Tuesday, March 15, 2022

On Arni, Fear and Trembling, RIP Uncle Arni


RIP uncle Arni. Here he is two hours before he departed. Still smiling.

The trees of Bond Street... thinking of you Arni. RiP.

It was seder dinner 2000. I was sitting by Caroline and Arni and Michael at Al and Panels house in Garrison looking at the Hudson River. The light was shining from the water and uncle Arni was talking with me about his favorite philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. “‘If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the bottom of everything there were only a wild ferment, a power that twisting in dark passions produced everything great or inconsequential; if an unfathomable, insatiable emptiness lay hid beneath everything, what would life be but despair?’” he mumbled at me with a grin, paraphrasing from the master. The conversation went on to other important topics, including erectile dysfunction, and other potty talk. “‘...why bother remembering a past that cannot be made into a present?’” said Arni, once again paraphrasing from Fear and Trembling. “Hope is a passion for the possible.” Kierkegaard was his favorite philosopher. He told me that over and over again. “I am convinced that God is love ...When it is present to me, I am unspeakably blissful, when it is absent, I long for it more vehemently than does the lover for his object.”

Walking out on Bond Street in Brooklyn, I thought about Arni last night, looking at the trees. And there was the light I saw that first time I met Arni in Garrison. There was the light that shone throughout his 93 years, the optimism, the love of god; there was the light that welcomed him here, that welcomed him on holy Flatbush Avenue years before. Of course, Arni needed that light. We all do. But Arni in particular. His mother died as he was entering the world. We walked over to Al’s house up the street, in our own little shtetl of Brooklyn. Wyatt dropped by, entering without a knock. And Al told stories about Arni. He was doomed from the start after his mother died. Yet he made it another 93 years, best friends with his cousins Al and Judy, growing up with them on the farm in Monticello, his uncle's Berko, Vevel, Nathan, and Fegel.... still around in the new country except for Vevel who died from being kicked by a cow in Belarus...visiting their beloved cousins in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. Al rejected breakfast. Arni threw the oatmeal on his head. And he left the country for military service in Korea. And lived on Flatbush... as a doctor ... And had the best house in New Rochelle with a gorgeous family...Naomi and Michael the kids of Marlene. Al and Penel and Wyatt and Caroline and Joss visited a lot. He helped promote viagra and talked about philosophy at Seder Dinner. And we looked at the light on the water on the Hudson. He was at our wedding, smiling, throwing food, and went to the party when I got my PhD. And we visited in Miami. And swam in the ocean. We drove looking for sandwiches and got lost. How much can you see, I asked beloved Arni. Oh, 30% in one eye. We laughed and talked about what's important, loving your family, your kids, your parents, faith, keeping good spirit. I saw him less as the years continued, chatting with him on our COVID zoom calls, every few months. He always believed in science and medicine, especially after what happened to his mother. He got covid last year and survived it. And adored his grandkids and was buddies with my dad and mom. And he talked with my dad about Fear and Loathing and resilience. I love you Ben, he told me. I loved your dad. He welcomed Dad, when he was a stranger. We love you Arni. The whole family visited him yesterday, sharing cake and coffee, like Judy. I love you’s all around. He said he felt good. After they left, Arni left, back to the light, 93 years later. RiP Uncle Arni.

Michael Tein wrote:

In many ways we were so much alike.  I mean when I look in the mirror sometimes, I see how much I look like him.  I mean a bathroom mirror not a full length mirror.  But our lives could not have been more different.  He worked and sacrificed to make sure that Naomi and I started out with every advantage because he started out with none.


And in so many ways, Dad’s personality, his big personality -- you could only really understand it in the context of how he came up.  His early childhood, everyone here knows.  An orphan, He grew up poor, raised by his grandmother who spoke no English, in a close Jewish family who filled the gaps left by his parents.  Filled his jilted childhood with love and attention, but I know that was always missing in his life. 


