As always, I arrived early, very early for my flight. And as I stood in the airport's Economy Parking “A” Lot at five AM, the cool, humid air, sounds of intermittent jet engine roars with a few bird tweets mixed in – I couldn’t help but stare up at the Eastern sky. That pale, kind of dark yellow, navy blue – the slightest hint of a new day.
“It’s perfect,” my old college buddy, Deb Galkin used to say. “No color grading like it. We try to recreate the grading in the arts world, but, you know, you can't outdo nature," she'd laugh.
I thought of Deb this morning while watching the sky change shades that way. The gibbous moon with Venus close by, a few other stars disappearing into the encroaching light, about to be tucked away for the day. I also thought about my Uncle Seymour while looking at that morning sky.
I hadn’t seen him in several months, perhaps longer. Two months ago, my Mom and brother told me Seymour was very sick, in the hospital – it wasn’t good. I didn't think I’d ever see him again, actually. I checked in with them daily for the reports. Up and down, his body failing, organ by organ; his spirit fighting back. Hospital to rehab to hospital to rehab … this was some tough going for Seymour, as well as for my Aunt Florence. Still, sure enough, to everyone's amazement, Seymour rallied.
“He looks good,” my brother reported after his visit with Seymour a few weeks ago. My June 14th NYC trip already in place, I was hoping I would have a chance to see Seymour at some point during that visit. I was praying that spirit would triumph over body.
And last Monday, I walked into Room 2002 at the South Nassau Medical Center in Oceanside, NY. At first, I can’t lie – it hit me hard, the way he looked. This large, robust, jovial, yes … sometimes loud and outspoken, but enormously kind and loving man – he looked very different. I won’t go into it here but, within two seconds, all the reports I'd been hearing had been confirmed.
“Know who this is?” Aunt Florence asked him.
His eyes watery under his silver-rimmed glasses, Seymour turned his head, looked up and did his best to say something; it was hard for him.
“Harry J.,” he whispered and smiled.
I smiled back and, heading his way, started to lean over and down to kiss him on the cheek. But he pulled away.
“I wouldn’t,” he struggled to talk. I wasn’t sure why he said that. Perhaps it was because of the way he looked? The fact is I didn’t care. I simply wanted to hug him but, instead, settled for a holding of his right hand – I felt him squeezing.
The three of us visited together for some time as I settled into a chair across from Florence, both of us next to the bed. Seymour slept off and on and then, when Florence had to leave to meet someone over the house, I chose to stay. I’m glad I did.
The Rabbi from Seymour & Florence’s synagogue came in at one point – introducing himself to me and offering his soft rabbi-like hand. Rabbi’s hands are always like that, I’ve noticed.
“How’re ya doing my friend?" The Rabbi walked over to the other side of the bed. Seymour smiled at him.
“You know, I have to tell you,” the Rabbi looked over to me. “Just last week, I was watching him enjoying a corned beef on rye. And some chopped liver.” Seymour smiled at that.
“Bens?” I asked.
“No, no …” Seymour mouthed something. The Rabbi picked up on it and corrected me, telling me the food was from Woodro Deli, in Hewlett.
I remembered the Woodro. 1985, studying for the NYS bar exam, my friend Michael Feit and I used to eat ungodly amounts of food from that place. It was our way of dealing with the ungodly amount of data being gorged into our brains at the time – our delicious way to de-stress, I suppose. I think I may still be digesting some of that meat.
That was the summer I lived with the Mensch’s – a summer filled with Torts, Contracts, Property, tons of New York law stuffed into the Pieper bar review course. That summer was a strenuous but wonderful experience, to be able to live with family like that. It was actually the second time in four years I’d done that, the first being in 1982 when I worked my first job in the music business at MCA Records. Those were great times – the corner room, (I'm pretty sure that was Fred’s), the two beds, the corner bathroom, piano, Scotty at The New Yorker, Carvel, The East Bay Diner. The house on Balsam Street in Oceanside, Long Island was a second home for me. I loved it.
