The following eulogy was delivered for my father, Martin Milrad, who passed away peacefully on October 19, 2015, after a valiant battle with dementia. He was 85 years old.
What makes a full life?
Is it the number of beats of a heart, the steps we take, the breaths we have?
The places we see, the stuff we collect, the clothes we wear?
Perhaps it is a combination of these things, and my Dad had quite a few of each. But he taught me that life and love are built not on the towers of the high and mighty, but on the shores of the small and significant.
He was by no means a saint, but that’s precisely what made him so great.
When I was 8 years old, my Dad moved out. I still remember the boxes in the living room, the arguments, and my mom’s tears. I still remember that, in my child’s eye, I didn’t want him to go.
But in the decades that followed, my Dad and his love was revealed to me, gracefully unearthed like buried treasures.
After my parent’s divorce, my brother and I would spend time with my Dad in his apartment. Inevitably, a Giants game would be on TV, and he and my brother would be fixated on it. But really all I wanted was Dad to tickle my back, and it was a mischievous plan that always worked out pretty well.
Pretty soon, whenever my Dad came to pick us up, it would bring a smile to my face, and his hazel eyes would always widen with joy, his dimples opening up a wide smile. On what seemed like perfectly clear blue Saturdays, we would jump into his rickety red Ford Escort, and sit atop the pistachio shells and bagel seeds that covered the floor. My brother and I would beg him to drive us through the puddles and potholes in Queens, and we would make fun of his bald head and never-changing sideburns, complete with a perfect 70s panache.
Off we would go to get our favorite corned beef sandwiches in Queens, our favorite Mint Chocolate Chip melted ice cream in Manhattan, chicken noodle soup in Queens that quickly became chicken rice noodle soup, or our favorite ices in Astoria. When it came to ices, my Dad loved pina colada, but no matter what flavor we got, the paper containers would quickly crumble, and we would laugh as we licked our fingers filled with deliciousness.
Then there were the field trips to New Jersey, which were my favorites. During our ride over the George Washington Bridge, I would sit in the backseat on warm summer days, roll down the window, and let my hand ride the wind like an airplane. Time slowed to a halt, and for a kid who loved trees and birds and fresh air, New Jersey to me seemed like a magical oasis, with its huge hillsides across the Hudson River. I later learned it was neither magical nor an oasis, but it that way just the same.
We would spend our weekends first at The Fireplace, and dine on burgers and fries, and then the afternoons running amok playing skeeball, basketball, and video games at a game center nearby. My Dad let us play for hours, even though surely he might’ve had better things to do.
My Dad was always pretty funny, so whenever we made him laugh, it was quite the accomplishment.
Sometimes, if our field trips extended after dark, on the drives back to New York I would sleep in the backseat of that rickety red Ford Escort, with the highway lights rushing by. The Manhattan skyline would slowly rise in the distance, and it seemed alluring, intimidating, and terrifying, all at once. But my Dad and older brother always seemed to know where to go, and I felt safe.
After my brother and I moved to New Jersey, those gaming field trips became visits from my Dad on the weekend. Some of my favorite memories would be waking up, late of course, on a Saturday morning, and walking downstairs to find my Dad waiting. He would see me, smile, and say, “There’s my guy. You conked out!” I didn’t even know what “conked out” meant, but it still meant a lot. Then inevitably he would say, “Are you famished?” And I didn’t know what “famished” meant either, but I quickly figured it out when New York’s best sesame bagels, or a bag of hard pretzels that he magically found somewhere in the city, would be waiting for us.
Whatever Dad brought, it would be the best. I remember waiting by the door as a kid in Roosevelt Island, excited for whatever treats or trinkets my Dad would bring us that day. He never brought the train set I always wanted, but he sure brought practically everything else.
In New Jersey, we would always get lunch at the infamous Hot Wok Café a short drive away from our apartment. We were practically one of the first customers to open that place, and our order was almost always the same: vegetable spring rolls - well done - hot and sour soup, and soft tofu with black bean sauce, sauce on the side. Once lunch was served, Dad would mercilessly offer food to whoever was nearby. “No” was not an option, but he really took any of your meal, even if you offered.
