How Prayer Got Me Through My Dad’s Decline And Led Me Back To Judaism

Bills marked with bold notices YOUR SERVICE IS ABOUT TO BE TERMINATED were on the dining room table at my 85-year-old father’s Chicago home. Dad wasn’t concerned and the lights, phone, and heat were still on. It wasn’t a big deal to me either since I was a signatory on my father’s checking account. I easily took over paying his bills.

Some months later, I found four books on Dad’s living room sofa, not unusual since he always had books laying around. But these were books on prayer and spirituality including Illuminata, Thoughts, Prayers, Rites of Passage by Marianne Williamson. Dad had no interest in spirituality, as he told me a number of years ago after he met with his Rabbi, “Can you imagine, he invited me to discuss my spiritual path? I told him that spirituality has no place in Judaism.” Dad subscribed to “Classical Reform Judaism” described by Eric Yoffie, former President of the Union for Reform Judaism, as “Unapologetically cerebral, resting on a foundation of rationalism,”  [1]

“Dad,” I said, “Where did these books come from?”

“They were in a box on the porch. I opened it and here they are.”

“They must have been delivered in error. Do you still have the box?”

“No, I tossed it out, but kept the books. I might read them.”

The books stayed on the sofa unread.

When I was growing up, my parents, my two sisters, and I attended weekly Sabbath services, where prayers were said by rote. They meant nothing to me. But I grew attached to the 23rd Psalm, which I’d heard recited over the years – at Jewish funerals, High Holiday services I attended infrequently, and also in politicians’ speeches. The first four verses stayed with me.

The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.
He leadeth me besides still waters.
He restoreth my soul.

Curiously and mysteriously, during times of stress, these verses comforted me, even though I didn’t believe in a God who paid attention to prayer, nor was I under the illusion that God was my shepherd and watched out for me.›

Sometime after the unpaid bills and the spirituality books incidents, Dad showed up three hours late for a family picnic. My cousin Frenchy took me aside and said sternly and firmly, “He should have been here hours ago. He must have gotten lost. You have to take the car away from him.”

Easy for you to say, I thought. I didn’t want to confront Dad. He was a master of the rational argument, and stubbornness. Telling him he could no longer drive seemed daunting to me. Put another way, arguing with him always became a debate which I lost.

Mom had died from complications related to Alzheimer’s disease. We had missed the early signs. Mom was diagnosed after she was well into the disease. Until then, the family and Mom experienced considerable distress and unexplainable problems. I didn’t want a repeat with Dad. A few days after the picnic, by coincidence, I drove up to Dad’s house just as he was taking the car out for a drive. I followed him in my car as he drove slowly east two miles to Clark Street, then south. He turned east towards Lake Michigan, then north and west again. Eventually he returned home. He never reached a destination. He must have forgotten where he intended to go, or how to get there. I waited for him to put his car in the garage, go in the back door, and get settled before I used my key to enter the house through the front door.

“Dad, I think it’s time for you to stop driving. It seems that you are getting lost. Frenchy noticed, we all did, when it took you three hours to get from your house to the cousins’ picnic – a drive that should have taken twenty minutes at most.”

“I’m a fine driver. She made up that story.”

I didn’t tell him what I observed when following him. I was sure he’d dismiss my observations like he did Frenchy’s.

“OK, but to make me more comfortable with your driving, I’d like you to take a senior driver evaluation test at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.”

“Sure, set it up.”

The Rehab staff joined Dad in his car, giving him destinations, but no directions on how to get places. Dad passed their test and was certified by the Rehab Institute as a safe driver. That day Dad must have been on the alert and able to get it together. Sorry to say, I didn’t follow-up with the Rehab Institute as to why there was a discrepancy between his driving test and what we had observed of his getting lost. Perhaps I didn’t because I knew Dad would not submit to a second test. According to Dad, they confirmed that he was a good driver!

A few weeks later, Dad had a minor fender-bender, not his fault, but I used it as an excuse to tell him he had to stop driving. “You could have hurt yourself or someone else. It seems that your vision and response time are not as good as they should be.” He didn’t argue with me – maybe he was no longer capable of marshaling an argument. Instead he replied, “If you take away my car keys, I’ll kill myself.” Not a real threat. I ignored it and took his keys.

Both my sisters had moved away after college, leaving me as the only in-town daughter. I kept them informed about the problems with Dad through phone calls and letters. And they agreed with me that Dad should not drive and that he needed an in-home companion/driver.

