Reflections On Life And Death;
Passover’s Special Meaning;
Lessons From An Old Fruit Man
Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, April 4, 2012
As one gets older one becomes more familiar with death, and one learns that death gives rise to different emotions in different circumstances.
My friend Joe Nucci passed away while we were on vacation together in Florida, and the emotion that hit me then and has stuck with me since has been of feeling cheated. We were both fathers of young children, our wives got along; we had plans for the future. I’ve always felt angry, as if some promise was broken. I’ve just never known who to be angry at.
I had another friend who died in a car accident with one of his children. We were just starting to become very good friends — we hadn’t pushed it, why should we? We had all the time in the world. It was already obvious, though, at least to us, that we were going to be incredibly close. But we didn’t have all the time in the world, and when he died I felt, and still feel years later a mourning for unrealized potential. Something nipped in the bud.
Now, with the death of my father, Michael Prevor, I find only a deep weariness. One shakes it off and does what one must — there is a wife and children to care for, a business to be run, friends and family to love and support and enjoy, but mostly, and atypically for me as I have always had boundless energy, I feel I want to sleep.
The loss seems beyond reconciliation. My editors hand me a photo to go in the “Blast from the Past” section of PRODUCE BUSINESS magazine, and it has a picture of some people I vaguely remember. I realize that my father would know them and I reach to call him — as I have done a thousand times before — but I realize I don’t have his current number. I’m lucky; I have a great brother, so sometimes I call him instead.
My mother puts up a brave front, but she is so horribly sad. We all went to New York to celebrate my nephew’s Bar Mitzvah last week. He is a great guy and did a great job. We were all so proud of him. It is hard, though, not to think of how much my father would have loved being part of it. A thousand times in the hospital he admonished us, whatever his condition might be — dead, incapacitated, whatever — he wanted the Bar Mitzvah to go on. He wanted the music and the dancing. He didn’t want his condition to subtract one iota from his grandson’s happiness. And so we went on.
We are going to spend Passover in London — a little extra celebration for my nephew. My mother was hesitant. She has declined most invitations, but in the end she acceded, perhaps realizing that my father would have wanted her to try and enjoy and knowing that her place is with her children and grandchildren.
At Passover, the Jewish people read the Haggadah, which translates roughly as “the telling,” and the Haggadah recounts the story of how the Israelites were freed from bondage in Egypt. Yet the Haggadah is not a storybook. The obligation is not to remember the story or learn the story but to experience the story. That is why the story of the liberation from Egypt is always told with the Maror, or bitter herbs, and the Matzoh, or unleavened bread, before the people. The tasting and experiencing of these various foods and props are to make the experience real — to let each participant in the Passover Seder feel, on some deep level, that they themselves were personally liberated from Egypt, that they knew the bitterness of slavery and exalted at the wonder of freedom.
The core teaching of undergoing such a liberation is an understanding that redemption from suffering is possible, indeed that such redemption has actually happened not only to the Jewish people but to me, as an individual, because I experienced it already at the Seder.
I feel sometimes that such redemption is impossible — that the plague of depression and weariness that death brings is too heavy to ever lift.
Then the phone rings. Joe Nucci’s eldest son, Matthew, was just accepted into college, the one he wanted to attend. He had called me a few times to get advice on interviewing techniques and essay-writing and for a second, I find myself high-fiving with Joe and realizing that life is a sum of all the stories one lives. The death of a friend or a father, or really being liberated from Egypt, these are all threads in a tapestry that makes up one’s life.
I’m glad my mother is coming to London. It is exactly what my father would have wanted. Even while he was in the hospital, he pleaded with my mother to go on a cruise or take a vacation. She wouldn’t hear of it, of course. Now, new experiences, new memories, though never supplanting the old, can begin to supplement the old. She has children and grandchildren and friends and extended family. We just received the Bar Mitzvah date for Junior Pundit Primo, aka William, and he needs his grandmother applauding him in 2014.
The eulogy I gave my father was really a way for me to express how my father still lived, through the teachings I absorbed from him. He left me so much, and I am trying to see the sweetness in what he taught and in how that has allowed me to build such a fortunate life.
Below, I run the text of my eulogy remarks for my father. Perhaps you will find some interest in what an old fruit man could teach a son.
