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Monday, March 14, 2011

Fighting the Lightning: A Eulogy for Stewart Meltzer

My father was struck by lighting. And so was his father, my grandfather.
That’s not a metaphor. They were both actually struck by a flaming bolt of lightning from the sky.
And though this is my father’s funeral, to fully paint him, I need to start with my grandfather.
My father’s father was the kind of dad who…let me just say it…he wasn’t a good father. My grandfather was a well known boxer in the military, and the sad truth is, he put those fists on my Dad. I don’t tell you that to elicit sympathy or make you feel bad. I tell you because it explains the core of my father⎯and what my father wanted to be: He simply wanted to not be like his own father.
It wasn’t easy for my Dad. When it comes to bad habits, we’re so often taught them.
And that’s how life is, right? As adults, we all know right from wrong, but no matter how hard we try, what we see as children colors how we see the world for the rest of our lives. We can try to escape, but fate has a way of making us like our own parents, whether we like it or not.
And so, back to the lightning.
When my grandfather was in the army, he was struck by a bolt of lighting. The resulting burns⎯and whatever mental damage came with them⎯led to his eventual discharge from the military.
A generation later, my Dad (as a boy) was at sleepaway camp, bouncing on his bed at Camp Na-Sho-Pa when another lightning bolt came from the sky⎯I swear, this is what was told to us⎯and hit my father, who sank to the floor. They thought he was dead. They even put a sheet over his head. He was dead! And then, in his first (but not last) moment of death-defiance, Stewie Meltzer sat up and blurted, What’s everyone looking at?
Two lightning bolts. Two men. Father and son. If I wrote this crap myself, my editor would tell me no one would believe it.
But there it was: my father’s destiny. One lighting bolt hits. Then another follows.
To be clear, for much of his life, my Dad doesn’t do much to step off the path.
When he was born, it was because my grandmother fell⎯and it was the fall that sent her into labor. When my Dad was little, his grades were bad, but when his teachers picked out the occupation he was suited for, they said he should be a mayor.
As a teenager, he was exactly what he was till his last days: a loud-mouthed, sports-obsessed super-fan, who only took his eye off the ball to look at a passing pretty girl. His number one sidekick was his cousin Harvey. Harvey was the pitcher. My dad was the catcher. And let me say, my father was an superb athlete. He wasn’t good. He was fantastic. A star, who almost played minor league ball, except for those bad knees.
During summers, my Dad and his cousin would travel camp to camp…challenging and trying to take on whole teams. The camps would look at these two guys and say, “Sure. We’ll take that bet.” And then Harvey would throw his smoke, striking out everyone⎯and him and my Dad would walk away with the day’s money in their pockets. And if there was a bad call…or an argument that they were being suckered? That’s when Stewie’s temper would erupt. Could my father and his cousin fight an entire baseball team? They tried. A lot.
Now, I know there are many people in this room who think they’ve seen my Dad’s temper. You are wrong. You’ve see Stewie mad when he was in his forties, fifties, or even sixties. That was nothing compared to the hurricane force that was my father’s temper when he was in his twenties. And again, he learned it right from his own father. My Dad rooted for the Brooklyn Dodgers; my grandfather rooted for the Yankees. There was the perfect metaphor. Opposite teams; bitter, hateful rivalry; and both from the exact same home.
Burning with that anger, my father took the abuse from my grandfather. And he took extra hits when he was trying to protect his younger brother, my Uncle Jeff. It was that burning anger that my Dad brought everywhere. One summer at the bungalow colony, in a burst of it, I remember him being so mad, he flipped over a pool table. A pool table. It took four of us to lift one of those.
And when I was growing up in Brooklyn, nearly every door in our apartment had a huge, deep dent right at the center of it: from where my Dad, in whatever fight he was having, punched a hole in it. His bedroom…every bathroom…they all had a hole. But y’know what room was never touched?
My room. It was the room I shared with my sister. He would never lay a hand on my mother or any of us. And he never punched a hole in our door.
