Nine Years After: “Since I Was a Child, I Feared the Passing of a Parent More Than Anything.”
I said this to a close friend nine years ago today. I’ve since adjusted, and strive to create opportunities to exceed my dad’s expectations.
My dad was always proud of me. I became the writer he knew I could be, and the man he expected of me. Further accomplishments came to pass for which he patiently awaited ... but he died before the validation.
He was my biggest cheerleader.
Richard Eisenberg: July 29, 1940 — January 10, 2011.
The following is a remembrance, excerpted from a past Medium article. I find it worthwhile today to honor his memory in this way, as time is passing far too quickly and I cannot believe it’s already been nine years.
In the interim, my life didn’t stop, and I fight every day to honor his memory, and far exceed his greatest hopes …
For those who do not know me, I am a novelist and writer-producer for television and film by profession, and have been an avid diarist since childhood. Few conversations could better elucidate my relationship with my father than the exchanges that follow:
December 17, 1983
I was 19 years old, and had just returned from the movie Yentl, directed by and starring Barbara Streisand.
Dad: Did you like the movie?
Me: It was okay.
Dad: What about the music?
Me: There was this one song Streisand sang. Papa Can You Hear Me? I loved it. The rest, not as much.
Dad: I figured. I figured you would like that song.
Dad: I know you.
Me: Do you like it?
Dad: It’s okay.
Me: Does the song remind you of Gramps (my paternal grandfather, for clarity)?
Dad: Not particularly.
My father knew me better than anyone. I loved him. He was my real-life hero. And so, as I wanted to be a professional screenwriter, in my very first screenplay I exaggerated that reality.
This conversation took place the following morning, after he had read my work:
December 18, 1983
Dad: Yeah, I read it.
Me: First script I ever wrote. Took about eight months. Coulda had a baby by then.
Dad: I’m very proud of you for completing it.
Me: That’s it?
Dad: An opinion you want too?
Dad: (pause) Let me ask you a question. What was the story about?
Me: I thought you read it.
Dad: I read it. Answer my question.
Me: Well, it was about a boy, whose dad plays a popular mid-1970’s television
Dad: Starman, go ahead.
Me: Starman, right. So one day, in an alcohol and drug-induced stupor, his dad walks off the set of his show and completely disappears. Everyone, even his own family, thinks he killed himself. Years later the son receives a mysterious phone call, and he realizes his dad is still alive. He goes on a quest to find him, never sure of his intentions should he succeed. In the end, love conquers all.
Dad: Right. Let me ask you another question.
Me: Okay …
Dad: I don’t understand why the boy’s father had to be an alcoholic and drug-addict.
Me: That’s the point. He didn’t appreciate what he had, and —
Dad: Is that how you see me?
Dad: You heard me. Is that how you see me?
Me: I … Why do you ask me that? Come on, of course not. You know tha —
Dad: I thought I did. I guess I just didn’t understand it. Good job completing it
though. You okay?
Me: I guess I’m just a little surprised.
Dad: Don’t be upset, Junius (short for Jewish genius; I called him Plops). I’m sure I’ll love the next one.
Me: I’m sorry … I just thought … That’s why it’s called The Better Part of Me, because of the redemption. He idolized his dad, but didn’t understand if it was him he looked up to or the character he played on TV who everybody else loved. That’s why I made him a superhero because in his son’s eyes that’s what he always was —
Dad: Oy, your mom’s calling for dinner already. Come on, I still love ya.
Me: But he idolized him. It’s sort of like what would be if George Reeves had a son. Don’t you get it?
Dad: Don’t you wanna eat?
We had a deal. We would be honest with one another because, he would say, most people tell others what they want to hear, as opposed to what they need to hear. Truth is, though, I was crushed.
Still, his philosophy about honesty became a philosophy I adapted in short order. We will fast-forward from here.
January 6, 2010
It was barely 5:30AM when I received the familiar call from my mother. She knew I arrived at my office early; there was no fear in waking me up.
“I don’t like bothering you or your brothers about this,“ she said, “but I’m telling you Dad isn’t right.”