The customary greeting at Passover is to wish one another a “zissen peseach” or a Sweet Passover. So I wish those who celebrate Passover such sweetness as I wish those who celebrate Easter a happy holiday as well.
The term “Passover,” of course, refers to the 10th Plague, the death of the firstborn son. The Jews marked their homes with lamb’s blood and the angel of death knew to “pass over” these homes and spare the children within.
May death and illness, sadness and despair pass over your home this year.
EULOGY FOR MY FATHER, MICHAEL PREVOR
I must inform you of something my father asked me to mention about himself: He served a term on the board of directors of the Hunts Point Terminal Market Cooperative.
Truth be told, that is not a very important fact about my father. He was not a communal type of man. Although he did support many communal institutions for decades, he mostly believed in working directly to achieve his goals. I felt obligated to tell you about this term on the market board for one simple reason: My father asked me to do so.
When my grandfather, Harry Prevor, had passed away, I gave a eulogy that mentioned my grandfather’s long service as chairman of the Auction Buyer’s Association. Shortly thereafter, my father decided to run for the board at the Hunts Point Market. It was most unlike him, so my mother and I asked him why he decided to run. He simply said, “When I die, I want Jimmy to have something to say about me at my funeral.”
So now I've told you….
This story is important not because my father served on the board, but because it illustrates how unassuming my father was. The very thought that this great man, the greatest man I’ve ever known, needed to give me something to say showed how humble of a man he was. He never would've claimed the right to any honor, but he was deserving of many. He was the gentle giant of our lives.
The best thing that can be said at this moment, after having a terminal illness for 13 months, is that there is little more that needs to be said. We can count among our blessings that this long illness gave us an opportunity to say all that was needed. We were able to do this publicly, in many events, especially at the 75th surprise birthday party that we threw for my father back in March of 2011 — the very date of that party points to how much we have to be grateful for.
My father's birthday was actually in June, but we held the party in March on my birthday mainly because we knew for certain that would get my father to attend. My father was a very smart man, and he well knew the truth that we scheduled the party in March because we didn't really know if my father would be here in June or in a condition to go to a party at that time.
Yet he was here in June for his actual birthday and he continued to be physically, mentally and emotionally present, with his family and friends right up to the very end. As late as Thanksgiving night, my whole family gathered in Philadelphia and we went out to the City Tavern, a vestige of colonial Philadelphia, and took wonderful photos of the whole family, my father included, walking through the streets of Philadelphia and enjoying the long weekend.
Indeed even after that, there were many trips to Applebee's and to McDonald's, and other restaurants my father had made favorites, but that party back in March was the highlight, with 300-plus people from all stages of my father's life gathered together for a “roast and toast” and a chance to speak out and let my father know how much he meant to so many.
We also had a chance to speak to my father privately. The very last week of his life my father was able to pick up the phone and call his identical twin Sydney and tell him that this would be their last conversation, to tell him goodbye. He was able to ask his older brother Bill to come to the hospital and to see Hunter, his brother-in-law of 54 years. Over the past 13 months, many made the pilgrimages to see my father in Boca, in Long Island and in Philadelphia that they might tell him firsthand what his life meant to them.
For me, the last few months have been a time of rare privilege. For the most part, my brother and I would alternate nights in the hospital with my father. We did this both to spare my mother so she could get back to the hotel and get some sleep and to stay in line with our practice and commitment to never leave my father alone. Indeed during the entire 13 months, we stood with my father facing this disease; my father was never alone, family was always by his side.
As it turned out, this time commitment was not a burden; it was one of the greatest privileges of my life each night to spend 10 to 12 hours talking to my father. Who gets to have that kind of time? When you're young and living in the house with your family, your father is busy going to work. When you are older and move out, you have your own job and family to tend to.
Spending nights in the hospital was like getting an extra month with my father. My brother and I were fortunate enough to share two bonus months with my father — to talk and laugh and take care of each other — and to learn what really matters to someone so very close to you.
My father was not a large man physically but he cast a long shadow. He was a man serene and rational, generous and kind. He was wise, fair and good, and he transformed lives.