I reveled in those lunches, as mundane as they might seem. The topics of conversation would shift from school to politics to sports to weather to lots and lots of jokes and laughs. Because he wasn’t there a lot, it was the small moments that counted the most. I wished those lunches would never end.
And anyone who knew my Dad knew that he was mercilessly in search of the best Chinese restaurants in a 100-mile radius. He would be fiercely loyal to those he liked, and brutal to those he didn’t. I’m pretty sure economists will one day call my Dad’s life the “Marty Milrad Epoch” in New York, because Chinese restaurants literally rose and fell on his dime. And if he wasn’t returning food he didn’t like, or praising an arrangement that he did, he would be perfectly funny about everything in between.
One time, he leaned over to me while Chinese waiters were talking to each other in Mandarin, and he said, “Can you understand a word? I can’t.” Another time, I saw him approach one of his favorite, slightly pudgy Chinese restaurant managers who he liked, and my Dad said, “Are you pregnant or what?”
During my teen years, sometimes (or perhaps more often than that) my brother and I, or my mom and I would fight, and she would call my Dad to arbitrate. I still remember her putting him on the phone, and he would almost always say the same thing, “Ahhh, come on. Be nice to your mother.” I always felt like he didn’t understand, but now I know he did.
In college, and even before, my Dad would leave voicemails that would always start the same way, “Yeaaa, MM here. 4…22 on a Saturday afternoon…” And then he would encourage me to watch a program about politics, animals, science, or anything he thought I might enjoy on TV (usually on 60 Minutes), even if he didn’t know the channel, or he would give me an update about my health insurance plan.
Other times he would send me articles that he thought I should read, and sometimes enclosed were pictures of monkeys with the caption, “He looks like me!” And then there were the birthday cards – he didn’t miss a single one – which were always signed, “Daddy-O.”
In college, whenever I would tell him of my academic success and all of my other endeavors, he would say, “Wow. How do you have the energy for all of this crap? I’m exhausted just thinking about it.” And then he would tell me, “You’re the best, you are. You’re tops. You’re #1,” one of the many ways he told me he was proud of me.
When I would visit him in his apartment in New York, my Dad would always offer me orange juice, fruit, a bagel or whatever else was lying. Sometimes, even polo shirts that weren’t around, or the Times or the Post, which he picked up everyday. It was his simple acts of kindness that always meant the most.
In my early 20s, while I was attending grad school in Massachusetts, my Dad started to recommend girls that I should date, and so I realized that I needed to tell him a secret that I had just recently acknowledged as a truth. A few weeks later, on one of our many lunches over his favorite blueberry pancakes, I abruptly changed the subject.
“I’m dating guys,” I said.
“You’re dating guides?!?”
(Laughs) “No, I’m dating guys. I have a boyfriend.”
“Oh, whatever suits your fancy.”
“Can Jared change?”
“No. You’re a moron.”
“You were too lenient with him. Now he can’t have kids.”
“Oh, come on, Marty. You’re a smart man. Of course he can.”
(laughs) “Okay. You’re right.”
“I know I am.”
And somehow I don’t think my Dad ever looked back, and he came to accept me for who I am.
But proud still he was. After I interned in The White House during law school, my Dad told me to call the President to see if I could get a job after graduation. He would say, “You never know.” And I would laugh, but he was serious – my Dad was never afraid of speaking up, and he was telling me that I shouldn’t be either. A few weeks later, he sent me a note that simply said, “See ya in The White House.”
In the ensuing years, as my Dad’s condition worsened and he forgot the basic information of life, like dates, streets, and numbers, he somehow still managed to keep his sense of humor. One time, while I was studying for the bar exam, I asked Dad what I should do to pass. “Cheat,” he said. He was right, and it might have helped me if I had.
In 2013, I moved to New York in large part to be closer to my Dad and help care for him. We still had lunches together, but soon they had to be closer and closer to his apartment, as he struggled to walk, and often didn’t know where he was, even on streets that he had traveled millions of times before. Suddenly, the man who seemed to always know his way was lost.
One day, as we were slowly walking to our favorite Chinese place a few blocks away, with the hipsters and cool students rushing by, my Dad looked at me and said, “I’m scared of dying,” as sadness filled his voice. I tried to make some joke about us not wanting him to drop dead, and that he needed to see a doctor, but I really didn’t know what to say.
