My daddy died on Monday.
He was a Jewish boy who grew up in New York during World War II. An Air Force officer and B-52 pilot who learned how to ignite farts outside the mess hall. A commercial pilot and taxi driver who got people where they were going. A chess master and amateur astronomer who never graduated from college. A beloved neighbor and loyal friend.
Now he’s gone, and it’s an outrage to my sensibilities. An outrage. I decided to post the eulogy I gave at his memorial service on Friday because it makes me feel better to tell people about him. More than that, I hope some of us will become more like him. Thanks for listening.
Warning: While my father may have been in the Air Force, he swore like a sailor, and the following eulogy quotes him in full color.
I remember two things from when my father was recovering in the hospital after he got his leg cut off in an elevator accident. First, I remember that my mother would leave the house while it was still dark so that she could get to the hospital and give him a sponge bath and do his hair before she had to be at work. She returned to the hospital after work to give him dinner, and then drove home in the dark to take care of us. The nurses told her that the only other women who were as attentive to their husbands as my mother was to my father were foreigners who had come here for medical care. When I asked her why she didn’t just let the nurse give him a bath, she said, “Your father wouldn’t want someone else doing it, so I do it.”
She was right. He wouldn’t want someone else doing it. Not because he was particularly modest, but because, if my dad had his way, he would have had my mother meet all his needs. If she were a doctor, he would have had her do his surgery too.
My father’s love for my mother was the touchstone by which he made sense of his life. I can think of nothing, literally nothing, in his life that wasn’t filtered through the lens of that love, including his accident. He told me later that he was glad he had lost his leg because the money he received in a settlement allowed her to quit work. “I could never manage to make enough money to let your mother stay home. Now she can.”
The second thing I remember was the incredible attitude he had even then. Dad was a bit of a baby, really. If he got a cold, he needed just the right tissues and a lot of TLC. So it’s not that I didn’t hear him talk about the phantom pains or the poorly designed prosthesis. It’s just that he never complained about his fate. Never once said it wasn’t fair, or that it had made his life so difficult or unmanageable. Everything took him more time, more effort, and more pain, but he didn’t grumble. He just told me, “You gotta play the cards you’re dealt, Toots.”
Later, after he lost his second leg and his health grew worse, it took him several hours a day to do the simple things he could once do in minutes. From taking a shower to bagging up the trash, everything was hard for him. Getting up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night could be a thirty-minute affair. But as things got harder, he got more creative. Unloading the dishwasher was his job, so when he lost his second leg, he had to figure out a new way to do it. So late at night, you might walk into the kitchen to see my dad, legs spread wide apart for support, putting away glasses without really looking at the shelf because his forehead was resting on the cabinet ledge so he wouldn’t fall over.
“You gotta play the cards you’re dealt, Toots.”
Of course, not everything he said was so profound. Raise your hand if you’ve been told that you don’t have the brains God gave a piss-ant. And keep them up if you’ve been told, “You’ve got your head so far up your a**, you need a glass belly button to see out of.”
He really did have a way with words. I once asked him if he would want to go up in space if it ever became commercially available. “Tara Lynn, I’d give my left nut to go up in a rocket. Maybe both my nuts.”
Which brings me to my dad’s love of space, and science in general. The man loved the natural world. Not that he was a woodsman or anything. He ran away like a girl and made my mother kill any mouse that came in the house. But he was fascinated by cell mitosis and nanotechnology and the stars. Just ask any kid in our neighborhood growing up how that man loved the stars. He’d invite them all to meet us in the court at 3 am to see an eclipse, or meteor shower, or an especially good view of Venus, which to the rest of us didn’t look much different from an especially dim view of Venus.
He read Sky and Telescope every month. And Omni, and Scientific American. He never managed to get any of us as interested as he was, but he never stopped trying. When the editor of Omni wrote that he was proud that it had become, unlike Sports Illustrated or Playboy, the thinking man’s magazine, Dad cancelled his subscription, writing to the editor that he was raising his girls to believe that science was not a man’s pursuit and he wouldn’t support a magazine that felt otherwise.
In this, as with his leg, he played the cards he was dealt. He took us to museums, and bought us models of the human anatomy, but he paid attention to us and knew who we were, and he played the girls he had over the girls he might have had. He bought fancy perfume atomizers and paid for modeling lessons, and built stilts because we said we wanted to try them, and cheered at every softball game and beauty pageant and dance recital.
After one my parents’ many trips to New Jersey while Scott was sick and after he died, my friend Shannah told me, “The Edelschicks are the only people I know who will drive six hours to clean someone’s bathroom.”
