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Remembering Joel

June 5, 2019

The Talmud asks, “Who is wise?” and answers, “One who learns from all.”

Joel Frank was truly a very wise man because he loved to learn. He loved socializing, watching television, reading newspapers and magazines, as well as writing endless letters and notes to his family members. In fact, he wrote so much that he would constantly ask for sharpie pens as birthday and Hanukah gifts because they would dry up from so much use and he couldn’t ever take the risk of his pen stash running out.

Whether Joel was at home visiting with family, watching his favorite movies and TV shows or video tapes and then DVDs over and over again, or reading the sports section of the newspaper, he was constantly learning. He would surprise our family constantly with his knowledge as we learned he was truly paying attention to whatever he was taught, listening, reading, or watching.

Joel’s parents, Carole and Max, made sure Joel understood that he was a Jew. At 13, he had his Bar Mitzvah at Young Israel on Thanksgiving morning, where he proudly recited Aliyah blessings in Hebrew at the Torah. Family came from all over to celebrate him. Joel’s dad not only taught him to read Hebrew, he also took him to shul regularly for years, and for over 40 years, sat with him weekly after Shabbat services to study Hebrew and review the 4 questions so that by Pesach, he was able to recite them all in Hebrew and English.

Joel embraced his Judaism and loved all the Jewish Holidays and Shabbat and the delicious treats at Kiddush and would often call his sister, Judy, just to tell her what time “licht benching” was for the week. But of all the Jewish holidays, Passover was his favorite by far.

Joel was the eldest in the family. Judy wrote, “he was there when I came into the world, and I have never known a world without him. He was my first friend and my greatest teacher. In a world of bullying and intolerance, Joel taught me patience, compassion, unconditional love, and acceptance. He taught me optimism and to always look on the bright side of life. Joel was my brother, my forever friend, and my special superhero. There wasn’t anything I wouldn’t have done for him. In all the years I’ve known Joel, he didn’t say a mean word about anyone or anything unless you consider the phrase, ‘Good grief,’ when asked to do something that he didn’t like. But even then, he would end up doing what he didn’t like, saying “That would be easier.”

Joel would call Judy after I married her, just to ask ‘what have you been up to?’ and never skipping a beat years later, asking about each nephew and niece, Kyle, Ilana, and Marlee. He loved and treasured his family unconditionally, always excited to see them or to ask for a new picture he could place on his dresser. He celebrated at their bar and bat mitzvahs, and attended Ilana and Jonathon’s wedding, welcoming Jonathon into the family as his new nephew. He didn’t get to know Melissa as much, but he knew that Kyle and Melissa were married in Chicago, even though he wasn’t up to attending. He included in his family my family, Leslie, Bruce, and Karenna as well as my parents, Milt and Rochelle. He loved to have his picture taken with any of his family, at all times. Family pictures were very important to him as he kept them framed by his bedside always.

Nan and Judy said that Joel loved the ladies in his life. He would flirt with his nurses, hygienists, and doctor’s aides, his favorite line being “anything for a lady.” Even during his later years, he would still accommodate a lady’s request, saying “Merci boucoup.” But of all the women in his life, his heart truly belonged to his mother. He loved and trusted his mom more than anyone.

Judy said that her mother is the most devoted mom in this world. It really makes perfect sense that God chose her and her dad as parents for Joel. They say it takes special people to care for special people. There isn’t anything her mom wouldn’t do for her family and she accepted her lot in life and devoted the last 61 years, making sure Joel had everything he needed, was educated, taken care of, and most importantly, loved. After his dad passed, his mom would often make special dinner dates with Joel which he treasured so they could spend one on one time together. Judy said that his love of Dairy Queen and ice cream, which he enjoyed even near the end of his life, came from their mom. In fact, it was the very last food he ate and enjoyed the night before he passed.

I lost my only brother in 1982 but I met Judy, her parents, her grandparents, sister, and her brothers in 1984 and when we married, I had two new brothers. For me, Joel became my little brother, even though he was only 11 months younger than me and even though Barry was even younger. I loved taking Joel to Tigers, Pistons, and Lions games, to movies, having him over our house to watch Batman or any of all the other shows, sports, movies, and soap operas he loved to watch.

