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Eulogy for Gilly

December 15, 1944 – February 4, 2022

The shiva for Dad ended a week ago, and I elected to spend some time alone up north at our cottage.  I was going to need to be at Dad’s bank in Huntsville as well as his main floor apartment at my brother’s place about 45 minutes northeast of there, so heading up there made sense.

In that time, we established a few things, not the least of which is that he had no valid will.  The Gilly Paradox.  On one hand, his obsessive need for fairness, organization and documentation should have indicated at least several up-to-date copies within easy access.  One the other hand, his complete and unwavering denial that he would die.  Not just now – I mean EVER.  And with that in mind, he would never need a will.

The Gilly Paradox indeed.

We will start with this:  The old man drove me nuts.  Pretty much always.  It was never a secret.  Most of the time we weren’t playing on the same field.  Or town. Or country.  Sometimes planet.   We just didn’t see things the same way.  At least at the beginning.  I was – as he put it – an artsy fartsy and he was all business.  He was always pretty clear that the liberal arts were fine in your spare time, but it would never make you money.  Once we had a long discussion about my philosophy classes at school and he grabbed the classifieds and busily started looking for philosopher jobs.  It wasn’t until much later that I realized that he had been pushing against his own incredible creativity and projecting it on to me.

Fathers and sons are complicated – or at least we were.  There is a lot of stuff to unpack as they say.  His own relationship with his Dad was strained at least and bizarre at best.  I have vivid memories of him having many fruitless discussions with my Zaidy Al about the care he required, and how Zaidy insisted he didn’t.  I was with him at his father’s deathbed as he watched him die.  Gilly’s behaviour in his final few years mirrored this, and the way he died was virtually the same.  The black irony of the Gilly Paradox once again showing its face.

He wasn’t always this way.  He met my Mom when she was 12 and he was 14.  As she recollects, “He was on his bike and I was walking home from Essex P.S. It was in his neighbourhood as I lived south of Bloor Street on 553 Markham Street. Dad lived on 154A Christie Street. I had gotten to know him at the Y… now known as The Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre. We were just friends first but by the time I got to high school, Harbord Collegiate , we were boyfriend and girlfriend. I really enjoyed high school a lot because of that. In those days there were so many social activities you did at school and we would go to them. Tea dances in the gym every Friday were my favourite. It was so nice to be part of a couple in high school.”

They loved each other a lot back then.  So much so that they were married in 1964 – my Mom was 18 and my Dad was just shy of 21.  They got an apartment on Raglan Ave as Dad headed toward completing his degree in Chartered Accountancy from Queens.  I was born in 1967, followed 21 months later by Carey in 1969.  Jared came 20 months after that in 1970.  For those following the math – 3 boys in 3.5 years.  Mom was 24 years old.  As a Dad looking back – I find that an astounding accomplishment.  Add to that my father’s unhealthy obsession with success at work despite all else was just beginning to emerge, and the writing is on the wall.

When my sister Nikki was born in 1974, we were complete.  The perfect young, middle class Jewish family.  At least that’s how we were seen.  Even to us it seemed true – that’s how convincing we were.

Gilly was plagued with near-crippling anxiety decades before it became a thing.  Looking back now it was so acute that it had a profound effect on everything around him – his kids, his marriage, his business.  He never recognized it.  I guess no one really did back then.  But to him, everybody had an underlying agenda – including my Mom and us.  He would tell us what that agenda was and what he was going to do about it.  He always claimed to know exactly what people were thinking and why and would treat them like they had already acted on the thoughts he was claiming they had.

As idyllic as the Rismans appeared in the 80s, as my parent’s marriage disintegrated, we all started falling apart in our own special ways.  Mom removed herself.  I immersed myself in recreational pharmaceuticals. We all found harbour in high-risk behaviour.  And Carey tragically began the descent into madness that would eventually claim his life.

What it must have been like for Dad to finally see his own mental health issues personified in his son, and to get an objective view of the collateral damage.  It must have been devastating and frightening because he couldn’t understand it in himself let alone my brother.  He really struggled to get it.  And when Carey finally took his own life in 1996, Dad’s lifelong wait for everything to be fine was gone.

