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My Father’s Eulogy

For my dad, Elliott M. Ginsburg, 8/15/41–10/7/15.

This is the eulogy I gave for my dad on Friday, 10/9/15 at Temple Emanuel-Sinai in Worcester, MA. He was sick for more than two years, and he suffered badly. I was there for every day of it.

Good morning. Thank you all for taking the time to be with us today.

Before I talk about my dad, I’d like to take a moment to thank the nurses and hospice aides who took care of him over these last couple of years. You provided him with much more than just medical care — you gave him friendship, companionship, and you were his tether to the outside world, for he was keenly aware of how much he was missing out on, trapped in that bed day after day. More than anything, you gave him a measure of the dignity he so deserved and that cancer, and heart disease, and a correspondingly deep depression tried so hard to take away from him. Thank you for giving Elliott his dignity.

I could tell you about Elliott’s life, a linear chronology of an only child born in 1941 to parents old for their time. He was their golden child, the center of their universe and later, Sam and Gladys became the center of his universe, for he idolized his parents until the very end of his life. Gladys would have been 110 a couple of weeks ago, and I brought him a picture of her taken when she was about 40, when he would have been a small child, and he smiled dreamily at the sight of his beloved mother. He was forever their son.

I could tell you about his life’s obsession, Arrow Wholesale, and how he was the best pure salesman you’ll ever see. He was a man of great passion; for food (the topic of where he ate dinner, and what he ate for dinner, where I was going for dinner, and what I had for dinner, was a constant topic of discussion), for the Boston Red Sox, for classical music and Broadway theatre, for telling dirty jokes, for the old-time radio shows he listened to on cassettes while he drove 70,000 miles a year, and for the treasure trove of 5 & Dime store memorabilia that he collected so enthusiastically. He was passionate about his children, too.

I could tell you what he was like before he got sick, before we reached all of the lasts: the last Father’s Day, his last birthday, his last lobster. I could tell you how I struggle to remember him as he was, before all of this, how he was a complicated man who could be uncompromising in his will and wickedly cutting with his wit, yet also a compassionate soul with an endearing quality almost childlike in its harmlessness. I could tell you about the few faint fond memories from my early childhood, like how he’d carry me down the stairs on his shoulders when I was 3 or 4 years old, to get a glass of orange juice in the early morning hours, the two of us the only ones awake, his good humor in those moments as he told me silly jokes and made funny faces at me.

But I’d like to tell you about a father and a son, and a journey that provided a measure of redemption for both of us. I’d like to share a few stories with you this morning. After all, my dad was a storyteller, and I am my father’s son.

There’s this thing between fathers and sons, an emotional gulf both wide and deep. The need to prove ourselves to our fathers can be a lifelong obsession, long past the time when there’s anything left to prove anymore. The gulf is an ocean of things left unsaid, feelings suppressed by the fear of the reaction to revealing them, resentments grown malignant with the passage of time; a kernel of hurt becoming an angry tumor of frustration. If we don’t address them, they eventually harden into regret, frozen in emotional amber, for the eternity of our memories.

On October 4, 2013, my father and I were sitting in Dr. Shepro’s office, still optimistic that he could somehow beat the prostate cancer despite the Stage IV diagnosis, when the oncologist casually said “you’ve got 18–24 months to live.” Dr. Shepro’s prognosis turned out to be off, by 3 days.

In those two years, we traveled thousands of miles together. For a man who’d driven well over 3 million miles in his life, these figurative miles were the most difficult, because of the destination we reached on Wednesday.

For those of you who don’t know, my father and I shared a 2-family house. Despite our physical proximity, we weren’t especially close for many years. We both worked insane hours, each of us caught up in the day-to-day whirlwind of our workaholic lives, of a self-imposed pressure to constantly prove ourselves…to ourselves, ultimately. Like father, like son.

