When I walked into Dad’s room at the nursing home, he was writhing in agony and moaning. He had succeeded in getting his hospital gown off, and was working on the rest of his attire–his diaper–and had the bedclothes tightly twisted around his legs so they stuck out at an unnatural angle.
I threw off my backpack and ran to him.
“Hi Dad, what’s wrong?” I unravelled the sheets and put his top back on him. He grabbed my hand and smiled, kissed my hand over and over, then a pain struck him and he rolled from side to side, moaning.
“Where does it hurt, Dad?”
He managed to get his good hand up to his head.
“You have a headache?”
Nods. He has a hell of a concussion after his horrid fall a month or so ago. I can relate, having had several bad concussions. They give you a headache for a long time.
“OK, let me get the nurse to give you some Tylenol (Acetaminophen, Acamol, Paracetamol, etc.). That will help your headache.
He looked at me skeptically, but assented with his eyes.
Since his last fall, Dad, who had been having difficulty speaking after a number of small strokes in the speech area of the brain, is now “locked in.” He can understand a lot of what is said around him, but he is unable to produce meaningful speech. It’s a horrible state to be in.
The nurse was very busy passing pre-dinner meds, but she knows my dad, and if he says he is in pain, he is. She crushed up the tablets in applesauce and I fed it to him. It tasted vile, and he gagged on it. At least I was able to get some water into him, in the form of big mouthfuls to wash the taste of the nasty medicine out of his mouth.
The Tylenol did take his headache away, but it didn’t fix whatever was causing him to writhe and groan.
I called his nurse, and we made the joint decision to give him his morphine, which he has on order every 4 hours if needed, and it was clearly needed.
Thankfully, the morphine was just a few drops from a tiny syringe. It seemed to help for half an hour or so, then the writhing and groaning began again.
I searched my mind and looked at the picture with soft vision. I saw it. He had to go to the bathroom!
I asked him. “Maybe,” he says.
I called the Nurse Assistants, and the put him on the commode. I stepped out for modesty’s sake. Jewish children are forbidden to look upon their parents’ nudity, as we learn very early in the Torah where Noah gets drunk and takes off all his clothes. One of his sons looks into his father’s tent, sees him lying there drunk and naked, and laughing, tells his two brothers. The brothers get a blanket and, throwing it over their shoulders, back into their father’s tent and, not looking at him, drop the blanket on top of him, to cover his nakedness. So I do not stay in the room whenever the nurses are doing anything that normally we consider private.
Now that we have opened the Jewish Thing, I want to talk about a concept that has been Jewish and Vedic and I don’t know what else, for 5,000 years more or less, that has recently been backed up by medical specialists in the art of assisting dying people. Yes, there are such physicians. They minister to hospice patients, for the most part.
The Jewish tradition, backed up by medical observation, is that there are two roads to death: the High Road, or easy death, like people who simply up and die in their sleep, just go to bed like normal and don’t wake up. We call that “mavet be’neshikah,” or death by a kiss. Whose kiss? The kiss of the Master of the Universe, who says, “it’s time to come home now,” and that’s that. Aharon ha’Kohen and Moshe Rabbeinu both went that way. I pray that all of us go that way.
People who die like that have finished their soul’s purpose on Earth and will not reincarnate, usually, unless it is into a body that just needs a bit of touch-up. These are the babies who die very young, or in the womb after 4 months gestation.
Death on the low road is another thing entirely. It is a slow and painful death, one that makes the sufferer long for the relief of suffering that death brings. It seems as if the soul is having a struggle with the Malach ha’mavet–the Angel of Death. They beat themselves up dying, like a moth beats itself to death on a lightbulb. It’s not that they don’t want to die, although some of them struggled against Death out of fear of what awaits them on the Other Side.
My father is one of these. He is a World War II Veteran, and saw and did some horrific things. He is terrified that he will be held accountable for these actions, which he deeply regrets and spends each night living them over (he has classic PTSD), such that sometimes my mother would have to go sleep in the guest room in order to avoid being a partner in hand-to-hand combat.
The unfortunates who get Death on the Low Road suffer and suffer, and experience all of the unpleasantness and pain of slow death, even to the end, where they have the agonies of air hunger, hallucinations, thick secretions, and even seizures.
What does this mean?
In the Jewish mystical tradition, Death by the Low Road means that the apparently unfortunate sufferer is actually engaged in a process that completes and cleanses the soul from the difficult life it’s been through, and the suffering atones for misdeeds done in life, even if they had a good outcome.
For instance, my father once walked up a small hillock that happened to be on the battlefield of Alsace-Lorraine, and on reaching the top, found himself looking straight into the eyes of a German SS soldier. For a brief moment, the two teenagers looked into each other’s eyes and saw…themselves. They saw normal young men who liked to drink beer and chase skirts. In other circumstances, they might have been buddies. Then the German pulled his duty pistol, and my father ran him through with his bayonet before the other teenager could fire a shot.
To this day my father regrets that action. He really, really regrets it. And by taking the Low Road out, that necessary transgression will be cleansed and forgiven, so that his next incarnation will not be dealt with as that soldier was dealt. We are held accountable for our deeds, for better or worse, and the blemishes in our pure original souls that these deeds cause must be repaired in one way or another. This kind of Death is one way of doing it, and in the end it is a much more pleasant way of repairing one’s Godly soul.
But we can’t know. Take me, for instance. I did some pretty unsavory things as a young person, and even as an older person. None of these were intentional or premeditated, and most of it was due to my undiagnosed, untreated Bipolar Disorder. Yet according to our tradition, these blemishes must be cleansed in some way.
With the Days of Awe, from Rosh ha’Shanah (the Jewish New Year, the Day of Judgement) through Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement, almost upon us, I am trying to make a Heshbon Nefesh, a close examination of my character and deeds, so that I may, through the Days of Awe repent of my misdeeds, whether intentional, whether accidental, whether hidden or revealed, please my G-d look into my heart and find it clean.
And please, please, Master of the Universe, grant me a judgement for a Death on the High Road, b’neshikah.
As it turned out, Dad’s pain was indeed caused by stomach cramps. After relieving his intestines of their burden, he fell into an exhausted sleep.
I took my leave then, fiercely warning all of his nursing staff NOT to wake him for vital signs or anything else until the next time they had to turn him in the bed, another two hours. Whether they did that is anyone’s guess, because Dad can’t tell me. God help us all.