For me, Joel was always a believer. He never stopped believing, no matter how far his sports teams were down or how far his heroes and superheroes had fallen. Like Dorothy in his favorite movie, the Wizard of Oz (which he saw dozens of times) or Batman, he would rise up one day to defeat the wicked witch or the competing sports team or the Joker or a soap opera’s villain. No one could stop Joel’s positive beliefs. No one could stop Joel.

I have so many great memories with Joel, including some of the craziest Tigers and Lions games in history. I was with Joel on August 23, 2000 at Comerica Park when a swarm of millions of flying ants descended like locusts covering all of the fans, forcing us to move (a perfect story for this time of Passover.) But even flying ants wouldn’t stop Joel from enjoying a night with his beloved Detroit Tigers. And I will never forget going with Joel to celebrate his 40th birthday on the Lions’ final regular season game, December 21, 1997, when Barry Sanders electrified the crowd and rushed for 184 yards in a 13-10 victory over the New York Jets at the Silverdome over Bill Parcells, which propelled the Lions into the playoffs.

Never making a Super Bowl didn’t matter much to Joel because even during the Lions’ winless season or the Tigers’ record-breaking losing season, he always believed the Lions and Tigers would win it all, even if they were officially out of it. When they would lose, he would get a little miffed and then was off, rooting for them the next game. When we talked about the next game, he would always tell me, “Don’t worry. I’ll keep you posted.” No matter what happened, his teams were always going to win the championship. That’s just the way Joel thought, always an optimist, always believing in the best of all things.

I wrote a poem called “Down” 14 years ago, when Joel was 47, which started,

“What would I give to believe like my brother-in-law Joel

That everything is possible that no matter how far down we are

We can come back we can always come back…. He is my Peter Pan

Always looking forward to another game, another win.”

More than sports, Joel treasured his siblings. He always trusted his sister, Judy, listened to sister Nancy when she tried to help him eat healthier. And when his younger brother, Barry, moved back home, Joel was thrilled as Barry helped take care of Joel, especially in the last years, when Barry literally bent over backwards to be there for his brother.

Joel also loved his nieces and nephews and they loved him back. His nephew Kyle enjoyed bowling with Joel and said that he remembered Joel’s love of bowling and how he was always able to hit impossible shots that Kyle could never make. In fact, Kyle sent us a video he took of Joel making a difficult spare and Joel’s signature move, lowering his right arm majestically in celebration. Kyle said that Joel had a never-ending optimism for Detroit sports, which was infectious. He also used to leave Kyle long handwritten notes that were hard to read, asking Kyle to help him do some General Hospital research for Joel. Joel’s niece, Marlee, said that he even though it was difficult for him, he still came to her graduation from U of M. She remembered his love of Passover, the Wizard of Oz, puzzles, collecting cards, and giving very long hugs. Ilana and Jonathon remember his famous “what have you been up to?” line, and would give them a long hug and say, “you’re my favorite niece and nephew…and Marlee and Kyle too.” He would call on every birthday and give a personal birthday card with a gift inside, signed “Love from Uncle Joel Frank.” He gave the best massages, and as soon as Ilana sang a song, Joel would chime in with his high-pitched falsetto voice. She also fondly remembers his thumbs up at every movie ending and sports game ending. She also recalls watching a Lions game at our house and saying to him, “Joel, we’re so far behind. Do you really think we’re going to win?” And Joel said yeah, of course, and they came from way behind and won, and Ilana said, “Joel, I guess you were right.” And Joel then said, “Of course. I told you so.” And Ilana and Jonathon remember when they dropped grandma off after Kyle and Melissa’s wedding, when Joel greeted his mom with a big Welcome Home sign and gave grandma the longest hug they had ever seen.

How many things did Joel love? He loved going to the JCC Thursday Night Social Club and reading the 4 questions, answering trivia, playing his favorite game, bingo, and of course, singing Karaoke like You Light up My Life, one of his all-time classics which I videotaped him singing 15 months ago, after he stopped eating and drinking, when we thought then we might lose Joel. 15 months is the same age as his great niece Talia. 15 months is the time between his birth and his younger sister, Judy.

