Such is life. The wonderful paired with the horrible. Today is Valentine’s Day.
Valentine’s Day. The day that the dad and husband sends flowers and candy to his wonderful spouse and terrific daughters with messages of love and delight that they are such a big part of my existence. I order the flowers and such for delivery with great gusto and joy.
Valentine’s day. Today is my father’s yahrzeit. That is the anniversary of his death and today is the first-year anniversary. I miss him every day. The old Jews knew something when they established a year for the official mourning period. With that passage of time, phenomenal support from my spouse and children, and some pharmacological assistance, I can miss Rif without becoming maudlin. When we lit the candle to commemorate his yahrzeit, I was able to smile at all the funny, happy, and wonderful memories I have of my father. Believe me, that is great progress from a year ago.
I wrote a few things about Rif prior to his getting ill, during his illness, and after his death. I shared those with a few folks but did not publish on my blog until now. I thought I would pay tribute to his memory by sharing my thoughts about my dad with you. Below you will find four pieces: “Thoughts on Waiting” was written during the last stages of Rif’s losing battle with pancreatic cancer. “Eulogy” contains my remarks at the funeral service. “I Want to Tell You” was written a short time after Rif’s funeral and “Letter” was written in 2015. There is some duplication among these writings, my apologies for that.
Rif, I love you and miss you.
Thoughts on Waiting (January 2017)
Billions of people have gone through this before me. Do they all feel like this? The incredible rage, the overwhelming sadness, the powerful fear of loss? I want to scream. I want to cry, well, really, I want to stop crying. I want it not to happen, but I also want it to end. And there is not one god-damned thing I can do about it.
My father is dying. It’s likely to be days, not weeks, certainly not months. Pancreatic cancer with an added dose of mini-stroke doesn’t mess around. It kills you. But really, it kills you not fast enough. It kills you but first it makes you feel lousy, then it hurts you, then it robs you of appetite and your ability to walk, then your desire to get up, and then your ability to speak, and, in combination with the drugs, it finally robs you of your ability to stay awake or focus or recognize your family and friends. Only then, finally, will it kill you. It makes you wait and it makes you crave release.
A week ago or so, my father said he’d had enough. That he didn’t want to live like this, robbed of his mobility and his dignity and knowing he had no future. Knowing how it was going to end anyway. And there wasn’t one thing that he or I could do was non-violent and there was nothing but palliative care that the medical community could legally do. For him, for the situation that was taking his ability to enjoy life, nothing we can do. Of completely sound mind (up until a week or so ago, at age 88, I would put his memory and command of the language up against anyone a third his age), he is not allowed to make the ultimate decision.
That is wrong. It is inhumane. It is misplaced fervor for the medical condition of life but not the reality of life. How can those fighting against the right to die, like so many (but certainly not all) of the right-to-lifers who so fervently protect the unborn, show such callous disregard for the born? Is it better to live in physical and psychological agony than to die peacefully at a time of your own choosing? Having now observed this now first-hand, I think not. We are being cruel.
So we wait. We let the sadness fill us up so that it leaks out of our eyes. We look in on him, sleeping virtually 24 hours a day, and cringe when he occasionally cries out. We go in and out of his room, hoping to catch a lucid moment to say, one more time, I love you, Dad. I am going to miss you. Despite the lack of lucidity, we say it anyway – as much for ourselves as for him.
A few days ago, as I was headed home for a day or so and before he stopped speaking, he asked me, “when do we say goodbye?” and I said, “how about now…. I’ll be back, and we can say it again”. I was wrong. We said it on Saturday and by the time I returned on Tuesday, the power of speech was gone. His, not mine. I can and will say goodbye again. But that’s for me.
I have been lucky, for I have said all I have ever wanted to say to my father. I love you. You were a great Dad, and a great-grandfather. Thank you. I could always count on you. My wife and my children adore you. I hope I am/can be half as good a father as you were.
I am even more lucky, because my father has told me everything he wanted me to hear and know. We have nothing left unsaid, there will be no regrets on that score.
And so, we continue to wait.
Eulogy (February 2017)
I am going to miss this man.
I am going to miss my Dad. I am going to miss that large presence. I am going to miss his sometimes strange, sometimes wicked and always sublimely entertaining sense of humor. I am going to miss his prodigious memory – anyone who ever watched an old movie with Rif knows what I am talking about….and as an aside, I remember as a kid asking him about something and he referred me to the exact volume and page in the Encyclopedia Britannica. Now that’s scary.
