Editor's Note: In honor of Father's day, Rabbi Michael Levy shares his moving tribute to his father. Part two will be posted on Sunday.
"Look, a two-headed bike!" said a kid passing by. This confirmed for me that Dad and I, on our tandem bicycle, were invincible.
Riding on the two-seated bicycle with Dad, I didn't think about being blind. I did what everybody else did on the back seat of a tandem, no steering, just pedaling.
Doing what everybody else did. That’s the kind of childhood my parents gave me. If you feel included and valued by your family, then no future obstacles in your path will deter you.
It was a late spring day in my quiet home town of Bradley Beach, New Jersey. For the first time since the previous summer, enough light remained after supper for a short bike trip.
We began our ride by turning east, towards the boardwalk. The sun, seeming to grow more fiery as it set, warmed my cheek.
As we approached the boardwalk, the ocean just beyond began to speak in many voices. There was, of course, the low rumble you could hear from far away, but now there was the swish of water going in and out, like a great beast inhaling and exhaling.
If we were feeling adventurous, we would speed over the bridge that linked the nearby towns of Avon and Belmar, the bells clanging their warning that the bridge would open soon even as we neared the top. "Pedal harder," Dad would say. And just to show that he had everything in hand, he would maintain top speed after our descent on the far side, jiggling the tandem past the parking meters which suddenly whooshed by on our right.
We had reached the slight curve at Second Avenue. We would need to turn around soon to make it home before dark.
The bike approaching us was going much faster then we were. For a second, I heard the hum of its tires vibrating on the boardwalk. I felt Dad swerve the tandem before he could explain what was happening.
The oncoming bike had just grazed our front wheel. But the collision had caused us to begin shaking. Although we kept moving forward, we were swaying more and more. Finally, still going forward, we fell.
Neither of us were hurt. I’m sure Dad forgot about it quickly. But for the first time, I realized that Dad was not invincible. Vaguely, I sensed that some day he wouldn’t be there to guide me.
As if to allay my fears, Dad spent more time with us as his men's clothing business prospered. Each July and August, we spent three or four long days a week at the beach, sometimes returning home at dusk.
There were surprise trips to New York. Through Dad, I toured the captain's quarters of a ferryboat, and met real live New York Yankees.
I could almost believe that somehow Dad wasn't growing older. He showed more concern for my coming of age than for his own aging.
In the safety of our home, he let me experience a little intoxication, so that later, opposing peer pressure, I could "say no" with conviction.
Dad taught me one of his favorite decision-making criteria: "What difference will it make in ten years?" He showed me that it was better to miss school for a day to keep a cold from becoming worse, and okay to "quit" the wrestling team to join the glee club. I hear Dad's question often now, as my own supply of years dwindles.
Dad visited the beach from May to October, pushing the beach chairs in a baby carriage so old that no self-respecting thief would steal it. "Don't stay out in the sun too much," the doctors warned him, removing minor growths from his wrist and nose.
When he had a melanoma removed in 1988, the main complaint was that now he really did have to stay in the shade.
Other than check-ups every few months, he continued as usual. There were still lessons: How to organize closets and finances, how to find the best clothing buys, how to look for the easiest way to get something done and how to keep my job from interfering with married life.
In May, 1989, the message on Dad's answering machine changed to "I can't talk to you now, because I'm out playing with my new granddaughter, Rachel." He had been Foxy, a grandfather to other people's children, ever since his own children wouldn’t let him hug them in public.
He had six weeks to experience my sister’s child with pure joy. In July, 1989, the doctors found a spot on Dad's lung.
A native of Bradley Beach, New Jersey, Rabbi Michael Levy attributes his achievements to God’s beneficence and to his courageous parents. His parents supported him as he explored his small home town, visited Israel and later studied at Hebrew University, journeyed towards more observant Judaism, received rabbinic ordination, obtained a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University and lectured on Torah and disability-related topics.
As a founding member of Yad Hachazakah, the Jewish Disability Empowerment Center, Rabbi Levy strives to make the Jewish experience and Jewish texts accessible to Jews with disabilities. In lectures at Jewish camps, synagogues and educational institutions, he cites Nachshon, who according to tradition boldly took the plunge into the Red Sea even before it miraculously parted. Rabbi Levy elaborates, “We who have disabilities should be Nachshons –boldly taking the plunge into the Jewish experience, supported by laws and lore that mandate our participation.” Rabbi Levy is currently director of Travel Training at MTA New York City Transit. He is an active member of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, NY. He invites anyone who has disability-related questions to e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org