Eulogy for Dad
First, a warning: For a big, strapping guy, I cry easily. Many years ago, when I cried during an episode of the Brady Bunch, I realized I’m a mushmellon. No matter how many times I hear the Harry Chapin song “Cat’s in the Cradle and Silver Spoon,” I cry. I’ll try to keep this dry, but I am a sentamentalist.
I’d like to start at the end. My dad, Melville Yale Alderman, had a long last year or two. He suffered an inexorable physical and mental deterioration and developed an increasing dependence on my mom. Over the last three months, dad’s decline was palpable, noticeable on a weekly basis. Over the summer, he stated multiple times that he had had enough. Our family was about to be faced with some very, very difficult decisions, and dad’s future was destined to be uncomfortable both for him and all of those around him. The other day, dad went to sleep for an operation and didn’t wake up, dying peacefully, sparing himself a miserable future. He was ready. We were ready. And now it’s over. It’s the finality that hurts, not his death itself. It is the permanent absence of a man who touched us all in so many strange ways. So….Enough about his death….Let’s talk about Mel’s life.
Mel, my dad, was……..a unique character. He was so simple, yet so complex. Even his name – simple: Mel. But no, not Mel for Melvin. It was Mel for Melville. And then his middle name: Yale. YALE? I asked him once when I was young, “Dad, were you named after Yale College?” And he responded, “No, I was named after a relative named Yale – though he was named after Yale College.”
Anyway, Mel, uncle Mel, dad, poppy, popster the lobster was indeed a unique character.
You can’t say he was a curmudgeon, because underneath his thick shell was a heart of gold.
You can’t say he was anti-social, because we all saw moments when he was personable and charming.
You can’t say he was cold, because there were many times he exhibited tremendous sentimentality.
Was he stubborn? Yes.
Was he open-minded? No.
Was he sensitive about people’s emotions? No.
Was he mindful of our strict social protocols? Not really.
My dad called things as he saw them and did not waver or bend his opinion for anyone.
He was 100% internally consistent.
He was 100% predictable.
He was 100% truthful.
He was 100% reliable.
He was solid. He was confident. He was brave.
He was a rock.
On a few occasions in life, I questionned my mother about what drew her to this man. Why did she marry Mel Alderman? Her answer was always the same: “Strength and stability.” Strength and stability. Strength and stability. No one can argue this point.
My dad, Mel Alderman, was so simple yet so complex. He always wanted the best, even in spite of his physical limitations. Sustaining a serious back injury while in the service, dad abstained from all physical exertion for the rest of his life. Heck, my mother had to carry the luggage on their honeymoon! Dad loved taking the family on trips, but my sisters and I always packed and unpacked the car. During all the years we lived in West Hartford, dad did not spend a single second performing yardwork. Nonetheless, to our toiling neighbors’ dismay, he made sure we always had the greenest lawn in the neighborhood.
You could list my dad’s real, true interests in life on one hand….well, maybe 1 ½ hands. Not many of them. But poppy was consistent in those interests throughout life, devoted fully to those few things, living life to the fullest through those few things. Let’s talk about those things my dad treasured.
First, the sun. It is ironic that a Dermatologist would so cherish exposure to the sun. Every sunny day, my father’s spirits were lifted. Nearly every vacation he took involved lying on a beach from dawn til dusk. There were some downsides to this habit. Aside from all the skin cancers he developed, he never could understand why Bea and we kids just didn’t share the same desire for 12 straight hours on a chaise lounge. We kids always dreaded our turn at rubbing sun tan lotion onto dad’s bald spot. But my dad loved the sun and truly worshipped the sun. He actually thought – no kidding – that he had the power to bring out the sun on a cloudy day. He thought he had magic mystical powers to draw out the sun. I occasionally kidded him about this. However, on one very cloudy morning in November 2000, my son, Max, was to have his Bar Mitzvah. The weather forecast: >90% chance of clouds and rain all day. In desperation, I approached my dad and said meekly, “Pop – Can you do your sun thing? We need the sun today – It’s Max’s Bar Mitzvah.” And he responded, “No problem. The sun will come out soon.” Midway through the Sabbath morning service that day, just as Max was about to read Torah, the clouds parted, and the sun beamed through our Temple’s massive windows. But it did not stop there. The clouds continued to dissipate, and we ended up with a cloudless, brilliantly sunny day all day long until the sun set. I never kidded my dad about his magical powers again.
