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According to Jewish law and custom, the dead must be buried almost immediately. Maybe this derives from the extreme heat and lack of air conditioning in the desert where Jews come from. In any event, within minutes of my father’s death, I was on my cell phone calling the funeral home, the cemetery, various kind friends of Pop to get the funeral arranged. It’s also customary not to leave alone the body of one who was in life a parent, so I sat by my father’s body–which looked still just like him–for about three hours making calls, getting put on hold, getting disconnected (talk about feeling disconnected!).
My loyal and faithful sister was out in the hall making her own equally important calls. But I had the great cell phone so I could sit by Pop’s body (Pop himself is with Mom and Nixon now, I believe) and call.
I actually got a lot done, feeling completely insane the whole time. A nurse brought me some chicken filet and I ate while reading out my credit card numbers to Takoma Park Funeral Home, King David Cemetery, and a caterer, maybe from the synagogue, Ohr Kodesh.
Then, out of nowhere–although I guess I called for her–a diminutive capable woman appeared to take away Pop’s body and prepare it for burial. I kissed him–probably not supposed to do that–and said goodbye with a veritable Niagara of sobs, and then walked with my sister out to the van where the woman loaded my father’s body aboard and then drove off with it and my sister in the car keeping his body company.
I have never known of a grown man who had quite as intense a relationship with his father as I have had and still do have, but I also know of no one who has ever had a better sister. Her taste in food is a bit Spartan for me, but otherwise she is nigh to perfect, and very cool in bad situations.
I ran back to Pop’s ICU to say goodbye to the nurses, some of whom, along with some doctors, said they would be there at the funeral. Then goodbye to Pop’s room, and I walk away hauling his glasses, his teddy bear from beloved Ronnie Gill that sat next to him for a month, and then out to my rented fine Buick, and off to the funeral home.
We signed some papers, bought sodas, looked around at our old haunts in Takoma Park where I grew from one to four (I do not remember any part of it except for a sadistic doctor of dentistry named Herwick who tortured me beyond imagining), then back to the hotel.
The best call I made was to Chris DeMuth, head of the American Enterprise Institute, and a truly amazing man. He had heard because somehow the story was already out and already on the wires of AEI talk. “God bless you, Ben,” he simply said. “If there is anything at all I can do, let me know.”
Chris and Phil DeMuth are as fine as people can be on this earth. Phil and Chris are mainstays in my world.
Then more calls, then back to the funeral home to sit with the body of Pop for a while in silence to show our respect and solidarity. That was very, very hard. To think that in that simple pine box are the remains of a man who was my best friend and more than that, my Pop….that’s hard.
Back to the River Inn to meet Alex and Tommy who have flown in. When I told Alex over the phone seven hours earlier that Pop had died, she sobbed like a madwoman, shrieked, wailed like a Bedouin wife or widow. Then she pulled herself together, got her tickets, and went to the airport. When she and Tommy walked into the room, I started to tell them about Pop’s final days, and Tommy sobbed and shivered. He is a good boy. Empathy is everything.
I had a very hard time sleeping. Thank God for sleeping pills. Finally, I drifted off and woke up about one in the morning looking out at the Watergate. I felt great thinking that my parents were there and then I remembered and began to cry again.
Have I ever cried myself to sleep as an adult before? Maybe when my mother died.
I am so blessed. Not only is my wifie here. But her father, Col. Dale Denman, Jr., my hero father-in-law, is also here with his lovely wife, Sue. They have gotten up in the middle of the night in Heber Springs, Arkansas, to fly to Washington to be here. They are not young and it must be an amazing strain. But they are here like the troupers they are. Looking quite well in fact.
Then, to my total amazement, Phil DeMuth of the Hollywood Hills has flown in on the redeye to be here with me in this terrible moment. I am telling you, with friends like the DeMuths, there’s not much else you need. Phil also looks extremely well in a fancy Italian suit, especially considering that he flew business class.
