On the Passing of My Father-in-Law
It was late on a Friday afternoon when I answered the telephone only to hear my brother-in-law’s voice both asking to speak to his sister and informing me that my father-in-law – Seymour Posner – had passed away. For those of you who have never received such a phone call, I cannot begin to describe the experience to you. It is unlike any other communication you will ever receive. And it never gets easier to receive it. Unfortunately, in my life, this was the fifth time I have been informed of such a personal loss – for the passing of my mother, my father, my sister’s husband (who was like a brother to me), my sister, and now my father-in-law – and each time, no matter the circumstances, I have been equally taken aback by the finality of the notice.
Four months ago, my father-in-law was hit by a car and as a result had to undergo surgery to repair multiple fractures to his leg. That was the beginning of the end, for even while the surgery repaired the leg, it was followed by one complication after another. It was as though the fabric of Seymour’s health seemed to be unraveling before our eyes. Someone recently told me that the breaking of a bone can release certain toxins into the system which can effect other aspects of a person’s health if not treated quickly enough. I do not know whether this is true or an urban legend. What I do know is that from the time of Seymour’s entrance into the hospital for the surgery on his leg to the day that he died, he was constantly under medical treatment for one ailment or another and was hospitalized on several occasions. His was an unbroken line of illnesses from the car accident to his death.
During these months of her father’s illness, my wife, Gail, jockeyed back and forth between Iowa and Michigan to offer whatever help she could to her father, her mother, her brother, her sister, and their families. Though I know that she wished she could do more, of course she could not begin to match the efforts of her Detroit family. There are times when it is very hard to be living at a distance from the ones you love and this was one of them. I believe I understand how she felt, for I know how I felt when I was at a physical distance from both my mother and my sister as they endured the cancers that eventually took their lives; wanting to be at their sides but being kept away by the obligations of long distance living.
After Gail’s brother, Ken, called with the painful news, Helene (our youngest) and I packed as quickly as possible while Gail arranged for Shira (our oldest) to fly to Detroit from her home in Alexandria, Virginia. We decided not to bring our middle child – Josh – for he is a young man with autism who would not fully understand all that was happening and probably would not respond well to the chaos that goes hand-in-hand with a funeral. Josh came home the next weekend and still we struggled with how to help him understand that his “Poppa” had died. Since Josh is fixated on animated movies, we finally decided to start our conversation by asking him about “The Lion King”, directing him to tell us about the fate of Mufasa – the father of Simba, the main character, who died while Simba was yet a cub – and then we related Mufasa’s death to that of his grandfather, using family photos.
Two hours after we receive that painful news, we were on the road, traveling late into the night, only stopping to take a hotel room when exhaustion overwhelmed us. We arrived in Detroit the next day, driving directly to Ken’s home, where the family was gathering.
As a rabbi, there have been countless occasions when I have met with bereaved families to plan the funeral of a loved one. I have to admit that it was indeed odd being on the “other side” of the conversation as we sat through two separate meetings, first with the funeral director and then with the rabbi. Both were accessible, professional, and deeply compassionate. They made me proud of my profession. As a rabbi, I strive to be a healing presence to the bereaved during these meeting but I have to admit that I am not always sure that I have achieved that goal. Information is passed from one to the other. Questions are asked and answered on both sides. But has any healing taken place? Yet sitting in those meetings, I now have a better sense of just how much healing does occur. Sadly, I did not have the opportunity to experience such meetings when my own parents passed away, for it was their wish have neither funerals nor burials. They wanted to be quietly cremated and have their ashes scattered at sea. Though it went against everything I believe, out of respect to my parents I acceded to their wishes. But on this occasion, there I was, sitting with my wife’s family, witnessing and experiencing the healing such true professionals bring to the hearts of the bereaved. It happens through the very questions that are asked and how they are answered. It happens in the sharing and the caring. It happens simply by the physical presence of a person who is there to help.
Seymour Posner was a very special and unique individual. The word that kept cropping up in his eulogies – there were four of them – was “character.” Indeed he was a real character, but he also was a man of great character.
Seymour savored life, always striving to enjoy it to its fullest. Indeed, joy was so much of what he was all about. Many were the places in which he found his joy.
There was humor. No one loved a good joke more than Seymour, and few told them better. Many were the jokes he shared with me, that I brought back to my home communities, effectively spreading his mirth. At 80 years old, twice he was invited to do stand-up comedy at a popular club in Ann Arbor – the home of the University of Michigan. That should say it all!