Arrow Wholesale went out of business in 2012. Suddenly, his life’s driving force was taken away from him. By then he’d already been showing signs of illness, and without the cover of Arrow to ignore what had become obvious to all those around him, he sank into a deep depression. He simply stopped participating in life, hiding in his apartment, venturing out every few days to buy gallons of orange juice. One afternoon, I’d come home early and was outside with Maxine when he pulled up. He had no color in his face, and his clothes were stained and foul-smelling. He looked like a dying man. I said “this has to stop. You need to see a doctor immediately.” Four days later, he was in cardiac ICU, in full kidney failure, his heart literally broken, and a formal prostate cancer diagnosis. Everything changed at this point. No more driving, no more trips to Barnacle Billy’s or Maine Diner; no more independence. He was terrified of the surgeries he faced, the uncertain recovery, the uncertainty of navigating a life that had been torn apart, the pieces scattered across the floor into a puzzle he could not solve.

And then…Rachel got engaged. Rachel, his pride and joy, his golden child. The stubbornness that so often in his life infuriated those closest to him became an asset. He was going to be at Rachel’s wedding. He was going to walk her down the aisle, no matter what.

In those months, I took him to half a dozen doctors’ appointments, and each time, as he’d tell one and all “my daughter is getting married this summer!” one of the nurses would take him by the arm and say “let’s practice walking her down the aisle.” They’d take him by the arm and in his slow, waddling walk they’d march 50 feet down the hallway and back again, and he would have this almost childlike, beatific smile on his face. He was free to be the proud father of the bride, his head held high. For a moment, he was just Elliott again, not a sick man with cancer and a bad heart and failing kidneys. He was Rachel’s father, and once again a proud man. Throughout all of it — planning the wedding with Rachel, supporting her emotionally through the stresses of it all, he was again working and needed. He was engaged with life again.

My father was a man who lived on the road for 50 years. He knew every cheap motel, 5 & Dime variety store, and every diner from New York to the Canadian border. Going to New Jersey for Rachel’s wedding was his last road trip, and he made the most of it. I drove, with him in the front seat and Maxine in the back, her nose peeking out the window — watching her gave him so much joy. Being on the road, as frail as he was, brought him alive again. He pointed out all the old Ben Franklin stores along the way, noting with his old spark of humor which ones still owed him $150, which Greek diners had the best lamb chops and which ones had the lousiest yet cheapest coffee. He told me stories about road trips he’d taken with his father, his eyes alight with the vividness of the memories he cherished so greatly.

The wedding itself was his last grand moment. He was able to walk Rachel down the aisle, and deliver the toast he’d painstakingly worked on for months. The relief in his face when we drove back to Worcester was obvious. He simply turned to me as I loaded the car and said “I did it.”

Maxine. Ah, Maxine. I’d be remiss if I didn’t include her in this tribute. For the few of you who don’t know, Maxine is my sweet yellow Lab. She is much more than the four-legged member of the family. She is the grandchild I never produced (sorry, Mom).

She played an integral role in bringing my father and I closer together by becoming the bridge between my father and I, the bridge that narrowed the gulf down to a shallow river. Because I often worked from home, I would bring Maxine upstairs to his place in the morning and leave her with him for a few hours. She would lie on the floor next to his couch, the two of them napping contentedly, snoring in harmony. On Sundays, I’d pick up breakfast at McDonalds and the two of them would share pancakes and bacon (if you’ve never seen a dog eat a pancake, it is kind of awesome). The sheer joy on his face on those Sunday mornings was palpable; he was once again a little boy playing with his beloved collie Patsy. Her bright-eyed dog smile, focusing her unconditional love on him; and he in turn would lie on his couch and soak it up like medicinal sunshine. We’d talk about our walks and our hikes and rides in the car, and I’d show him pictures on my phone, and it made him smile every single time. She would make him smile just by her presence, and through her, he began speaking with me in ways he never had before.