Mel’s second passion was smoking cigars. As a cardiologist, I won’t belabor this point, but whenever he’d light up a cigar, my dad would have this sudden, subtle, pro-social transformation. His body language would exude: “I’m now available for discussion and social banter.” He would sit there, smoking in his chair, tranquil, but clearly open for social discourse. In the last years of his life, I always brought cigars to share a smoke with my dad. Even my teenage sons gradually joined in. Over time, we talked less and less during these sessions due to dad’s mental decline, but it was clear dad was soaking up our presence in these intense bonding moments.
Mel Alderman’s next love was the sport of football. He loved all football, any football, from Pop Warner to college to pro. Every dinner of my childhood was devoted to fattening me up to play football. Dad loved the New York Giants. He was glued to the television every game – His religion. Did these games stir his emotions? I don’t know, but he did suffer his heart attack late in the fourth quarter of a close Giants game. Most of all, dad loved Yale football. Growing up just a few blocks from Yale Bowl, he never missed a game. His father, Irving, attended the first game played at the Bowl and never missed a game until the end of his life, and my dad continued the tradition until his middle years. It was quite the tradition. Every Saturday, with my mom and sisters packed in the car, my dad would come and extract me early from Hebrew School, and we’d drive down to New Haven, joining a family gathering at my grandparents house on Chapel Street. We’d eat and schmooze and then those going to the game would walk to Yale Bowl. Week after week each fall, year after year, the grown-ups with game tickets would sneak my cousin Johnny and me, plus Nancy or Jane, in through Portal 15 of the stadium toward our seats on the 50 yard line. I felt awkward for some time about sneaking-in until one day when I saw the familiar usher we snuck by for years give my dad a big wink and smile. Sitting in the stands, Johnny and I would invoke all sorts of good luck charms to spur our Yale team to victory. And we were surrounded by our dads, big men cheering in their seats, and then all of us jumping up and down hugging each other with each Yale touchdown. And you think my dad never showed much emotion?
Poppy actually cherished all sporting events and creative pursuits, especially those involving his children. He would attend all Nancy’s dance recitals and delighted in his visits to her summer camps. He never missed Jane’s tennis matches and basketball games, and he was there for my games as well. It was impossible to tell whether dad was a spectator or the coach, cruising up and down the sidelines, screaming at the refs, shouting encouragement to his kids. This was no man of little emotion.
The next of poppy’s loves was dear old Yale. This was intense, immense, over-the-top preoccupation with the noble institution of higher learning. We all know how dad bubbled with joy about all the relatives and generations of Aldermans who attended Yale. But it was not boastfulness. Dad’s devotion to Yale was mostly private. He read all the publications he received from the school, followed all Yale sports – not just football, and attended all his reunions religiously. I’m not really sure I understand his fascination with Yale. It was his own private love affair – perhaps inherited, perhaps acquired by close proximity to the institution – but nonetheless, it was a devotion that has no rival.
Another of dad’s few passions was his medical practice of Dermatology. A gigantic practice, his office was flooded with patients. Dad was a different person within those walls, affable, chatty, interactive, sociable – I said sociable. With my sister Nancy by his side, running the office, his practice thrived. Dad was wholly devoted to his patients, and he shined in the hustle and bustle of his office. But dad was always home by six. Always. Work ended. It was time for family.
Which brings me to his greatest love – his family. Mel lived for his family and only for his family. He had tremendous difficulty communicating how he felt to each of us. He’d display his wrath when we erred, but he could not express the love that prompted his negative response to our negative actions. But love us he did. All of us. Loudly critical but silently loving. He lacked filters for his criticism of anyone, and, until his last year or two, lacked the power to demonstrate love. But love us he did. Dad tolerated no outside rebuke of a family member. He was fiercely protective. A wall generated by love.
Poppy was a quiet man. He did not talk much when the family was all together. He just soaked up our presence. He just loved having his family around him. This is exemplified by his purchase of our Vermont ski chalet. Dad didn’t ski! He simply wanted to provide an environment in which to commune with his family. And that he did. He’d sit there hour after hour just to hang out with his family. He’d meet us at the ski slopes for lunch and counted down the minutes until we returned to the chalet for our apres ski activities. It was all about family.
