“Nance,” my father used to say, “there are too many poor bastards spending their lives working at jobs they hate. Don’t let that happen to you. Figure out what you really want to do, and make that your life’s work.”
My father grew up in poverty, a grandchild of Jewish immigrants living in the Bronx. He told me that in choosing his own career, he considered either a life of crime, or getting a Ph.D. I’d laugh when he said that. Much later, I learned that the life of crime option wasn’t a joke!
Conducting an internet search on our family name, my sister discovered that there were some notable criminals in the family; something unknown to my mother, stepmother, his offspring or his stephchildren.
This was a man who at age 17 lied about his age so he could enlist in the Navy. It was WWII. Jews in the U. S knew what was happening overseas, and he wanted to do something about it. He was present at the landing at Iwo Jima.
His shipmates had by then figured out how young he was, and refused to let him land with them. Perhaps that’s why he survived the war.
Though he remained on the ship he could see what was happening as the battle exploded in front of him. Witnessing that event apparently affected his long-term health. In the early 2000’s he was diagnosed with PTSD and Alzheimer’s.
I’m glad to tell you that after the war he decided the Ph.D. was what he most wanted. He became a sociologist who stood up for social justice and sought peaceful alternatives to international conflict.
My father inspired me, starting when I was very young, to recognize inequities in the world around me, and commit myself to doing something about them. He delighted in his children and grandchildren. He’d have thoroughly enjoyed his great-granddaughters, both of whom were born in the past year. As we all got older, Dad reveled in the birthdays and holidays that brought us all together.
Alzheimer’s gradually turned him into someone who became harder and harder to recognize. Yet he remained true to his core values, participating in a clinical trial at Cleveland Clinic not because it would change the course of his own illness, but because it might ultimately help others. Per his wishes, after his death in 2006 his body was donated to Cleveland Clinic for use in Alzheimer’s research.
Thank you, Dad, for being the caring, smart, funny and irreverent person that you were. You guided me to find what matters most in life and to pursue it. That pursuit has taken me to some unexpected places! Because of you, I passed that message on to my own children. Like me, they took that message to heart. You gave me the gifts of empathy, curiosity, wonder, delight and humor. I like to think that I share those gifts with the world in ways that honor you.