Losing Papa: How My Kids Dealt With Death

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Until last week, my three children had no experience with death.  And strangely enough, although I’ve lived almost five decades, neither had I.  Both my grandfathers died before I was born; my grandmothers died when I was a child, but I was not close to either of them.  No one I’ve cared deeply about has ever died.

On August 17th, my father passed away.  He was 85 and had been battling cancer for a while, so his death was not a great surprise – but somehow, it still felt like a shock.  Since then, I have talked to several friends who have lost a parent (or both parents) at various ages and stages of life, who have all agreed:  it doesn’t matter how old your parents are, you are never ready to lose them.

I know this will probably sound hackneyed, but-  my father was an extraordinary person.  As I wrote in a recent email to a few friends:  “He was a dedicated civil rights activist, civil liberties attorney, and relentless fighter for all things right (or left, but you get my point).  Any of you who knew him know that he was an amazing man, with an unwavering moral center, an uncompromising work ethic and an unshakeable love for his family and for the principles of a progressive democracy and free speech.“

My three boys, aged 17, 16 and 12, all adored Papa and understood fully that he was a unique individual who worked tirelessly for things he truly believed in.  This is a rare quality in a human being – to live and work without compromising one’s core principles – and they saw and clearly loved Papa for who he was.  And what an incredible example of a life well lived, one they could examine and embrace, and perhaps one day emulate.

At the end, when it was clear Papa didn’t have much time left, I had each of our three boys write a letter to Papa.  “Write as if this is the last thing you ever get to say to him,” I told them, knowing that most likely, it would be.  At this point, my father was unable to communicate by phone.  Their letters were heartfelt, beautifully written, achingly honest.  I sent them express mail.

My dad didn’t get to read the letters.  He died peacefully in his sleep the night before they arrived.  He never got to hear what they contained – but, of course, he did know.

At my mom’s request, the older two boys, Jonah and Aaron, read their letters aloud at the funeral.  (When we asked Henry, 12, if he’d like to read his own letter, his eyes filled with tears and he said he just couldn’t do it.  I understood completely, for I couldn’t speak at the service either.)

Jonah (17) and Aaron (16), in their dark pants and shoes and pressed shirts, resembled men as they stood at the microphone on the bima.  This teenager-turned-man metamorphosis was one of the things that struck me at the time, along with their courage and poise.  My brother Josh, to my amazement and eternal gratitude, led the service.  He introduced the boys.

Jonah went first: “From your courtroom triumphs in the name of civil liberties to your courageous service to our nation both in war and against it, you have with each successive decade pushed the limits of what one man can accomplish… You are kind, compassionate, just, intellectual, articulate, indefatigable, witty, and utterly devoted to your family, friends, and community… Papa, you are my mentor, my friend, and my inspiration.”

Then it was Aaron’s turn to read his letter.  “No matter how much your body may fail you as you progress further down the astonishing, trailblazing, and remarkable path that has been your life,” Aaron read, “be comforted by the knowledge that your trademark spirit will not diminish… You have always been a great figure in my life, one immense not only with knowledge and skill and vitality of character, but also one towering with immense love – for life, for liberty, for justice, and for people.”

Although Henry could not read his letter to Papa aloud, it too was beautiful and genuine and conveyed Henry’s unique personality:  “You have such a strong heart, always fighting for the right thing, if it is cheering on the BEST TEAM EVER, the New York Yankees (!) or fighting prejudice, or the wrong decisions our country has made.  If I have ever done anything that has showed disrespect for you, that is bullsh*t!”  He went on to write, “As your clock is ticking away, I would love to let you know you are one of the bravest men I know… I will never forget your spirit.”

For boys who have never dealt with death before, they faced the loss of Papa with a true generosity of spirit, with humor, with a demonstration that they genuinely knew and understood the powerful principles and achievements that helped shape the incredible 85-year-old man who was their grandfather.  And more importantly, even though the letters, sadly, did not reach Papa in time, he knew exactly how they felt about him.  At the end of a life, that’s the best you can ask for.

And as my brother Josh put it during the service, “Now that Dad is gone, I see aspects of his incredible spirit and personality manifested in all his ten grandchildren,” specifically referencing Jonah’s intellect, Aaron’s “flair for the dramatic,” and Henry’s passion for baseball.

I’m proud of my boys for their grace and bravery.  But I am also writing these words as part of a legacy of a brilliant, charismatic, principled man.  My father was greatly loved, and he will be greatly missed.

Dedicated to Emanuel Margolis, 1926-2011

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