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Don’t Blink

November 30, 2011

 I channeled a bizarre combination of an aging Katherine Hepburn and a highly caffeinated Pee Wee Herman as I began to speak at my Godfather’s memorial service in September. My hands shook so vigorously that they rendered the 12 point font of my notes completely indecipherable. And when I began to speak, my mouth opened, but the words, struggling to clear the massive lump in my throat, quivered to such a degree that the first word I actually squeaked was, “hymed.” I’m hoping, given the erudite crowd my Godfather generally drew, that people instinctively assumed that I was leading with a Middle Eastern prayer greeting of some sort.

In fact, it was simply my choked up rendition of “hi, I’m Ed.”

With my salutation leaving a number of people reaching to fine tune their hearing aids, I reverted to what in my head anyway, seemed to be roughly 37 minutes of complete silence. My plan to improvise and my faith that the right words would find me was giving me a “no service detected” message.  I squinted at the trembling page in front of me for a prompt, but the only word I could make out, staring up at me in a large bolded font with exclamation points on either side of it was !!!!!REFLUX!!!!!.  For the life of me, I had no clue what I had actually written as a headline, and I had the sudden mortifying thought that I had somehow grabbed my 80 year old mother’s pharmaceutical shopping list instead of my own notes.

I put the page down on the podium, and the blur once again became words. I took a deep breath and saw the actual headline I had written.

!!!!! RELAX !!!!! 

Through stories and song, everyone before me had poignantly painted as accurate a picture of Brad as one could hope. A loving husband and father, friend, an esteemed urologist, medical researcher, actor, author, optimist, musician, songwriter, athlete, fly fisherman, a veritable renaissance man who had packed a lot of living into 91 years. The man just before me had belted out an aria that would have taken down the walls at Jericho had the trumpet player missed the gig. And before him, a woman traced her family’s history with Brad with such poise, tenderness and grace, that I found myself completely mesmerized by her calm, gently clicking my heels together as I waited to speak, whispering, “there’s no place like home.”

And then suddenly there was me, staring into all those faces, silently trying to surge past “Hymed.”

There was simply too much to say. That percolating lump in my throat was a gridlock of disparate thoughts that I didn’t know how to parse into a coherent monologue I could deliver in under half a day.  Despite one of Brad’s daughter’s requests to “leave them laughing,” I found myself poised to quote from Heart of Darkness and lead with “The Horror…The horror.”  Everyone else had painted a portrait of a life well lived. All I felt was a life gone. Another void. Another voice I would never hear again.  Not that it mattered, since we were all totally screwed in the long run. Every one of these critical weaves would be torn from the fabric of our lives until our arthritic fingers were left clutching a few vague threads of memories, or until each one of us became a missing patch in other people’s lives. I looked through the windows of the St Francis Yacht Club to the Golden Gate Bridge. We could all walk to the center span, leap and be done with it.

Vaguely aware that this line of thinking was somewhat inconsistent with the “leave them laughing” strategy, I drew in a deep breath, which came in audible choppy staccato bursts, and I started talking about my wedding.

I related that 16 years ago in NYC, during a rather raucous rehearsal dinner the night before the big event, Brad made a toast. He was 75, charming, vibrant, bow-tied, and as always, effusing a seemingly timeless energy and wit. He introduced himself by announcing that he was “the Godfather,” and as such, had been charged with the responsibility of guiding my moral and spiritual upbringing. He then humbly, humorously, and without hesitation took full credit for my fine selection of a bride-to-be, a significant portion of my music career, my passion for the arts in general, and for occasionally diverting me from life’s more dubious choices. Referencing a serious college romance of mine as an example, he detailed how his impartial counsel had averted a potential marital disaster which as he termed it, would have been to my long term happiness, “what ice was to the Titanic.”

With his glass held high, he concluded by stating that he had quite obviously done one hell of a job as a Godfather and then wished us a life overflowing with happiness, love, and adventure.

