Note: I wrote this a while back, knowing that it would be impossible to reflect upon and summarize over 100 years of my grandpa's life in the depths of mourning. This is a tribute to man who taught me so much about life and, just as important, how to handle death with grace, humor, and humility.
I previously wrote about my grandpa Irving's 100th birthday if you want to know more about this amazing man.
I love you grandpa.
Let's start off with that and explore the reasons why.
As an atheist, I don't believe in heaven. But I know where your spirit is and always will be.
It will be deep in my heart every time I express gratitude for health and family (your two most important things).
It will be bubbling up in my throat every time I complain the Mets look less Amazin' and more like 1962.
It will be in my thoughts each time I contemplate what a rich and graceful life a person can have, even if they outlive their generation… and even a grandchild.
It's really too bad I only got to know “old man” Irving. The man who lived for almost 70 years before I came along sounded like a wonderful guy. A man full of ambition – not to create a huge bank account – but to create the best environment for his family. A man who would not let anyone interfere with his principles… while defending them in respectful ways.
There is so much I could say. But I won't try and get everything out today. Because every day forward will be an opportunity to celebrate your life, just as every day before was a chance to honor what you held most dear.
As you were a master storyteller, it seems appropriate to capture your life (as much as anyone can in non-book length form) with a couple of stories.
It's still not enough, but I don't know a better way.
Of Course You Do
So many youngsters have to ask the elderly, “Do you remember…?”
There was never a need to ask you that question. Of course you remembered! You remembered everything and had stories for each event.
And you could dramatize the littlest thing – playing up the subtle parts – without risking glamourizing or exaggerating.
I remember the story of your near-death experience while leaving Ukraine with great-grandma when you were eight. Why you left – to avoid the rise of the Communists and the pogrom against the Jews – was easy enough to explain.
I even understand the simple facts behind how you persevered at an American missionary hospital in Mongolia with pneumonia threatening to make each breath your last.
But what that immigrant journey must have felt like – with days of bitter cold penetrating your core and weakening an already food deprived boy – I just can't imagine. The thoughts of terror and panic as one crisis lead to the next are beyond my comprehension.
But you didn't make yourself out to be a hero. If anything, we realized the strength of great-grandma and what a parent will do for their child for the chance at a better life.
The details and nuances of your immigrant journey constantly amaze me. And there was never any comparison to anyone else's hardship or the notion that what you experienced was worse than anyone else.
Hundreds of millions of people made a similar exodus from their homeland in the last century. And unfortunately, many of them didn't make it. You did – barely – and that's the reason I'm alive today to write this.
But the way you told the story – the way you explained an experience that's so far removed from anything most people have ever experienced – was unique. And powerful. And so captivating. And done with a huge sense of humility.
Could I face down that kind of challenge and come out the other end feeling grateful I made it? I'm not sure. Your sacrifice to come to America, and your sacrifice to make a better life for your children than you ever had, has allowed me to spend my days wondering about decisions so different from the difficult ones you made.
I'll never have to worry about whether I can take another frost-bitten step. Or whether my lungs will squeeze another breath out of my mouth. Your story is so inspiring, so empowering. It shows me that there can always be hope in the depths of despair.
But courage and values aren't displayed only in moments of great crisis. They can be proven in a dark movie theater in Queens too.
Get the Hell Out of My Movie Theater!
The movie theater owner hired you as an usher/security guard because you didn't take crap from anyone. Not from the stupid disruptive kids and not from the gangsters who normally acted with impunity during the shows.
Well, at least at the shows where you weren't on duty.
When three gangsters were making a movie experience miserable for everyone, you came along. After asking them firmly to stop being a nuisance and just watch the show, I remember how your eyes danced as you told me what came next.
The boldest of the three hurled insults at you in front of everyone. He had challenged not just your work role, but your honor. As the rhetoric heated up and the intensity of the verbal battle exploded, suddenly words were not the only threat.
One of them flashed a knife and, instantly, the stakes were higher than defending your pride and a good movie watching experience.
After somehow getting the three men out of their seats and into the lobby, they just plain refused to leave the theater. With only a flash light for defense, you stood your ground.
Luckily, the ordeal was resolved verbally, when you roared at the three men to “Get the hell out of my movie theater!”
Years later, the theater owner told you that the three men never came back. And all the customers were on their best behavior when you were working a shift after this crazy event.
You always said, “I'm not a fighter.” And from a physical perspective that's true. But you were a fighter in so many other ways.
Fighting to put food on the table for your family during ninety-hour work weeks in the hat factory. Fighting to defend the rights and well-being of the working man with your political vote or your time on the picket line. And fighting to protect your religion from people who would rather see a planet void of Jews.
I could go on and on. But you were too humble to acknowledge that few backbones were stronger than yours.
The Later Years
There are definite eras within your life when you live past 100.
I only got to experience the later eras as your body failed you in just about every way possible. But crippling back pain, heart attacks, cancer, a bout with pneumonia ninety years after your first, deteriorating eye sight, and terrible hearing that required us to shout into the phone… none of that deterred you from smiling.
You had every reason to turn into an ornery old man. You outlived grandma, your younger brothers, just about every friend you ever made, and a grandson. You spent a good part of every day worrying about what could go wrong or what had already gone wrong. And all your unplanned hospital visits would be enough to make most people angry with life.
But when asked how you were doing, the answer was almost always, “I'm doing OK.” You had a million reasons to complain, but never did.
You loved life and the memories of those no longer available to enjoy it with. And through all the physical, financial, emotional, mental, and spiritual pain, you taught so many people how to age with style, humility, and a sense of humor.
Thank you grandpa for the template.
So many people need to search far and wide for a role model, a mentor, a master storyteller, and experience-based advice.
But I didn't have to seek it out. You just handed it to me and I'm so grateful for that.
Yet I won't follow in many of your footsteps. I'm sure you'd forgive me for not obsessively worrying about the things I can't control. And I trust you'd pardon me for breaking the rigid daily routines and allowing spontaneity into my life.
But I know what kind of man I want to be as I age. He's a person who looks very much like you did.
And I know why family and health are the cornerstones of a meaningful and happy life. But through it all, I know why I can never back down from my principles and values. I know why honesty, fairness, and transparency will carry me so far.
Thank you grandpa for surviving your immigrant journey and still being able to smile.
Thank you for fighting to win the heart of grandma – even when she made it just about impossible – and being the patriarch of a family who sincerely loves and respects one another.
Thank you for showing me that even truly good men make stupid decisions. Like at that wedding where you drank an entire bottle of vodka – the only time you ever drank alcohol – and went blind for three days.
I am grateful for so much more. I am grateful for your life and for all the memories I have of it.
Your wisdom, your acts, and your humor will not be forgotten. Your spirit will always remain with us.
I love you.