I had recently finished reading Atul Gawande's Being Mortal when I got the call I knew someday would come. My 92-year-old father had been taken by ambulance to a local hospital.
My father, Sheldon Sternberg,
a life-long Chicagoan had been hospitalized only once before many years ago. He had a blessed life that included flying bombing missions with the 390th squadron in World War II,
marrying my mother, the love of his life and producing 4 children, 12 grandchildren and 5 great-grandchildren. He ran Best's Kosher Sausage Company,
in my mother's family for over 100 years, helped found Congregaton Rodfei Shalom in Chicago and in retirement played mean duplicate bridge, shot two holes-in-one -- one in his 80th year, he loved politics, read two newspapers every day, and multiple books a month. He stayed up-to-date with all the family and that was a lot of updating.
He had a unique way of connecting with family. At birthday or holiday celebrations he would insist everyone go around the table and tell him something he didn't know. He would likely make a speech or two and in later years would cry uninhibitedly. He loved life.
And so when hospitalized in early April for pneumonia, the family came running. His room in the ICU at Highland Park hospital was filled with my mother, his bride of almost 69 years and children and grandchildren. Although tethered to oxygen, my dad enjoyed each and every family member. We slept in his room in the ICU. He was never alone.
Dr. Gawande details the difficulties of end-of-life: the difficult conversations that are sometimes not had, the doctors, often not well-trained in end-of-life, who suggest one more thing they can do even when maybe they shouldn't and how often decisions are made for those left behind, not for those who are facing the final chapter of their lives.
Fortunately, my dad had a caring, knowledgeable critical care doctor -- Dr. Payal K. Naik who early on asked my father in a kind, sensitive way what he wanted if he did not improve. She facilitated a conversation between my mom and dad -- no heroic measures they said.
And so, for seven days the family never left dad alone. His face lit up as each grandchild entered his room -- and when those arrived from out of town -- there was pure joy.
The lessons from Being Mortal provided comfort in these last days. He started a conversation about death -- not as something to be feared but something to be celebrated as the last chapter of life. And my father had a great life.
Our Rabbi, Steven Stark Lowenstein came every day. He provided blessings and assurance and told my dad that God is with him every step of the way. Perhaps the biggest highlight of the Rabbi's visits was his first-hand account of opening day at Wrigley Field.
And so in the last days of my father's life various grandchildren would enter his room, announce their names and hold his hand. They talked a lot about dad's hands in the last days. Always perfectly manicured, and strong, it was those hands that always cupped the chins of his children and grandchildren. That was his signature touch.
Out Rabbi asked dad if he had anything to tell us. Behind his oxygen mask, he mouthed, "I love you."
In the final hours of his life, I held one hand and his grandson Danny held the other. My sister-in-laws, daughter and niece were in the room. For six hours he listened to Itzhak Pearlman play Mozart and Beethoven. He waited for Pachelbel's Canon D Major to take his last breath. It was peaceful. In a room full of love he left us.
On April 12, I delivered this eulogy http://www.bergerreport.com/eulogy-sheldon-j-sternberg.html
Dr. Gawande's book is more than a New York Times best-seller. For me, it was a blueprint for a wonderful ending to a wonderful life.