an inten­si­ty of pres­ence that strikes me as exhaust­ing to him as it is nour­ish­ing to them. . 

Broth­er and son. When I par­tic­i­pat­ed in our broth­er­ly zoom from our sukkah in Jerusalem (was that less than a week ago? It was sure­ly months ago) to dis­cuss what to do about Dad’s not eat­ing, I was a bit mut­ed in voic­ing my feel­ing that his body is sim­ply shut­ting down; that he’s fin­ish­ing his life, even if his razor-sharp mind is still work­ing. When we meet tomor­row to dis­cuss whether to move to home hos­pice care, I need to speak with that rab­binic voice – not cringe that it’s unsci­en­tif­ic or intu­itive, and not hes­i­tate to draw upon my expe­ri­ence with col­leagues who spe­cial­ize in end-of-life pas­toral care. 

Dad’s son. I need to be there for and with Dad. I want to do my part in the com­pli­cat­ed process of replac­ing the ban­dage on his back wound that is so deep that I sim­ply can’t look at it for more than a nano-sec­ond. I want to help move him in bed. To place crushed ice in his mouth. To suc­tion out his sali­va. To clean his with­ered body in the most inti­mate of areas. To sit next to him. I need to have a final con­ver­sa­tion with him before I head back. 

Direc­tor of the Beit Midrash of Kolot. I can’t just dis­ap­pear. Shoshana, our COO, is now liv­ing with her hus­band and four chil­dren at some hotel in the Dead Sea. After our team check-in on Zoom Tues­day morn­ing, when I pushed myself into say­ing some­thing despite how dis­con­nect­ed and dif­fi­cult as it felt to me to do in my cir­cum­stances and from Hous­ton, Tzu­rit texted me thanks for my words, adding that she had been wait­ing to hear what I had to say. I can’t just disappear.

Me. I know I need to do some­thing. Now that read­ing arti­cles, scrolling, and view­ing videos about the war have total­ly sub­ju­gat­ed me, the only space I can carve out for myself is my swimming. 

It’s Tues­day, Octo­ber 10, my final day in Hous­ton, and I need to plan what I want to say to Dad. I’ll do it dur­ing my swim. Nor­mal­ly the first ten min­utes of my swim is a kind of cere­bral bath, a free-for-all between my thoughts as they trav­el in every pos­si­ble direc­tion, sur­fac­ing at their own will and pace. This time, the hap­haz­ard ten min­utes expands to all thir­ty, the only dif­fer­ence being that the thoughts are all direct­ed to Dad, our rela­tion­ship, and what I want to say in my last words to him. I emerge from the pool with some points of entry, but the fog is still quite thick.

Yael’s are not the only plans that go awry. Clean­ing him took us way longer than we want­ed, and now the hos­pice nurse is here for the intake. She has lots of ques­tions for him – and he wants to know how to spell her name, and how to pro­nounce it. I go and fin­ish my pack­ing, and sud­den­ly it’s 11:45 a.m., and I’m being picked up by Arman­do at 12:00 p.m.

I lie down next to him, tak­ing his hand. I begin to cry. Dad, this is prob­a­bly the last time I’ll be able to say things to you when you’re alive, so there are things I want to say to you, to thank you for.” 

OK, Leon hon­ey.” He turns his head towards me, his two hands, with their soft skin, hold­ing mine. Beyond the touch itself and the feel of his hand, I look at our inter­locked hands and the visu­al image is so pow­er­ful. From my pros­trate posi­tion, I decide to take a picture.

You’ve been my great­est teacher, Dad.” I’m cry­ing by now. You’ve taught me so many things. You’ve taught me excel­lence, and you’ve taught me hard work, and you’ve taught me devo­tion, and you’ve taught me humil­i­ty, and you’ve taught me what it is to be com­mit­ted to com­mu­ni­ty, and to the Jew­ish peo­ple, and to Israel, and what it is to be curi­ous, and to be devot­ed to end­less learn­ing. And in your rela­tion­ship with Mom – we always joked about how intol­er­ant you were towards her dif­fer­ent way of doing things, but you always loved her so much and in this way that you loved that she did things that you didn’t. You real­ly mod­eled for me what it is to accept and love a per­son who’s dif­fer­ent from you.”

I want to thank you, Leon hon­ey. I’ve learned so much from you – about liv­ing accord­ing to your prin­ci­ples. Mov­ing to Israel, rais­ing your fam­i­ly there, build­ing a pro­fes­sion there – ”

In all of those things I was your stu­dent, Dad.”

Pho­to cour­tesy of the author

The views and opin­ions expressed above are those of the author, based on their obser­va­tions and experiences.

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Leon Wiener Dow directs the Beit Midrash at Kolot and is the cre­ator and host of the pod­cast Pod Drash. He received semi­cha from R’ David Hartmanז״ל and his doc­tor­ate from Bar Ilan Uni­ver­si­ty. His most recent book, The Going: A Med­i­ta­tion on Jew­ish Law won a 2018 Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award, and his Your Walk­ing on the Way [Hebrew] was pub­lished by Bar Ilan Uni­ver­si­ty Press. Leon and his wife are par­ents of five chil­dren, and they live in Jerusalem.