Photo: Sarah Andrews
Joel Feldman was happy to have his close family along when he moved into his dorm room at Drake University in the fall of 2009. But within a few months, he needed more than family to make it through his first semester.
Right when school began, Feldman pursued his goal of becoming a music performance major and spent the beginning of the semester bonding with his classmates and getting to know his way around campus.
But toward the end of the semester, Feldman knew that the situation back home in Adel, Iowa, was not as worry-free.
“My dad had had cancer for about three years prior to me going to school,” Feldman said. “When I started going to school he started getting kind of worse, which was sort of expected because he had melanoma, which is a pretty serious cancer.”
While melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer, Feldman said his family didn’t expect his father’s state of health to decline so quickly.
Tyler Gilmore, Feldman’s roommate at the time, said he knew Feldman’s father was not doing well but that Feldman kept the issue to himself.
“We had a talk just one random night about his family, how his dad was doing,” Gilmore said. “He seemed a little upset, I guess, but that was the only time I had heard personal things about his family and about his dad.”
A short while after that talk, Feldman’s father’s health became even worse.
The day before Thanksgiving break began, Feldman received a call from a family member saying his father was going to the hospital.
“That wasn’t too concerning, because he occasionally went to the hospital for things,” Feldman said.
But, when one of his father’s 11 brothers and sisters, Marianne, came to pick Feldman up at Drake, she said his father was not doing well and that hospice arrangements were being made.
When they arrived at the hospital, Feldman said his father was not fully aware of what was happening around him, but eventually the family brought him home. On Thanksgiving night, 54-year-old Richard Feldman died surrounded by his family.
“We stayed up with him, and that night he passed away, and our family thought it was pretty significant that he actually died on Thanksgiving, because we were thankful for his life and that we knew him,” Feldman said.
FAITH FOUND IN FRIENDSHIP
Feldman did not come back to school for almost two weeks after his father died but knew he had to attend a couple of classes because finals time was approaching.
“It was a crazy time, and it was stressful and difficult,” he said. “But my professors were all very understanding and they fit my needs to make sure I got it all taken care of.”
While he and his family were still coping with the loss of his father, Feldman said, they cared for and supported each other to start the healing process.
“They understood that I had to go back to school; I couldn’t stop living my life,” he said.
As Feldman juggled spending time with his family and dealing with the pressures of finals, he began playing on his intramural basketball team again to try to get back into the swing of his life at college. The team included his resident assistant and people who lived on their floor.
One night as the team was playing a round of hoops, Feldman found out that his resident assistant, Alex Battani, had lost his father earlier that summer.
“They both had cancer, and they both died at the same age,” Feldman said. “I thought at the time that it was a crazy coincidence, but I think it was more than that, actually.”
He said it was certainly tough dealing with his dad dying, and he realized that most people would probably be sad and have difficulties coping. Ultimately, he came to the realization of one sure thing: Everyone dies, and there is no getting around that.
His situation, he said, made him think about some big questions: What happens when we die? What is the purpose or meaning of life? Is there a god?
“I just kept thinking about the significance of my dad’s death and that’s when I thought about the fact that I’d met Alex,” Feldman said. “It was almost a prayer. If there is a god, this is the make-or-break situation; if you’re there, God, show yourself to me. And I think he did.”
Feldman developed a close relationship with Battani. Because Battani was an R.A., he was not permitted to comment due to confidentiality issues. Feldman said they talked about and considered the Bible, heaven and God’s purpose for their lives.
“A lot of times people don’t believe in things like miracles, or whatever, but it’s not just a coincidence that I was on Alex’s floor and that I knew him,” Feldman said. “I do believe that God was working in that way.”
The strong bond that Feldman formed with Battani, their open conversations and his ever-growing faith helped him come to terms with his father’s death.
“There is more to this life than what this world claims,” Feldman said. “Through that I found a peace and a comfort, and there’s a joy in that, in knowing that this life is only a glimpse of what is to come.”
Feldman has always loved music. At 8 years old, he began playing the piano, and he eventually joined band in fifth grade and landed the role as the drummer.
“I tried out for and got the drums, and I was really excited,” Feldman said. “I enjoyed playing them, and it turns out I was pretty good.”
His said his father encouraged him to play different types of instruments. Over the years, Feldman has learned to play the marimba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, sleigh bells and a variety of other instruments.
“My dad was very supportive. He went to nearly every concert I had,” Feldman said. “I’m very thankful that he did care and did come to hear me. He would definitely be happy that I’m doing music. In fact, I know he was; he was excited about it.”
The house was always filled with music, Feldman said. Feldman liked to sing along with the music on the radio, and his father was an expert whistler.
In addition to whistling, Feldman said his father learned to be self-sufficient and handy because of his large family. Richard ran an upholstery business out of their home, which allowed him time with the family. He also worked for a stained glass company, fixing and redoing works of stained glass for churches and buildings,and creating new works of glass.
“He made stuff for people all the time, for our family and as gifts for other people,” Feldman said. “I guess you could say some of my artistic and musical creativity comes from my dad.”
His dad also enjoyed traveling, and the family has taken a vacation every summer since Feldman can remember.
One of the best trips, Feldman said, was the summer before his father passed away. They drove to Montana, a place they visit often since they have relatives there, and stayed at the lake where his aunt and uncle live.
“We just spent time there together,” Feldman said. “It’s really pretty and relaxing and we all had a good time.”
Adjusting to life after his father’s death was difficult, but having so many loved ones around helped Feldman move on.
“It was different, obviously, because my life was just different now,” he said. “We always had such a good time doing stuff as a family, but the rest of my family has always been very supportive.”
Feldman will always remember his dad for the loving, gentle and caring man he was.
“And even though my dad is gone,” he said, “I’ve still found joy knowing that I’ll be with him and God one day.”