I will never forget where I was on December 21st. It was 4:15 pm on a very cold and grey day in Montreal. I had a shovel in my hand. But I wasn’t clearing snow. I was shovelling dirt in a graveyard, helping to landscape my father’s final resting place.
When you live inside my head you bounce around a lot of heaven and earth. Forced to believe in what’s here and wanting to believe in what’s up there. Nothing makes me want to believe in heaven more than shovelling dirt onto a casket in a cold graveyard. I want to think that the man who taught me about the meaning the life, loyalty, honour, devotion, love, responsibility, honesty and work ethic... I want to believe the man I worshipped is with the God he worshipped. That while his remains are in that graveyard that the soul of the man is in a better neighbourhood.
I have been holding off for the last few weeks in telling you my father passed away because I was foolish enough to think that if I did not tell you that he died, that I could somehow keep him alive. In the family I grew up in, RADIO was the way we got the important news. When we landed in Canada in 1957 and my dad got work in the factory, and started getting some steady paycheques, the first thing we saved up for wasn’t a car, or a TV, it was a radio -a great big one with keys that looked like ivory. The sounds coming out of Nordmende Radio were awesome. We listened to Music. And we listened to great events like Bobby Hull and his Chicago Black Hawks at the Montreal Forum playing Jean Beliveau and the Montreal Canadiens. If something didn’t make it to radio it just wasn’t very important.
In those days breaking news was restricted to events that would some day be called history. And the breaking news was called a News Bulletin. We listened to the man on the radio giving the bulletin that Mr Kennedy and Mr Kruschev had a deal, and nuclear missiles would be removed from Cuba, and World War III was now officially on hold. If it was important it was announced on the radio, by the man on the radio. Nothing made my father pay attention more to anything than a News Bulletin on that magic box called the Radio.
There’s a picture I have of a smiling 5-year-old blond haired blue-eyed child reading a book, with his proud and adoring father beside him. The love in his eyes is warm, deep, and authentic. The child looks like the luckiest little boy on earth. And that child is me. That child became a radio man for one reason - I never wanted my father to stop looking at me the way he did in that picture. I wanted his attention, admiration and approval. And as long as I had it, I felt alive, and worthy. And in the past few weeks, my foolish child’s mind wanted to believe that if there was no voice on the radio announcing the important news that my father had passed, than he was still alive. Maybe I could do what the doctors and the nurses and the machines and the drugs and the prayers could not do. Maybe if it wasn’t said on the radio, it did not really happen. Well it’s time for this fool to do his job, the way my father would expect me to.
So here it is officially on the radio. Mike Adler has died at the age of 92. He was very well known in the West End Montreal community of Snowdon where he owned and operated Adler’s Tailor Shop on Queen Mary Road for four decades. I have been doing a lot of driving since the day I held the shovel in my hand. And I’ve been listening to music. Some of the tunes have comforted me, lyrics that reminded me of my dad, the eyes would well up. Sometimes I would just get off the road and have a bit of a cry. It’s OK for guys to cry. I’ve heard the man on the radio say that. I said that a few years ago, remembering how difficult it was to learn how to cry.
My Mom and Dad survived the war - barely. And because they feared there would be another one and that they and I might become separated just as they become separated from their families, that I better be strong and tough and show no weakness toward those who murder the weak without mercy. So crying was not permissible. A few months after I turned 33, I suffered a personal loss and became depressed and got help, and one of the first things the doctor had to do was to teach me how to cry. I had to feel those most intense of feelings which were shut off by that valve my father gave me with the power of his personal truth. The feelings I needed to feel in order to recover the twinkle of my own eye, the strength of my own voice, were unavailable to anyone including me. When the doctor said that I couldn’t heal unless I learned to cry, I looked him in the eye and said 'you don’t understand Doctor, Mike Adler’s son doesn’t cry'. And he said, "This is not about Mike Adler. It’s about you, Charles. You’re very sick. And you’re going to learn to cry or everything inside you that was given to you by Mike Adler is going die. If you care about all that he gave you, you will take what I’m saying seriously". In case the good doctor is listening, Sir I have good news for you. Your former patient has not stopped crying since the phone rang thirty days ago with that private news bulletin from Montreal.
My father was born in the summer of 1922 in a little Hungarian village on the banks of the Tisza River on a flood plain that looks not much different than the Red River Valley of Manitoba. He came to visit this part of world back in the eighties and said this land looked very similar to where he was born. He was the son of shopkeepers. They owned Adler’s General Store. And so they sold everything that the hundreds of farm families in the area could possibly need. Everything. There were eight children to help with running the little family business. The store was downstairs and the family lived upstairs, until 1944, when the Nazis extinguished Jewish life in that village. Extinguished is a polite word. In my mind it’s never thought of as extinguished. They murdered my grandfather and my grandmother. They murdered my father’s baby brother and baby sister. My father never got to shovel dirt on their caskets. No caskets for the Adler ashes spewed from the Auschwitz Chimney. You now know why I was commanded not to cry. "In case the rotten bastards come again for you and your family", my father said, "you will never allow them to see you cry. Crying is a luxury my family cannot afford. I never want to see you cry. It would mean you have left your family undefended." My father lived 92 years 3 months and 19 days. I never heard him cry and the only time I saw tears in his eyes were during a scene from the Jazz Singer where the Cantor prays the prayer for the dead and it is for his living son who has sinned. My father showed just a few tears that would not ever fill his little thimble he kept beside his Singer Sewing machine. Not nearly enough tears for a thimble. Too many tears for what he considered safe for his family.