So here’s where the lightning story takes it’s turn. My father may’ve never been one for introspection, but when I was born, he recognized the choice in front of him. Indeed, until that moment, as much as he didn’t want to be like his own father, my Dad was on my grandfather’s path: My grandfather was a salesman in the garment industry, working with schmatas; my father was a salesman and buyer in the garment industry, working with schmatas. My grandfather was a natural charmer, able to sell air to a fish; my father was a charmer, able to sell air to a fish. Two lightning bolts; one following right after the other.
But when I arrived, my father made his decision. For all his faults and bluster and repetition of his father’s faults and bluster, my Dad was more determined than anything in this entire world to be the most loving father on this planet. And that is where my father beats every single person in this room.
My first memory of my father is him coming home from work when I was little. He’d pick me up and put me on the top of the refrigerator, my little feet dangling over the freezer door. And in that moment, I realize he had the two things he loved most in life together in the exact same space: his family and food.
As I got older, when I started writing and I asked my first editor, “How do books sell?” he told me that books are very different than movies. With movies, if you like the preview and the big star, you go see the movie. But with books, it’s usually because someone says to you, “You gotta read this book.” So he said to me, if you want your novel to sell, one of two things has to be true: either you know lots of people. Or you know a couple people with really big mouths.
Now let’s really talk about my father.
He was a big guy⎯big presence⎯big voice. As a dear friend said, you knew when he entered the room, any room, whether it was nearby or not. People just took to him. They were pulled to him like gravity.
And with that voice. Howyadoin? What’sitmakeadifference? His first impression was that of a mobster. And for those who hated him, I’m sorry to break it to you, but he hated you too. He was a giant ball of chaos and emotion, and it never mixed well with those who demanded too much order in their lives. But at the center of that chaos was always one thing: a blind, animalistic devotion. No one was as devoted and as protective as my Dad.
When I was nine or ten, back in Brooklyn, I remember when a group of older boys pretended they were my friends and said, “C’mon, come hang with us.” These were the cooler kids, so I was excited. But the moment they had me alone in the little jungle of trees behind our old apartment building, they took handfuls of prickly itchy plants and rubbed them in my hair, where they knotted and were unable to be taken out without cutting. I ran back to my apartment, hysterically crying. But it was father who found me. I remember his rage as he asked, “Where are those boys now?” I remember following right behind him as he plowed downstairs, raced up to them and literally grabbed the main bully by the neck and lifted him physically off the ground. The threat was a real one: “You go near my boy again and I. Will. Kill. You!” I remember being thrilled my father was doing it, even though I was just as terrified that he was really going to kill this boy. That’s not an exaggeration.
My favorite thing is that, in the past few days, a dear friend reminded me of when we were sitting at a Marlins game a few years ago and I saw a group of boys starting to bully Jonas and Matthew and Nicholas. He reminded me that I exploded, threatening to beat up these little bastards who were messing with my boys. As my friend said, “That's not a Teri influence, or a Flam influence, or an NMB influence. That was pure Brooklyn Stewie.” I’m proud to carry that ruthless protective spirit in me. It is what makes me who I am to this very day. And I thank you, Dad, for showing me how hard a man should love his family.
As time went on, that protectiveness found new outlets. When I got into Michigan and he knew he couldn’t afford it, he said to me, “You’re gonna go there,” determined to never let me down.
When my first book came out, it was my father who was the one who took it from the bottom shelf in the store (where it was filed alphabetically) and put it right at the top, where he thought it belonged (fuck alphabetically).
It was my father who’d go into the local Barnes & Noble and say, in that raspy ridiculous voice, “Yes, I’m wondering if you have the new Brad Meltzer book? He’s my favorite author in the world!” And the clerk would say, “Mr. Meltzer…we know he’s your son. We know.”
