On January 6, 2018, I will have officially lived longer than my father. It is a silly obsession that I have with this milestone. Maybe I can trace it back to his own father’s early demise from heart disease, or his bouts throughout his adult life with assaults on his heart, his knees, his prostate, his back, his skin, his lymph nodes and, ultimately, his brain. He was gaunt and infirm by the time of his last Rosh HaShanah, the start of his final decline, and he was gone before Chanukkah. He was robbed of the chance to see and influence the lives of his remarkable grandchildren, only a couple of whom have any real memories of him.
I marvel at my relative longevity when I look in the mirror as I think of him, searching for a glimpse of him in my own reflection. He shaved his mostly-bald head before it was a thing, and mine is still obscured by tenacious salt and surrendering pepper. But here I am, anything but gaunt and relatively firm and not feeling anything near the age I imagined 65 would feel like when I looked at him 28 years ago.
There are great stories to tell about him, and I have told most of them, but two I repeat here. He saved a stranger’s life once as if it were nothing. Chicago had been pelted with over two feet of snow in a matter of hours, and as he trudged for miles the next day from his business, where he had slept, to the downtown train that would take him home, he caught sight of someone passed out in a snowbank – drunk, from the smell of him. My dad with the bad back picked him up and put him inside a warm apartment house doorway. He did not consider it remarkable. Obviously, at 14, I did.
And then there was the last private conversation I had with him. After that last Rosh HaShanah, I came to see him hooked up to tubes and monitors in the hospital. He was barely coherent. I sat with him for the better part of three days, summoning the courage to say all those things I rehearsed about what he meant to me. When I could wait no longer, I pulled up a chair next to his bed and asked him if he was afraid to die. He took a breath and said, “No. I’m not ready, but I am not afraid.”
Here was the opening for my speech. “Well, I’m afraid of you dying,” I began. I did not get another syllable out of my mouth before he lifted himself up, trailing wires and tubes, and wrapped his arms around me. I never gave the speech.
For most of his life, he was not particularly demonstrative. But somehow, this gesture was quintessentially who he was. He took care of people – his 37-year-old frantic son and some guy on the street.
He died at home on a very cold night when, ironically, the furnace died before he did. I wasn’t there, though by my sister’s account, he seemed to see me in the family tableau in his last moments. He lived 65 years and 147days. On January 6, I reach 65 years and 148.
That makes every subsequent day a gift, by my obsessive standard. The career I chose put me in conversation with lots of people who lived longer than they expected, surviving danger or illness. For a little while, most of them saw those extra days as moments to caress and time to focus on the really important things in life, eschewing the trivial and negligible. And then they discovered the blessing of living with less pressure, grateful for the ability to relax back into their semblance of normal.
I will be glad if I can remember just to be grateful and to build on the foundation he gave me.