Monday, January 3, 2011

The Shepherd’s Hand

Debbie and I were concluding our planned three-day visit to Columbus, Ohio—home of our daughter, Becca and her husband, Josh. We had gathered on Sunday, December 26, 2010, the eve of our fortieth wedding anniversary, with our other children—Shira from Chicago, and Jake from New York City with his wife, Alana. The event was joyously successful beyond our expectations. Everything seemed to come together perfectly.

The mere fact that we all arrived was a miracle in itself. A week or two before our travel day, Jake and Alana were notified that they had been unceremoniously moved from the mid-morning flight that they had booked to a seven a.m. departure— less pleasing to them by far. Disgruntled but compliant, they left their Manhattan apartment in darkness to get to the airport. How fortunate it turned out to be, as a blizzard soon descended upon New York stranding thousands of people for days. They were among the last to depart that morning, thus allowing our celebration to take place on schedule with everyone present.  

As we contemplated our scheduled departures from Columbus later in the week, it seemed like it would be clear sailing ahead. The warming trend in the weather was reassuring. Shira departed on schedule Wednesday morning. Jake and Alana followed suit Wednesday afternoon. Deb and I would stay through Thursday afternoon so we could spend some time with Josh’s parents, Steve and Cheryl, with whom we have become good friends.

All was good. We had a great visit. Wednesday night we parted company with Becca, Josh, Steve and Cheryl and headed to our hotel. Just then I received an email from my sister-in-law Ann Lois, from Huntsville, Alabama, giving me an update on my brother Jeff’s condition. He himself is a miracle, long outlasting the dire predictions of his neuro-oncologist. Nonetheless, his brain cancer—or its treatment—has had a deleterious effect on his speech and mobility. The latest news is that his kidneys are showing signs of being compromised as well, with the possibility that kidney failure might ensue. I called Ann Lois to get the details. We spoke nearly an hour. It was around midnight when we hung up.

I prepared to go to bed. Deb may already have nodded off when my phone rang with a recorded announcement from United Airlines informing me that our Thursday afternoon return flight had been cancelled! I immediately called United to see how we would make it home, and learned that there were no seats available until Saturday, January 1. This was preposterous. I was on the phone another hour searching every possible option from several Ohio airports to nearly every California airport—nothing! Reluctantly I allowed the agent to book us on a New Year’s Day flight at 6:10 a.m.—routing us backwards to Washington/Dulles, then on to Chicago, and finally San Francisco. Yuck!

At the end of the call, my curiosity prompted me to ask the reason for our flight cancellation. They told me it was due to an impending ice storm in Chicago that would not allow our plane to get to Columbus for departure. That seemed specious, given how far in advance of this supposed storm they were canceling the flight.

As I settled into bed, my mind was churning over the grim news of my brother. I wondered how and when I would see him again. I also was preoccupied with the logistics of extending our stay in Columbus two days. Eventually I fell asleep. When I finished my fitful night I felt the lingering awareness of a dream. The only part that I could recall involved someone leaning over me, whispering something about Jeff. That seemed to be all I needed, upon coming to full consciousness, to be inspired with an idea that only seems obvious in retrospect. Since we would not be getting home before Saturday, and since we had essentially accomplished all that we had set out to do in Columbus—what if United could get us to Huntsville to spend these two extra days of our trip there? This would give us the unanticipated opportunity to visit Jeff and Ann Lois.

When the temperature that day proved to be in the forties in Chicago with the mere chance of rain, I knew for sure that United had not leveled with me all along. I called the “friendly skies” again and offered the agent the opportunity to make amends by rewriting our Columbus-D.C.-Chicago-San Fran return tickets to take us to Huntsville immediately and home to San Francisco on Saturday at no additional charge. One more hour listening to Rhapsody in Blue on the phone, and the deed was done.

Oh, there were some subsequent occurrences that seemed more like curses than blessings—such as arriving at the Columbus airport and discovering that the acquiescent agent had not written the ticket in the prescribed manner, thus making it nearly impossible to get our boarding passes. As the clocked ticked away the minutes before our flight, a hapless airport attendant finally allowed another agent to press the magic keys to fix the problem.

