I was my parents’ caretaker from an early age. It was obvious to me that they were suffering and needed a great deal of care. (So did I, but we won’t go into that here.) Both of them had been in the Holocaust, having entered Auschwitz with five small children and emerging with none. I was born after the war, and remained an only child.
My father’s stomach was quite damaged from his years in Auschwitz, and throughout my childhood, he used to have frequent bouts of gastritis with fever. My mother (forever anxious about her husband’s health, and transmitting that anxiety to me) attributed these episodes of illness to whatever foods he particularly enjoyed.
When my mother wasn’t looking, my father was therefore always trying to sneak off with one or another of the forbidden fruits, and I—all of seven years old and thus a reliable diagnostician—supported and encouraged his secret forays. I didn’t agree with my mother that his illnesses were due to the foods he ate.
My father’s culinary dream was to eat a hot dog—a food regarded by my mother as the height of debauchery and garbage, to say the least. She never permitted anything even resembling it in the house.
So one night, in celebration of some happy event, my father and I snuck off together to a kosher deli, where we both ordered hot dogs with all the trimmings. I can still see the look of absolute bliss on my father’s face, and I, too, loved it.
Back home, my mother was waiting for us when we arrived. “I don’t know where you were,” she said, “but you look too happy for it to have been anywhere good.”
And so the years passed.
When I was about 11 years old, my father was offered a very good deal on the purchase of an apartment house. He would have to make just one small down-payment, and the rents from all the apartments would pay for the mortgage.
When I heard of this, I was vehemently opposed. “I don’t even want you to consider buying this,” I told my father. “I don’t let.”
My father looked at me with raised eyebrows. “What do you mean, you don’t let?”
I said, “You know that your heart isn’t very strong, and in an apartment building there will always be people who are late with their rent, and some who won’t pay for a few months, and you will take it to heart. Your heart doesn’t need any more damage than it already has. I do not let you buy the apartment house.”
My father looked thoughtful as he took this in, realizing how much he meant to me: I didn’t care if it would bring us money. His health was much more important to me.
He never talked about the apartment house again.
My father continued to have problems with his heart, and there were times he thought he was having a heart attack. I was married with a baby already when he called me one night at 3 a.m. to come over right away. “I’m having a heart attack!” he cried.
My husband drove quickly. Upon our arrival, my mother was wringing her hands at his bedside and my father was pale and panicking. “My heart!’ he cried. “I’m having a heart attack! I can’t breathe!”
I stopped him in the middle of his words and said very confidently, “Come on, now, Ta, you know you’re not having a heart attack.” I started talking about other things to distract him, and sat down by his bed, taking his hand in mine. At first, his grip was very weak but as we talked, his grip got stronger and stronger—a sign that he was calming down.