It’s easy to forgive the hardest parent when they thank you through tears with: “Nobody cared for me as much in my whole life!” Or when they write a letter that gets delivered to you on the day of their funeral. This and more, when memory artist, Nancy Gershman talks with comic, Steve Mittleman who travels the world doing stand-up for corporate events and private functions. In the works is a book, “A Lot On My Plate,” about his lifetime affair with yo-yo dieting. Visit him at SteveMittleman@aol.com.Don’t be surprised to discover you speak fluent “Stroke” Genuine bonding so often begins at End of Life Improve your chances to get a letter from Dad the day of his funeral Your parents can be 99% forgiven if their parents didn’t know any better It’s ok to laugh at any stereotype if there’s truth behind it Don’t stuff your feelings with comfort food. First digest your loss Suicide means you’ve bought the lies If you’re not eligible for flag-folding, think what else they could fold Your To Do List
“My dad, David died after a stroke and four heart attacks. I remember those as a tough number of years. When he got a stroke, it was on Passover, in Queens. I was playing pool. My friends were dropping me off at my parents’ house and there was an ambulance out front. All of a sudden there was my dad being carried out on a gurney. Your heart sinks. I got in there and saw that he had a pretty bad stroke.
Let me tell you: we had a very, very, very bad relationship, most of my childhood. Dad was a screamer. And my mom, Hannah, was a beater. I don’t know if I ever quite bonded with her because of that. But I believe I bonded with my dad when he became sick.
Anyhow, my mom couldn’t understand a word Dad was saying. Because of the stroke his speech was very garbled. Ironically, though, I found that I was catching most of what he was saying and realized, My God, I speak Stroke! It was like a game show where I’d get clues and then … well, it turns out Dad had an Off Track Betting ticket – a triple – in his pocket. He wanted me to check the race results.“
“I wasn’t ever really religious. But over the next few days, I got a local rabbi to say a prayer for Dad. I shaved him in his hospital bed – and all of that was bonding. I found I could finally cry now. So it took disease and catastrophe to bond with him! But it’s the great humbling compromiser when somebody gets whammed like that. Subsequently, Dad recovered – not 100% – but he definitely mellowed with age. Lifestyle eventually caught up with him: he had a heart attack and was inoperable. So he’d take nitroglycerin tablets. He was kind of like Jack Benny’s character; thrifty, a child of the depression. The one time I needed him to co-sign a check of mine while we were at the bank – that’s when he decided to have an angina attack. The timing of it! It was ironic, and it might have been a coincidence, too.”
I had a few days off and decided to go down to Florida for a few days. One day, I took Dad to his cardiologist. The doc looked like Norm from Cheers – shorter but 70 lbs. overweight. He gave him no dietary advice, nothing. At the hospital, here was my Dad – a fairly observant Jew with heart problems– served pork and strawberry shortcake.
The doctor took me aside and proceeded to tell me how long he’d live: six months to a year and a half, and I screamed at my parents, ‘You’ve got to eat differently!’ Then, ‘Don’t do this’ and ‘Drop that.” Because a lot of crap created my Dad’s illnesses and subsequently Mom’s too. Dad eventually dropped 30-35 lbs. – going from three angina pills every day to three in a year and lasted a more peaceful, 1.5 years.
That week – after I came back to Chicago – I got a call from him. He was bawling his eyes out. “Nobody cared for me this much in my whole life!”
“I went back down with my girlfriend for Dad’s funeral. I was staying next door at a condo, and my mother knocks on the door the day of Dad’s funeral. She says ‘This is for you,’ and hands me a letter from Dad. See, he was a linotype operator and he had always told me how much he liked writing letters. I probably still had old feelings about my tough childhood, but here was this letter that had bounced back because he’d posted it to the wrong address in LA.
Getting a letter from Dad the day of his funeral was like communicating with the Great Beyond.”
“I didn’t even cry at the funeral. Part of grieving is that you grieve ahead of time for the person, especially if you know it’s coming. Well, I did some of that and the grand finale was grieving about the ultimate loss of Dad. The Orphan Finality.
By the time Mom died, I was in bad emotional shape. All of us sibs split living at home as soon as we could. I was the youngest. So when Mom had cancer, I came down to visit her, trying to get her to eat better because she had breast cancer and it was metastasizing to bone. You know, I was like the Health Food Kid. Still, Mom had come from a very unaffectionate background – so there were no hugs from her. No acknowledgements. No I love you’s. That generation – if they didn’t get love, they didn’t know how to give it either. It was the way she was raised.
While Mom had a sense of humor more in the moment – between the screaming my dad was always funny. Things calmed down when I got taller than him. He always kissed me hello and goodbye. He was Willy Lohman, born during the Depression, lost his dad, quits school, and that old pain, I’m pretty sure, came out sideways when he became a father. In our household there was no talk about “abundance” or the 12 step program or therapy. My parents, both, buried a lot of their feelings. They were not educated how to do things.
