My father did not die on 9–11. As he lay dying, however, he swore that tragic day caused the disease that took his life.
My father, my best friend and my hero, died nearly a decade following September 11, 2001. He passed on January 10, 2011, of progessive fatty liver disease.
I will never stop honoring him. I can never forget him.
The larger picture is my father 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.
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 storm 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.
Prior to his passing, the doctors guessed as to the reason behind his condition. They said he may have had undiagnosed hepatitis. They also said it could have been the alcohol -- until they discovered he was not a drinker.
None of it mattered. I was losing my life's role model. More importantly, Dad was suffering. The illness was slow, methodical. I hated seeing him linger like this.
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 went 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 was stunned when I read this story: Fatty Liver Afflicts Most 9/11 'Ground Zero' Workers .
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?”
“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.
As they do to this day.
And, again to Dad … somehow he believed he knew something the rest of us just could never understand. He was convinced of it.
He may have been right all along.
In his memory, I will never forget and always rebuild.
Richard Eisenberg: July 29, 1940-January 10, 2011
Our last photo together. On this night, Dad went back into the hospital for the last time. He died two weeks later.
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 is nothing. Thank you for reading.