Friday, November 20, 2020

Howard Leibowitz (1932-2020)


Howard Leibowitz (1932-2020)

When she was 17 my mother’s high school friend Rozzie told her, “You’ve got to meet my cousin Howard. You’re going to love him.” Rozzie was right, and a couple of years later, her cousin married her dear friend.

Howard, my dad, thought he was the luckiest newly-minted CPA in Brooklyn when he married my mother.

They had 3 kids together, traveled the world together, played tennis together well into their 70s. He kept working full-time until he was about 80. Even after giving up the grind he still kept his side gig of preparing income taxes for clients. 

All the while he just knew he was one lucky fella. 

Whenever I brought home a friend he’d greet them with a giant “Hello!” instantly letting them know that they were safe and welcome...and that he was maybe not exactly normal. Rarely serious, he was always genuine, always loyal, and always a total character.

When I screwed up (i.e. coming home from clubbing at sunrise on a school night just as he was headed out the door to go to work), I knew I’d hear about it. His talks could be stern, yet even as a rebellious teen who didn’t want to hear it I knew that what he was telling me came from a place of love and a desire to protect me. (Full disclosure: the rebellious teen did not let on that he knew that).

My dad loved his wife, his kids, his daugther-in-law, his sister and her family, his sister-in-law and her family, the extended family (mmmostly), and his greatest joy of the past 20+ years was without question his granddaughters. The mere mention of their names made his eyes light up like nothing else.

He was an insomniac, and he’d often pass that sleepless time at the kitchen table, slowly and meticulously working his way through a middle-of-the-night container of ice cream with a long spoon.

During my California years sometimes he’d call me at 1 or 2 in the morning Eastern Time knowing I’d be up and that even though I hated talking on the phone, he knew I’d answer. It was my dad, calling from 3000 miles away where there was no one awake for him to talk to, so he got a special waiver. 

We’d talk baseball and life and family and work and politics. In the background I’d hear him rotate the glass plate he used as a Lazy Susan for his ice cream container, a mechanism which allowed him to methodically scoop an even-all-the-way-around path to the bottom of the chocolate, vanilla, chocolate vanilla & strawberry, butter pecan, or mint chocolate chip that was that night’s reward for being an insomniac.

When I was in elementary school he worked in the Empire State Building. Sometimes he’d go to the office on weekends and when given the option I’d enthusiastically hop on a Manhattan-bound F train with him. He worked a lot so those times felt like bonus time to me, just me and him. We were always the only people in the office, probably on the entire floor. Having access to an office supply closet full of felt-tipped Flair markers in every color and thickness known to kid, all the paper I could scribble on, and a row of copying machines on which to duplicate, mash up, and layer my greatest doodles was a dream come true. When I felt I’d drawn enough space ships, aliens, and faces I’d head out into the hall. We are talking city block-long, weekend-empty halls featuring Friday night-waxed virgin floors. I’d take off my sneakers and run as fast as I could halfway down the hall, then sock surf for as long as I could maintain my balance, then tumble to the ground and glide on my butt or knees or some combination thereof until the inertia ran out or a wall made it run out. To me that was more fun than Adventurer’s Inn, and my dad knew it.

A few years ago a diagnosis of spinal stenosis explained why my dad’s brain was having so much trouble getting messages to his legs about what he needed them to do. It was terrifying that the only way to (possibly, no guarantees) address it was major back surgery. Without surgery his condition would get worse eventually leaving him paralyzed from the waist down so even though he was already well into his eighties, major surgery was the only option. 

The surgery was successful and he pulled through.

He was never able to fully get on top of the physical therapy, however. PT was very difficult for him due in part to prior hip & knee replacement surgeries. Stints in rehab facilities, out-patient PT, in-home PT...sometimes the extra instruction and motivation helped for a bit but never for long, and he steadily went from being able to walk short distances with a walker to part-time requiring a wheel chair to full-time requiring a wheel chair.

More surgeries followed including one a week ago today. Again his strong heart and strong lungs pulled him through.

Through all the surgeries and declining health my mother stood with him and took care of him every day, going above and beyond to make sure he could stay at home, doing more than any spouse could, and ultimately proving him right — he really was the luckiest CPA from Brooklyn. 

On Sunday November 15th his wife of 65 years along with his eldest granddaughter (in town from college) visited him at the post-surgery rehab facility. He was more alert and with it than he had been in recent weeks, but he was also sad. He said he wanted to come home. Later that night that always strong, always healthy 88-year old heart, perhaps realizing that it wasn’t going to come home again, beat for the last time. We rushed over to him and found NYFD paramedics in his room heroically doing everything they could, but he was gone. About 15 minutes later my dad was pronounced dead. Even though I’d been preparing myself for this for years, I was not prepared. The heartbreak is profound. I will miss him every one of the rest of my days.

After leaving NY as a teen I visited a lot but was far away from my dad for nearly 30 years. I feel fortunate to have gotten to spend much quality time with him since my return. Connections between family members change throughout the different stages of life, and the opportunity to know and see each other in new ways during his last years was instructive and allowed for new mutual appreciations

There is some solace in knowing that he’s never again going to be tortured and poked and prodded and tested and cut open. He had more than his fair share of that in recent years and long ago earned the right to Rest In Peace.

I love you, dad. You were the best.

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