I believe I 99% forgave my dad. But I ended up not speaking at either of their funerals – Mom’s or Dad’s. I didn’t have to. All these friends from Florida were telling me what nice people the dearly departed were. I was thinking: Are you kidding me? You’re lucky you weren’t me. I couldn’t relate to the complimentary things I was hearing about Dad, but they appeared to be true. These friends were all pretty menschy. Our family, in contrast, felt like the anti-Waltons.
So you have to say to yourself: I had hard parents and I’m sure that’s a common experience. Compared to those who knew my parents outside the family, I just have a different perspective. (I was going to therapy back then.)
In other words, sometimes I think my parents did their best. And sometimes I think that couldn’t possibly be their best.“
“One time we were all down in Florida. My brother, sister and folks were all staying there and they came to see me at The Comic Strip. I just destroyed the audience (i.e. they loved it!). I asked my brother and sister if Dad liked it. They told me, ‘Oh my God, Dad was pounding his fist on the table.’ But he couldn’t tell me that!
Yeah, cheap with words, and cheap in general. I remember when I was the sixth lead in Roxanne – a big studio film. When it was released I said to my parents: ‘You guys have got to come see it.’ Dad actually said to me, ‘We’ll wait when it comes to the dollar theatre.’
Creatures of habit – what can you do? The joke here is from a stereotype and the truth.
I waited a week or two after I lost my Dad to get back on stage. I think I may also have had a gig I was committed to. At that time, I was a little concerned – how do I joke now? But the flip side is, I’m so glad I did. Enjoying life with laughter: it’s been a godsend my whole life.”
My mom made halvah and butter sandwiches. If my mom could fry milk and serve it, she would have. I’ve had food issues my whole life.
Two things about being Jewish and food. Food is a lifetime challenge – even now I’m at an age where I started yo-yo-ing. For someone who is such a food-oriented person, I don’t remember going to food for comfort. I’ve gone to food for every other reason, but not after my parents died.
I’m of the belief, that the very thing that speeds the demise of Jews is honored in some weird way when people sit shiva. Friends and family come over to the house, bringing the worst crap imaginable: smoked meats, whitefish salad, lasagnas, etc. – that sped them along to the grave in the first place. Jerry Lewis once said (after his heart issues), ‘Pastrami has killed more of our people than the Nazis.’ I find it remarkably ironic.
What else could we bring to shiva? How about: salad. Or fruit salad. There is no such thing as comfort food. The chapter in your life that just ended with loss – you can’t possibly comfort it. Lot of people lose their appetite and some get ravenous. My belief is that we should eat well so we can be in touch with our feelings, and get some perspective in our lives. When you’re digesting all this shiva food on top of digesting a loss, you’re just stuffing your feelings.”
“When somebody has a near death experience, it’s always a white light. Everybody seems to have that same white light. Nobody ever says they crossed over to the other side and it was hot as hell.
My friend Mark Schiff said this after a friend of ours – a comic – killed himself: ‘Well, he bought the lies.’ That was one of the most poetic things I ever heard. Anybody who commits suicide, I believe, is buying just a heaping bowl of bull. He drank a bit and was known to say, ‘If I don’t make it in this career, I’ll kill myself.’ It can be an awful lot of pressure. Still, how can this be an answer?”
“I went to a memorial service slash BBQ there – and you should have heard the stories they told about this guy Ernie I never met, my girlfriend’s friend’s husband. Every story was funny. Ernie was a character and a curmudgeon, but a funny one. He was in the Navy, and two Navy officers did the thing with the folded flag and gave it to the widow. For me, that that memorial service BBQ had everything. A touching Navy ceremony. Phenomenal stories from children, grandchildren, wife and friends. A little Monty Python-esque. But whatever works for the family.
I don’t believe in cemetery plots. I do like the idea of cremation. Who are we to give up the land? Maybe I’m a little stingy about that. Why should your body be decomposing in a coffin at a cost of thousands of dollars people don’t have? Why not just have your ashes thrown overboard and throw a memorial BBQ?”
Steve talks about the beautiful pomp and ceremony at Ernie’s funeral. Clearly, Steve is not a prominent military figure or a head of state. But who’s to say you can’t create your own pomp and ceremony to honor your service as a good son or daughter? Take a look at these alternatives as you vocalize what you would want for your funeral rites:
1. Flag-Folding. Think what else might be folded and presented to the next of kin. If cooking played a huge role in your life, maybe consider a starched white tablecloth that you only used for special occasions.
2. The Playing of Taps. Keep the tradition of The Lone bugler but with a twist, by having the youngest musician in the family play their instrument. Branch out to the music you love. Imagine the sweetness of “Staying Alive” by the Bee Gees played by a fifth grader on a recorder, or a xylophone.
3. Volleys fired over the grave. There is something magnificent about sending something skyward at a funeral. Again, branch out, whether with released balloons or Nerf arrows. Looking up is a great metaphor.