I wanted to say some things about my dad before I semi-retire this blog. It’s semi because maybe I’ll want to come back some day. In the meantime, I am thinking about blogging someplace new about adventures in lifestyle change. It would be more exciting than it sounds. I hope.
I didn’t get to eulogize my father because my sibs and I just throw out ideas and then one of us writes something to represent everyone. His essence was captured in the eulogies at the funeral, but I wanted to just jot some things down. Some things I remember. Some things I got from him. Some things I wish I’d inherited from him.
My father was hilarious. To me. Because I had the same sense of humor. My dad always said that some of his kids were funny and some had a good sense of direction. I don’t have a good sense of direction. Sometimes, my father would get this look on his face and you knew he had a joke in him. He HAD to get it out there. This I inherited from him.
My father took us on vacations as children, alone and together. He had lots of frequent flyer miles racked up from business trips. I went separately with him to London, Paris, Amsterdam, and other places. For my Bat Mitzvah trip, he took me to Epcot the year it opened. I remember the touch screen computers – so amazing! Now we use them every day. I remember riding the haunted house ride and it stopped for some mechanical difficulty while our car was tilted backwards. Ahhhh, said my father, this is the best part; you get to take a nap.
My father grew up with public transport. He used to ride the subways from end to end as a boy. When we traveled, we always took public transportation. I think this is the root of my feeling that you can get anywhere in the world without a car.
When my father turned 50 I told him, you’re only as old as you feel. He answered, I feel 83.
My father taught me almost everything I know about tennis, even things totally irrelevant. We had a day alone the first Friday of the US Open every year. 30-all, he’d say, is mathematically the same as deuce. If the ball went into the crowd, he’d call it a ground-rule double (he also loved baseball). He would arrive 45 minutes early to stake out the seats in Armstrong and then get mad if you were late. I saved these seats for hours! he’d say. And you missed some great games. They’re on serve now but before that…
My grandparents made my father eat everything on his plate. He had to be a “member of the clean plate club.” So my father allowed us to eat as much or as little as we wanted. We used to go to the Garden Cafeteria, a dairy restaurant which no longer exists, on the Lower East Side. The only thing I liked there were the blintzes and they served you three large ones. I could only ever eat one. That’s OK, said my father, even though he hated to waste food. He once begged a customs agent not to throw away an apple we brought from Mexico City. My parents lived through the depression! he begged. No dice.
On my parents’ anniversary, they would dance in the living room to their song, Sealed With A Kiss. My father’s favorite artist was Vic Damone. He was always mad at rock and roll music for sweeping away that genre. Elvis Presley stole all my music! he’d say.
My parents were ruthlessly strict with what we were exposed to as children when it came to movies and music. I was the only one I knew who really wasn’t allowed to see R-rated movies until I was 17. If something risque came on the radio while we were in the car, wham, my father would change the station.
My father raised me with classic movies of the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s. Many of these he remembered seeing in Saturday morning double features in his youth (he didn’t grow up religiously observant). We could just say lines from Abbott and Costello or the Marx Brothers and totally get each other. Is my Aunt Minnie in here? Say, I’d walk a mile for a calomel. Pardon me, didn’t I see you in Rebecca? This last is from The Time of Their Lives and I got to see it with my father, appropriately, this past Washington’s Birthday. The last scene has Costello’s character finally meeting up with his beloved, for whom he has been waiting 165 years to be reunited, in heaven. I couldn’t help but wonder what my father was thinking at that moment.
In his later life, my father wasn’t very mobile. But when he was younger, we had a membership at the Bronx Zoo and we’d go all the time. Now my nephew works there. My father had a thing with gift shops. Here’s a dollar, he’d tell us (way into the 1980’s), bring back change.
My dad went to Brooklyn Tech and Cooper Union, two of the great free institutions for the gifted in New York. He’d tell me stories about both, including how Cooper Union’s founder had anticipated elevators before they were invented and so built a shaft for one. But he assumed they’d be round so the shaft was. I was excited as an adult to see that Wikipedia backs him up on this.
Once, my mother had some terrible throat ailment. The doctor said it was the human variant of hoof and mouth disease. Look out, said my father, they’re going to have to kill the whole herd!
My father worked at IBM his whole career. I was the only one of his children to go into business. He never treated his sons and daughters any differently with regard to learning and careers. He bought me a tool set and taught me how to fix radios. But he was equally proud of my second career. Every nurse on the Lymphoma floor at Sloan-Kettering, I think, knows what I do. I teach technology at Fancy Pants Prep. I can help you with anything having to do with technology.
I took care of all my father’s tech needs at the end of his life. I set up his router and his Roku and his iPad, helped him buy his desktop, and backed up everything. This made me sadder than anything. If you have worked with technology your whole life and you can no longer figure out how to copy files, this does not bode well for my geriatric age.
My father had four advanced degrees, all in engineering and math. Aside from my teaching tech, none of us kids do anything having to do with science or math. But four of his granddaughters are in school for engineering, about to enter, or have graduated. Pretty neat.
My niece just got into MIT. This was the last thing my father got excited about before he died. He was in Calvary Hospital then. Calvary is an amazing place, the best hospital experience we had with him. They give dignity at a time where it is hard to find.
My father used to pick me up from the train station when I arrived in Westchester. Then when he was sick I would walk or take a cab. Then I started to visit him because he was sick. I knew he’d probably never drive me anywhere again. Every other summer, I have a colonoscopy. My mother used to drive me and then my father. The last one was in the summer of 2011, just after I graduated from TC. That graduation was, in retrospect, the last carefree occasion I had with him. I’m not sure how I’ll handle it now. Your parents are really the only people whose first priority it is to take care of you. Especially as a single person without children, there isn’t anyone to fill that role. The colonoscopy is just one simple manifestation of this and I started to think about it when my father got ill. That’s when I really lost him as a parent.
I think the saddest part isn’t really death, it’s slow death. The changing of your parents from people who worry about you into people you need to worry about. From people who do things for you into people you need to care for. The slow, strange change in personality. And the fact that death means there is no chance of ever going back to that original time, that time you long for and can never have back.
And each time, it gets worse, but you forget to notice and appreciate it. When my mom died, I didn’t think at the shiva, “next shiva, my father probably won’t be here.” After this shiva, I realized my next shiva won’t be all of us sibs together. Of course, you’re too engaged in what you’ve lost to realize this. It’s not possible to feel lucky in that moment.
The last thing I’ll say about feeling lucky is that when you are bereaved, there is no “I hate people,” at least for me. It is when everyone is kind and selfless and gentle, and desiring only to help you. I am overwhelmed by the goodness of people. The people who took care of things for me, the people who wrote stunningly beautiful notes, the people who wrote day after day to say they were thinking of me, the people who came over every day to give comfort. I will try to hold this goodness in my heart even at the times when it feels difficult to do so.
I am thinking that my next blog will be about my house and Baltimore. My father was very enthusiastic about it, which surprised me. I thought he’d think I was bananas or at the very least, financially imprudent. He expected me to root for the Ravens in the Super Bowl, even. When I first showed him the pictures, he said, I want to come down and see it! I said, I’d love for you to see it. But we both knew he never would. I closed two days before he died and my brother was the one who told him I had. I’m so glad he knew that.
It’s hard to boil down lessons I learned from my father and his life. I’d say they were: fight for what you believe in, root for the home team, be loyal to your friends, love your family, and never let a good (or bad) joke remain unsaid.
I wrote this in my living room in Baltimore, April 2013.
Title from Sealed With A Kiss