“Are you Mrs. Bernstein’s daughter?” The attending physician asked as I rush through the double doors of the emergency room.
I see my mother a few feet behind him, yet he directs me into a corridor, away from her.
What he says next comes to me in sound bytes.
“We’ve been waiting for you to get here…”
”Efforts to resuscitate have been unsuccessful….”
I knew this moment was coming, but that didn’t mean I was prepared for it. My stepdad Milton had been sick for a number of months. When he died on January 14, 2009, he had been part of my family for over twenty years. The word “step” in front of father doesn’t seem like a fair label, when in fact, for decades, he treated my sister and me like his own daughters.
Milton was a good man, soft spoken and gentle. At the time he arrived in my life, he was a stark contrast to my teen angst and propensity toward outrageousness. Yet, he never judged me for my magenta hair, my next tattoo, the string of bad boyfriends, or dropping out of college (twice). He accepted me for who I was at any given moment.
As years went by and I had children, Milton was a loving and involved grandfather. He completed our family. And he proved to me that family has nothing to do with having the same DNA.
Four years later, Milton’s legacy is still with me. I keep that legacy close when I think about the qualities I want to govern me as a parent, daughter, and friend.
Here are the three things Milton taught me that make a difference:
1) Be more than kind. Make it your obligation to be helpful: My parents had a cleaning lady from Russia, whom Milton sat with every day after she cleaned their house, to teach her English. He did this because he knew that understanding English would afford her better opportunities. A retired accountant, Milton volunteered at the public library every year to help the people in town file tax returns. Milton didn’t make these gestures for anything in return. He felt a deep sense of obligation to help those around him. Imagine the world we would live in if we all felt that same sense of responsibility.
2) Show up: Milton showed up for my sister and me, for the great moments as well as the tough moments. He walked me down the aisle when I got married, and he sat in the hospital with me every day when my son, a 31-week preemie, had a 46 day NICU stay after his birth. Showing up is not always easy. Sometimes, it’s downright uncomfortable, and sending a card or a casserole seems like the better option. Know when to skip the casserole and show up.
3) Forgive: Despite the family squabbles, both big and small, Milton always encouraged forgiveness. He never took sides, he never tried to divide us, he never placed blame. He just wanted all of us to get along. He said over and over again that life is too short to be angry. And it is. Sometimes, you just need to get over “being wronged” and move on.
Earlier that day, my stepfather had been to a cardiologist in Manhattan, one of the best in the country. She gave him a great prognosis and a treatment plan that would be put into effect.
But somewhere in my heart, I knew differently. I went as far as two days earlier to call my sister, and tell her that if she had anything she needed to say to Milton, to say it now. He was fading.
When my parents got back from Milton’s doctor appointment, they stopped at my house. My mother came into say hello to the kids, while Milton sat in the car, idling in my driveway. My mom said he was too tired to come into the house.
From my window, I watched him in the car, and something pulled at me, and it pulled at me hard.
“I’ll be right back,” I said, as I ran outside.
I slipped into the seat next to him and held his hand.
“How are you doing, Milt?”
“I’m all right,” he said, with a half-smile. He looked tired.
“I just want to say thank you,” I began.
“For what?” He looked confused.
“You’ve been such a good dad. And a good grandfather to the kids. We love, you Milt. We’re lucky to have you in this family.”
“Oh, I don’t know if I deserve all of that,” he said with a shrug, modest, as always.
Four hours later, I gave an ER physician consent to pronounce him dead.
Say your “I love you’s” now, people, and say them often.
Where else to find me:
Linking up with Shell for Pour Your Heart Out