My Dying Father Taught Me Life's Greatest Lesson: What Do We Have To Be Afraid Of?

Joel Eisenberg
Me and my father, Richard Eisenberg. June 11, 2000.Nettie Eisenberg

If you are in the process of losing a parent, or dealing with the illness of a loved one, maybe you will find some comfort from these words.

My dad died on January 10, 2011, of progessive fatty liver disease. The larger picture is he drank only once a year — one glass of wine during the Jewish holiday of Passover — and though he was overweight much of his life he had no indication of ill health.

And that’s the rub. That's why we will never be sure exactly how he acquired his illness.

Dad never visited a doctor… until he had to.

From the Mayo Clinic: Fatty Liver Disease, also known as hepatic steatosis, is an increased buildup of fat in the liver. Major risk factors include obesity and Type 2 Diabetes, though it’s also associated with excessive alcohol consumption. It usually causes no symptoms. When symptoms occur, they include fatigue, weight loss, and abdominal pain. Treatment involves reducing the risk factors such as obesity through a diet and exercise program. It is generally a benign condition, but in a minority of patients, it can progress to liver failure (cirrhosis).

Dad was in the minority of those patients. His illness progressed and was only discovered when he slipped off three snowy, slippery steps of a New Jersey Command bus while exiting into a freak snowstorm in late-2004.

The doctors said they saw a “spot” on his liver while testing him. His remaining years were filled with regular hospitalizations, extreme fatigue, symptoms mimicking Alzheimer's disease and, in the end, a loss of speech.

I so wanted to give Dad a piece of my liver. I had poured over articles online, and read that partial liver transplants to certain patients can be a life-saver. He said he cared more about my quality of life and refused. I spoke to the doctor, regardless, as in no way was I going to lose him if I could somehow help him regain his health. The doctor said for various medical reasons the man I looked up to my entire life, my role model, was beyond help.

A liver transplant in his instance would not be effective.

I fought that fight with various medical staff, and at one point I had to face reality. Though no one knew what caused the illness, the source didn’t matter.

Dad would soon go into full-blown cirrhosis.


One day in the hospital I played “Gonna Fly Now” from “Rocky,” on a hand-held Sony CD player, when my dad struggled to walk to the bathroom. He couldn’t stop laughing, which was great to see and hear. On his way back to bed, Dad told me a “secret.” He asked me not to say anything to either of my two brothers. Only my mom knew, who was by then in the room with us.

“September 11 caused my disease.”

I patronized him, and never believed it but he was adamant. He repeated this comment variously over the next year as though he had searched for a reason, and only this made sense to him.

“But you never went to a doctor,” I said, without pushing the matter.

“Makes no difference,” he said. “I know what caused this. I only worked blocks away on Wall Street.”

I was stunned when I read this story from

Though Dad was not a Ground Zero worker, I found this possible connection intriguing.

It was the first time I had read anything of this nature, and now I wonder: Could Dad have been right after all?

My wife and I were still sleeping, in Los Angeles, on the morning of September 11, 2001, when the phone rang and went to voicemail.

“Joel, I just want you to know your dad and your brother are fine.” It was my sister-in-law, from New Jersey. Her husband, my brother, worked near Wall Street. My father worked on Wall Street.

I jumped out of bed and grabbed the phone.

“What the hell’s going on?”

“You don’t know?”

“Know what?”

“Oh God, Joel. Put on the television.”

That’s how my wife and I found out what had happened.

Through some miracle, Dad and my brother managed to connect and about 12 hours later arrive home back in New Jersey.

My other brother, who had worked in the Trade Center for many years and quit months before, lost friends who still worked there.

A poet friend of mine ran out covered head to toe in ash, and still struggles to make sense of it all.

My brother-in-law’s office was destroyed, and friends of mine were photographed running in the ash.

My wife and I cried thinking how close our loved ones had come that day, and our hearts were given to those directly impacted.

And, again to Dad, somehow he believed he knew something the rest of us just could never understand. He was convinced of it. He also knew I wouldn't believe it but we had a deal. We would be honest with one another because, he would say, most people tell others what they want to hear, as opposed to what they need to hear.


Journal Notes

I have been an avid journalist since I was a young boy. As a writer, chronicling family conversations became a regular practice. My memory has always been sharp; what I did not recall, I filled in as accurately as I could. The following two conversations -- one with Mom, one with Dad -- still resonate.

