The last piece of advice I ever got from my father-in-law, Roger Grekin, came a few weeks ago, when he learned I was training for a half marathon.
“Don’t be afraid to stop along the way, if you need to,” he’d said.
I’m going to apply that advice to this eulogy as well.
But I’d recommend this advice to many of you this week, too. Facing Roger’s sudden absence, many of us have had to find the courage to stop our lives and our work and just absorb the loss, and mourn one of the wisest, gentlest men I’ve ever known. A kind of humble genius who would spontaneously sing tunes from “The Music Man” and “Guys and Dolls,” and pluck out “If I Only Had a Brain” on the piano at nearly every family get-together.
When he spoke of his professional life, Roger stressed the importance of connecting with patients, and carefully listening to them. And it seemed that every committee ever formed around him wanted him to join, precisely because Roger was, in his way, the world’s most humane intellectual machine. At work, and personally, he’d absorb all the information on offer, never losing sight of the forest for the trees, mull it over, and then tell you what he thought. And he was pretty much always right on the money.
The tragic irony of his disease [a rare form of skin cancer] was that Roger was someone who was almost unnervingly at home in his own skin. He was so self-possessed, I think, because he KNEW what a wonderful life he had built for himself. All he wanted was what he already had. He was still utterly smitten with his wife of 50 years, Linda, who made the phrase “his other half” a literal truth. He loved being a father to, and spending time with, Joe, Josh and Emily, and he shamelessly adored and spoiled his 6 granddaughters. He loved spending time with his siblings, and his mom. He loved being a doctor, and being a teacher. He loved his friends. And he loved living in Ann Arbor.
As many of you know, Joe and I dated a long, long time before getting married. (You could probably ask Linda for the exact number of years and months.) But I remember the precise moment when I felt officially initiated, and absorbed, into the Grekin family.
I was a broke free-lancer at the time, but Joe’s grandfather offered to pay my way to attend a family bar mitzvah in Hawaii. And while we were there, Joe and I went running with Roger.
I have to backtrack briefly to explain that Joe, like every parent’s child, loved to poke fun at his dad every chance he got. And one time, years earlier, when Joe had struggled with a run, and had groused about the short distance he’d managed to go, Roger had said, to comfort him, “A mile’s a long way.”
Joe had parroted this quote many times since, using Roger’s distinctive inflection. And when the three of us were running together in Hawaii, I spoke the line myself, mimicking Roger. And then Roger said, “Give it a rest.”
I went quiet, and initially felt little chastened, but I also thought, “He’s not just being polite to me anymore. He’s kind of telling me to shut up, as if I were one of his kids. As if I’m part of the family.”
It may seem odd that this moment meant something to me. But here’s the thing: even though I’d regularly, over the years, had to step outdoors to steal a moment of quiet during cacophonously loud Grekin gatherings, I’d also fallen not just for Joe, but for the whole Grekin tribe.
Because, seriously, who wouldn’t want to be a Grekin – particularly Linda and Roger’s branch? Every member of this family is passionate, and smart, and big-hearted, and witty, and they break into song regularly. And they LOVE being gathered all together. Roger adored talking about dealing with academic politics and applying for grants with Emily; he loved hearing Josh play music, or talk about his newest projects; and he loved talking sports and politics and just about everything else with Joe.
This hyper-functional family happened because Linda and Roger, 50 years ago, had formed this incredible foundation together. And although she may not have realized it, Linda, while raising these three terrific human beings with Roger, was also weaving a safety net that will now catch her, and hold her up through these painful days of grief.
Linda has faced more than any of us can imagine this year, as Roger went into and out of the hospital again and again. Though his body was ravaged by both the disease and its treatments, he kept fighting his way back from the brink, and she bravely never left his side. And I kept thinking that Roger withstood far more than most people could or would because he was certain he wanted every minute with Linda, and with his children and his grandchildren, that he could get, regardless of the physical pain he’d suffer as a consequence. Because again, he loved the life that he had built.
Early this year, when our oldest daughter Lily was in first grade, she did a writing assignment, and she wrote about her grandpa being in the hospital for a long time, when things looked really bad, and how she’d worried about him but couldn’t go to visit him. I was touched by this, and told her that it would mean a lot to Joe to read it. She asked why.
“Because it shows how much you love and care about Grandpa,” I said.
“Of course I love Grandpa!” Lily had exclaimed, from the backseat of my car, genuinely baffled and affronted. “Everyone loves Grandpa. Who wouldn’t love Grandpa?!”
“No, no, you’re right, sweetie,” I’d said. “I can’t think of a single person who wouldn’t love him, either.”
This past Tuesday night, after Lily learned of Roger’s death, and had cried for some time, she shared her notion that after we die, we become stars, and that Roger had in fact become the moon. (We’ll have a conversation one day about how the moon isn’t a star, but in the moment, I just thought it was a sweet sentiment.) And yes, the idea is a child’s flight of fancy, but it’s also so smart. By projecting her love and grief for Roger onto a celestial body, she’s given herself a comfort she can access nearly every night, and on many mornings, throughout her entire life.
And sure enough, on Wednesday morning, when we took her to the bus stop, Lily pointed at the sky and said, “Look, I see Grandpa.”
And I said, “Yep. There he is.”