Happy birthday, Dad: My eulogy for Stanley Oransky, May 16, 1941-August 27, 2010
The middle of May can be wrenching for my family. My brother David, who died in a car accident in 1995 at the age of 17, was born on May 12. Mother’s Day usually comes around that time — this year it was the day after what would have been David’s 35th birthday — which is understandably a tough juxtaposition for my mom.
And today, May 16, 2012, would have been my father’s 71st birthday. He died in August 2010.
I’ve been thinking about Dad and David a lot in recent months, wondering how David’s kindness and wisdom, which belied his age, would have developed as he got older, and wishing I could let both of them know how much I miss them. So inspired by Steve Silberman and David Kroll, in honor of my father’s birthday, I’m posting the eulogy I gave at his funeral:
I want you to imagine yourself as a child in an examining room. You’re at least a tiny bit anxious, because while your mother or father sits somewhere nearby, a bear of a man is leaning over you, teddy bears clinging to his stethoscope.
The man asks you to show him your arm, and before you can wonder why, he pinches the skin near your shoulder. Just as the pain is starting to register, he lets go and smiles down at you while rubbing your arm with something cool and wet. “All done,” says the bear.
For some of you, this wasn’t as much imagination as memory. If you were a patient of Bardonia Pediatrics in the 1970s, 80s, or 90s, that was your experience getting a shot. But you didn’t feel the shot, because my father made sure you felt the slight pain of the pinch and didn’t even notice the needle going in.
The way my dad gave shots – and the way he would later teach me to do the same – was to me a metaphor for much of the way he lived his life. Most things that were worthwhile – say, a measles, mumps, rubella shot – took a bit of sacrifice – in this case, the pain of a pinch.
Dad was always the kind of customer salesmen like – he always suggested buying the extended warranty, or more insurance than he thought you needed. But there was a point to all this, whether it was studying harder for a test, or reading the extra book for a class. He honestly believed you’d do better. And he was often right.
My father began life as his older sister Barbara’s birthday present. That sounds like a sweet romantic notion, but it was the most fraught birthday present she would ever receive. Dad was sick for the first few months of his life with encephalitis, and there were tense moments as doctors wondered whether he’d make it.
He did, of course, growing up in Crown Heights in Brooklyn in the house shared by his father’s medical office, next door to the basement synagogue where they davened.
He rooted for the Dodgers as a kid, going to games after the seventh inning, when they let everyone in for free. After the Dodgers left Ebbets Field for Los Angeles, he was heartbroken like every other kid in Brooklyn, and he never really found another New York team he wanted to root for.
But Dad was getting ready to leave Brooklyn for college soon anyway. One school was happy to interview a smart kid from Stuyvesant, but at one point in the interview the admissions officer asked my dad about the synagogue youth group at the end of his resume. When he found out what it was, he politely told Dad that they’d already “filled their quota,” but that he was welcome to apply the following year.
That didn’t quite work for my dad, either timing or anti-Semitism-wise. So he ended up at Alfred University in upstate New York. It was at Alfred that he first read the work of Martin Buber, whose work he would often bring up when conversations turned to philosophy.
Dad returned to Brooklyn for medical school at Downstate. My grandfather was still in practice at the time. One day, one of his patients called my grandmother, frantic because he had collapsed while on a house call. My dad, then a fourth-year medical student, was the first to arrive, and he started CPR – but it was unsuccessful. That was 1964. My cousin Ian and I are named for our grandfather.
Dad signed up for the Berry Plan during his pediatrics residency, which he also did at Downstate, and entered the Air Force in 1968, at the height of Vietnam. Andrew and I have tried to picture him in flight training school in Texas, but it just doesn’t work.
He ended up as a base doctor in Plattsburgh, New York, which was lucky for two reasons. One was that it meant he could spend his two-year stint stateside. The other was that the friend of another base doctor was a high school friend of one Lesley Leavitt, who came out for a visit and needed a date.
He and Mom were married in 1971. They first lived in an apartment in Nyack. One day they had been doing some work around the house, and decided to go house-hunting in New City. They found themselves at a model house in a neighborhood more upscale than the one where they would eventually end up living.
Dad was wearing overalls. The real estate agent sitting behind a desk in the hallway of the house took one look at him and my mother, pregnant with me, and politely told them this probably wasn’t a good fit. They represented other houses, though, and would be happy to show them some of those another time, if they wanted to leave their names and contact information.
My dad was only happy to do that, signing his name with an even larger-than-usual “MD” at the end. The real estate agent’s eyes went wide, and she tried to recover and said she’d be glad to show them around.
No thanks, said Dad; we don’t really want to look at anything you have to offer, actually. He wasn’t going to wait for an anti-Semitic college to decide to let him in, and he wasn’t going to wait for a snooty real estate agent to deign to show him a house.
That was OK, since he and Mom ended up buying a house separated from my Aunt Barbara’s by a patch of grass, a lawn, and a hundred feet of asphalt. When he called my aunt to ask her if she had ever heard of Rugby Road, she figured he meant the one in Brooklyn. He brought the spirit of Brooklyn to New City, though, as my cousin Ian – who was the older brother I never had, while I was the younger one he never had – reminded me yesterday: cousins living close by, able to play at any time.
I arrived about a year after Mom and Dad were married, and then, of course, came Andrew and David. This was back when no one told their kids Mom was pregnant, and I was obviously too clueless to notice. So when Dad brought me to the hospital after David was born and asked me in the parking lot how I felt about a new baby brother, I told him that sounded great, but that I was kind of hungry and could use breakfast first.
