Been & Going


A Walk Through the Store

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In 1987, I spent the summer in Israel with my middle sister and my Dad. We’d lived in Israel from around 1978 to 1983 in Arad, a small town in the middle of the dessert that was far enough from any armed conflict to be safe for seven year old kids to walk home from school alone. After 1983 we moved back to the States to the leafy green and profoundly disappointing suburbs of Albany (Smallbany), NY- specifically, the town of Delmar (Dullmar).

My Dad was still a partner in a small apparel company with a factory in Arad, so we spent summers and holidays and every week we DadPost-Aradcould in our apartment there. I loved that apartment. The cool tile floors and big balcony window from which I could see past the end of town to the blue mountains of Jordan beyond. So much better than our US brown two story carpeted house which overlooked nothing but the construction sites of our Dullmar development and the high school that would someday form the backdrop of all my grown-up anxiety dreams (for the love of God, when do I stop panicking about failing French???)

Anyhow, the summer before my Freshman year in High School in 1987, my mom and oldest sister stayed back in Dullmar while the rest of us went back to Arad. It was probably the greatest summer of my life. Not because of all the touchy-feely lovey-dovey family bonding crap we did- but because my Dad worked all the time, my sister and I were teenagers and he left us THE HELL ALONE. The only time we HAD to be home was when my Mom called so that we could reassure her that he was doing the bare minimum to keep us alive. Though, of course, there was the one week I missed that call because I was hiking up north. When she called, he just said I was “outside…somewhere” – which was technically true- I was, in fact, outside…six hours away, straddling the fence to the Lebanese border, rappelling down a dry waterfall and eating lunch on an overturned tank in a river. I don’t know how the rest of that conversation went, but I do know that no simple phone call would suffice when I came home- NO SIR! I had to sign an affidavit as proof of life and fax it to her post-haste. I’m surprised she didn’t make me take a picture holding the newspaper.

Of course, we did do some stuff as a family- like when my Dad took me and my two best friends to Jerusalem and made a brief pit-stop in the West Bank so he could pick up some Hebron wine glasses. He made each of us memorize three items on his to-do list of the day. I suppose in the days before Siri, taking three freshly bar-mitzvah’d boys to an incipient war zone was the next best thing.  Naturally, the Hebron glass guy knew my dad. Wherever he went, everyone always knew my dad. There was one time, several years before this amazing summer, when we were hopelessly lost in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. We drove around in circles for what to a restless 10 year old seemed like FOREVVVVVVVER until he finally stopped at a restaurant to feed his weary and hungry family. How noble. How heroic. He positively insisted he had never been there and we believed him completely right up until the owner greeted him with a convivial “Shalom Alan!” as soon as he walked in and the waiter brought him a big bowl of Ful Medames right after we sat down. His Ful made fools of us all.

I thought of this recently when we went to his favorite ice cream place, “I Scream for Ice Cream”- or “Bill’s” as he called it- referring to DadPost-IceCreamthe owner’s name, a few days after he died. He loved that place. In fact, during one of the very few conversations my Mom and he had about the afterlife, she asked “where do you think we go?” and he said without hesitation “Bill’s.” Anyhow, we all walked in dreading the moment that Bill, would smile broadly behind the counter and ask “where’s my friend?” But he didn’t. Bill came out from behind the counter and hugged my mom. We didn’t run an obituary but somehow Bill knew, just like the owner in that long ago restaurant knew my Dad’s name and favorite order. That’s just who my Dad was.

It may come as a surprise to those that met my Dad later in life that so many of my memories involve him being in motion. Walking, driving, flying, playing racquetball. Either that or working. He was always working until Parkinson’s made him stop. I didn’t think about it then but as I get closer to the age he was when he was diagnosed I find I work like he did- wrapping myself in my work like a familiar scratchy blanket. And so the thought of just giving it up is as unimaginable to me as I’m sure it was to him. And yet- he did- without a moment of regret or remorse. He just gracefully moved on to a new phase of his life as he gradually pursued what would become his longest standing occupation- working with Bar and Bat Mitzvah students on their D’var Torah, or as it’s more commonly known “speech”. When I was a Bar Mitzvah student there was a simple formula to follow – all platitudes, no insight. The Torah portion wasn’t something to be digested- simply regurgitated to the tune on the tape the Cantor made. But he expected his students to dig deep into their Torah portion- to savor it in all its richness and share the complex flavor with the congregation. So many of his former students came up to us after his Shiva services at Congregation Albert, the Albuquerque temple that became my family’s spiritual home. Time and time again they said the same thing “your Dad was the best teacher I ever had.”

