Let us begin with the end. My father departed this Earth early Tuesday morning, September 29, 2015. On the Hebrew calendar it was the 16th day of the month of Tishrei, the second day of the Festival of Sukkos or Sukkot, as the case may be. I know that because I had to identify his body in the coffin at the funeral home on the following day, and he was immobile. I’m not sharing this to be glib.
At that moment, had he been up to it, my father would have told one of his favorite jokes as follows (thanks cousin Sherry, for the prompt):
Three friends were attending a funeral, and afterward got into a discussion about what they’d like to hear people say about them at their service when the inevitable time comes.
The first guy says, “I would like them to say that I was a great doctor and a loving father who cared very much about his family.”
The second guy says, “I would like them to say that I was a caring husband and a schoolteacher who made a huge difference to kids.”
The third guy says, “I would like them to say — LOOK, HE’S MOVING!!!”
Actually this isn’t as far fetched as you might think. In mid-November, 2014, my father acquiesced to medical advice encouraging him to have a pacemaker implanted in an attempt to regulate his cardiac arrhythmia. He was struggling to stay alive, and the fact that he was seriously debating whether it was worth it or not to go through with the procedure should have been accorded more respect. In retrospect it proved to be a mistake, and his initial bouts of being errantly defibrillated were – as he described it – like a bomb exploding in his chest.
One month later, in New York Hospital Queens, something amazing happened. My father decided at age 94 that the struggle to live was no longer worth it. With my sister and me at this bedside, he said goodbye. He removed the oxygen tubing from his nose, and the medical pulse oximeter from his finger. I attempted to reinsert the oxygen tubing and to slip the pulse oximeter back onto his finger, but Dad showed a strength and resolve to depart that we hand’t expected. I told my father how much we loved him, and said if he felt like he had to let go it would be understood. His body calmed, and we reinserted the tubing and slid his finger back into the oximeter. The medical staff at the hospital said that he was technically still alive, but agreed that his body seemed to be preparing to shutdown.
After several hours of silence, Dad opened his eyes. He asked for assistance in bodily functions, and I asked him if he remembered saying goodbye to us. “No, but I recall having a bad dream”, he whispered. About an hour later he was ready to share what had happened: He dreamt that he was at his own funeral, hovering above, looking down on the proceedings. It soon became clear that only a part of him had returned from that sojourn toward death.
I took the opportunity to ask Dad a question that was normally too somber to discuss. “Now that we’re discussing the end, who would you like to officiate at your funeral?” In the finest tradition of Yogi Berra he replied, “Why don’t you surprise me.”
Although death is no laughing matter, my father loved to entertain through his encyclopedic memory for jokes and anecdotes. Even into his ’90s we could tell when Dad was having a good day or a rough patch with his unsolicited sense of humor serving as a barometer. As the Reader’s Digest would say, Laughter is the Best Medicine, and Israel Press loved to self-medicate. Yet there was always a serious side to him, and we’ll visit that in Part 2.