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The Other Son

Copyright © 1995 by Sheldon F. Katz, Ed.D

This article appeared in the Summer 1995 issue of Mentor logoMentor Magazine


My father died very old and very popular. Few relatives attended the funeral, but friends packed the house. In this instance, everyone in the family felt grateful for the Jewish tradition of burying the dead within 24 hours of the death (except in cases of death on the Sabbath). This way all the mourners and would-be mourners did not have to sit around for a week and look at a ghastly reproduction of what was once a living person, while glaring at each other.

My father's death occurred in the morning. My son received a call from one of his cousins late that afternoon. My brother and sister could not be bothered with me, as usual, so they had my sister's oldest son do the calling. I was even unaware that my father was in the hospital, and that if we wanted to see him before he died, we needed to come then. No one in the family suggested putting us up for the night, and no one suggested helping us find a motel for the two nights involved.

My son Marc, his wife, and their two-year old daughter accompanied me on this uneasy journey. the question, to me, of what I was supposed to feel, and what my role at the funeral would be, found an answer when we entered the funeral home. Marc and his family were behind me. After some confusion as to who I was and whether I needed to sign in, (only guests sign the register), the funeral director appeared and assured me, "Please, you do not have to sign in." Then, in five words, he defined my role at the funeral. He shot a look at his beefy assistant and said, "This is the other son."

The confusion, thus resolved, allowed the funeral director to become instantly relieved. He broke into a welcoming smile when I told him, "You identified me perfectly." I meant it. After all, I was the other son.

One of the last times I had seen my father prior to this occasion had been after my mother's hospitalization for a reevaluation of her hip surgery. I felt that this might be a great opportunity for the old man and me to talk -- to do something together. Just as I parked my car in the garage under his apartment, I spotted him walking, stooped over his cane, yet with a bit of the hippity-hoppity gait, on what had to be his daily constitutional. The man took care of himself. That full head of jet black hair with a touch of grey mainly on the sideburns resulted not from a potion that came out of a bottle, but from the fact that he never seemed to worry about or even notice, anyone or anything except my brother, my brother's children, and, of course, himself.

As I approached him during that daily walk of his, the first words from him were, "Oh, your mother's in the hospital. Go see her."

"Dad," I replied, "I've come to talk to you."

He fell silent for a few moments. Then, "Well, good to see you." Another silence. "Now, go see your mother."

"We really never get the chance to talk. Even when I call, you get off the phone quickly. I figured we'd have a few minutes to talk. I'd like to take you to lunch."

He just shrugged. I started to shake his hand before I left. My father showed annoyance at having to switch hands with the cane in order to shake hands with me. I insisted on that handshake and then turned to leave, a bit embarrassed.

We, the whole family, did not have a reputation for touching and closeness. When I turned seven, maybe eight, Hank Greenberg, the fabulous first baseman for the Detroit Tigers and my hero of heroes, came to town for some type of visit. How I came to be one of the welcoming party at the train station still mystifies me. Hank gave me an autographed picture as well as a big hug - the first time any male had ever hugged me - and I responded to the warm feeling it evoked in me. He had me pose in a picture of the welcoming committee and him. I stood between, and just in front of, my father and Hank Greenberg. Hank's huge hand gripped my shoulder as he smiled down at me. My father folded his arms and looked directly into the lens of the camera. Except for the captions, no one would have known the real father and son.

I remembered another time we talked. In fact it was the only real conversation we had in what seemed decades. With my son helping my mother reach some food packages on the highest shelves, I was momentarily left alone with my father. He showed the inevitable shuffle that derived from his uncomfortableness with me in these situations.

"How have you been?" I asked as an opener. He just nodded. "Well, are you still working at the office, or from home?" He had been a lawyer, and still was a lawyer, who was continuing to work into his 80's.

"At home, of course."

"It's hard to talk to you. I've always found it hard to talk to you. There's no fault - not yours; not mine. I've never been an easy son, but you have never been a close father."

"You know that I love all my children just the same." What that response had to do with the matter at hand did not connect with me, but the remark opened the door.

"Nobody loves everybody in the same manner. For God's sake, you know that. You know that you reserve your love, your respect, for your oldest son, certainly not for me." The words came out of me very calmly.

His visage changed completely. The look of indifference combined with some acknowledgment of my presence faded as his face stiffened and his eyes iced over.

He pronounced each word carefully and firmly, "Your brother is my alta. My first born."

"I gathered that. You believe the sun rises and sets only on him." Relief started to pump through me.

"Yes, to me it does," he confided, confirming what I had always felt. After so many years, the acknowledgment, finally, of where we stood, and what was important, and who was important, had been clearly stated.

I plumbed through my body for traces of jealousy. I guess I wanted to be emotionally charged enough to feel jealous, to be envious of my brother's position. I could not find any. Just the strange strand of relief flowing through me.

Perhaps I was ridding myself of any guilt I had in never being close to my father, and of the anger I held toward him - guilt and anger from remembering when, in my youth, he would call me by whistling. I begged him not to do that. Whether to embarrass me, or more likely, because he could not remember my name, he continued to whistle for me.

I looked back at him. Turning away from me, my father added the clincher. "He is my son." I caught the double meaning my father surely did not consciously offer. With that said and done, he strode into his bedroom and shut the door.

When the funeral director had made the statement, "This is the other son," I took no offense. The scene with my father unfolded slowly in my mind, and I realized that the director had aptly defined not only my role at the funeral, but also my life-time role: I am

The Other Son.

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