Jeffrey Steven Adler
(from my eulogy for Jeff, May 20, 2011)
Jeff was my older brother, my big brother.
My brother. Those are almost sacred words to me.
A brother, in the truest sense of the word, both about the blood and beyond it, is a stalwart friend beyond compare. That’s what Jeff was to me, all my life. There was never a moment of our lives that I was ever too heavy for him.
Sometimes, the need was the stuff of everyday life, and Jeff was always there if I asked him for help. There were times when the help was major, my life at a low point, having to start over, and Jeff came through for me. I always knew he would. He was an oak for his parents in their sickness and old age, for his siblings in their times of need, for his niece and nephew in their youths.
What you need to know about Jeff – we were both lucky enough never to have to go to war, as some men do – but you need to know that Jeff was the guy who would never leave you behind, who would go back for you, who would help you get through it, even if, in the end, he didn’t make it though himself.
Jeff and I were so alike in so many ways, but of course we are different people with different personalities and talents. As a child, teen, and even young adult, I was shy and insecure. Jeff was always a big personality. If you knew him, you know that. In the first neighborhood in which we grew up, everyone’s image of Jeff was of this little whirlwind running across the lawns and gardens. The neighbors called him “the little redheaded bastard.”
I think they meant that in a good way.
And, so, as I struggled to become a full personality myself, to engage the world more confidently and successfully, I had a model before me. In my teens and twenties I was always looking to my brother, my big brother, as an example of how to be, of who to be. He was my hero.
Of course, I couldn’t be just like Jeff. I was a different person, and better off that way. But in the ways that I did manage to make myself like Jeff, I was also a better person.
Jeff and Anne didn’t have children, but they were and are the most thoughtful, giving, and nurturing people, with their pets and with their garden too. Jeff worried about those he loved and wanted to provide for them, whatever providing might mean. In the end, for our mother, Helen, as Alzheimer’s stole her from us, it meant taking on so much of the responsibility of arranging her care, and even lightening our father, Mac’s, physical and emotional burden.
Jeff would talk with Mom. He always had a way of talking to her that the rest of us didn’t. When she was way beyond reasoning, still he would sit and talk, and look into her eyes, and find a way of reaching her emotionally, to calm, for however short a time, her irrational fears and anxieties.
So a couple of months at most before Mom died, Jeff stood at her bedside in the hospital, and she stared up at him and said, “I don’t know who you are, but I know I like you.”
I don’t know that there was anything anyone ever said to Jeff that meant more to him than that simple statement. Even in her dementia, her personality broken, her memory gone, the internal history of all that Jeff had been and done for her lingered with Mom. His essence still touched her.
In our father’s last years, even before Mom died, as Dad’s world necessarily became smaller, Jeff became his best friend. I think in a way, he fell in love with his father all over again. He just loved that guy. Often with Sharyn or me, but very often just the two of them, they walked, took drives, went shopping, had lunch, went to the movies. Dad lived to 94, so it was with a very sweet pleasure that Jeff one day walked up to the ticket window, gave Mac an elbow in the side, and for the first time said “Two seniors please.”
For Jeff, as it should be, love was a joy, a commitment, and a duty. He reveled in the joys, maintained his commitments, and performed his duties. He and Anne were hosts at their homes of countless family gatherings, serving food, drink and music. Jeff basked in family togetherness and the sometimes tough, needling love we all shared. His ingratiating personality, bawdy humor and cackling laugh were the centerpiece of every get-together.
The joy and commitment and duty of love were most of all for Anne. Only she knows the details and the sum of 40 years of intimacy, and I won’t try to speak for it. They gave their lives to each other. Anne has been a part of our family for all those years, and she always will be. We love her completely.
I have to tell you all, though, of an important moment between me and Anne. I’ve known her since I was 19. Sometimes I see old photos of the two of us, and I can’t believe we were once that young together.
