I lost my father on Friday and I buried him yesterday.
For the past three years, I’ve periodically chronicled his decline (L’Chaim, Swimming Upstream, The Gift), while celebrating his defiance toward the dementia that was slowly robbing him of his vitality. At the time, it became clear to me that he was not going without a fight, which was also emblematic of his life as a self-made man.
His death was not COVID-19 related, as the final weeks of his life were spent in lockdown at a “clean” memory care facility located in West Palm Beach. But because of the lockdown, it was impossible to visit him for the past month in order to protect all the vulnerable residents from a scourge that was infecting nursing homes across the country.
When the hospice chaplain Face Timed on Thursday to say that Dad’s time was near, the staff relaxed their policy–allowing Leah and me a last chance to say goodbye in person. We settled on Saturday, since it would take a day to make the necessary arrangements for clearance at the gate.
But Dad had other plans. The call came Friday morning at 7 am.
Like so many around the world, I mourned the death of a loved one, and cursed the sky that I couldn’t be there to comfort him in the end.
I felt a deep sadness for my sister, Debbie sheltering in her Vermont farmhouse, for she would have no connection to his funeral service and burial in Florida and be able to express her grief.
During the 3-plus hour ride to Sarasota, Leah and I scrambled to assemble an ad hoc ZOOM conference that the funeral home was willing to facilitate. It would be their first. We cobbled together a few dozen email addresses from our contacts, and stitched a virtual mourning quilt of family and friends who might share my father’s memorial.
Leah and I gathered at Temple Beth Sholom Cemetary with my sister Marilyn, and brother Ron (Florida residents), and were joined by an assigned rabbi to officiate the service. The graveside lecturn, usually reserved for the officiant, was now the iPad anchor for the thirty-or so members of our newly minted guest list.
Rabbi Simon began with a blessing, and soon it was my time to sing his praises…
This occasion is awkward. I’m standing here at Dad’s gravesite, while struggling to say goodbye to him in the presence of only a handful of people.
And it’s unfair, because COVID-19 has robbed us of physically sharing our grief and reflections of a life well-lived, rather than celebrating in a manner that is more deserving of Dad’s stature.
Under different circumstances, there would be a full circle of friends and family standing elbow to elbow around this plot to pay final respects, and to honor his accomplishments and his love of life.
But, unfortunately, that is not the case today. Instead, we must consider a deadly pandemic at our doorstep that attacks our strength and soul as a nation and threatens to steal our loved ones before their time.
On the other hand, I am grateful that technology has given us the means to broadcast this message around the world via ZOOM, so that many of you at this moment can appreciate my father the way I did. While it’s not perfect, it’s the best we can do under the present circumstances.
Ideally, I’d prefer having Dad standing beside me while I deliver his eulogy.
If only for a shining moment—if I could—I would magically correct his eyesight and hearing, and return his once-keen memory to him, so he can realize and appreciate all that he achieved in life, and he could see all the lives that he touched with his kindness—both here and in the cyberworld.
He would be a complete person once again, instead of retreating to an insular world of darkness and confusion, where only those suffering from Alzheimer’s can truly understand, yet never have capacity to express.
Nevertheless, I hold onto the belief that these words bring him comfort, and he can finally rejoice in the light of loved ones who have left this world before him.
There’s an alphabet of adjectives I could use to describe my late father, as he was my mentor, my ally, and my role model.
But when I consider all 95 years collectively, there is one word—as it relates to me, the family nucleus, and all the people in close and distant orbits—that stands the test of Dad’s time on earth.
My father was DEVOTED…
Almost everything took a backseat to his family. Family was his anchor and his lifeline:
Dad was a devoted son to Lena and Joseph—two immigrants from Eastern Europe, who like so many, came to America with nothing more than a dream–to escape religious persecution and find a way to provide a certain future for their children. Dad would later put up the money for his parent’s corner house on N. St. Claire St. in Pittsburgh’s East End.
Dad was a devoted brother to his oldest sister, Ann and his youngest sister, Sylvia. But his deepest devotion was reserved for his older brother Morrie (by only 2 minutes), who was his best friend until he passed away in February, 2012—which coincidentally, or not, was the first time I noticed any convincing symptoms of dementia exhibited by Dad.
Dad was a devoted uncle to 7 nephews and 4 nieces—always willing to celebrate their birthdays, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and weddings. And he was always willing to offer his counsel, regardless of time.
My father was also a fiercely devoted husband to my mother, Bertel. Throughout their 58 years together, they built an enduring and nurturing marriage founded on trust, reliance, and love. They took good care of their family and each other until the end. When the last 2 years of Mom’s life became especially challenging—as she battled yet another cancer that would eventually ravage her—my father nursed her around the clock with grace, always giving more of himself than what seemed humanly possible.