Most importantly and most obviously, of course, he transformed my mother's life — Roslyn Prevor. As we stand here at this funeral, this day would have been my parents’ 54th wedding anniversary. My mother started dating my father when she was 15 and he was 17. When they got married, they moved from their parents’ households to their joint home, never having known a day apart from that day 54 years ago when they were wed.
Looking back at their wedding day and standing here today, we see two beautiful bookends representing their life together upon this earth, with today symbolizing the end of only the physical union on this earth.
In the past few months, my father's one real sadness was that he felt bad about the burden that his illness had placed on his family, especially on my mother. My father needed food, and he needed to be taken care of in various ways, and my mother took on all of that and more. My father would say that he transformed her from a princess to a chambermaid, but my mother said, no, the reality was very different… The reality is that my father came into my mother’s life — a foster child from Brooklyn — and in so meeting, and so dedicating himself to her, he transformed her from a Cinderella to a queen.
My father was a very successful businessman, and the burden that such people often bear is that, inevitably, their achievements are seen as all about money, but in reality it was all about love. Love for a 15-year-old girl. Love so great that this boy and, later, this man, would do anything for her, that he would do anything within his power for my mother.
Echoing the song, my mother often said that my father was the “Wind Beneath her Wings.” That my mother fought valiantly to save my father’s life is not in doubt. Yet I have to tell you that I was there when, at the end, only narcotics stood between my father and intense pain and suffering. And I stood witness as my mother leaned over and whispered in his ear that it was time to stop fighting… that it was okay to surrender to the inevitable… that my father’s mind had to give in to the weakness of his body.
I know that was the hardest sentence my mother has ever uttered in her life. The words were the manifestation of the purest self-sacrificial love.
My father also transformed the lives of his children. My brother and sister are here with us today, and they can speak in their own voice of their experiences and feelings. For me, however, there is a long list of ways my father set examples for me — ways to think of every day of my life. The list is too long to speak of here, but since my father was always in the food business, I thought I'd give a baker's dozen reasons and thoughts about what I learned from my father.
First, he was a man of no pretense. He traveled far in life and met high and mighty people, but he treated everyone as a genuine friend. One of the most valuable experiences we had growing up was that we had this wonderful connection to Hunts Point, the produce market in New York. Many of my friends, whose parents were high achieving lawyers, doctors or business executives, only knew other highly educated, high income, white collar people, but my father's connection with Hunts Point gave us a chance to interact with people from all walks of life, all over the world.
My father treated everyone with respect, and as I have traveled the world, I do not think there is a trait that has served me better than to know you can be a friend and you can learn from everyone you come across in life. One of my proudest possessions now is the watch I wear on my wrist. As my father grew closer to the end, he grew thinner and the watch would hang loose. He got my mother to take it off his wrist and give it to me.
You might think I value this watch because it's a Patek Phillippe or fancy Rolex, and my father actually owned some fancy watches bought for special occasions, but I value this watch for another reason entirely. I value it because it is a Timex watch, and I know that he bought two for $22, and he was thrilled with this watch, lauding its accuracy. Never would he consider that he would wear something to impress friends. Never would he care to be friends with someone who would value him more because he wore a fancy watch. Every time, I look at this watch, it reminds me of the values of my father, and I strongly suspect wearing this watch will make me a better person.
My father was also a congenial fellow. It is difficult to speak of such matters without also speaking of my mother. Everyone wanted to be their friend; everyone wanted to go out with them. Even when I was a boy and brought friends over to the house, they would always tell me how terrific my parents were. As I stand here today, I have to admit that all those years ago, while I lived in the house hearing my friends speak, I didn't realize it, I didn’t appreciate it, I didn’t know how incredibly lucky I was. But, in time, I did learn from it.
The third characteristic I learned from my father was that of hospitality. My father used to run these giant barbecues at his home. He never wanted to spend the money to build a big fancy barbecue so he went to the store and bought three grills.
My brother would hold barbecues too, but they were not quite up to my father’s standard, for he would put all the food on a platter once it had been cooked. Rather, for my father, whether it was the hamburgers or the hot dogs, the steak, the Portobello mushrooms, the swordfish or corn on the cob… whatever he was cooking, it never went on a platter. My father felt the best food was hot off the grill, so you didn't go up to him until the hamburger was needed immediately.
