The Leo Way
by Alexandra Hewett
“There are two ways of doing things, the Leo Way or the wrong way.”
This was my father’s philosophy on life, influenced by his time as a soldier in the Korean War. Leonid Surak was precise and meticulous, but he was also kind, funny, and a selfless man. He was short in stature, around 5’6” and he was my superhero. He treated others with respect and was always available to help anyone at any time.
He was born in Belarus (at the time Byelorussia), which was then still part of the Soviet Union. When he was in his eighties, my father told me of his earliest memory when he was a child in the 1930s: “I remember the sound of the shot. KGB officers came to our home and murdered my father. My uncles were then taken to the Gulag in Siberia. We never saw them again.”
As a young boy, the eldest of two, responsibility was forced upon him to be the man of the house. I only knew that my grandfather died when my father was very young. Hearing this story made me understand the stoic nature of my father and his work ethic, and how this must have pained his heart.
As an adult, his role of husband was compromised into that of caregiver, as my mother’s struggle with mental illness crushed her ability to fulfill her duties of a wife, mother, and a person in general. My dad did it all. He drove me to school every day. He was my biggest fan in the audience for school plays or cheerleading competitions. He washed and ironed my clothes. He taught me how to read. He taught me how to drive a car.
My father was very active in the Democratic party and because of my mother’s illness, I happily tagged along with him to all his social engagements.
“Tell me the elevator story again,” I would beg him.
Wide-eyed, I marveled at his tale of meeting Barbara Streisand in an elevator at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City. This was a few years before she starred in Hello Dolly, one of my all-time favorite movie musicals. I was in awe that he actually talked to her, if only for a moment. I was certain Barbara would show up at one of the countless fundraising breakfasts or cocktail parties and belt out the theme from The Way We Were.
My dad always looked so dapper at these events, either in a suit or a navy-blue blazer. I would wear my Sunday best, a purple and white smocked gingham dress and black patent leather Mary Janes. One time we left an event singing in our worst Streisand impressions, “People Who Need People Are the Luckiest People in the World” and then cracked up from laughing. I indeed was the luckiest person in the world to have Leonid Surak as my father.
At a wedding at the Belarusian Center, in my hometown of South River, New Jersey, a nondescript hall with drab wood paneling that would come alive with polka music and vodka, my father taught me how to dance. Dad wore his best double-breasted suit, and I wore my bubblegum pink floor length gown with short puffy sleeves. I was seven. “Stand on my feet,” he said as the band played a schmaltzy waltz. We held hands as I stood on his snazzy black dress shoes, and he counted:
“One, two, three, one, two, three, you’re a wonderful dancer,” he said proudly.
We shared a love of baseball, and when you grow up in New Jersey you’re either a Yankees fan or a Mets fan. It was pinstripes or bust in my house.
“Opening Day is a national holiday,” my father would announce.
I missed a day of second grade and visited a magnificent place—the Bronx! My father held my tiny hand as we walked into Yankee Stadium, enticed by the smell of hotdogs, and enthralled by the roar of the fans. This was my magic kingdom, and I was with my Prince Charming.
I looked forward to church every Sunday because that meant more time with my father without the distraction of my mother. He always looked so stylish, wearing a perfect pocket square peeking out of his navy blazer. I especially loved when he wore his caramel suede jacket. I’d sit close to him while the priest droned on in his boring homily and brush the suede on his sleeve. I loved how the suede changed colors depending on which direction I moved my fingers. We always sat behind this blue-haired old lady who sang like a loud dying cat; it was painful to hear and even more painful trying not to burst out laughing. Dad would simply glance over at me when she sang and wink. I almost threw up from holding in my giggles. After church, we’d finally laugh so hard and mimic her screeching sounds.
The laughter came to an abrupt halt when we came home. Something awful was always awaiting us in the mental institution that was our house. My mother would yell at my father, and he would calmly try to soothe her and convince her to take her medication. When things got out of hand, like the time she almost blew the house up when she was “fixing” the boiler in the basement, or the time she was walking around the neighborhood half naked and screaming, he would have her hospitalized. I was happiest when she wasn’t home. I became the homemaker. I would cook and clean and do as much as I could, so my father didn’t have to.
Before my mother’s illness took her away, when I was around three or four, I remember my parents would hug, and little-kid-me would run in the middle and they would hug me so tight. This love sandwich is what I longed for myself and for our little family again.
I became jealous of my mother’s illness. How can he love her so much, when she can’t even do the things a wife is supposed to do? I begged him to divorce her or just leave her in the hospital forever. I realized as an adult, he did the right thing. The Leo Way was the way of love. He taught me that caregiving is a privilege.
“When I croak, everything you will need is in the right-side drawer in my desk.”
My father would always make a point to remind me of this when I visited the house as an adult.
“Geesh, Dad, I really don’t want to talk about that.”
He told me his “expiration date” was ninety. He died a few months shy of that age. He stayed active and vibrant until he had three falls, four emergency room visits, and two months of being sick.
