Thursday, November 13, 2008

Remembering - My Father

Forty-four years ago today on Friday, November 13, 1964 - when I was 13 years old my father died of stomach cancer approximately three years after first being ill. I remember my mother waking my brother and me up about 6:30 a.m. that morning saying: "Daddy died this morning".

Foolish, naive boy that I was (into my teenage rebellion first listening to rock music - having no needs I thought for my parents) - it was a transformative moment. My father's illness had never been discussed and I had never thought about his dying. At the same time it made perfect sense in that moment.

We got dressed and went to the hospital and I saw my father's body still in the hospital bed - my last time with my father. I didn't cry then, nor over the weekend including at his funeral on the Sunday. Now I cry - easily and openly. I didn't know - a lot then. I know a little more now.

Before he got sick my father was about 5'4 tall and weighed around 140-145 pounds. He felt bad in the late summer of 1961 and what was later determined to be terminal cancer was found to be the problem. In December, 1961 he was operated upon. I remember my mother crying endlessly then. She'd been told at age 37, that she'd be a widow - that there was no hope because the cancer had metastasized.

Seeming miraculously - my father "recovered" and was able to go on a planned sabbatical to study mathematics in Zurich, Switzerland. For a magical year - we traveled during vacations including a trip to Israel in the early spring where he saw many, many members of his huge family most of whom he'd not seen since he left Berlin in 1927.

In August, 1963 - we returned to Indiana - and Dad's health began to fail again. In April, 1964 - he went to Billings (University of Chicago) Hospital in Chicago for more testing. He took the bus from Chicago to be at my Bar Mitzvah which was held on a Thursday evening so my Orthodox Jewish grandfather could travel to the temple.

My mother pleaded with the rabbi to make the service short - because my father had to be on the bus back to Chicago so he would get there before midnight and not be discharged and need to be re-admitted. Despite this - she was forced to take my father to the bus station during the service - while the rabbi - was doing the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the Dead. My mother never forgave the rabbi for this.

In June, 1964 - we took the train to Oakland, California. My father had been hired by his best friend from graduate school Al Blank to work on a SMSG four semester high school calculus text project. We lived in a newly built fraternity house at the center of the Stanford Campus in Palo Alto.

My father's health went way downhill that summer. On our way back to Indiana we stopped at Grand Canyon. We were next to go to Denver, but my father was too weak and we went home.

My father could no longer ride his bicycle the 6 blocks or so to his office at Purdue University. My mother had to drive him and carry his briefcase. He kept doing what meant the most to him - teaching his classes at Purdue.

My mother later told me that my father Never talked about his death or dying. It was scary to think of dying and he coped by trying to pretend that he was getting better and not dying. His stomach was slowly losing its narrow access as his weight dipped in the end to a little less than 90 pounds.

My mother told me that one colleague came to the house and upon learning that Dad wasn't home asked if he "was dying" or perhaps "had cancer" - and she told him the truth. She said that this was the only time the subject was talked about - directly with another that she knew of. She said that he was very sad that he'd not live to see my brother and me grow up.

Ma also told me that they decided to Not talk about Death with my brother (11 then) and me to try to let our lives be as normal as possible.

My father died Friday, November 13, 1964. He taught his last class about 10:30 a.m. the morning of November 12th, feeling very sick, being taken to the hospital and then after various testing being told he could stay overnight in the hospital because he had other routine tests scheduled for the next morning. It was the only night he spent in the hospital the last 7 months of his life.

I never had a chance to say "goodbye" or to deal with what was going on until after my father died and that took many years. My father - never had a chance to share his fears and be whole (in an era of silence) about what he went through. I'm sad and crying today as I write!


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Writing can be so cathartic. I cried with you.