Having my father living just a few miles away from me has been a blessing throughout my cancer treatment. I hate to put anything in the “plus column” of this diagnosis but my Pop and I have become even closer through this experience. I’m not sure if he’d want it broadcast but he turned 85 this year – and while he’s had some health issues over the last 12 months, he’s got one of the best attitudes of any elder I know. He greets most days with a lot of appreciation for what he has and finds happiness in the smaller things in life: sitting and reading the Times and watching the birds on his back deck, the pleasure of a good afternoon nap, a Met, Yankee or Giants game, or a night at the theater. I believe one of the only things he might miss doing is being able to haul junk to the town dump, and playing a round of golf. He and I played at least two or three times a year, and it’s interesting to tell you that, at least once a round, following a bad shot or an abysmal hole, one of us would say, “No matter what happens today, it’s not cancer.” Boy, wasn’t that the truth.
To give you a little background: my Pop was born to a poor family in the Lower East Side of NYC. His parents had emigrated from Poland during the first decades of the 20th century; first his father, then his mother. It was disturbing to learn that my dad’s grandmother came to visit them in New York around 1938 with the intention of staying to live. She didn’t care for the U.S. and returned to Poland. Unfortunately, that didn’t end well. But that’s another story.
My dad only spoke Yiddish when he started kindergarten (ironically, a German word) but quickly learned English, translating much of the world for his parents throughout his childhood. He grew up juggling two lives; one as the son of not-so-pious Jews whose lives centered around the Temple and home life; the other as a young American; playing stick ball, taking in a 10 cent movie and hanging out on the boardwalk. He taught me a very important Yiddish phrase, “S’iz shver tsu zayin a yid.” It’s tough to be a Jew.
He was the first in his family to go to college and served stateside in the Army during the Korean War. He married my mom at 22, had my sister at 24 and me at 27. As a physicist and engineer, he went to work for Picatinny Arsenal, a military research facility in New Jersey and would continue to hold engineering jobs before going into sales and marketing at a series of tech-type companies – moving us from Long Island to Connecticut. One thing I learned at an early age is that my Pop hated going to work. On Sundays, he would go into a serious funk about the work week ahead, something my family called “The Sunday Night Greps.” It was contagious …and by the time I was 8 or 10, we all felt like shit as we watched Lassie and Ed Sullivan.
To balance his work life, he pursued playwriting and photography and painting and stuff like transcendental meditation. It was the 60’s, and then the 70’s and he was definitely into “doing his own thing.” To move things along, he divorced my mother minutes after I left for college and went on to raise family number 2 with a terrific woman who has made him very happy. There were a number of years when we weren’t very close. Of course, we always loved and appreciated each other’s creative spirit and sense of humor and I came to understand his decisions and choices. I’ve learned that he and I are a lot alike. Mostly, as I began my own family, I came to respect how hard he had worked both professionally and personally to make himself happy. He never put that on anyone else. His last career was as a marketing professor at Sacred Heart University and yes, he taught me everything I needed to know to get my first marketing job. He’s also been my private business coach for the past 30 years. I’ll never forget what he said when I told him how nervous I was about leaving my corporate job to enter into my own business. He said, “Everybody is self-employed, they just don’t know it.”
My Pop is a success in every sense of the word. He’s pursued his passions, made a difference in every community in which he has participated and accomplished one of the things that I think is most important: growing old with grace and gratitude.
I guess I don’t have to tell you how much I love my Pop. Believe me, I know how lucky I am that he has decided to live to be the oldest man on the planet. We’re planning on celebrating my 80th birthday together. I hope you’ll be there, too!