July 26, 2013

Shira Toeplitz is a politics editor for Roll Call. Follow her on Twitter: @shiratoeplitz.

As we boarded our flight in Tel Aviv, carry-on baggage in hand, I turned to my little sister, Ilana.

“Should we stow Dad in the overhead compartment?” I asked.

“Beats checking him in our luggage,” she replied. “What if the airlines lost him?”

We hoisted the box containing our father’s ashes into the overhead bin, next to crumpled jackets and wheeled suitcases. His entire six-foot-tall, 300-pound personality now fit into a cardboard box the size of a flower vase.


Shira Toeplitz, at left, with her father, Gideon Toeplitz, and her sister, Ilana Ransom Toeplitz, at the family’s home in Pittsburgh in the early 1990s.

Ten days after he died, somewhat suddenly at age 66 during a visit to his native Israel, we were transporting him back to the States.

I had sobbed the entire first leg of the journey: a 70-minute flight from Washington to Boston to meet my sister.

“It doesn’t get any better,” a flight attendant had said, offering unsolicited advice on losing a parent. “But it does get easier.”

Kind of like flying, I thought, except grief has no estimated time of departure. Instead, you’re cramped in a middle seat, honking into the last tissue before switching to stiff paper towels from the airplane bathroom, making fellow passengers uncomfortable with your tears.

The grief trip is inevitably tough, whether it’s a short car ride to the cemetery or a 5,500-mile flight. We journey for people we love. For me and my 24-year-old sister, that journey involved bringing Dad back in a box — according to his wishes and against those of his religion.

Judaism forbids cremation, but obviously, our Jew-ish father did not. He had made it clear that he wanted his ashes spread around his home in western Massachusetts. In the meantime, he wanted his remains stored in a blue glass container that used to hold flour. My mother reserved the smaller, matching jar she still uses for sugar.

There’s only one crematorium in Israel, on the outskirts of Tel Aviv. The day before our flight, we trudged up the steps to the top floor of a building that had the aesthetic appeal of a dentist’s office.

His ashes sat on a conference room table in the cardboard box, inside a purple gift bag, ready for transport. Ilana and I cried for a while, but a few hours later, we were joking that we were transporting chocolate Kinder eggs in that bag. Dad would have preferred the chocolate, anyway.

Unfortunately, the security guards at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport did not share our sense of humor. After all, we were two 20-something foreigners traveling alone with a box of off-white powder.

We repeatedly explained our “Dad-in-a-box” to passport control and luggage inspectors, appropriate paperwork in hand. I grimaced as bags collided with our package on the X-ray conveyor belt.

“Did you watch him get cremated? Please be honest,” a particularly stern security guard with a submachine gun strapped to his chest asked at the final checkpoint.

“Uh, no,” I replied. For a second, I thought he wouldn’t let us go because I hadn’t witnessed the all-consuming flames.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” the guard said. “Next, please.”

By that flight back to the United States, all we could do was laugh at the situation. It was better than sobbing in the middle seat.

The last four years of my dad’s life were frustratingly humorless, especially for my sister, who handled most of his care during and just after her college years. A sudden brain injury and diabetic complications had left him unconscious in the ICU for weeks. In his early 60s, he had to learn to talk, walk, think and type all over again. He improved but never fully recovered.

There were moments when his vulnerabilities made him endearing and affectionate — perhaps more so than when he was in good health. Early in his career as a symphony orchestra executive, his brusqueness earned him the nickname “Mr. T,” a nod to the A-Team’s decorated tough guy.

But mostly there were tense arguments over finances, diet and his ill-advised desire to drive. One night at the hospital, a nurse pulled me aside to caution about how much insulin my father needed. As I sat down on the side of his bed, I heard the familiar crinkle of a candy wrapper. I pulled out the contraband — a Swiss chocolate bar his half-sister had brought as a gift — buried between his white bedsheets.

“Sugar-free chocolate is still chocolate!” I gasped. He flashed a mischievous smirk, then rolled his eyes.

As my sister and I made our way home, we didn’t care if fellow passengers overheard us talk about our extra baggage, physical and emotional. During a layover in Vienna, my sister blurted in a crowded boarding area: “I’m going to check on Dad, okay?” She briefly pulled the white cardboard box out of the bag and peered inside. All was intact.

An avid traveler, my father logged most of his miles organizing international tours for orchestras, most prominently as the managing director of the Pittsburgh Symphony. He reveled in finding the final available hotel room near a crowded music festival or finagling a first-class flight for a prissy artist. He proudly smuggled a six-figure violin through U.S. customs once without declaring it. He would have appreciated his final journey.

I won’t ever think about a flight — or even packing a suitcase — in the same way.

My father carried me so many times: as a baby in his arms or a child asleep after a long car ride. He supported me as a teenager, college student, young professional. Carrying me was never a problem for him.

But my baggage? “You pack it, you carry it,” he always said about backpacks, suitcases and my overstuffed work bags.

Relatively, Dad was an easy load.

shiratoeplitz@gmail.com

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Love from a distance: Cancer, my mother and me

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