My father passed away yesterday afternoon at the age of 69. It’s hard to express in words how much I’ll miss him. Anyone who’s lost a parent knows how difficult it can be to summarize the life of a person you knew so well, in just a few words. So please allow me a lot of words.
My father wasn’t famous, nobody more than a regular man, but to me he was a giant: a man of great personal conviction and integrity, a man who loved his family dearly, a man of great insight and intelligence.
Elliott Sacks was born on April 22, 1936 in the East New York area of Brooklyn, New York, the son of Ida and Saul Sacks. Saul had been a freedom fighter against the British in Palestine, who came to the USA in his twenties. In East New York, he met Ida, who had come from Poland as a child. My dad’s parents owned a neighborhood grocery, and my dad often helped out in the shop. He also liked to run the streets like any other kid in that era, playing stickball with his friends, ignoring his schoolwork and getting his kicks. One of the family jokes about my father was always that even though his parents owned a house right next door to Thomas Jefferson High School, he somehow often managed to be late for school.
By the time he was 18, in 1954, it was pretty clear to my dad that he needed to kick-start his life. He might have had wanderlust, something he felt much in his life, or might have yearned to just get out of East New York and away from his family and friends. So he joined the Army and got shipped to beautiful Dover, Delaware, which was a living purgatory for him. As soon as his two years duty were up, Dad left the Army and joined the Air Force, which quickly shipped him off to Germany.
It was in Germany that my father started to become the man that I knew. My dad often said his time in the military completely changed his life. Going to Europe must have been an incredible adventure. He had traveled inside the US with his parents, but never internationally, and when he went to Europe as a handsome young man, it must have been literally like a whole new world opening up to him. He traveled around Europe every time he got liberty, visiting Copenhagen and Venice and Paris and traveling up and down the Rhine River. He had a romance with a French girl named Rosie (my sister and I found wonderful love notes from Rosie buried deep in an old foot locker one year when we visited him and my mom) and had a nice, easy tour as a file clerk. He returned after his five year tour in the Air Force, having left as a boy and come back as a man.
Returning to the US, my father took part in the GI Bill, got a degree from the Culinary Institute of America and began working as a chef at various hospitals in New York. One family story has my father serving dinner to Barbra Streisand when she had her son Jason. In the same years, he got set up on a date with my mother, who was seven years younger than he, and on Groundhog’s Day 1964, after dating for only a few months, they got married. They stayed married for nearly 42 years until my father passed away.
In 1966, I was born. My mom often likes to talk about the excitement and wonder that my parents felt about my birth. While she was pregnant, my mom often would wake my had up in the middle of the night to show him how much I was kicking her. After I was born, my parents used to stare at me in wonder, amazed that they produced a little baby. This is another constant in my father’s life: his family was always the most important thing in the world to him.
Three years later, in 1969, my sister was born, and, as my parents always told the story, I changed from being a happy baby into one in constant conflict with my sister. (I was spoiled as a baby, after all, so why would I want to share my parents’ love?) With Sabrina’s birth, it seems my parents felt their family was complete since they had a son and daughter who they loved. My parents bought a nice house at 246-07 Memphis Avenue in Rosedale, Queens, New York, in the flight path to JFK Airport, and set out to raise my sister and me. They rented out the top floor of the house – my father always took pride in getting along with the renters – and my dad went to work as an executive chef at the Long Island College Hospital, working there for several years until, as the story goes, the hospital went from fresh meals to frozen meals. (I’m surprised, by the way, looking at a Google Map, that the hospital wasn’t in fact in Long Island but actually in Brooklyn. It must have been a bruising journey to get to Brooklyn from far out in Queens, but dad obviously decided that we should live in what at that time was a nice, quiet neighborhood.)
After he left Long Island College Hospital, my dad embarked on a new adventure. He took a job as executive chef at Mary Imogene Bassett Hospital in bucolic Cooperstown, New York, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Only about 2000 people lived in that small town, and I think it’s here that my father might have been happiest. This street kid from Brooklyn bought a farm house with 8 acres of land and set out on a new adventure, raising pigs and goats, walking the fields with his loyal dog Malissa, and creating a wonderful huge garden. My father was living a great adventure on the farm. My sister and I were in elementary school at the time, and he would take us for drives on long country roads to auctions, where he would buy old glassware, bottles, and assorted tchotchkes. He never spent much on stuff, preferring to buy big boxes of junk for just a few dollars. The thrill of the hunt was everything to him.
