On a Wednesday evening before the weekend before Thanksgiving, I received the awful and unexpected news that my father died suddenly. Although he was 81, he was fit and exercised regularly. He looked years younger than he was supposed to look at his age. And he was still strong and taller than I.
He had been recovering from surgery after a hip fracture, from getting up suddenly and stumbling when he was trying to get the phone. After doing exercises at a physical therapy facility, he said he wasn’t feeling well and it was clear something was happening with his heart. The ambulance came and took him to a hospital farther away instead of the one across the street, since the other hospital had a cardiac unit. And I think by the time they got him there, my father was dead.
And that’s what “the greatest healthcare in the world” did for my father.
I flew out to Detroit airport on Saturday, where my sister and two nieces picked me up to take me to a suburb of Toledo, Ohio, where I grew up. Landing under the gloomy, windy sky at the Detroit airport was like landing in a cold, dreary hell. It was a perfect weekend for a funeral.
My father had sometimes said no one would come to his funeral. On Sunday for the funeral service, over two hundred people showed up.
The rabbi mispronounced our family name, and a few of us in the front row corrected him — most people say the “a” with a long sound, but it’s a short sound, even though there’s just one “b” after the “a.”
He said a few things about how important helping others was for my father in his work as an attorney, often representing people with little money and taking less for his services than he was supposed to, which I knew was true growing up.
Then he compared my dad to Abraham challenging God in his plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, asking God to consider whether there were any good men. He might have appreciated the metaphor, but my father was a strong atheist.
It was still cold and cloudy on the way to the cemetery, my mother, uncle (my father’s fraternal twin brother) and sisters riding in the funeral limousine through Toledo’s Old West End, not far from where my father’s old house used to stand, now a parking lot. We passed old tattered building after building and old, poorly kept houses.
I couldn’t help noticing and feeling the similarity between the city’s state and my father’s. He loved Toledo more than I ever had. He grew up there and never moved anywhere else.
Although Toledo didn’t vote for Trump, I understood nearby areas had. Toledo’s whole raison d’être has been either automobile or automobile parts manufacturing. Finally, looking out the window in disgust, I said, “they just keep trying the same thing, over and over again. Why can’t they adjust to the new economy? Maybe they could try attracting biotech companies.”
My uncle and the driver exchanged news about people they both knew. We tried to think of funny stories about my father. One thing he used to say that made me laugh was, “Don’t worry, Mike. We stuck up for you. They said you weren’t fit to sleep with pigs and we said you were.”
I still couldn’t believe he was gone when we arrived at the cemetery. I kept wondering what he would have to say about the ceremony and burial. Perhaps he would have told us to quit making all this fuss for him.
The Jewish tradition requires that the family members each put a shovel full of dirt on top of the coffin once it’s in the ground. I had my turn and did as I was supposed to do, the dirt pile landing on top of the coffin and making the horrible hollow sound, reminding me that he was inside. My inclination was to help him out. Or if he had to be down there, I should be there too. I know that’s not what I’m supposed to feel, that I’m supposed to go on. I felt a pointlessness to life, knowing I will be there soon, in the scope of the larger picture of time. I tried to think of my son and wife and how I’m supposed to think that it’s my job to go on.
When we got back to the temple for a luncheon, we were back in the more affluent suburb where I had grown up. The worst part was over — the worst part was watching my mom shovel the dirt on top of my father’s coffin and watching her cry. We sat and talked with family and friends, some I hadn’t seen for a long time.
Since that day, I’ve half expected to speak with my father over the phone, like I have often done, about politics, one of the top two favorite topics in our household. The other one for my father, who was born and 1935 and remembered the war as a child, was Hitler.
All our lives, my father would read books and watch documentaries about Hitler, trying to know more and understand how he came to power and how people chose him to be dictator, starting a world war with a genocidal mission.
We used to give my father a hard time for his preoccupation with Hitler. I once joked that if he had a DVR program, which starts picking shows for you based on prior choices, it would record The Life of Hitler, Hitler A Study In Tyranny and on and on, with nothing but a massive list of Hitler episodes.
