A day or two after my father died, my uncle handed me a several page document he had typed up, single spaced; an obituary for his brother Irv. Thinking about it now, he must have written it before he left for Florida to sit by his brother’s deathbed.
“Call the New York Times and have them put this obituary in the paper,” he instructed me.
It was longer than the obituaries for most popes and twice as tedious. I read the first few paragraphs, wondering about the wealth of senseless detail, everything my uncle could remember about his life with his brother, their childhood in Peekskill.
The readers of the New York Times would surely want to read about the pride the two young First Hebrew Congregation of Peekskill members felt as they marched down Main Street in Peekskill under the banner of the shul, presumably in their Boy Scout uniforms, or some impoverished facsimile thereof. The details poured out, not badly written, but clearly not the tight obituary prose of a former journalist setting out the who, what, when, where, why and how. Page after page of this.
Needless to say, I didn’t rush the obit to the New York Times to be set in type. I set the pages on a table, I don’t remember what happened to them. Which is sad because they would be of some use here.
The lost New York Times obit is ironic, and fitting as a final act of post-death penance, because my father read the New York Times obituaries every day of his adult life. His obituary never appeared in the Times or in any paper, except perhaps as a short item in the First Hebrew Congregation of Peekskill monthly bulletin.
As adults, my uncle often cringed around his brother, and laughed that scraping, inhaled laugh of his, and they generally seemed quite familiarly uncomfortable around each other. As my father was dying, in the days preceding his last breath, he kept asking about his brother. “Is my brother on his way?” he wanted to know. My uncle rushed to the hospital, arriving the day after I did. I picked him up at Fort Lauderdale airport.
In the hall outside my father’s hospital room he stopped the doctor to ask about the possibility for a liver transplant for his almost 81 year-old brother in the final stage of liver cancer, abdomen swollen with ascites, kidneys already shutting down.
Years earlier my uncle had instructed his daughter, Ann, who died tragically young of an aggressive cancer she had been told she’d beaten, that he wanted every heroic measure taken to prolong his life. Measures currently in existence and future technologies that would be developed while he was kept viable, if not completely alive, in cryogenic suspension.
“He basically told me he wants to be kept alive as a brain in a jar, until they invented a way to graft his brain into a head on a new young body,” said Ann.
I gently but firmly pulled my uncle away from the doctor. In my father’s room he made little jokes, and laughed at them himself to demonstrate that they were jokes. This may seem a very cruel way to portray a man who was losing his only brother, who was seeking some kind of closeness and closure he’d never had with his big brother, who was now suddenly dying. It may be cruel, I don’t know, but it is also as it was.
It was very poignant for my sister and me to watch the way these two tormented boys from Peekskill clung to each other in the hospital as the older one readied himself to breathe one last time. I don’t know that they talked about anything profound, I doubt it. I have no idea what they said to each other. It’s hard to believe they did more than keep each other company and feel the love for each other they’d been mostly unable to feel for the entirety of their long lives. That is no small thing, of course.
A few years earlier my father stayed at my uncle’s house for some reason, maybe related to my first cousin Ann’s memorial. In the days before her death Ann had made herself invisible to her parents, hidden the location of the hospice she was in during her last days out of fear her parents would show up and make a scene, demand that she come home. I was at Ann’s memorial, actually, so I don’t remember exactly what the occasion was for my father overnighting alone in Kensington, Maryland with my aunt and uncle.
I do remember what my father said immediately after he got back to Florida from the visit. It is as wonderful an example of his style as I have preserved. I recall it today verbatim because I wrote it on the drawing I was fiddling with as we spoke on the phone. I asked how my uncle was doing. He paused for one or two beats. “Well, we can talk about that when I see you next week, but for now, let’s just say, he remains unchanged.” I always admired the sleek compression of the statement.