I’m not sure why he left Bassett Hospital, but my father ended up working as exectuive chef at a Holiday Inn in Syracuse, NY, for one year, before being transferred to Reno, Nevada. If Cooperstown was his favorite place to live, Reno was a close second. My dad was always immensely proud of the loyalty and friendships he had with the people who worked for him – he didn’t have a prejudiced bone in his body – and quickly turned the hotel restaurant he ran from one of the least profitable in the chain into one of the most profitable. Along with his professional satisfaction, Reno also fit my father’s life well. He loved to go to the casinos and play poker all night at the end of the work week. He loved Texas Hold ‘em long before most people knew what it was.
Unfortunately, it all came to an end after four years, Impressed with his success in Reno, Holiday Inn asked my dad to transfer to Corpus Christi, Texas. After trying the place for a few months, he decided the position wasn’t for him. Holiday Inn wouldn’t transfer my dad back to Reno, so he had to pursue a new job. He found work in San Jose, CA. I honestly don’t remember where he worked, but for whatever reason my parents and he badly missed Reno. This is around the time I moved away from home at 18, so the details get a bit fuzzy for me at this point.
Several years later, he took a job as manager of an Officer’s Club at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, and later worked as a traveling instructor for Air Force Base managers, traveling around the US to different Air Force bases, passing on his wisdom. My dad loved the teaching work, and often commented about how much he enjoyed working with the young military men. That’s no surprise to me; with his humor and real love of people, my father was really in his element in that job.
After that, my father basically retired. He worked for a time at the military academy at West Point, but after about a year decided to move to Florida. My parents moved to Ft. Lauderdale, and began to travel all around the world. This was a very happy period in my parents’ lives. Having raised two kids and put us through college, they were free to go all around the world. And they did. They went to over a dozen countries: China, Thailand, Germany, Morocco, France (where my parents insisted that the people were actually the nicest in the world), Turkey, and many others. There are wonderful photos of my parents sitting on camels and on elephants, on top of the Great Wall of China and outside the Louvre. Finally my dad got to revisit so many of the places he had seen thirty years before.
About five years ago, at a normal doctor’s visit on his 65th birthday, my father was diagnosed with an agressive form of long cancer. He had smoked for about fifty years, since he was a boy running the streets of East New York, and was never able to kick the habit. He was operated on almost four years ago to the day, and was given only a year to live. Stubborn guy that he was, my dad lived three years longer than the doctor predicted. He had his operation and took his chemo, and things stayed pretty steady.
My parents moved to Everett to be closer to me and my wife and my three kids. After they moved here, I grew to get to know my parents again. After they moved up here, my father always treated me as a peer. He was always infinitely generous with his time and energy, always willing to help out in any way, always enjoying spending time with his grandkids and taking a sincere interest in all of our lives. He accepted my wife Liisa in the family as if she had always been a member of the family, unconditionally, and loved to lavish attention on his grandkids. And my father would always pick up the check after our weekly lunches together.
About six months ago, his health began to decline again. The cancer, which had been in remission, charged back with a vengeance. It reached his brain and began metastacising there. My father began to fall and feel lethargic all the time. He started withdrawing from things. That hurt a lot. My father was always a man who embraced life, who hated to be held back by anything. His disease had begun to make him into a man different from the one I had always known. I still loved him unconditionally, as he always would love me, but he had changed.
His health got worse. My father was admitted to the hospital, and then to a rehab center, where he rallied a bit, but when he and my mom moved into an assisted living center, his health went downward still more. The cancer had really metastacised to his brain, and mt father saw no point to taking on heroic measures to extend his life. My mother, sister and I gathered at his bed, and he died knowing the love we all felt for him. The last thing that ever happened to him was when my sister kissed him on top of his head and told him that she loved him.
My father was a good man, and he had a good life. He had many friends and a family that loved him. He left my mother a nice inheritance, which I know was important to him, and had two kids who have been successful in their chosen fields. He had three great grandkids, got to travel all around the world, had lots of interesting adventures. For a kid from the streets of Brooklyn, he did damn well.
I will miss my father, but I’m also glad that he went quickly and in a way that was true to who he had been for his whole life. Of course, he’ll always live on in his family’s hearts and minds. Liisa often finds me using one of my dad’s phrases. That makes me feel very happy.