When you make it into your sixties and you still have your parents you sometimes have thoughts that they will live forever. I wasn’t the only one who thought that about my dad, who died on July 5 and was buried one week ago today. “I can’t believe your dad is gone.” I heard that statement repeatedly during the week I spent with the family in Beachwood, Ohio, the eastern suburb of Cleveland that my pioneer parents helped build during the baby boom years and continued to lead in more ways than most people can remember.
“Shocked” was another word I heard repeatedly. The disbelief of friends and family is just one of many tributes to his life. He was 93, an age most people never attain, but he was clear of mind and healthy. He didn’t seem to age. He was driving the day before he died. He was still visualizing the next way he was going to create order out of the chaos that we know as life, and do it in a way that would help the greatest number of people, as he had done his whole life.
During the forties, Beachwood school children would attend Fairmount School on Fairmount Boulevard until they reached the seventh grade and then transfer to the Shaker Heights school system, where they would remain until they graduated. But the baby boom put pressure on the Shaker Heights school system so in the early fifties they kicked us out. Families on the south side of Beachwood wanted to secede from Beachwood and become part of Shaker. They put a proposal on the next ballot. My dad vehemently opposed the measure so he led the way to put another proposal on the ballot, that Beachwood raise the money to build its own schools including in that part of Beachwood. He knew that both proposals couldn’t win or residents would be building schools for kids who were living in Shaker. He was, of course, right. The proposal to secede was soundly defeated and residents voted to build their own schools. My dad served on the school board throughout the height of the baby boom years, and led the way in developing two new elementary schools, a middle school, and a high school. His name appears on plaques on all of them.
But far more important to my friends, he was the co-founder of the Beachwood Little League as well as a regular backer through his menswear store, the Oxford Shop, and a manager/coach. At the drop of a, well, bat, he would call a practice, I would get on the phone and call the members of my team, and we would meet at one of the baseball diamonds in the city for an afternoon practice. He was a mentor to my teammates and so many others, who all knew him never as Mr. Wachsberger but always just as Si. That’s how everyone knew him.
My mom was no slouch during that period either, and still isn’t. She was, among other activities, a regular member and leader of PTA. During my freshman year in high school, my dad was president of the school board, my mom was president of the PTA, and I was president of the junior high school student council. When I graduated, he was president again. At the ceremony, he handed me my diploma, which had his signature on it. I learned at the 90th birthday party that we threw for him that he was president when my brother Don graduated so he signed his diploma also. He wasn’t taking any chances.
After 14 years, which included three terms as president, my dad retired from the school board, but not serving the community as an elected official must have given him fits so he ran for city council and won. He spent the next 24 years on the city council, including four terms as president. Among his many accomplishments, he created a law that prevented developers from cutting down trees that surrounded the site of new homes if they had reached a certain height. He also mentored the current mayor.
He died suddenly and painlessly in a way that is reserved for mortals who commune with angels during their lives. He had told Bob and my mom early in the day that his vision was blurry so they took him to the hospital. The doctors there were going to keep him a day or two because they thought he might have had pneumonia. He was also dehydrated according to one doctor who wanted him on IV fluids as soon as they got him to his room.
Don, who was there at the end, recalled,
We had been talking to Dad about dinner and other small talk. He didn’t like the dinner, but he had most of the two cookies. We asked him to read something, which he did pretty well, so we knew his eyesight was okay. Then while we were waiting for his hospital room to be prepared so he could be admitted for the night, his eyes rolled up, and he turned his head to the left. No sound. No grimace. Apparently no pain. We didn’t know at that time that he had died, but he never regained consciousness. Soon after the doctors got into the room, they began to talk about not being able to detect a heartbeat, so it was pretty clear that he had passed away when he had turned his head. About 25 minutes later, the two attending doctors came into the family room to tell Mom, Bob, and me that they were unable to revive Dad.
He died at Ahuja Medical Center. It is ironic, I suppose, because that’s where his next volunteer project was going to be. He told me about it on a recent visit home. He was going to create a library there by writing letters to publishers around the country and asking them to donate books, as he had done at one of the inner-city schools in Cleveland where he and my mom tutored children. He already knew the name of the person at the hospital who he needed to talk to in order to bring his idea to life. I don’t know if he ever did talk to him, and I don’t remember the exact details of the plan. I didn’t always hear his words when he spoke to me. Sometimes I just felt his passion and let it feed me. It made me a better person.
