Words for My Father

By Gregory Keer

DadwBenjToday would have been my father’s 75th birthday. We had been planning to celebrate it for months and months prior to this date, July 12, 2014. Cancer had other plans, and it took him away from us on February 9 of this year, following a diagnosis less than four months earlier.

After my dad’s death, I took a hiatus from this Web site, partly in keeping with the advice he often gave me to try to slow down a bit more to gather in the details of life. But, on this day when it’s so very hard to be without him, I want to recognize the meaning he had for me in some fashion that feels right. Below is a version of the eulogy I gave at Dad’s funeral. It was surreal to be speaking about him in past tense when I said the words in front of the hundreds who came out to honor him that day. It still doesn’t feel quite real — and yet it is. Grieving is a long process, but remembering is forever, especially when it involves a man such as my father.

***

There are many reasons why I write. A number of them are because of my father. Dad, the man of science, was also a man of poetry. He wrote of moments and emotions in loving phrases to his luminous wife Franny and he etched in ink words of praise and vivid observation to all his children. He even wrote a children’s story about “Rollo,” a ball who learned to keep moving if he wanted to enjoy the world around him.

At times, I struggled to talk to my dad. There was the divorce, which took him away from daily opportunities to converse and he was needed by tens of thousands of patients over a 45-year career. Sometimes, I felt I couldn’t get enough of him. I certainly couldn’t get enough of him on the phone. My sister Kim can attest to my father’s dislike of the phone — often exhausted by work calls, Dad treated the receiver like it was one of Maxwell Smart’s shoe communicators that had come in contact with a pile of dog poop.

One of my motivations to write was to find ways to stop time, particularly in the hyperspace of adolescence, and tell my dad how much I loved him, how much I needed his words of validation. In my pre-teen and teen years, I wrote cards to him, with painstakingly chosen messages. It helped, especially since he wrote back cards to me, with sentences that never failed to reduce me to tears because they shone with such love and attention to the details of my concerns.

It was partly through my father’s writings that I was assured he was always thinking of me, crafting ways to guide me, even when he wasn’t talking out loud. They also showed me how much my dad preferred action over words. Dad was a doer, and the relationship we had over 47 years was less about chit chat or parental lecturing and more about playing basketball together, going to baseball games, and taking trips. So many trips to places like Chicago to see the grandparents, Philadelphia for father-son time, the Sierras for moments of hilarity with the Sussmans, Yosemite for one of many KJ adventures, Palm Desert with all the grandchildren, and Paris for a grown-up vacation with Franny – who, together with Dad, taught me so very much about love and partnership that I was able to find the most remarkable woman in Wendy. My God, there were so many vacations that he made happen so he could enjoy his loved ones without distractions.

Certainly, there were distractions, as there are in any life led in service to a community, that wedged between my dad and my efforts to get more words and attention from him. Often, when we were out at a supermarket together or a ballgame, he’d get approached by a patient who wanted to say hello to their favorite doctor. He was a bit of a celebrity, my dad, and I was known for 30-plus years as Dr. Keer’s son. It was a great coup for me one day when Dad called me up to tell me a student of mine came into the office and asked him, “Aren’t you Mr. Keer’s father?” Finally, I had turned the tables on him. And no one was prouder of it than Dad.

I wanted this speech to be funnier – Dad had such a great appreciation for humor  — as he showed me through the tapes of Johnny Carson clips with legendary comedians, the afternoons of watching Mel Brooks movies, and his own goofiness and willingness to be poked fun at for his follicle-y challenged head, his bird-like legs, and his woefully underprivileged sense of rhythm.

But, I’m not feeling easily humored right now. I’m just beginning to miss him. I’m floating in the fog of all the subtle ways he enhanced my life through little gestures and a consistency of presence that I often took for granted. For a father of such carefully selected words and a son who never seems to shut up, we had one particular trip that was emblematic of our entire journey together. It was a weekend stay in San Francisco two years ago to see the Dodgers play the Giants, to eat great food since we both like that kind of thing, and to just — be — together. Not talking so much, just being.

