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My Father’s Hero

Written on May 21, 2007

I lost my only brother at 25 but I have been blessed with a father for 50 Father’s Days. I have watched and admired how someone who had so much ripped away can still be delighted by his grandchildren, nieces, and nephews. He listens and plays with them as if he were their brother, as if he were their age.

 

My father’s hero was Hank Greenberg. In my father’s childhood, “Hammerin’ Hank” became the most prolific hitter on the Detroit Tigers. The first Jewish superstar, Greenberg refused to play on Yom Kippur when the Tigers were fighting for a pennant. In 1938, he hit 58 home runs, the most home runs since Babe Ruth’s 60 and in 1942, he volunteered to join the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II.

As my father and I walked the corridors of Comerica Park and viewed Greenberg’s photo and his 1945 Detroit team, I listened to memories of “the magical season” when my dad was 13, the hometown hero returned to his city, and the war ended.

This was the first time my father and I went to a Major League baseball game in decades and his first trip to the “park” that replaced Tiger Stadium. As the Tigers and Orioles battled in the sixth inning, the wind started gusting and the rain fell hard on our heads. We decided to escape the rain over our heads and watched the game instead on a 19” TV screen above the concession stand.

As we watched Gary Sheffield come to the plate, my father told me about the return of Greenberg. My dad and his friend had paid 50 cents to get bleacher tickets for a doubleheader on July 1st, 1945, Hank’s first game since joining the army. The Tigers were up in the early innings of the game but Hank was many batters away. My dad joined his friend who said there was plenty of time to get a hot dog. The lines were very long and the disappointment severe as the thunderous ovation erupted. They missed Hank hitting his first home run. Hank didn’t homer again that night and didn’t even play in the doubleheader’s second game. After he told the story, we heard a loud noise and watched Gary Sheffield, on instant replay, hit his first home run since joining the Tigers.

I couldn’t remember when my dad and I had last seen a Tigers game. Even though we worked together for two decades in the company he managed, I didn’t recall going to a game with him during or after hours. Instead, I remembered Little League when I had slugged my first good hit over the left fielder’s head with the bases loaded and trotted the bases from first to second, heading to third. I couldn’t forget the third base coach, my dad, screaming at me to keep running. But I was too tired and stopped at third base as he yelled at me, “You could have had a grand slam!” That’s what I remember now though my memory is selective, often focused on what’s most hilarious or horrible.

My father’s most towering memory is his worst, the night he went with my brother, Kenny, to a Detroit-Chicago baseball game in the summer of ’82 when Kenny was 13. On their way home, at the last traffic light before he entered his subdivision, another car went through a blinking red light into my father’s car, slamming into the passenger side.

My father has lived with so many what ifs in the last quarter century. What if he had swerved left? What if he had slowed down or sped up just five seconds? What if he had never gone to the Tigers game with his youngest son?

The last night he shared with Kenny can never be erased. The night has markers every year, always within six weeks after Father’s Day. This year is the 25th anniversary of the death of my brother, Kenneth Samuel, who was born on December 23, 1968 and died on July 21, 1982.

I often think of the grief of parents when I read of dead American soldiers in Iraq and know their aches may soften but the haunted wishes for their sons or daughters’ returns will never disappear.

I know survivors fortunate to have fathers are incredibly lucky, as I am, after my father survived the crash and stayed in my life for another 25 years.

My father was a tough boss and sometimes a demanding father, expecting a lot from me. Or so it seemed before my three children, before watching my oldest son, named after Kenny, ready to enter his fourth year of college.

I lost my only brother at 25 but I have been blessed with a father for 50 Father’s Days. I have watched and admired how someone who had so much ripped away can still be delighted by his grandchildren, nieces, and nephews. He listens and plays with them as if he were their brother, as if he were their ages.

My mother, sister, wife, and I know a 75-year-old man with lymphoma and veins prepped for kidney dialysis won’t live forever. So we must be thankful for the days we have left, the nights we won’t get again.

I am thankful for memories and imagination. After the seventh inning, when we left Comerica Park, I began to envision Kenny’s last night alive when he and his dad entered Tiger Stadium.

Hank Greenberg

I smiled when I imagined my father showing Kenny a photo of the one and only Hammerin’ Hank. I could picture the enthralled eyes of my brother, listening to his dad reliving his childhood in 1945, the year that he celebrated Hank coming home from World War II and leading the Detroit Tigers to the World Series Championship.

Some memories can never be erased, even the imaginary ones.

FREE (for Rachel) April 13, 2017

Facebook says it’s your birthday

Not caring whether you know it or not.

Your face is shared as if you could see it

Yourself and be glad for all the wishes

From so many, all wishing

You were still here . Oh, how

You would laugh and celebrate

This day of becoming legal. You

Were too young to leave and we are too

Hurt to celebrate. The ache spreads

From family to friends and the only

Thought that eases grief

Is a vision of you without pain

In an orbit above our dreams,

In any form you want, free,

Flying  completely free.Rachel on couch

Penny from Heaven

Penny was coming over with her hand-made Bingo cards for my brother-in-law, Joel. He was truly excited and couldn’t wait to play with her. She always lets him win.