My father would stay there for hours taking orders just to make sure everyone got the food right off the grill. It seemed as if the whole world – friends, neighbors, business associates — was always invited to these barbecues week after week.
I also remember growing up that somehow it was always our home that was offered to anyone who didn't have a place to go. A lot of this was my mother’s generosity, but my father supported her 100 percent, and they were a team in opening their home, offering their hospitality not only to their friends and relatives, but to friends of friends and relatives of relatives, and the total strangers who lived next door to them.
My parents always opened their home and these were a lifetime of acts of loving kindness done with a generosity of spirit. So every Thanksgiving, every Passover, I saw my parents provide warmth, companionship and love to those who needed it most, and what an incredible example to set for their children. What an inspiration as to how I ought to live my own life.
My father was also exceedingly generous, and I can scarcely remember a time when my father did not pay the check. I was, in fact, well into my 40s already when I went to a “Cousin's Club” meeting that my parents were part of, and I remember feeling shocked because I'd never seen my father split a check before. My parents always included everyone. When we went on their 50th anniversary trip to Hawaii, my parents didn't only take the children and their grandchildren, but they took their siblings, their nephews and nieces, the spouses of their nephews and nieces, and great nephews and nieces. Their love was always expansive.
As I said before, they were generous to those who needed a place to stay, and very often, when someone fell down, whether it was a family member, a friend or an employee, there was often a hand extended. One of the things that came out over the past year was how many people my father had been helping, and we didn't even know, he never told us. What an incredibly generous example of how to live life.
My father also lead by example and worked very hard for most of his life. He rose in the middle of the night to go down to the market and didn't come back until 8 or 9 o'clock at night. Today there's a lot of value placed in raising children personally and on being there attending their sporting events and going to the classroom every week for some other event, meeting with teachers, etc.
My father wasn't like that. Maybe the world was different then, but I don't think he did me any harm because it turns out that whatever the value of being there, being absent also teaches us as well. The power of watching your father get up every morning when he would rather sleep and go to work day in and day out teaches you something about what it means to be a responsible adult.
The past 13 months have not been easy, and I spent a lot of time away from my home, as my siblings did, time away from my wife and my children so I could be with my father and support my mother. I have often wondered what affect being away would have on my own young children, William and Matthew. So I am, of course, exceedingly grateful to my wife, Debbie, for being willing to take on so many responsibilities at home when I could not. But I came to believe that as my father taught me through his absences, my own absence could also be instructive to my children, teaching them about the priority of family, about the nature of commitments and the privilege of duty.
Another point my father taught me was the primacy of family. Back at that birthday party in March, I told the story of how my father once called me up, something he rarely did as an adult, and told me that I should come home for some event, whether it was my mother’s birthday or for Valentine's Day.
When I pointed out to my father that I had already spoken to Mom and she explained that we would celebrate at another more convenient time, my father said, “I know, but come home anyway. Come home anyway…” What a lesson. I refer to it all the time when choices have to be made.
My father taught me to always think things through. He rarely answered my questions directly. Instead he asked me what I thought the answer was and why I thought that. I am very fortunate in my life, having taken courses at top universities and having met many brilliant people, but I have to say that I never learned as much from anyone as I learned those nights eating Sunday dinner with my father.
My father taught me the supreme importance of ethics. He set a reputation when my family had partnerships with others. My father and his father before him always ran their company under the family name, but this was not by accident. It was a testament to the way my father and his father before him felt about the primacy of reputation.
My father also told me to conduct business ethically. Back at that party in March, I told the story of the trip we made to the Dominican Republic. I described how the whole family had gone to this marketplace where vendors were selling leather belts. There was an opportunity to negotiate seriously with the vendors, and my father negotiated hard, but once he settled on a price with the vendors, they took the leather and wrapped it around each of the children's bodies to measure them and then cut the leather.
It was suggested to my father after they cut the leather that now is the time to offer them less money since the leather was cut and they would be more amenable to bargaining. But my father had his standards, and he said no, once the leather has been cut, the negotiations are over. That little incident has replayed time and again in my head and the story has taught me a lot. It offered a simple rule by which I have tried to conduct my business and my life... that once the leather is cut, once the deal has been made, stick to the deal.