I invited my friend Erica to live with Dad. Erica had been in my life for many years. Dad knew her and liked her and was OK with her moving in. Erica was in her mid-thirties, was between jobs, and was agreeable to living with Dad temporarily.

Sometimes when I visited them, Dad and Erica were sitting in semi-darkness in the living room, blinds closed, smoking cigarettes, and bull shitting. She was young and bawdy and he was old and bawdy and their conversations had benign sexual overtones. They amused each other. Erica drove them to dinner at I-Hop every night. Not surprisingly, due to the loss of his car and the growing limitations of his life, Dad was depressed. Living with him, Erica became depressed. They both slept long hours. Erica watched out for Dad, did the laundry and made sure he didn’t burn the house down. I paid her $50 a week and she got free room and board.

When my sisters made short visits to check on Dad, they met Erica and noticed the affection between Dad and Erica. They felt that Erica, who wasn’t family after all, had too much influence over Dad. They also said that since Erica was getting room and board and the use of Dad’s car, including gas money, paying her a weekly stipend wasn’t necessary. We knew nothing about the cost of live-in care, nor did any of us bother researching it. We were too emotionally overwhelmed by dealing with Dad’s situation and had no idea that Erica was massively underpaid for her caretaking services.

I ignored my sisters’ complaints. I was the in-town daughter after all. I trusted Erica. She and Dad got along, and these were ultimately my decisions to make.

I stopped by Dad’s house frequently to pay bills, to check on Erica and Dad, and to check on the condition of the old house, which seemed to be deteriorating at the same rate as Dad. Sometimes I had to be the mediator, like when I advised Erica to put a lock on her bedroom door to prevent Dad from walking in on her. He didn’t mean to violate her privacy, rather, as he told me, “This is my house, I can go where I want.” The lock stayed; he never mentioned it again.

The caretaking arrangements weren’t sustainable. Eventually Erica would find a job and move out. But when I suggested to Dad that he go into assisted living, he again threatened to kill himself. He wasn’t serious, but I knew he would “fight like hell,” to use one of his favorite expressions, if I tried to get him to move.›

All in all, I was having a hard time. I had fallen away from Judaism in my teens, and had recently joined the Second Unitarian Church of Chicago where we believed in following rational principles on how to lead good, kind, and purposeful lives. We didn’t subscribe to “God-talk” or prayer.

But I needed more than the Unitarians could offer. I needed inspired direction and I got the strange idea that I could ask God for help and get answers. However, my understanding of Reform Judaism was that our God hadn’t spoken directly to anyone since the last Jewish prophet who may or may not have been Malachi; we Jews are still debating and discussing that, as is our practice.

Sure Tevya, in Fiddler on the Roof  talked, ranted, and raved to God. But as far as I could tell, he never got an answer. In the movie Mermaids, Charlotte set up a shrine to Mary, mother of Jesus, and prayed to her daily. Her exasperated Mom, played by Cher, said, “But Charlotte, we’re Jewish and Jews don’t pray to Mary or Jesus or the Saints.” It was my impression at the time that Reform Jews prayed in community to a distant God and didn’t ask for anything personal, or if out of desperation, they asked privately, most likely no answer came back from God.

But I wanted a private conversation with God and some inspired answers, a loud or whispered God-voice or a God-message just for me, like friends had experienced.

One friend was about to buy a house and take on a large mortgage. The paper processing got delayed and she was angry because she wanted things to move more quickly. Then she lost her job and as she told us, “God must have caused the delay because He knew I would not be able to afford the house after I lost my job.” I call that luck, not God.

Another was having a life crisis. He saw a billboard featuring young women with their new cell phones. He was sure this was a God-message telling him to call his daughter. He called and she challenged him to “get it together.” He felt chastised, regained his confidence, and pursued a new life direction, which turned out well (for a while).

A third friend of the Baha’i faith gave me a printed copy of a prayer which included “…let no harm beset me in times of tests. In moments of my foolishness, guide my steps aright through Your inspiration.” This was the God I was seeking, one who would guide me through His inspiration.

After living with Dad for five months, Erica found a job that she had to start immediately and moved out on short notice. I couldn’t leave Dad alone, so I moved him into the one-bedroom apartment I shared with Evan, my Unitarian guy-friend, and Lizzie, our cat. I told Dad it was temporary. He didn’t seem to care one way or the other, nor did he mind sleeping on the hide-a-bed in the living room. But he was sleeping 24 to 36 hours at a time and we weren’t able to entice him to get up, even when we offered to take him to dinner at his favorite Chinese restaurant.

