Saturday, January 6, 2018

On Love, Laughter, and Good Conversations

The greatness of a man is not in how much wealth he acquires, but in his integrity and his ability to affect those around him positively. – Bob Marley
During a recent lunchtime walk, as I admired the sun’s reflection on the surface of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River a few blocks from my office, I reached for my phone to call my brother. For the past several years, I had called Steve every week or two. We would talk about how things were going in our respective lives, upcoming travel plans, and anything else that came to mind. But then I suddenly remembered that Steve was no longer with us, his number in my phone but a remnant of a past life. I placed the phone back into my pocket, looked at the still waters beside me and the blue skies above, and walked silently onward.

This has happened to me a few times since Steve died in early October. I am not sure why I experience these temporary lapses in memory. Others have told me it is a common experience and to be expected for anyone who has lost someone close to them. But it is at moments such as these when I am forced to contemplate the reality of loss, the certainty of death, and the fragility of life itself.

Another year has come and gone. Days pass ever so quickly as the steady drumbeat of life leaves me stranded on the abandoned tracks of time’s unrelenting forward progress. During a two-week stretch in early autumn, I forever lost the presence of two men I admired and respected – Andrea’s dad, my father-in-law, Marty Gelman, and my dear brother Steve. Through their deaths, Marty to natural causes at the age of 96 and Steve to brain cancer at 61, I am more intimately familiar with the temporary nature of life, compelled to appreciate more profoundly the importance of awakening to the wonder of each new day. For now and forever, it is the memories I will cherish, the shared experiences and momentary insights, the simple pleasures of a good meal and a good laugh.

I remember especially the little things, the quiet conversations with Marty on Sunday afternoons, the golf outings, ballgames, and childhood memories with Steve. “That’s when I realized that certain moments go on forever,” writes Lauren Oliver in the novel Before I Fall. “Even after they’re over they still go on, even after you're dead and buried, those moments are lasting still, backward and forward, on into infinity. They are everything and everywhere all at once.”

Marty and me, Thanksgiving 2016
Martin Gelman was a one-of-a-kind man who lived a full and meaningful life on his terms. (You can read of his many accomplishments and rich history here and here.) But what I will miss most are the many conversations I had with Marty about religion and politics, life and the world around us. Marty had a knack for listening and putting things into perspective – he provided a sense of historical insight, reminding us of the many ways life repeats itself. He had lived through the Great Depression, fought in World War II, and for fifty years taught anthropology and psychology at a local community college, where he became one of its most popular professors. For 35 of those years, he counseled patients from all walks of life in his center-city Philadelphia clinical psychology practice, earning the love and respect of countless admirers. He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross as a B-24 navigator during the Good War and was a member of the Greatest Generation. And yet, through it all he retained a sense of humility and unpretentiousness that made you immediately comfortable and at ease in his presence.

I was especially inspired by Marty’s life-long love of learning, for he believed that, as members of the human race, we are on this planet to learn, think, question, and search. He was often the first person to read a new essay I had composed. I looked forward to talking with him about what I had written, eliciting his opinion and, hopefully, affirmation. Our talks typically led to a much longer conversation about related topics concerning philosophy, politics, family life, my love of the St. Louis Cardinals (which he admired and found amusing, even as it perplexed him), and other things about which we sometimes agreed and sometimes did not.

I debated often with Marty about the nature and existence of God, with my defense of God’s existence sharply challenged by Marty’s inherent skepticism. Having survived fifty bombing missions over the skies of Europe in World War II, having learned of the horrors of the Holocaust, having witnessed the repeated failures of human morality and humanity’s misuse of technology for the sake of greed and power, he had many rational and logical reasons to question God’s existence. But in all of our talks, while he asked good questions, he never insisted he was right, and he retained a hopeful sense of possibility, which allowed us always to find common ground.

He was intrigued by my embrace of the teachings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who believed that God’s presence, though concealed, was everywhere, and that it was up to human beings to make God’s presence known by experiencing the everyday wonder of the universe. “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement,” wrote Heschel. “[T]o get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” I believe this resonated with Marty because, despite his secular rationalism and deep skepticism born of the evils of 20th Century atrocities, deep down he shared Heschel’s sense of wonder and amazement. And I loved that about him.

I will miss Marty and our talks, his wise counsel, and the love and compassion he had for all who entered his life. Even at the end of his life, when he had lost his physical agility and needed help with the daily things of life, with eating and sitting and getting dressed, he never lost his sense of humor, his compassion and concern for others, and his genuine interest in the wellbeing of us all. He was a living example of Heschel’s admonition, “Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.”

Steve and me at One World Trade Center
Fall 2016
My conversations with Steve were less intellectual, but he was my big brother, a source of encouragement and support I have always counted on. Steve and I shared a bond that went back a half century, to our childhood, when we found new and creative ways to have fun, played sports together, and shared life’s many adventures in a suburban New Jersey, Huck Finn sort of way. Steve was an incredibly fun-loving soul who never took life too seriously. When we were growing up in Moorestown, and later Hightstown, New Jersey, we did everything together. Although Steve was three years ahead of me in school, he let me hang out with his older friends and never excluded me from any activity. We played touch football in the backyard of our house with neighborhood friends, competed against each other in one-on-one basketball games, hit ground balls to each other in our backyard, pitched batting practice to each other at the local ball fields, and found all sorts of ways to have fun in the days before video games and technology kept all the kids indoors.

Although he possessed a perpetually childlike spirit, Steve was slightly defeated in later years, a touch beaten down by an adult life filled with heartache. When his first marriage ended in divorce, along with his career as an ordained Lutheran minister (a long story, to which I will say only that the then Bishop of the Southeastern Lutheran Synod was a rigid, unforgiving, and uncompassionate man who represented exactly the opposite of what the Church should be), he never fully recovered. He made his share of mistakes, but his negative experience with the church diminished his youthful zest for life. For years afterwards, though he retained his friendly nature and bright smile, a portion of his happy-go-lucky style disappeared and he developed emotional defenses that left him a touch guarded.  

And yet, Steve was among the most resilient and resourceful people I have ever known. He always found a way to make things work. Whatever sadness he harbored in later years, he continued on with dignity and fortitude. He found love and happiness again, restored his relationship with his two children, whom he dearly loved, and performed well in his new careers in banking and business.

Before he became too sick to speak at any length, when he still had his health and a sense of normalcy, Steve and I spoke nearly every week by phone. Some days we would talk about the pressures of work, the daily struggles to succeed and make a living. On other days we talked about politics, our kids, our shared passion for baseball and our past dreams of baseball glory. By the time we had reached mid-life, our childhood experiences were but faded memories of days long past. But even as time and distance came between us, we always remained friends and knew we would always be there for each other. Steve was one of the few people in life with whom I shared deep-seated memories and formative childhood experiences. And though we never made it to the major leagues, we understood our baseball dreams for what they were – the longings of young men learning as we go, providing support and encouragement along the way.

So, as a new year beckons and life journeys onward, here is to the memories of two kind and decent people who found a way to enrich the world with their presence, their dignity, and their generosity of spirit. Though they were distinctly different individuals, Marty and Steve each in their own way left the world a little better than they found it. I will miss them both, but I will forever cherish the many memories, of love, laughter, and good conversation. 


  1. What a beautiful tribute. Aunt Gert always told me to read your blog and I never found the time. Alas, I will now make the time ,thanks, Mark for your lovely words. I look forward to reading more posts.

    1. Marina - Thank you for the kind words and for taking the time to read this tribute.