A French writer by the name of Guy de Maupassant was known for taking hallucinogens to give substance to his screeds about the futility of life, which is quite interesting because today, we simply take coffee and log onto Facebook to do the trick.
That Guy wrote something that is sticking in my head now: “Our memory is a more perfect world than the universe: it gives back life to those who no longer exist.”
Because memory is not only sacred but also fleeting, I thought I would put on paper my favorite memories of James Maurice Stern, who passed away recently but will always remain “Opa” in my heart. While I may have witnessed it first-hand or heard it repeated quite often, let me share what I remember today with the hope of giving undying life to his essence and the virtues that he embodied:
OPA being pessimistic about leaders, current events, and particularly himself, such as becoming disappointed every time he would miss a left-handed hook shot in the backyard of our Fremont home, declaring it was unbearable and unbelievable and that he would have to practice more, notwithstanding how he was right-handed and 75+ years old at the time, and shaking his head in disgust as recently as a week ago when learning about the latest tweets of the POTUS; and yet, being an eternal optimist about his loved ones, thinking the world of our potential even if, and especially when, we were undeserving;
OPA smiling the sweetest smile, despite being in pain and extremely weak, upon seeing his great-granddaughter climb onto his hospice bed last week, and making the “ILY” sign despite limited faculties;
OPA walking that fine line between being sweet, generous, well-mannered, and yet also being determined, stubborn, competitive enough to bang on the locker room door and barge in at halftime to yell at my 24-year-old father for not switching onto his man quickly enough during the American Athletic Association of the Deaf (AAAD) championship game in 1976;
OPA ignoring the strict orders of Oma who meant oh-so-well by telling him that he was crazy for wanting to hike almost a mile under the sweltering sun of the Yucatan in the summer at the age of 90, and then trekking to get to that far-flung cenote, climbing down a steep incline to get in the limestone pool and floating blissfully alongside fish, kids, water lilies, and adults half his age with a Cheshire grin on his face;
OPA drinking whiskey and smoking cigars with my brother- in-law and me during my wedding;
OPA smiling contentedly in the front seat last month, on his way home from the hospital, with the sun shining on his well-tanned face, and then remarking that he’s happy to be still here;
OPA reminding us that he is a sun worshipper on his way to the pool with a towel slung over his shoulder and slide sandals exposing his gorgeous feet for which he was supposedly renowned;
OPA asking his hospice doctors whether he’d be able to drink wine and visit Argentina for his grandson’s wedding, and holding onto his bike and skis until the very end because he was so sure he would, somehow, travel and bike and ski and live the Good Life once again;
OPA volunteering to start a Jr. NAD chapter in New York City, to serve as an active member and officer for several organizations, to help organize the Winter Deaflympics in Lake Placid in 1975, and to develop crossword puzzles by hand (then finally via a computer program) monthly for over 40 years for Silent News;
OPA thanking the nurses and doctors each and every time during his countless visits to the hospital over the past two months and insisting that he was OK, even though he hated the hospital like no other and was suffering the inevitable consequences of congestive heart failure;
OPA searching high and low for a urinal in a Turkish bath in Istanbul in 1993 then peeing in a bowl he deemed to be precisely that, only to return with his face as white as a sheet upon witnessing a masseur using that bowl to pour water over the back of his client;
OPA watching and rooting for the Yankees and the Knicks at every opportunity for over 70 years, no matter if they were great, awful, or in-between;
OPA taking pride in how he dressed and his achievements; yet, never being excessively concerned about his appearance or his triumphs;
OPA becoming pleased upon being told that Gleyber Torres had hit 5 RBIs v. the Astros and that the Yankees won the first game of the ALCS handily, even though he had just woken up after an entire day of total silence and non-movement in the hospice, and then straining with all the strength he could muster to kiss the love of his life, Oma, by his side;
OPA understanding, like Sylvia Plath, that there may be some stuff a hot bath won’t cure, but not knowing many of them, and passing along this valuable insight to his progeny;
OPA making a friendly bet several days before moving into the hospice that Walt Frazier of Knicks fame had once played for Cleveland. When I found out he had indeed played two years for the Cavaliers and asked him what I owed, he smiled that gracious smile only he can pull off and fingerspelled “P-L-E-N-T-Y.”
Opa, thank you for teaching us that life lived with kindness, fullness, and goodness is never an exercise in futility, not through words but through example, for which we owe you P-L-E-N-T-Y. If we can somehow emulate your decency in living, your joy for life, your will to live, and your love for friends and family, we will be the luckiest people on Earth.
You will be sorely missed but never forgotten.
Rest in peace, Opa.