When I was a kid I remember telling me mother,
“I hate ‘havtas’?
What’s a “hafta”?
“You havta finish your vegetables.”
“You havta go to synagogue on the High Holidays.”
“You havta eat your grandmother’s Friday Night chicken, even though it’s
a sickly boiled lump sprinkled with paprika, and, minus the paprika, looks nauseously similar to an actual dead plucked chicken.”
You just havta eat that chicken.
That is simply the way it is.
(And as you may have noticed I am regularly uncomfortable with “the way it is.” Not that I do anything about it – besides mentioning it. I’m just regularly uncomfortable.)
Although as I got older, my obligatory duties became somewhat easier to accept, I remain at times shamefully remiss when confronted by “havtas.”
Once, at a movie screening, Dr. M spotted a writer in his mid-nineties I was acquainted with sitting in a wheel chair and she suggested I go over and say hello. Somehow, I just couldn’t do it, my feet bolted immovably to the ground. I knew paying my respects was the polite and decent thing to do. But I also knew the first words out of my mouth would be “How’re ya doin’, Bob?” and the “scared” part of me did not want to find out.
So I regrettably blew off the “hafta.”
All this, offered as background, makes me extra-sensitive to my behavior around the expected elements of protocol. Protocol’s there for a reason. And there are reverberating consequences to blowing it off.
A while back, our son-in-law Tim had abdominal surgery and was recuperating in the hospital. In my awkward and oblique way, I tried immediately to reach out.
I have a friend whose girlfriend is a nurse at that hospital. I emailed my friend, I told him about Tim, mentioning he could maybe pass the information on to his girlfriend so she might pull a few strings and “get Tim extra Jell-O.”
That’s the best I could do. I know. But at least it was something.
In the meantime, my, what do I call it… generous?... impulse demanded more personal involvement. No, not “generous.” It’s just the typically “right thing to do.” There is an accepted etiquette about people recovering in the hospital.
You are supposed to go visit them.
Preferably bearing flowers and/or balloons.
(Or intravenous candy, if they make that, because Tim was unable to eat anything.)
“Let’s go!” the “normal” part of me loudly proclaimed.
The thing is, there was this interfering obstacle.
That interfering obstacle was Tim.
With the exception of wife Rachel, Tim made it clear he did not wantvisitors.
In the early stages of his recovery, Tim was disoriented, uncomfortable and – mentioned only to complete the picture – flatulent.
(Our recent birthday card to him read, “We are farting at home in your honor. Happy Birthday.”)
Still, I had this urgent impulse to visit.
To show loving familial support, of course. But also to prove I was a grown-up. (Involving not just visiting a recovering patient, but facing a developed aversion to hospitals, which brought back personally experienced flashbacks… of hospitals.)
The problem was,
“How do you visit a man who does not want any visitors?”
From a certain (misguided) perspective, Tim’s demand felt rejectingly dismissive.
“You don’t want me?”
And yet, turning the tables, would Inot want the determining say about visitors?
Okay, so you respect the guy’s wishes, hoping Tim’s “No” is not a coded insistence for visitors. (Taken at “face value” due to a latent aversion to “haftas.”) I did not go the hospital.
The trouble with thatis,
However legitimate the reason,
Not going to the hospital is not going to the hospital.
And how exactly does that look?
Despite his protestations about visitors, did Tim secretly believe I did not wantto go to the hospital? Had he wished me to to me to sweep aside his objections and show up defiantly at his bedside? And the fact that I didn’tmeant I felt happily “off the hook”?
That negative assumption was totally incorrect. But how could I prove it?
How could I show “adult” behavior when my ability to demonstrate it is denied?
Which gets a part of me thinking,
“How darehe not let me visit him in the hospital!”
That’s the way your mind works when your mind works like mine works. And you have to use it or they’ll take it away and all your hats will feel big.
This troubling conundrum dissolved when Tim announced he was finally ready for visitors. Since little children were involved, the encounter was brief and soothingly relaxed. My big contribution to the gathering was that we sing “Happy Birthday.” And we did.
The issue of the delayed visit remained scrupulously unexpressed.
And I wondered.
Was there nothing necessary to say?
Or were we both just being polite?