Mel was devoted to his parents, looked up to his big sister, Naiomi, and was very close to his younger brother, Dick. He deeply loved all three of us children, always striving to provide the very best for each of us. He delighted in being surrounded by his grandchildren and great grandchildren. “Come to poppy!” he’d exclaim to them with outstretched arms and a big smile on his face. Popster the lobster.
But above all, on the highest pedestal before him, he placed his wife. Mel loved Bea. He really really loved Bea. She was the epicenter of his universe. He literally could not survive without her (Did you ever see him try to cook?). We will all certainly miss dad’s single favorite word: Bea. Tomorrow is their 55th wedding anniversary. For 55 years, Mel belted out the 3-letter name Bea in three distinct syllables: “Be-e-ea??!!” And Bea would instantly be there. Every time. They were joined at the hip and by the heart. He was no easy man to figure out, but Bea could see beyond all those layers to the golden love underneath. They were yin and yang and fit together like two complex puzzle pieces.
So let’s get back to poppy’s magical powers. He certainly proved to me that he controlled the sun. Well, his magic also worked several miracles in his life. Ten years ago, dad suddenly developed profound cognitive impairment, a rapidly progressive dementia. A neurologist asked him to draw a clock, and the result looked stranger than Salvador Dali’s. He was discovered to have a heart rhythm abnormality with prolonged periods without a heart beat. Only intermittent delivery of oxygen to the brain. A pacemaker was emergently implanted. Dad was trading stocks one week later.
Seven years ago, I received a call from my mom from Prague in the Czech Republic. Dad was sick, blue in color and couldn’t go on with their European trip. But simply a minor adjustment in his medications, and everything quickly turned around, permitting them to travel on.
Two years ago, Dad stumbled during a nocturnal journey to the bathroom, hitting his head and developing post-concussive syndrome. He rapidly deteriorated and was in the fetal position for days. His doctors suggested finding a chronic care facility. However, he miraculously began to improve, and within several weeks was back to being good old Mel.
But the biggest miracle of all was also medical. When Mel reached 60 years of age, he developed three terminal illnesses. He sustained a large heart attack and was found to have severe underlying coronary artery disease. Prognosis: 5-10 years. He was diagnosed with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia. Prognosis: 5-10 years. And he developed Prostate Cancer. Prognosis: 10 years. However, dad did not die until 24 years later. He lasted 24 years after developing these three deadly conditions, nearly a quarter of a century. He became a grandfather and a great-grandfather. That is a miracle. Did he benefit from modern medicine? Yes he did. But that alone is not what kept Mel Alderman alive for 24 years. It was his magic. He wanted to be here, surrounded by his family. He was driven to reach his 80’s. Dad’s stubborn determination kept him alive all those years. That stubborness. That determination. That was my dad’s magic. Silently it created direction for those around him and kept him and his family on course. Toward the end, as poppy mentally declined, he continued to do what he loved best, what he he did all those years up in Vermont, quietly sitting there, absorbing the presence of his family and close friends around him.
You know, I had to pack several days ago for this stay in West Hartford, knowing that a funeral was imminent. As a male, packing for a funeral is easy – your best suit, white shirt, black belt and shoes. There is choice over only one item – your tie. I looked through my ties and agonized over this decision. Should I wear an old Hermes tie of Dad’s? Should I wear his Yale Class of 44 tie? Should I wear an upbeat red tie or a solemn dark tie? Then I came across the multicolored tie I am currently wearing. It has black, red, blue and gold. I felt this was perfect for this occasion. The black in the tie is fitting for a funeral, celebrating the end of Mel’s great life. The red is for the rest of us, alive, vibrant, with minds that will serve as vaults to carry our memories of dad’s life. The blue? Well, we all know why there is a touch of college blue commemorating poppy’s life. And the gold? The gold. Well, the gold is Mel Alderman’s magic, often hidden by the other colors, but the gold was always there. The sun. The Dermatology. The hidden but intense devotion to his friends, his family, and his wife. “Be-e-ea?” Listen. We can all hear him. “Be-e-ea?” Mel. Melville. Melville Yale. Uncle Mel. Dad. Poppy. Popster the lobster. We have all known you in so many complex ways. And we will all miss you forever.
September 16, 2005