So his childhood, as with all of us in ways we are and are not aware of, drove his every day as an adult.   And then ironically, roughly the last third of his life after he lost his eyesight -- posed challenges that rivaled those in his childhood.   It was one thing after another.  I remember when he came to my law school graduation and his good eye had become so bad that he could not see me.  And he pushed through those challenges on a daily basis just has he had when he was younger - by sheer force of will.  And, just as he had to make himself over as a young man because of his humble beginnings -- he had to make himself over as an adult because, at 59, he lost the vocation that was the Sun around which everything else in his life revolved. 


So, Dad, who became a Doctor probably because of his origins (his mother died in childbirth - and my point is he never recovered from that - we may think we do but we never do) - no longer had that tool to express his love of his fellow person.  And his presence, which was outsized already, became even moreso. 


Every one here knowns what I’m saying.  My father did not believe that any human encounter was successful unless he tried to help the other person in some way.  Sometimes it was by a compliment. Sometimes it was by a hug.  Sometimes by telling them he loved them or they were great.  Other times it was by giving some form of charity he could not really afford.  He elevated tipping at restaurants, or to the car park guys, to a form of high art.


When he could no longer practice medicine and they moved to NC, he thrust himself back into teaching.  He joined the faculty at UNC med school and his students bonded with him there, as many had at Einstein, and became life long friends.  Marcus called me the night dad passed.  The medical faculty asked him to sit on their admissions committee.  He told me once that admissions officers looked to admit people that were like them.  Perhaps not realizing it applied to him too.  And he filled his days finding young women and men who did not look like him, but who were like him - who grew up disadvantaged and who wanted to leave the world better than they found it, one patient at a time.  


When I was a little boy, Dad used to take me on rounds with him at the hospital.  It was boring punctuated by flashes of the expressions of humanity and kindness I have rarely -- maybe never -- seen in any other part of my life.  I couldn’t go in the patient rooms, so I would wait outside and eavesdrop and try to angle myself to get a glimpse through the slightly open door.  And what I heard and saw made me who I am.  I saw Dad touch his patients on the chest.  Pat their hair.  Give them a sip of water from a plastic cup.  Hug their worried family members.  Sometimes even change their IV or their bedpans and tuck them in. 


We would go from floor to floor at the hospital - dad would take the stairs which was the surgeon’s form of exercise - the orderlies would so often lean on their mop or look up from their tray of food or their cart of linen and say hello Dr. Tein and he knew their names and would ask them about their kid or whether they got their car fixed so they didn’t have to take the bus.  And he would shake their hands.  And that was Dad when no one was looking.  


And alongside his private practice, until the end, he spent several days a month at the public hospitals in the Bronx, operating on gunshot wounds and the heroin addicts.  And he bonded with them too.  I remember him taking calls during dinner from Stock Wilson.  Dad never said I did this.  He did it.  He knew we were watching. 


Dad was a science guy but every once in a while there was a flash of humanities and somehow we both shared a love for Thomas Wolfe, who wrote in the 1930s and spoke to both of us.  This, paragraph from the beginning of Look Homeward Angel, is worth a listen: 


“. . . a stone, a leaf, an unfound door; a stone, a leaf, a door. And of all the forgotten faces. 

Naked and alone we came into exile. In her dark womb we did not know our mother's face; from the prison of her flesh have we come into the unspeakable and incommunicable prison of this earth. 

Which of us has known his brother? Which of us has looked into his father's heart? Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent? Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?

O waste of lost, in the hot mazes, lost, among bright stars on this weary, unbright cinder, lost! Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door. Where? When?

O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost [of my father], come back again.” 

 Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel


I got a glimpse into my father’s heart after he retired.  Mom and he came home from his office in the Bronx.  Dad had an office near the hospital in a very modest neighborhood, mostly first generation immigrants.  Those were his patients.  He had this waiting room that took up the first floor of the building with seats all around.  I found out later that when he had a surgery that went too long and he kept his office patients waiting, this was in the early days of medicare when patients still had large co-pays and many had no insurance - he would tell them all that their office visit that day was free.  And he would stay at the office until he saw every one of them.  I knew he had touched that community.  Mo and I felt it when we went on special occasions to the Pine Tavern in the Bronx.  And when mom and he came home from the office that day, they brought a shopping bag literally full with cards and letters and boxes of little carvings and watercolors and things that his patients had made for him.  Think about that. 


