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The Long Goodbye

My father wasn't there, but it took us all a fwe days to figure it out; his eyes kept getting more and more clouded over until there was no way he could come back to life, ever, not with eyes leaving him like that.

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My father's friend Harold Raizes told him about living wills. Harold brought my father one and my father signed it and Harold signed his and they put them away. I don't know where. Took them to safety deposit boxes, most likely. Or to Melvin Cohn, the lawyer. (There's an old story my father used to tell. When he and my mother were in their early years of marriage, my father had Melvin draw up their wills. My father signed his and sent it back. My mother wouldn't sign hers--it gave her the creeps, the same way she shivers whenever anyone mentions cats. She scrunches up her eyes and shoulders and her body shakes a little. So my mother's will sat and sat, unsigned and unsent. Finally my father asked Melvin to call my mother and tell her there'd be an extra charge if she didn't send it back right away. So Melvin called my mother. And she complied. I don't know when my father let her in on the secret, but he used to tell the story in front of her, and she'd look embarrassed, caught, and she'd laugh.)

When my sister and I used to fight--and I mean when we were already both out of college--my father would say, "Someday when we're gone, you're going to be all that's left," and we would say, "That's silly." Meaning: It's not that serious. We won't fight over your will. Our disagreements don't run that deep. The three of us--my mother, sister, and I--thought he was getting morbid, melodramatic.

Richard Nixon also signed a living will. After his death, I heard on the radio that one in five people has signed such a document. The reporter threw the fact of that in our faces, our ears rather, with the testimony of a woman--I almost said widow--whose husband was seriously injured in an accident and lay in a nursing home, no longer a thinking person. That man had not made a living will. The woman told National Public Radio something like this: "He didn't want to be kept alive if anything like this happened. He said if I let him live that way, he'd haunt me every day of his life. And he has."

That day I heard the broadcast twice, caught the woman's underlying, unsaid protest: It was a Friday night; I was going to dinner with my family. It was an ordinary treat in an ordinary life. How could fate have crossed our paths like that? Is it too much to ask in this world to go out to dinner in peace?

My father hated shopping. He didn't like waiting for my mother when she was shopping; she comes from a long line of people who can't make up their minds. Large items, small--cars, suits--he bought what was there, as quickly as possible, and was done with it. One Saturday in August six years ago he drove my mother to the airport for a 50-minute flight from Houston to Dallas, where she was going to visit her parents. (In their 90s, frail.) My father asked her, "Are you really going to leave me all alone?"

Then he went to Walter Pye's, a local department store, where there was a big sale on men's clothing. The sale was ending that day, I believe.

Two or three days later we were sitting in the hospital waiting room we'd taken over, and a man from Walter Pye's came to see us. He couldn't have expected to be allowed to see my father, because at that point, though the family had the run of his room--we could go in whenever we wanted--it was out of bounds for others. I think. All I remember is the man seemed--this is the best word for it--teched. He was laughing nearly hysterically while he said, "You go to buy some clothes and look what happens, look what happened to Avrohm Wisenberg."

I'm not capturing it. The man was nervous. I think he meant to say something about irony, that no activity is a safe one, that by now we're used to people being kidnapped in shopping malls and stabbed in parking lots, but to be felled by a heart attack while trying on clothes? And he wanted to absolve Walter Pye's of any guilt. The clothes didn't kill my father, after all.

My father wasn't dead yet. Though I believe that he died while he was trying on clothes. I wonder if, in a few generations, when we're all gone and there are a couple of great-great- grandchildren interested in family history, one of them will say offhandedly to a friend: "Did you know my great-great grandfather died while he was trying on clothes?"

So Walter Pye's was having a big sale; it was possibly the last day of it, a Saturday, a day when many doctors are not in their offices, and two of them were in a nearby dressing room. Just after the salesclerk noticed my father's upturned feet under the door, the doctor-shoppers gave my father CPR. An ambulance came. Someone in the store who knew our family called one answering machine after the other until he located my sister's husband's sister's husband, who had no idea what to say when asked about my father's medical history.

Which tells you as much as anything else what it's like to be Jewish in Houston, to have decades of roots in the place, and thus to be part of a network of people who grew up together and do business together and shop together.

Phone calls were made, airplanes were taken, and on Sunday my brother-in-law picked me up from the airport, where I'd flown in from Chicago. I didn't think to ask about the bloody shirt in the back of his van. I found out later that my father had been wearing it. My Uncle Charlie had volunteered, too, to pick me up--my widowed, childless great-uncle who was slowly dying of cancer and liked to make himself useful--but I preferred someone my own age, a friend-relative, and I had the luxury of choosing who would greet me at the airport and take me to the hospital. Later, in the hospital, Charlie asked, "Why couldn't it have been me instead of Avrohm?" He was about 15 years older than my father, had become intimate with the idea of his own death.