January 6, 2010:


“I don’t like bothering you or your brothers about this,“ Mom said, “but I’m telling you Dad isn’t right.”

“What happened?”

Mom has been saying this for a few weeks now. I heard the panic in her voice, a desperate plea for understanding.

“He’s just not your Dad,” she tried to explain. “The first thing is last night he woke up in the middle of the night and asked for sugar,” she said. “Then he asked me for the money.”

“What money?”

“What money, how do I know what money? That’s the point.”

“Was he sleepwalking, maybe?”

“I thought he was, but then this morning when he was supposed to put his pants on, he was ready to walk out of the house naked and he was fighting with me.” She broke down. “Joel, tell me this isn’t the end of us already. We’re too young. We have too much more to do…”
Dad and Mom, Nettie Eisenberg, in 1977.Joel Eisenberg

April 10, 2010:

Me: We gotta talk.

Dad: Yes?

Me: This isn’t easy for me. I love you and this isn’t easy — 

Dad: What isn’t easy?

Me: I’ve always been the only one who could talk to you this way… You can’t use the checkbook anymore. You’re just making too many mistakes lately.

Dad: Oh you think so, do you?

Me: C’mon, I’m not joking.

Dad: Who said I’m joking? Are you joking?

Me: I’m sorry, but Mom’s gonna do the checks from here on.

Dad: Then let her do it.

I wasn’t sure how to take that, so I asked him a question that had been on my mind for weeks:

Me: Are you scared?

Dad: What do I have to be scared about?

He didn’t skip a beat. We stayed on for awhile longer, and his answer haunted me. We ended, simply: with this:

Me: I got you. I love you.

We hung up and he unexpectedly called back later that day. He wanted to discuss our family’s past, and our family’s future. A future, likely soon, without him.

Me: Hi. Is everything okay?

Dad: Honestly? Nah, not really.

Me: Not really? What’s happening?

Dad: I need your help. You and your two brothers. I need you to help me with mom.

Me: I don’t understand.

Dad: God bless your mother, but she gets so mad at me. And that sets me off. She needs to realize I can’t walk like I used to. I get tired and –

Me: She says you’re lazy and your brain is turning to mush. She says you don’t even do puzzles anymore. You understand she has a point. You’ve told me this.

Dad: I can’t… I can’t do right now… I need for everyone, for you guys and especially your mother, to understand… When I get over this, it’s one thing, but for now …

Me: What can we do?

Dad: Can you please talk to her? I love your mother, I know she means well. But this is very hard now. I know she’s doing everything to support me and I love her for it. If I didn’t have her, I wouldn’t know where I’d be. But she doesn’t need to suffer, and I don’t want to fight with her anymore.

He was upset, more so than I could ever recall. My father and I continued to speak daily, but he was clearly getting weaker.


Months thereafter, my dad had become incapacitated. Ultimately, he could neither speak nor move.

I arrived back home in California on January 5, 2011, having spent a week in Florida helping my mom and saying goodbye to my dad as he entered hospice. My two brothers then arrived in Florida.

On January 10, I had a series of telling dreams. At one point, my eyes squinted open and I looked up at my mom. This is it, I thought. “Tell me,” I said. Her face said it all, though I needed to hear it from her. “Tell me,” I repeated. Nothing. She clearly wanted to say something, but simply could not. “Please … tell me.” Her face was contorting; my poor mom. She’s been through so much; I shouldn’t put her through this now. She continued to struggle. As did I. “Mom… tell me… Tell me! Tell me! TELL ME!!”

I had fully roused. “Tell me,” I cried. “Mom… please — “

I woke up from my Monday morning nightmare moments thereafter. I grasped for my glasses and looked at the clock. 3:01AM. Falling back asleep was useless. Lorie, my wife, was still deep in slumber. No surprise. I left the room, gently closed the door, and stumbled into my home office.

Once inside, I flicked on the lights. Everything as it was. Nothing had been altered in any way. I couldn’t focus and surfed the net, still troubled by the vivid images of minutes before. Now was not the time for anything constructive — a jump on the newest script, dishes in the sink. Instead,,,, AOL News … collectively my morning ritual. Nothing of any matter, save for the radio reporting a series of severe snowstorms ravaging the east coast.

I fell asleep in my chair, and this time, Dad came to me in a reverie.

“I’m okay," he said. "Let me go.“

He once that to me over the phone, losing patience during one of his hospital stays. He hated that hospital. Not that anyone could blame him, of course. But as the disease began to take its toll, our long phone conversations became short and curt. And they almost all ended the same way.