“What happened? Talk to me.”
Mom’s been saying this for a few weeks now. I heard the panic in her voice, a desperate plea for understanding. “He’s just not your Dad,” she tried to explain.
“You mean … I was adopted?”
“I’m serious, Joel.”
“Sorry. It’s early.” Lame excuse. “What’s going on?”
“Well, the first thing is last night he woke up in the middle of the night and asked for sugar,” she said. “Then he asked me for the money.”
“What money, how do I know what money? That’s the point.”
“Was he sleepwalking, maybe?”
“I thought he was, but then this morning when he was supposed to put his pants on, he was ready to walk out of the house naked and he was fighting with me.”
April 10, 2010
Months passed. My father’s decline hastened. As I did every day, I called him. We confided in each other.
Me: We gotta talk.
Me: This isn’t easy for me, Plops. I love you and this isn’t easy —
Dad: What isn’t easy?
Me: I’ve always been the only one who could talk to you this way … You can’t use the checkbook anymore, Plops. You’re just making too many mistakes lately …
Dad: Oh you think so, do you?
Me: C’mon, I’m not joking.
Dad: Who said I’m joking? Are you joking?
Me: Plops …
Dad: Junius …
Me: I’m sorry, but Mom’s gonna do the checks from here on.
Dad: Then let her do it.
I wasn’t sure how to take that, so I asked him a question that had been on my mind for weeks:
Me: Dad —
Dad: Oh, that’s serious. You never call me Dad.
Me: Are you scared?
Dad: What do I have to be scared about?
He didn’t skip a beat. We stayed on for awhile longer.
Me: I’m thinking of freezing my sperm. You think this has been easy on me?
Dad: You what?
Me: You heard me.
Dad: I did hear you. I’m just surprised, that’s all.
Me: Why? Why are you surprised? Don’t you think –
Dad: Yeah, I do.
Me: We have no kids, maybe we’ll get a dog one day but —
Dad: Funny. But the idea, is this definite?
Me: I don’t know. Been tossing it around.
Dad: Well, just make sure to tell my daughter-in-law when you’re finished tossing.
You got me?
Me: I got you. I love you.
We discussed our past … and our future.
Me: I was rebellious. That’s my excuse for everything bad you’ve ever thought about me.
Dad: You were never rebellious. You were a good kid.
Me: All right. Back to the subject. There’s nothing wrong with using Depends if you need them. You have an illness, and —
Dad: I know what I have, Junius. You don’t have to remind me.
Me: There’s nothing wrong with it, Plops.
Dad: I’ll let you know.
Me: It’ll be easier on Mom.
Dad: I’ll —
Me: I wouldn’t even mention it if I thought there was no dignity in it. What’s worse. You would tell me the same thing if there was something I was dealing with.
Dad: My pain in the ass first-born, I love you. But like I said, leave me be for now.
I’ll let you know.
At nearly an hour, it was the longest phone call we had ever shared. Later that day, he called me.
Dad: What took you so long?
Me: A wild afternoon with my mistress ... It’ll be all over the internet by tomorrow.
Dad: Dream on.
Me: What’s going on, Plops?
Dad: You’re such a comedian, but I wouldn’t pay to see you. You do make me laugh though. Sometimes.
Me: Is everything okay?
Dad: Honestly? Nah … not really.
Me: Not really? You’re scaring me. What’s happening?
Dad: I need your help. You and your two brothers. I need you to help me with mom.
Me: I don’t understand …
Dad: God Bless your mother, but she gets so mad at me. And that sets me off. She needs to realize I can’t walk like I used to, I get tired and –
Me: She says you’re lazy and your brain is turning to mush. She says you don’t even do puzzles anymore. You understand she has a point. You’ve told me this.
Dad: I can’t … I can’t do right now … I need for everyone, for you guys and especially your mother, to understand … When I get over this, it’s one thing, but for now …
Me: What can we do?
