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  • My father was a kind and gentle man who did not deserve the last two years of his stay on Earth. Lymphoma robbed of his dignity, his mind and, on a frigid March evening, his life.

    He had stopped going to synagogue many years previously, but not knowing where else to turn, we called his old congregation and asked if the current rabbi could officiate at his funeral.

    The evening before the service, the rabbi paid a visit to my brother’s home. He was quite young and painfully earnest. He had never met our father, so he asked us to supply him with anecdotes he could incorporate into the eulogy. We spoke of his many acts of charity and love. He had been a quiet man, often lost in a reality no one else shared. As his disease progressed, he grew ever more silent and his vocabulary dwindled. He answered almost everything addressed to him with two stock phrases: “I wish I knew.” “If only I could tell you.” It was tragic, exasperating and, at times, hilariously funny. I know that sounds callous. The rabbi certainly thought so. But it’s true. Some of you who have endured a long ordeal with a loved one know that humor can often crop up in the unlikeliest of places.

    The rabbi tried and failed to blink back his indignation and bid us good night. “Something tells me we’re going to get spanked tomorrow,” I said to my brother.

    We got up early the next morning to clear away the snow that had covered the doorway path in the night. It was windy and mercilessly cold. A perfect day for a funeral.

    The rabbi started off all right, praising our dad for his generosity and utter devotion to our late mother. And then he shot the two of us what I can only describe as a look of pure defiance.

    “Irving Kempner was never a man to be content with easy answers,” he said.

    “Oh my God,” my brother whispered to me. “He’s going there!”

    “He pondered the mysteries of the Universe and his response was: ‘I wish I knew’ and ‘If only I could tell you.’”

    “Yeah, mysteries like ‘What would you like for lunch?’ or ‘Where did you put your underwear?’” I said out of the side of my mouth.

    The mourners standing behind us saw our shoulders quaking and assumed we were overcome with grief. We were certainly sad but we were also trying with all our might not to burst out laughing. The rabbi muttered a brief prayer, turned on his heel and walked off in a huff. He returned a few minutes later, sheepishly collecting his check.

    I think my father, that wise and lovely man, would have found the whole episode vastly amusing.

    I wish I knew.
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