Momentous birthdays call for momentous celebrations, right? Some sublime, surrounded by family and friends. Others resplendent with black balloons and obscenely decorated cakes. In nearly four decades of ministry, I daresay that I have seen them all.
I am approaching my momentous 60th with my own special rite of passage: another med added to the pantheon of pills I take to calm a diabetic pancreas. I count my blessings for not yet having succumbed to the needle.
How many of you share the diabetic experience? Even if you don't, do you remember a generation ago? The misery of sterilizing the equipment, watching my Momma stab herself with a dull, thick needle, trying to calculate the right injection of insulin, and maintaining a stringent diet.
My mother was meticulous. Not like crabby Mr. Finkelstein, who lived next door. You know the one. He was the neighborhood crank who hated kids and chased them off his property with an outstretched cane. Despite his diabetes, he browbeat his mousy subservient wife into buying him all kinds of sweets. He inhaled them with a grunt, as his helpless children watched his blood sugar rise and plummet.
Finally, his son Irving moved in with papa and momma to police him. Irving straightened out his diet, got his medications in order, watched him like a spy and suffered great fatherly abuse. But, Mr. Finkelstein's blood sugar remained perilously high. The doctor hadn't a clue. The children said that everything was under control, each meal measured, and insulin dispensed.
Now, Mr. Finkelstein had tolerance for only one neighborhood child. Me. It was probably because we walked to schule (synagogue) together early on dark, frigid Chicago mornings, as he would rasp bitterly about his children, his idiot-son Irving and, of course, how "none of my rotten kids go to schule."
The schule was a cabal of crabby old men griping about their children. Each one had his daily assignment. Mr. Finkelstein's mission was to put out breakfast for his conspirators. The aroma of brewing coffee was so enticing that we could barely finish Alenu, the closing hymn. Always the same menu: sweet-sour pickled herring, kichel, egg-cookies rolled in coarse sugar, coffee and always a l'chayim ("To life!") over a shot of schnapps, generic cheap liquor, hidden under the pulpit. On especially brutal mornings, Mr. Finkelstein would pour even me a schnapps, so I wouldn't "freeze waiting for the bus."
Aha! A robust breakfast, just like in the Old Country, was the secret to the old man's rocketing blood sugar: sugar in the herring, sugar in the kichel, the coffee and, of course, the daily 100-proof l'chayim.
I kept our clandestine breakfasts to myself, having now vicariously become one of the cronies. Off I would trudge to school. But, one day at 9 a.m., a teacher smelled alcohol on my breath. I was hauled off to the principal's office and my mother summoned.
"What did you do? Is this the son we raised?" Momma barked. An explanation was demanded. Finally, she tortured the truth out of me about the old men, their secret breakfast and starting the day with a schnapps.
"And Mr. Finkelstein has this breakfast with you?" My mother smelled the rat.
I got my swift, exacting punishment. But before we walked in our door, Momma appeared before Irving and ended his quest to the ultimate question.
The Finkelsteins held a family meeting. They decided that the old man should no longer go to schule. He was ferocious. Irving would stand guard at the door every morning, and from our window, I would hear diatribes: "Anti-Semite! I'm going to schule! You are not going to schule! All right, so I won't eat breakfast! No schnapps! Why should I trust you? Because I'm your father! You're not my father when you act like a baby!"
What became of Irving? God's truth be told, his kidneys failed, and he went on dialysis. Mr. Finkelstein, though, lived to a crabby 93, a survivor after all of too much schnapps and too little insulin. Now, what will become of me, nursing my own diabetes since 1995? All I can say, over the protests of Linda and the kids, is: "It's cold outside. Wouldya pour me a schnapps?"
And likewise, I am certain that when Morris Finkelstein arrived at heaven's gates, God was right there waiting for him. Then the Holy One hoisted a shot-glass glistening with schnapps, offered Morris a l'chayim and welcomed him to his eternal home.
Mr. Wilson is a rabbi in Greenville whose essays appear frequently as Opinion Extras at thestate.com/opextra. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.