My father was also always open to new ideas. What an astounding man in business he was, and, although he stayed with the produce business, in a very atypical manner he launched supermarkets, convenience stores and drugstores; he bought a chain of local "shopper" publications, developed a soda center and he financed growing operations and became a leader in importing and exporting.
My father was the very first person to take a non-banana produce company public and then he converted it into a closed-end mutual fund. Then he sold the food business, bought it back, and sold it again in pieces.
He was not the typical produce wholesaler, and his children were supported in every dream, no matter how improbable. Although he offered the produce industry as an option to us, he believed in the many ideas that my brother and sister and I brought him, ideas that others would've dismissed out of hand.
He believed in his children. He looked at the world with an optimistic view and believed that success was possible, that the application of intelligence and industry could build a better future. What a gift to let one’s children see the world through these entrepreneurial eyes.
My father also showed us his own self-assurance. Though I personally wasn’t a witness, I am told he would charge onto a nude beach while on vacation without concern, and I can testify that he would burst into song in a car full of people without regard to any consequences in terms of how people might think of him. My father was remarkably comfortable in his own skin.
My father also set an example for me and for all his children by teaching us that it was possible for men to have exceedingly close friendships. We saw his relationship with his identical twin and realized the potential of a close friend. I do not think it is an accident that both my brother and I wound up in business partnerships with close personal friends, relationships that have endured since our teenage years.
My father also taught us the value of humor. My father didn't lecture; he told jokes and stories, and in every one of those jokes and every one of those stories, there was a certain type of truth. I wrote a column when my father was first diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and I told one of his favorite jokes: There was a devout man who always acted virtuously and had but one wish: that he should win the lottery. This man did good works all day and each night prayed that the Lord should allow him to win the lottery. When this man was on his death bed and about to pass, he cried out in anguish to God. He said, “God, I've been a good and devout man all my days and asked only one thing… that I should win the lottery. Why did you deny me this?” And God came down and said, “You never bought a ticket!”
In stories and jokes such as that, my father expressed his philosophy of life and, indeed throughout his long illness, he looked to pursue each and every option — from the first chemotherapy to the experimental treatment in Philadelphia at the end — because he saw all of these treatments as his lottery ticket… as ways in which God could cure him should he so desire. Alas, it seems that God had other plans.
My father also taught me the virtues of obligation and responsibility. My father was a serious man. He finished everything he started, and he never ran away from his obligations to his wife, to his children, to his siblings, to his faith, to his community, to his country. Today, when we hear friends or employees say things such as that they just were tired of being married, tired of the burden of being a father, or that they just want to go have more fun… such talk would have been totally alien to my father.
My father taught by the power of example and with the occasional story or joke, but he taught me that the way you act, the way you live your life, is so much more important than what you say.
Six years ago, my father was diagnosed with leukemia, and I stood in the room as he was told that he had four weeks to live and that the proposed treatment of a stem cell transplant from his identical twin brother had only a 50-50 chance of success. But I watched my father take whatever chance life provided, and he showed a confidence that through his own efforts he would increase those odds, and I watched him work very hard to make that work pay off. Almost 5 years of perfect health came as a result of that confidence and hard work.
With the pancreatic cancer over the past 13 months, how inspiring it has been to watch my father — He never gave up. Even on the day he died, he was waiting because the following day, on Monday, he was going to receive the final stem cell treatment, the final part of the experimental therapy we had been working with, and although he already said he was too weak and could no longer keep fighting, he added the caveat that, of course, God could always send a bolt of lightning down and save him, and if he did, he’d keep going.
My father never gave up. If there is solace to be had in this very difficult moment, he died with the hope that this treatment might work and he died knowing we had tried everything we could find. First chemotherapy, then chemo-sensitivity and chemo-resistance testing… we searched for specific genetic attributes, did whole genome analysis… we were consulting with doctors from Germany, Israel, Tokyo and all across America… we got countless biopsies and, through it all, my father forced himself to eat and do exercise activities exceedingly difficult for pancreatic cancer patients. And then my family had our own Philadelphia story where we embarked on the cutting edge of science with gene-modified, Chimeric Antigen Receptor, RNA-infused T cells drawn from his identical twin brother.