Then there was good food and fine red wine – always served with ice, for as he repeated pointed out to anyone who would listen, in Europe the wine cellars are so much colder than in America, so here one needs add ice to bring the wine to is proper temperature. I told you he was a character!
Then there was travel. Few things excited Seymour more than the opportunity to visit new places, both close and far, have new experiences, and acquire new learning. The little tidbits which tour guides invariably share and which put many of us to sleep, his mind would voraciously consume. Indeed one might say that the acquisition of new knowledge was almost an addiction with him. He truly was a lifelong learner.
Then there was music, especially when it was upbeat. How he loved to go to live concerts. And if those concerts were conducted out of doors, and they were preceded by a picnic, so much the better! Yes, music lifted his soul. Indeed, many was the time when he had proclaimed that when he died, he wanted his funeral to be New Orleans style, with a dixieland band accompanying him to the grave. And so it was! Seymour fished his wish, for at his interment there was a six-piece dixieland band composed of three of his grandsons and three of their musical friends. And nothing would stop them from honoring the man with multiple variations of “When the Saints Come Marching In” (a tune not often heard in Jewish cemeteries!), even in the midst of the most horrendous of thunderstorms. For even as the heavens opened up, and their waters descended in torrents, not unlike those of the days of Noah, still the band played on! I can only imagine that the heavens opened so fully, drenching the mourners, in order to hasten Seymour’s entry making sufficient room to better accommodate the grandeur of Seymour’s soul.
And of course Seymour loved the practice of law. Seymour was a criminal attorney in Detroit. Talk about location, location, location! Every day in court was another adventure for him. Early in our relationship, I asked him how in good conscience he could defend people whom he knew to be criminals. His answer fascinated me. First of all, he said, every person, no matter their character, is entitled to a decent defense. That is his job; to provide them with the best defense he can offer. If he wins cases that perhaps he should have lost, that is only because he was able to provide better argumentation than the prosecution. That is not his fault but the fault of the state in not having supported a more effective prosecutor’s office. He has done his best, and either the prosecuting attorney did not do his best, or Seymour’s best was simply that much better than the prosecutor’s best. Besides, he told me, these people are his clients, not his personal friends. He defends them in court. He doesn’t invite them home for dinner. If I had any doubts about what he was talking about, they dissipated one day when he recounted one of his stranger cases. He found himself defending a fellow who was caught red-handed in possession of all sorts of stolen electronic equipment. When the police apprehended the man, the trunk of his car was packed with such stolen merchandise. Now this person was a bit of an oddball. He was one of those folks who believe that they are under attack from alien mind controlling rays. Therefore, he covered his head and other body parts in aluminum foil, to prevent those rays from penetrating. Well, with absolutely no viable defense, Seymour felt that he had nothing to lose by putting his client on the stand. So, before the court – before the jury – he questioned the man about his beliefs concerning alien attempts to invade his body. He then asked him what he was doing with all that electronic equipment found in his car trunk. The defendant went on to explain in detail how he planned to build a devise to fend off the aliens. Later, in Seymour’s summation to the jury, he said to them something along the lines of “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury. You have heard my client testify concerning his beliefs about an alien invasion and his plans to defend against such an invasion. It should be quite obvious to you that my client in not in possession of all his facilities. Now I have to ask you whether or not you truly believe that a person in my client’s obviously reduced mental state would actually be capable of successfully organizing and accomplishing a crime such as the one the prosecution has accused him of having perpetrated?” Believe it or not, even to Seymour’s surprise, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty! Yes, Seymour loved the law and he loved to opportunities it afforded him to exercise his vast skills in debate and creative problem solving!
But of all Seymour’s sources of joy, there is no question but that he derived his greatest pleasure from people. He loved meeting new people and making new friends because he saw in each potential new relationship a source of great delight. Therefore he was more than willing to invest himself in the relationships he established. He clearly understood that if one is to derive the most satisfaction from the people one knows, then one has to be willing to give to those people the most one can of oneself. And he did. So it should not have been surprising that when it came to Seymour’s funeral, there were over 750 people in attendance, with a cortege to the cemetery stretching some two miles in length, and with over 100 people showing up at the house of mourning each night that the family “sat shiva” (for in Judaism we receive visits of consolation and hold memorial services at our houses of mourning for anywhere up to seven days following the funeral). So many were those who yearned to pay the final respects to this man and to offer their comforting presence to his beloved family.
Of course, of all the people who brought joy to Seymour’s life, there were none more important to him than his family. Seymour Posner was the most devoted of family men.