My father's chest was rising and falling rhythmically, the perfect kind of deep breathing you're supposed to do, only his was powered by a machine. You could go in there and talk to him and look at him--his eyes were open but not looking at anything. He wasn't there, but it took us all a few days to figure it out; his eyes kept getting more and more clouded over until there was no way he could come back to life, ever, not with eyes leaving him like that. The young doctor who'd been my father's internist twitched his lips whenever he approached us in the waiting room, seemed almost amused that we were talking about my father as if he were still a person; the doctor already knew that my father was just a body, that my father's life was over. The young doctor told us the number of days or hours remaining before my father could no longer revive. Harold Raizes came to the waiting room, and then other of my father's friends came, and my uncle from Dallas who showed us how to open small Perrier bottles using only a nickel and thumb pressure, and my aunt and uncle from Oklahoma, and my aunt and uncle from Houston, and my father's friend Harold Turboff, who came through with his son, who was in the same hospital recuperating from a skiing accident. Harold Turboff was the father of someone who would walk out of the hospital, however unsteadily.

There was an honor guard waiting outside Nixon's hospital room, waiting for the signal that he had died. Jews aren't supposed to make preparations for a funeral while the person is still alive. The point is, I guess, to concentrate on the life still within the person, to be fully present at the last moments. But what happens when you have a living will and it says no extraordinary measures, or in other words: If I am shopping in Walter Pye's and I have an aneurysm that bursts (because that seems to have been what happened, not a heart attack), and I'm seemingly revived but my brain is gone because it was deprived of oxygen, and I'm lying in a bed and slowly losing my face, my self, then disconnect me from the machines, stop the breaths that electricity is making me take, making it look like I'm taking--pull the plug. Because I've already been dead for hours now. Days.

When it was clear my father was not going to turn back into himself, the rabbi, my uncle, the doctor, and a nurse went into the hospital room. I went in too, the only member of the immediate family. My sister and mother stayed in the waiting room. My uncle put his hands on my shoulders. The rabbi read the 23rd Psalm. My father, like a lot of other men who were boys in the 1930s, used to know an old parody of it: "The Ford is my auto. I shall not want another..." I read from Ecclesiastes because I thought that summed it up much better: The race is not to the swift. Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.

And then he died. Officially. He was a few weeks shy of 71.

A year later I was talking to someone who had moved from Chicago to Indiana so she could be with her ailing parents. She told me about the night her father died. She heard him, heard what she realized later was the death rattle, and stayed in her room. She didn't want to intrude upon his death. When she said that, I told her about my father's death, told her that later I felt voyeuristic, that I shouldn't have been there, that I had no right to watch. It was private. We were killing him and decided to watch. How obscene.

Another year passed during which I still felt queasy when I thought of it, standing there. And why was my uncle, his brother-in-law, there too? And didn't the rabbi feel ridiculous? Say a prayer, pull the plug. The prayer to say before pulling the plug. In the appendix of the all-purpose prayer book. For the 90s. The only thing that might make sense is that somewhere in the back of his mind my father might have known that this was going to be said as he died, last rites, and so it was fitting, it was necessary. He expected it. He lived his life with the unstated assumption that the 23rd Psalm would be said as he died, and in some way that animated and informed a small, small portion of his life.

A Jewish guidebook on death that I've just bought tells me, "It is a matter of greatest respect to watch over a person as he passes from this world on to the next." I suppose it is an honor to be there while the soul leaves the body, a comfort to the dying to stay with him till the end. But to witness the moment when the doctor cuts off the breath?

In his memoir Patrimony Philip Roth tells about his father's brain tumor, describes how his 86-year-old father asks the surgeons for one more year, then three and four. Roth imagines his father finally demanding "only what I deserve--another 86 years."

(As illogical as the solution to the dilemma in a joke I used to tell, a joke my father took as his own: A shopkeeper comes home during lunch and sees his wife on the couch with his head clerk. He runs to the rabbi for advice. "He's my best clerk," the man tells the rabbi, "I can't fire him. She's an excellent wife," he tells the rabbi, "I can't divorce her." The rabbi tells him to return in a week. The man does, absolutely beaming. "What," asks the rabbi, "you fired the clerk?" "No." "You divorced your wife?" "No. I sold the couch!")

The end was the way my father wanted it. That is true. That's why he signed the document that Harold Raizes brought him; Nixon probably signed his for similar reasons. (For Nixon, too, pride must have played a role: He didn't want to go down in history as the president who lingered, reduced to unconscious processes. And for the same reason, Reagan officially absented himself from the scene after sending his handwritten letter about Alzheimer's to the press. He wants control of his last image.) But we know, all of us, it wasn't the way they wanted it. The way they wanted it was to stay another 70-, 80-odd years. And to stay the same.

At my father's funeral the rabbi recited the ancient words: "A man's time is three score and ten..."

I counted up. Seventy? Only 70? He was 70. How could they say 70? How could they say 80 even, or 90?

In a little pamphlet the rabbi gave us there's a story, taken from the Buddhists, about a woman who grieved and grieved because her son had died, and she would not bury him. A wise man told her to go from house to house and to bring back a mustard seed from a family that had not known sorrow.

Of course she went from house to house around the world and found that everyone had been touched by sorrow. She returned home and buried her son.