We rendezvoused with my sister and her family at my father’s apartment, and then headed to the service in a limo–Tommy, Alex, Col. Denman, Sue, and little me. It was a melancholy ride. We also got quite lost because of a closure of a road through Rock Creek Park. Drawing on my memories of the area from forty years ago, I directed the driver and we got there to my old shul where I was Bar Mitzvahed so long ago, when I had a mad crush on Maxine Lewis and Marsha Macklin.
The rabbi took us family into his study. He gave my sister and me black ribbons that he then tore into pieces to symbolize our grief (as if we needed a reminder). Then the service began. Rabbi Fishman gave a fine talk about my father, his wit, his compassion, his generosity of spirit, his compulsion to be truthful. Of course, I sat and sniffled.
Bill Safire, who has been like a father to all of the Steins over the years, was there. So was my childhood best friend, David Lee Scull, looking maddeningly healthy and tall and thin and young. I really was super touched, though, by the presence of Neely Holmead, former Blair cheerleader, friend and inspiration since 1956, brilliant woman and horsewoman and mother, and ace diagrammer of sentences. She not only came but she brought me a cake.
Also there was Gay Patlen, the longest crush of my whole life, mad crush since 1960 or 1961, still looking great, but looking very sad. She and my father and I had dined many a time together. How kind of her to come this long, long way from the past to the sad present.
The folks from AEI were there, along with Murray Foss, Pop’s favorite from the think tank, and the DeMuths of course, and the secretary of the Treasury, Larry Summers, a great guy, and Stanley Fischer from the IMF and his wife, Rhoda from Rhodesia as my Mom called her, and loyal Dave Gergen, and wise Aram Bakshian. Many others, too, whom I could only barely see through watery eyes.
I had been to this room many a time with my father. I kept waiting for him to come and whisper to me that it was time to go and have lunch at the Cosmos Club. But he was in that simple pine box with the star of David.
Truth to tell, I barely recall the service. I was too unhappy to really focus.
Afterwards, while the cortege formed, a man came up to me. “I’m Gene Sperling,” he said.
“Yes, the most eligible bachelor in Washington,” I said. The Post had done a piece about his dating a little before and I had read it to my father. He’s a high economic honcho at the White House, chairman of the Council on Economic Policy, not to be confused with the Council of Economic Advisers.
He laughed and handed me an envelope. “The President wanted you to have this,” he said.
What could it be?
Jayne O’Donnell, my beautiful pal from USA Today, was there and we talked. She’s trying to have a baby with her new husband. He’s a lucky guy.
My glamorous Aunt Pearl from Florida was there. We also talked about how she was now the smartest survivor of that generation. She is a really a fine woman and always has been. She came to my college graduation long ago when my parents could not make it.
I opened the envelope. Inside was a kind note from Bill and Hillary about how much they would miss my father’s honest, although not always friendly comments about the economy and the budget process.
This is a classy move, akin to Clinton’s sending several plane loads of Nixon folks to RN’s funeral. There is a reason the guy got to be president and stayed in office. It has to do with a certain understanding of how people work. I won’t become a Democrat, but I am impressed. My father worked like a demon and gave money for Reagan, and I have not heard a peep from anyone there or from Bob Dole, whom my father also supported enthusiastically.
Empathy is everything.
Speaking of which, there is Wlady and Terry and Catherine from the Spectator, my other family. And there’s Victoria Sackett, mother of Charlotte, a very sweet girl, who wrote a poem about me. And there’s Karlyn Keene Bowman from AEI, and Mrs. Wiggins from AEI. She ran the cafeteria and was always so careful to make sure my father ate healthy that I think she kept him alive for two years after my mother died. And Pop’s lovely, loyal, and sensitive secretary Jen Smith, who was clearly moved, which moved me.
And there’s B., my father’s closest friend, whom he lived for, the beautiful art lover he had always wanted. B., my sister, and I shared many a fear and a tear in the hall outside the Surgical ICU. And there’s David Paglin, who has been a close friend since he was my roommate more than 30 years ago at columbia and who lost his own father just a month before my father entered immortality.