He was really good at just being.

So, Dad, thank you for being with me. Thank you for being with all of us.

Posted in Aging, Columns by Family Man, Death, Grandparents, Helping Kids Understand Loss, Marriage, Perspective, Values | 1 Comment

Taking Action Before More Children Suffer

By Gregory Keer 

In the wake after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut, so many of us parents struggled to make sense of our emotions and, perhaps most important, what to do to prevent this from happening to more children. Some of us talked about more security for our schools to block deranged gunmen from ever getting in. I think that may be necessary to at least provide a sense of security for our children, who should know that adults are physically protecting them.

Many parents talked about gun control and urging our government to pass strict laws making it much harder for guns to be sold. This may not have as immediate an effect on the security of kids, but it is the right idea and one that has taken far too long to bring to the forefront of our national debates. As the President of the Children’s Defense Fund, Marian Wright Edelman wrote yesterday, “Why in the world do we regulate teddy bears and toy guns and not real guns that have snuffed out tens of thousands of child lives?” I believe in the Constitutional right to bear arms; I also believe that right needs to be clearly defined to provide the kind of safety that the right itself was intended to provide. Better gun laws can’t solve the situation entirely, but making them tougher — particularly where they employ improved background checks — slows down the accessibility.

Lastly, part of our debate needs to be about health care. We must have a greater emphasis on mental health and a better system to respond to caring for those who are adrift in our society. I know this is incredibly complicated, but perhaps if we normalize mental health care that allows people to affordably and regularly check in with a mental health professional like we do a physical health professional, we could have a chance at preventing “madmen” from getting to the point of such devastating actions.

I encourage your comments and hope that we will all act. We must also hug our children and talk to them about their feelings in the midst of the media storm this event has stirred up. Many of the suggestions in a previously posted item about talking to kids about disasters apply to this kind of situation, so feel free to look at that as well.

Posted in Blog, Helping Kids Understand Loss, Perspective, Talking About Disasters, Values | 1 Comment

Talking to Your Children About Disasters

By Gregory Keer

If there’s a place in the world that is never affected by natural disasters, and the terror that these uncontrollable occurrences bring, tell me where and I’ll move there. In the meantime, my eyes and ears are taking in the reports of what the storms are doing to the East Coast and beyond. Like so many of us, I have family and friends who are without power, stranded in homes and airports, and just plain freaked out. Of particular concern is the children, who feel the least in charge at a time when nature is running amok and adults are not always at their most communicative.

Here are some thoughts on talking to your children about disasters to ease their minds, be they currently remote from harm’s way or just worried about what’s happening in the east.

1. Assure Them of Their Safety.

No parent can guarantee that they can keep their children safe from harm — but the children don’t need to know that. What they do need to know is that you will do everything in your power to keep them safe. Especially for young kid, this blanket statement will calm them, giving them a tangible answer to their chief question of whether anything will hurt them.

2. Stay Calm and Be Comforting.

Always remain calm as you explain things to them, so they do not sense any fear you might have. Couple your words with plenty of hugs and comforting touch so they sense the security blanket you really are.

3. Encourage Questions.

By all means, invite them to ask any questions they may have so they can work out their thoughts with you. If you can’t answer something, go and find an answer from an information resource, a friend, or doctor, if need be. You are your child’s protector and source of information, which is usually a lot better than the mass media, which often sensationalizes things. If you do let them watch a news report, do it in small doses and do it together so you can answer those inevitable questions.

4. Explain How Nature Works.

Nature is as beautiful as it is terrible. You don’t want your child to worry that the natural world is out to get them. So, while you can explain how hurricanes and earthquakes work, also tell them how most human beings survive and build themselves back up. In addition, discuss with them how nature creates land and life in dramatic fashion and sustains us in the quietest ways.

5. Help Them Help Others.

Children may feel powerless, not only in the face of nature, but because they are so far away from those affected. Choose a charity, be it Save the Children, the Red Cross, or Doctors Without Borders, or some other organization, and have them give some of their allowance to send to those in need in the affected areas. You might even use this opportunity to teach them about the parts of this country and beyond that are impacted.

