I’ve been Lisa Meritz for almost 27 years, but when Father’s Day comes around my maiden name Cohen returns to haunt me.
For my father, Morry, being a Cohen meant being strong. He let nothing deter him from his goals. He made sure that his ailing siblings were cared for. He owned and managed bars in tough neighborhoods. He made decisions, from buying businesses to buying cars, in a flash, and he didn’t question himself.
Morry grew up poor and never advanced far in school, but by the time I was born he had progressed from a worker in a pocketbook factory to an owner of several bars.
My mother’s side, the Cherners, had their positive qualities, but those qualities didn’t include being powerful and decisive. Iron-clad determination was my father’s territory.
Because of our dad’s lightning-quick reflexes, my sister and I nicknamed him “Cowboy Cohen.” Though his oversized Chevy Bel Air wasn’t very nimble, he drove it like it was a bronco pony. No matter the weather, he was the rodeo rider, the risk taker, the free spirit.
I was a worrier, artistic, and academically inclined — attributes I shared with my mother’s side. As I grew older, I wanted my father to acknowledge that, just like him, I was a person of great strength. The larger my desire, however, the more he teasingly labeled me a Cherner.
Our banter replayed again and again, particularly at the end of his life when he lived by my house, and we saw each other frequently. “But I’m really a Cohen,” I’d plead.
“You’re a Cherner,” he’d say with a big grin.
His smiling stopped in his final years, when he had end-stage colon cancer and was suffering with severe, intractable pain. He almost gave up.
Morry began asking, “Where is Dr. Kevorkian?” Every time he said it, the words gave me jolts of pain. It was the late ’90s, and euthanasia activist Jack Kevorkian dominated the news.
Sadly the request for Kevorkian was one of the few sentences he uttered at the time. He had always been the Gary Cooper type, not wasting any words, but usually he was engaged.
“So what do you want to eat, Morry?” the nurse in rehab asked him one day. When he didn’t answer she turned to me. “Can you tell me what your father likes?
I looked at him. He was listless. His head hung low. Is this my father? I asked myself. I could think of many foods my father liked — strawberry ice cream, my mother’s eggplant salad, and chicken soup with lots of dill. But I couldn’t think of anything the man before me would like.
He was a man without desires, but he needed to eat. My sister spoon fed him some of the bland pudding on his hospital tray. Taking food from one of us, he was willing to eat, at least a little.
Morry deteriorated until the best choice was bringing him to a live-in hospice for patients with a prognosis of less than three months. Taking him there, agreeing to nothing but palliative treatment and removing most of his medications, appeared to be the end of hope. Actually it was hope in disguise. No one knows how to lessen pain better than hospice.
He’d have a crisis and be at the edge of the world. Then, because his pain was now under control, he’d unexpectedly perk back up. The doctor said his death was imminent, but my father’s will to live became so great that he lived for another one-and-a-half years.
Cowboy Cohen was back. On good days, he drove his motorized scooter with the same quick reflexes he once drove his car.
And he had new surprises. When we first took him to hospice, he become so debilitated he stopped walking. But after a couple of months, he began telling us that he was going to walk again. The nurses didn’t believe him, so we too underestimated him.
But one day I came to visit and he told me, “Lisa I have a something to show you.” Then he got up. With more pride than a child taking his first steps, using a walker, he stood up, toddled over to his scooter and transferred himself. He had been practicing alone for weeks. I became the proud daughter.
His head, harder than steel, helped him prevail, but it often made trying to help him a difficult dance. From that point on if we tried to assist him, he’d tell us to back off. We’d watch him precariously totter from bed to chair. We’d wince. But, even if the result was falling, he insisted on doing it himself.
“You’re not my nurse,” he said.
Death was chasing him, but now rather than running towards it, as he once did, he was dodging it footstep by footstep.
The week before Dad died, our rabbi visited. He was becoming weaker and weaker, forcing him to finally concede that he was dying. After the rabbi’s visit he shared last words individually with my mother, my sister and me.
“Stay strong,” he told me. Then he laughed, “I’ve always thought of you as a Cohen.”
At last I received my Cohen blessing.
After that night he lived for one more week, but he stopped talking.
Now, all that remains is love and a memory of my father’s strength, his Cohen legacy. On Father’s Day and everyday my father is with me.