That was Dad.  He didn’t care about making money. I found out later how true that was many years later when I found a tax return from the early 80s.  Right or wrong, he raised Mo and I, by example, that you had to help others not just yourself.  Business -- which he was horrible at anyway -- was just not something we did in our family.  I have given lip service to that Ideal, but Naomi has lived a life of public service. 


That’s the Dad I’ll remember always.  As a kid, when my friends ate dinner at 630, we ate at 830 or 9 because he wanted to see us.  And we’d run down the stairs when he came home, in the winter always in his green Jerry coat wearing some winter hat that looked like Nanook of the North, and we would jump into his arms, and get squeezed and lifted up and kissed and we could feel the stubble on his cheek and smell his brut by faberge aftershave. 


Mom - I haven’t spoken about you much today.  We used to say that when Uncle Nat passed, because of how he cared for Aunt Ida, we were going to build a statue of him in Miami Beach.  I wrote you a note during coronavirus because it dawned on me then that you had decided that the most important thing in your life was loving Dad and caring for him as he declined over the last decade.  You who gave up your job as a scientist to marry dad the doctor.  You who after we were born tried to went back to teach math and then had to give that up again for us and Dad.  And you who got into law school at 50 and then had to give that up in your first semester because that was when Dad lost his eyesight.  You who bathed and fed and nursed dad for the last decade. And your respite from that was dipping out of the house once or twice a week to beat the your group of girls at cards.  I didn’t realize until this week that you were still doing people’s taxes for free because, like you said when you tutored me in algebra, math is fun. 


Mom, we all hope you can open a new chapter and live your best life and find joy in every day.  New things like going back to school or old things like counting cards at the bridge table.


So, the way the universe works, on Monday, Naomi and I went to see him on what we didn’t know would be his last day. And we had lujch in the kitchen. Dad had decaf after and I noticed (but didn’t pause on it) that dad was really going at some chocolate cake - with a fervor uncommon even for him.  And at the end we took a family photo.  Dad was smiling.  It could have been taken after any Sunday brunch when we were kids in New Rochelle when dad came home from early morning rounds with donuts and hugs.  He passed two hours later.  The photo is here.


So if you are here today, it’s because Dad loved you so much.  Each of  you.  [ Names ].  He hoped to make each of your days a little brighter.  Gaby and Paulina you were the brightest stars in his sky. In ways you may not ever be able to put into words - like Thomas Wolfe was saying - but only maybe feel. Because Dad understood that our love for each other, and being grateful for the smallest things around us, was what counted.  And when he told people here how he loved you -- maybe sometimes too often -- that was what he was getting at.


One more memory before I go. On so many weekends when we were growing up, Dad used to hole himself up in his study upstairs and write his lectures out in longhand and put the slideshow together in a couple kodak carrousels.  And I remember Mo and I getting into those  carrousels later and pulling the slides out and look at them one by one.  I have a memory of a slide of us standing on the edge of tupper lake in upstate new York, which was one of the first memories I had of a family vacation, and probably was why I love the woods so much.


But when I was in law school I was selling my futon and a surgical fellow came to buy it and did buy it.  And we got to talking and he had trained at Einstein under dad.  And he told me that he remembered some kind of big lecture dad had given to surgical residents and that in the middle of the lecture there was this slide from a family vacation - it was a sunset from a dock on a lake with trees all around.  When he described it - I knew it was that slide of tupper lake.  And in the middle of this lecture he told this roomful of hardcore about to be surgeons - this is what is really important in life.  Don’t lose sight of it.  That was dad. 


“Death is always on the way, but the fact that you don't know when it will arrive seems to take away from the finiteness of life. It's that terrible precision that we hate so much. But because we don't know, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. -- How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that's so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.” 
Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky


Mom and Mo - remember that full moon we watched rise on Tuesday night.  Dad you probably saw it too.  I will miss you more than I can ever say.   I love you.  I hope you knew that. 

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