Some kind soul, maybe the funeral home, maybe Clinton, arranged for a motorcycle escort to the Beltway on the way to the cemetery. How well I recall my father and me looking at the construction for the Beltway in Silver Spring long ago as we walked past what had been Indian Spring country club to find a New York Times at the Woodmoor People’s Pharmacy, in the days before home delivery. My father was always looking for a review of his classic, The Fiscal Revolution, but I am not sure they ever gave him more than a brief mention. In later years they got better.
I really cannot recall much of the burial. I was simply so sad that it was as if I were underwater. I did miss Bob Tyrrell. He’s in Europe, but his strong throws of earth onto the gravesite of my mother were an inspiration on that horrible day in April of 1997.
Soon it was over and we went back to my father’s apartment (I guess it legally belongs to my sister and me now) for a long afternoon and evening of visitors and eating. The main guests I recall were two; Jerry Akman, who had lived across the street from me when I grew up on Harvey Road. My mother was endlessly throwing him up to me as an example of someone who was hard working and got good grades as compared with lazy little me who did not work hard and did not (at least not then) get as good grades.
That comparison had made me dislike Jerry Akman for decades. But here he is at the condolence meal with a kind smile and a friendly pat on the back. I am truly moved. It wasn’t his fault that my mother threw him in my face. Anyway, he tells me he is a star just for knowing me now, so that’s good. (Of course, my mother, were she alive, would say that the whole point is that Jerry has a stable job as a lawyer while I live by my wits–literally–in Hollywood and he does not have to stay up nights fearing that his show will be canceled. That is precisely what my Mom would say if she were alive and talking right now. And I would hug her and kiss her thin little face and say, “Mom, I love you because you are doing what you in your truest heart think is best for me, whether I agree or not.” I spent so much of my life bitching about my mother yelling at me. She did yell at me too much, but who else cared enough to yell that much? Who else will ever care that much? We often hate our parents because they nag us, but they nag us because they are worried about us. They don’t want anything from us–they just want us to be happy and secure.)
The other guest who moved me especially was Johnny Davis. He is a man in his mid-eighties who was my Pop’s pal at Williams. He was what was then known as a colored man. He befriended my Dad and gave him the bequest of a great job washing dishes in the Sigma Chi house at Williams College, where Johnny Davis
was class of ’33 and my father was ’35.
My Pop could not join Sigma Chi because he was a Jew, and I suppose that prohibition lasted at some campuses for at least another forty years. Johnny Davis could not join because he was “colored.” My father often spoke about Johnny Davis and tears filled his eyes when he did, recalling his kindness when my dad needed it so badly. Recently Johnny Davis had moved to a retirement community in Silver Spring and Pop was very much looking forward to visiting with him. They were both economists and both loved to talk social policy and also about Williams.
When Johnny Davis showed up at the condolence meal, you could have knocked me over with a feather. He was lighter than Wlady Pleszczynski, who is himself as light as a ghost. If he’s black, then everybody’s black. He also has a courtly accent that reminded me of Senator Harry Flood Byrd long ago. He was dressed in an elegant summer suit and looked like a country gentleman of the old school.
Johnny (who asked that he be called John) Davis was clearly deeply moved by Pop’s death. I was moved that with his cane and his many years he had dragged himself down to the Watergate. My sister took a special liking to him, and entertained him until he had to leave to go to Les Sylphides or some other ballet at the Kennedy Center next door.
(Just hearing the name Kennedy Center sends me into a spin because my Pop and I had so many lunches there in the cafeteria, where he bared his noble soul to me.)
Anyway, Pop’s classmate Bennett Boskey came along and visited with us all for a long time. He looks startlingly well. Stanley and Rhoda Fischer also showed up and talked about my father and about how the Wall Street Journal has exaggerated the “crisis” about money laundering, and many other kind people showed up and talked and kept us company.
I really do not remember much of the rest of the day. On the way back to the River Inn, the sky opened up and rain poured down and wrecked my suit. I do remember that.
I also remember that my son saw how sad I was and offered to sleep in bed with me to cheer me up and let me divert myself by telling him “Ren and Stimpy” stories until he fell asleep. Offer accepted.
