Brian Litwak, 75, has gone through life coping with poor health. Nine years ago, following quadruple bypass surgery and suffering from diabetes, he came from Los Angeles to Handmaker Services for the Aging, brought here by his younger brother.
“No one told me I was supposed to die,” says Litwak, sitting in his sunny apartment at Handmaker. “I’ve never been happier.” When he first arrived, Litwak resided in the assisted living building. “I had wonderful caregivers, especially Roberto Rodriguez,” he told the AJP. “We’ve become great friends. He helped keep me alive. I’d be talking to someone and I’d keel over. He would be walking by and would call the paramedics, who happen to be around the corner.”
A normal blood sugar level is 80-130, says Litwak, who adds that one time, “I was at 19. The last time that happened was five years ago.” A diabetic for 32 years, he attributes his improved health to “wonderful caregivers and the most incredible doctors here in Tucson.”
Litwak was born in Detroit and grew up, he says, in a frum (religious) family that moved to Los Angeles in 1940. “I was terribly ill as a child. I had pneumonia three times, asthma, hay fever and a host of allergies,” he says. “Looking back, my childhood ended when my father died. I was 9 and a half years old.”
His mother worked 13-hour days, mostly as a waitress, to support the family. “I had to raise the two brats, and they were brats,” Litwak says, referring to his two younger siblings. Later, he took care of his ill mother.
Litwak started UCLA at age 17, earning a bachelor’s degree in education. “I didn’t have any friends. I didn’t know how to have friends. When I was 25 I started my own life. I didn’t have to take care of anybody,” he says.
Having “lived with death” for years, Litwak also lived with “extreme anger. I became a severe alcoholic from 1974 to 1980,” he says. “I was arrested twice before going to Alcoholics Anonymous. They saved my life.” Through his experiences at AA, Litwak realized that “a spiritual component was missing in my life. I needed a higher power.”
As an adult, he went to the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, to say yahrzeit for his father on Yom Kippur. “They wouldn’t let me in,” says Litwak, “because I didn’t have a ticket. I wouldn’t go into a synagogue again until my mother died.”
In college, “I was young and I figured there was no God. And they were saying God was dead” in those days, he says, adding that later, at AA meetings, “I would share, I’ve got a problem with this God thing. When I got sober I was enraged. I realized that I was mad at my father for leaving me to take care of the family. I’ve been sober for 31 years and four months.”
While in recovery from alcoholism, Litwak started studying the writings of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung. “Over the years, I’ve put together truisms,” he says, offering a printed sheet of paper with examples such as “pain is holding on to a world you’ve outgrown.” I go over them every night before I go to sleep,” he says, considering what, if any, adjustments to his attitude or behavior he wants to make the next day.
A voracious reader, Litwak transferred his love of learning to a career in education. In addition to his bachelor’s degree in education from UCLA, Litwak holds a master’s degree in education and supervision from California State University, Northridge. He retired in 1995 following his bypass surgery, after teaching for 33 years.
Litwak taught fourth through sixth grades in diverse neighborhoods before landing at Brentwood Elementary School in 1968, where, he says, “there were highly gifted non-achievers. Parents came to us and said, ‘you must be able to do something for them.’”
The school started a gifted program at Litwak’s behest. “To this day I still hear from former students on Facebook. They tell me how successful the program was because it was tailored to their needs,” he says. He was also instrumental in turning Brentwood into a magnet science school, busing gifted children from all over Los Angeles.
Along with the school’s African-American principal, he says proudly, “I wanted to integrate. We started to screen African-American kids from South Central [to provide them with a stronger science curriculum]. We brought South Central to us.”
In retirement, Litwak has continued helping others — and learning more about himself — in the process. At Handmaker, he volunteered to walk a friend’s dog when she was in the hospital in 2005. “I visited her in the hospital and she’s praying, saying, ‘Oh Lord, help me.’ I asked her why,” he says. “She said, ‘Because He always helps me.’ And I thought, oh yeah, tell me another story.
“She kept getting sick, she’d pray and she’d come back” to Handmaker, says Litwak. “Now every night I pray. I just say ‘help.’ I’m talking to myself. Like in ‘Star Wars,’ I’m using the force within me. I believe when we die we go back to the force.”
Another of his “truisms” says, “We must pray. It doesn’t change God, it changes us.”
“It was a choice to be miserable for 44 years,” he says. “I wake up every day now and make a choice to be happy.”