On Monday afternoon I was in Rome, crossing a bridge near the Piazza Cavour with Sophie to get lunch, and my phone rang. When I saw that it was Metrowest Hospital calling at about the time rounds start, I ignored the call. I wanted to hear from my brother instead that my father had passed away.
Even though we knew this moment would come, it still surprised me. Death came for my father many times and each time he turned it away. Of his forced labor battalion of 200 men from 1944, he was the last one left. He survived fleeing Hungary in 1956. In his 70’s, he beat colon cancer. Then 4 years ago, he fought off a deadly C-Diff infection. It was the first of a few times I would summon Robbie to board a plane, right now. My father was feverish, weak, on a collision course with major stomach surgery and 50/50 odds of surviving.
But there was no surgery. He beat that too. A week later he was cleared to eat again. I spread strawberry jam on toast, and fed it to him before they discharged him. I took a bite too. It was the best toast I had ever had. I smuggled in some Diet Coke for him to help wash it down. Always the Diet Coke.
The gift this gave me was 4 years of having him close by, and a second chance to know my father.
He taught me a lot when I was young. To love travel, any travel. We would drive the station wagon to no-frills vacations in destinations stapled onto one of his consulting projects in far-flung small towns: Gadsden, Alabama, Utica, New York, Houma, Louisiana. He taught me to play tennis by hitting balls with me in the street in front of our house. How to play ping-pong. I could never beat him until I finally developed a forehand down the line. It’s still my best shot. How to play chess. How to curse like a Hungarian with my idioms frozen in 1956. How to frame and take good pictures. How to ride a bike. How to drive. Just last week I backed out of a friend’s treacherous driveway flawlessly using his “only use the mirrors” technique. He taught me how to tip. This is because in the Early 1980’s Low-End Family Dining Hall of Fame, he is enshrined as Worst Tipper. I swore I would never do that.
I saw him weep every year at Yom Kippur when he thought of his father. And I knew his history. But I didn’t really know him. He didn’t tell me much about himself.
Let me say this: he was difficult. His head was filled with the ideas from his medium-sized town in Hungary in the 1930’s. He was stubborn. Sometimes he and I would have yelling matches about hygiene where I swore I could hear echoes of my mother calling him “primitive”. To him, everyone else – everyone — was stupid. I think the word he used most in his life was “idiot”.
He could be very selfish. I cared for him in his decline, where he relied on me so much and knew it. I can imagine how forceful and demanding he must have been for my mother when he was in his prime. I think I understand her a lot better now too.
Over our years together though, he softened. A short while after he moved to Massachusetts, we settled into a routine where I would come over on Sundays, handle a few things, and then sit with him at his desk, his big ugly awful 1960’s desk, and talk.
He loved talking to me. He told me so. Most of my life, I was certain that I had been a disappointment – an idiot – and suddenly all he really wanted was to sit with me, and talk.
He told me how much he missed my mother. One time he confessed that he would die just for one more chance to lay in bed and see her next to him. How he regretted being hard on her. How beautiful she looked on their wedding day. I had scanned all of his old pictures and slides, so he showed me and narrated many of them, including their honeymoon in Rome, and Lugano, and Venice.
He told me about his years living in Stockholm, and Cleveland, and Princeton, and how he came home after being fired for the zillionth time and announced that he was starting his own business. He taught me about entrepreneurship and hard work too.
2 years ago, I had told him I had been fired from a job I had been proud to get. He smiled, and responded that it was in the finest Biro family tradition.
He told me to send him pictures anytime I went away. I took a picture in Rome on Tuesday thinking about his honeymoon there, and how proud he would have been of how I had framed the shot.
He told me how much he looked forward to seeing Jodie and Megan every day on Skype, and how much he loved them. He would send me iPad screen shots of their calls, and tell me how proud he was of how they were growing up.
Sometimes I’d bring Five Guys for him for lunch – a single burger with just mustard – and he made sure to tell me every time how much he liked it.
He told me that much to his initial surprise, he was happy in his new home. He had made a life for himself and it was simple and it was good. He pioneered the Classical Music hour and used his iPad to email me articles he’d read from newspapers around the world.
He loosened up on money. He ordered room service every day, because the $6 delivery charge bought him the freedom to eat whenever he wanted. He procured a powered recliner from which he watched Megyn Kelly and too much Fox News on the big screen TV he also let himself buy. He treated my family to dinners at Legal Seafood.
In January, we watched Federer and Nadal in the Australian Open Final, just like we had watched Borg and McEnroe when I was a boy. I sat on his couch and had a beer – he insisted that I stock the fridge for myself because he wanted me to enjoy coming over. I sat with my father and it was simple and it was good.
He had a never-ending source of chocolate for Lily and Sophie. He always wanted to know what they were doing and watched every swim, dance, and home video I sent him.
He finally let me sign his credit card slips at Legal’s because he figured out that he didn’t know how to tip.
And he gave frequent presents to everyone who helped him. I know because it was my job to get the cash and the chocolate. Everything was my job. Now that he is gone, I will have to learn to visit CVS without buying extra Diet Coke, and to re-program my Sundays, and not to look for his political emails, and figure out where to put that big awful desk.
The great project of my life for the last 4 years has been being a Sandwich Generation father and son, and working with my brother and our families and an army of compassionate caregivers to give my father the illusion that he was truly independent. It was an amazing magic trick. And it worked.
He survived to see my daughters become B’Not Mitzvah last June. He wasn’t strong enough anymore to walk to the Torah so we brought the Torah to him. My brother and I held him up standing while he recited the blessings.
He survived hip replacement surgery last October. Of course he did. Then while recovering he determined that everyone at the rehab center was stupid. Of course he did.
He really only lost his independence about 6 weeks ago. These 6 weeks were very difficult for him. He was sick, and finally his body gave out. Plus, as he told me in one of our last real conversations, Megyn Kelly had left Fox News and her new show on NBC was terrible.
On Monday afternoon when Rob called to let me know that my Apu had died, I with was Sophie in a sandwich shop in Rome. I cried, hard. Then I pulled myself together and bought a Diet Coke. He would have appreciated that moment. He loved his children and grandchildren, and he loved Rome, and he loved his Diet Coke. And sitting with me at his desk on a Sunday afternoon, he would have told me.