In one of the karmic, zen moments that tie together so many parts of my family, he chose—and a part of me does believe he chose it—a special day to move on. His father, my Grandpa Al, or Gramps as we knew him, died on June 21, 1990, the summer solstice. He was buried the next day, the birthday of his oldest grandson, my brother Don. A few years earlier, his wife, my Grandma Ida, died on the birthday of her oldest granddaughter, my cousin Barb. Six years after Gramps’ death, on another June 22, my father’s oldest grandson, my son David, read from the Torah and became a man according to our tradition. My father died on July 5, David’s birthday. I’m not nearly wise enough to tell you what that all means other than that it all comes together, the generations, life. As the family genealogist, I learned that life and death are connected by a line on a chart. It’s also connected by shared anniversaries.
The time in Cleveland following his death was a surreal experience, filled with extreme sadness and extreme joy. Up, down, up, down. It was a testament to Judaism, whatever branch you follow, that every occasion is steeped in tradition and ritual that helps guide you through it. We learned that Jewish funerals begin by focusing on the deceased but end by focusing on the living. The Mourner’s Kaddish never mentions death. It is recited while standing as an affirmation of strength. At the home, during shiva, the period of mourning, the mourners are commanded to eat first to replenish their strength. Judaism always focuses on the positive. Life continues. The show must go on.
And so we buried my dad on Friday afternoon. The mayor, the rabbi, and the cantor all spoke to the 300 or so friends and relatives from Beachwood, Greater Cleveland, and around the country who came to pay their last respects. Their presence made the event a lot easier for all of us, especially my mom. After the funeral, he had a police escort to the cemetery under a sunny sky. Then we came to the house for an initial period of shiva.
Three hours later we all celebrated with my nephew Scott and his fiancé Diana at their rehearsal dinner. The next day was their joyous wedding. Then Sunday and Monday we sat shiva.
Friends wondered how we could celebrate a wedding right after a funeral but Jewish tradition demands no less. Besides, as we all knew, my dad would never have let us postpone it. He so looked forward to it himself. My mom was no less adamant. So we felt grief and we felt joy, as was appropriate and natural for the two occasions. We just felt them out of the usual order.
I have no idea what people are thinking as they are about to die but I know my dad long insisted that he did not ever want to be confined to a rest home or be strung up on tubes. Maybe he thought that if he lived that would be his inevitable fate so he willed himself to go. But I know also that he was a practical person so I wouldn’t be surprised if he figured transportation and lodging are expensive, out-of-towners will be coming in for the wedding anyhow, so if he died when he did he would save them the expense of another trip.
No one knows.
But I know that I want to call him a legend. I believed that for a long time. Perhaps that’s just the perspective of a son. But I think I’m safe in saying he was a great man. An extraordinary man. I just happen to be fortunate to be his son.
He belonged to us—his beloved wife Shirley, who he adored; their four sons, Don, Ken, Jeff, and Bob; their two daughter-in-law, Judi and Emily; their three grandchildren, David, Scott, and Carrie; and now his granddaughter-in-law, Diana. But he belonged to his community also. His imprint is everywhere—in the schools that he helped build, in the trees that beautify the city, in the Little League that he co-founded, the arts council that he and my mom helped co-found and that, my mom maintains, would have given way to age and exhaustion had not my dad almost singlehandedly revived it, at Montefiore where he kept the snack shop display cases full and fresh, with the children he and my mom tutored. And the volunteer hours that he and my mom devoted to more causes than likely any of us will ever be able to name.
Whether he was writing a letter to President Obama to share his views on how to run the country; or sharing financial advice with David, Scott, and Carrie; or playing Rummikub with whoever could fit around the kitchen table, he was so dynamic that, yes, we can be forgiven for not seeing the finish line that he was fast approaching. He saw it, but he was too busy to dwell on it, and if the end of this adventure was near, he wasn’t going to miss a second of it.
We miss him greatly and mourn for our loss but we don’t mourn for him because he went out in style. He was a role model to everyone who knew him, a man of dignity, and we were fortunate for the time we had with him.
As Emily said, the earth is better because of him.
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Friends who wish may contribute to the Si Wachsberger Scholarship Fund, c/o The Beachwood Arts Council, 25325 Fairmount Blvd., Beachwood, OH 44122.
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tagged: Ahuja Medical Center, Beachwood, Beachwood Arts Council, Oxford Shop, Shaker Heights, Shirley Wachsberger, Si Wachsberger | 9 Comments »