Since his second stroke, Joel has struggled with eating and bathing and needed help. My wife heard about Penny who told us she had gone to Hollywood to be an actress and then came home after cancer took one of her legs. Since then, she has been a caregiver.

My mother-in-law had always taken care of her eldest son with Down Syndrome and never asked for aid. But she admits Penny is “God sent,” enthusiastically giving and compassionate, making Joel’s life a little better every day.

The Talmud says, “The highest form of wisdom is kindness.” Penny is not Jewish but she demonstrates the essence of tikkun olam, helping to repair Joel among others.

I have given Joel presents and taken him to sports events but Penny has demonstrated that selfless moments of kindness are more meaningful: the simplest, most precious of gifts.

Does It Ever Get Easier?

Mom, Dad, and Kenny

Life goes on. What a cruel saying but the truth of the matter is it does. Days go by. One sees the passing of the seasons. Flowers bloom and then they die and then the leaves fall off the trees and the snow comes with the harshness of bitter cold and wind that takes your breath away and then a new year and then you think, is it possible my little child who meant so much to us has missed five of his birthdays? We haven’t missed them but he has. Every year that day reminds us of the joy, the worry, the laughter, the hopes, the pain and above all else, the future of our son, a future that is no more.

Easier? I don’t know. The intensity of the loss is less. We go on with our lives, trying to make the best of what is left of them. The most treasured part of our lives is the family we have left and then welcoming new lives into our hearts, hoping for them a happy and healthy life and a future that is rich and full. But still, a wall remains within me. Do I ever want to feel that overwhelming love for anyone anymore? It hurts so much when you love so much, because in a fraction of a second, it can all be taken away and all you have left are the memories. The memories hurt so badly because you can’t touch memories; you can only relive them in your mind and sometimes, the memories are so sweet that it makes it that much harder and more painful to remember.

Today, five years after the accident, after the tragedy, the cruel twist of fate or whatever one wants to call it, I reflect on the five years of trying to pick up the pieces and salvage the time that is left of my life.

Yes, it is easier, the pain of loss more tolerable. There are new reasons to live. There are days when I can honestly say, “This is a good day.” I enjoy the challenge of trying new things but I still must confess the emptiness in my heart, the loneliness I often feel for my son. The aches are sometimes so bad that they can seem insurmountable but the severity of the pain is less that it was, allowing me to resume “every-day living.”

The void for my son will remain, probably for the rest of my life. Even through the laughter and the smiles, a sadness remains. Perhaps, I choose it to be this way. It is a way of keeping Kenny alive.

 

Rochelle Goldman

July, 1987

 

Eleven Months

Mom and Dad on their Wedding Day

I say the words, glorified and sanctified

In Hebrew, almost a year since

My mom was erased from her life.

Sitting in the sanctity of

My memories, blessed and praised,

I await the day ever slowly when

I won’t stand up for Kaddish,

The mourner’s prayer, mom just

A fading apparition since the last day of

Last July. Eleven months is the day after

Father’s Day, the twentieth

Of June, sixty-two years exactly

From the day they were wed,

The picture lodged in my mind’s eye

Of such sweet youth, lovers smiling,

Happy. My dad, adored and lauded, is

Now a distant being separated from us

For twenty-two months. Yes, God, I pray

For abundant peace from heaven

Or at least the absence of scars

From sadness which has melted a little

From the celestial heights of instant

Jarring loss to the more normal

Numbing pulse of where did

They go, how so much can be missing

In this world, are they here

With us, hoping I can sense them

Some day in the bare bones of

My soul, now and forever. Amen.

Eleven Months — Aggman’s Blog

I say the words, glorified and sanctified In Hebrew, almost a year since My mom was erased from her life. Sitting in the sanctity of My memories, blessed and praised, I await the day ever slowly when I won’t stand up for Kaddish, The mourner’s prayer, mom just A fading apparition since the last day […]

via Eleven Months — Aggman’s Blog

Baseball, Hot Dogs, and Haroset

baseball and hot dogsHaroset

Written on April 3, 2007 and dedicated to my father-in-law, Max Frank

Some days are made for celebration. When I told my son, Kyle, that I was going to get a mini-package of Tiger tickets which included Opening Day, he wondered whether we should pay the extra $75 fee and extend his visit for one more day. He was coming home from college for only three days and was planning to leave April 1st, the day before Passover. I agreed with him that it wasn’t worth it and he should go back to school to attend his one class on Monday, April 2nd. But when I talked to my wife, she disagreed and after we discussed it, I realized she was right as usual. For Kyle to spend an afternoon with me at our first Opening Day and then to be here with his family for the first seder was, as the commercial says, priceless.