So now as news develops about the U.S. president-elect who tapped into the same strategies and same rhetoric to stir up crowds into an orgy of mass hate, I wonder what my father would say about Trump. Would he be as pessimistic as some people or would he think that Trump’s supporters would catch onto his demagoguery and the way he manipulated them with a barrage of big lies?
When I go to sleep and wake up in the morning, it hits me that my father’s no longer around. Then I tuck it away into the back of my mind, like it never happened. Sometimes I think of the news I’d like to tell him about since he’s been gone, and everything else in my life. So here’s my letter/email to my father.
A lot has been happening, as you might imagine. Trump won the electoral votes too — so it’s official now — the United States has lost its mind.
Even though you could be cynical and doubtful about many things, I often found you overoptimistic about the United States and its resilience. I admit that I was wrong about some of my predictions of the U.S. decline that I made when I was in my twenties. And traveling abroad helped me see the United States through outsiders’ eyes, to understand how influential our country is on the rest of the world.
So now we’re going to endure the biggest test since the Civil War. You have to admit, however, that in the past, we’ve had a lot of luck. Maybe we make luck happen. For example, just when things were declining, we had the internet boom in the ’90s under Clinton. But there was a limit to that, and bubbles burst.
December 19th was one of the most nauseating days of my life, of many people’s lives. I have to say, however, that it is funny to see Trump’s childish tantrums even after winning, and how easily he can be provoked.
When I was growing up, you told me about Hitler’s tantrums and kicking his feet, something only his closest advisers saw, but with Trump, we can see a lot of it in the open. Perhaps that will undo him, along with his tax returns and how much of a Russian puppet he is — maybe we’ll find out about that.
So I’m not sure if you’d be laughing or afraid right now. I think the whole family is apprehensive. I think we all understand that Trump has used the same rhetoric used to get crowds to kill a presumed enemy, and that one of Trump’s closest advisers is a neo-Nazi. And there was a gathering of Trump supporter-white-supremacists sic heiling near the White House. We understand the parallels. Trump wants to create a registry for all Muslims.
Trump’s alleged rape victim talked about how Trump disparaged his Jewish “friend’s” penis and sexuality, linking it to his Jewishness. Trump has talked about how he has good genes but others do not. Trump has talked about his sexual endowment in a presidential debate, as if it were part of the reason people need to affirm him and reject other candidates. We understand this goes beyond the comical, because we know the history, how people used this sort of talk of their own dominance and superiority (projecting themselves as strong men), and others’ supposed degeneracy, creating the false narrative that supposed outsiders are rapists, with poisonous genes, and murderers who don’t deserve to live.
I sometimes didn’t know whether to take the literature and movies depicting a world where the Nazis won and took over the United States seriously. Now I’m interested. At some point growing up, I wanted you to stop talking about Hitler. It was too much for me and something from history not relevant enough for the present.
I’m sorry for telling you to be quiet about Hitler. Now I’m startled by all the people who don’t appear to know history and are manipulated through old tricks. One of your favorite quotes, from Santayana: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it” — I used to get tired of you repeating that quote.
One thing to be optimistic about, however, is, first, we have so many brave people in this country already resisting Trump. Resistance to tyranny is still ingrained into our culture.
Although, I understand the day to resist was election day. And I remember your arguments with me when I voted for Nader in 1996 and 2000. However, in this election, I understood the choices and how important it was to stop Trump, and I voted for Hillary, even though Bernie was my first choice. And though I thought Hillary was from that standard party cut of going to bed with special interests and she pandered at times and she voted in favor of Bush’s Iraq war, creating crises spilling out into the rest of the world, destabilizing governments searching for a balanced approach to the refugee crisis and sparking people’s xenophobic fears, I still voted for her.
The second thing is Trump is really stupid. So far, that hasn’t affected his support base. In fact, they like him more for it, his lack of grammar, his small vocabulary, his primitive understanding of international politics. However, he might do something so stupid that it will be his undoing. He is his own worst enemy. His quest for power, however, has probably left a long trail of imbecilic actions, like probably making questionable deals with questionable Russian oligarchs. And he likes bragging so much that he bragged to his own supporters in a public rally how he fooled them.