When I needed them more than ever, they showed up. My family does not have the gift of sharing our feelings. Nor the gift of effusive praise. But if you have the flu, and can’t stand that your house is a mess, we’ll come clean your toilet. At every major event in my life, I could turn to the side and see my parents sitting there. My family has the gift of showing up.
After Scott died, I decided that I wanted to have a Valentine’s Day party with everyone I love. Mom and Dad came, watching the party from the sofa. At one point, I saw Dad shaking his head and muttering, “The s*** I do for these girls.”
He always showed up, even though he was an emotional mushball and showing up for the tough stuff was hard for him. When I went away to college, I was miserable. I called home crying week after week. He didn’t know what to do so he just kept sending me checks that he couldn’t afford to send. Finally, he bought me a plane ticket and told me that maybe my homesickness would get better if I knew that home was never more than a plane ride away.
After my first baby Sarah died and I delivered her by C-section, and my mom and friends were with me in the recovery room, holding Sarah and taking care of me, Dad was in the hallway. He couldn’t bring himself to come into the room. But he couldn’t wait downstairs in my room either. He sat outside that recovery room because he wanted me to know he was close.
He showed up in ways big and small. He taught Brenda how to throw a softball and tried to teach me. He taught us about the birds and the bees by reading us a book while we sat on his lap in the big recliner. In my entire life, he never once did a load of laundry or mopped the floor. Those were my mother’s jobs. But Monday through Friday he made dinner because he said that, “She shouldn’t have to work all day and then make dinner.” He paid the bills and did the grocery shopping.
Speaking of shopping, I tried my hardest to avoid going to the store with him. He seemed to have no Oh-hey-I’m-in-public filter. Like the time I was twelve and he bellowed down the feminine products aisle, “Does your mother use super or regular tampons?”
Really, it could happen anywhere. Even when he didn’t say anything inappropriate, he could find a way to embarrass us. Let’s not forget his infamous tank top t-shirt, the one with the burn holes all over it, the one that said in large red letters, “Who Farted?”
When he got home from one of his many runs to the store, he would whistle, which was our signal to get the groceries. It was our signal for everything, really. When my dad whistled, our whole neighborhood knew that the Edelschick girls needed to go home. He had the loudest whistle of anyone I ever met. That doesn’t make him a great guy, but it does make him a particular guy. A guy with a great smile and no tolerance for noise or being late. A guy who could tell a story like nobody’s business. (It didn’t hurt that he told the same ten stories for the last forty years.) A guy who warned us every year that wet leaves are as slippery as ice. Whose evil eyes could strike terror in a cage fighter. Who kept stats when he was watching a ball game, and who laughed exactly like his father and brother, with his entire upper body involved in the effort.
Dad’s version of love was not especially romantic. He valued faithfulness and honor over insight and emotion. He valued going to work every day and changing the oil on the weekend above grand gestures and sappy endings. He had a legendary temper, but never harbored ill will toward a single person. He could drive my mother insane, but he rubbed her feet and her legs and did whatever he could to make her happy.
No marriage is perfect, and theirs was no exception. Once, when I was very young, and my parents had just been bickering, I asked my dad, the way young children do, “Why don’t you guys get divorced?” He said, “Because we promised to stay married for better or worse. Sometimes it’s better. Sometimes it’s worse.”
My mom might have been my father’s touchstone, but for all of my childhood, my parents’ were mine. From them, I learned that anger does not negate love. I learned that romantic gestures are over-rated, and that staying is under-rated. I learned to show up, and to play the cards you’re dealt when you get there.
When I was home last month, I tried to get my dad to call hospice. He had been ready to die for a long time, and things had started to deteriorate rapidly by then. But he kept resisting me and I couldn’t understand why. Finally, he told me that despite wanting to go already, he needed to live for another two weeks. Even more than that, he didn’t want to be in a coma or otherwise incapacitated for the next two weeks.
My mom was scheduled to have knee surgery on November 1st, and my dad was afraid that if he died before then or was on his deathbed, my mother wouldn’t go through with the surgery.
“And she needs that surgery. So don’t give me any more crap about calling Hospice before the surgery. Got it?”
That was my daddy. No whining about death. No bitterness at the raw deal he had gotten. He told me that all three of his kids and four of his grandkids were doing well. That he had done all he could to make sure that my mother would be well cared for after he was gone. And he was ready to go. He just needed to make sure she got her new knee.
Which she did. He died eleven days later.
Well played, Daddy. Well played.