From there we ran through the airport, barging ahead of the security line, dashing to the most distant gate, only to discover that I had somehow been cleared though the initial identification check without a true boarding pass. Apparently and inexplicably the TSA agent had initialed my itinerary card. The boarding attendant was unsympathetic. They were minutes from closing the door and he demonstrated no concern that I was standing before him without a boarding pass. There would be no way I could retrace all my steps and get back in time for the flight. He just impassively said he had to deal with other customers and seemed to derive pleasure from exacting as much anguish from us as he could before nonchalantly printing out a new pass for me and allowing us to board. Whew!!!  

Of course inconveniences such as these quickly pale in the light of my brother and sister-in-law’s daily struggle with his increasing infirmity. His simplest acts have become major undertakings enabled largely by the enduring patience, strength, and determination of Ann Lois. Many of Jeff’s abilities have diminished. He either has had some mild strokes or the lesions have affected his ability to move about freely and to communicate clearly. Every action, every utterance is an effort. Often at issue is whether to use a cane, a walker, or a wheelchair for his transport—all viable options under certain circumstances, although increasingly, the wheelchair seems most appropriate.  He is most comfortable sitting in a new motor-controlled recliner. Often he lies back in it idly playing with the up and down buttons—seeming to exercise control over the small part of his universe that succumbs to his will.

His understanding of the world about him varies—or at least our understanding of his understanding does. Occasionally his words are sharp and clear—more often not. Sometimes unintelligible. Sometime nonsense. He has been disinhibited for much of his illness—anger, frustration, sadness, joy always on the surface. He is also still amazingly clever and funny at times—knowing when he has broken through the dim translucent wall surrounding him, making the silly grin that we used to see so often.

Thursday night, after dinner, I pulled a chair alongside his recliner and patiently panned for meaning in his intermittent stream of ramblings. He was able to clarify his intent somewhat. He definitely wanted a copy of the twenty-third psalm that I quickly found in a weathered Rabbi’s Manual in his office. He seemed to be asking me to study the psalm with Adam Stein, a recently ordained rabbi and young friend of our family since birth.

“What does it mean,” he probed, “Adonai ro-ee, lo echsar. (The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.)?”

“...they all say they know this, but none of them [really know] any of it!”

“After I’m the home, at the house...even once...a little bit of...a lesson—it must be done....”—a clear mandate not only to read the Twenty-third Psalm at his shiva, but to study it as well.

Lo echsar! Lo echsar! (I shall not want! I shall not want!)” he kept exclaiming.

His lesson seemed to be that people want more and more. If they really felt the protection of the Lord as their shepherd they would want for nothing. Some of his words suggested that he was criticizing young rabbis, but I suspect this was as much a commentary on his own life as much as the next generation. Jeff, throughout his illness has often quoted the Twenty-seventh Psalm as a reflection of his condition—“Though armies be arrayed against me, I will have no fear.” Now, as the traditional mourners’ psalm seems increasingly imminent, I believe he truly feels the guiding hand of the shepherd and knows what it is to want nothing more.

It was an amazing teaching from a man barely able to make his simplest thoughts understood. Jeff chatted with great animation for about an hour, late into the night, well past his normal bedtime. His words cause me to reflect on my own “wants” and the effects the shepherd’s hand may have had on this very trip—flights moved ahead, flight moved back, seemingly what we least wanted becoming what we most needed.

Was it the shepherd’s whisper that spoke to me Thursday morning and inspired me to turn the inconvenience of a cancelled flight into an opportunity to share precious moments with my brother? By what divine providence did we come to witness acts of loving kindness such as the extraordinary efforts of Ann Lois who everyday defines the word mitzvah with her unrelenting physical and emotional support of her husband. How did it come to pass that we were present to hear the garbled words of a rabbi and teacher striving to give one more lesson?

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
Now I must study.


  1. Doug --

    Beautiful. Angels do exist and create Divine Order in ways that stretch my limited thinking.

    Faith is powerful beyond imagination.

    Thank you for your letter,


  2. Lovely, my friend. Seems we each spend time as the shepherd and also some time as the sheep.

  3. I awoke this morning moved by the serenity offered by the phrase 'lo echsar' and sought a commentary of the Hebrew for a fuller understanding.

    Happily I found it here in your story.

    Shepherd bless indeed.