He also made impossible promises, like building a wall (with no apparent purpose except for propaganda, since more Mexicans are trying to leave) on the Mexico-U.S. border. He’s also promised that he will bring back manufacturing jobs that have left. What happens when people discover he doesn’t have magical fairy dust? He might succeed in getting his supporters to blame some ethnic group. Or maybe he will be exposed as the fraud he is.
What else can I tell you? Often we’d talk politics, and then you’d do a quick check with me how I am and my family, and then you’d hand the phone to Mom. You were almost always watching something on TV.
Anyway, we’re ok.
I finished that novel I was talking about, even the rewrites and edits. Now I’m looking for an agent and publisher.
I have two parts in two independent films. The director released the trailer for the one where I play a South African judge in 1948, just a few days after I came back from the funeral. I think you would have liked seeing me in this role. I haven’t seen the movie yet. Mom watched the trailer and said I looked good. I wanted to see how my acting is, but my words were muted in the trailer — I have to wait for the movie.
Ben is good. He couldn’t wait for Christmas, and Chanukah too. On a Saturday earlier this month, we had some snow and I took him sledding in the park.
Lilla is ok. She was crying when you died. Also, she is worried for both of the countries where she has citizenship.
I know you didn’t believe in life after death, and neither do I really. Is there anything you would tell me now if you could? Well, if there is anything, I’ll see you on the other side at some point.
So who was my father?
He was born in the depression and his family lived in a decrepit house while his father struggled with getting well-paid work. He remembered seeing some horse and buggies on the street. And a handful of old veterans of the Civil War were still alive when he was a kid.
He started working when he was seven years-old running a paper route and then lying about his age when he was older, so he could work in a store.
He managed to save his money and go to college, then study law and become a lawyer. He was born when the U.S. was at one of its lowest, most difficult points, to rise again in its fight during World War II and become a superpower. On the home front, life went from the depression era struggles, to World War II with its rations to the allied victory where food, goods and good-paying jobs were plentiful to more and more people.
I admire him for his hard work throughout his life. But he also grew up in an era where hard work was rewarded. More people than ever went to college after World War II. And through the government’s assistance in home loans, easy credit, guaranteed minimum wages and progressive taxes, a large, stable middle-class arose. My father rode that wave, allowing us to enjoy our comfortable, suburban upbringing.
I came onto the scene on the last day of 1967. One of my earliest memories is from when I was three and we made a trip out west. The tire blew as we were driving through the desert. My father calmly jacked up the car and changed the tire, as my mom cried, fearing the worst, as we stood outside. I didn’t really talk until I was four, so I used to act out the whole scene without words, just sound effects, for company my parents had over, when they asked me to “tell them about the blowout.”
When we were home from the trip, the car company sent a letter to our house that the jack that came with the car was defective. That’s why my mom was worried — she was afraid the car was going to fall on him, but my father managed to work with it anyway.
My father calmly saved our lives, or at least our vacation, another time in a trip out west, when we were driving through Texas and the rain started coming harder than anything we had seen. My mother was nervous and begged him to stop somewhere, for a room. My father insisted on driving through the storm. We kept going and past the storm and instead stopped somewhere overnight at least a hundred miles away. The next morning, my mom, my three sisters and I piled into our station wagon as my father drove and turned on the radio. Then we heard the reports about the flash flood that hit the area we had driven through. I remember hearing a horrible story about a woman dropping her baby into the rushing water as she was trying to run away with it in her arms. More and more news reports told how devastating the flood was.
The ’70s was the time of my childhood. We can find old family pictures that we all think are hilarious now, my father in a ’70s style suit with a mustache and permanent.
He was a stricter parent, as many parents were back then, than we are these days with Ben. I don’t agree with everything about his ways as a father. But as our son gets older, I appreciate him more, and realize how important parenting is, that excessive permissiveness is also a problem, that we need to help children acquire good habits and self-control, keeping them from destroying themselves. Children need parents to help them master delayed gratification — now, I’m haunted by the marshmallow test.