And I remember when my second book came out and my father was going in for hip replacement surgery. To be clear, he was terrified of this surgery because when he was eighteen years old and had knee surgery, he died on the table. He flatlined. And they brought him back to life. So now, he knows he doesn’t have the body of an eighteen year old, so he’s terrified that he’s going to die on the table. These are his last moments on earth! And his blood pressure is raging so hard, they have to give him tranquilizers just to calm him down before he can even get the anesthetic. So they calm him down; they take him upstairs. And he’s up there for an hour…an hour and a half… I’m saying, “Please, God, let him be okay.” And after two hours, they finally bring him down, and the doctor says, “Do you wanna go see him?” Of course I wanna see him. And I go into his room…and he’s totally out of it. He’s filled with tranquilizers and all the anesthetic…and he opens his eyes…he has no idea where he is, and⎯this is a true story⎯he says, “I love you.” And then he says, “I sold a dozen books up there.”
And I said, “That’s what you’re thinking of when you’re this close to death? That’s what you’re thinking of?” And I asked him, “Did you tell them about the paperbacks?”
When every book came out, we’d make a t-shirt or a hat. But it was my Dad who turned it into a regular part of his wardrobe. He’d be wearing one of my novels on his hat, and a “Brad Meltzer” t-shirt, and still going up to people and say, “Have you heard about the show Brad Meltzer’s Decoded? He’s my favorite author.”
The truth was, I was his only author. He read eight novels in his life: The Tenth Justice…Dead Even…only the ones I wrote. I’m not making that up. Like my sister said, all he cared about was us. And no one sold us better than my Dad.
In fact, a year ago, when he was going in for heart surgery and we were interviewing doctors, we went to this one doctor at Mt. Sinai who said, “When I do your heart surgery, we don’t cut you open. We do a small incision, and it doesn’t hurt, and you’ll be up in a day…” And we know he’s lying to us, but my Dad’s happy to hear it. Then we go into the next doctor’s office, who says, “Oh, your name is Meltzer. You’re Brad. I like your books.” Of course, I thank him. And then he explains, “I do the surgery the old-fashioned way. I crack your chest…I cut you open. It’s painful. It takes weeks to recuperate. And I’ve lost people on the table.”
So as we walk out, and I swear this is true, my father says, We found our guy. The old-fashioned one.
And I say, “Are you insane? Didn’t you hear what he said? They crack your chest…it’s painful…you can die on the table…”
“Yeah,” my father says. “But he buys the books.”
For me, one of the best came just a few months ago, when I brought my Dad to the Decoded filming here in Florida. I introduce him to the producer and cameramen and sound and makeup people. I give him a place to sit. And I tell him that once they say “Action,” he has to do one thing: be quiet. Have you ever asked my Dad to be quiet? Now…it’s a two minute take. Two minutes. That’s it. But as I start speaking, I can feel it. It’s like a black hole has opened on the side of the room and my father is shaking, fighting the urge to blurt something. It’s physically killing him. And then, the instant they yell, “Cut,” my father unleashes, telling the producer something vitally important, like where the best new Chinese restaurant is that he just found on Oakland Park Boulevard. Looking back, it’s the perfect analogy: my father, Stu Meltzer, could never be contained.
Everything else in my father’s life was unplanned. It was chaos. Like when he lost his job and decided to move from Brooklyn to Florida. He was 39 years old, but this was going to be what he called the “do-over” of life⎯he was going to start his life over from scratch. In 1983, he put me, my sister, and my Mom in the car, and headed to Florida with no job, no place to live, and only $1,200 to his name. My Dad left it all to happenstance. To his dying day, he couldn’t fathom consequences.
Yet on the very day I was born, my father went to the liquor store, and bought a bottle of Dom Perignon, which he planned to open up on my wedding day. Indeed, when we got in the car and drove from Brooklyn to Florida, most of our belongings⎯clothes and furniture⎯that’s the stuff that went in the moving van. But the items you don’t trust to the movers⎯the items you take directly in the car with you⎯that’s not stuff. That’s your life. And the ONLY items I remember in that car with us were the two bottles of champagne that sat behind our backseat headrests, rolling back and forth and baking in the sun. My Dad knew nothing about taking care of champagne, but those bottles were us. We were his life.
