“Just remember the good things I taught you,” was something my brother, Hal, and I regularly heard from our father, Marvin, as we grew up. Far from just being his chosen paternal catch phrase, it was indeed what he wanted for us most of all. How he went about achieving that is a humbling move of parental guidance so masterful it still inspires me to evolve from beyond who I am now to someday be half the man my father still is to me more than three decades since his passing.
The reality that my Dad would not be there to mold and guide us as we grew into men was something he limited to be a quantitative measurement for how long he had to get his job as father done. What he somehow managed to do was to summon the proper insight to instill the seeds of the essential lessons for life experiences we had not yet had in a way Hal & I, as young boys, could incorporate them into the kids we were, the people we were developing into, and most importantly to Dad, to allow them to continue to take root and mature as we did.
When Hal and I were both preschoolers, it was discovered that my father had one of those rare diseases that would be the smoking gun on an episode of ‘Mystery Diagnosis’ today: polycythaemia rubra vera (PRV). PRV occurs when the bone marrow overproduces red and white blood cells and platelets. This “heavy” blood interferes with the amount of oxygen getting to the tissues and cruelly deteriorates things over time like a petulant, errant stream corroding an unsuspecting shore. He was told the median survival rate was 12 years; he was told correctly.
A week’s hospital stay was not unusual for my dad. There was one following my bar mitzvah and Hal’s, and one after each of the two family vacations we took to Belmar, New Jersey where he showed us where he & his brothers grew up. He spent the last week of his life in a hospital, but the month before that, he spent at home, in a hospital bed in the middle of our living room to maximize every moment of our final days as a family of four. This was not about saying good bye, but the opportunity for dad to put the last elements in place in his dozen year plan for his wife and children to live on without him. A fan of chit chat my dad was not ever: if he was taking time at this point in particular to talk about something, I cherished and cataloged every word. Some of the conversations Dad and I had during this last, precious respite from forever continue to resonate with me in an escalating echo of wisdom from a voice I can barely remember.
My parents did not allow our family to be taken off track by this disease but rather, they found a way to adapt it into a childhood for Hal and me that was part and parcel from the Dick Van Dyke Show down to the Copenhagen modern furniture, zany friends, loveable neighbors and happy memories in black and white. One of the treatments for PVR is reducing the blood volume; my dad had this done every Saturday. My parents worked that into part of our ‘normalcy': when dad got home, we all went out to lunch. As kids, my Mom used this time keeping us busy getting ready for when Dad pulled in the driveway so that Hal and I never had any reason to wonder where he was every week at that time. As we got a bit older, Dad being out for a few hours simply became part of a typical Saturday at the Yaffe’s.
That lunch was often at ‘Red Well’s,’ (for my fellow Toledoan’s to remember too) but not really to see “Red” as Hal I thought, but as with any blood volume procedure, iron consumption afterwards was encouraged and roast beef is chock full of it. Then to take advantage of the post-phlebotomy vitality boost, there were trips to the zoo, the museum, but most often we did what Dad really loved, a long, scenic drive with all of us in active conversation. It happened on more than one occasion that we were approached by strangers in public who came over to us to remark what a nice family we were; we did not have a quantity of family life, but achieved a quality that fairy tale childhoods are made of. PRV be damned.
One of the longer term, nastier side effects of PRV is playing havoc with the spinal column, and later coupled with a back injury, that necessitated my father being fit with a steel framed, corset style back brace that he wore under his clothes that went from mid-chest to upper hip. It was when Hal & I were cleaning out the house after our mother died that we discovered records of dad’s prescriptions from when he was a man more then a decade younger then I am now. The amount of medication he was taking daily for pain management that was barely adequate would have stopped a charging team of oxen in its tracks, and those oxen did not have to strap on a back brace every morning either. Dad did not just do that so he was able to work, he really did it to get through work to get back home to be a husband and father.
Many of the things I feel most passionately about, the ones that propel my fingers to the keyboard are concepts and constructs my father laid the foundation for me so long ago yet I am just starting to now finally figure out in the big picture of my life and the world we all live in. Lacking a musical inclination, as I attempt today to reproduce the efficacy of my father’s lessons in a non-symphonic rendition that accurately captures the swelling emotion usually only achieved in an acoustic manifesto, I employ words rather than notes: the one thing he didn’t teach me was how to sing.
Good night, Dad, and thank you.