Dad: Can you please talk to her? I love your mother, I know she means well. But this is very hard now … I know she’s doing everything to support me and I love her for it. If I didn’t have her, I wouldn’t know where I’d be. But she doesn’t need to suffer, and I don’t want to fight with her anymore …
He was upset, more so than I could ever recall. My father and I continued to speak daily, but he was clearly getting weaker.
Two weeks later, I pressed the blinking light on my voicemail. It was a message from my brother, Neil.
“Joel, call me,” he said, with no small degree of urgency. “Dad collapsed.”
I traveled to Fort Lauderdale from Los Angeles to help my parents. Random thoughts, on my flight:
He wasn’t perfect.
He gave away our dogs growing up, whenever we moved long distances, helping us deal with loss. But was any of that necessary?
When he dies, my wife and I will buy a dog in his honor. We’ll call him Toodles.
I was doing what I could to steel myself for the inevitable. He had told me the night before, on the phone, that his doctor said he’d be “slowing down.”
He hadn’t been able to walk for weeks and he spoke in whispers.
For many years, my father told all his boys to always put their wives first. I would return to mine in seven days, and try my damndest to resume a normal life while playing the waiting game. On Day Seven of my trip, about two hours prior to my return flight, my father and I said goodbye.
My brothers would be arriving the following week.
On the way back to the airport, I told my mom it was okay to start letting go. “Why do you say that to me?” she cried. I was instantly guilt-ridden.
Dad entered hospice care nine days later.
January 10, 2011
My eyes squinted open, and I looked up at my mom. This is it, I thought. “Tell me,” I said. Her face said it all, though I needed to hear it from her. “Tell me,” I repeated. Nothing. She clearly wanted to say something, but simply could not. “Please … tell me.” Her face was contorting; my poor mom. She’s been through so much; I shouldn’t put her through this now. She continued to struggle. As did I. “Mom … tell me … Tell me! Tell me! TELL ME!!”
I had fully roused. “Tell me,” I cried. “Mom … please — “
I woke up from my Monday morning nightmare moments thereafter. I grasped for my glasses and looked at the clock. 3:01AM. Falling back asleep was useless. Lorie, my wife, was still deep in slumber. No surprise. I left the room, gently closed the door, and stumbled into my home office.
Once inside, I flicked on the lights. Everything as it was. Nothing had been altered in any way. I couldn’t focus and surfed the net, still troubled by the vivid images of minutes before. Now was not the time for anything constructive — a jump on the newest script, dishes in the sink. Instead, aintitcool.com, deadline.com, wrestlingobserver.com, AOL News … collectively my morning ritual. Nothing of any matter, save for the radio reporting a series of severe snowstorms ravaging the east coast.
It was barely two hours later when the phone rang. 5:22.
“Joel, it’s me.” My brother, Mike, calling from Florida. “Dad died.”
January 11, 2011.
I couldn’t sleep, and though the room was dark my eyes were open and I stared at the ceiling, again, alone with my thoughts as I wrote this …
I wish you never had to suffer. I gladly would have taken the risk. I told you I wanted to give you a piece of my liver. It would regenerate, according to the internet. Maybe the Florida doctors are risk-averse but Dad … I would have been okay. I would never lie to you.
Where are you, today, Dad? It’s over. I need you. Where the hell do you go when you die? It’s as dark as it was when I was a child and I couldn’t conceive of a world without you.
In this and this alone I can’t find the comedy. Where does that leave us now?
Can you hear me? I need you to focus, one last time—
“Junius,” he said from the ether, “I’m here and I’m doin’. I’m okay. Let me go.“
He once that to me over the phone, losing patience during one of his hospital stays. He hated that hospital. Not that anyone could blame him, of course. But as the disease began to take its toll, our long phone conversations became short and curt. And they almost all ended the same way.
“Let me go.”
Yet, he couldn’t wait to see me when I visited. He would stay up at night and ask my mom if Joel was here. According to my mom, he would then go back to sleep, disappointed, before he woke her with requests like a shower, or his walker so he could go to the bathroom.
Dad, I’m sorry you had to suffer. But one thing:
I will never let you go.
The preceding article was my 300th for the Medium platform. I hope you appreciate its messages.