It was the one plan my father made. And the only plan he never gave up on⎯the only plan of his existence: Being that loving father to me and my sister. Making sure that if he had to sacrifice himself and take it square in the chest, the lightning would never strike twice.
And of course, that extended to his grandchildren.
I will be blunt here: I know my Dad loved me. He loved me as much as any father has ever loved any son. But. He loved his grandkids more.
He knew the sports gene skipped my generation. But it didn’t skip his Jonas. My father never missed a game. Never. A few weeks back, his health was so bad, he could barely stand at the baseball practice. So he drove his car up near the fence and simply watched from the front seat of his car. And this was just a practice.
It was the same with his Lila. He couldn’t walk a few months ago either. But that didn’t stop him from taking her⎯alone⎯to Aventura Mall, where he let Lila walk him from the Disney Store, to the opposite end of the mall, then back again when she finally picked out what she really wanted. You’ve seen my father walk⎯the way he’d hurl himself forward with each lumbering step. I know that walk hurt my father. But he made it for Lila.
And same for Theo, named after his Teri. Just yesterday, we found even more cars and presents and little videos that my Dad had stashed away just for him. It is why, in his coffin right now, my father is wearing a baseball cap. It says, “Best Pop Ever.”
I know where he first learned how to be that kind of Dad: he saw it in my mother’s father⎯my Poppy Benjamin. Like my father’s father, Benjamin came from nothing. But instead of an angry, permanent chip set into his shoulder, my mother’s father was filled with calm and satisfaction⎯content with the richness that came from nothing more than a loving family. To this day, I believe that relationship⎯between my father and his father-in-law, my Poppy Benjamin⎯was as vital to my father’s existence as his own relationship with my Mom.
And I know he learned it from my Mom, who loved him as passionately as he loved her. I know the word “passion” is an overused one, especially when describing a marriage. But that’s what my parents were.
When they met, my Mom actually had a date with another boy that night. My Dad said to her, “Let’s go talk.” Three hours later, she broke the date. Even back then, my Dad was the sensei of schmooze.
But it was a perfect match. Neither of them apologized for who they were. If they loved you, you knew it. If they hated you, you knew it too. They loved hard, and played hard, fought hard, and went out to Studio 54 until three in the morning back in the Seventies. They had high times and low times, but man, did those two love each other⎯which is all any marriage can hope for. And in the end, especially the way he missed her, they died like any other rock stars: disappearing young rather than fading silently away.
Without question, my Mom always knew that the big-tough-Stewie may’ve been the role he was taught to play…but deep down, it was the big soft mushy-hearted guy who was really at my Dad’s core.
Still…to be truthful, in those early years here in Florida, my dad was still a salesman like my grandfather.
He was a loudmouth. Like my grandfather.
He had a temper. Like my grandfather.
But somewhere along the way, my father started building his own life.
I remember just a few years after we moved here, going on an insurance sales call with my Dad. The entire way, he told me about the people we were going to see…what their family was like…what Italian restaurant they told him about…where their kids were going to school.
My father didn’t just come to sell you (though, yes, of course he did that). He came to get into your life.
Of course, that’s the reason people kept buying insurance from my Dad. If you wanted cheaper prices and good, informed service…he wasn’t your best bet. But thousands of people paid more and spent the little bit extra on their insurance just because their plan came with that added benefit: my father.
For Stewie, as everyone called him, that ability to talk to you⎯or any stranger⎯was primal. And yes, it’d be easy to say that it came from a need to connect…from a hole that was never filled by his own father. But y’know what my Dad would say to that? “That’s a buncha bullshit.”
What made my father different from every person in this room is that my Dad loved to connect. He loved to kibitz. My father is in the Guinness Book of kibitzing and making friends. Don’t believe me?
- In the history of the state of Florida, my father is the only person wearing a baseball cap in his driver’s license photo⎯and that was even before he had the scars on his forehead. He talked the DMV into it.
- At his dentist’s office, they told me that even when they had the tools down his throat, he was still talking.
