June 13, 2002
"Rabbi, do you make house calls?" the man named Mike 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, and he can't get out any more. Please?"
The address was on a winding, urban, L.A. canyon road. I knocked, and Mike let me in.
"Dad, the rabbi is here to talk to you," he said loudly over his shoulder.
Mike looked much older than when I last saw him. I'd done his wedding some five years before. Now, he was gray and balding. He was tired. When I found his dad, Bud, on the couch I knew why.
Bud was in the last stages of lung cancer. He lay on the couch in his gray sweat pants and undershirt, a leak-proof pad and a round, foam cushion beneath him. He had no idea who I was or why I was there.
He wasn't in pain, but every gesture, every syllable and word took more strength than he had to spare. I wanted to help. So in my most compassionate rabbi's voice I said, "Bud, I'm the rabbi. I know you wanted to see me. How can I help?"
Bud slowly rotated his head in my direction, locked in on me with his huge, brown eyes and whispered, "I have to take a crap."
You want to talk theology, you want to pray, you want to plan your funeral -- I'm game. You want me to change your adult diaper -- I'm out. I went to find Mike. "Uh, I think he has to go to the bathroom," I said timidly.
Mike sighed and headed toward the living room. "OK dad," Mike said facing his father on the couch and bending over. "Put your arm around my neck. Come on, don't let go dad."
With help, Bud managed to put both of his stick-like arms around Mike's neck and lace his fingers together.
"One, two, three -- up we go." There they stood, the two men, face to face, Bud slumped against Mike, his arms still locked in place behind his son's neck. Mike kept his arms around Bud's waist. It was a dance -- the most tender dance I have ever seen.
"That's it dad," Mike encouraged, as he slowly rocked from side to side. With each gentle shifting Bud shuffled a foot, still draped over Mike with all his waning strength. Ever so gently, side to side, side to side, Mike inched them toward the bedroom where Bud could lay down and have his diaper changed.
"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 rhythm only they could feel.
Bud died a week later.
When I met with Mike to learn more about his dad before the funeral, I learned why he'd taken him in. Bud was broke. His first wife threw him out for blowing all their money on scams. His second wife threw him out for the same thing. You name it and Bud could sell it -- vibrating beds, shoes, oil well investments. Bud always knew that wealth and power were just around the next corner. All he had to do was mortgage the house to get there. But the deal was always a con, and Bud was always the chump. In the end, Mike was all Bud had.
Mike was Bud's only child. They shared the same birthday. They shared the same apartment and later the same house. When Mike was young, Bud used to come home late from work some nights, wake him up, bounce him in his bed, toss him in the air then, "one, two, three -- up we go," on to the kitchen counter, feeling 10 feet tall, to dip graham crackers in cold milk. Sometimes, Bud gave Mike a bath. By the time I met him, Mike had to clean up Bud's messes. There was a fearful symmetry to it all.
Bud's wives left him. His friends turned out to be crooks. Mike's wife wanted Bud in a home. But Mike just hung in there with his dad. I understand.
I think back to my dad coming home late at night, lifting me in my footsie pajamas onto his shiny black wingtips. Walking me in giant steps across the kitchen floor. We're all locked together, we fathers and sons -- our little boy feet on their grown man shoes; until some day we hold their weary bodies and fading lives gently in our arms.