Dad and Mom had 2 sons: Ron and me; and 2 daughters: Marilyn and Debbie–within a 12-year span. Growing up, it was often a helter-skelter household with strong personalities always competing for attention. All too often, Mom would invoke the all-too-familiar “Wait till your father gets home” warning, but after a time, I realized that Dad’s bark was worse than his bite. Typically, our home was filled with books, music, kitchen aromas, and prayer.
The 80’s and 90’s were productive years for my family, which eventually made Dad a devoted and doting grandfather. He enjoyed time spent with my boys, Noah and Nathan, and Debbie’s girls, Rachel, Zoe and Ava. Decades later, after Dad’s diagnosis and subsequent commitment to a long-term healthcare facility, Ron would add Benyamin and Baela to the mix.
Dad’s grandchildren were always his principle source of pride and joy, providing him with limitless nachas and so many opportunities for gifts and giving.
Three years ago, despite deep-seated dementia, Dad rallied and flew from West Palm to New York to attend Zoe’s wedding to David. It was a Herculean effort with all hands-on-deck, but I don’t think I’d ever seen him happier and prouder while bearing witness to a third-generation family marriage.
A year later, Zoe and David presented Dad with Ari, making him a great grandfather for the first time.
But my father’s devotion extended beyond family.
He was also devoted to his country. At 19, Dad enlisted to do his part in World War 2. He was inducted into the Navy on May 8, 1943, serving aboard the USS Chester. He was later transferred to aircraft carrier, USS Antietam and deployed to the Pacific warzone. Dad rose to the rank of Petty Officer, 2nd class before his honorable discharge 3 years later.
When Dad returned from the war, he entered the wholesale plywood business, and quickly learned what he could from family and competitors. After a series of sales jobs in the industry, Dad established Steel City Lumber Company in 1956, and rode an opportunistic wave of building and remodeling around Pittsburgh’s vicinity and northern Ohio.
He was devoted to his customers, offering a superior product at a fair price by reinventing the DIY shopping experience. He eliminated the behind-the-counter model of dusty hardware shelves and open lumber sheds and replaced them with airy warehouses, where shoppers could now walk shopping carts through wide aisles and select merchandise from open bays–bringing a more user-friendly concept to the attention of Home Depot.
He was devoted to his business partners, inviting his brothers-in-law along to share in his success. He was also devoted to his suppliers, establishing extended relationships beyond the workplace. But most importantly, he was devoted to his employees, retaining many of them until he sold the business 23 years later.
Dad and Mom resettled in Long Boat Key during 1979. Rather than retire at 55, Dad embarked on a failed life of golf and sailing, and a prosperous second career in commercial and residential property investments, where his devotion now extended to his tenants.
Lastly, Dad was a pious man. He was deeply devoted to the tenets of Judaism and tzedakah, and eagerly devoted his time as Men’s Club president at Pittsburgh’s Temple B’nai Israel and Sarasota’s Temple Beth Shalom, where he was also an active board member for Israel Bonds.
Even as a resident of MorseLife Memory Center for the past 4 years, Dad was a constant presence at Sabbath services and High Holiday services until he was no longer able.
After Dad weakened so, and became bedbound during the last weeks of his life, Leah and I would periodically video chat with hospice assistance. Music became his true salvation, so we would always conduct a virtual sing along when connected.
I fondly remember Dad joining in, giving us the best of what he had left, indiscriminately shouting “YEAH, YEAH, YEAH” as we serenaded him. And that gave me an idea. If I tweaked the words just a bit, I could get Dad to participate in a Beatles classic:
Hence, we’d sing, “We love you…” and he would magically respond on cue with, “YEAH, YEAH, YEAH!”
Regular visits by Lisa, the hospice music therapist would often be effective in bringing Dad added comfort and solace. She would always close her visits with a rendition of Oseh Shalom. Even in Dad’s darkest hours, I could see him come alive for a shining moment, as I would watch his lips form silent words.
Dad, I love you. I miss you. And I will always carry your memory with me.
I‘d like to believe that Dad can still hear us, so I’d like to close my remarks with Oseh Shalom performed in unison…
Oseh shalom bimromav
Hu ha’aseh shalom aleinu
V’al kol Yisrael
May the one who creates peace on high, bring peace to us and to all Israel. And we say: Amen.
It was eerie hearing a detached cacophony of unsychronized voices on the iPad–from across the country and from far away places like Israel, England and Belgium–yet for all the misgivings of being alone together, it was a textbook example of making the best out of a bad situation.
Sadly, there can be no traditional Jewish period of mourning, where people assemble for seven days to say Kaddish for the dearly departed. The pandemic will not allow for it. Instead, we will individually summon the voices in our heads, and offer a silent chorus of blessings.
Rest in peace, Dad.