The Sickness of Never Taking a Sick Day

February 3, 2010
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Yisrael Campbell

“I retired with over 300 sick days, for what?” My father spoke these words the day after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer that had spread to his liver. A series of strokes had left him unable to move his left side. It had been a bad day. That first night in the hospital was the first he had ever spent in a hospital over the course of his entire life. My 75-year-old father lived twelve more days, and we spoke of many other things, but our conversation never again touched on this topic. And now, of course, there is no way to talk about anything.

One other time — twelve years earlier — we had spoken about those “sick days.” At the time of his retirement, I was shocked to hear he would be paid only 25 percent of his sick-time benefit. I had suggested that instead of retiring, he call in sick every day for the next two years. “Dad,” I had said with the exasperation of someone who had never had a job that included sick days, “why didn’t you ever use any of those days?” “I wasn’t sick,” was his answer.

He worked as a teacher and provided for us; we lacked for nothing. But once he became a grandfather, we saw what we had been missing. How he changed after retirement, how his life was enriched, made diverse, when he became a daily caregiver to his grandchildren and a twice-weekly tennis player up until the week before his hospitalization! Though he had always liked to draw, mostly with pencil and usually on a napkin or the back of an envelope, he began attending art classes. My parents’ home slowly filled with children’s toys, tiny bags of chocolate chip cookies in a drawer just within reach of the children’s short arms, cocoa, and juice boxes in the fridge. The walls of their home became the backdrop to my father’s somber portraits, mostly sketched in pencil and charcoal, some nudes. I didn’t know he had it in him!

The biblical Avraham had it easy. Every time he walked down the street, he saw the sign in his father’s shop: “Idols for sale.” It was as clear as a summer night on the Vegas strip: “Idols, Idols, Idols.” Avraham’s father trafficked in idols, as did mine, as do I, I imagine. My father fed the “idol of work.” I’m a comedian who quite frankly is hard pressed to work as often or as steadily as my father. Feeding the idol of work isn’t my problem, anyway. Growing up, the message was clear: Work is most important. Undoubtedly, it was the repository of my father’s emotional energy. And as I raise my children, I can understand why my father made that choice. Work and career are a more clear-cut venue for one’s emotional life — certainly easier than the soft, complex, unclear science of child rearing, which is filled with so many disappointments and setbacks. Sure, with a long view, most of us are pretty good at parenting, but with a long view — say 500 years, if we discount a decade — Jewish life was good in Poland. Day-to-day parenting is hard; focusing on work is easier. But in the final analysis, what he got for himself and gave to his grandchildren and even his children once his outlook and attitude changed was worth far more than the 25 cents on the dollar he was paid for those unused sick days. And that is what we both realized when he said “for what” as he lay dying.

I, too, work and I work hard; I’m currently producing a one-man show off Broadway that I wrote, perform in, and do publicity for, while also being a “hands-on” dad, parenting three children and awaiting the birth of a fourth whose due date is imminent. But because I am part of an active and conscious spiritual community that forces me to reckon with those idols of my father’s that I’ve broken and left behind, I can’t just work. I can’t build my emotional life and identity from my work alone. A parable: A young mother and wife asked the Lubavitcher Rebbe, z”l, if she should become a typist to help her family. His response, I’m paraphrasing, was: “If you need the work to help your family, by all means take the work. But you’re a wife and a mother; don’t become a ‘typist.’”

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1 Comment

  1. Your father worked as a teacher, not a typist. “What he got for himself and gave to his grandchildren and even his children once his outlook and attitude changed” was clearly informed by what he gave to and received from other people’s children.

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