Encountering Peace: Encountering life, encountering death

My father died this week; he was 90 years old. This column is dedicated to him and to his memory, and will not be my normal political column.

ARNOLD BASKIN and his friend Abu Ali Abu Zghair in Kafr Kara in 1979 (photo credit: Courtesy)
ARNOLD BASKIN and his friend Abu Ali Abu Zghair in Kafr Kara in 1979
(photo credit: Courtesy)
My father died this week; he was 90 years old. This column is dedicated to him and to his memory, and will not be my normal political column.
Arnold Baskin, or Arny as he was known to many, was born in Brooklyn in 1928 to American-born parents, which made him special – he wasn’t the child of immigrants.
He did not grow up in a religious family, but his identity was definitely Jewish. He lived in a Jewish neighborhood, all of his real friends were Jewish, and all of the cousins, aunts and uncles lived in the same area and met frequently.
A big part of their Jewish identity was defined by family. They were not engaged in Zionist activities and were not active synagogue-goers. My father had a bar mitzvah, but I don’t recall him ever talking about activities around the synagogue. The only Jewish organization that he belonged to was the burial society of the shtetl that his grandfather came from in Belarus.
I, too, was born in Brooklyn, and when I was four we moved to Long Island. Even as a four-year-old I remember that my parents searched for a Jewish neighborhood – meaning a neighborhood where there were a lot of Jews. Almost everyone in my elementary school was Jewish, secular and middle-class. Most of those in my age group were second-generation Americans. We were a typical American Jewish politically liberal family coming to age in the 1960s.
As a youngster who got involved in the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement, I dragged my parents to demonstrations and political activities. I remember that in those days my father would often express some really ugly racist utterances. The one that I recall most was “schwartza” referring to African-Americans. His comments would be responded to with a barrage of anger from his sons and his wife, my mother.
Sometime down the road, after I made aliyah in 1978 and was living in an Arab village doing community-based peace work, my parents visited and stayed with me. My father interacted with Arabs for the first time, and he began to change his attitude about people of different cultures with whom he had not interacted in the past. He learned to respect and appreciate people who were different from him.
Many years later, while always being a big defender of Israel, he also became a strong advocate of Israeli-Palestinian peace and a great supporter of the peace work being done by his two sons in Israel (my brother Lonny is also very involved in an Israeli Palestinian NGO called Path of Hope and Peace). He was very proud of our work and let everyone in his community know about it. He shared my weekly Jerusalem Post columns with many in his community.
My father never made aliyah, like two of his sons, even though he came very close with the whole family back at the time that Neveh Ilan, outside of Jerusalem, was being established. When his two younger sons got very involved in Young Judaea in high school, my parents were very big supporters and were very proud of what we were doing.
My parents remained in America and retired to Florida and moved to a typical Jewish retirement community in Florida. It was a great place to grow old. The quality of life was rich and fulfilling, and those in the community who keep close relations with their children provided wonderful space for multigenerational family reunions. With modern technology, Skype and later WhatsApp, it became increasingly easy to have daily contact.
AS MY father became ill over the past year, it became necessary to find ways of guaranteeing that he would be cared for with the best medical care available. He suffered from many ailments, and was busy running from doctor to doctor (while he was mobile) and later to hospital emergency rooms.
We brought in a 24/7, live-in caretaker, and my brother, who is retired, visited very frequently, taking those very long transatlantic flights from Israel to Florida. I also increased my visits but not as often as my brother.
It became clear that my father’s medical treatment and care needed to move from trying to fix him to trying to keep him comfortable with minimal intervention and the most important thing – keeping him at home and out of the hospital. In November I went with my father to his primary care doctor. It was there that we spoke about moving my father to Home Hospice Care run by an organization called VITAS.
The very next day an intake nurse from VITAS was at the house, did a full interview of medical history and then explained which services they provide.
I admit from the start I was skeptical. What they explained was too good to be true. They provide full medical care aimed at keeping the patient home, visits by doctors and nurses, a respiration therapist, social workers, a rabbi, a volunteer with a service dog to comfort my father, a caretaker who would come a few times a week to assist the live-in caretaker or to enable her to have time to go out or to go shopping.
VITAS provided all medications, a hospital bed, diapers, an oxygen compressor, a wheelchair and more. They have emergency services, a call-in number and regular home visits for acute medical situations.
In the final days, when death was closing in, they brought in critical-care nurses who came 24/7 on shifts of 12 hours. And all of this was covered by Medicare (the US federal government’s health insurance program). I was waiting for the catch; with my Israeli mentality, I was sure that it had to be a scam – that somewhere they would be sending the invoices for hundreds of thousands of dollars, or they would be emptying his house of anything of value.
I was wrong. My father died with dignity. He was cared for until the end, in his own home, with his two sons at his side. The VITAS people were true angels with the highest degree of sensitivity and professionalism that I have ever encountered in the health system of the United States or of Israel.
Palliative care is becoming better known in Israel and in the United States. There are no assisted death possibilities legally available in Israel or in Florida, so if you know that death is coming soon, and you do know that you don’t want resuscitation in the event of a medical emergency, there is nothing better than home hospice care.
I don’t know what we would have done without the expertise and the supervision provided by VITAS. My brother and I know that it was a blessing for us to be with my father, holding his hands while he took his final breaths. The critical-care nurse from VITAS said that she was blessed to be with us during those final hours at the end of her 12-hour shift.
Death of a loved one, a parent, is never an easy experience. We are relieved that his suffering is over and that he died at home, where he loved to live.
I promise to come back to my regular political column next week.
The author is a political and social entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to the State of Israel and to peace between Israel and its neighbors. His latest book, In Pursuit of Peace in Israel and Palestine, was published by Vanderbilt University Press.