Saying Goodbye

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.

sailor portrait

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.

wedding portrait

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!”

last pic with Dad

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
V’imru: Amen

May the one who creates peace on high, bring peace to us and to all Israel. And we say: Amen.

graveside (3)

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.

The Gift

Much has changed in the past two years. Counting down birthdays for my father has become a nervous inevitability for our family as he ages and succumbs to a numbing dementia that continues to rob him of the vitality he enjoyed before entering MorseLife Memory Center four years ago.

Today, Dad is 95 and unaware of everything in his life that has brought him to this grand occasion. Occasionally, he dazzles us with fleeting flashes of familiarity, like an imprinted song lyric, or he chuckles at a joke. Otherwise, we are left to personify his thoughts and feelings.

Even now, we long for the not-so-old days when frustrating bouts of stuttering and looping sentences would trail into nothingness as he attempted to express himself. At the very least, it was a short time of momentary lucidity and coherence.

My father is a man of very few words, and even fewer deeds. He restlessly idles in a wheelchair for most of the day, waiting for more time. But time is not on his side. One year ago, Dad was exercising in the facility swimming pool with assistance (see Happy Birthday, Dad!), however a viral infection compromised his balance, and eventually incapacitated him. Now his withered legs will no longer support him.

While he still manages to feed himself, his prepared meals are entirely liquid-based and served in a cup, as he has forgotten how to chew and swallow. We made this discovery seven months ago, after visiting during mealtime, and watched Dad feed himself a forkful of solid food, only to sweep his mouth with a forefinger to rid his cheeks of masticated goo.

Whenever family gathers, we are always determined to remind him of who we are and what our significant relationship is to him. With resignation, we still ask the same questions that we know all too well remain unanswerable–like, “Dad, can you tell me the names of your children?” And of course, there is only silence and a vacant stare.

While we are ready to concede that this ship has sailed, we somehow embrace the notion that he must certainly know us, but just can’t find a way to verbalize it. As a result, we have accustomed ourselves to asking closed questions which we know will easily elicit a “Yes” or “No” answer. Nevertheless, hospice staff continues to gauge the quality of his life by prompting him.

“Are you comfortable, Carl?” and “Do you need anything, Carl?”

Nevertheless, one bright and shiny catalyst in my father’s life that continues to move him is music. No matter that his eyes are closed, and he appears to be napping. Whenever he hears music, there is always a wagging finger and a tapping toe to mark the beat.

Ongoing research has been conducted with music and the measured response of Alzhemer’s patients. The Mayo Clinic reports…

Research suggests that listening to or singing songs can provide emotional and behavioral benefits for people with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. Musical memories are often preserved in Alzheimer’s disease because key brain areas linked to musical memory are relatively undamaged by the disease.

MorseLife is a strong proponent of music therapy, and provides music entertainment as part of their daily ritual for residents. For instance, Raoul performs every Friday afternoon before Sabbath services. He and Dad bonded immediately once Raoul noticed Dad’s exuberance during an afternoon music session last year. Taking a short break from his act, he asked Dad what he did in the real world, and Dad answered without hesitation (but falsely) that he was on the radio. The next week, for Dad’s 94th birthday, Raoul presented Dad with a cap forever identifying him as Radio Man.

Radio Man
Dad’s 94th birthday celebration

Despite a collection of a dozen or more caps, Radio Man has become his most cherished possession, and he hardly ever dresses without it.

Not to be outdone, I felt compelled to deliver a gift for Dad’s 95th birthday celebration that would be equally as memorable. But given his present circumstances, what do I give a man who has everything (except his memories) and requires nothing (but his memory)? I gave it a lot of thought and happened upon an idea that required stealth and deception.

Our family gathered in the Memory Center’s private dining room this past Friday to honor Dad with a party cake (for us) and ice cream (for him). To make it a little more special, I presented Dad with a smuggled bottle of Chivas Regal–his go-to booze for most of his adult life, until he was no longer allowed.

Because of MorseLife’s stringent no-alcohol policy, Dad hadn’t tasted hard liquor in over four years, so naturally, I wondered how he’d react. Would he think the heat too harsh? Or would he flatly reject it like he did when he was once offered liquified macaroni and cheese for lunch?

Since there were no objections from my siblings, as they were equally as curious, I poured Dad a finger of Chivas, and we toasted him.

The results were priceless.

I poured him another…and soon after, another. Each time, his reaction was identical.

He had to know that this was a special day!

The floor nurse stopped by to check on our birthday boy. She immediately spotted the open bottle of Chivas on the table and straightened her back with her hands on her hips.