Toward the very end, we came home to Florida on a treatment holiday between Christmas and New Year's, and my father could've stayed peacefully in Florida, but he wanted to go back to Philadelphia, drawing on his last reserves of strength. He hoped to live, but knowing that this might not happen, he preferred to die trying.
I suppose I'm proudest of all the things we managed during the last 13 months that he died still hoping for one last T-cell infusion. He never despaired, never gave up hope, he never gave up trying… that is the legacy of a gentle giant now past but always with us.
If you want to live your life respecting my father, well remember my father’s joke about the man who never bought a lottery ticket. In that joke, my father was expressing his theology — that God helps those who help themselves — as he believed that God worked his way through the things we did in this life. If you want to understand my father, if you want to understand his decisions in his last 13 months of life, his decision to try all these many treatments, understand his traveling to a strange city to be treated, then realize that to him, this was all a matter of not giving up at the chance to win the lottery by participating in the game.
I suppose it is a message of his life that he was optimistic and believed good things could happen and great things were possible, but he believed you had to take risks to make them happen.
I'm pretty sure that my father is not asking God why he didn't win the lottery today, because I think he felt he had he won the lottery. He won it the day he was born, because he had good parents and brothers and was lucky enough to be born a twin. He won it the day my mom said yes when he asked her out on that date in the Lincoln High cafeteria so long ago. He won it in business because he lived in a country where at that time he was able to go to college and pursue business opportunities. He won it when so many people, some dating back to high school and college, wanted to be his friends and remained as friends.
Whether we deserved it or not, I think my father thought he won the lottery when his children were born and they grew to bring home daughters-in-law and a son-in-law, and they in turn brought home grandchildren.
When we were at MD Anderson for leukemia treatment, my father was often quite out of it and seemed to use sleep as his way of preserving strength. The family would sit with my father and chat among ourselves thinking he was asleep. One day my mother said to me in the hospital room that she and my father were very grateful that my siblings and I had paid such attention and taken such care of my father, identifying the right institution to go, arranging for the medical care and being there to support them in those decisions, and I remember saying thank you very much, but that's really a child's obligation and there is nothing we did that any child would do for their parents.
I remember my father rose from his sleep to say, “No that is not true Jimmy. We have many friends whose children would not trouble themselves at all!” Of course, it was at that moment that I knew all our efforts to help my parents paid off.
I hoped my father would be cured, of course, but even if he died I felt he would die happier knowing how hard we tried to save him.
My father ultimately died with no pain. He was surrounded by his family and was enveloped in the knowledge that in the 13-month battle we waged, we searched heaven and earth to save him. He also knew that in the 13 months, we never left him alone.
In the end, my father felt such faith in his children that it frightened me. The last night before my father passed, my mother stayed in the hospital. She normally did not, but she feared we were coming to the end so she wanted to stay, so my brother and I left for the night to get some sleep. Later on, my mother called me frantic because she and two nurses couldn't get my father to sit up, so I rushed to the hospital and as soon as I walked in, my father raised his hands in the signal we used to express that he wanted to sit up, and I grabbed his hands and he sat up right away.
That was a function of the confidence my father felt in his children. I remember the nurses coming to change the IV or something like that, and he’d call me over to say, “Jimmy, make sure they're doing it right.”
For a son to know that his father held him in such esteem, to know that his father trusted him so much is an extraordinary feeling.
I know that my brother, sister and I and our extended families will endeavor to be worthy of that trust. We will take care of my mother as my father would've wanted. We will try hard to love each other as he would've liked. We will live with the faith that hard work and intelligence properly applied can make for opportunity.
We will face an inconceivable world for us, a world without Michael Prevor living among us, but we will be enriched by his love and the lessons he taught, confident that the shadow this gentle giant of a man cast will make our lives richer and the world a better place.
If you wish to support the important immunotherapy work that my father began, work we believe can ultimately contribute in important ways to the fight against cancer, please make a tax deductible contribution to the fund we have established at the University of Pennsylvania.
Here is a New York Times article about the success of the work in leukemia, An Immune System Trained to Kill Cancer. You can donate right here.