Later this week, I reach a milestone for which there is no official religious observance but which has proven to be terribly significant. On Friday I outlive my father. There will be no yahrtzeit or kaddish, but I learned it had a spiritual impact beyond anything I imagined.
To celebrate my vitality at an age where my father’s body had withered to jello, I completed my own personal triathalon last weekend. I ran a 5K around my neighborhood, biked with my daughter in Valley Forge Park, then swam 1000 meters at our community pool.
As a sporting event, the Markind Triathlon left much to be desired. I know that none of Michael Phelps, Lance Armstrong (even without the drugs) or Mo Farah was concerned about the times. But for personal meaning, its significance was enormous.
On New Year’s Day 1982, I woke up to see my father strapped to a gurney, being wheeled out by paramedics, reciting the Shema over and over. He died later that day. The prior few years had not been good for him. Watching this brilliant, terribly shy yet good and decent man waste away wasn’t easy on anyone, least of all him. For nearly four decades, age 58 held a significance I couldn’t articulate. It was my own personal ceiling.
During the last almost 37 years, I’d convinced myself that I’d resolved the issues surrounding Dad’s death and put them behind me. Now, at an age when most of my friends face what I dealt with so long ago, I imagined myself as a sort of elder statesman, helping them understand and navigate feelings I experienced in my early 20’s. What a fool I was. You can deal with the emotions and the loss, but they’ll always be with you.
This past year has been the year of ghosts. I’m sure most of it was due to hyper-sensitivity, but time after time I was brought back to memories of those final days and years with my father. In February I took my son to a college basketball game. On the wall of the Palestra, the University of Pennsylvania’s ancient, magnificent gymnasium, is a large picture of an Ivy League championship game from 1978. Of course it was the last game I ever went to with Dad. After the game he took me to Bookbinders, then a famous Philadelphia restaurant long since closed. It was the only time I ever went out to dinner with him as an adult. A few months ago, a client of mine had a grand premier for its new movie. After screening the movie they held the reception, of course, at the club that once was Bookbinders. It was the first time I’d been there since the dinner.
That sort of thing kept happening. Each time, I was left with the basic question of why I have been blessed with good health and a cavalier spirit where he was not? I learned I have no answer.
As with any religion, we believe there is a spiritual world that influences the physical one. It’s why we pray. In our tradition, the spiritual world is not “supernatural”. It is very natural yet existing on a different plane. When we wish someone mazel tov, we are not just hoping that he/she gets the benefit of chance. It’s much deeper than that. We are expressing the hope that whatever forces influence the physical world from the metaphysical one affect that person positively. There’s nothing random about it.
If that’s true, I’ve become even more baffled as to why those metaphysical forces have shined so brightly on me. Millions of people have traveled to Israel, but how many have led missions and gotten to introduce the Prime Minister? I did. I climbed Masada at night and watched the sun rise over the Edomite Mountains, and I watched the sun set in the South Pacific with the statues on Easter Island. I traveled in the communist world when it was communist, and the third world when it was – third. I’ve lobbied the Soviets on behalf of refuseniks at the European Security Conference in Vienna and been water cannoned in a Solidarity protest rally in Warsaw. Of course, most importantly, I married a brilliant, beautiful woman and have two great children.
On Friday, as I pass my father’s longevity, I will be traveling to a business conference in Texas. The irony will not be lost that when according to chronological age my father was being buried six feet under the ground I will be flying 30,000 feet above it. I certainly will look out the window at the earth below and marvel at its beauty. I’ll revel in the fact that I’ll set foot on it again and continue to enjoy its bounty – hopefully for years to come. Perhaps that’s it. I’ll never understand why so many of the blessings that were denied my father were given to me, but I will appreciate them. Every day from here I play with house money. I have no intention of wasting that.
As I finished my triathlon in my remarkably slow, awkward swimming stroke, my son’s friend Peter took over in the lifeguard chair situated at one end of the pool. Pete’s mother Linda died suddenly three weeks ago from a massive heart attack. She was six months younger than I. I saw her in seemingly good health one week before. Now, at the very end of the personal journey, I understood it really wasn’t just about me at all.
I poured it on during the last lap, feeling I was swimming also for Pete’s mom, for our good friend Rita who died in April at age 52 of complications from breast cancer, for my father and for all who don’t get to reach this age in good health. I made sure I sprinted at the end, almost injuring my hand as I slapped it against the wall. Then I looked up at the almost cloudless dark blue sky, closed my eyes and took a slow, deep breath, feeling the air waft through every part of my body.
L’Chayim everyone, and Shana Tova. Have a happy and healthy New Year. Sometimes you realize it’s great to be alive.