On Healing 1/21/2002: For father and son, a chance to reflect on a life well lived

Four years ago, when the doctor told me my father had congestive heart failure, I began to write his eulogy in my mind. It started this way: “The nicest man I ever met . . .”

The problem was, I could never think of anything beyond those words. When my sister was diagnosed with a terminal illness, I had a great deal to say. When my mother passed away, there were plenty of words. But with my dad – only those few. They seemed to say everything there was to say about him.

As a young boy in the 1920s, my father lived in Alabama. During his time there he rode the bus, once giving up his seat to a black woman, who, he told me, “looked like she needed to sit down.” He was 9 years old. He was kicked off the bus.

When my father graduated from college, he got a job as a student teacher. He had a student who was unruly, so he took him to the principal’s office. The principal handed my father a strap and said: “Do what you need to do.” My father did what he needed to do – he left the building and never returned to teaching. This is the niceness I was referring to in the eulogy.

That nice man died last Monday, age 88.

He was sitting in a chair in his living room in Atlantic City looking at the ocean, something he loved to do ever since moving to the city 75 years ago, at age 13. It was the right way to die – and for him, the right time. His health had been slipping over the last several months. His heart and kidneys were beginning to fail.

Six weeks ago, when the doctor told him he probably would not get better, I went to be by his side. After the initial sadness, I asked him to review his life. This is a man who, despite his gentleness, always considered himself a pessimist. He wouldn’t wager on a sports game because he “knew” the team he wanted to win would lose.

Of course, his pessimism was understandable. For 20 years, he watched his son navigate life in a wheelchair. In the last five years, he buried his daughter and his wife. On more than one occasion he has told me he was “ready to leave this vale of tears.” So when I asked him to review his life, I was not expecting much. After a few minutes of reflection, he said: “I think I would give my life a B.” I was pleasantly surprised.

My father was a small man. He was small in stature (5-foot-6) and small in the mark he made in the world. He owned a small army-navy store in Pleasantville, N.J. He earned enough money to raise his family in a middle-class suburb and to send his children to college. He did not lead in any groups or organizations. All he did do was raise two children who were capable of great love and compassion. He lived and loved, married to a woman he adored for nearly 56 years, until her death. He left the world pretty much as he found it.

He had been an atheist, and generally didn’t have much tolerance for religion, but here’s what I’ve come to know: If there is a God, I’m sure my father led his life according to His or Her expectations. If God is love, then my father is as close to God as anyone I’ve met.

A couple of weeks ago, when his health deteriorated further, I went to his apartment to talk about hospice care. We discussed whether he wanted emergency medical attention – to be resuscitated – if he became seriously ill, or if he preferred we just help him be comfortable in his apartment by the ocean. It was a difficult conversation for both of us, and he ultimately chose comfort over medical intervention. Suddenly, he reflected: “You know that conversation we had a few weeks ago at the hospital? Well, I thought about it, and I think I would give this life an A.”

Funny, how things change for both father and son. What I once saw in him as absence I now see as dedication to family. What I once saw as rigidity I now see as tenacity. What I once saw as lack of assertiveness and aggression I now see as kindness.

I spent a month with my father this summer. It was a vacation I had dreamed of for many years. So now, as we were both aging, I decided it should not be postponed any longer. I described in a column in August how we spent time together talking, laughing, and just looking at the ocean. I watched as he lived his life with grace and passion. I also watched as he sat in his easy chair and quietly dozed off. I tried to capture that picture in my mind, knowing that he would not be here much longer. As I wrote then, it was the best vacation I ever had.

He and I had our last visit the day before he died. It was a very windy day, and when I arrived at the apartment he was sitting in front of the window in the sunshine. I pulled my chair up next to him, and, after I rested my arm on his shoulder, I looked at the beach.

A strong wind was blowing the sand directly into the ocean. It seemed that if the wind continued, eventually all the sand would go into the sea. The beach was being wiped clean. All of the footprints and other markings that were there the day before were now smooth. As I watched the beach again gave birth to itself, I moved my hand to my father’s chest, drawing him closer. Without looking up, he took my hand and kissed my left thumb and gently rubbed his cheek on it.

This is the only area on my hand where I have sensation. The last thing I can remember of my father was the feel of his face on my hand. In the first several days after his death, whenever someone asked if I needed anything, I began to cry, thinking: “Yes, I would just like to feel his face on my thumb one more time.”

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