I am going to miss his wise counsel – although I did not always take it and quite resented it as a teenager and young adult. In retrospect, it was always directed with care and concern. I am going to miss the reality that I can no longer simply pick up the phone and, in the voice of his Aunt Toba, say Roland-Ku, how are you? as a prelude to a half hour of great conversation about politics, family, sports, books, whatever.
He was the father I loved and feared as a child, whose discipline and approach I resented as a teenager, whose advice I wanted and needed as a young professional (but as I said earlier, did not always follow), the man who got smarter as I got older.
By the time I was in my early 30s, the relationship was such that I asked Rif to be my Best Man when I married Patricia. Dad, and Mom, were great in-laws – if perhaps even too reticent to impose. Perhaps due to their own experiences with in-laws, we had to extend invitations and beg for visits, such was their desire not to be seen as interfering. Rif was a terrific grandfather, and flew solo when Iris, a terrific grandmother, passed away.
Not without his faults, although at this point looking back, they don’t seem to loom so large as perhaps they once did. And certainly, the perspective of a child is different from one of a spouse or a friend.
With or without all of that, I am going to miss this man.
This is a time for reflection, for looking back. For Rif’s passing is not a tragedy, but certainly a sadness for those of us whose life he helped shape and form, for those who were fortunate enough to be in his orbit, and for those he cared about.
We recently visited Rif’s childhood home in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. My impressions, formed at a very young age, were of this enormously steep set of brick steps leading from the street to the house. 55 years or so later those steps didn’t seem so steep. Memory can play tricks, perspective is all.
Ironic then, perhaps, that my memory of this man who loomed so large for me as a child is little diminished 61 years later. He still looms large for me.
Yes, I am going to miss this man.
Rif’s story is one of interest and achievement – one of love and relationships.
I grew up with only a few stories about Rif’s childhood. Running a bit wild on the streets of Brooklyn [many years later, while viewing the opening scene of John Travolta walking down the street in “Saturday Night Fever”, Rif said to me, “That’s Bay Ridge, that’s my neighborhood, and it is just as grimy and rundown as it was when I was a kid”], swimming in New York Harbor, taking the subway into Manhattan on his own. A bit of an energetic child – tough to control. Clashed hard with a hard father to the point where his Mom decided to send him to school upstate. So, at the age of 14, Rif left home to attend The Anderson School. He never lived at home again. Independence and school discipline seemed to work its magic – he became a student and an athlete. A Letterman – 14 or 15 times. Baseball, Basketball, Soccer, and Track. He made lifelong friends at the Anderson School – friends he talked about and talked with for the rest of his life.
It wasn’t until I was in my early 50s and at a rare family reunion – in response to my statement that Rif went to “prep school” that a cousin remarked with great glee – “Prep School? You Dad didn’t go to prep school. He went to REFORM school.” Well, who knew? Fits though. What a hoot.
Whatever the Anderson School was, it was great for Rif. He went to college – his first year at Ithaca College where he played Varsity Soccer. Good enough, the story goes, to start on the team that beat Syracuse University that year with Rif scoring a couple of goals. A right wing who could kick equally well with his left foot, it was unfortunate that when he transferred to Syracuse for his second year, he could not get the time of day from the Syracuse soccer coach because he was a walk-on, not a scholarship. It was only after he told the coach he was quitting that he reminded the coach of last year’s game against Ithaca.
He traded a soccer ball for an oar and rowed heavy crew. Made it to third boat, worked his ass off, but could not make it to second or first boat. Asked one of his friends on first boat what it would take to get there, the response was that there was nothing to be done….Jews didn’t make it to the first two boats. It must have left a mark because in my life with Rif, I never saw him fail to confront anti-Semitism. And, as you know Rif, confronting it vigorously and effectively.
I am going to miss this man.
Syracuse was life changing for Rif. It was at Syracuse that he met, wooed, and married the love of his life, Iris, with whom he spent the next 60 years as best friends, boon companions, and loving partners. I have never seen a marriage like theirs – they depended on each other, laughed with other, challenged each other intellectually – made esoteric English lit jokes, quoted Burns and Faulkner and adored each other for each and every of the near 60 years they were together.
For the past 5 years, I would ask Rif if he was keeping busy enough, if he was lonely. His response was always the same., “I am not lonely”, he said, “I just miss my best friend”. They were each other’s closest and best friend. It was remarkable. Towards the end, when the disease was really limiting him, he told me he was tired of it…but mostly, he said, he was tired of waking up alone.
My Dad, the Brooklyn kid married my Mom, the East Orange city kid – and then promptly moved to Dover, Delaware. In a remarkably few years, his dear friend Ted Ressel made an avid outdoorsman out of him and he was rarely happier than when clamming, crabbing, or duck or goose hunting on the Delaware shore or pheasant hunting in Northern Illinois and Southern Wisconsin. Family stories abound with Rif bringing home the day’s bounty to his New York City raised wife for preparation. It is a testimony to the strength of their relationship and Iris’s unbounded love for Rif that Iris learned how to prepare and cook game. Whether she ever actually partook of such repasts is a subject of debate.
