Marvin H. Spiegel, z”l

January 2, 2007 at 9:06 pm 1 comment

Me and DadThe last real conversation I had with my father was on Monday the 18th. The Colts were playing Cincinnati on Monday night football and I was at a conference in California. I called at half time and we talked about the game (the Colts won by the way!). He didn’t sound very good. The next day, Jerry called and confirmed dad was his failing.

Several of my colleagues at the conference knew what was going on. When I shared that I was leaving early, one rabbi friend asked if I was going to do my dad’s funeral. I said “of course – who else!?” She speculated that it could be both fulfilling and overwhelming. I thought about her statement on the plane home. I have done many funerals and while I wouldn’t say they’re enjoyable, it’s a comfortable role. I concluded most of this would be a positive experience. However, I’ve been dreading this part, hesped – the eulogy. Please bear with me.

Rabbi Alvin Fine writes in a poem, Birth is a beginning, and death a destination. Judaism is clear that we don’t know what comes after death. So far, no one’s come back to tell us what’s next. For us it’s not appropriate to say that my dad’s in a better place. He’s not – this is the better place.

We do though, believe in eternal life. When we speak of someone who has died we say “zichronah livrachah, may their memory be a blessing.” My father will live as long as we remember him. And we will remember him, because he is part of each of us. He is a part of each of my children, and he will be part of their children, and their children’s children.

My wife often says, “You sound just like your father!” She says that a lot. Most of the time it’s not a complement. Nevertheless, in many ways I am just like my dad. I read the ads in the Sunday paper, I love cars and airplanes, I complain a lot, and I’m always right. We’re alike, but we certainly didn’t agree about everything. For example, I don’t think the Wall Street Journal is the authority on every subject, nor do I quote it – ad nauseum. In fact, the only times I’ve read it was when my father would send me an article. I would always read these because I knew I’d disagree – and then I’d call him to tell him so and convince him that I was right and the Wall Street Journal was wrong. These memories – are how he will live on.

I see my father in my children. In many ways they are like their grandpa. They are all adventurous, fun-seeking, love to laugh and giggle, opinionated, bold, stubborn, bull in the china shop tenacious, and sneaky and conniving (in a playful way). They will help me remember him. One of my favorite movie lines comes from Lies My Father Told Me. Zaida tells Davey, “Death ends a life, not a relationship.”

Many of my colleagues – rabbis, pastors and priests – acknowledge that they had pastoral mentors. They say that someone in their lives showed them how to treat people. This will sound corny, but my mentor was my father. I learned how to care for people by watching my father do it.

My father’s bedside manor was unique – and amazing. I don’t think I realized this until I was an adult and visited doctors for my own health. He treated his patients with respect, humor, honesty, candor and sincerity. And it seemed to me that he genuinely cared about them. Unlike other specialties, my father would work with patients for weeks, months, and sometimes years. He would form relationships with them that seemed to be mutual. He was an excellent clinician but I think an even better people person. The Reverend Doctor John Maxwell says,”The basis of life is people and how they relate to each other. The best way to become the person that others are drawn to is to develop qualities that we are attracted to in one another.” I think my dad knew this innately.

However, in his own words, he could also be a real “horse’s ass.” He hated administration and bureaucracy and never quite understood why he couldn’t “just be a doctor.” While he trusted and liked almost anyone, he also did not suffer fools gladly.

He was incurably humble. I’ve had more then a few people tell me that the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center is what it is because of my father, its founding director. But you will find little or no acknowledgement of that from the people there, unless they happened to have been there during his tenure. I think my father believed his legacy was in his deeds and the lives of the patients he touched, not his name on the wall. Well dad, I’m trying to emulate your humility but I seem to have much more difficulty with that then you did!

The Talmud says that in a eulogy, it is permitted to imply that the deceased was more generous and pious than he really was. I think it’s hard for a son to know if he’s exaggerating when speaking of his father. You who knew him, his friends and colleagues, can judge that better then I. One talmudic rabbi said to his future eulogizer, “Give warm expression to your feelings when you eulogize me for I shall be present there.” Dad, I hope you’re OK with this.

Last week while mindlessly standing in line waiting to get on the return flight from California, I had my headphones on and was half listening to music. A song by Jackson Browne came on – one I’ve probably heard dozens of times. But this time I heard it differently. I was stunned how poignantly it described my father and what I think would be his charge to us.

Keep a fire burning in your eye

Pay attention to the open sky

You never know what will be coming down.

I don’t remember losing track of you

You were always dancin’ in and out of view

I must have thought you’d always be around,

Always keeping things real by playing the clown – Now you’re nowhere to be found.

I don’t know what happens when people die

I can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try

It’s like a song I can hear playing right in my ear that I can’t sing,

I can’t help listening.

And I can’t help feeling stupid standing round

Crying as they ease you down

‘cause I know that you’d rather we were dancing

Dancing our sorrow away.

No matter what fate chooses to play, there’s nothing you can do about it anyway.

Just do the steps that you’ve been shown

By everyone you’ve ever known

Until the dance becomes your very own

No matter how close to yours another’s steps have grown

In the end there is one dance you’ll do alone.

Keep a fire for the human race

Let your prayers go drifting into space

You never know what will be coming down.

Perhaps a better world is drawing near

And just as easily it could all disappear

Along with whatever meaning you might have found

Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around

Go on and make a joyful sound.

Into a dancer you have grown

From a seed somebody else has thrown

Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own,

And somewhere between the time you arrive and the time you go

May lie a reason you were alive

But you’ll never know.

I do know that my father’s pain is finally over. While there are times I can’t imagine living without him around, I’m grateful that his pain is finished – and his memory is a blessing.

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