It’s been nearly a year since my last post, titled “Endings.” Yet I’m following it now with the eulogy I gave at my father, Dr. Milton L. Levine’s funeral last Sunday.
Notes for my Dad’s Funeral 7/13/14
My dad was the happiest man I’ve ever known. Perhaps I’ll never know for sure what the secret of this happiness was, but I have some ideas.
For one thing, it seemed that when my dad found something he loved, he embraced it with a profound certainty and permanence that he never diminished through restlessness or boredom.
He met my mom, his high school sweetheart when they were teenagers sharing a desk at Tilden High School; decided (correctly, and apparently despite some early trepidation from his mother) that she was the love of his life: and more than half a century later they still would spontaneously hold hands walking down the street. He would wave at her affectionately from across the dinner table.
My dad found Shelter Island through my mom’s cousin Jerry around 1960 and from then on it was the place he wanted to spend every spare moment, never tiring of it or wishing for someplace shiny and new. He was happy puttering around the house finding things to fix, he was happy at Town Beach struggling to haul in the sail of a windsurfer, or chatting up strangers who might be wearing a t-shirt that said “Brown” or “Harvard” or “Harry Potter”; he was happy with the salmon at Bob’s on Friday night. If he’d had his way in fact, he would have attended none of your weddings, bar mitzvot, or special occasions. No that’s not quite right. If he’d had his way, you would have held all those celebrations on Shelter Island. Sometime other than August.
Because REALLY what made him most happy was to share the things he loved with other people. Mornings, for instance. He loved the song “Oh What a beautiful Morning!” from Oklahoma, and he sang it early, often, loudly, and with great feeling in that gorgeous tenor that was always ever-so-slightly off key. Now I will say that many of us who shared a household with my dad were NOT Morning people. I won’t name names, but after the serenade we were often told, “Get up! You’re missing the best part of the day!!” The replies he got were usually not as sweet as the sentiment, but nothing could rain on the parade of his happy day.
It was the same with his work. I think my father decided he wanted to be a doctor when he was just a kid. And as far as I can tell he never doubted or second-guessed that decision for a second. He just LOVED being a doctor. He loved the intellectual challenge of listening to a patient describe their symptoms, of putting the facts together like a detective and solving the problem of their complaint. He loved having a job where he could talk to lots of people every day (a captive audience whom he could regale with tales of his children’s accomplishments, I gather) putting them at ease with his confidence and his sunny manner, leaving them better off than before. I think he was a fantastic doctor, but he wasn’t arrogant about it. One of his favorite things to say to patients was, “You’ve come to me just in time! In another day you’d have been all better on your own.”
When I was a kid he used to say to me, “Artie, you can be anything in the world you want to be” and he’d count off on his fingers, “An opthamologist, a gastroenterologist, a neurologist…” But he was kidding of course. What I took from that was that I should try to find work that filled me with the kind of satisfaction that his job gave him every day. We all should be so lucky.
Of course the path of my dad’s life had its obstacles and potholes, but somehow even his stories of travail were colored by optimism, and a belief that good wins out. So he got in trouble as a grade school kid; it was only because he was too bright and bored and eventually that worked itself out. So Columbia rejected him because of an anti-semitic quota system, on the same day he was notified that he’d received the top score in the city on a scholarship program administered by the University. This became a story of how Grandpa Sam refused to be cowed by a system stacked against Jews. And how his confrontation led to my dad’s immediate acceptance. Good guys win, the story went. The path of life leads to happiness.
On the phone in particular, my dad was not a big conversationalist but he loved a good happy story and I would save those up for him to share:
Great test scores, a promotion, something wonderful that had happened to Max. I knew he would eat them up and then say, “Want to talk to your mother?”
When I was younger, of course, he was the one telling the stories to me. While my mom liked to read with me, my dad preferred making stories up on the spot. His favorite were stories of a boy named Henry who had a magic whistle that could call the animals of the forest or the ocean to his aide in times of crisis. (The crises I’m talking about were things like being tied to a train track in the path of an onrushing locomotive, or being held by outlaws tied up somewhere in a basement. You know, your typical suburban danger situations.) My brothers, whom I guess thought they were past the age technically of having stories told to them, would often creep in to my bedroom to catch the latest installment. Listening for the moment when poor Henry was at his most desperate when he would remember the magic whistle, and then “Down From the Sky Came Baldy Eagle!” or some other brave animal rescuer to make things right.
My dad is no longer here to tell those stories. But we all have them inside us now. And I’m sure that when life seems unbearably sad to me, fraught with danger, perhaps even hopeless, that I will remember Henry and the Magic Whistle, along with the example of a man who was supremely content with his life. And happy.