On Monday, I learned that Milt Zysman had died. From speaking to his brother, Simon, I found out that he had pancreatic cancer. He had been diagnosed nine months ago and had been on chemotherapy. His immune system was compromised. He got pneumonia on Friday. Two days later, he was dead. I cannot get him out of my thoughts.
In the notice of his death that his daughter, Leslie, sent out, she said that Milt had dodged the death bullet many times in his life – but not this time. Milt was on a regimen of dialysis requiring that he spend three days a week in hospital. Milt told me it was not too bad. He had not told me that he had cancer, but perhaps he had been diagnosed since I had last spoken to him before we left for Mexico for the winter. The last email correspondence between us was last October concerning Immanuel Velikovsky.
Evidently, Milton was still working on his book on Velikovsky (V) until a few days before his death. In the 1970s, Milton became enamoured with V, particularly with two of his books, Worlds in Collision and Ages of Chaos. I have the impression that Milt had read everything by and about V. He certainly viewed V as the pioneer of modern catastrophism, that is, that the geological and climate history of this planet and, for V, human history. Both had been deeply affected by comets and other objects crashing into earth. V was not a freak as he is often treated, though I believe that the vast array of scientific and mythological criticism do not support V.
If my memory is correct, V helped found the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and was a practicing psychiatrist. But he certainly was widely criticized by scientists, not so much, I believe, for his catastrophism as much as his use of biblical texts and cultural myths to try to provide a correlation to actual cosmological catastrophes. But the only thing I know about V is what Milt told me. I was never convinced by Milt, much as he tried to persuade me, that I had to read V’s books.
I got to know Milt in Harbord Collegiate where we were both high school students. He was a much closer friend of my older brother Al, but we were all in the same year. One memory of Milt is a game of basketball. He belonged to Club Vertis and Al and I belonged to Club Albion. Milt was the wildest player that I have ever seen play basketball, with long strides and his body stretched almost horizontally as he dribbled the ball. And he would risk the longest shots imaginable and then, alternatively, push ahead as if there was no one between him and the basket to try a rebound shot.
Milt was a unique being. But he was not the only one that was unique in his family. I recall once being in Milt’s house when he lived on Madison Avenue just north of Bloor St. and before his family moved north to Old Forest Hill Rd. Madison Avenue was already north for us downtown Harborites. There was a party. Milt’s cousin Joey (also the name of Milt’s son) was in town from New York. He played the guitar.
He was singing some tunes and I asked if he could play a folk tune. Ruth, Milt’s extremely beautiful older sister, tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to come out of the living room to talk to her. She took me aside and scolded me for requesting a song. I have a memory of her sitting on me, but that is probably a product of my wild imagination. But she certainly did scold me. “You do not ask a musician to play a song unless you are absolutely certain that the vocalist already knows the lyrics.”
I have never before or since had such a forceful lesson in social etiquette. I have also never ever asked a singer since then to sing a favourite song. When I later told Milt what his older sister had done, all he said was, “That’s Ruthie.”
In high school, Milt became notorious for one incident. Milt’s form and mine shared an outstanding French teacher, Dr. Hislop, however, not so outstanding as to be able to teach me French. One day, she had a hissy fit. She claimed that one of the students had stolen her French textbook. She told us that she would not teach us until the text was returned to her desk. Harbord Collegiate was widely renowned, not only for academic excellence, but for the revolutionary propensities of its students. The student body went on strike for three full days when Principal Graham tried unsuccessfully to regain control of the student assemblies. However, this was the first time we experienced a teacher going on strike.
The strike went on for almost two weeks. It was clear that Dr. Hislop would not give in. But neither would we. We opposed both collective punishment and charges made without any evidence that a student had taken her text. Besides, many of us were happy to escape formal French classes and use the time to do other homework. Milt evidently thought that both sides were being stubborn and irrational. A new text was placed on Dr. Hislop’s desk allowing her to save face and end the strike. Milt had purchased the book. But instead of being hailed as a peacemaker in an irrational and meaningless struggle, he was reviled for breaking student solidarity and for being an appeaser. I was a proud and stupid member of the ideological critic’s club.
During high school, Milt and my brother Al became summer partners in a tuck shop at Balfour Beach on Lake Simcoe just 2 miles north of Keswick on the south-east shore where Milt’s family had a cottage. The next year, I and another high school buddy got the concession at the Tides Hotel for their tuck shop and snack restaurant. The Tides Hotel was two miles west of Jacksons Point on the east side of Lake Simcoe, about 12 miles from Balfour Beach. As it turned out, the summer season was disastrous. It was cold and rainy. We were losing money and we desperately needed to make money.
Milt made a suggestion. He and Al offered to get some booze from their customers at Balfour Beach that we could buy from them at a modest profit to bootleg to hotel guests at a good markup. Suddenly, for about a month, we were making good profits from this alternative service – until we were caught when the manager overheard a conversation between the bellhop and a guest. (The bellhop was a procurer of clients for a commission.)
It was an end, but not an ignominious one, to our tiny imitation of Samuel Bronfman’s bootlegging operation during Prohibition that provided the foundation for the Seagram Distillery fortune. For, as a condition of quitting our bootleg business, we were given new cups and dishes and access to top quality coffee by management for, as we told the enraged manager, he had much more to lose if the cops found out than we did.
In university, Milt became an expert in pornographic literature, not as a voyeur, but as a great appreciator. He introduced us to Samuel Richardson and François Rabelais, Daniel Defoe and Henry Miller. At first, as the prude I was then, I thought that Milt had become a pervert, but gradually learned that he was intimately attuned to the fine points of and variations on the genre.