Brad and I first met at some point between day three and day five of my life. There are conflicting reports, though Brad once mentioned he met me on his birthday, which would have made me 4 days and him 38 years old. While I have no recollection of that particular day, I have an indelible memory of his voice and his presence wafting through my childhood. He had an infectious and distinctly gentle laugh, a soothing voice, and he generally radiated comfort. A visit from “Uncle Brad,” as I called him, meant laughter, a good story or two, and music. On more than one occasion in the afterglow of one of my parents’ dinner parties, I crept out of bed and down the hall drawn by the piano, guitar, the singing, and bursts of laughter that emanated from our living room.  I would sneak peeks until I inevitably got busted, at which point my dad and Brad would feign mock outrage, scoop me up and carry me back to bed.

“What!? Awake at this hour? This is an OUTRAGE!”

Then they would haul me back down the hall, sometimes upside down, sometimes handed off between the two of them, until they plunked and tucked me back into bed with warnings of “severe” repercussions if I were ever again caught lurking in the halls. But the payoff was almost always an impromptu story (enacted with several stuffed animals) or a song.  Either option was mesmerizing, but his music in particular was powerful magic, more powerful, I think, than he ever intended. Spiritual guidance by association, you might say, that whet my appetite for creativity and helped set the spark that eventually fanned into my brief 15 year hiatus as professional musician.

But those moments – puppets and ukuleles, weekend adventuress, bay sails, an occasional fly fishing excursion – were just the prologue to a second and even more fulfilling phase of his tenure as Godfather. The catalyst for that transition came one evening in October of 1986 at a men’s club in San Francisco. It marked my first evening as a member and my father’s last social outing before he passed away from cancer a couple of months later.

I was 28.

I had seen dad and Brad together for ages, but nothing like that night. My father and I had entered the club and eased our way into the main hall and into an almost overwhelming sea of smoke, voices and laughter. I could see a jazz quartet playing but could barely hear it over the din. As we made our way toward the bar, a cascade of his friends came over to greet us. They were thrilled to see dad, welcoming to me, and voiced loud and heartfelt assurances that he was on the road to recovery.

“You’re going to beat this thing Buddy. Good for you!”

In this dizzying cacophony, I was trying to simultaneously register new faces, find something remotely intelligent to say (which is especially tough in a loud room), and run interference between dad and a number of men who had taken to greeting him with a firm slap on the back, each jolt sending excruciating shock waves through his body.  I was floundering at all three.

Then Brad materialized. He greeted me and maneuvered dad to a somewhat quieter spot. In order to be heard without shouting, he and my father put their foreheads together. Brad put one hand gently on my father’s shoulder and the other on the nape of his neck. My father had his hands on Brad’s shoulders. They stared at each other for several seconds, in complete silence. Then Brad said the most amazing thing.

“I am so glad to see you, and I am so sorry you are dying.”

I had a very real sense at that moment that the world was coming to an end.

They each smiled before retreating to a table where they sat alone together for nearly an hour, head to head, sometimes hand in hand, with an occasional smile and even laughter. As they held their summit, I proceeded to make lasting impressions on fellow members by introducing myself and then randomly breaking into uncontrollable sobs.

An hour or so later, with a warm but very gentle embrace, I saw dad off.  He had planned an early retreat with a ride home from a friend. He seemed buoyed by the evening. I on the other hand was taking on water, and bobbed around aimlessly in the boisterous roar, eventually drifting into a corner near the bandstand. I beached myself in front of the quartet where I could escape unnoticed among my fellow anonymous listeners.

Two tunes into it, I felt a hand on my shoulder.  It was Brad.

“You’re with me,” he said.

From that evening forward, I dropped the “Uncle” from “Uncle Brad,” and he dropped the “young” from “young Edward.” He was still a voice, but we had struck up a conversation. It may have been a little tenuous at first, but it didn’t take long for us to hit our stride.

He called me that June, right after our birthdays, suggesting rather emphatically that I attend the club’s summer encampment. I gracefully declined, citing something about missing dad, but thanked him for reaching out. He equally as gracefully told me not to mention it, that he missed him too, and then detailed when and where we would need to meet so we could drive up together. “Shanghaied,” as he would say. The call was over before I knew what had hit me.

And so later that summer, he took me under his wing, steering me from new face to new face, always focusing our excursions toward music, museum talks, and a host of riveting lunches and dinners. We walked, talked, and I soaked up as many anecdotes as Brad would share about the two Ed Mannings he had known before me.