This is the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. My Mom died on the day before Passover and my Dad two days, actually one-and-a-half days before Rosh Hashanah. This is supposed to be very good luck for the decedent, because he or she goes straight to heaven. No jail. Do not pass Go.
Rabbi Lyle Fishman, who had conducted the service for Pop’s burial, told me and my sister that we were not supposed to mourn after the start of the holiday, but that’s not a possibility. All I do is cry nowadays except when Tommy cheers me up. We’re going to New Year services later, but I doubt if that will cheer me either.
My wifie and I went over to my father’s office at AEI. Chris DeMuth visited with us, solemnly comforted us, offered us a lot of cooperation, and then wifie and I began to go through my father’s papers.
Big, big mistake. There were his poems, his haiku, his tiny notes, his bottomless trove of photos from the RN years, his books, his testimony, photos of him and my mom, his little accessories, his tiny nail clipper, his sleeveless cashmere sweater that he wore when he came into work and the air conditioning was too strong, his ancient raincoat in case rain fell while he was about to leave, his cartoons from the New Yorker, usually making fun of people like him, his photos and sketches of famous economists. His photo of RN in a blue suit with a lovely signature and inscription to my father.
Tears. I could not stay very long. Alex and I went back to the River Inn. Then my sister, my nephew Jonathan, and I went out to Chevy Chase for the early New Year’s service. How strange again to drive the route I had driven with my father so many times and to know that I will never drive it with him again. To walk into the synagogue with its permanent smell of cleanser and floor polish and sadness and know I will never be there with him again. We came there several times after my mother died. I looked out the window of the chapel to see the beautiful Maryland sunset many a time with my Dad. Now, it’s sunset again, only without my father.
The service made me crazy with all its endless chanting in Hebrew read at a blinding speed that I cannot even remotely keep up with. I stepped outside to the immense park next door. A small family was playing baseball. Once, only once, my father and I tossed around the baseball on the street in front of our house on Harvey Road. But how I treasured those few minutes. They were like a fantasy.
My father’s real strength was tossing around ideas, and that he did every moment. I think I’ll never be a ballplayer, but I did learn about tossing around concepts and plans and theories and hopes and realities and coming to some sort of conclusion. Pop often compared himself with a golf pro. Good analogy. He advised the paying players, like the president, about their games of economics. He spared nothing in his thoughts and ideas about how the world should be run when he talked to his family either. And it did not take long, because he basically believed people should just be left alone to do whatever they felt like doing as long as they were not killing their neighbors.
I lay on a table and then went back in as the service was ending (I hoped). As I did, a lovely young woman said she had heard about my Pop’s death because her grandmother worked at AEI and she wanted to say how sorry she was. She was there with the sun setting behind her head and she looked like an angel.
When we got back to Foggy Bottom, Phil DeMuth and I were going to go to dinner. Tommy decided to join us. We walked down Virginia Avenue to the Georgetown Waterfront, then up 32nd street to Wisconsin. We ducked into the churchyard of the Episcopal Church of Georgetown, visited with two men with two dogs, and then went back to M Street. Then to the Vietnamese place at 30th and M. Now, I cannot tell you how many times I had done this with my Pop (often with Mike Long) and then raced back to his apartment for another few hours of TV watching and talking and reminiscing. Now, it’s just Rachel and her family back
there at the Watergate. While that’s fine, it’s not the same.
We munched our Hanoi pork, our lemon grass chicken, and our crispy rolls, and then a miracle happened that showed me why I feel like going on living without Dad.
Three high school and college kids came shlepping over to our table and shmoozed with me. I made jokes with them. Then Tommy came in on the action and made jokes with them. He giggled with glee as I made comments about the figures of women who walked by the glass front of the Vietnamese restaurant.
“Dad,” he said after I had made a particularly sharp comment, “do you have any idea what a cool dad you are? Do you know that every teenage boy in America would want you to be his father?”