Everyone who met him after they moved to Albuquerque knew him as this inspiring guy in a wheelchair spreading wisdom. The Yoda ofDadPost-Yoda Torah. A wise and spiritual man. Funny, patient and infinitely generous of spirit. And, to be sure, he was all of those things. But one of the things he and I were talking a lot about as his days were winding down, was the way in which Torah refuses to make saints of our teachers and leaders. And as so many people told me how amazing he was, I kept thinking about the other side of my Dad- the guy who could be exasperating, stubborn and infuriatingly single minded- especially when food was involved.

In 2002, I directed The Lonesome West at the Powerhouse Theatre in Santa Monica. It was my first show in LA and my parents came. Even back then, it was challenging for them to travel and I was extremely grateful that they had made the effort. It was an older theatre, and our idea of ADA accessibility was getting the whole cast out to carry the guy in the wheelchair up the four steps from the small lobby to the back row.DadPost-Powerhouse

Anyhow, once we got my Dad situated, my friend Julie sat next to him in the back and I went to the front with my wife, and my Mom so she could hear better. I was pleased we had gotten him in and proud to share this play that I felt I directed so beautifully. I thought rather a lot of myself then.

What I didn’t know as I moved to the front row, was that he had brought with him a GINORMOUS bag of jelly beans. To this day, I don’t know where he had those hidden and how he smuggled them in. Now, it’s one of the mysteries of the universe.

Anyhow, about halfway through the play was my favorite scene. It was a quiet conversation shared by a young girl and a priest in torment. I thought it was some of the best work I had done, subtle, nuanced and suffused with the pain of unrequited love. And half way through, as the audience sat in rapt attention and the theatre was absolutely silent… CRASH!!!!! The whole bag of jelly beans came splattering to the ground. And I was in the front row just fuming- where did the jelly beans come from? How did he sneak them in? Why did he bring them to the show? Who, who WHO eats jelly beans at the theatre? And WHY IN THE NAME OF EVERYTHING THAT IS HOLY did he have to pick this exact, beautiful, perfect moment to drop them all over the ground???

And then, while most people would have just left them on the ground quietly and gone back to focusing on the UNBELIEVABLY BEAUTIFUL FREAKING SCENE THAT I DIRECTED – he started rustling around and picking them up and I was sitting in the front row going out of my mind silently screaming at him to CUT IT OUT. One jelly bean….rustle rustle rustle….. Two jelly beans STOP IT! Three jelly beans…rustle rustle rustle….four jelly beans….JUST LEAVE THEM! My friend Julie leaned over to him and said “Mr Sims, what are doing? Just leave them on the ground.” But he wouldn’t. He wanted those stinkin’ jelly beans and nothing was gonna stop him. Five jelly beans….rustle rustle rustle….six jelly beans…and then…. CRASH… One jelly bean….rustle rustle rustle.

And the best part was, later on that night, my brother-in-law told me that the best piece of advice he ever got from my Dad was “Don’t spill your candy in the lobby” And I thought, of course, yes, that’s great advice! Why drop your candy in the lobby when you can drop it RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE QUIETEST MOMENT of the show and then try and pick it up again piece by piece by piece AND DROP IT AGAIN. Oh yes. OH YES. CLEARLY THAT’S MUCH BETTER.

And there you have my Dad. If there was something in life he wanted to taste, he wouldn’t just leave it lying on the floor. He would try DadPost-GardenPicjpgand try and try again to experience the full sweetness of life and wasn’t going to let anything stop him. And I thought of that when I saw a picture of him sitting in the garden after being in bed for three months, about a week before the end. I’ll admit, I didn’t think he would ever make it outside again- but then I realized- ah! There was one more piece of candy left, and with all his might, he managed to eat it.

The last time my Dad was in the hospital, he started working on a book called Walk Through the Store. It was his guide to common-sense leadership inspired by role models in his life and biblical figures. The title came from his experience at Jordan Marsh as a very young manager. Every Saturday, store Vice-President Cameron Thompson would walk through the whole store engaging with employees, hearing their concerns, observing customer interactions and making notes to share with his fellow executives. This made a profound impact on my Dad. While I don’t remember him ever talking about it before he started working on the book- I certainly observed the impact of this experience on his leadership style.  He got to know the people working for him, talked to them with respect, got involved in their lives. When we were in Israel, that crazy summer of ’87, we had dinner at the home of one of his Bedouin employees- though it was really more of a compound than a home. A large, sparsely furnished concrete structure with beautiful rugs on the floors, a kitchen swarming with women covered in head scarves making pita bread, some windows with glass, some just rectangular openings to the outside, kids everywhere running around and playing soccer and a permanent tent where his older parents lived. They had come to terms with staying in one place, but living encased in concrete was more than they could adjust to. We sat in the tent drinking mint tea and eating watermelon. My Dad’s employee was so proud to share his world with my Dad- and my Dad asked questions, engaged with the whole family, made sure they knew what an honor it was for us to be there. I remember thinking “this is pretty cool. I’d like to be the kind of boss my Dad is. You know, Someday- after I retire from the Boston Celtics.” Anyhow, I guess that’s what he thought when he saw Cameron Thompson walking through the store. And fifty years later, as he lay in bed eating pureed food, he was determined to convey this message to future generations.