The moment I speak of is the moment I came to understand that Anne knew Jeff better than I did. It was about thirty years ago, maybe more, and we were playing Monopoly at Mike and Rhonda’s apartment in Santa Monica. There was drink and food – a little pot smoking. It was Jeff’s turn, and he was studying the board. I mean he was studying the board. I said, “Look at him. I thought this was a friendly game. He’s really taking this seriously.” And Anne turned to me, and she said, “Are you kidding? He’s trying to remember which piece is his.”
Jeff burst out laughing. Anne had nailed it.
We all had our special intimacies with Jeff. We are all in the family different people, but we share so many likes, and interests, and opinions that there has always been such pleasure in being together.
Over the last 15 years of Dad’s life, he and Jeff and I would often go to the gym together. We’d work out – Dad did almost to the end – we’d swim in the pool, we’d sit for hours and talk politics. We agreed on almost everything. We mostly agreed on how the world was cracked because it didn’t do what we knew would be best.
Many of you will know that in the last decade of his life, playing tennis became one of Jeff’s greatest pleasures. Robert, our nephew, is a top-level amateur. I’m a low-ranked fan. So each year, in recent years, the three of us would meet in Palm Desert in March for the annual tennis open at Indian Wells. We’d watch the practices, the matches, play a little or work out, eat great meals, sit at the pool and schmooze. Three or four days of non-stop one-liners, three bald Jews trying to top each other at every turn. Each year, the tennis got less and less. We just loved being together so much.
I don’t know what Jeff thought about God. I’m not sure he knew. But when I think of Jeff, now, I think of a story I told at our mother’s funeral. I learned it from the great scholar of mythology and religion Joseph Campbell. It’s about a woman who goes to visit a wise man. She waits, infant in her arms, for an audience. And when it is her turn, she tells the wise man that she is in despair. She is in despair because she cannot bring herself to love God. The wise man looks at her with compassion, and he asks, “Is there anything or anyone in the world that you do love?” and the woman cries, looking down, “Oh, yes, my little child.” The wise man places his hand on her arm, he leans close, and he says, “There He is.”
If that is a description you can accept, of God’s presence in the feeling and enactment of selfless love, then I can tell you that Jeff believed in and loved God very much.
We will all have memories of Jeff, family, old friends, newer friends. Sharyn’s go back the farthest. Anne’s are of that special intimacy no one else can match. Mine, even as I stand here, go back to the very beginning of my life. For the first eight years of my life, while Sharyn had her own room, Jeff and I shared a bedroom, with twin beds not very far from each other.
The escapades, the mischief, the brotherly intimacy we shared in that room.
In the last of our rituals, and of Jeff’s regular teases and minor big-brotherly tortures, we would exchange “good night”‘s across the short distance between our twin beds. With the walls of our rectangular bedroom bathed in moonlight, the branches of the tree just outside our window splayed across the walls in shadow, we lay in our beds in the darkness, in Eisenhower’s America, in a dream of earthly beneficence that felt, like life, so broad in its expanse while we lived it, and that feels so preciously brief and distant in its passing.
Jeff would say good night, and I would say good night in return. But Jeff would never let it end there. He would say good night again, so I would feel compelled, in the terms of a game that he as the older brother had license to set, and that I as the younger brother had freedom only to follow, to return the good night again. Then, after perhaps thirty seconds, from across the way and out of the darkness from that other bed would come still one more good night. And so it would go, with a minute between, five minutes, fifteen. Sometimes I could barely sleep, lying there waiting for the next good night to suddenly, softly sound in the dark, or I would cry out in submission. Always, finally, I would fall asleep, and Jeff would have won. In this mockery of sentimentality that was a ten-year old boy’s expression of love for his little brother, Jeff always had the last good night.
But not this time.
Our father had a heart attack at 64, the same age as Jeff. It almost killed him. It didn’t. He lived another 30 years. We’ll always wonder why Jeff couldn’t have had those 30 years, or just some more. There will never be an answer.
We are none of us very long for this world, and the longer you live, the more you understand that the not very long is not very long at all.
Sleep tight, my brother.
I love you so.
We all love you so.
It was too soon for you to go.