On March 14, 2018, my father, Herbert, passed away at the age of 90. He had been home only 8 days following a week spent in the hospital, surgery, and then 3 weeks in a rehabilitation facility. The medical odyssey had started, characteristically, with my father driving himself to the emergency room in the evening without telling anyone until he was already there. During his stay in the hospital, several serious conditions were diagnosed, some of which he had managed to hide (and/or ignored advice about) from family and friends. It felt like the hospitalization came out of nowhere, but what became apparent was that he had various health problems that he didn’t attend to because he was focused on living each day for my mother. When my mother passed away in late November, my father literally fell apart, reminding me of the quote from The Sun Also Rises, where a character responds to the question of how he went broke: “Two ways. Gradually and then suddenly.” My son Joe said Herb was Johnny Cash to Ruth’s June Carter. He couldn’t last more than a few months without my mother.
The last month in particular was an exhausting odyssey as my father spent time first in the hospital in Bronxville and then in a rehabilitation facility in the Bronx before he finally made it home to Yonkers. He needed 24-hour/day care when he left the rehab facility, and a group of wonderfully caring and empathetic women from Ghana and Jamaica were hired. The daytime aide, Nana, firmly dismissed my concerns about how much extra work she was doing by saying, “In Africa, we say, ‘He is your father, but he is also everyone’s father.'” Nana was the one who was with him when he died.
Right now my emotions are running high. I know that in the coming months I have things I want to write about my father that I could not set down while he was alive because he figured out how to subscribe to this blog and I could not figure out how to unsubscribe him. For now, I will post the remarks I made about my dad at his funeral, along with some photos of him over the years. My father was a huge force in my life and I will miss being able to talk to him and look in his green eyes again. Here’s my eulogy:
It’s hard to believe that we’re here again today, less than 4 months after we gathered to bury my mother, Ruth. My father’s rapid decline in the last few weeks was shocking, but not surprising, because after Ruth died, his heart was broken, and his famous fighting spirit largely deserted him. I say “largely” because even in the last week of his life, he objected vociferously to my getting him a Life Alert system to call for help if he fell down–which had happened several times the previous week. The fellow who installed the system patted me sympathetically on the back as he ran out the front door.
Herb was well-known for his fighting spirit, which he tapped over many decades to do battle in his adopted city of Yonkers and his upstate Adirondack getaway of Corinth, where he and my mother spent many summers on Efner Lake. He was well known around City Hall in both cities. If you Google “Herbert Syrop,” one of the first entries is Matter of Syrop v. City of Yonkers, a lengthy fight to prevent Stop & Shop from detonating part of a hill near his house to build a new supermarket. Upstate, he was a founding member of the Efner Lake Association and was a passionate advocate for preserving the Adirondacks and its natural environment. He and fellow townspeople successfully prevented Corinth from allowing a garbage processing plant to set up on the banks of the Hudson River, which would have endangered water quality on the river after it had finally recovered from decades of pollution from the International Paper mill.
And there is what I refer to as the Herbert Syrop Sidewalk, the result of his single-minded pursuit of the Sarah Lawrence College president to pay for constructing a sidewalk running the length of the Yonkers-located portion of the college so the students no longer walked in the busy road on their way to and from the train station and town of Bronxville. After numerous letters and phone calls to the college president went unanswered, Herb found himself seated behind her one night at a public performance of Chinese music on campus. Seizing the moment, he introduced himself. “Hello, my name is Herbert Syrop. You might recognize my name from the many letters and phone calls I’ve sent you about the dangerous situation on Kimball Ave.” My father said that the President’s face instantly registered dread. But she found no escape. Herb mentioned the college’s $60K+ yearly tuition and how she was responsible for all those young people under her care. Not long afterwards, the school capitulated, and the sidewalk was built, and that is why, when I drove past the college on my way to Bronxville Hospital when my father spent a week there last month, I laughed (and cried) as I passed the students walking down the sidewalk, oblivious to the drama that had created it.
Of course, his fighting spirit wasn’t always easy to bear, as his one of his friends recently wrote: “Herb was tireless in advocating for what he believed to be right. I admired him for that rare quality, even when it made me a little crazy.” It made all of us more than a little crazy at times.
