"For some reason, when I was little, I couldn’t go to sleep without my father telling me a bedtime story about my stuffed animals, led by a cocker spaniel named Tacko, and how they came to life the moment I fell asleep.
They slid from my bed, tip toed down the hall and, every night, my father invented a new way for them to open the apartment door. Then they were free. Whatever their night’s adventure involved, it always ended the same way, with them finding their way to a building out in Brooklyn where the slaughterhouse livestock was kept. They would free the sheep and goats and cows and let loose a stampede, right under the nose of a guard who would tear his hair out and shout, “They’re driving me crazy!”
That part would drive me crazy with laughter, and I’d beg him to show me how the guard pulled out his hair, over and over again. Then Tacko and friends would sneak back in bed with me, just before I woke up.
So much of my father is in that story. His ability to fill the inanimate with life. His sense of justice. His love of the underdog. His compassion for all living creatures. The humor he derived from the flaunting of an individual’s right to expression in the face of authority. And his understanding that play and playfulness are the keys to freedom.
Everyone who knew him – and there are so many of us! – knows that he was first and foremost a man at play. His caricatures were questions in the form of statements. They made you engage his perspective. Essentially, they made you play with him.
His paintings were explorations of the possibilities of paint, hung on the human figure, or on the crumbling remnants of monuments to play. A finished painting was never his objective, but time to play with paint was something he fought for.
His tennis was pure joy. He could care less about winning. What he wanted was to be involved in an interesting point, or simply to be on the court with an interesting person. And just about everyone he met was interesting to him in some way, even if he secretly disliked someone, which was rare.
This is not to say that my father was all ease and pleasure. In fact, he explored, without compromise, every gesture and every statement made in his presence. Maybe two weeks before he died, I was visiting him in the nursing home and I had an awful sense that he was so sick I might never see him again. But all I said was “Gotta get back to the office, dad. I love you.”
“Now why did you say that?” he said. “You said that because you’re afraid I might die. Now, I certainly am going to die, but not tonight. Now go one, get outta here.”
In the same way that I couldn’t get to sleep without a story from my father, perhaps my greatest fear in life was of losing him before I could be filled with everything he had to offer. There seemed to be an endless wealth of surprising wisdom that flowed from him, of startling points of view that I wished I had thought of, of stories that went to the heart of being human, of reassurances that, no matter what the anguish of my situation, I had better get back to play because that’s where life was lived and the rest was really a waste of precious time.
But a surprising thing happened the moment he took his last breath. Serenity and a smile came over me. I think that’s because the pain of losing him is only fleeting, in the grand scheme of things. The richness of knowing him is something we’ll always have. And I know he’d want that for us."