By helping your children through their own fears of disaster, you will meet one of the great tests of parenthood. Bear in mind that if all you do is tell them that you will protect them with everything in your power, you will be doing very well by your children.

Posted in Blog, Helping Kids Understand Loss, Protecting Children, Talking About Disasters | 1 Comment

We Build: On the 10th Anniversary of the Events of 9/11

By Gregory Keer

This month, we mark the 10th year since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when innocent Americans died in New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Since that time, my oldest son has become a teenager while two of my children have been born into this world in which fear and hatred too often diminish the beauty human beings can and often do show.

As a way to commemorate 9/11, I wanted to look back on what was going through my own mind as a parent the day after the terrible events, to gain perspective. I hope this piece will encourage you to think as well and perhaps to discuss with your children ways to feel more secure in a too often uncertain society.

***

My son was born on the same day, in the same hospital, as his friend Ethan.

Our families had become friends during our mutual first pregnancies. After the birth of the boys, we saw each other at least once a week, went to parent-and-me classes together, and talked all the time. If it were possible to marry another family, we would have married the Ansorges. But not long ago, our friends moved to Manhattan when Mark’s job was transferred.

On September 11, the distance became greater. That morning, little Ethan walked with his mommy to preschool and watched a plane slice into the World Trade Center. Ethan and Deborah struggled to get home in the ensuing pandemonium that convulsed New York City.

All the while Ethan asked, “Mommy, why did the plane crash into that building?”

No physical harm came to Ethan and, soon after witnessing the horrific tragedy, he was home, cuddling with his parents who cherished their very existence.

Ethan and his parents’ experience clarifies one simple thing amidst the human devastation and unending confusion brought on by that day’s events: We are still better at loving than we are at destroying.

Don’t get me wrong. I am angry, perplexed, and cynical about much of the way our world works. I am scraped raw, emotionally, when I think of that father on the flight that crashed in a Pennsylvania field. This is the man who called his wife and told her he would fight the terrorists before they did greater harm. This is the man who urged his wife and child to have a good life.

As much as this story weakens me, it also fortifies my belief that love prevails in the face of any disaster. We build on love, for love of each other. We are better at building than destroying.

And, as simplistic as it sounds, the concept of family is perhaps the greatest structure on which to build on love’s foundation. I know I might sound flower-childish or naïve. But I am struggling to be positive and state the obvious: We are a family of human beings. Like family members, we often treat each other brutally — but not as much as we treat each other lovingly.

The metaphorical, if not literal, powers of family reach everywhere. I feel that most of the sentiments expressed by world leaders and residents of other lands were heartfelt. They recognize the pain of wives who have lost husbands, of children who have lost parents. They have lost, too.

Within our own community, parents are talking with their children to ease their worries. One parent was dealing with a four-year-old son who was inquiring about the “evil tourists” (meaning terrorists) while trying to help another son who was shell shocked by the tragedy.

Another parent has a daughter who asked, “Were there any mommies or daddies in the buildings” of the World Trade Center. At the same time, these parents are giving blood and talking with each other to soothe fears.

Repeatedly, we prove ourselves to be better at bonding than at disintegrating. We may be more motivated at this time, but most of us act on our desires to respect and understand. We are also teaching our children these values.

My wife and I put our son in a multicultural day care. He has befriended kids with of an amazing array of cultural backgrounds, from West Indian to Palestinian. He sometimes blatantly states differences he has with others: “Why is Nicholas brown?” or “Why is that girl talking Spanish?” We are embarrassed at first, then we watch him hugging and giggling with these young people.

At our foundation, we are a family. No terrorists can crack the foundation because it is made of stronger stuff than metal, concrete, or even flesh and blood. It is made of love. And so we continue to build.

Posted in Columns by Family Man, Helping Kids Understand Loss, Parenting Stress, Perspective, Values | 1 Comment