For the first time since my father died, which has only been two days to be sure, I felt a ray of hope. Yes, losing Dad is terrible. Horrible. No redeeming value at all. But I am still Tommy’s dad, and I still have to be there for him as long as humanly possible. Plus, he’s fun. He’s not heavy or a burden. He’s a positive joy. My mother once said, about Tommy and me, “I’m impressed at how much you enjoy him.” AND HOW!
My point in talking so much about my father is not that he was the only father who ever died. Or that I was the only son who lost his dad. Or that my loss is uniquely horrible. My point is that it’s always terrible to lose dad, and that every loss of a life is terrible.
And then I have another point, which I think is worth listening to. I thought about it as I lay in bed with my son snoring next to me after dinner.
I was often annoyed with my father and angry at him in the last few years of his life. He was unresponsive, at least seemingly so, about many things I mentioned to him. He seemed to me to care far too little about my stock market gains and losses or my mood day by day or about my gilded career. He mostly wanted to talk only about his life and loves, or rather love, singular, because he only had one love after my mother died. This shows how stupid I was, to think that what I wanted to talk about was automatically more important that what he wanted to talk about. But let’s go on.
Despite my pique, I did one of the few halfway smart things I have ever done. I kept calling my father many times a day anyway. Even when I was feeling most neglected, I kept calling. I reasoned like this; He’s not perfect. But he’s my Pop and even at his imperfect norm, he’s a whole heck of a lot more concerned and more in my corner than anyone else except my wifie. Even with his flaws, he’s me Pop, and he knows me and my flaws and loves me and cares deeply about me anyway.
And, I thought, someday he’ll be in immortality. And then the man who was my ultimate refuge will be no more. The man whom I could always flee to will be unavailable at any price. I am going to talk to him nonstop until he enters the place where no fiber optic line will reach. And now that I still have a number of people around that I love a lot, I’m going to call them constantly and make sure I make every possible connection I can with them. And that goes triple for Tommy Stein.
Next time you’re angry at someone and feel disappointed, try this; Imagine that the person has died, God forbid, and you can’t call him again. Then snap your fingers and he’s alive. You can call him. Get it? Go call him.
We’re flying back to Los Angeles. We had Rosh Hashanah luncheon at the lovely home of Pop’s friend B. It was a fine event. Then, back to L.A. on American, with Phil DeMuth sitting right across the aisle from us. It was a wacky American Airlines flight, with a drunken former pilot and his very drunken wife sitting in first class right across from us, and the wife throwing spitballs at Phil. I am not kidding.
But about two-thirds of the way through, we passed over the Rocky Mountains. There were immense thunderheads towering over the mountains in the dusk. From within the dark, billowing clouds mighty bursts of lightning exploded, illuminating the clouds from the inside out, exploding with such power that they shook the plane.
At first I felt afraid. Then I felt exhilarated. This is Pop, I thought to myself. He has broken out of his earthly bonds, and he’s saying that he’s happy where he is and not to feel sad.
I felt that way for about a twenty-minute stretch, staring out the window at the clouds that blew up into an ultra-white light then immediately faded away into blue-gray darkness again and then rumbled into ultra-bright laser light again and illuminated the billowy onyx infinity of the clouds over the Rockies again. “Hi,” the light said over and over again. “Bye,” said the light over and over again, and that made me feel better for a few minutes, and then I started to feel terrible again.
When my mother entered immortality, my father entered into a state of fantastic loneliness and despair. He took to praying from the Hebrew Prayer book called the Siddur every night in his apartment. And he began to write letters to my Mom. He did it every day, often twice a day.
It seemed like a good idea, and so I’m going to start writing to Pop.
“How are you? I am not fine at all. I miss you terribly, like insane pain through my whole system every minute that I’m awake and sometimes when I wake up my pillow is wet from my crying in my sleep. Can you please arrange to come back now? I don’t like not having a Pop to keep me company and intercede between
me and the bad things of life and death. B. misses you too, and so does Rachel, and we really don’t see how we’ll get along without you. So, please come back now, okay, and let’s have all of this be a bad dream. Love, Benjy.”
Benjamin J. Stein is a writer, actor, economist, and lawyer living in Hollywood and Malibu.
In memory of Herbert Stein.
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