Sunday, April 20, 2003

Pass Overs

Suddenly, the words have new meaning.

It’s the day before Passover, and I call home to wish my parents a Chag Sameach – Happy Holidays. My mother picks up.

“I’m glad you called, Brian. Your father is in the hospital.”

I figure he must have fallen again, broken a bone and is getting a cast. This has been an increasingly recurrent theme with my parents, now that they’ve gotten well into their 70s.

“He was having chest pains yesterday,” she says.

This is not what I expected. I feel my own heart begin to race.

“We thought it was nothing, but the doctor says he needs an angiogram. He might need a stent or open heart surgery.”

And then the classic Jewish mother coda: “But don’t worry. I’m sure it will be OK.”

I immediately start to worry.

“And when were you planning on telling me about this?” I ask.

“After the test, I suppose.”

“But what if it doesn’t go well? When is the test scheduled for?”


“That’s Pesach, you know.”

“Is it?” my mother asks. “Yes, I guess you’re right.”

My family has never kept track of holidays particularly well.

“Well, bring him some matzah in the hospital,” I offer.

“Sure,” she replies with nervous laughter.

And I wonder: is this how it begins? The moment every child with older parents dreads: when what was a relatively stable situation descends into a slowly deteriorating condition. Compounded by the even more complex process of managing the details - and the emotions - from 10,000 miles and a 10 hour time difference away.

I know, I worry too much. There is no news yet.

“If you need to get a hold of me, you know I won’t be answering the phone on Pesach,” I feel obliged to add.

“I’m sure there will be no reason.”

“But if there is, here’s what you do. Call a few times in a row. Let the phone ring. Then I’ll know it must be important. I’ll also leave my cell phone on. I’ll check for missed calls on the display.”

And I think: Shabbat and holidays are usually such a restful time for those who observe them in a religious way. No television. No interruptions by the never-ceasing phone. A year ago, that proved to be an enormous relief: in Israel we didn’t know about the Passover Massacre in Netanya until after the holiday ended. Our seders were calm, even joyful.

But now I feel out of control. Something is happening to my father and not only am I not there, I will be completely incommunicado.

“How is he doing?” I ask my mother.

“He’s a little scared. You know, we’ve never talked about death.”

“But nothing’s going to happen,” I say.

Now who’s reassuring whom?

The etymology of the English translation of the Hebrew - “Passover” - suddenly pops into my mind. On the night of the final plague in Egypt, the Jews smeared the blood from the sacrifice on the doorframes and the angel of death passed over that house.

And I think: angel of death, please pass over all those who are not deserving of death - the soldiers and innocent civilians; the celebrants this year at the Park Hotel in Netanya. And please pass over my father.

“Does Dave know yet?” I ask my mother. Dave is my brother.

“No, he’s away on a business trip to Miami. He won’t get back until Wednesday night.”

“I’ll call him and leave a message.”

“Yes, that’s probably a good idea.”

“We’ll talk Thursday night?”


“I’ll call you.”


I hang up and call my brother in San Francisco. On the answering machine, I babble a bit, recording what I know, trying to steer a tone between this is important and don’t worry.

As I’m about to put down the phone, I add “Happy Pass Over. To you. To Dad. To all of us.”

Post Script: my father is now out of the hospital. He had a blocked artery. I spoke to him and he said that the Internet saved him. When he felt chest pains, he looked up the subject on the excellent Mayo Clinic website which suggested possible angina.

The doctors in the emergency room said if he had waited another couple of days, he probably would have had a massive heart attack. They inserted a stent to prop open his artery and the prognosis is for full recovery.

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