A Life Far Distant from My Own

By Lisa Goren

A Letter

On behalf of the Social Security Administration’s Cleveland Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, please accept our condolences on the loss of your brother and our colleague, Dr. Hershel Goren.

I speak for everyone when I say that our thoughts are with you and your family.

I hope that you find solace at this time, as you learn of the difference which he made in lives far distant from your own.

Respectfully,

XXXX

U.S. Administrative Law Judge

Hearing Office Chief

That’s the letter my dad received in early 2013 two weeks after his older brother’s death.

The Unimportant Details

At 9:30 p.m. on a Friday night in late December, my dad called me.

“Hi.”

“Hi.”

“Uncle Hershel died.”

“Um, what? How? Where? Of what? Can you tell me more information?”

Pause.

Pause.

“Not really. They found him in his apartment. They don’t know when it happened.”

They didn’t know when it happened because he lived alone. He lived in the same one-bedroom apartment in the Shaker Heights neighborhood of Cleveland for 40 years. The only way they knew something was wrong was because of the deal he struck with the building super (I picture him like Schneider a la “One Day at a Time,” but only because Pat Harrington fills in a lot of blank face Every Men in my imagination). The deal was if there were two newspapers outside his door, Schneider should further explore. A neighbor alerted Schneider of the two papers and he promptly retrieved the apartment keys. I can only imagine the feeling he must have had when he put the key in the lock. I know I’m projecting when I imagine my own knotted stomach and shaky hand, while conjuring an image of what awaited on the other side of the door.

The details of what Schneider found are unimportant, as there was nothing horrifying, or tragic (despite the obvious) and only the most certain indication that my uncle died immediately of causes that will always remain unknown, but decidedly natural.

This happened during the weekend before the new year, so arranging a Jewish funeral in Michigan when the body was in Cleveland and ensuring the burial and Shiva could all happen in good time, was a bit challenging, but as is usually the case, things fall into place. At the funeral, I sat between my dad and my aunt, staring at the simple pine box hovering over a six foot deep hole, thinking about how little I knew about the occupant of said box.

The Man

Dr. Hershel Goren completed his residency at the Mayo Clinic, served in Vietnam, spent most of his career as a neurologist at the Cleveland Clinic and in retirement became an expert witness for the Social Security Administration. He was awarded a full ride to Michigan State University and as a debt of his gratitude, started the Hershel Goren Scholarship. A similar opportunity exists for medical students at Wayne State University.

He graduated from medical school and went straight to Vietnam, an experience captured in only a handful of slides, a short diary, neatly pressed uniforms and a prayer shawl Jewish soldiers were told to bring with them to the war in case they never made it home. Members of my family divided up the small number of possessions we found personally valuable, including the reflex hammer neurologists use, which sits on my parent’s mantle.

Hershel never married, never moved, rarely took a new route to work and stopped traveling after 9/11. His Saturday could not be disrupted by family visits because he had a regular trip to the fish market to complete and cookbooks to adhere to in alphabetical order, no less. We imagine those endless weeks of consuming chicken to be the most dreary.

When one lists the details of my uncle’s life, it seems confusing, or sad or monastic or unfulfilled. However, my dad made what is likely the most accurate statement: “His internal life was fulfilled.” While the rest of us are busy amassing large quantities of stuff—bigger houses, nicer cars, iPads, iPhones, full DVRs, children and food, my uncle lived no differently than he did during his four years of residency.

An Enigma

His austere lifestyle is curious to most, but I believe we’ve become too critical of those who live among us, yet a bit off the grid. Many of us rely on items of luxury, viewing them as surrogates for deep connections and relationships. The thing is, Hershel didn’t need those either. His closest companions were books. His hundreds of books. Besides the four eight-foot tall bookcases lining the living room walls, he had three rows of almost equally tall bookshelves perpendicular to his bed, making it possible to only exit or enter from one side.

For most of our childhood, our uncle was an enigma to my brother and I. We most poignantly remember his laugh, an exact replica of Robert Carradine’s Lewis from Revenge of the Nerds. We’d cower in the restaurant booth when my dad would purposely make him laugh just to watch the rest of us bite our lips fighting our own chortles. We remain puzzled by the monogrammed briefcase he bestowed on my brother in recognition of his Bar Mitzvah. Naturally, what does a newly minted 13 year-old man need more than a monogrammed briefcase?

It wasn’t until I was an adult, well into my 20’s, when I saw a flicker of DNA match with my uncle. During the George W. Bush years, my dad would conference me into his weekly Sunday calls with my uncle. I quickly realized we shared a disdain for the Far Right and I relished in our shared love of progressive politics. After his death, my aunt and uncle became the recipients of the largest collection of lefty publications via Hershel’s forwarded mail.

An Ordinary Day

As with many deaths, even of those who live into their 70’s, one can’t help but be struck by the haste with which death whisks us away. Hershel wasn’t expecting to die. When we entered his apartment to clean it, inventory it and empty it, we discovered an ordinary morning—breakfast dishes in the sink, a to-do list, a message from the dry cleaner that his clothes were ready for pick up. We felt intrusive, like he’d come home at any moment and catch us there.

Bless my brother for taking on the months of organizing and cleaning. As in the ancient ritual of washing the body of the deceased, I felt closest to my uncle when I helped my brother clean Hershel’s apartment. Folding dusty suit jackets, thumbing through books on his shelf, emptying out the refrigerator—these tasks brought me closer to a man with whom I shared little more than a last name and a fondness for Dennis Kucinich.

The Distance

It is easy to judge those who don’t make a lifetime of deep connections. In fact, much has been written about people’s deathbed regrets, which typically orbit a central theme of yearning to spend more time with loved ones. Decidedly, most of us, particularly my fellow extroverts, would see my uncle’s life as hollow and sad.

But I think we can all agree that we each crave some larger purpose and quest for life’s meaning. I can’t say for sure, but I believe my uncle lived his purpose and found his meaning. Hershel helped thousands of people, including my mother who suffered a very rare type of stroke, overcome neurological adversity. And he helped those who were debilitated by injury get the government support they needed. While he resided in a tax bracket that should have nudged him onto the right side of the ballot, he grew outraged at the imbalance of wealth and lack of access in this country that most closely impacted those who lived lives far distant from his own, as the US Administrative Law judge stated. She seemed to fully grasp the complex humanity of the man who regularly testified in her courtroom.

His headstone reads: Loving Son, Brother, Uncle, Quiet Giver. This is exactly who he was. The more I learn of my uncle through his death, the more I realize that on the surface, the external trappings of his life were very distant from my own, but who he was on the inside, is so much of who I want to be.

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