I am going to miss this man.
And then, the story of the duck plucker. Taking the feathers off a bird is hard, messy, tedious work. My father, never the handiest guy around, bought an attachment for his electric drill called the Duk Plukr (let me spell that for you). While my mother was standing at the sink looking out the window to the back yard (this is in Dover) Dad plugged in the drill, attached the Duk Plukr, and used it on the duck. Mom said that one moment it was a sunny day, and the next moment it looked like a blizzard – duck feathers everywhere in an instant. Like whole bunches of pillows suddenly opened and emptied out. And, as it turns out, a fair amount of the duck got obliterated as well. End of experiment.
Oh, my, am I going to miss this man.
Life is not without its challenges, but Rif, with Iris by his side, met them head on. One child (me) born too early, major medical issues, ADHD, and more than 10 major surgeries throughout his life. Another child with major sclerosis – and when that was thought to be corrected, that same child was killed in a plane crash. A teenager with big issues. An adult child with cancer. And, and, and. And through it all – as a couple and alone as a father, Rif was there. He always believed things were going to get right, and for the most part he was correct because he did such a good job to get things to be right.
Not surprisingly, the loss of a child changed my parents, but particularly changed my Dad. He became a bit softer, a bit less demanding, more accommodating. The fact that Mom and Dad survived this tragedy with their marriage stronger than ever is miraculous and against trend, but I believe that is what happened.
Rif approached work with the same discipline and same sense of humor that he approached everything else. The discipline was legion, the sense of humor always a bit surprising. He once showed me a letter (which I will clean up at bit) addressed to a lawyer. On company letterhead. Dear Mr. Lawyer. Screw You. Harsh letter to follow. Sincerely. Roland Finkelman.
Or his 2-inch block letter stamp that imprinted “Bullshit” in deep red ink. I now have one of those.
One great story is how, after winning a union election at a Northern New Jersey plant, he arrived back in Dover only to be met by the CEO and the VP of HR with tickets for him and the family to take a couple of weeks of vacation. Apparently, Jimmy Hoffa had called for him and the company thought it best that Rif take a little time away from work.
Yes, I am going to miss this man.
He was known as a great boss who created followership. Many of the folks who worked with him became life-long friends.
So, yes, Rif will be remembered because he was memorable. And I am going to miss that man.
I was a sick kid. When I was 8 or so (I think, though I may have been younger), I had a terrible asthma attack and could not breathe. Dad took me to the doctor, who dropped a needle into some adrenalin and then stuck me with the needle. Dad picked me up and took me to the car and put me in the front seat next to him.
I was a tiny kid, skinny, short, undersized, beset with allergies and asthma and ADHD. Dad was huge, the front seat of the car was huge. I sat next to Dad and he asked me how I was doing and I said I felt really scared. I had major adrenalin shakes and felt really weird. Dad put one enormous arm around me and pulled me close and told me I was going to be OK. I felt warmer, and safer, and I believed him. And soon, I was.
When I was 17, I became a foreign exchange student to Brazil. I got there with no language skills and was instantaneously and debilitatingly homesick. I cost my parents a fortune in phone calls pleading to come home. Finally, my host family tired of my nonsense and sent me home. When I landed at O’Hare, I was met by my father, in a tuxedo because I had pulled him out of a major business event. I expected a tongue lashing, what I got was a hug and a kiss. The tongue lashing, came later, and it was pretty gentle compared to what I deserved.
At 27, I was in my first semester at Harvard Business School, convinced I was the admissions mistake. Everyone around me knew more, had better work experience, was better prepared, smarter. I was convinced I was going to fail, and let Rif know that on a daily basis. Finally, at perhaps the end of his tolerance, he told me I could quit and come home if that is what I wanted to do (I had lived at home for the 2 ½ years between college graduation and Harvard). However, he told me two things. First, he reminded me that I was not going to Harvard for him, but for me. He said if I was hanging in and doing it for him, I was making a mistake. He told me his love for me had no conditions – he did not care if I finished or not – and that result would have no bearing on his feelings for me. Second, he told me that he wanted me to hang up the phone, go down to Boston Children’s Hospital and walk around the pediatric oncology ward and then call him back to tell him how damn hard my life was. I did what he told me to do. I graduated 18 months later.