You don’t bury a child and stay the same. Dad was the one who called me after they found Carey. I was at work, and he just kept screaming into the phone that Carey was dead. Over and over. My boss threw me in a car and drove me to Dad’s place to try to keep him together. But I couldn’t do it. It seems none of us could, no matter how hard we tried. Dad nearly gave up on everything, including us. It felt like he doesn’t want real relationships with anyone. People die after all. Even your kids.  He left the family in Toronto and moved north of Huntsville, where he lived a life of relative seclusion in a room at my brother and sister-in-law’s cottage year-round.  Even when the whole family was around, he would often hole up in his room.

The last 25 or so years saw us rebuilding, settling into our own “new normalness” and creating new lives.  Dad tried his best to stay limitedly involved – just enough so it wouldn’t hurt.  Of course, no one escapes pain.  But Dad was an artist when it came to denial – a personality flaw that became more and more pronounced as his health became worse and worse.

I don’t pretend that this is the truth about Gilly.  This is just what I saw and perceived and interpreted.  My sister and brother had their own relationships with him, and their own understanding of the man he was. The truth is somewhere in there I’m sure.  But for me, our relationship was as complex as it gets.  I felt abandoned as a child when he was completely immersed in work and missed many if not most of the milestones my friends’ fathers were present for.  I felt misunderstood and demeaned when he reduced my dreams to a dollar value.  And I felt abandoned again when he ran away after Carey died.  I carried this for the past quarter century, and it affected everything between me and Dad.  I was constantly frustrated and angry with his decisions – whether it be his health or whatever – and I wasn’t subtle about it.  But it was only the past year or so that I realized that Gilly hadn’t changed – I had. He was always like this.  And he was ok with it.  It was me that kept weighing him against the standards I set as a child.  And it wasn’t fair.

Gil Risman was a real person.  He was not evil or bad by a long shot.  He was gloriously flawed and knew it.  But he had a fierce adherence to his obligations as a provider for our family.  By his own admission he was a lousy husband, but he had an authentic and enduring love for my Mom.  And as his son, there wasn’t a second that I didn’t know that my Dad loved me intensely.  He was imperfect but he was keenly aware of those imperfections.  And despite our greatest efforts to change him, he lived his life on his own terms for better or for worse.  And he died that way too.

I stood over the grave throwing dirt on a man I adored, and cherished, and worshipped.  A man that was to me a shining example of humanity – both of what to do and what not to do.  A man that never recovered from the loss of his son.  A man that loved and laughed and felt everything so intensely that it constantly overwhelmed him.  I had prepared myself for this for years, but still I cannot believe how absolutely lost I feel without him right now.  We don’t love the people we love because they’re perfect.  We love the people we love because they are.  Even after they’re gone.

I really hope there’s some peace for you Dad.  I really do.

My Brother Has a Memorial Bench on Philosopher’s Walk

Back in 1996 when my brother Carey died, dozens of his fellow med students at The University of Toronto, as well as countless friends from all through his short life, showed up at the funeral and shiva to honour his existence on this planet.

That is far more than Carey got from the U of T Medical School administration.

He was ignored. Not a phone call. Not a note. Where his struggling colleagues scrounged to donate a small amount in his name to the fund at CAMH that we started, any acknowledgement of his years at the school was visibly absent.

Now back in 1996 there was literally zero support for med students with mental illness challenges. Almost every time he had to undergo a short hospitalization, he was forced to restart the program from the beginning. He was vilified and penalized. Even though he was in the top 3% of his undergrad class, and had ridiculous potential, he was eventually kicked out. A few weeks later he took his own life.

We aren’t under any pretensions that his status as a med student caused his suicide. Mental illness isn’t that cut and dried. But intolerance from his school in the field that he loved did not help.

Their lack of acknowledgement sat with us for years. And then decades. Until my Mom wrote an uncharacteristically blunt and heartbreaking letter to the current administration outlining the poor behaviour of the faculty and the shoddy treatment of the mentally ill students at the school.

I am thrilled to report that the response from the university was immediate. She was invited to meet with the highest level of administration. They listened with sympathy, and perhaps more importantly, embarrassment. They took full accountability for the past, and spent hours outlining to us the many ways that the U of T Medical School has taken a near 180 degree turn on their approach to mental illness among students. Leaves of absences, myriad programs and resources, safe and private places to take shelter – all of these may have changed Carey’s direction 20 years ago had they been available. But this is something. Really something.

A few weeks ago, we received a letter from the current administration that the school had donated a park bench to Carey’s memory. It sits in Philosopher’s Walk by The Queen Alexandra Gateway. It is a profoundly appreciated gesture – regardless of history. If you are down at the school, seek it out and sit for a while. It’s worthwhile.