Last week’s massacre of 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, was horrific and devastating. The innocent victims suffered and died at the hands of an 18-year-old with an AR-15 style rifle. Every one of these youngsters was someone’s child, with hopes and dreams for the future. They were friends and siblings, nieces and nephews, cousins and grandchildren, members of a community. All are being mourned not only by those who knew them but by everyone alarmed by this senseless violence.
Many of us are also struggling with renewed fears about the fragility of life triggered by this recent tragedy, which comes only 10 days after the mass shooting in a Buffalo, New York, supermarket that took the lives of 10 people. It comes 10 years after the deadly shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in which 20 children and six staff members were shot and killed. It comes 23 years after the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado in which two teens murdered 12 students and one teacher. So far this year there have been over 200 mass shootings in the United States. As parents, many of us fear we’re sending our children off to school with uncertainty about whether they will return home.
Last week I also buried my father, who passed away at age 80 from natural causes. He lived a good and full life, so in many ways this is nothing like the violent attacks on young victims in their prime. Nevertheless, I also feel a profound loss, as do his friends, former colleagues, and extended family members.
Although 80 is a reasonably ripe age, my father’s death seems sudden since he was active and independent until very recently. (He surpassed his life expectancy at birth, which today is 76 for men in the United States, though for men who make it to 80, they live on average another eight years.)
The last month has been trying as my family navigated the complexities and emotions surrounding illness and death. We grappled with my dad’s rapid physical and cognitive decline. We struggled to line up diagnostic tests and appointments with healthcare specialists. We arranged for in-home aides and hospice services, dealt with insurance challenges, and learned about administering pain medications. We searched for a hidden safe deposit box key. We informed family and friends, wrote an obituary and eulogy, arranged a funeral service and reception, and contended with feelings of loss.
During this time, my colleagues at work afforded me the same flexibility I’ve offered to others. They supported me, covered for me, and enabled me to have the precious time I wanted and needed with my dad at the end of his life. Family and friends reached out to share stories and memories and provided love and support.
The loss of a parent is particularly grief-filled and traumatic, despite its inevitability. Others have told me that it wasn’t until their parents passed away that they truly felt like grownups. But loss is loss, and whether it touches your family directly or is felt from afar, coping with that loss can be tough. It certainly reminds us to support one another, to be understanding and compassionate, because everyone is dealing with something. It also reminds us to treasure the time we’ve been granted.
My father was an exceptional human — an intellectual, a sports fan, generous, and kind. For me, he was a larger-than-life figure — someone who always knew the answers to my many questions, a successful business executive who set an example about hard work, a man who prioritized family while investing in lifelong learning. I invite you to read my tribute below to learn more about my father.
When people tell me about my dad, Michael Stephen Wilder, they usually use words like brilliant, kind, and generous. Those were all true, and much more.
My father grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, the oldest child of Harry and Anne Wilder. His dad owned a scrap business and brought home comic books that my dad enjoyed. His grandmother, Sarah Borofsky Melin, who had emigrated from Poland as a young girl, lived with my father and his sister when they were children, cooking meals and doting on little Michael. He spent his youth playing pickup games of basketball and touch football, cheering on the Baltimore Orioles, and reading books. His mother Anne wrote: “Michael was a great reader and, even when I told him to put out the light and go to sleep, I would find him under the blankets with a flashlight reading another chapter.”
My father attended Hopkins Grammar School in New Haven, where he excelled academically and served as sports editor of the school paper. A wonderful memory shared by a longtime friend was when my dad forgot to read a poem assigned for homework, so he asked his friend for a quick synopsis before class; they then had a surprise quiz on which Michael got an A and his friend got a B. When his high school headmaster asked what kind of career he had in mind, my dad told him he wanted to be a dentist — because that’s what his mother had suggested. The headmaster then asked, “Are you sure you want to spend the rest of your life with your hands in someone else’s mouth?” After giving it a little thought, my dad decided to pursue a career in law instead.
For college, my father went down the street to Yale, along with several other boys from Hopkins — people who would become lifelong friends. Next, he went on to Harvard Law School, finally venturing out of New Haven. In 1967, as a newly-minted attorney, he joined the Hartford Fire Insurance Company. Over the next 33 years, he grew his career, taking on legal, management, and corporate relations responsibilities, eventually retiring as The Hartford’s General Counsel. My sister and I would visit his office around the holidays each year to pass around cookies and candy. I remember being awed by the hallowed halls of the big corporation, and I admired his success as a senior leader. A former colleague at The Hartford described the influential role my father played at work: “As an executive in what is often a tough, competitive corporate world, he projected a feeling of family values. He changed the culture of the workplace. He changed my life and the lives of many others, and it was all to the good.”
My father met my mother, Marjorie Levitin, at a basketball game when he was 18 years old and she was just 16. They married right after she graduated from college and remained close life partners until her death 48 years later. He was proud of his wife, a career woman with a strong will and acute intelligence. Together they raised two daughters. Our dad played mixed doubles tennis with his girls, coached our soccer teams, brought us to Hartford Whalers games, and attended our concerts. He taught us to drive — throwing tennis balls across the car at the driver’s side window, making sure we were ready for anything. When we brought home dates, he interviewed them in our formal living room with the same rigor he used to screen Yale applicants.
My dad had a particular passion for the public library. He would go there religiously each week and return with a stack of books. He alternated reading fiction and nonfiction, a regimented pattern that kept his mind sharp. If the main library didn’t have a book he wanted, he would drive to one of the satellite libraries across town to find it. The librarians all knew him by name.
My dad became a grandfather nearly 20 years ago, now with five kiddos who call him Papa Michael. He was a loving grandpa, proud to attend the kids’ sports games and shows, happy to read them books, pleased to watch them build Legos or play instruments.
After my mother passed away at the too-young age of 69, my dad had to do a bit of a re-boot. He reconnected with former colleagues and extended family members. He remained active in his investment club and organized Hopkins and Yale reunions. He sponsored an annual Connecticut Ballet program in memory of my mother. He took on arbitration jobs and attended continuing education classes. He attended services at Congregation Beth Israel. He read two newspapers every single day. And he started dating again.
He found a kindred spirit in Sandy Zieky. Sandy had also recently lost her husband of many years to a long battle with cancer. “I may not be the most exciting person you’ll ever meet,” my dad told Sandy. “But you will find I’m the nicest.” Together, my dad and Sandy enjoyed the past seven years traveling the world, cheering on the UConn women’s basketball team, socializing with friends, and laughing together. It’s been a joy to witness the love and support they’ve shown to one another.
My dad was the consummate intellectual, having a broad realm of knowledge, always with something to contribute to a conversation. He was also generous and kind, without a bad word to say about anyone. He taught me a lot — some overtly, much more subtly. I’m forever grateful and will miss him deeply.