Should i rat my father out for ignoring doctor's orders
IF YOU FLIPPED open the dictionary for a definition of the word “stubborn,” chances are good you’d find a picture of my father. He’s the epitome of that old European sensibility, an unshakable adherence to tradition, and the ability to stick to a decision like superglue. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. My father’s stubborn streak is what saved him in the camps. As he tells it, “I walked through those wretched gates and saw the people wandering around like ghosts, and I said to myself, ‘I will not die here.’” He survived two bouts of dysentery and unimaginable hunger by muttering pages of Talmud he’d memorized in cheder to himself; some of the men in his barracks thought he was crazy, but he didn’t care. When the Americans finally came, my father refused to accept their offer of food until he knew it was kosher. But despite his hard head, my father is undeniably charming. He’s always turned out in his best, always proper, sipping tea through a sugar cube like he’s in a Viennese tea room. I remember him holding court at our Shabbos table, divrei Torah flowing from him, remembering every guest’s name and the little details they shared about themselves months later. He loved a good joke; his laughter would echo through the house in appreciation of a punchline. His presence filled a room, broad and powerful, even though he wasn’t much taller than I was at 15. That might be why we knew better than to argue with him—he was strong, determined, and his word was law.
Last year, around this time, he was not doing so well. He went into the hospital for a procedure about a month before Tishah B’Av, but the recovery had been slow. There was complication after complication, and his doctor, Dr. Mandelbaum told us that he would have to stay through Tishah B’Av. And that, under no circumstances, was my father allowed to fast. When the doctor said that, I pressed my lips together and waited for the fireworks. “I haven’t missed a fast in 89 years,” my father said, squaring his shoulders under the flimsy white hospital gown. “Not even in the camps. I’m not going to miss one now.” “I understand how you feel,” said the doctor. “But this is a question of pikuach nefesh. If you don’t eat, you’re putting your life at risk.”My father gave a dismissive wave of his hand. “I’ll be fine.” “No, Mr. Nedermeyer, you won’t,” the doctor replied. “Your body isn’t strong enough right now to go without food. I know it’s not the ideal situation, but you have a couple of days to get used to the idea. I’ll be back in to check on you tomorrow.” And with an authoritative snap of his clipboard, he left. “It’s alright, Totty,” I said, sliding into the chair next to his bed. “B’ezras Hashem, you’ll be able to fast on Yom Kippur.” “Yes, I will. And I’ll be fasting on Tishah B’Av, too.” “But Dr. Mandelbaum just said...” “No doctor is going to tell me I can’t fast!” My father’s booming voice echoed loudly. “I have never missed a single fast since I became a bar mitzvah. When I was seeing two of everything, I fasted. When I would have given my life for a crust of bread, I fasted. You think because I have a few tubes in my arm I’m going to eat on Tishah B’Av?” He was old and frail, but he still had the same determined look that had never failed to silence any arguments against him.
Still, I ventured, “At least you should call a rav, no?” “Bah,” he replied, turning his head to the window. “I’m not calling anyone. I’ve made my decision.” When I left the hospital, I immediately dialed my rav, who said of course my father shouldn’t fast. “But how do I convince him?” I asked. “You can’t,” he replied. “But you can tell the doctor. He’ll make sure he eats.” But the idea of going against my father, of ratting him out, sent a shudder through me. I wouldn’t have dared. I decided to try one last time to change Totty’s mind. “I spoke to Rabbi Berger,” I told him. “He said you shouldn’t fast.” This time, he outright ignored me. The morning of Tishah B’Av, I arrived in my father’s room at the same time as his breakfast tray. Without a word I picked it up and set it on the table in front of him. “Throw it out,” he said. “Just a few bites, Totty,” I said helplessly. “You don’t have to finish it.”“I told you I’m not eating today. Take the tray and throw it in the garbage, so it looks like I ate it.” I was astonished. “You want me to lie?” “You don’t have to say a word,” he said. “Just put it in your bag.” I felt what I was doing was wrong, but years of conditioning had made it impossible for me to argue with him. Despite the fact that he was bedridden and reliant on other people for his basic needs, I could only see the father I’d always known, the one who filled me with awe, and a little bit of fear. Obediently I did his bidding. I was jumpy for the rest of the morning, barely able to look at the nurses as they came in and out. When the orderly came to collect the breakfast tray, she gave a murmur of approval. “Hungry this morning, were we, Mr. Nedermeyer?” In response, he gave her his most winning grin. A bit later, Dr. Mandelbaum came through on his rounds. “So,” he said. “What did you eat today?” “I ate what I needed to,” my father replied.
The doctor nodded with assurance. “Excellent. Keep it up. I’ll see you in a few hours.” After the doctor left, Totty gave me an almost defiant glance. “Totty, how could you say that?” I exclaimed. “You didn’t eat anything!” He raised his eyebrows. “I didn’t say I ate something,” he said in a Talmudic singsong. “I said I ate what I had to eat...which is nothing.” I felt a swell of frustration. I was angry at my father for being so stubborn, and worse, for bringing me in on this deception. Did he not understand he was playing with his life? And, maybe even more, I was angry at myself, for not being able to say no to him. And still, I didn’t say a word. I just couldn’t. As the day went on, I grew more and more taut with nerves. Even if it hadn’t been a fast, I wouldn’t have been able to eat, so tied up was my stomach. I kept a hawk’s eye on my father throughout the day, my eyes shooting from his heart monitor to the color of his skin, which was getting paler, it seemed, every time I looked at him. By mid-afternoon, when the nurse left his lunch tray, his complexion was an eerie shade of gray, and his head had tipped his back against the pillows. “Totty?” I said. “Uh,” he grunted. He heard me. “I think it’s time for you to eat something.”“Uh-uh.” Now I was really nervous. I resolved, then and there, to march to the nurses’ station and have them call Dr. Mandelbaum. But I couldn’t get myself to leave the room. I pictured Dr. Mandelbaum coming in and doing some sort of intervention to force my father to eat. Once he would be back to himself, I knew what would happen: he’d be very angry at me.
I paced the hospital room for the rest of the day, checking the time on my phone and mentally urging the sun to go down. I called my husband to tell him I wouldn’t be home until late; I wasn’t leaving the hospital until I knew my father had eaten. And by the looks of him, I would probably have to force the food down his throat. The second the fast ended, I shook him awake. He was dazed, unable to focus. For a moment, he looked like a small child in that big hospital bed, just woken from a nightmare. “The fast is over, Totty,” I told him. “Now, please. Eat.” My father nodded almost imperceptibly, murmured a brachah and allowed me to scoop a few bites of yogurt into his mouth. Almost immediately, I saw the blood start to return to his cheeks. With every spoonful he swallowed, I felt my body relax a little more, and as the spoon scraped the bottom of the container, I exhaled as if I’d been holding my breath for hours. “Baruch Hashem,” I whispered to myself. Slowly, my father gathered his energy and sat up. “Nu?” he asked. “Is there anything else to eat?” The next day when making his rounds Dr. Mandelbaum called out to me in the hallway, “His counts look really good. I’m glad you convinced him to skip the fast.” I smiled politely. “You know,” he continued, “he’s lucky to have a daughter like you, making sure he follows doctor’s orders. Some of these patients, they just make up their minds, and it doesn’t always end well.” I pictured my gray-faced father and shuddered to think of what could have happened. It was a relief that he’d made it to the end of the day, and that I hadn’t had to betray him. And yet the secret was now nestled, like a dead weight, in the pit of my stomach. Maybe I hadn’t needed to tell the doctor the truth, technically. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d gotten away with something I should maybe not have done.