- When he went into the hospital, his beloved Jennifer, the waitress from Bagel Cove, visited multiple time to see how he was doing.
- He then, last year, got invited to the wedding of the receptionist at the dentist office. Did you hear that? Y’know that receptionist that everyone walks right past? My Dad got invited to her wedding.
- Over the years, sure, my father made lots of enemies. But look around. He made far more friends.
I know. My father was a walking contradiction. The first to point out the hot girl at the baseball game…and then he’d go home and watch his favorite movies: chick flicks like Must Love Dogs. Serendipity (his favorite). He raised me on Cannonball Run and Three Stooges, but as he got older, my Dad loved sappy crappy movies. In one moment, he was loud and cursing and telling the most offensive dirty jokes…but then he’d be bringing everyone in the dentist’s office chocolates on Valentine’s Day (which he did⎯how else do you think he got invited to the wedding?). As my Mom knew, he was a mush at heart. And it was that soft mushy spot that was the most attractive part of him. THAT’S what let him connect the way he did.
Yes, he could turn on a dime, and had that temper, and he was always his own biggest worst enemy⎯but if you watered him with kindness, no one⎯repeat⎯no one produced more love. He had a neverending well of generosity that he shared with anyone he could possibly engage, from the haircutter…the dry cleaner…the dentist…the valets who parked his car…the motherland of Bagel Cove…if you flew with him, he’d walk the aisles of the plane, working the crowd, and by the time he landed, he’d have sold fifty books and have half a dozen new people that he’d brought into his life. You think they were just acquaintances. They were friends.
It became even clearer after the past few weeks and news spread that he was sick. Every single day, there’d be a new person in the hospital, visiting him. I didn’t know any of them⎯and I certainly had no idea of the impact he’d had on their lives. But they all knew about Jonas and Lila and Theo and me⎯and they all came⎯all of them telling me how much they loved Stewie.
I always knew he was a family man. But until recently, I don’t think I ever appreciated the role he played in this community. When I walked into Bagel Cove a few days after my father died, they were passing out photocopies⎯dozens of copies⎯of the funeral details since so many people had asked. On the back of the paper placemats, one of the waitresses said that she was collecting phone numbers of people who wanted updates on my Dad. As she unfolded the sheet, it was filled with names and numbers.
And so, thank you to all of you⎯the people who looked out for my father all these years. I appreciate every single one of you in a way I can’t express. It takes a village to raise a Stewie. But it also take a Stewie to make a village.
A special thanks to those who took care of him after my Mom died: Jennifer and all his pals at Bagel Cove, where, yes, they will be naming a daily special after my father. All the valets as his place. Plus my pals Mike Lemont and Wayne Pollak, the two doctors who looked out for him and all of us.
In the end, during my last real conversation with my father, I knew he was on his deathbed. We’d decided not to tell him to go be with my Mom⎯we knew he was too scared of being sick and didn’t want to panic him. But when everyone left the room, I told my Dad two things I wanted him to hear. And one of them was this: That as my Dad, he was never like his own father. Never.
To this day, I know where my ability to kibbitz comes from. And my love of dumb comedies. And my ability to curse. And fight. And lose my temper, especially if you mess with my family. And love my kids with such intense, blind love that I swear I can outshine the sun.
I know that any strength or confidence I have comes from that love my father⎯and mother⎯built as a foundation in me.
I know that that love will never recede, especially when he said to me, a few years ago when things weren’t going well, the words that I repeat to myself every day: “You’re still our little boy.”

I know my father gave me my best parts. But no one gave him his.
Stewie Meltzer found his own best parts on his own. He hunted and collected them and found them in his wife, in her family especially my Poppy and the Katzs, in us, in the Flams, in my Uncle Jeff and Aunt Debbie and of course, in every single one of you.
Everything my Dad got in life, he fought for. Especially when it came to kindness. But that was also the very first thing he gave back.
He lived loud, and proud, and always with his heart out on his sleeve.
But best of all, he proved once and for all that love is a far more powerful force than lightning.
I love you, Pop.