In Jewish tradition, you keep a pitcher or bowl of water outside your door just after the funeral, so that people coming from the cemetery can wash their hands, purify themselves after contact with the death. Tumah, the uncleanliness is called. My mother, sister, and I decided not to set out the pitcher of water. "Old-fashioned," my mother said. But the traditionalists, remnants of a dying generation, reproached us as they entered our house. Explained clean and unclean to us, as if we hadn't known. They could not imagine that we could know tradition and not carry it out. There was of course a reason. At heart, we could not accept that my father was unclean, separate from us. Or that someday in turn we will be separate, different, from what we are now.

There's another tradition, of serving boiled eggs after the funeral, a symbol for continuing life. We did that. That was easy.

While my father was still on machines, the doctor with the twitchy lips said, "He's healthy." Meaning, if not for the aneurysm he'd be in fine shape. His heart was beating soundly. We said, "This is the first time a doctor said he was healthy." He had a lot of health problems, small and medium. Everyone in the family did. He would say of my grandmother, "She's enjoying poor health." He would say, "Do you know what the hypochondriac's gravestone said? 'I told you I was sick.'" When we went to the cemetery for a funeral (everyone we knew was buried in that cemetery, it seemed, from my sister's friend who died of Hodgkin's just after college to the grandfather I'm named after) my father would walk over our plot and say, "I'm checking out our property." My mother would cringe: morbid.

Ashkenazi Jews name their babies after the dead. I was proud to be named for my father's father, who died a year before I was born. Similar Hebrew names (his Shalom Leib became my Shulamit Leah), American names (Solomon Louis, Sandra Leah), same last name. I was proud when I went to services on the anniversary of his death and stood on the pulpit in the chapel while the rabbi praised my grandfather and our whole family. Then we'd sponsor the corned-beef-and-rye dinner afterward. My father would always point out that the kaddish, the mourner's prayer, does not have the word death in it.

Jewish tradition holds that for 11 months after a member of your immediate family has died, you go to synagogue every morning and evening to say kaddish. I've read that the logic, if it can be called logic, is this: The worst possible person, the most evil, is condemned to be judged by God for 12 months after his death. We assume that our loved ones were better than that, but to be cautious we pray for 11 months.

I didn't say the prayer twice a day. I thought about going to my neighborhood synagogue in Wrigleyville for morning and late afternoon services. But I hardly know anyone at that synagogue; I am not part of that community, and none of them knew my father, who died 800 miles away in Texas.

I observe the anniversary of my father's death. And I dream about him. At first the dreams were obviously about my coming to terms with his death. In them, he was slowly detaching himself from this world. Now he's just there, not a major character, not solely in the background either--mostly a presence. He's alive, but there's something of the past about him: his suits are old, and he often looks off in the distance. Not long ago I dreamed that my mother was divorcing him. We were at a huge gathering; my mother was animated, my father quiet, rejected, talking softly with a couple of friends. In real life, my mother was moving to a condo in a few weeks; she'd sold the family house a couple of months before, after spending weeks painfully going through drawers and closets she hadn't been able to face earlier.

When I saw her that Thanksgiving in Dallas, along with dozens of other relatives from her side of the family, I noticed that she had moved her engagement ring to her right hand and no longer wore her wedding ring. That weekend was alive with children; one of them was a toddler named Adam, my cousin's son, named after my father.

I am growing used to having a dead father. My father has become someone to recall, to quote almost casually. My mother and sister and I have our little rituals: on the anniversary of my father's death I call my mother; on Father's Day she calls me and my sister; on my father's birthday my sister and her children buy lottery tickets, which my father talked about more often than he bought. I find it strange when people assume that I have parents, plural, and ask me if they still live in Texas.

My father died almost six years ago. I can't quite believe he's underneath the ground, though I saw the casket lowered there, right in front of me, on our property. When I'm in airports, there's always an older man in a suit who looks, for a second, like my father. When the phone rings, for a moment I think he might be on the other end. I'm reading The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning by Maurice Lamm and regretting that we didn't light candles around the deathbed, that we didn't tear our clothes, that I didn't follow the other rules and customs of an onen, a mourner. A few days after my father died I returned to Chicago (flying at the "bereavement rate" the airlines offer, as long as you can provide an obituary as proof) and to my life: I worked, I listened to music, I went to a birthday party.

My regret comes not from feeling I'm a bad Jew, but from feeling that I ignored the traditional rituals that emphasize the significance of the death: Stop in your tracks. Your life is no longer the same. Mourn deeply for 7 days. Avoid pleasure for 30 days. Recite the kaddish for 11 months.

I can't go back in time and decide after all to recite the kaddish twice a day, just as we can't bring back the dead. The purpose of the 11 months of mourning, I've decided, isn't so much to pray for the souls under divine judgment, or to get us out of the house and associating with other mourners (though that's what my father always said, another example of the practicality of the religion he would offer, as if selling something), or even to comfort us with the thought that we'll be remembered just as we remember others--well, of course it's all that, but there's more. With every breath the kaddish prayer becomes more familiar than names of streets or phone numbers, becomes a chorus, a chant, a mantra, until a groove of belief is etched into our brains, until the words stay, stick with us, force us to finally understand: he's gone he's gone he's gone.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/ S.L. Wisenberg.

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