Giving the Gift of Dignity for Father’s Day

Giving the Gift of Dignity for Father’s Day

On Jerusalem Day, a festive holiday in Israel, I celebrated my father’s yahrzeit.  I went to synagogue and said Kaddish here in New York.  I celebrate my father’s life on the day commemorating his death by remembering all the reasons I have to honor my father.

The fifth commandment in the Decalogue in Exodus and Deuteronomy enjoins us to honor our parents.  It is the only commandment that has a reward attached to it. Honor your parents “so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.”  Leviticus famously switches the parental order when discussing our obligation to fear our parents.  “You shall fear your mother and your father”.

The Talmud attempts to define “honor” as feeding, clothing, and helping them get around, using
the term “kavod habriot,” which can be understood as human dignity.
Our relationship to our parents is further analogized in the Bible and the Talmud to our relationship to God.
Our understanding of a powerful and loving presence, much greater than our childlike selves, begins with our relationship with our parents.  It then expands to our adult ability to feel the presence of an all-powerful, and yet loving, God.

As we become adults and parents ourselves, we become aware of our parents’ frailties and faults and, if we can, try to be worthy of our children’s honor and respect.  It seems implicit in the Bible that the commandment works both ways:  A child should work at being respectful, and the parents should work at being worthy of that respect.

Perhaps because he honored his parents, my father received the reward of a long life and the bonus of the additional wording in Deuteronomy:  “So that it may go well with you”.
My father had what can be described as a beautiful death.  He died at home, at peace, after saying his goodbyes, at 93.

What’s wrong with this picture that seems so positive?
Well, it was positive in many ways.  But, that may have been because we dodged a bullet.
After ten years of working in hospice care, I have a keen sense of what could have gone wrong.
Despite my attempts and all my experience with end of life planning…
Despite my experience watching other families fail to have the conversation about powers of attorney, health care proxy, living will…
Despite my experience watching horrible endings… senseless, painful resuscitation, and agonizing vegetative states…

We had no plan in place.
My father was a man of science, a dentist and oral surgeon for over 50 years.  He was a true Renaissance man, well versed in the arts, literature and Jewish texts.
My father was a meticulous planner.  He would never go on a trip without a detailed map.  His suitcase was always packed with every imaginable necessity.

But my father refused to have “that conversation.”  He wouldn’t engage and dismissed all my attempts to discuss advanced directives.
We were lucky.  But luck is not a good plan.

On this Father’s Day, may we all celebrate the living by planning for that last chapter.  Give the gift of dignity to living parents and give the gift of a well- planned last chapter to our children.

by Miryam Rabner, MJHS Hospice and Palliative Care Outreach and Facility Coordinator

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