“Let me go.”

I couldn’t.

I couldn't ever let go.

It was barely two hours later when my phone rang. 5:22.

“Joel, it’s me.” My brother, Mike, calling from Florida. “Dad died.”


The following is an excerpt from my eulogy, delivered on January 13, 2011, to a full chapel on a snowy Staten Island Thursday…

Several weeks ago I traveled to Florida from Los Angeles to visit my parents. Following what would prove to be one of our final encounters, I wheeled my dad’s chair, his wheelchair, back to his car. I had spent the prior two days wheeling him in and out of his apartment; this time, though, his chair was empty. It was late at night, and he had just been admitted — again- into the hospital. In moments I would fold the chair and place it in the trunk, my tears spilling over the likelihood that one day soon this chair, my dad’s chair, would be donated and used for someone else. I walked as quickly as I could; my mom and Toby were behind me. I didn’t want to expose myself that evening, after all, I was supposed to be the Rock of Gibraltar. I was there to support my mom and dad in their time of need. Well, Gibraltar cracked that night, and no one was on to me.

To appreciate the significance that that chair holds to me… requires jumping back in time to an event that took place 40 years before. My parents, myself, four year old Mike and Neil, barely a year, up and moved to Aurora, Colorado, from Brooklyn, New York. I was seven years old and had become quite ill with acute asthma. To give me a fair chance at a good life, my dad transferred his employment to Colorado. He and my mom hoped that my asthma would be cured by moving to the Mile High City. They had little money; we had been living in the Sheepshead Bay Projects but the risk was worth it for him. I was not well. I had to be wheeled in a baby stroller at seven years old, placed in the car, then transferred from the car to the stroller again as we made our way to and through the airport. Ultimately he and my mom proved to be right. Aside from an occasional flare, I had outgrown my asthma. Their plan worked.

I reflected on that experience as I folded his wheelchair, flashing back to how much he sacrificed by giving me a fair chance. There goes the rent control, the job security… I had spent the prior few days pushing my dad in that wheelchair. He wasn’t so strong anymore, but I now prayed like a child for my dad, at 70 years old, to outgrow his illness, just like I had so many years before. This way, he could one day stand again and discard the chair on his own, just as I had with the stroller.

But it was not to be. That miracle simply did not happen.

He passed away barely two weeks later. I recall our final photo together, taken hours before he was admitted to the hospital for the last time.

I contemplate that image of my dad in this condition and ponder, When it’s time, it’s time. What do we have to be afraid of?
Richard Eisenberg: July 29, 1940-January 10, 2011Nettie Eisenberg


Conclusion: Why This Article? Why Now?

Quite frankly, I know too many people who have lost mothers or fathers to Covid-19.

I wanted to share with News Break readers my personal experiences as it regards losing a parent.

My larger reason is I have been reading a great deal about people who are unsure how to emotionally handle the dying of a loved one. I do not profess to have all the answers, or any for that matter, but my expressing love when that love was most needed is something I believe I should share.

Consider this to be a sincere effort to help.

I have seen time and again what a lack of closure does to a person. I embraced my father when he was alive. I embraced him though the process of dying. And I continue to embrace him today, nearly a decade since his passing.

If you are fortunate to have shared a positive relationship with a parent who is now ill, or dying, keep that relationship positive. You are needed now more than ever. If you are not, or have not been, as fortunate, the time to forgive is now.

These words are not religiously-driven, as I hold no formal religious beliefs. I prefer to think of myself as a human being who does what he can to help others. My father was in hospice care in his last days. He was well-cared for. I’m convinced he felt the love all around. After all, on the family side he and my mom were married 44 years. She, myself and my two brothers have gotten on with our lives as Dad would have wanted.

Though none of us are in any rush, we’ll all get there too soon enough. Once more, considering everything, in moments my father could have panicked, he matter-of-factly taught me a life lesson. Did he mean it, or was he trying to make me feel better?

I'll never know... but I am no longer scared of dying.

I so wanted him to stop suffering.


Post-Script: Dad’s passing holds a whirlwind of meaning to me, but I would like for it to hold meaning to you as well. Please get annual medical checkups. Never be afraid to visit the doctor whenever you believe necessary.

Without your health there truly is nothing.

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I am an award-winning author, screenwriter for film and television, and producer. My mission on News Break is to share socially important perspectives on both culture and pop-culture. Member of PEN America, and the WGA.

Northridge, CA

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