April 2nd started with Siyum HaB’khor, the service commemorating the sparing of the Hebrew first-born sons on Passover. I had imagined Kyle’s Zadeh Max noticing my son putting on tefillin in the back of Adat Shalom’s chapel, jubilant his grandson had not flown back to Philadelphia as scheduled. But Zadeh Max can’t see well these days and it was only me joining him.  Kyle slept in, needing his last day of rest before school and not wanting to ruin the surprise. Besides, I didn’t have tefillin, after I realized the night before that the brand new set I received for my 50th birthday was missing the “shel rosh,” the black box with Torah passages on parchments with kosher leather straps to be worn on the head. Instead, it had two “shel yads,” two black boxes with their long leather strands to be wrapped seven times around the arm. I wondered what Rabbi Nevins would have said if I wore these on both arms instead of on my head. Even though the rabbi is a really nice man, a true mensh, I doubt if he would have been too pleased.

Rabbi Nevins was in good spirits this morning as he discussed the Mishna’s Tractate, Chagigah, and its obscure rules, and mentioned the counting of the Omer. I was lost in thought, imagining the baseball game in a few hours. But I realized also that this would be the rabbi’s last breakfast before Passover with us, his congregation, as he was leaving in the summer for New York City and his new position at the Jewish Theological Seminary. When I sat near him and ate my last chametz breakfast before the seder, I was more thankful than disappointed that we were able to share this dedicated teacher for thirteen years. When the 28-year-old rabbi gave his first sermon at Adat, Kyle was only 8 years old.

Before leaving for the baseball game, I gave the last of our chametz to my father-in-law to burn on his driveway. (If you’re not Jewish, it’s not worth explaining chametz or tefillin or the Haggadah. Consult a rabbi, a good book on Judaism, or Wikopedia.)

Kyle and I decided to leave at 11:00a.m., even though we knew the Lodge was blocked. I detoured down ‘696 to ’75 before we reached downtown where we proceeded to wander for thirty minutes, trying one full lot after another, and finally parked in a glass-filled vacant lot, giving the large man near us his requested $20. The question was, would my car still be there afterward and would we make it in time for the American League Championship flag ceremony?

As we quickly walked through the throngs of people in the cold wind, I didn’t think about Comerica’s executives exiting Detroit for Dallas or that our state’s economy was miserable. We were preoccupied with spring, the sunshine, the clock, and the excitement of the Tigers starting a new season after their year of winning the American League pennant.

Maybe this year would bring the glory of a World Series Championship. In spring, in the season’s renewal of hope, anything seemed possible.

We cheered with the rest of the city during the first game, celebrating this new year of baseball. When I saw kosher hot dogs at a food stand, I licked my lips, already missing bread even before my first taste of matzo. I ordered the kosher dog with onions but threw out the bun. I couldn’t remember the exact reason we couldn’t eat bread in the hours before the first Passover Seder. The rabbi said this morning that after 10:00a.m., leavened bread was prohibited. It was just one of many Pesach rules we were simply supposed to follow.

I didn’t really need food anyway. It was a mitzvah being with my only son, celebrating his first Opening Day and mine. We had both seen our first World Series game last October in the cold rain and now, we were together again for this baseball rite of spring. It was another meaningful moment in my life, one of many since I’d turned fifty. Even though the Tigers lost in 10 innings, 5-3, it was still a gorgeous sunny day, in weather and in spirit.

As we were basking in the sunshine, in the excitement of the game, my wife, Judy, and my youngest daughter, Marlee, were busy, helping my mother-in-law cook the seder meal. Passover is a huge responsibility, if you follow all of the rules. It involves weeks of intense house-cleaning and getting everything ready for Pesach. And the seder meal itself can take days to produce. But when the seder finally comes, all the work before it seems worthwhile.

Then, when Kyle’s aunt, uncle, and grandparents finally saw their first grandson after he entered their home for the seder, it was as if Elijah himself had entered. He knocked on the door ten minutes after me and was let in. My mother-in-law had told Judy that she had cried a few times during the week, realizing that her oldest grandson would not make the seder. He had been there every year since birth except once, in his freshmen year at college. When she turned, stunned to see his face behind her, she truly wept with joy.

My two daughters, wife, and I sat down to the table to join Judy’s brother, sister, and parents. Just like the last 22 years, we proceeded to read and sing the Haggadah, beginning with the very first page, all the way to the Had Gadya, the bloody poem about a little goat. I felt nostalgic from all the seders we had shared at Judy’s old home and felt incredible gratitude that we were still here, together, thankfully one year older.

We were celebrating the mitzvah of being Jews in America, able to enjoy the bounteous dinner and the knowledge that without Moses and God, we wouldn’t be here. For one night, we could forget about layoffs and terrorism in Iraq and Israel and rejoice in our ancestors’ freedom and our own. We could celebrate another year of haroset, the combination of walnuts, apples, cinnamon, and wine, the simple treat that accompanies the bitter herbs and matzos. We could recite the four questions, Dayeinu, and rejoice in each other.

As we raised our glasses of wine and grape juice, I realized that even in these turbulent, troubled times, we could still be happy. We were a part of America with its baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie. But instead, we had an apple cake made with matzo meal rather than wheat flour.

It didn’t matter. Spring was about to begin. Baseball was reborn in Detroit. We were celebrating tradition, family, eating, prayer, memories, gratitude, and freedom. We were just happy.