Dad started sharing stories of his childhood with me, about the neighbors and his baby sitters and his steel-trap memory recalling the most minute details of them, his face and voice animated with renewed vigor as he detailed chapters from the most halcyon days of his cherished adolescence. He told me about life with his parents, from his mother signing him up for dance lessons — he went once — to going on the road with his father as a young boy, eagerly soaking up the lessons Sam imparted about taking care of your customers, about the importance of relationships and knowing what mattered to each of them. He told me about his years at Cushing Academy, where he was a member of the junior varsity and varsity soccer teams…not as a player, but as the water boy who’s job it was to provide oranges for the players to eat at halftime, except that he’d eat most of them during the first half, leaving the players to share whatever was left. If there was one thing a teenaged Elliott Ginsburg wasn’t going to get, it was scurvy.

Anyway: by telling me these stories, I got to know my dad not as my father, but as a man. I saw all of his fears and insecurities, his regrets, as well as his deep-rooted kindnesses and compassion too. He watched him cry silently, all of his longing and loneliness and heartache pouring out of him, and I begin to understand him on a much deeper level, and learned more about how and why he was the way he was. I saw his fierce intellect, ever curious to explore more deeply the passions that drove him and sharing those passions with me. I became his confidant and his peer. In a very childlike way, my father always had — and needed — someone to take care of him, and in his last years that someone was me. I couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunity.

Just before Rachel’s wedding, we’d had a long talk about what to expect that weekend, his concerns about his health limiting him at the wedding, and then thanking me for helping him through all of it, and at the end of that conversation, for the first time since I was a little boy, he said “I love you David.” It hit me with the force of all the earth’s gravity. All at once, he removed the last vestige of doubt I ever had, the power of such a simple statement overtaking all the energy in the room. Of course, I said “I love you too Dad,” and hugged him — again, for the first time since my childhood. We said it to one another often after that, the words gaining more power as his physical decline accelerated; his voice weakening yet the emotional power he infused it with ever stronger.

About a year ago, I was struggling professionally and about to quit a high-paying job that I absolutely hated. I was telling him how I felt, and how I was scared to quit this gig, unsure of what to do next. He looked up at me and said, in full voice and as classic an Elliott moment as there ever was, “FUCK ‘EM. Fuck ‘em all. Do what makes YOU happy with your life.” Dad, I promise you, that’s exactly what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.

Maxine got sick 6 months ago. He was devastated by it. She was hospitalized for 5 days, and when she came home, he was overjoyed, the relief visible on his face, and he asked me over and over “she’s going to be ok, right?” “Yes, Dad. She’s going to be fine.” Unfortunately, Maxine isn’t going to be OK. A month ago, she was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer, and her time may be short. Yet I look at it this way:

Dogs need jobs. They need a purpose. Maxine’s purpose was to help my father and I grow close, to work our shit out while we had the time to do so. She was by his side every day, right up until Wednesday, when he died in the middle of a beautiful fall afternoon. She lay on the rug outside his room, waiting for them to come get Grampa, protecting her Grampa one last time. He loved her every bit as much as I do, and she knew he needed her. As her time sadly winds down, I like to believe that she’s completed her job, fulfilled the bulk of her mission and with her remaining time will help me adjust to the new normal, before she can be reunited with her Grampa.

In late August, when he was in really tough shape and seemed like he could pass at any moment, I was sitting with him late into the evening one night. By this time, he was asleep most of the time, too weak to do much more than open his eyes for 30 seconds or so at a time, but he was still quite lucid when he did speak. He felt his death was imminent, and he was scared. He apologized again for being sick, and for being emotional about it, although of course no apology was really needed. He looked at me and said “I tried my best. I did the best I could” through tears of pain and regret and that same fiery stubbornness because he just did not want to die, regardless of his condition. “I did my best.” I believed him then, and I believe him now. “I did my best.” And then, in what became the last lucid thing he said to me, he turned to me and with a mix of resignation and arch humor, said: “I love you David. This is a hell of a thing.”