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I was desperate and got some comfort from writing in my journal daily. One morning, I wrote this prayer in my journal.

Spirit of the Sun and Moon – Help me.
Remind me that this is a new day.
As I open my eyes, help me to see
The colors and objects I enjoy.
Remind me that Lizzie my cat, Evan, and my family love me.
As I get up remind me that I can take it easy today – I have done enough.
The trees rest in the winter,
The leaves which have fallen become nourishment.
Let me get nourishment from the universe today.
I pray to be open to receiving on this day.
May I walk the beauty way.
Lead me to the pastures where I may rest –
And give me comfort. Amen.

I was, at the time, participating in Women’s Spirituality groups, where, together, we created Native American-type rituals. And this, my first attempt at an original prayer, was addressed to the Spirit of the Sun and the Moon, in the Native American tradition and contained “May I walk the beauty way” from a Native American chant. It also contained “Lead me to the pastures where I may rest,” a paraphrase from the 23rd Psalm.

The prayer comforted me, even though I didn’t know if the advice in it came from me, from the Universe, or from God. A few days later, I was feeling better and wrote a thank you note to God.

God on High – God Everywhere.
Hello to you and hello to this day.
Thank you for the love I receive from Evan and Dad.
Thank you for coffee and bagel chips.
Thank you for my karate practice
And sunshine and winter trees to enjoy along with others.

Dad had been with us two weeks. It felt like forever. Evan didn’t mind and Lizzie loved having Dad there. When he finished dinner, Dad would hold his hand down so Lizzie could lick off the food residue. But Dad’s depression affected me and I was sinking into my own depression.

My sister Sue suggested we send Dad to California to be with her and her three daughters. Her plan was to place him in an assisted living facility. It was a hard decision. Dad, Mom, and I were the only immediate Fuchs family in Chicago. After Mom’s death, Dad and I got closer and became more outwardly loving toward each other. Reluctantly, but with great relief, I agreed to Sue’s invitation. Dad thought he was going for a short vacation to visit Sue, as he had done often. He knew the routine, so there was no problem with him flying there alone. This time Dad would not be coming back. My emotions were mixed. It was the end of a very hard time trying to care for Dad and I was relieved and sad. I laughed and cried when Evan playfully and softly sang Ding Dong! The Witch is dead. Which old Witch? The Wicked Witch! Ding Dong! The Wicked Witch is dead.

Much to my surprise, I continued to write prayers in my journal. My karate practice deepened and I wrote two prayers to help me attain the discipline and lightness required to be successful at karate (and at life).

Dear God,
Remind me that progress is made step by step, little by little.
And remind me that it feels good to have some discipline. 

Dear God,
Give me the strength to do the things I must do.
Give me the courage to reach out to others,
To ask for and receive help and love.
Give me the whimsy to have fun and be spontaneous.
Give me the wisdom and understanding
To be good to others and good to myself.
Give me peace of mind –
Show me the ways to find peace and contentment
Some days and some times.
Let me be thankful for the good,
Accepting of the hard
And relaxed about it all. Amen

I stopped karate when I started having trouble with my knees and my back. But these two prayers have meaning for me today in my retirement. The prayer “Little by Little” has helped me take on the challenge of learning a new and difficult hobby, playing the banjo. The prayer “Thankful for the Good, Accepting of the Hard” helps me face tough times with dear friends who have major health problems and sadly helped me be with several friends during their last days.›

Dad settled into an assisted living facility in California. I had regular reports from Sue who said that Dad seemed content. During one of our infrequent telephone conversations, I asked him what he was doing. He replied, “I’m going through mail.”

“What mail?”

“Solicitations from charities.”

I thought, Who has his address? NO ONE. He was losing it and I was deeply saddened. By then, not consciously, I had memorized the 23rd Psalm and some days I repeated it to myself over and over. It didn’t comfort me. I missed Dad. I felt guilty about sending him away. Since the first few prayers I had written were helpful, I thought a simplified 23rd Psalm might work better.

God, You are my Shepherd and shall keep me from want.
You watch over me and provide for me.
Thank You God for the gifts of Your bounty which You bring to my table.
As You have provided for me in the past
Please sustain me throughout my life.