Once my Dad moved to a nursing home, his dementia worsened, and he gradually became wheelchair-bound and incapable of cleaning himself. He often didn’t know what he was eating, where he was, or why he couldn’t go home, yet he still offered to pay for almost every meal, which by then was free.
One time, with sadness, he said, “Everyone comes and goes. I don’t know why it’s so hard.” I rubbed his back, like he had rubbed mine many years before, and I comforted him, but I didn’t know the answer.
Yet, while others in the home often mumbled to themselves or were completely delirious, my Dad always recognized his family, and he did so with good humor. When my Dad would see me, he would say, “What a surprise! Look at this criminal!” and we would find time to laugh and joke together, and I would comfort him as best I could.
During these visits, it became clear to me that memories are not all we have – because my Dad had lost most of them. Only moments truly last forever.
Over time, my Dad also came to love my husband, Nate. When I told him that we were getting married this summer, he said, “That’s wonderful,” and he seemed genuinely happy. And even as his memory faded, he would often ask how Nate was doing, and he told Nate that he loved him. Those moments filled my soul.
My Dad always made us laugh. When Nate asked my Dad what I was like growing up, he said, “He was a putz.” And when he asked what I’m like now, my Dad said, “He’s a putz.”
One time, I asked my Dad, “How do you exist?”
After a fall this past summer, I feared that my Dad’s time was short. Our entire family visited him on his 85th birthday, and my Dad cried. He said, “Wow. This is the best surprise of my life.” Before I left that day, he cried again. But I kissed him on his head, held his hand and told him that I loved him, and he said he loved me too. He had in some ways become a very sweet, lost child, and we were all trying to make him feel whole.
A few weeks later, after my Dad became bed-bound, I saw him for the last time. He could barely move, speak, or open his eyes, and he was incredibly frail and weak. He hadn’t eaten in weeks, and I knew he was preparing to leave this Earth.
This time, there were no snacks, gifts, or laughs. I leaned over to him and held his hands, and he gripped mine tightly. I moved in closer.
“Hi, Dad, it’s Jared.”
His eyes began to open, ever so slightly. I began to see the same hazel eyes that welcomed me into that rickety red Ford Escort and opened widely many years ago. This time, gently, softly, he whispered, “Hi, Jared,” and then his eyes began to close again.
I held him for awhile, alone, and I cried and cried. I told him I loved him, and at one point he told me that he did too, and slow-moving tears began to wet the space around his eyes.
I thanked him for all he had done for me, for all the laughs, the lunches and the good times, and for always supporting me. I told him that I used to be mad at him, but I had forgiven him. I told he was a great Dad.
And I said that while I didn’t want him to go, I understood that he must. “Somehow, somewhere,” I said, “I will see you again.”
I gently released his hands from mine, and he slowly let go. I kissed him on his forehead, as I had many times before, and I padded his now softened gray hair and sideburns. This time, he couldn’t speak, although he tried. I began to leave. Then I turned and told him I loved him, one last time.
In the days that followed, I began to realize that of all the teachers I’d had, of all the classes I’d rushed to and of all the homework assignments I crammed to finish, it was my Dad who taught me the greatest lessons of all.
He taught me that in the end, a full life is not propelled by mighty accomplishments or buoyed by grant opuses. Instead, it is fueled by small, seemingly innocuous acts of genuine love and kindness. The calls, articles, the voicemails, the lunches, the orange juice, the car rides, the laughs, the simple acts of acceptance and encouragement that always filled my heart with joy, and still do.
He was an imperfect man, sure, but I now know that he didn’t need to do anything more to be a great Dad. He was no saint, but that’s precisely what made him so great.
A poet once wrote, “If you love someone, let them go, for if they return, they were always yours.”
Daddy-O, I learned to let you go when I was 8 years old. I learned then that I couldn’t bend the forces of nature or time and keep you with us, but for a while I refused to accept it.
Now, I will learn to let you go again. I didn’t expect you to return to me then, but return to me you did. Now I know better, and this time I’ll be ready when you do.
May you travel safe on the celestial train of the universe. And please be kind to the wait staff along the way.
Until we meet again, I’ll be laughing, loving, and holding you in my heart - as you always did me in yours.
And next time, lunch’s on me.
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