By Bill Simons
On a Father’s Day several years ago, my father, my son and I stood before a large wall mirror adjusting our ties as we prepared to join the rest of the family. In the mirror image, the three generations were looking good – and upbeat. Then, my father turned to the empty space to his left and said, “I wish my father were here.” I am now that grandfather at the end of the queue looking to the empty space and saying, “I wish my father were here.”
My father, Shep Simons, celebrated his 94th birthday on April 30, 2017. We rented a sparsely furnished, childproof room for a four-generation family gathering. Unassisted, my father walked at a good clip from the independent-living Brooksby Village apartment in Peabody, MA, that he shared with my mother to the party room. Laughter and good cheer pervaded the celebration. My father pronounced the 2017 family gathering the happiest day of his life.
In the weeks after my father’s 94th birthday, he experienced significant declension. For the first time, my father needed a walker. And there were episodes of dizziness and fatigue.
On Saturday, June 17, my wife, Nancy, and I arrived at Brooksby, and my father was in bed. His breathing was heavy, sometimes strained, but his discomfort modest. From about 4-8 pm, Dad and I shared memories about family; our multigenerational trip to Israel; AZA (Aleph Zadik Aleph), the Jewish youth group he advised, coached and inspired for a generation; ballgames played and watched; the 132-year-old Lynn (MA) family business which he and his brothers Shel and Alan transformed from shoe store to uniform retail company; and the role of the Simons family in the capture of the Boston Strangler. When I recalled the many rowboat outings from Salem Willows with Uncle Ben and cousins Lloyd and Bobby to catch flounder, Dad perfectly pantomimed, with surprising vigor, bringing in the drop line. And there was talk of the 2015 Honor Flight we took to DC with his World War II military compatriots. On that trip, an active-duty soldier grasped my father’s forearm, looked him in the eye and said, “Thank you for my freedom.”
I reminded my father that tomorrow was Father’s Day and the entire extended family would share it with him, and that my sister Jo Ann had arranged for an ice cream truck to come by; my father suddenly started to look for his credit card so that he could pay, which he always did. On the phone, Jo Ann told me that, according to the doctor, time was growing finite, but we were not at the end. Nancy and I walked over to our rented room.
A few hours later, at 3:31 am on Father’s Day, we awoke to a ringing phone. Nancy picked it up. My father had died in bed a few moments before in his own apartment with my mother beside him. When Veronica, the homecare professional and dear friend, had looked in at 3 am, my father was OK.
Within 12 minutes of the phone call, Nancy and I, dressing quickly and walking double pace, were in the bedroom my parents had shared. My father was in bed. He appeared to be sleeping. There was neither fear nor pain on his face, for which we thank God. My Dad’s aura remained. I kissed my father on the forehead and told him that I loved him. Jo Ann soon arrived. Jo Ann and Nancy focused on my mother, comforting her in the living room, and intermittently coming into the bedroom.
In the Jewish tradition, the body is not left alone before burial. I remained in the bedroom with my father for the next four-plus hours. Memories and reflections punctuated that time.
When I was 10 years old, my father bought me a set of weights. Dad would instruct me in technique and monitor my progress. And, between sets, we talked. As my father came of age, antisemitism plagued the world. In his youth, my father sought a Jewish history that leavened defeat and discrimination with victories and heroes. At the library, he read of Judah Maccabee and Bar Kokhba, but no Jewish hero loomed larger in his imagination than Hank Greenberg, the Detroit Tigers slugger of the Depression years, because of his home runs and refusal to play baseball on Yom Kippur 1934.
My father attended Hebrew school several afternoons a week until his bar mitzvah. Hebrew was taught by rote, providing little sense of the meaning behind the words. By early adolescence, Dad found Jewish theology largely irrelevant. He believed in a supreme being, but found it difficult to accept that any mortal could tell him more about God than he felt. Yet, from an early age, my father felt a strong identification with the ethnic component of Judaism. That sense of peoplehood was manifested by his leadership role in Jewish organizations, family life, strong support of Israel and World War II military service.
The funeral home driver, Kevin, arrived at about 8 am. I helped transfer my Dad’s body from the bed to the gurney, and then from the gurney to the hearse.
I cried when I telephoned my son Joe, as did he.
Discussions with our rabbi (David Meyer), finalizing arrangements with the Stanetsky-Hymanson funeral home, a traditional Jewish funeral with military honors, and sitting shiva would follow. However, there was Father’s Day to consider. The death had occurred in the wee hours of the morning on Father’s Day.
The Sunday, June 18, Father’s Day family gathering to honor my Dad went on as planned. The ice cream truck, with its customary sound silenced, arrived on schedule. Our cousins and Uncle Alan joined the gathering, ranging from my 1-year-old grandson Danny to my mother, Elaine, just short of 91, to support one another, grieve, share fond recollections and to affirm that as long as we have memory, Dad remains with us.
Father’s Day remains special to my family and I hope to yours. L’chaim!