For those of you still having flashbacks about shots and my dad’s hands, be assured that patients weren’t the only ones he pinched. His favorite tactic on long car rides wasn’t the usual “if you don’t cut that out I’m going to pull this car over right now.” Instead, he’d reach back and pinch whomever he could reach. That was almost invariably David, who sat in the middle as the youngest.
Dad could be quite stern, but as we got older we realized he really wanted us to be independent. When I was a teenager, no older than 15, one afternoon, a few friends and I were having lunch with him at the Maxi City Deli. We were complaining that New City was terribly boring. Nothing to do, especially without a driver’s license.
So why don’t you go to Manhattan for the day sometime? Dad asked. We looked him as if he had grown a second head. Manhattan? That dangerous place everyone’s parents are warning us about?
Yes, that one, he said. Take the bus from this shopping center some Monday you have off from school, don’t stray too far the first time, and you’ll go exploring. We did just that, eventually taking the bus once a month, and it began my lifelong love affair with Manhattan that lasts to this day.
Dad was an early adopter of technology. Andrew reminded me yesterday that he was one of the first thousand or so people to sign up for America Online in the 1980s, a fact they rewarded him for with a dramatically low monthly fee for decades. We had a Franklin ACE 1200 in 1984, and he also bought one of the first CD players. He insisted it was only to be used for classical music, but pretty soon be broke his own rule with Paul Simon’s Graceland.
Making sure everyone ate dinner together every night was so important to Mom and Dad, even when the phone kept ringing with anxious parents. I learned more about spinal taps and fevers than I did on my pediatrics rotation in medical school.
But Dad’s contributions to the dinner table didn’t usually involve the actual dinner. He really wasn’t a great cook. When Mom would travel, his repertoire seemed limited to codfish cakes, a concoction that would stink up the whole house and make us wonder why we hadn’t just gone out to eat.
When I left for college, Dad was always just a phone call away, offering me encouragement, which I often needed. I remember one night in particular, when I scored so badly on a calculus exam that I was convinced I would fail out of school. Don’t worry, he said, think about this as a good thing. You’ve just realized you’re surrounded by kids just as smart, and many smarter, than you. Some of them won’t have the chance to nearly fail until too late. That was some of the best advice I’ve ever heard.
Sometimes he was just a drive away in a rented diesel station wagon. He came to pick up the contents of my freshman dorm room one day, since I was staying in Cambridge for a few more weeks. He drove up and back in the same day. On the way back, I have no idea how he saw any cars behind him, since I had stuffed the entire car full of my stuff.
Dad often made sure we got everywhere we needed to go, and had whatever we needed once we got there, no matter what he was doing at the time. He escorted me to my first medical school interview, at his alma mater. That may have been the only reason they let me in.
My brother David, as most of you no doubt know, died in early 1995. The community’s reaction gave me an inspiring window into what was mostly an invisible life of Dad’s. Sure, I knew he was always rushing off to board meetings of a non-profit health insurance company, and using his days off to run the Hudson Valley Poison Control Center.
But those were just things he did. They didn’t tell me how much his patients loved him, or how the nurses he worked with would do anything for him because of how he treated everyone.
People I’d never met showed up to our house for shiva and acted as if they knew me and Andrew our whole lives. Dad, we realized, talked about us all the time. One of his Hasidic patients, who even braved the mix of genders at the house to pay his respects, told me Dad had saved his kid’s life.
One of the other things that happened during that terrible time was that I met some of my cousins and got to know them as adults. Family was so important to Dad, and he was so happy that I became close with his cousin Ira’s daughter, Sandy Ashendorf, and others.
As proud as Dad was of Mom, and the three of us kids, I couldn’t help but be proud of him. To this day, whenever I’m talking about insect repellents, I tell people it was Dad who first reported that one of the common ingredients, DEET, was linked to seizures.
But unless he was dealing with a snooty real estate agent, he wasn’t the kind of guy to wander around announcing his accomplishments. Nor was he cowed by others’ credentials or fame. One day, I went to meet him for lunch at Nyack Hospital, after he had become medical director. We were standing in the administrative wing of the building when a tall familiar-looking guy, looking a bit lost, started walking toward us and asked if we knew where one of the clinical units was.
I realized as he started talking that it was actor Bill Murray. Hey, aren’t you…I said. Yes, yes I am, he said. Pleasure to meet you. This is my dad, he’s the medical director here. I’m sure he can tell you where that is.
He and my dad talked for a minute, and my dad sent him on his way with directions. I was a little giddy, still in a little bit of awe at having met Bill Murray. My dad saw the expression and said, Now, who was that again?
Dad and I didn’t talk about Saturday Night Live or other entertainment all that much. We didn’t really discuss sports much either. But we talked about pretty much everything else.
In recent years, he became increasingly frustrated with our health care system, a frequent topic of conversation. He tried to do something about it, volunteering with a non-profit near the house in Becket that he and Mom moved to full-time in 2007.
Some of those conversations happened by text message. It was probably the first time I ever showed him how to use a particular technology. I’m pretty sure I ended up texting him more than anyone else – and I’m as tethered to my BlackBerry as anyone I know.
I’ll miss those texts, as well as his voice. I’ll miss his counsel, which I didn’t always appreciate at the time. After all, it often required a bit of sacrifice, like a shot. But even when I didn’t do what he suggested, it was always clear he wanted nothing but the best for us. It will be heartbreaking, but I know I’ll forever ask myself “What would Dad have done?”
Happy birthday, Dad.