From a relatively young age I understood the circle of life began with birth and ended with death. But no matter how many people I've lost along the way, nothing could really prepare me for the loss of my father. The deep sorrow that is mourning is impossible to shake. What makes his passing all the more challenging is the fact that he was the kindest, most patient, humble, mathematically brilliant, artistic, creative and thoughtful human beings I have ever met.
I spent many days in the hospital during the final weeks of my dad's life and there was a lot of time to reflect. I had time to really think about the kind of person my father was-- not just as my guardian and in the role as my dad, but who he was as a person. I thought about his life and the way he conducted himself…
At his core he was incredibly kind, illustrated by the way he cared for his parents throughout their lives and, most importantly, when their health began to fail. He was patient and would spend hours educating thousands of students in the complex language of mathematics. He even took on the role as my math tutor as I was preparing for the SATs - a task, trust me. My father had a wry sense of humor and was relatively quiet (at least when being compared to some of the female members of our family), but whenever he spoke it was always with purpose and thought. He was a thinker and intellectual, but he would never label himself as those things because he was far too humble. My father lived by the adage, "if you can't say anything nice then say nothing at all." I kept coming back to that- I never heard my father utter an unkind word about anyone. Not ever. He didn't gossip or engage in petty attacks and he never complained… not even when his health declined as a result of Multiple Sclerosis. My father chose to ignore his illness for as long as possible. He lived with a medical condition that could have derailed his life, but my father carried on with dignity, poise and determination. He was thankful for every day of his life and he was good to the core.
My dad was born in New York City and grew up in the Bronx. He went to the City College of New York, the crown jewel in the city's public university system. Somewhere along the way my father decided he wanted to be a teacher, an educator. We always knew that my father had a huge impact on the lives of his students because many of them lived in our community. There were random occurrences like the time my father and I were taking the A train and a man, who was sitting on the other side of the subway car, stared at us for a few minutes before standing up and announcing, "This man, Jay Stepelman, he changed my life." As about 50 onlookers watched the unfolding scene, the man ran up to my dad and started shaking his hand vigorously and then thanked him profusely before hopping out near 116th Street.
In the days that followed my father's death, hundreds and hundreds of people made their way to the funeral, the burial and the shiva. The outpouring of support was incredible. Even more amazing were the letters from former students who spanned decades. Many of his students were now physicians (most of his doctors were his former students) at the top of their field or professors at MIT, UPenn, and Georgia Tech,while some were successful in other fields and businesses. All of the letters we received had the same overall theme: my father was kind, brilliant, a dedicated educator and he changed the lives of his students. As one former-student wrote, "He had high pedagogical values and a belief that even the young could reach his exacting standards." Another former-student wrote that my father, "was without question, the most inspiration and influential teacher I ever had. He changed the course of my life. He gave me a love of mathematics (and subsequently science) which remains with me today." This student went on to MIT, then Brown, and became a Mechanical Engineering Professor at Georgia Tech. He wrote, "I have had many students, written many papers, received awards and some degree of notoriety- none of which would have occurred had I not known Mr. Stepelman. He was far more than a great teacher- he care about his students and cared about mathematics in ways the produced extraordinary results…"
My father went on to publish several books, including Milestones in Geometry and Teaching Secondary Mathematics. He was also a painter and he loved classical music. He enjoyed spending time in Upstate New York, where we had a country home in the Catskills Mountains. I've been combing through old photos my mother sent me and I'm struck by just how cool my dad was…he loved gathering with friends, rowing his boat and cooking over the grill.
The end of my father's life wasn't easy. He spent over 325 days in hospitals and rehab from September 2012 till his death in May. There were beeping machines, ICUs, physical therapy sessions, pills to take, and every time he was released to go home he would eventually return to the hospital weaker than the previous time. It was a vicious cycle. Throughout all of this, my mother was by his side. One Monday, as I was checking in at security desk of NY Presbyterian Hospital (Columbia), the man filling out the information card told me, "Your mother is incredibly strong. I want you to know that she has never missed a day. Not a single day. She's always visiting him." Considering the length of my father's hospitalizations I thought that was incredible. It also speaks to my mother's dedication for her partner of over 40 years. This loss has been very hard on her.
My dad isn't suffering anymore and so there is a small bit of relief that he's not in pain. But for selfish reasons I wish he was still here. I wish I could say hello to him again. I wish I could ask him how he was doing (his response was always, "Thank God."). I wish he could see Otis and Theodore grow up and be part of their lives. I wish I could hear his voice again. It breaks my heart that I can't. I hate death in all its permanence and finality. We are all struggling with this loss. But I remind myself to take comfort in all the good memories. Memories of my dad painting a giant mural in our basement, of his famous matzo brei, of pumpkin carving, of crafting Purim costumes, of building snowmen and sledding after storms. I think of the kindness he gave to his parents during their final years, of the book parties that celebrated his mathematical publications, of our summers spent in Upstate New York, of the joy he felt during every milestone in my life including my graduation from college and then law school, my admission to the Washington Bar, and my marriage. He was there for the birth of both my children, and I know that is all very special…
I am trying to be thankful for all the good things. I am so lucky that I had a father like mine. He was so good and so kind. And in his final days we were all with him. He was never alone, not for a moment. He thanked my brother and me for being wonderful children and we thanked him for being a wonderful father. We all took turns manning the fort (his room) and engaged him in conversation when he was not sleeping, but towards the end he slept a lot. I had the overnight shift on his penultimate night and my brother was with him during his final moments on Earth.
On Memorial Day, May 26th, my mother and I were getting ready to go back to the hospital when the phone rang. It was my brother. My mother picked up and I heard her scream. I knew what had happened. It was the saddest moment of our lives.
My father's legacy includes a long list of people who he helped, people whom attribute their accomplishments to him. He left a close-knit family that includes my mother, me, my brother, a son-in-law, a daughter-in-law, 8 grandchildren and an extended family. We loved him and we miss him. There aren't any words that can adequately capture the amount of gratitude I feel towards my father for loving me unconditionally (even through my teenage years), and for being a constant source of kindness and inspiration. I won the lottery when it comes to dads.
I hope to pass a lot of Grandpa Jay on to Otis and Theodore. My boys are too young to fully comprehend what has transpired over the past few months. But both Otis and Theodore know that their mom is sad and that Grandpa Jay is no longer with us in a physical sense. When I told Otis that Grandpa Jay died he said, "Don't be sad. He's in the sky taking Omar for a walk…"- a visual that is incredible to me because my father was wheelchair-bound and Omar, our Rottweiler of 14 years, could no longer walk towards the end of his life. I don't have answers to give my boys, or even myself, when they ask where Grandpa Jay is... but I like to think that wherever he is, he is watching over us.