The rewrite didn’t work. Reading it years later, I see that it lacks poetry and grandeur. I wrote in my journal shortly after my attempt, “It is not as good as the original.” What an understatement! ›

Dad’s mental state had deteriorated and Sue moved him into the French Center, an Alzheimer facility. I visited Dad there and wrote in my journal, “So sad at the French Center. So bad. He is with the living dead.” I hoped Dad was OK and I imagined my rational Dad being – for once – in touch with his emotions and responding to my concerns. Sweetheart, I have hidden my feelings for so long that I don’t know how I feel about this place and you don’t want to know. I’m OK in California. I enjoy sleeping. The people are nice. I miss you, but I’m really happy that you are happy and relaxed these days.

I missed him too. I was happy and relaxed. Everything was good.

Evan and I grew closer and more devoted to each other. We made plans to get married, but it was logistically impossible to fly Dad to Chicago for our wedding. Dad was 88 years old, his dementia was advancing, and he was unable to walk unassisted. The day after we married, Dad died in California. He had been in fairly good health for a man of his age and we expected he would live into his mid or late nineties like his father and uncles. So the timing of his death was open to my interpretation. I believed then and still do today that he knew I was in “good hands” being married to Evan and he didn’t have to worry about me and could let go.

The family came together for the funeral. When the Rabbi read the 23rd Psalm and other psalms, I didn’t hear God’s voice. But I liked the age-old wisdom of the Psalms, which seemed to complement the modern wisdom of my own prayers. God seemed present at this Reform Jewish funeral and I wanted more. I went Temple-shopping, found Beth Emet The Free Synagogue in Evanston, Illinois, and returned to Judaism after 35 years away.›

Reform Judaism had changed and I had changed. This Judaism incorporated new and old practices, making it somewhat familiar and comforting and comfortable. At Shabbat services, I loved the hakafa, the procession when the Torah is carried around joyfully for all to touch with their prayer books or tallitot. I asked the Rabbi if I could or should get my own tallit. He said, “Sure, go ahead,” and I did. Wrapping myself in my tallit, I created my own personal prayer space. During the Shabbat Dvar Torah, led weekly by different synagogue members, we found modern meanings in the ancient and often strange biblical stories.

I fell in love with Hebrew, took classes, and learned to say some prayers in Hebrew. To help me with learning Hebrew, I attended a weekend retreat led by my father’s Rabbi. We slowly translated the Hebrew prayers, word-by-word into English, and discussed their deeper, more spiritual meanings. As usual, I wrapped myself in my tallit during the morning services. The Rabbi said to me, “I wonder what you father would think about you wearing a tallit, studying Biblical Hebrew, and going deeper into prayer.” What would he think indeed!›

Evan and I visited the Grand Canyon, Arizona. Evan wasn’t a hiker, so I went alone through a beautiful wooded area that ended at a lookout over the canyon. Spontaneously I prayed in English and Hebrew.

Dear God,

Take care of me and my dear ones and all who have cares and sorrows.
Give them, give us, give me, some peace and a time of beauty and rest.
I thank You God for these most precious gifts:

My breath, my health, my family, my loved ones,
the wind, the air,
the trees, the rocks, and Mother Earth. 

Va-a-nach-nu ko-re-im u-mish-ta-cha-vim u-mo-dim lif-ne me-lech mal-che ham-la-chom ha-ka-dosh baruch hu.

The Hebrew came to me even though, at the time, I didn’t know its English meaning. Subsequently I found it was from the Aleinu prayer said at the end of Jewish services. The translation for the Hebrew in my prayer is “We bow and give thanks before the king of kings the holy one. Blessed is God.” The prayer continues, “God spreads out the heavens and establishes the earth, and the seat of God’s glory is in the Heaven above and God’s spirit dwells in the highest heights.”

I was surprised and pleased to learn that Aleinu was the right prayer for viewing the awesome Grand Canyon.›

A year later, without Evan, I attended a yoga retreat in Cancun, Mexico. I was on my own, far away from everyone I knew. There were no phones so I couldn’t call home. I was worried and anxious about what I would do with my free time.

At night the waves crashed against the beach just steps from the palapa (grass hut) where I slept. In the dim light from one lone light bulb, I wrote a new version of the 23rd Psalm to comfort me in my solitary worries.

Adonai you are my shepherd. I am safe.
You lead me to places of peace where I am restored.
You are the Eternal Internal within me, you show me ways of goodness, Godliness.
Though the path I follow is sometimes fear-full,
Adonai You are always inside me.
Our strength together sparks my courage.
You show me my cup is at least half-full, never empty.
May I pursue goodness and kindness all the days of my life
And uncover in Your house, in our world, the goodness and kindness there is to find.


[1] “A Tribute to Classical Reform Judaism” by Rabbi Eric Yoffie. Originally published in Reform Judaism magazine.