In retrospect, those memories of being in the car, or being met at the airport, or providing the “tough love” stand in for a lot of my memories about my Dad. Not all of them, of course, but many. Dad made me – and others – feel warmer, and safer. He motivated, even when sometimes I did not want to be motivated.
I have spent my parenting years saying that if I could be half the father that Dad was, I would consider myself a successful parent. Now, with grown children, I still believe that is true.
As a family, we have learned that what you can’t imagine can happen. And armed with that, we promised ourselves we would always be current with each other. And we have been and are today. We are lucky. I am lucky. Rif knew exactly how I felt about him, there is nothing I did not tell him that I wanted him to know. No regrets.
Just a little over two weeks ago, as I was headed home for a few days, Rif gave me a hug and asked, “When do we say goodbye?” and I said, “how about now” – and we did…and then I said…. “I’ll be back and we can say it again.” I was wrong. We said it on Saturday and by the time I returned on Tuesday, the power of speech was gone. His, not mine. I can, and will say goodbye again.
I will miss my Dad. Goodbye, Rif.
I Want to Tell You (April 2017)
I want to tell you about my day.
The joke your granddaughter made about the picture of sea-foam we sent her as “Florida snow” as Boston was predicted to get 18 inches of the real stuff. I didn’t know they made a middle finger emoji and I wondered if you knew.
I want to bitch and moan about Trump and his Cabinet and almost Cabinet of liars and cheats and know-nothings. How the latest guy just got caught lying about payments from Russia and how plans for gutting the FDA and EPA are important because we need to spend 5 times more on our military than the number two country and as much as the next 11 countries. I knew you would be batshit.
I want to tell you how good my dirty martini was this evening…..how those anchovy stuffed olives really add a flavor I like….because I want to hear you laugh at my adolescent palate again.
I want to tell you I had a dream about Mom, something that rarely happens….remembering a dream, that is. It was really weird. Mom riding a bike and stopping next to me and getting off and me saying, “hi there, old lady, how you doing?”. And then I woke up.
I want to tell you how my brother and I and your brother are talking a lot more to each other lately and how good that is. Not like talking to you, which we can do for an hour before we realize the time had gone, but good none-the-less.
I want to tell you about the Nickolas Butler novel, “The Hearts of Men” that I just finished. Really good. Sad in a way but promising in another. A great coming of age book. Perhaps not quite as poignant as Frank Conroy’s “Stop Time” or quite as shocking and enlightening as Claude Brown’s “Manchild in the Promised Land”, but really good. I want to tell you I remembered that you read Claude Brown’s book to us at the dinner table and later I read it myself.
I want to say thanks for helping make me a life-long eclectic and non-discriminating reader.
I want to, but I can’t. You died a bit more than a month ago and with that, all these conversations are now in my head.
What I don’t need to tell you is how much you meant to me and how good a father you were and how helpful you have been to me and my family. I don’t need to tell you what a good friend you were to me as an adult. I don’t need to because I said all of that before, thank God, and I have no regrets that you didn’t know how I felt. I don’t need to tell you those things again.
But, I want to.
Letter to Rif (April 2015)
I read the attached in the op-ed section of The New York Times this Sunday past. I like Frank Bruni’s pieces and thought this was particularly good. Along with the piece I copied for you by Roger Angell, I found these articles to be incredibly cogent and insightful while also being truly honest writing – writing that rings true and right.
In both cases, I was reminded of you. Certainly, the details do not fit you exactly, but they certainly ring true to me of the things I think about you.
You have managed to maintain a wonderful sense of humor for as long as I can remember…. irreverent, sharp, broad in nature, and applied as much to self as to others. Occasionally colorful, never crude. Never overdone. I hope I grow into that as you have.
You have, to my mind, softened as you have aged. The father I remember as a young child is not the father I remember as a young adult and is different from the grandfather I see now. None was ever anything but good, but there is a difference, more benevolence, more relaxed, more easy-going. My children adore you and do so with good reason. And I know the feeling is mutual. I have said often to Patricia that I believe you like her more than you do me….as an indication of the warmth you have shown her.
One quote from Bruni hit home specifically when he wrote about his father, “…which is really his secret for life, and has nothing, obviously, to do with the money….It has to do with his eagerness, in this late stage of life, to make sure we understand our primacy in his thoughts and his jubilation in our presence. It has to do with his expansiveness.” That could have easily been written about you. I certainly feel that way, I know Patricia does, and I would absolutely bet that your grand-daughters do as well.
Mom, in her typical self-deprecating manner, said that my Patricia was the best mother she ever saw, and I have no argument with that at all. What you may not know is that I have said to Patricia that if I could be half as good a father as mine was, I would consider my parenting a huge success. I mean it. Thank you.
I love you.