The day before he died, I spent hours at his bedside. He had one last appointment with his cardiologist, a very kind doctor who looked like Stephen Colbert. My dad appeared weak and fragile. I helped him out of his bed at the outpatient rehab to transfer to a wheelchair. I combed his fine white hair. Dr. Colbert told my father that he was not a candidate for the valve replacement he needed for his heart; we were to see him again in four months. The doctor never told me that my father was going to die. I honestly thought that in a few months, he would indeed have this procedure. We made our way back to his hospital bed and he could barely keep his eyes open. I fluffed his pillows, adjusted the blanket, kissed his forehead, and whispered, “I love you,” and was on my way home to Baltimore.
The following day, while I was teaching an acting class, I took out my phone, for the last few minutes, to set the timer for a theatre exercise for the group. I noticed I had three missed calls from Care One, the facility where my parents and aunt all were together. I stepped out into the hallway when my class was set up for the exercise and frantically called them back.
“Your father is actively dying,” the nurse said to me. “He’ll be gone within an hour.”
Somehow, I managed to tell her, “I’m teaching a room of twenty people and will wrap things up and call right back.” Somehow, I went back in the room and awkwardly concluded the class. I then rushed out of the room and called the nurse back. It was too late; only two minutes later and he was gone.
“I am very sorry to tell you this, but your father just took his very last breath at 3:00 p.m.”
It was Halloween, and I still had to pick up my children from school, go to the grocery store, and prepare for the onslaught of trick-or-treaters who would be knocking on my door. But the words your father just took his last breath echoed in my brain. The Leo Way meant to keep going, keep moving, and that’s what I did. I arrived at the school parking lot—how did I even drive? When my children, who were in fifth and eighth grade, approached my car, I calmly told them,
“Papa just died.”
We embraced and cried as a gangster, ghoul, and granny whizzed by, followed by a throng of other costumed kids excited for the candy collection.
My father’s death left me with the responsibility of coordinating care for my mother, who was in the same room in the bed next to his at the rehabilitation facility/nursing home. Across the hall was my aunt, who suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease. My father assigned me power of attorney for both.
How the fuck am I going to do this? How am I going to find space to mourn? I thought, but I didn’t have time to think of myself or my feelings. My father put others first, he showed up, he did things most people wouldn’t have the patience and heart to do. I didn’t believe I was as strong as St. Leo and was certain I’d never find a man as selfless and caring as he was.
My heart was like a bulging suitcase that refused to close—I had no more room for myself. The day after my father died the man that I was dating said the three magic words I had longed to hear from him for over a year. His I love you extinguished the flames that once flickered. I felt nothing.
“Do you want me to come to the funeral?” he asked me.
“No, I need to do this on my own.”
I soon ended the relationship. I needed to have space for my mother, and my aunt, and my children. My one-way heart pounded for everyone but myself. This seemed to be the Leo Way—the only way I knew.
Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, which gets its name from a Japanese octopus trapping pot, is a condition in which extreme sorrow literally breaks the heart. Cardiac muscles deteriorate and break down when exposed to grief, fear, and extreme stress, and morph into a form resembling the Takotsubo. Though my father walked five miles daily, didn’t smoke, ate healthy food, and was very active, he had a heart attack at sixty. Thirty years later, after fifty-one years of marriage, he died of heart failure. I would like to have seen the shape of his heart.
I finally opened that right-side desk drawer and discovered all his detailed instructions: no flowers, no open casket, dark suit and black shoes, and buy a cheap casket. He had left a plan for the funeral and even wrote his own obituary. I made all the necessary calls and functioned well in busy mode. It was a better place to be than grief mode.
Here’s a fun fact about grief: there are no fun facts about grief. Grief hit me like the final knockout blow by a heavyweight champion going for the title. Grief is heavy. Grief is collapsing on my kitchen floor, retching from crying so hard. Grief is dehydration, without enough water on this planet to replenish my tears. Grief is waking up at 3:00 a.m. with a pillow soaked from sobbing. My therapist calls it the “mourning hours.” Fuck you, insomnia. FUCK YOU! Grief is a hot, sharp pain in my throat, preventing me from swallowing. Grief sneaks up when I least expect it. It’s a tsunami and a volcanic eruption; it’s uncontrollable. When I think I’m beginning to feel normal again, it pulls me under like quicksand. Grief makes me feel like I’m in a slow- motion video and I don’t have a remote. Grief is not wanting to burden others with my pain and sadness. It’s painting a sunny picture that everything is okay. It’s not okay. I’m still not okay.
A few weeks after my father died, a friend sent me an article about the Leonids, a prolific meteor shower that peaks in the eastern sky in mid-November. It’s named after the constellation Leo, where meteors appear to emerge. No telescope is necessary to view this celestial event, just a dark sky. I stared out my bedroom window around midnight the night this was to be in view, hoping for some sign from my father, or just from the universe, that there was something guiding my way. Soon I was awestruck by streaks of light radiating across the sky.
Alexandra Hewett is an actor, writer, producer, teacher, mother, yogi, and lover of life. Her first book, Shimmer, is available now. Keep up with Alexandra online: www.alexandrahewett.com.