Family Matters: Kosher Tattoos
Five years ago, my son, Yoav, and I were both lying on narrow cots in a corridor of Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm, Sweden. My wife and our teenage daughter, Sara, were standing at our sides, and a team of doctors and nurses in green gowns and facemasks crowded around us, ready to start surgery. The atmosphere was electric with emotion. I felt afraid. Saying good-bye to my son was difficult.
“We can’t have everyone start to cry,” one of the surgeons said before my son and I were wheeled away to separate operating theaters. “Let’s do this.”
Like any father, I never wanted to be responsible for bringing serious harm to my firstborn child. I certainly did not want him to risk his life for my sake, or cause him to feel intense pain.
Yoav, who was 27 at the time and in the beginning stages of a dynamic career in politics, had arranged to donate more than half of his healthy liver to me. He had secretly contacted doctors at the hospital when it seemed like my cancer-infected liver was calling it a day. He did not tell me or his mother about his plan because he was fully aware that we would have tried to talk him out of it.
Yoav’s mother and I had met 38 years earlier on a kibbutz near Hadera. I was working on a banana plantation at the time and my future wife, Birgitta, worked in the chicken house. My sister was also living at Kibbutz Metzer, shacked up with a sabra named Moshe she would later marry.
Over the years, there have been many ups and downs in our family. Going through the final stages of chronic liver disease was definitely the latter. With a grossly bloated stomach and the constitution of a 100-year-old man, I had come to terms with the likelihood of my imminent demise. My sister, Roberta, traveled from Los Angeles to Stockholm for a final good-bye. I was on a waiting list to receive a liver from a deceased person, but for various medical reasons, there was a risk that a suitable organ would not be available.
No one was aware at the time that Yoav had undergone an extensive screening process to determine his psychological and physical suitability as a donor. Was he preparing to give up half of his liver out of guilt? What were his motivations? For a fully healthy person to subject themselves to such an invasive procedure—which carries a 20-percent risk of complications and a small risk of death—presents grave ethical issues.
The moment arrived when the doctors phoned Yoav and told him that it was now or never: I would only survive a matter of days. He talked about the situation with his closest friends and came to a decision. I was shocked and saddened when I heard about Yoav’s plan, but in my pitiful state, I was in no position to protest. Birgitta was afraid, but respected our son’s decision.
In the hours before the surgery, all sorts of strange thoughts fluttered through my mind. I thought about the happy period when we lived in a tiny cabin on a New Hampshire mountain. I used to go out in the forest to chop down trees for firewood, and 3-year-old Yoav—a fringe of blond bangs falling over his forehead—would always insist on helping me carry the logs back for our wood stove. Now, he was prepared to help me again.
In a melancholy and morbid frame of mind, I thought about the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, how the father was prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac to prove his love for God. In this instance, it was the son prepared to sacrifice a part of his body. This scenario seemed horrible to me.
My operation involved three surgeons and took nearly a full day. Yoav was on the operating table for over 10 hours. The doctors were careful with him because ours was the first adult-to-adult liver transplantation ever performed in Stockholm.
My nephew Yosi traveled from the United States to give us moral support. Sara, a high school student, brought her textbooks to the hospital to study, and sometimes fell asleep at Yoav’s side.
Right after my operation, I was on a respirator for four days, balanced between life and death. Upon regaining consciousness, I suffered paranoid nightmares and hallucinations caused by high dosages of cortisone.
I stayed at the hospital and then a rehabilitation center for a few months. During the early stage of my recovery, I was in a confused state and would yank myself off the bed, falling onto the blood-drenched floor wrapped in a mire of oxygen tubes, plasma bottles and numerous plastic bags holding fluids draining from my wounds. I felt considerable pain and fear. There was also the humiliation of not being able to go to the bathroom by myself. For months afterwards, I could talk only in a whisper; friends told me I sounded like Darth Vader.
Despite the hardships, there were moments of warmth and even humor. One Friday evening, I got it into my head that I wanted to celebrate Shabbat. This is not a common request in a Swedish hospital. The main problem was that it is forbidden to light matches in hospitals because of the risk of causing oxygen tanks to explode. Nevertheless, one sympathetic nurse and a kindhearted aide helped me break the rules. We secretly moved down the hallway in a strange procession to an empty unlit room. My partly recovered son and his girlfriend joined me as I shuffled along the corridor with the help of my beloved Rollator, white hospital gown flapping around my legs. I was feeling stronger but still attached to numerous tubes and bags.
In the empty room, speaking softly so as to not attract attention, my son and I muttered prayers over bread and grape juice—alcohol is a no-no for liver patients. We lit a candle just long enough to say the blessing. We felt like conspirators. It felt very good.
Even five years later, Yoav and I have a hard time talking to each other about our shared experience, the awful and remarkable events of April 2007. It was a traumatic time for the entire family, not just for me.
Nowadays, Yoav is in great shape. He lifts weights and plays soccer regularly with an amateur team. He works as press secretary to the Swedish government and is the proud father of a 6-month-old boy. I am delighted that he is doing so well. I have no reason to complain, either. I work full-time and have plans for the future. I try to appreciate life’s small pleasures, seeing the first buds come out on the trees in the spring, feeling the warmth of the sun on my face, being able to stroll at a brisk pace with my friends on the south side of Stockholm, my favorite part of the beautiful Swedish capital.
A few summers ago, I took a quick swim in the icy waters of nearby Lake Mälaren, together with Yoav and Sara. I watched Yoav dive from the granite rocks into the water, as I had seen him do countless times when he was a kid. I reflected that my son will never need to get a fancy tattoo. He will always bear a large, vivid scar in the shape of an upside-down “Y,” covering his stomach and the lower part of his chest.
I have the same mark on my own body.
David Bartal is a writer living in Stockholm, Sweden. His first grandson, Harry, was born last August.