Sunday, August 29, 2004

A last errand

I was always close with my father, and when he died I wrote this tribute.

Date: Sunday, August 29, 2004
Edition: Palm Beach Section: LOCAL Page: 1B

The last real errand I ran for my dad came when he sent me to the library to find F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby in large-type print.

This was his last-gasp effort to try to read. For at least six weeks he had been unable to make out words on the printed page, having fallen victim to cataracts and then an operation that didn't prove to be the cure that he'd hoped for.

For a lifelong reader, a man who kept a constant stack of books by his bedside -- juggling most of them simultaneously -- this was an unimaginable curtailment of his quality of life. It seemed the thing that was finally cutting off his joy of living, forget the dozens of pounds of weight he'd lost in his 10-year battle with colon cancer or the weakness that kept him from walking to the dining room at the North Shore Retirement Hotel.

His eye doctor had suggested large-print books, and he was running with that idea. So three Fridays ago I was in the Evanston, Ill., public library for the first time in many years. And thinking what a full-circle experience it was.

Because almost 50 years ago, going to the Evanston Library was our Saturday ritual. We'd pick up a stack of books to read that week and return the stack we'd plowed through the week before. He and I, and my two sisters as they grew old enough to come along.

In my recollection, we did this every week. We'd go to the library and to Charley Moy's laundry, where he had his shirts cleaned and lightly starched for work, and to the Huddle in the Orrington Hotel for milkshakes. Some years there were YMCA swimming lessons, which never took for me but always ended in the most delicious chocolate marshmallow ice cream cones.

I don't doubt that my own love of reading came from those excursions and his example. I know that it was from his reverence for writers that I grew up thinking that writing was the most honorable of professions.

I know that he had wanted to be a writer himself. As a Chicago teenager in the 1930s, he had in fact edited the Roosevelt High School Rough Rider. But World War II and life's practicalities denied him his chance. I know that I chose to go into journalism in part to fulfill that dream for him. Not that he ever asked me to. And not that I didn't love that dream for myself. I was just lucky that my talents, such as they are, coincided so well with a career goal that had my father's great respect.

I knew even at a young age that those Saturday outings were unusual. That it wasn't expected for a father to take time each and every week just to be with his kids.

All my life I've heard about fathers who were too busy for their children, and I knew -- even in the 1950s, when the absent suburban father was the nation's cultural norm -- that I had something different. I had a dad who gave me his full attention, as well as his love.

He probably read every word I've ever published, as well as most I've turned in for grades at school. He was a perceptive critic. But he was never-ending in his praise and enthusiasm.

He was so proud of a book report I wrote in the sixth grade on the libretto of Fiorello, the Broadway play, that he actually sent it to the play's author. And damned if Jerome Weidman didn't send a letter back, predicting great things for Mr. Goodman's precocious 12-year-old. I was so embarrassed, not least because I knew I had plagiarized the last line from the musical's record album cover. But I was thrilled, as well, that writing words could yield such applause.

Maybe my career path was set then and there.

For years, I phoned him almost every day to talk about the news or sports or something I'd written. Sometime early this month, when he was drifting away from us, I realized he had read the last column of mine he'd ever read ... and that I had lost my oldest and most devoted fan and reader, and my conscience.

He never made it past the first couple of pages of that large-print Gatsby.

But he'd been trying, up until the last hours of his consciousness, to keep reading and enlarging his sense of this world.

I felt lucky to spend his last days with him.

He died on Aug. 17, a warm, gray Tuesday afternoon in Evanston. He was in his bed, surrounded by family pictures and favorite books, and the end came gently.

He was 81, a onetime advertising executive who had loved to play tennis, pull for life's underdogs and tell a million shopworn jokes.

He told the last of them on what proved the night before his death. Picture the guy, as frighteningly skinny as a skeleton, too weak to speak more than a couple of words at a time, lying on the couch from which he barely moved all summer.

My sister asked, "Dad, are you comfortable?"

"I make a nice living," he whispered, not missing the Borscht Belt beat.

I know I will miss him every day. But I know, too, that he will be walking with me wherever I go.

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