Milt went to law school, and “went” is the correct word. He faked his year of articling with the help of a lawyer-friend. And he never completed his bar admjssion exams. He was never going to be a practicing lawyer. He was a creator and inventor.
His father owned a mattress and upholstering supply business. Milt invented a mattress handle that was much stronger than the historical cloth strap and which could much more easily and economically be inserted in the side of a mattress. His family, I believe, became the largest supplier in the world of mattress handles to the industry, either directly or through license agreements. Simon will have to tell me whether this was just a boast.
Over four summers, Milt and my burgeoning family – Margaret and I added another child almost every year – shared different cottages and once a farm house where my family planned to move so I could write. The farm house burned down in the summer of 1965. Those summers were communal social events. Milt was an entertainer and had a wide assortment of friends. The summers were happenings and I let them happen as I did my own work. I was not a social creature, but Milt’s initiatives gave me a bit of sociability without any effort on my part. Milt became the godfather to our fourth child, Eric.
I do not know the year Milt became deathly ill. It was only a few years after he became Eric’s godfather. He had been admitted to the Toronto General Hospital for a relatively routine gastrointestinal operation by Dr. Khursheed Jeejeebhoy. He was the chief gastroenterologist at the hospital if my memory is correct. The operation went well. Unfortunately, while in the hospital, Milt got a fungus infection. Milt literally became deathly ill. We were told that it would be unlikely that he would survive.
Dr. Harold Wise had been in the same medical class as my brother and I. He had become the head of the Martin Luther King Jr. new and very large medical clinic in the South Bronx in New York. In running that facility designed to train locals in medical technical skills as a step out of poverty, during his tenure there, Harold became intimately acquainted with the healing techniques of local shamans. When he heard that Milt was imminently facing death, he flew up to Toronto.
When he entered Milt’s hospital room on College Street, I was sitting beside Milt as each of his friends rotated to keep him company and try to ease his suffering. I am not sure I was of any help. I did not read to him. I felt useless. I had left medicine to become a philosopher. Milt was too much a liver of life to become enamoured with philosophy.
Harold took off his jacket, but did not sit down. He leaned over Milt and began to quietly talk to him. He did not ask him how he was feeling. That was obvious. We were expecting Milt to die. After about ten minutes of talking in almost a whisper, Harold got up on the bed and laid on top of Milt. Milt very feebly started joking. “Since when did you become queer?” Harold hugged Milt, firmly but not hard. I sat still in utter amazement and could not even participate in the growing witty repartee between Milt and Harold. Harold was on top of Milt for fifteen minutes. Milt’s voice grew visibly stronger and his comments actually became really funny. Harold laid on top of Milt for perhaps another half hour.
It was miraculous. Colour had returned to Milt’s face. He could actually speak so that we could clearly understand him. It was self-evident that Milt was no longer at death’s door. What could I say? I witnessed what I did not believe. And I have never got to believe, but at least I subsequently remained an agnostic. Milt recovered, though he had lost his sight.
I found the obituary of Harold that had been published in The New York Times.
WISE-Harold. We deeply mourn the loss of our visionary founder, Dr. Harold Wise, who pioneered family-centered health care at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Health Center in the South Bronx and the Valentine Lane Family Practice in Yonkers. When he could not find other physicians who shared that vision, he created the award-winning residency program in social medicine to train them. His healing legacy lives on in its alumni, faculty, staff and all their patients. Robert Massad, MD, Chair, Department of Family Medicine. Hal Strelnick, MD, Director, Residency Program in Social Medicine, Montefiore Medical Center Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
Milt, while blind, went on to invent a combination foam and coil mattress that was produced by a long machine that produced and laid out wire coils and then baked foam around them to create an independent coil mattress. Most of his friends invested in his creation. But it never worked properly. The machine would get gummed up and production would stop until the machine was cleaned. Eventually, after years of struggle and efforts to both improve the machine and open his own bedding stores, Foamcoil went bankrupt.
However, Milt was never daunted. He went on to try other inventions, to come up with other creative endeavours, to organize soirees and always to collect more friends. Most of those who know him now are far better acquainted with his later endeavours. Our worlds no longer collided. In fact, we had begun to live in different worlds. While he read and studied wars in the celestial sphere, I attended to earthly wars and their calamitous results.
Most of Milt’s old cohort of friends have passed away. My brother died 20 years ago. As did Harold 21 years ago. Dave Berger died almost 40 years ago. At 83, Milt outlived them all and was always dedicated to celebrating life. He looked death in the face and laughed.
At the cottage on the island on Saturday, I was walking down the long path to the boat dock, not to get on any boat, but to check the gas generator. On route, I kept thinking of how my life had become haunted with ghosts. I started to name them in my head. I was determined to write about them once again as I had a few years ago, for now this was no longer an infrequent occurrence. My thoughts turned to Milt. I had not thought of him for months. I wondered how he was. I vowed to phone him when I returned to Toronto. It was too late.
Last night, my wife and I went to see the biopic, Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love about the late poet and balladeer, Leonard Cohen and his muse and Norwegian love of his life, Marianne (pronounced Mariann – e) Ihlen. The film was directed by Nick Broomfield, another once lover of Marianne’s. I will sign off by plagiarizing Leonard’s note to Marianne as she lay on her death bed and Leonard faced his own death at an age just less than Milt’s. The film both opens and ends with the same line.
“Well Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.”
Hold out your hand, Milton. Reach for me. I will not be far behind.
With the help of Alex Zisman