So what else did Joel love? He loved baking challahs, thanks to Kim Kaplan and her class through Friendship Circle at the JCC. He loved Batman, James Bond, and so many other shows. He used to make a prune face and say “e prune,” getting lots of laughs in the process. He rented library books, all about travel, so he could unravel and “crack the code” of the mysteries in General Hospital. He would write me a list of all sorts of soap opera issues and sports teams schedules and videos and then DVDs that he needed me to get him. “Please,” he said, “can you try?” Ok, Joel, I’ll try, I said. I remember when I got him an extensive James Bond set of DVDs which didn’t include a couple of movies, so he’d follow up with this: can you get me this movie or this guide or another schedule that I already got him? And I said, Joel, come on, I already got you that.

Now, I would give everything to have him ask me one more time, “can you get me a few more Sharpies, some new cards, a new puzzle, or a poker or blackjack hand-held game? Can we see the new Star Wars movie?” I wish he could ask me again to tape the Amazing Race, Lost in Space, Bewitched, Batman….I have to admit that I used to get annoyed by some of his requests, but how I miss them now…

The last years were tough after Joel suffered two brain bleeds but his mom, siblings, and caregivers were dedicated to help him live his best life. When it became more difficult for Carole to routinely care for Joel, Judy did everything in her power to help Joel get additional help. She found wonderful caregivers for Joel, especially Kathy and Chinita who treated Joel like he was their family. And when it was best to move Joel out of his home, Judy put her heart and soul to find a good place for Joel. It took awhile but Judy found a wonderful home managed by a dedicated caregiver, Elana, whom Joel called Lucy (which was one of his favorite characters,) and her wonderful staff. In fact, when Joel moved there, Elana’s son, Vladimir, dressed up with a full head-to-toe Batman outfit to try to make Joel feel right at home. (I have it on video.) Sadly, Joel only lived there for a month.

Joel passed one day before his father Max’s Yahrtzeit, one day before the first Seder. I guess it’s fitting that this funeral, like his father’s, is during Passover because Joel loved Passover and we can never forget Joel at this time of year. He loved Pesach and its rituals, he loved the hiding and searching for chummetz and he loved to eat during the Seder. We would just stare, eyes wide open, as Joel mixed up dark turkey meat, mashed potatoes, mustard, and catsup and after, had all sorts of Pesach treats before ending the night, joining the singing of rousing songs. I especially remember his Dayenu chant and joyously singing Adir Hu and Had Gadya while pretending to play instruments in the orchestra, often near midnight.

As Judy and I attended the Siyyum service before Pesach for Max’s Yahrtzeit, I believed that Max and his oldest son were together again, ready to observe Passover once again, practicing the 4 questions, free away from the discomforts and difficulties of their last years in life. And I can’t help believing that Joel and Max were with us during our family Seders this year. Dayenu.

And now, as we sadly whisper goodbye to our son, brother, friend, uncle, and great uncle, we take a few moments to remember the essence of Joel. What we will all remember is Joel’s passionate love of life, every moment of it, his belief in miracles and his essential goodness. No matter how I believe in miracles because of Joel, I know that not all miracles come true.

Here is the miracle that I truly wish comes true. I dream that when Joel left his life, he traveled somewhere over the rainbow and was welcomed by his dad, Bubbe and Zayda, and his uncles, aunts, and other relatives and when he saw my parents again and met my brother for the first time, he saw them clearly with no glasses and no fear, approached them and said, “Hey, how you doing? What have you been up to?” And then I hope that they welcomed him into their home the same way that Max and Carole embraced Joel into their home a little over 61 years ago. Then, when they ask him how his mom, siblings, nephews and nieces, and beautiful great-niece are doing here on earth, he will look down from above that rainbow and tell them, as he had told me so many times in his life, “I will keep you posted. I will keep you posted.”

We will forever miss our Joel, our family’s superhero who made us proud. If we could tell him now how much we love and appreciate what he gave us and how much we will miss him, he would probably answer us as he did so many times before, “I know that.”

I want to end by giving Joel the sign that he always gave us after every happy movie ending and every sports win.  Thumbs up, Joel. Thumbs up.

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