THE BLOG

Honor Thy Father: Even if You Never Called Him 'Dad'

06/14/2013 07:53 pm ET | Updated Aug 14, 2013

The funeral for my 47-year-old husband Fred was on Father's Day, 14 years ago. I've written a lot about Fred and our sons, Nate, who was five at the time and has autism, and Joey, who was 10-weeks-old.

But this Father's Day story is about Jer, short for Jerry. He was my dad, but my brother and I called him Jer. (That factoid alone cost me hours in therapy sessions.) Once in a while I'd pick up the phone and say something outlandish, like "Hi, Dad." His response? "Who's this?" Who's this? I was his only daughter!

Jer died six months after Fred. So did Em, short for Emily. She was my mom. The way Jer and Em died "together" still gives me chills.

The beginning of the end began one night in December 1999. Jer called my brother Jeff and me. We conference called, for the first and only time. Jer told us he had taken Em to the hospital, cause she wasn't feeling well. Jer himself was sounding short of breath and Jeff and I told him he needed to see his doctor. "I'll see my doctor after I check on your mother tomorrow," he promised us. And then he said "Honor thy Father," and I replied, "Jer! I know where you stash your cash!" He kept a wad of bills on a bookshelf inside Gay Talese's book, Honor Thy Father.

He then said perhaps the only maudlin thing I ever heard him utter: "The cash is for the funeral." This was a comment from a guy who believed all things good were a toss of the dice away. (Literally, as he gambled. Big-time.) He had more than a bit of Ralph Kramden and Sgt. Bilko in his DNA -- always scheming how to make that big score -- only unlike Kramden and Bilko, he had a law degree and street smarts honed in his native Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.

The next morning I was at my mother's bedside. She had just been moved to intensive care because she had slipped into coma, the nurse told me. As I was trying to wrap my head around those words, there was a phone call in the room (pre-cell phone days) and it was for me. It was my brother Jeff. "I have news," he told me. "I have news," I replied." "Em is in a coma." And then Jeff said, "Jerry just died of a heart attack. He was on his way to see Em."

On his way out the door, Jer had accidentally or purposely leaned against the alarm system and the alarm people who showed up called the medics. The neighbor saw the ambulance and called Jeff.

My mom died four days later, on Christmas morning.

But what a gift my parents left Jeff and me. We never had to tell either of them that their spouse of 52 years had died. Their spouse who they had fought with, of course, every day of those 52 years. But they belonged together. My mom even had a pet name for my dad which she'd use when he'd come home from work. "Hitler's home," she'd tell us.

About Jer's gambling. I think the first words I ever spoke were "five-card draw." Big family decisions were made by playing one hand of poker, usually five-card draw. Big decisions such as what to name our new Weimaranar puppy, which we got when I was around 10. The four of us wanted different names. Jer dealt the hand. And I won. I chose the name Fritzi. The definition of a split second is how long it took Jer and Em to separately pull me aside and offer me $10 to change the name Fritzi for the one they liked. No dice.

While Jer loved the adrenaline rush that came with shooting craps, his talent lay in playing cards, particularly gin. Jeff was hanging around watching Jer play gin with his cronies one day the summer before Jeff's sophomore year of college. A lot of cash was piled on the table. In front of Jer. At the end of the afternoon, Jer scooped up his bills, which Jeff later stashed in a sock. And a month later Jeff emptied the sock on the desk of his college bursar. The bursar had to consult his manual to find the chapter, "What to do when a student pays a year's tuition in cash."

So in keeping with Jer's cash flow approach, we gathered that stash from 'Honor Thy Father." And on a cold day in December, Jeff poured out the contents in front of the funeral director.

A few years ago, my brother and I took a nostalgic trip to our old neighborhood in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. Jeff wanted to show his own son where he spent the first eight years of his life. So we drove to the spot that is among Jeff's earliest childhood memories. A spot on the beach at Coney Island where my dad took him when Jeff was around two. The spot where Jer planted him for the whole day was in the sand, right next to the handball courts -- the epicenter of handball -- where Jer played that Saturday, and every Saturday.

Jer wasn't one to load up the kids in the station wagon and take us on family outings. The only movie I remember my parents ever taking me to was The Vikings -- famous for the scene where a falcon gauges out a guy's eye. I was six years old.

At some point not long after that, I had an epiphany. Jer loved watching sports. And I loved being with Jer. And when I connected those dots, it was a game changer. I'd sit close to him on the couch and watch whatever game was on. He started teaching me terms like onside kick, in the paint, and power play. I was a quick study. Small wonder I later became a reporter at Sports Illustrated, a game changer indeed.

My brother and I agree that Jer's greatest legacy to us was the belief that after a loss, figure you're going to win again. Just keep playing the game.

And that philosophy got me through the darkest years of my life -- those years after Fred died. I never gave up hope that I would someday win again. Jer was right. It took ten years, but I married a positively swell guy, Rick, and we have a combined five kids.

I'm really missing Fred today. And Jer. Really missing my dad.