You know, I’ve often thought that life's joyous moments often boil down to some very simple things. For me, one of those moment types is eating and drinking delicious food and drink with good friends - people I love. I mean, can it really ever get any better than that? And the fact is, I've had plenty of those experiences with the Mensch family and those memories are going to be fixed in me for the rest of my life, right along side the same kinds of memories of my own family.
* * * * * * * * * *
I sat by the bed, my mind wandering too much, as it normally does. The thoughts floating off to my own Mom and Dad, and then to Emma; to the days when, perhaps, I’ll be sitting next to their beds this same way. I pushed those thoughts aside, bringing my attention back to Uncle Seymour.
He reached for the TV controller, which we worked together until the selector landed on Channel 4. The U.S Open playoff between Tiger Woods and Rocco Mediate was winding down, an incredible event. Seymour and I watched it together until he dozed off again. My mind wandered again, minutes ticking by.
Seymour was awake again.
“Who do you think?” I looked over at him, happy that he was so interested and alert, which he most definitely was.
“Tiger,” he whispered.
I can't tell you now glad I am that Seymour and I had that chance to share the 2008 Open that way together; I’ll always remember that. The same way I still remember Tiger’s 18-under win at the 1997 Masters. My dad was in Miami Beach's Mt. Sinai hospital that day, the day after his heart bypass surgery. It's interesting how Tiger’s been there for me and my family in ways he’ll never know.
I leaned in to say goodbye, this time smiling as I lifted his hand to kiss it.
“Like the Pope!”
He smiled as he also tried to cough. It was hard for him, I could see that.
“So … Uncle Seymour…”
He looked up. The plastic tubing slipped from his nose, which I helped to replace.
“Next time … (I was fully aware of the significance of those two words, by the way) ...
Corned beef sandwich?”
His eyes shut quickly as he shook his head back and forth.
“No," he whispered hard.
I thought I’d said something wrong, which, come to think of it, would be just about impossible with him. I always felt I could say anything to my Uncle Seymour.
His eyes still closed, a pause, then a deep breath. His eyes opened wide. And then ... one word.
And then, a huge smile. A Seymour smile. The smile everyone else who knew Seymour loved.
In that moment, spirit kicked body’s ass, I can tell you that for sure.
I kissed his hand one more time and watched his eyes shut again. And, as I left the room, I thought that thought. You know what I''m talking about.The one that has me never seeing this man again – my overactive imagination again doing its thing. My brother calls me the “Fellini of mind movies.” Still, unfortunately, that particular thought proved to hit the mark. That was, indeed, the last time I'd see my Uncle Seymour alive. He passed away two days later, two days after we watched the U.S. Open together.
* * * * * * * * * *
I’ve never won a lottery but I have to tell you, life appears to be filled with what I would call “mini-lotteries.” My visit with Seymour and Florence the other day – the timing of it – that was the equivalent of winning a mini-lottery, to be sure. What a blessing, to have been able to experience moments like that.
I’m on the plane now, heading North to meet my Mom in New York to attend Sunday's funeral service. Seymour was Mom’s only brother and she his only sister. I feel strange saying this, but I’m kind of looking forward to the next few days. I feel calm. I was thinking during my 4:30 AM drive up 29 North to airport, this will be the first time in I don’t know how many years where I’ll be spending some time alone with my mother. Quality time, as they call it. She’s been so dedicated to taking care of my Dad for such a long span now. I will cherish, I mean really cherish this next 48 hours with my Mom, with my family. The Mensch family. Yes, yes, that Fellini mind again, delving into that “zone.” Thoughts about the day I’ll be heading to my own parents funerals. But, that will be then. This is now. And, right now, I’m on a plane heading up to NY.
And when I’m there with my Mom, if there’s time, you know what? Why not? A trip to Ben’s or Woodro for a nosh? Perhaps a nice sandwich? I know, I know, what could be worse for you? But, what the hell? Enjoying delicious food with people you love. And not with just any people. We’re talking genuine Mensch’s here.
Nothing could be better.
Here's to you, Uncle Seymour.