“Stories like this are all I have.”
By Elissa Caterfino Mandel
The sound of a rearing bull in my family room always made me cringe. But other than Disapproving Mama, I had no role in the Bulls and Bears game Doug invented for our sons. As the bull, Doug got down on all fours and invited one of the boys to jump on his back. The second boy, in the role of a bear, attempted to knock his brother off.
“Watch out—he’s about to attack!” Doug would scream.
I’m not sure Andrew and Brian understood that the name of the game came from the stock market. Doug, who was an investment banker, drove more mergers and acquisitions than carpools. He wanted his elementary-school sons to absorb lessons about the sanctity of a bull market.
“It’s OK for now if all they get is that the bull is good and the bear is bad,” he said. “I’ll explain the rest later.”
As a kid, Doug hadn’t run lemonade stands. He’d sold hamburgers from his backyard and his ventures always turned a profit, which made his (Catholic) father kvell. Doug’s dad worked as a purchasing manager at an aircraft manufacturing company in a Philadelphia suburb. He dreamed of having a son on the front lines of finance.
Had Doug lived, he’d be just shy of 60 now—not even old enough to qualify for senior shopping hours during the current pandemic. He was in constant motion and would have seen being shut in as a form of purgatory. Sayonara, 20 empty Amazon packages currently in my garage. You would have been long gone, cut up and stacked neatly in a hosed-off recycling bin.
Doug, too, is long gone. My kids were seven and 10, virtual babies, when their father died of a glioblastoma. Our family has survived almost 20 years without him. I have learned a few things along the way.
Laughing through sadness makes tragedy a little easier to bear.
On the day of Doug’s death, Andrew’s fourth-grade class delivered a package of homemade cards, including one whose guileless hilarity almost brought us to tears. Doug died on February 2. One child’s card read, “Oy vey, it’s Groundhog Day.” That phrase is the way my boys and I greet each other every year on the anniversary of Doug’s death.
It’s OK to rely on the comforts of community.
I never said no to a homemade dinner delivery, or to friends who volunteered to do things I would have ordinarily done—like buy Doug underwear after he blew up from steroids and couldn’t fit into his own.
Relish the new normal.
The brain tumor stripped Doug of his physical prowess. No more 40-mile weekend bike rides—Doug walked with a limp and was bald on the half of his head around his two craniotomy scars. “My dad looks like Frankenstein,” Brian told his friends in first grade. The Bears and Bulls game ended. Doug could no longer balance anyone on his back.
In October of his last year, he, our boys, and I traveled with two other families for a weekend of camping in upstate New York. The other parents on the trip played tag, threw footballs, and ran races with their children. Our family sat around roasting marshmallows and telling stories. I rejoiced. This sedentary version of my husband was one I’d rarely seen since the beginning of our relationship at Penn, when the two of us held Janson’s The History of Art between us and memorized the name of a statue depicting a winged ibex.
Doug’s campfire stories included the ones he told me when we first met: the time he pulled his little sister home after their sled had crashed on a hill, the time he rode his bike back to his house one-handed after he’d been hit in the mouth in a Little League game. His parents both worked full-time and did not attend his games. They were stories of overcoming adversity, of the importance of making your way back to somewhere safe.
Convey that the parent who’s gone was human.
Overcoming adversity was never going to happen for Doug when he got his diagnosis in April 2000 at the age of 38. He was given two years to live, which proved overly optimistic.
We’d always been big on timelines, and we created a medical chronology of Doug’s illness, procedure by procedure. This document came with us to every medical appointment, from Scripps to HUP to Sloan Kettering, as if we could outwit a glioblastoma by sheer organization.
Even in his last few months, he spent evenings on the computer creating spreadsheets to track a financial future where he wouldn’t be around to make budgets.
“How much longer do you think this is going to go on?” I asked Doug. Translation: help me prepare myself and our boys for your death.
When death came, nine months after his diagnosis, he hadn’t shared many of his thoughts about dying.
It was only when Brad, his best friend from Penn, eulogized him that I got some insight into what he was thinking.
“Doug told me. ‘I’m not afraid to die,’” Brad read. “‘But I am afraid of leaving Elissa on her own to raise two boys soon entering their teenage years.’”
For Doug, a surprise, posthumous apology was right in character.
Even with the decimation of his right frontal lobe, he wasn’t willing to cast off the role of guardian. He wanted to remain the guy I loved, the one who had held my hand and walked me to the Daily Pennsylvanian’s office sophomore year when I was afraid to submit my first article on my own. Or met me with an umbrella outside the Furness Library because it had started to rain.
On our first Christmas, a holiday I didn’t celebrate, he gave me a gold heart. He raised his eyebrows but said nothing about my gift to him: a street-vendor Led Zeppelin T-shirt.
Stories like this are all I have.
Dad didn’t just ski, I tell our sons. He skied black diamonds. When he wanted to move a piano from our family room to the basement, Dad carried it down our driveway. I shared the myths. But my boys needed to know the man.
Recently, looking for something to do during our many hours of quarantine, I pulled out home videos from 1999. For the first time in a long time, my younger son, who is living with us for now, heard his father’s voice.
“And there’s Brian, riding on Princess,” Doug said, narrating a family horseback ride from behind his video camera.
“He had a weird accent. It sounds Southern,” Brian remarked.
It was Southern, if you consider that Philly is south of North Jersey.
Then there was the section of the same video where Doug tried to coax Andrew into the water, so they could snorkel together. This time I held the camera, as Doug glided around the boat. His thinning blonde hair glinted in the sun. He waved, and the muscles of his arm rippled.
With Andrew frozen on the side of the boat, Doug remained steady. “Come on, Buddy. You’ll love it.”
Here was the father I’d memorialized.
As the tape rolled with Andrew finally snorkeling, I saw it. So did Brian:
Doug looked up at the camera, clearly frustrated at what had been Andrew’s hesitation, and rolled his eyes.
It was a beautiful—and honest—moment.
Before he died, Doug purchased a brass statue of a bull fighting a bear for the boys. These days, I’m dusting a lot of dressers, and I see this statue nearly every day in a room my older son no longer occupies. The sinewy bull, whose head is now tarnished, still spends all his time attempting to gore the recalcitrant bear.
“They’re scary,” I said when Doug first unwrapped them. “This is what you want to be your legacy?”
By the time he agreed to write letters with life lessons for our sons, he was too weak to type. He dictated a few lines, including “the art projects you made travelled the world in my briefcase.” It was hard for him to tell sons he’d never know as adults how to live. He couldn’t imagine them as they are now, at 29 and 26, men who gave up on art projects long ago.
The bull and bear statue, his parting gift, is almost 21. The figures are frozen, mid-fight. Looking at them, I can’t tell who is going to win. Maybe that was the point. Doug’s message to the boys ran deeper than bull markets or finance. All he wanted to convey to our sons was a lesson they can carry with them their whole lives, even during a pandemic. It doesn’t matter whether you are bull or bear. Just keep fighting through adversity.
Elissa Caterfino Mandel C’83, lives in South Orange, NJ, with her husband Hal and mutt Maisie.