The case of the stiff fingers

Papa’s fingers

Papa was supposed to visit us in August of 2018, but his unexpected death came that July, just before his intended visit to Israel.

I last saw him in person in the summer of 2017.

One of the last memories I have of Papa is him showing me his right hand. He bent his index finger at a ninety degree angle and then unbent it by using his other hand. “I can’t unbend my fingers any more,” he said. He was 69-years-old at the time.

My fingers

Often, I relive this particular memory because, while I’m only 42 years old, my fingers sometimes stiffen.

Of course, this only occurs after I’ve carried many heavy grocery bags over a long distance, or when I clench my hands for an extended period of time. And, even then, I can straighten out my fingers without the use of my other hand; it just takes me a bit of effort and focus… But it’s uncomfortable and slightly painful.

While the stiffness in my fingers is nothing compared to what Papa’s had been at 69-years-old, I also feel sharp tinges when I’m typing, which I spend much of my days doing; and I sometimes feel them even more acutely when I’m bending and unbending my digits while counting syllables.

Anyway, more than anything else, it’s a reminder of my mortality.

Papa’s smoking

When I think back to that same summer of Papa’s final visit, I also remember seeing him smoking a cigarette outside, near the front door of our apartment building. That was something that I hadn’t seen him do in many years.

Papa had been an on-again-off-again smoker for much of his life. He’d first picked up smoking as a teenager in the USSR – with teachers who favored him. Later in life, he regretted his addiction, and he quit… but then, not entirely surprisingly, he started again. I’m honestly not sure how many times he quit and picked up smoking again, but he was never proud of it.

In his later years, Papa attempted to hide his smoking and would deny it when confronted. That’s why I was surprised to see him smoking so close to the front door of my apartment building in Jerusalem… not because I thought that he’d given it up… but because he was ashamed of it.

I was in a hurry to pick my daughter up from her preschool that day when I ran by him, as he sat smoking his cigarette… I was running late and didn’t have time to stop. What I remember feeling, more than anything else, was disappointment; and that probably came across to in him. To this day, I still remember his embarrassed, apologetic eyes.

42 thoughts on “The case of the stiff fingers”

  1. oh thank you for sharing your tender words about your Papa David.
    Oh my, it’s good you take care of your fingers early on and I’m sure your papa wouldn’t want you to suffer in any way he did. I’ll post exercises at some point that could help but google for now.
    Wow, that’s so hard to have that feeling of him looking at you with his eyes of embarrassment and apology. Your Papa loved you so and I know you loved him so much too from your shares. ๐Ÿ’–๐Ÿ’–

  2. Memories and parents. This is such a good post as it made me recall some good and sometimes sad memories of my own. My mother apologized frequently for exposing us to her cigarette smoke. It wasn’t until she gave it up that she realized how bad it smelled… โค

  3. “The Case of . . . ” made me think you were going Perry Mason on us. Your memories are so sharp and clear, precious and ultimately healing as you ponder them, no holds barred. As always, your prose style is captivating, David.

  4. My father smoked his entire life, starting at 13 in the 1930s. No one thought much of it then; everyone smoked. He puffed until the few weeks before he passed, and that’s only because he wasn’t able to. I’m an old guy, 72 now, so I get it. When you reach old age, you figure, what the hell, and do the things that make you happy or at least pacify; we know our clock is running on a low battery. Smoking is tough to kick; I smoked but haven’t in 35 years and don’t plan to ever revisit that habit. Sons and daughters, when they become adults, come to realize that their parents aren’t perfect; and some can’t handle that reality. I experienced this, as you did. Your children will do the same, as mine have. It’s okay.

  5. Papas Fingers, then Yours
    These memories come to the fore as we grow older.
    The hands, the feet, the back
    And their little secrets somehow surface later or when they are gone.
    Just a reminder how our parents continue to live inside of us, particularly the more poignant memories swell up some days in the most dramatic ways, especially if one has been separated from them for half of your life. I have these moments mostly with my mom. There was just not enough time upon returning home.

    Papas Smoking, Not yours…
    How do you feel now about those disappointed feelings and dads apologetic face?

    1. I feel mostly sad about it. You know, obviously smoking isn’t healthy, but I think my Dad’s disappointment in himself for wanting and smoking cigarettes was the part that made me saddest.

      I remember that he was always touchy about his smoking – even when I was a kid… once, I wrote a poem to him as a boy about why he should quit smoking, and his response was very curt and angrily dismissive.


      1. Yes,
        It’s so difficult to deal with all these shortcomings, and the unanswered questions which remain.

        It’s therapeutic to jot down these thoughts.

  6. It must have been hard to receive news of his death and be so far away. Not surprising that those final memories stay with you โค๏ธ

    1. It was. And I think that was a large part of why I wrote my series of blog post over the course of my reciting kaddish that year… to feel more connected with my mother and brother who live in the USA.

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