A Death in the Family

Joy, shipmate, joy!
(Pleas’d to my soul at death I cry.)
Our life is closed, our life begins,
The long, long anchorage we leave,
The ship is clear at last, she leaps!
She swiftly courses from the shore,
Joy, shipmate, joy!

–From Leaves of Grass
by Walt Whitman

Three weeks ago, we concluded the funeral service for my
83-year-old father, Bill Rothschild, with those words, and they
have since become my talisman of transition. Just a few weeks
before that, my parents had returned from visiting my sister Janey,
who lives in Australia, and my father thought he was having a bad
case of jet lag. Then he thought he had the flu and, when that
didn’t pass, he was diagnosed, much to everyone’s entertainment,
with an ulcer. (He was surrounded by choruses of family and friends
saying, ‘How can you have an ulcer? You’re the kind of guy who
gives ulcers!’)

Even though he didn’t seem very sick, I decided I was due for a
quick visit. Then, right before I arrived, he told me that his
reputation had been redeemed — he wasn’t the kind of guy to get an
ulcer: he had a tumor instead and would be having surgery right
away. He came out of the surgery remarkably well, but in the next
couple of days he seemed oddly agitated. The night before I was
supposed to go home, I couldn’t get to sleep until I realized that
some intuition was telling me that I shouldn’t leave. A few hours
later, my mother woke me to tell me that my father had gone into
septic shock. He came out of that crisis long enough to demonstrate
that his sense of humor was intact and then got onto the roller
coaster that culminated in his death.

The day before I left to visit my parents, my family buried our
13-year-old sheepdog mutt, whose tether to life had quietly,
peacefully, become more and more tenuous until he died. The last
days we carried him up and down stairs and out to lie in the
garden, where airborne seeds and bits of fluff combined with moss
and grass in his coat, making explicit his journey back to the
earth. I kept feeling that Ozzie’s passing was somehow a metaphor,
though I didn’t yet know for what.

My father had always been absolutely clear that when he couldn’t
lead an active life, he didn’t want it prolonged. He went from
astonishing power and vitality to death in three weeks, sticking
around just long enough for his family to adjust. Though he died in
the hospital, his passage, in its own way, was as full of grace as
Ozzie’s. I was so touched by the care he received from the hospital
staff, so deeply proud of my family, and so awed by the strength,
humor, healing, and magic that continue to permeate the

Magic like seeing a perfect rendition of Ozzie in the clouds one
night shortly before Dad died.

Yes, I am sad. and I know I will miss him in all sorts of ways
that will surprise me (the first was seeing my brother, Trip,
talking to an unfamiliar young woman at my parents’ house a few
hours after Dad’s death. ‘Check her out,’ said my son Oliver,
‘She’s the assistant funeral director. Gamps must be loving this.’
This being an ankle tattoo above very high heels, another tattoo
visible between her low rider pants and her very tight shirt which
displayed a lot of cleavage. ‘Hmm, uplifting,’ said my sister
Suzanne. Yup, my father would certainly have been tickled.)

But my overriding emotion is gratitude. For a graceful exit and
a life well lived. Here are a few random details:

  • At 50, my father quit his job running a department store — and
    in so doing made the front page of The New York Times
    because he wanted to be of service, not to make more money.
  • A few years later, he was deeply honored to make Nixon’s enemy
  • I have a champagne cork that has written on it the longitude
    and latitude of where in a trans-Atlantic sailing passage he was
    when my son Sam, his first grandchild, was born.
  • Many years ago, for no particular occasion, he gave me a white
    enamel plaque with the word ALIVE painted in red letters. ‘That’s
    how I think of you,’ he said, ‘full of life.’

Embedded in these details are some of the gifts I received from
him: the desire to be of service, a willingness to be
controversial, the spirit of adventure and celebration, and a
passion for life.

Ysaye Maria Barnwell of Sweet Honey in the Rock wrote the
following lyrics in the song ‘Wanting Memories’ in memory of her
father, and I borrow them to say goodbye to mine:

I know a please, a thank you and
a smile will take me far

I know that I am you and you are
me and we are one

I know that who I am is numbered
in each grain of sand

I know that I’ve been blessed again
and over again.

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