But Herb had an incredibly playful side. When my brother was a little boy obsessed with airplanes, my father helped him write letters to airplane manufacturers and then stood outside with him gazing up at planes flying overhead, telling Mitchell the planes were flying over the house so he could review them. In desperation to get me to go to bed on time, Herb told me that I was actually half human/half-from-planet-Chromo—my father’s secret home planet–which earthlings would never detect because it was always exactly opposite Earth with the moon in between. He said I had transponders inside my neck that allowed me to receive messages from Chromo, though him, that could only be heard at night if I was in bed. He sat next to my bed reciting monotone messages from Chromo until I finally drifted off to sleep. He also told me that the King and Queen of America lived in the gold-domed St Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, and although they had crowns and sat on thrones, they never appeared in public.
Like my mother, Herb had a soft spot for birds. I’ll always remember my father helping me rescue a baby robin that fell from a nest onto the front lawn. We waited a while to see if its mother would be able to help it, but eventually we took it in. We spent many days feeding the bird, which I named Big Mouth, through a dropper, and eventually I believe we graduated to worm cocktails. Because we had a trip upstate planned, we brought the robin with us. I recall trying to encourage it to fly by gently tossing it out of my hand as Herb ran ahead, flapping his arms. Eventually the bird did seem to get interested in flying on its own, so he and I drove to an Audubon Society park and tearfully watched as Big Mouth flew away.
Herb had a lifelong fascination with the cosmos and talked about the Big Bang all the time. When I returned to his house after he died, a book with the title “Cosmos” was on the dining room table and a Netflix DVD still inside the player was called “Particle Fever,” which “follows the exciting inside story of 6 scientists seeking to unravel the mysteries of the universe.” The definition of cosmos, which is “the universe regarded as a complex and orderly system; the opposite of chaos,” –makes it a perfect subject for my father, who was on a mission to impose order onto the chaotic world.
In the early 1960s, he constructed a fallout shelter in our Yonkers basement in response to the Cuban Missile Crisis, just in case a nuclear bomb struck Manhattan, only 7 miles away. He calculated that if we survived the blast, we still had to worry about nuclear fallout and be prepared to remain in the basement for some time. For years I wondered why the windows had cement covers. The first time I told David about the fallout shelter, his response was, “Wow, I never actually met anyone who had a fallout shelter.” Two weeks before he died, Herb and I were arguing (Surprise) about the wisdom of the “Duck and Cover” drills we had to do in elementary school, and he snapped, “You have no idea what you’re talking about! Always be prepared!” he said. “I took that to heart when I was a Boy Scout.” When I raised my eyebrows, he said, “Well, maybe I took it too much to heart.”
So Herb was on a mission to protect us from danger, whether it was a higher risk of car accidents on Friday nights or wearing flip-flops in New York City. During my sophomore year at Penn, I won the dorm room lottery and got a single room. When Herb found out that it was a ground-floor room on Spruce Street, he drove to Philly the next weekend with his tool box and installed 3 window locks. Even well into his 80s, my father stood at the curb in front of his house, inspecting my tires before I started off, telling me to call him if something happened on the drive back to NJ. “I’m still a good driver,” he asserted. As I drove away from the curb, I looked at him through my rearview mirror, as he stepped into the road to better see if I used my signal indicator when I turned the corner.
But my father’s legacy for me, personally, was a very powerful belief that I could be myself. I faulted his overprotectiveness as paternalistic when I was young, but in later years I recognized that he was unusual and, in many ways ahead of his time when it came to parenting a girl. He strongly encouraged me to study science at a time when–and this really happened–my high school guidance counselor belittled my interest in majoring in biology in college, scoffing, “What do you want to go and do THAT for?” When I reported this to my father, he advised me to ignore anything that came out of that guy’s mouth. “Two years ago, he was a shoe salesman!” Herb said. It went without saying that I could go to college and study what I wanted to, which was not, in 1970s Yonkers, a foregone conclusion in a lot of families. He and my mother did not comment when I wore only jeans and t-shirts to school for 6 straight years as a rebellion against the previous 6 years of schooling when dresses or skirts were required.
And while many Jewish families consider arguing one’s views, even heatedly, to be a normal part of life, my father took that to another level, so I had to learn to keep up with him and hold my own. Now, as I reach my 60th birthday, I realize that—with some necessary tempering of Herb’s brand of fighting—it has often served me well as I made my way through life.
In the last weeks of his life, my father was especially concerned about his legacy. Marcus Aurelius said, “What we do now echoes in eternity.” I believe his dedication to his family, friends, and neighbors on both ends of the Hudson River, and to preserving the land and waters he loved so much, will echo in eternity.
January 2018, his first year without Ruth since 1948.