“I hope that Carl isn’t drinking that!” she admonished.

“Absolutely not,” I answered, quickly. “Ask him yourself!”

After she left, I poured him another.

“It’s the last one,” I promised over Leah’s loose objection.

Same result. “Oooh!” “Ahhh!”

We moved our celebration to the common room, where Raoul was already entertaining the residents with his Latin-flavored karaoke. Once Dad was situated, the party started in earnest.

Raoul offered a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday,” and we were there to witness Dad’s glory.

To hear Dad sing was an unexpected gift to us all.

Happy Birthday, Dad!

After nine months of driving 32,000 miles and covering 102 destinations, Leah and I arrived in time to celebrate Dad’s 93rd birthday at MorseLife Memory Center in West Palm Beach, Florida. It had been ten months since I had last seen Dad, and I was determined to be there to mark Dad’s latest milestone.

But things did not go originally as planned. In my mind, Dad had remembered the dozens of phone calls we shared prior to my arrival, with me always reminding him of our anticipated plans for our visit: how Leah and I would pick him up and treat him to dinner at a local Chinese restaurant–something he hadn’t tasted since relocating to a Kosher assisted-living residence over two years ago.

Instead, we found Dad sitting in his lounge chair in his room, with a nebulizer mask around his face. His eyes were shut and he was still, as the whir of the machine misted steroids into his lungs. I glanced at his right hand to examine the damage the nurse had called to tell me about while we were enroute.

His paper-thin, leopard-spotted skin was loosely wrapped in gauze to protect a tear above the web of his thumb–the damage caused by a tumble after losing his balance while pushing himself out of his chair during a late morning activity.

I removed his omnipresent cap and kissed the crown of his bald head.

“Happy Birthday, Dad!” I shouted, so he could better hear me without the benefit of his hearing aids, out for repair. He opened his eyes, and forced a smile through the mask.

We allowed time for his aide to untether him and prep him for his big night out.

Earlier in the day, there had been a small birthday celebration after lunch, with cupcakes for all the residents on his floor. Although he couldn’t recall the sing-along, he vaguely remembered the cupcakes, which were finger-lickin’ good.

recliner

It seems that one of the side effects of bottomless home-cooking and easy-living at MorseLife has been a steady rise in Dad’s weight–from 185 pounds upon admission, to 220 pounds, currently–accounting for four complete wardrobe changes within the past 18 months.

“Today’s your birthday, Dad. Do you remember me telling you that I was taking you out for your birthday?” I asked.

My question was met with a shoulder shrug.

Trying again, “Do you know how old you are today?”

“Not really,” he replied weakly.

“Today, you’re 93!” I announced animatedly.

“Oh, yeah?” Dad responded unenthusiastically.

“Do you remember your birth date…the year you were born?” I attempted.

“Um, 19……23?” he answered cautiously.

“Very close,” I encouraged. “It was 1924! That was a long time ago!”

“Okay,” Dad replied, nonplussed.

After desperately trying to pull his wounded hand through the sleeve of his windbreaker without causing him to wince in pain, we knew our plans were doomed. Even if we were lucky enough to secure his outerwear, I was clueless how I would usher Dad into the front seat of our F-150 without the assistance of a forklift sheathed in kid gloves.

I turned to Leah. “This is never gonna work. We need a Plan B!”

“I agree,” Leah intoned.

It was just after 6pm, and the other residents were nearly finished in the dining room, so maintaining Dad’s schedule was fast becoming our newest obstacle.

Fortunately, the residence maintains a private dining room for family occasions, so I went in search of Chinese take-out food within the West Palm area, while Leah sat with Dad.

By 6:30pm, we were unpacking cartons of fried rice, spring rolls, chicken satay and sesame beef on paper plates to preserve the integrity of the facility’s dietary laws, albeit, still feeling somewhat guilty for turning Dad a trifle treyf.

But it was hard to argue with Dad’s reaction. He was enjoying himself.

portrait

Surprisingly, he had given up on tableware, and surrendered to his hunger by using his hands. Unlike spring rolls and satay, I never thought of fried rice and sesame beef as finger food, but to Dad, it all looked the same, and tasted like more.

After cleaning up, we posed for pictures with the Birthday Boy,

Dad and me (2)

 

Dad and Leah (2)

and wondered how much of Dad’s party would be remembered by tomorrow. We made him swear an oath–that he would never tell that we infiltrated a Kosher facility with non-Kosher food.

And sadly, he never will.