This article first appeared in Code M. Click here to view.
When my father pulled in the driveway at 5 o’clock every night, everything was right in the world again. He’d beep the horn and we’d go out to greet him with a kiss.
I kissed him when I was 5 and 15 and 22, which is how old I was when he died. It didn’t embarrass me. I kissed him in front of my friends when they couldn’t even shake their father’s hands in public. It wasn’t important to them or it was off-putting to show affection to their dads. For me, it was my connection to him.
My dad was a salesman. Instead of staying out on the road towing the company line, he’d make sure he’d come home for dinner. He picked us up when we fell down. He came to all our JV games. He took a keen interest in us.
All that kindness and goodness and love rubbed off on me and made a wrinkle in my brain for the way I wanted to live my life and the way I wanted to be a father.
I was a great dad, too. I loved playing with Becca and Bobby. I loved listening to them and being with them as they grew up. Every time we’d get in the car, we’d find a new park to go play in. Like any parent, I made mistakes. But I tried to teach them what my father taught to me: integrity. I always told them the truth. That was important to me.
Raising them was the most essential thing I could do in my life. More important than my profession. More important than working 70 or 80 hours a week. I didn’t want to be an absent father who worked all the time.
I had plenty of opportunities as a lawyer to work more hours and earn more money. I loved law. But it wasn’t as important to me as my family, even though that decision came with financial sacrifices. I didn’t want to have any regrets.
I brought these two lovely children on this earth. I didn’t want to miss out on the ups and down of their lives. I didn’t want to miss out on the opportunities to support them and to enjoy them. They brought me a great deal of joy, a kind of joy that you can’t replace.
When Becca was 16 and Bobby was 14, we moved out to San Diego when I started a couple of businesses. Becca was funny, kind, and intelligent. A wonderful daughter. After a couple of years, she started getting headaches that the doctors initially thought were related to sinus issues. One day she got a headache that wouldn’t go away—severe enough that we went to the ER. As they were running some tests, the headache went away, but a doctor wanted to rule out the impossible just to make sure, so he ordered a brain MRI.
He came back. He didn’t say ‘cancer’. No one said ‘cancer’. They called it a mass. They said there was something wrong up here, pointing to an area of her brain. I knew what was happening. She had a grade 4 astrocytoma. Life stopped for me.
I used to say my daughter was my heart and my son was my soul. I was 44 years old and my heart was breaking.
We turned our home into a hospital. We brought a hospital bed into our room where Becca lived and would receive treatments.
My priority was her survival and health. I was lucky enough with my businesses to take time off. When she went for chemo treatments, I’d go with her. When she went for check-ups, I’d go, too. When they’d do blood transfusions at the house, I’d be there with her. One of the worst aspects of her brain cancer was when she got grand mal seizures. I learned how to handle them. When she’d seize, I’d hold her and talk with her.
Sometimes I’d put my hand on Becca’s arm to see if I could somehow get the brain tumor from her body into mine. If she could live and I could die, that would be okay.
She died in our arms after 11 months. We buried her on her 19thbirthday.
I never had any regrets about spending more time with her. There were never any ‘I wish I had’ moments. I did spend the time with her.
Most parents who lose a child want to kill themselves. You can’t see the pain, but it screams inside. Sometimes I thought it would have been easier to take the seat belt off and hit the wall at 100 miles per hour in order to be in a less painful place, to be wherever Becca is.
During the first couple of years, when grieving her loss was absolutely terrible, I tried to be there for Bobby. I tried to be the best father I could possibly be. He deserved a life with a father who cared about him. Because of Bobby, I decided to live. His life is important and he deserves to be happy.
Even though it’s been over 25 years, we still grieve her loss. She was his best friend. We still cry about her, take a deep breath and move on.
I got more involved in the cancer community after Becca died. While she was in treatment, she’d invite a bunch of teens and young adults for a support group to our home. Running that support group after her passing was my first foray into the non-profit world.
My marriage didn’t survive. I moved back to Chicago and asked myself, ‘What do I want to do with my life?’ Giving back felt good. The non-profit world felt good.
I kept doing law, but on a part-time basis. I became the Executive Director of the Jewish National Fund, then the Executive Director of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Illinois. I also took a turn running an ALS organization.
I’m 74 now and I do elder law part-time. I’ve tried to be a good parent to Bobby, who does voiceover work in Los Angeles. He’s a wonderful son.
I live my life one day at a time, but my heart is broken.