Three nights ago, my brother and I sat on either side of the bed across from our father in the hospice wing at Henry Ford Hospital in downtown Detroit as he drew his last breath. It was the end of a 7-month long journey as he struggled with diagnosis and treatments for rhabdomyosarcoma and over the past two months, acceptance that his disease was terminal. His passing was very peaceful and I feel grateful that I was able to spend his last hours with him and to say goodbye.
My brothers each spoke at the funeral yesterday and I was asked if I would like to speak as well. But at the end of a week that pretty much sucker-punched me, I couldn’t really formulate my thoughts to put together anything coherent, and speaking in front of others has never been easy for me. I do much better with the written word, and so now that I’ve had a chance to sleep and my brain has begun to work again, I wanted to write out what I would have said if I had been able at the time.
My dad was a very fun person to grow up with as a father. I can remember hours of hitting baseballs pitched to me and fielding my brother’s hits over on the baseball field at our local elementary school. As a traveling manufacturer’s representative he was gone a lot, but always bringing fun samples home for us to try out – mostly products that nobody ever heard of or remembers now, although someday my brother and I want to sit down and make a list of all the ones we remember… At various times he sold Zinka (colored zinc oxide like lifeguards put on their noses), the Aqua Scooter (a small engine with handles that would pull a swimmer through the water), Jobe water skies, Body Glove wetsuits, Croakies (eyeglass straps for sports, made out of wetsuit material), Banana Boat sunscreen, Floogles (inflatable water wings for kids), and too many more to name. The UPS truck was a common sight stopped in front of our house all while I was growing up.
My dad’s other business while I was a kid – the one that supported our family throughout most of my childhood, was his arcade game company that placed tabletop or upright video games in various restaurants and other locations. This was before and just at the beginning of personal videogame systems like Atari, Colecovision and Intellivision, which weren’t very common yet. The arcade games would often break down, so my dad would have to bring them home to fix – we always seemed to have something like Ms. Pac-Man or Donkey Kong Junior in our family room or basement, sometimes for weeks or months on-end. My brother got so good at Pac-Man with both his right and then left hands, that he started playing with his feet to make it more interesting. I will always remember my dad when I see an ‘old-fashioned’ game like Centipede, Galaga or Pole Position…
I get my love for electronics and gadgets from my dad, who always wanted to have the newest and coolest thing on the block. We were one of the first families I knew to have cable television when it first became available, and we had one of the first videotape recorders and cameras as well – a huge 3-piece system where the battery pack was as large as the actual VCR. I remember my dad hauling the whole getup around Disney World to capture our vacation on tape, and my friends and I spent hours writing, casting and filming our own movies in my living room. I wish more of those had survived – they would be so much fun to watch now.
We spent most of our summer days at ‘The Lake’, where we kids would swim, fish, play frisbee, jarts or volleyball and take rides in our beloved green speedboat, always driven by our dad. He taught my brother and I to water ski and later to windsurf, although I never quite got the hang of windsurfing. I don’t remember him ever swimming much – if he was in the water, he was generally tossing us kids up in the air, something which we adored and which probably contributed to back problems later in his life. He loved to spend most of our lake days listening to the Detroit Tigers on his battery-powered radio, and I always think of those lazy summer days whenever I think of baseball games. Dad rarely missed a Tigers game to either watch on tv or listen to.
My dad’s true passion in life though, was bowling. My mom used to say that the only night of Friday night bowling that he’d ever missed was the night I was born, as I had the bad timing to pick a bowling night. The two of them bowled in that Friday night couples league for my entire childhood and even after my mom stopped bowling, my dad continued in that league and others. My brother and I practically lived at the bowling alley and I learned to add numbers while helping keep score for leagues and tournaments. To this day, I can add much better than I can subtract – as you never need subtraction in bowling scorekeeping. My brother and I bowled in leagues for many years as well, and often accompanied our dad to his Sunday morning Jewish men’s league where the main attraction for us were the free bagels and the possibility that there might be a lane open for us to bowl on as well.
When I was older, my dad added a new career to his already varied list – he pitched the idea of a weekly bowling column to the Observer & Eccentric newspapers that had editions for most of the larger suburbs of Detroit. He wrote stories and compiled scores from the local bowling alleys, week after week so that local bowlers could see their name in the paper when they had a particularly impressive score. This also gave my dad a media pass to the major sporting goods trade shows and he took my brother and I to shows in Chicago and Atlanta, where we walked around and tried to be inconspicuous as we were only teenagers at the time and certainly not ‘press’ as our badges indicated. My dad was well-known in the Detroit bowling community and in 2007 I proudly watched as he was inducted into the Detroit Bowling Hall of Fame.
As I grew older, my relationship with my dad became more difficult, as it seemed like we never really had much in common to talk about. I’ve joked with my husband that he probably had more conversations with my dad over the past 15 years than I did, because the two of them could happily talk about the Detroit Lions or Tigers for hours, while I’ve never followed organized sports. But he was always happy to catch me up on his latest crazy idea for an invention or find out how his granddaughters were doing. Kids, work, and busy family life kept us from visiting him as much as either of us would have liked, but we tried to visit once or twice a year.
My dad wasn’t always very lucky in love – he was married three times and raised two separate families, each time with a girl and boy born two years apart. My older half-sister and brother were each married and raising their own families while my younger brother and I were growing up. After my parents divorced, my dad remarried again and raised his youngest stepson through his late childhood and teenage years as well. It wasn’t until after his third divorce when my dad met the love of his life, whom he was with up until he passed away. She is one of the sweetest people I know and I am so glad that they had many happy years together before he became ill last summer.
Dad loved many things – drawing cartoons, skiing (snow and water), telling bad jokes and puns, sports, and saving money. He rarely ate somewhere that he didn’t have a coupon for, and spent many hours shopping at garage sales, proudly describing what great deals he got on things that he really didn’t need. He could always tell you which gas station had the cheapest prices. He was a former Marine (a World War II veteran who joined up at age 17, right at the very end of the war), a private pilot (who had stopped flying before I was born) and a Jewish man who was never very religious but still taught me to be proud of my heritage.
I will miss you, Dad. I love you.