I have one last story to share with you.

Last year, my dad and I had had an intense conversation. Not an argument, but a dialogue that over the course of 45 minutes or so touched on some very deep personal matters for each of us. He shared with me his fears of death, of leaving us behind, of all he was going to miss out on, of his sadness and hurt over some family matters. He apologized to me for being sick, for putting so much of this on me, for needing me to be his confidant and caretaker. He apologized for becoming dependent on me for everything, wracked with guilt that he couldn’t even go to Cumberland Farms anymore to get his own orange juice. I said “it’s ok Dad, I’m happy I’m able to help you.”

He paused, and then he said something extraordinary. He looked at me, his eyes watery and his voice quivering, and said “thank you for being my son.” And I’d just like to say, one last time: thank you for being my dad. I love you.

Thank you.

What We Talk About When We Talk To The Dead

Originally published on 5/30/16, Father's Day


A few months before he died, before the terminal agitation of his final weeks rendered him a Billy Pilgrim-esque time traveler, my father asked me for a promise: that I’d come visit his grave after he died. That I wouldn’t leave him forgotten, unattended in his sunny spot in the middle of the B’nai Brith cemetery behind his parents’ graves, the seasons changing but the permanence of death forever steady.

I’ve kept my promise.

It’s not easy to visit his grave. When I go, I go alone. There’s no headstone yet, just a black and white grave marker at the foot of his grave, the grass yet to fill in where the earth was dug and his coffin buried last October. I can still feel his loneliness, his sadness, coming through. The air gets thick and heavy as the memories come flooding back. His decline was long and slow and painful, physically as well as emotionally, and my steel-trap memory recalls it all in great detail. Like him, my capacity for minutiae is extraordinary.

And then I start talking to him.

(I’m not talking with him. I don’t really believe he can hear me, or see me. I don’t believe in Heaven or Hell or god after all. Yet there is a cathartic comfort brought about by speaking out loud to him, speaking to the grave marker bearing his name and birthday and the date of his death.)

This is what I told him today:

“I miss you Dad. I think about you every day. I hope Maxine is with you, and you’re both healthy and free to roam around, keeping each other company.

I often hear your voice in my head, telling dirty jokes and making silly puns, sprinkling bits of Yiddish when it adds to the humor.

Whenever I go out to eat, I think about you asking me where I went and what I had…and how much I paid for it. I think of you whenever I have sushi, how you’d make a face like the thought of eating raw fish made you ill and then repeat that old Jackie Mason joke about how the Jews really invented sushi.

You would love the Red Sox this year. You would’ve enjoyed watching Jackie Bradley Jr.’s hitting streak, and Papi’s insane final season. You’d probably like Dave O’Brien as the lead voice on NESN too, and ask me over & over why Remy is off so much and how you think Eckersley is terrific as the color guy but Steve Lyons is a bore. You’d hate the new radio guy, because he sounds like Jerry Trupiano, whom you couldn’t stand.

I think of you every time I go to the supermarket, how I used to buy all your stuff and how you were a pain in the ass to shop for, yet I knew that I’d miss doing it after you were gone. I do.

You’d love Pearl, the dog I adopted a couple weeks ago. Another lab, young and friendly and impossibly cute. She’d take all the treats you could give her and nap with you in your hospital bed.

Clare & I broke up a while ago, Dad. It didn’t work out, but that’s life. You know, you were married twice.

I’m resilient. You kept on going until your body just couldn’t go any longer, and then you hung on for months longer, your will to live stronger than your body ever was. You gave me that tenacity too.

I’m moving on, Dad. Think I’m gonna sell the house and start fresh somewhere. I don’t know where yet. I was there for you when you needed me. I’ll forever be grateful for that. You were there for me too man and I won’t ever forget it.

I love you Dad. I hope you’ve found peace. Give Maxine a scratch behind her ears from me and share all the bacon and pancakes you want to with her.

I’ll talk to you again soon.”
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