“The Visit,” Revisited

momdadwedding.jpgThis weekend my brother and wife made our yearly visit to our parents’ graves near Lake Worth, Fla. Our visit coincides with my father’s birthday, March 20. My mother was born on January 18th but our schedules are more favorable in March. According to Jewish tradition there is an unveiling of the memorial stone a year after a person dies. It involves a religious ceremony and a gathering of friends and relatives. In 2008..a year after both my parents passed it wasn’t possible for a number of reasons to put this together, so I went down to Florida at my wife’s suggestion and simply did it myself using a cloth she gave me and saying the traditional prayers. My brother and I then decided we should make these visits an annual event as both a way to honor our parents and for us to see each other since he lives in Connecticut and I live in Michigan, and so a tradition began in 2009.  I wrote about it as a “note” my first year on Facebook in 2010 and I thought you might enjoy the recounting of it and use it as a suggestion of just one way make sure that even when a loved one, or two…is gone, you can still include them in your life.

Written March 21, 2010:

I flew down to Florida this weekend to visit my parents and to celebrate my dad’s birthday. There was no airport welcome or even a pickup at baggage. I picked up my rental car and blew by the usual I-95 exit just south of West Palm Beach. Wasn’t a mistake. My immediate destination was a Hampton Inn a good 20 minutes from where they are and where I’d meet my brother, also in from out of town. Having arrived on Saturday, we weren’t able to visit my parents. That’s because the cemetery where they’re buried is Jewish, so it’s closed on the Sabbath. But first thing Sunday morning, we were at the gates of the Eternal Light Memorial Park, drive along the palm-lined Shalom Drive entry road and pull my compact rental along the curb near their plot, then look for low-slung stone bearing both their names.

My parents, Richard and Gertrude, were native New Yorkers and loved everything about the city—the Broadway shows, the culture, the sports teams, the aggravation, and their three million friends. But by 1988 the cold winters were not good companions for their health and they decided to retire to Florida, as so many New Yorkers feel they must. They settled in a suburb of West Palm Beach with the godawful name Greenacres City—a mélange of mostly tacky trailer parks, scrubby lots, strip malls and aging condo and apartment complexes.

However, inside the walls of their very attractive retirement community called Buttonwood the single family homes were well-kept, the grounds maintained and the association board ruled with unyielding Presidio-like precision. My father sat on the board for several years until he tired of the power-hungry old guys. Those Seinfeld episodes featuring his TV father getting bounced from the board for a nonsensical transgression are hilariously spot on.

Indeed, there were 15 rules for the pool including the edict of showering before entering. The words “Did You Shower?” were even stenciled on the concrete steps at the pool’s shallow end. The shower itself was placed such that you had to walk by all of the chaise lounge- bound SPF-95 slathered land whales to get to it. Every pair of those aged eyes was trained on the hopeful swimmer as he or she entered and proceeded to the exposed shower stall. Try to blow off the required spritz only at the risk of being taunted as severely as an auto company CEO at a Congressional hearing. Women risked being banned from the regular Mah Jong games and men could forget about cracking the shuffleboard squad. An outing with the Angler’s Club? You’re chum in a drum.

Ah, the shuffleboard team. My father was captain for several years—the years they won the league championship. It’s big stuff. There’s a trophy and photo in the newspaper involved. Over the years my father, a chemical engineer and math whiz, taught me the finer points of shuffleboard, elevating the sport to the tactical complexity of Grand Master chess. You don’t win championships by just giving the ceramic disc a shove with the forked stick. There’s strategy, disc placement and a fair amount of condo trash talk. “That’s where you played it? Feh!”

My mother was a major Mah Jong maven, having learned the ropes during thousands of tile-clacking sessions on folding card tables in apartment living rooms all over Queens.
They had a wonderful retirement, having made dozens of close friends, traveling all over Europe, the Caribbean and Canada and enjoying the sunshine. Things were going so well for them, except for Hurricane Andrew in the early ‘90s, they had about a decade of non-name-worthy storms before a string of them hit starting in 2004 causing them to lose power for as long as five miserable days.