It seemed everyone knew Brad, though I was a little dismayed at how many men followed their greetings of “Hey Braddo,” with a stream of comments about their bladders, urinary tracts, and penises.

“Being a urologist has its ups and downs,” he told me.  “Men flaunting their shortcomings comes with the territory.”

At one of my first lunches that weekend, Brad had ushered us into a camp that was having a rather swanky sit-down lunch for roughly 50 men. I was convinced that all of them, though I knew none of them, were heads of state, titans of industry, or Pulitzer Prize winners. As several men took turns speaking or performing in one form or another, I maintained as low a profile as possible. I gawked at the man who had just stepped away from the piano. It was Bobby Enriquez. I turned to tell Brad about the living legend we had just heard, just as he rose to speak. He thanked our hosts and had begun his bit about how he planned to, “sing for his lunch.”  I was expecting him to recite a poem, share some clever anecdote, or break into song, his frequent M.O. at that particular juncture.

“And so,” he concluded, turning to me, “my Godson will now play a couple of tunes at the piano.”

As I stood, horrified, I whispered to him, “These guys just finished listening to Bobby Enriquez play! Are you nuts?”  He may as well have asked me to follow a Robin Williams routine with a series of “knock-knock” jokes.

“You need to get into the mix” he said. “Don’t overthink it. Besides, it looks like Enriquez has tired himself out.”

Life for Brad was not a spectator sport.

In 25 years, we shared countless lunches, phone calls, piano lessons, dinners, and just plain hanging out. He had a voracious appetite for learning, and a breadth and depth of knowledge that was hard to fathom and impossible to keep up with. I rarely heard him begin a sentence with “I remember,” nor did I ever feel a hint of a generation gap between us. And above all else, through conversations spanning politics, finance, jobs, God, good jokes, great kids, and loving wives, every gathering or call was infused with laughter.

For the last several years, we ended our calls the same way, and I take great comfort in the fact that my last words to him were, “Great hearing your voice. I love you.” We last spoke on his birthday in June to exchange greetings. Among other things, he talked about being 91.

“I’m grateful to be alive,” he said, “but I’m not keen on birthdays that begin with the word ‘ninety.”

“I have a hard time believing I’m 53,” I answered.

He was quiet for a moment and then somewhat wistfully said, “Don’t blink.”

As I looked up at Brad’s family, my mom, and all those familiar faces, I couldn’t remember a time I had been with that mix of people without Brad being part of it. He had been a voice, a presence, a confidant and a friend for so long that imagining a world without him in it was inconceivable. I had lost a close friend, a common thread that had traversed my entire life and one of the last links to my father. On top of that, with his passing, the active readership of my blog had dropped by 50%.

But as I pondered the loss, the Golden Gate and leaping, and everything he and I had shared, I came face to face with the most essential spiritual guidepost he had set. It was the way he chose to practice life.

Live.

Get into the mix.

Don’t blink.

Ed, Brad, and Gail in Dutch Flat, CA 2006

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Walker Fenton permalink
    December 1, 2011 10:50 am

    Great post Ed. A fantastic tribute.

  2. Paul Guay permalink
    December 1, 2011 4:28 pm

    Once again I am left wishing I could write as well as you.

  3. Arvilla Manning permalink
    December 2, 2011 1:00 pm

    A beautiful and touching story written from the heart.

  4. jack weafer permalink
    December 3, 2011 9:42 am

    a vivid tribute to an uncle who taught a boy how to love and live like a man

  5. T barny permalink
    December 4, 2011 9:39 am

    Like

  6. Jennifer Drobac permalink
    December 4, 2011 7:10 pm

    On a rainy day in Indiana, I am reminded of why I live, love, and blink only to help release the tears. Thanks for reminding us all, with your remembrance of Brad, how precious life is. I will pay it forward as you are doing!

  7. cathy deutchman permalink
    December 5, 2011 11:28 am

    A wonderful story of life, generations, friendship and love.
    After sobbing into my coffee cup, I’m inspired to get on with the living.
    Thanks Ed-your words touched my heart.

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