Seymour often referred to Muriel as his first wife. She was indeed that! For 58 years, she was his first wife and his only wife! In this day and age, when divorce has become more the norm than the exception, a marriage of such duration is a resounding testimony to the power of love and devotion. They first met while in college and they provided all who knew them with the ideal role model of true life mates. They shared everything – joys and sorrows, adventures and quiet moments, and a love for each other that was truly boundless.
No father could be prouder of the accomplishments of his children than was Seymour. That two of his three children – Ken and Sandy – followed in his footsteps, becoming lawyers, was a source of great pride for him. Even though his eldest, Gail, strayed from the family profession, he forgave her since, after all, she did become a cantor which combined his love of music with his strong sense of Jewish identity. God, how Seymour loved to listen to Gail chant the service. Several were the times that he would travel to whatever city we lived in just so that he could hear her chant “Kol Nidre” on Yom Kippur eve. Indeed, her “Kol Nidre” was the last rendition that he ever heard, he and Muriel having spent his last Yom Kippur with our family in Iowa. Besides, Gail did marry a rabbi, and as those who are familiar with Judaism know, while a rabbi is not a Jewish lawyer, a rabbi is a judge when it comes to matters of Jewish law. Speaking of Seymour’s Jewish identity, he was never above bragging to all his Jewish friends how he and Muriel had done their part to invest in the future of our faith and our people, for in an age of increasing interfaith marriage, all three of their children married Jews and bore Jewish children! When it came to his children, Seymour was staunch believer in creating unique relationships with each of them, based upon their personalities and their strengths. Gail was his strong willed independent eldest child. He granted her the space she needed so that she could carve out her own life, always feeling his love and support, but not his interference. Ken, his son, he groomed to take his place as the head of the Posner clan. Sandy, his youngest, he took under his wing and mentored in the art of criminal law. In his recognition of the singularities of each of his children, he successful strove to nurture them in such ways that they could best fulfill their personal potentials.
Seymour’s children were fond of giving their father special gifts. But none of their gifts were any more precious to Seymour than his grandchildren. As proud as he was over the accomplishments of his children, he was positively glowing about anything that had to do with his grandchildren. No journey was too long for Seymour if, at its end, he had the pleasure of watching his grandchildren perform, whether it be music or theater or sports. He was a veritable groupie when it came to “Just Cuz”, the band put together by grandsons Justin and Alan.
Seymour and Muriel surely understood that the straightest path from children to grandchildren had to include expanding the family to in-laws. I was the first of these outsiders to inject himself into the Posner household. As is common with firsts, there was a learning curve. Indeed, they say that when Gail called her folks to tell them that she was bringing me home over Winter Break to meet them, her mother rushed into the bedroom, woke Seymour to tell him the news, and all Seymour could say was “Oh shit!” Indeed, for a while that was my nickname in the Posner household. However, with the passage of time, they got used to me and came to realize that acquiring sons-in-law and daughters-in-law were actually a testimony to successful parenting. They learned not only to accept but to welcome us strangers into their close family circle. By the time Ken married his wife Gail, and Sandy married her husband, Ken (notice that the family was not very open to coping with new names), Seymour and Muriel had come to view in-laws as new children. Indeed, for the past 22 years, since the death of my parents, Seymour and Muriel were the closest thing that I have had to a father and a mother.
For Seymour, the definition of family most certainly was never restricted to the nuclear family. He embraced his family in its broadest sense. He was deeply devoted to all the members of his extended family, both his blood relatives and Muriel’s. How he loved to visit with family, both near and far, whether it meant driving up to Lake Orion to spend the day at Aunt Netty’s & Uncle Manny’s lakeside cottage, or flying to Los Angeles to visit niece and nephew Susan & Dennis. Nor was blood even a defining factor in Seymour’s sense of family. Several years ago, he and Muriel figuratively adopted an entire family – the Sobles – and fully enfolded them into the Posner family; two more children and two more grandchildren.
I have been a rabbi for 35 years and if I have learned any life lesson during that time it is this. The measure of a life successfully lived is not to be taken from the amount of material wealth one has amassed. Nor is it to be taken from titles and status one has attained. There is only one true measure of a successful life, and that measure is to be found in people; how meaningfully one has touched the lives of others. Seymour lived a life in which he was blessed with both material comfort and prestige, but without question or doubt, his most significant achievement was in being the type of person that he was; in so positively and lovingly touching the lives of so many others. In that way, he has left an indelible mark of goodness upon our world.