They had their health issues over the years. My father required a pacemaker and defibrillator to keep his ticker tocking and my mother was losing the sight in her left eye due to a tumor growing on her pituitary gland. Several operations never really got all of it and had the cumulative effect of causing her to lose some of her lucidity.

In mid-March of 2007, we paid our yearly visit—my wife, son, daughter and I. We had drinks with them at the tony bar at the exclusive Breakers hotel in Palm Beach, a wonderful prime rib dinner at a West Palm steakhouse, and a fascinating stroll through the Gumbo Limbo nature preserve in Boca Raton. Just before we left that location, I snapped a photo of my parents with my daughter’s tiny digital camera. That turned out to be the very last photo of them together.

Two weeks later, when we were back home in Michigan, I called my dad on his birthday, March 20th. My mother answered the phone and said he couldn’t speak because he was in the hospital. She didn’t really know what was wrong. Two days later, my wife called me at work to say she received word he had passed away. We’re still not really sure why.
My mother, already losing her hold on reality went downhill in a hurry. A July operation to remove a kidney exacerbated her decline. On Christmas Eve we lost her too.

Jewish tradition, but not law, calls for an unveiling of the grave marker between six and 12 months after a parent’s death. The unveiling ceremony is fairly informal with the saying of two prayers, sometimes a few psalms, and, if desired, those attending are encouraged to say a few words about the deceased.

To cut to the chase, it just didn’t happen. I live in Michigan. My brother lives in Connecticut, and together with our lingering grief, there were other twists in our lives that prevented us from completing the task.

As the two-year anniversary of my father’s passing and what would have been his 87th birthday approached, it gnawed at me that we had not given him and my mother the religious closure they deserved. Afterall, they deferred their own personal pleasures to make sure there was enough money to pay for our college educations and some shekels in the bank to help us get started in our adult lives.

I had already made the decision that I would visit their graves once a year because I didn’t want them to feel abandoned, resting so far away from the family. The 2009 visit would be the first of these visits with the additional responsibility of performing the unveiling solo. True, I’m not a rabbi, but I slogged through four years of Hebrew school, got bar mitvahed, always appreciated Jackie Mason, and impetuously married a nice….Episcopalian girl. Back off…her matzo balls are peerless and her seders are serene.

So now, here I was, a year later, this time joined by my brother, going through mostly the same routine I always went through when paying my parents a visit, with a few differences. Northwest Airline is now Delta, we changed hotels…and no one physical to visit.

My father’s name was Richard, but his middle name was Maxwell and his closest friends and relatives called him Mac. As my brother and I looked for a place to eat dinner, tell stories about our parents and celebrate my father’s birthday, we stumbled on a place called “Max’s Grill” in Boca Raton. Close enough. We spent the rest of the evening spinning one anecdote after another, sipping our drinks, making up for time we could never reclaim.

On Sunday, I nibbled on a bagel and coffee from the free hotel breakfast, checked out, and the two of us drove the 20 minutes to Eternal Light in our separate rentals, in absolute silence. I wanted to get my head together, emotions in check and not miss the turn into the cemetery.

We pulled in, parked along the curb near their plot and quickly found our parents.
The year before, having forgotten to bring stones, which are traditionally placed at the gravesite to show someone visited, I snagged a couple of broken pieces of concrete from the area where they’re building a new mausoleum and used those. This year, even those weren’t available, so we just touched the stone, and maybe left an impression.

I got back in the car and exited Eternal Light Memorial Park and headed for the airport. Florida. I thought about what just happened and how glad I was for doing it. I imagined my parents looking at each other wherever they are, smiling, and saying to each other, “see bubby, I told you Edward would visit this year.” Indeed…when I get to work on Monday and someone asks how my weekend was, I’ll say “fantastic, I visited my parents in Florida, like I do every year, and wished my Dad a happy 88th birthday. See you next year for 89.”

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