~Life Without my Dad
When my dad in Milwaukee was diagnosed with cancer in 1998, we were living in Israel. We built a home in the community of Maccabim, halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. It was a modest townhouse with a small yard big enough to accommodate a patio, an inflatable pool and a few trees. The olive tree, at first small enough to fit in my Mitsubishi Lancer, was deeply rooted and had grown tall. The peach tree was filled with sweet peaches every year. The mango and avocado trees struggled. The lemon tree was prolific, planted in the corner near the herb garden. The kids were thriving in school and in their social lives. My son had just won the community bike race. They had mastered Hebrew after initial difficulty. My youngest was 5 weeks old. Then I got the call about my dad.
We figured this would be an opportune time to go to the States to provide support for my dad and better English skills for our children. It is a common scenario…the two year plan became 22 years. That’s a story for another time.
My dad survived the cancer and other major medical challenges in the subsequent years. He became a popular speaker on the Holocaust all over the city. He was a humble man at 5 foot 4 inches but he was a force. He could be vulnerable and emotional while still maintaining strong masculinity. He adored women and fell deeply in love again after my mom’s death.
My muse/massage therapist once told me that daughters follow their father’s script. In my case, I hope that is true. My dad and I had a unique, very close connection. While he objected to me living in Israel, I know it made him enormously proud. While he was skeptical of my medical ambitions, he loved to say “my daughter, the doctor.” He always called me a “gypsy” and repeatedly asked me to “stay put!” I was away for years, but I did a pretty good job of sticking around in recent ones.
My dad had a caregiver but I was the only immediate family member in town. I spent this last year constantly on edge. All day I was preoccupied, anticipating a phone call. I either was over at his apartment or feeling guilty I was not there. His apartment was too hot- he was always cold. I was frustrated with his hearing loss, compounded by his inability to read lips through a mask. Often I was panicking under my mask. I saw my life ticking away. I was resentful that people avoided him because of Covid.
Like Laura Linney in Love Actually, I believed being there for my dad meant I couldn’t be there for myself. This, in direct contradiction to the advice I give to weary caregivers.
He lived 100 years. Throughout the Holocaust he never once thought he would not survive. The first time he realized he was going to die was the day before he actually did. He said he was ready. He said “G-d owes me nothing.” But I wonder…he did tell me he “would like to stay around for a few more bar mitzvahs and weddings.” He would have liked to see the outcome of the election. He would have been first in line for the vaccine. Watching the national news was a ritual every night and I was involved. He recorded and retrieved every major news channel, programming with the remote himself up until the end.
One night I mentioned that Turkey was open to Americans during the pandemic. I know what he was thinking: there she goes again, running off, planning her exit strategy. He used to say “if I had a nickel for every time I drove you the airport, I’d be a rich man.” When he knew he was dying a few days later he said, “now you can go to Turkey.”
My dad died on October 12, 2020.
There is that sense of relief that he went after a long extraordinary life and that I was there. But I have not gone to Turkey. I have not bought a German car (like many survivors, he avoided German products). My adrenaline level is lower but still not back to baseline.
I feel his absence like a sense of uneven footing. Like there is a railing missing. I didn’t always listen to what he said but I wanted his opinion. Now I’m the oldest person in the room. I’m the grownup. All my life he was that guy. Now it is on me to figure things out.
In the meantime, I honor my dad by humming old Czech tunes to my grandson at night. I look in Kai’s big brown eyes and I see a shiny glimmer of an old soul. I see my dad.