As my sisters and I each came to visit, we would sit with him, talking as much as his energy and Parkinson’s would allow, taking notes on our conversations, inching the book forward like a relay race of mismatched penmanship, with mine being the worst of the bunch. He and I talked a lot about Abraham as a biblical role model of leadership, and I encouraged him to include Moses as well since there are a lot of tricky aspects to Abraham’s story (e.g. the whole “Sarah? Oh no, she’s not my wife, she’s my sister” bit.) A couple of weeks before he died, my Dad asked me to think of examples from Moses’ life that we could use in the book. I took that as a win. Luke scores a point on Yoda.

I was scheduled to fly out on Rosh Hashanah- Thursday, Sept 21. The night before, my Mom called. It was a call I had been expecting for almost a decade. Every time she called at an unusual time, a small pocket of dread would open up in my stomach. Usually, it was nothing and the pocket would close up again releasing a sweet cloud of pink relief. Sometimes there was serious news- emergency room trips, hospital stays, falls, new symptoms. Each of these developments was like a step down on a ladder of wellness- and after each step, they would fight their way back to a new version of normalcy. But this time, there was nowhere left to go.

He talked to my sisters first and then me. He couldn’t really say much on the phone, so I did most of the talking. I talked to him about Moses. I reminded him that, at the end of Moses’ life, he couldn’t enter the Promised Land. He could only see it from the mountain top. I told him that he too was at the mountain top- and from there, he could see his legacy carried forward. He could see his kids, his grandchildren, his students, his friends. All of us that learned from him. All of us that were touched by him. All of us who were better people for having known him. He might not finish the book- but he could see from the mountain top that his lessons were secure and a new generation would carry them forward. It wasn’t fair. It never is. It wasn’t fair for Moses and it wasn’t fair for him. But at least he could see his promises fulfilled. At least he could see us walking through the store.

And so he spent Rosh Hashanah on the mountain top while his body struggled for breath in bed. I arrived on Thursday. He slept a lot. He couldn’t eat or drink. When his eyes opened, he looked up at the ceiling towards a fixed point. I hope it’s a long time before I know what he was seeing. He couldn’t talk, sometimes he gasped and we thought….and then he would start breathing again. CNN was on TV but the sound was off. So when no one was talking, there was just the oceanic rhythm of the oxygen machine endlessly pounding the surf.

On Friday night, we welcomed Shabbat in the bedroom standing around him. We lit LED candles, so as to not blow up the oxygen tanks, and did Kiddush. He hadn’t spoken or even really verbalized all day. And then- as I finished the blessing on the wine we heard “Amen”. It was the clearest thing he said in days. It was the last thing he said. He died on Saturday morning, holding my mom’s hand while she talked to him about the lesson plan she was preparing for Sunday School about the High Holidays. A team to the end and beyond.

At 7:30 AM on Saturday morning, September 23rd, the 3rd of Tishrei, she called me into the room.
“I think he stopped breathing”dadcoverpic-crop
I put on shorts quickly.
I entered the room.
His eyes were closed.
He lay still.
We said our first goodbyes.
We talked about what to do next.
Who to call,
When to call,
What to say.
She turned off the oxygen machine,
And the room
It was jarring,
how quiet the room was
It’s jarring,
how quiet the world is

There is a line in Hamilton- in the song “It’s Quiet Uptown”, which is sung right after Alexander and Eliza Hamilton have lost their son Phillip to a duel:

“If you see him in the street,
Walking by himself,
Have pity.
He is working through the unimaginable.”

When I saw the show, three weeks after my dad died, that line broke me open, weeping.
Because that’s how I feel.
Nothing in my life has changed.
Everything is fine.
I’m just working through the unimaginable.
I’m just working through the unimaginable.

I love you, Dad.
I miss you.
I hope that you saw me from the mountain top.
I hope you were proud.
I hope you’re free now.
To go where you want eat what you want do what you want.

And if you see me by myself, talking to myself.
walking through the store,
Don’t worry.
I’m just working through the unimaginable.
I’m just working through the unimaginable.

Enjoy Bill’s. I’ll see you at the mountain top.










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