At any rate, (a phrase my father often used), I do not seem to have the claustrophobically detailed obit my uncle wrote. I don’t think it was in digital form, I didn’t find it with the rest of the Irv-related emails and other files on the computer. I don’t think the pages are in the heavy paper folder I kept with my father’s funeral and headstone arrangements. I will look for it again, though I doubt I have it. Thus I don’t have the little odd details of their childhood in Peekskill to flesh out here. I will set out the few I remember hearing from my uncle before and after the funeral, as we passed places in Peekskill that jogged his memories.
“My brother sees everything through rose colored glasses, he lives in a world of wonder, everything is an adventure to him,” my father told me more than once. “He once saw a guy filling a soda machine and he said ‘oh, Irv, I wish you had been there. You would have loved it, the guy had this thing with wheels and all the colors of soda were piled on it, and he rolled the cans down these curly chutes, oh, man, it was so cool, you should have seen it!’ That’s a great quality, I think.”
At the same time, he remained unchanged. ‘Let’s just say,’ my father said, ‘he remains unchanged.’ We both knew very well what he meant. Although my father believed people could not fundamentally change, my uncle’s failure to do the impossible was nonetheless very distressing.
My uncle was mild-mannered, cornily playful and always ready to laugh. I was an adult before I saw his furious temper for the first time. He was a raging tyrant. My mother had always hated my seemingly gentle, playful uncle and I never knew why. She had seen his angry, rigid, controlling side early on.
As adults my sister and I, confronted for the first time with his quick, unaccountable rage, his operatic irrationality, suddenly knew why our mother felt that way about him. Holy shit, it was a rude awakening, as they say. We couldn’t get away from him fast enough, aborting our weekend plans to get the hell out of there early the following day.
“Take your garbage with you!” he snarled, clamping his hand on the lid of the garbage can I was attempting to put a small bag of car garbage into before we drove off. When I got back into the car still holding the little bag of fast food wrappers, and quoted our uncle, my sister and her husband cracked up. We were relieved to be hurrying back toward the interstate.
But those last few days at the hospital when our father was dying, after sitting by the bed all day, joined by a couple of final guests, attended at various times by my mother, sister and brother-in-law, my uncle would not leave his brother’s side.
“Go ahead, Paul,” my father told him at last, “Elie will stay with me. You guys have been sitting here all day, why don’t you take a break, go get something to eat. It’s OK, really.” He said all this very reasonably, and they all got up and went down to the cafeteria.
He turned to me when they were gone and said “I don’t know how to do this.”
I assured him that nobody did, that it would be fine, not to worry. I was remembering what the doctor had told me about how peaceful death by kidney failure is. “You just kind of go to sleep,” is how he put it. I was hoping that would be the case, silently helping him along, after the nurse helped me take down the divider on the side of his bed so I could sit closer to him. His death was pretty much as the doctor had said, the breaths just became shallower and shallower until they stopped. The whole process took maybe twenty minutes.
When he was done breathing, I closed his eyes with two fingers of one hand, like in the movies, and gave the oxygen tube back to the nurse, who had discreetly left us and had tiptoed back in after a respectful interval. “He won’t be needing this,” I told her.
I remember the moment very well, it was a Friday at sunset, toward the end of Passover. The sun had sunk low in the Florida sky, the sky was stained beautiful pinks and oranges behind the darkening silhouettes of palm trees.
When everybody got back up to the room they cried and I told them about his last moments, how peacefully he’d gone. My mother was in anguish that she hadn’t gotten to say goodbye to him, wanted to know how he could leave her without letting her say goodbye. I reassured her as best I could. The nurse assured us all that many men send everyone away when it’s time to die, that most men can’t die in front of a bunch of loved ones. “It’s too hard for them,” she suggested. I imagine she’s right.
My sister and I took my mother back to the apartment where she’d live the next five years as a lonely widow. My uncle and my brother-in-law stayed with my father’s dead body until late in the night. They stayed by his bed until the crew from the morgue finally came up and got him, and then they sat in the morgue with him until the folks from the Chevrai Kadisha, the Jewish burial society, came to take him and prepare the body for burial, and shipment back up to Peekskill for his eternal rest.