My brother, the mensch
After my father died last October, my brothers and I received waves of emails from people who remembered Dad with affection and were saddened by his passing. They came from family members, of course, but also from colleagues and associates at the University of Connecticut, former students, friends from earlier chapters of his life. One that particularly touched me was written by a man who had belonged to the fraternity Dad had advised, Sigma Phi Epsilon. The writer said he'd taken a comedy course with Dad and had come to know him as "a great man with a love of doing good deeds, but also of laughter."
Laughter was truly one of the hallmarks of my father's character. He enjoyed humor, from the satire of Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope to the grand high silliness of Gilbert and Sullivan. And he was never, God bless him, afraid to look foolish. He'd put on a wig and a skirt and play a grande dame in a play his class was reading faster than you could say "Oscar Wilde." He infected his three children with his love of wordplay to such an extent that family gatherings sometimes degenerate into pun-fests.
Less obvious was his love of doing good deeds. Dad had a quiet sort of kindness and an intuitive empathy that he never talked about or expected any acknowledgment for. It showed itself particularly in his visits to the rehab center and at the hospital near where my parents lived. He would just drop by sometimes, to see if anyone he knew was there. I recall Dad's telling me about one man he knew only a little. He'd looked the guy up online and had learned that the man had played lacrosse in high school, so he casually brought it up the next time he visited. The guy was delighted to talk about his old school and his athletic exploits!
This generosity of spirit was also communicated to his children, and to none more than my brother Peter. Not long after Dad's death, I had an image of Peter carrying Dad on his back, like a hero from some ancient epic. That's what Peter did after my mother died: every day for three and a half years, he carried Dad on his back. He was, and is, a mensch.
He and his wife went through 40 years of accumulated stuff in my parents' house, sold or gave away some, put some more in storage, and threw out a whole lot. He got the house rented in a down real estate market and eventually sold it.
Peter took Dad to doctor's appointments, kept track of what medications Dad was on for what purpose, educated himself about Dad's medical problems and asked questions about treatment. He arranged for Dad to move to assisted living, returned phone calls, often several times a day, from the assisted living staff, made sure Dad was signed up for events like bus trips to the opera, took Dad to get groceries and haircuts and had him over to his house often. He constantly tried to encourage the staff to see Dad as a person with rich experiences. rather than as a collection of symptoms or behaviors.
Peter was caretaker, cheerleader, companion, noodge, advocate, comforter and more. And he did all this while he was maintaining a busy law practice and raising a family. Eventually, he recognized that it was time for Dad to live in a place designed for people with dementia, researched different options and brought other family members in on the decision about where Dad should go. That move made Dad's last year much calmer and happier than it would have been had he not moved.
Peter's devotion and love, his sheer persistence, carried Dad through his last three and a half years. What he did is the finest tribute to Dad I can imagine. It was the act of a great man with a love of doing good deeds.
My father didn't die: he lives on in his son.