My father was part of the older tradition of fathers.I never saw him cry — my son Ben has already seen me cry when my father, his grandfather, died. He was always the main provider for our family, though my mom went back to teaching when we were all old enough to go to school for the full day.I never saw him scared of anything — one time we had a home intruder, someone either psychotic and/or taking hallucinogens, and my father yelled at him to leave as my mother ran to their room and called the police. He spent a lot of time with his guy friends and clients watching the Saturday game on a large-screen TV at a sports bar.
One time he took me to this bar when I was still a kid and I met and spoke with a detective. Of course, I asked, “What was your most gruesome case?” So he told me a story about someone who had a body in his car trunk. Then he bought me a giant O’Henry bar. Meeting my dad’s friends was fun.
He had less time to come to school events than other fathers. I remember in grade school we gave a concert for fathers in the middle of the day, but my father had a court hearing scheduled for the same time and couldn’t be there. He said he was sorry, and I was mad and upset. During the concert where other kids’ fathers showed up, I pictured him looking at his watch, knowing he couldn’t be there. Later he told me he was looking at his watch, noting the time when the concert was starting.
A few years later when I was in sixth grade he did show up in my school when his career was related to our classroom work, to talk to kids about his job as an attorney. It looked strange for me to see him standing there, with his middle-aged adult face and some balding on top, dressed in a suit, among grade school kids. I was surprised by how short his little talk about his job was, but then he took questions — all the kids’ questions took about an hour. I was proud of my father for being there and telling the other kids about his job.
From my tween years and into my twenties, we were constantly battling and I even thought I hated him many times. One summer weekend, I wasn’t talking to him, and then I forgot it was Father’s Day. I had nothing for him. I felt guilty even though we were fighting. I had to go away that day and my mother found something in my closet. It was from a school assignment a few years’ back in seventh grade — we had to write an essay about someone we admired — it could be anyone, Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, John Lennon, anyone. I wrote my essay about my father, how he had been working since the age of seven in the 1930s and worked his way out of poverty to be a successful lawyer with his own practice. My mother told me she showed him the essay as a Fathers’ Day gift — I thought I should have bought him a card and maybe some sort of gift, and it wasn’t until many years later that I realized how that was better than any gift I could have bought him.
I might have also mentioned my admiration for his dedication to running. People in our neighborhood could rely on seeing him running by at the same time, in even the worst weather. He was running at least five miles a day up until a few years ago, when he developed arrhythmia and had to start taking medication.
One thing that might have shortened his life was his sharp temper when he was younger. When he screamed in his full, deep voice, things in the room would vibrate. By the time Ben was born and he was a grandpa he was calmer, no longer consumed playing the parent role.
With Ben, the day we brought him home from the hospital
When we visited my parents in Florida, where they started living during the winter after their retirement, we had to listen to Frank Sinatra tunes any time we went somewhere in the car. At first it was interesting, but the endless play made my wife and me, and maybe my mom, nauseous. It was one of his habits that we had to accept as part of the deal. We still laugh about it.
I used to have differences with my father over food. He laughed at my enthusiasm for organic food, but I kept telling him how it was important for us to avoid growth hormones and antibiotics in our son’s and our food. He remembered The Depression, so that might explain why he, along with other people his age, was so enthusiastic for the Sweet Tomato restaurants, as Ben would call it (probably inspired by Shaggy from Scooby Doo), “All You Can Eat Buffet.” That became Ben and Grandpa’s thing.
Last year when we visited my parents in Florida, the community had an outdoor movie night with Home Alone playing. As we sat outside and Ben, around the same age as the protagonist, laughed uncontrollably, my wife and I looked at him and my father, enjoying Ben’s laughter. I saw a softer side to my father I hadn’t seen so much growing up.
Having lost my father, I still feel my love is strong for him, though saying stuff like that might have embarrassed him. I try to incorporate the lessons he taught me. His experiences that shaped him and that he shared gave him something valuable to my life. In these times, I may need that more than ever, as a citizen and a father.