My father survived Hitler and Stalin. Yes, Stalin. While his parents and a brother and sister were deported, imprisoned and exterminated by Hitler’s rotten bastards, my father was a prisoner in one of Stalin’s camps in the so called Gulag, the hell of Siberia. They kept him there for for 3 years. Hitler just missed him and Stalin couldn’t kill him. But a fellow named Alzheimer was tougher and more relentless. Took him ten years to take a good man down and when it happens you’re told he’s in a much better place. It’s only better because by the time Alzheimer's finally turns your lights out, you can hardly see, hear or feel anything. And nothing makes sense when you forget who you are why someone like your own son doesn’t even look familiar to you and you can’t understand why he looks so damn sad. My father had no idea why I was so frustrated, perplexed and confused, when it became obvious to me that the most important relationship I ever had with a human being was now destroyed. What right did I have to be confused about what Alzheimer had done to this innocent. man. What right did I have to be frustrated. He’s the one whose mind had been invaded by the black dog of disease-Not me.
Frustration led to consternation and desperation. One is told all these years about how smart and creative and talented you are. But when you’ve Alzheimer's taking down you’re father, you don’t feel smart or creative. You’re thinking, 'How come I’m not smart enough to get my father to feel my love for him'. I try talking to him about his treasured store that carried the family name, Adler’s Tailor Shop. I know how much those three words always meant to to him . Adler’s Tailor Shop, 5009 Queen Mary Road. You take good care of the customers and they’ll take care of our family, he would tell me every day. I repeat the name of his precious store and there is no response. Experts tell me that’s not unusual and I say 'it’s unusual for him'. It’s the most unusual thing on earth for his son. They say the disease humbles people especially the family. Yeah it does humble us - but only after it humiliates us.
So three years ago, my brain came to terms with life’s ugliest fact. I was losing him. In the most important ways I had already lost him. And so for years I prepared myself for 3 pm Sunday Dec 21st, 2014, when a man in a dark suit would open the casket and invite me to visit with my dad for one last time. In the community I was raised in, the last person in the world you want to do business with is Mr. Paperman. But everyone does eventually. And there he stood, Joe Paperman, He was a classmate of mine at West Hill High School, back in the days when Simon and Garfunkel were doing Bridge over Troubled Water, Cecilia and my favourite, The Boxer. The Paperman family lived in a very elegant upscale neighbourhood. The kind the Adlers could never afford. But so many of our customers could and did, and they loved coming to visit my dad the tailor. It was never because he knew how to alter their clothes or dry clean and press them. They drove from all over town because of the moral force of his powerful personality. He regaled them with stories, offered opinion on the news of the day without sucking up to the sacred cows. The only thing that was sacred was being able to speak freely in a free land, and let the chips fall where they may. His honest opinions based on how he saw the world based on what he knew about human beings based on his compass , the Ten Commandments which his dad and grand dad and great grand dad told him were orders from The Lord, not to be questioned but obeyed righteously. I never thought of my father as an unusually religious man. But he was religious about those commandments, especially the one that read Honour thy father and thy mother. He would never do anything do dishonour them.
The mortician, my old classmate, gave me that look I never wanted to see, that look which says you may say goodbye now to your father. I got up from that chair in the chapel, and walked slower than a snail toward that casket. They lifted the lid and I got my very last look at the man I loved. And he looked not just handsome and wise, and loving. He looked beautiful. The shopkeeper who was the proud son of shopkeepers, my father Miklosz Mike Adler looked beautiful. I leaned over the open casket, kissed him on the cheek and said, "I love you Pa. I will always love you".
An hour later we’re at the cemetery and they lower the casket into the final resting place for Mike Adler’s body. I am instructed to take the shovel and shovel dirt upon the casket. It’s the end of the trail for Mike Adler in this world. I know that you know that while you have been at the receiving end of everything I have ever said, you’re the customer I have tried to take care of and you’ve taken care of my family. But you also know that while I have been talking to you from microphones in Montreal, Toronto, London, Hamilton, Winnipeg, Calgary, Vancouver, Boston, Florida’s Gulf Coast and California’s west coast and a whole lot of other places in between, I hope you don’t mind me telling you that the attention I gave you was somewhat divided. The man who passed one month ago today has never left my consciousness. I never stopped thinking of him, no matter what I was doing, but especially when I was visiting with you on the issues that matter the most. Life and Death would be one of those. Mike Adler has always been on my mind and as long as I’m breathing well enough to speak into this microphone, which is as precious to me as his Singer Sewing Machine was to him, I will be thinking about him and what he stood for and what he stood against.
I am the son of a tailor, an honest man who loved his family and his adopted homeland. Mike Adler loved Canada and my greatest honour in life is knowing that Canada has loved him back. I love you Pa. Thank you for loving Ma and always respecting her and for being devoted to her. Thank you for putting me in your backpack, for rescuing me, and for carrying me to freedom in Canada. Thank you for showing me what is it be a good father, a good husband, a good shopkeeper. Thank you for teaching me by how you lived, the meaning of honesty, hard work, loyalty and love. Thank you for my life. Thank you for loving me. Thank you for the twinkle in your eye. And if God loves you half as much as I do, you’ll be well taken care of. It’ll be warm and safe and elegant. You’ll get to live in the same neighbourhood as your customers and finally for Mike Adler, it will be safe enough to cry.
My name is Charles Adler, the son of Mike Adler, 1922 to 2014. May he Rest in Peace.
Please listen to the clip above. Radio Listeners can be so grateful when the person behind the microphone turns out to be a real human being. I have rarely appreciated a phone call from a listener more than this one. Ironically, she wasn’t calling my show. She was calling someone else’s show. But it was to thank me for the radio essay I did honouring my father’s life.