Finalist, 2016 Contest for Creative Nonfiction
My father is the wisest man in the world.
Children say things like this all the time, but in my case it’s true.
Here’s an example:
In the third grade I write a book report on the novel A Stone for Danny Fisher by Harold Robbins. It’s the kind of book known in a previous generation as a “potboiler.” All I know is that I’m fascinated by the racy (by third grade standards) cover and the rags to riches story of a Jewish boxer from the slums of Brooklyn. Not to mention a few lightly euphemistic passages rife with sexual innuendo (by third grade standards). Let’s face it, Harold Robbins is no Laura Ingalls Wilder.
My parents are called to school and informed by Mrs. Schneider, in no uncertain terms, that this selection is unacceptable for the third grade. Dad disagrees. He politely, but firmly, informs Mrs. Schneider that my selection demonstrates maturity, and instead of being chastised I should be congratulated for my interest in alternative literature, as well as my erudite knowledge. Okay, he doesn’t say chastised or alternative, and most definitely doesn’t use the word erudite, but you the get the idea of what transpired. For the rest of the term Mrs. Schneider doesn’t speak to me much, but she doesn’t object to any of my book reports, either.
Now I’m twelve-years-old and in the seventh grade. I write a book report about the novel The President’s Plane Is Missing. It’s a thriller, and I don’t usually read thrillers. I read Agatha Christie and sneak my mother’s copy of “Peyton Place” from the credenza in our apartment hallway. But I read this book in one day. The title intrigues me. I work on the report for a week, fine-tuning, checking spelling and grammar.
The day arrives for our grades. Miss Shapiro, my English teacher, asks me to stay after class. In my mind I can hear her say things like, “we need to move you into honors English,” or “you should enter college in the fall.” But what she says, in an imperious tone, is this: “I have no alternative but to give you an A. I don’t believe you wrote this report. I just can’t prove it.”
I am shattered. I walk home, book report in hand, the “A” circled with a bright red pencil jeering at me, I don’t believe you wrote it. I don’t believe you wrote it. I feel the tears start.
At home I am inconsolable and retreat to my room. Dad walks in and sits down next to me.
You should be proud he says.
Proud of what? I ask. I don’t get it.
Proud that someone, an English teacher, doesn’t believe that a boy your age, a twelve-year-old, could write that report.
But she doesn’t think I wrote it!
Who gives a crap what she thinks? You know you wrote it. And I know you wrote it. It shows what a great writer you are.
I never forget that moment.
I also never forgot the moment, later that summer, when I jump feet first into the deep end of the pool at the Granit Hotel in the Catskills without wearing a jockstrap underneath my bathing trunks.
You could hurt your testicles doing that my father admonishes.
What are testicles? I ask.
You’re twelve-years-old and you don’t know what testicles are? my father wonders aloud, incredulous.
Okay, so I’m a great writer but I’m clueless about my genitals.
The point is my father dispenses a lifetime of non-judgmental philosophical advice.
On angst: whatever the problem is, we’ll deal with it.
On finance: get your money out of the bank and invest!
On pursuing your dreams: take a chance. You only go around once.
On matters of the heart: it’s not important to find someone you can live with. Find someone you can’t live without.
But it is what he says to his children, days after my mom’s funeral, that stays with me.
Your mother and I had fifty-six wonderful years. We traveled, raised a family, enjoyed our life together. We had a great marriage with no regrets.
He is content, at peace, adding,
Now, how many people can say that?
Not too many, I suppose.
His acceptance of this towering loss allows him to move forward. Ten years later, at age ninety, he drives without incident and swims daily. He dines out every night with a special affinity for Denny’s $5.99 Grand Slam, less 15% with an AARP discount. He travels to Atlantic City and Las Vegas, plays slot poker and relishes pot roast at the Golden Corral Buffet.
So it is a bit of a shock when I arrive at the hospital from the airport to find that he has lost even more weight from the last time I saw him three months earlier. The doctors suggest a feeding tube. Food is going into the lungs and not the stomach. We object but Dad is pragmatic. Let them do what they need to do so I can go home. We are cautiously optimistic.
My father has two weeks to live.
Dad’s primary physician never visits. Some prohibitive rule about not being affiliated with his hospital. I play out several scenarios in my head: what if he snuck in incognito, or pretended to deliver a batch of balloons? After all, he knows Dad, for what, more than a decade? Is it too much to ask for him to show his face as a caring friend?
No such luck. The hospital enlists one of their on-staff doctors to take his place, sort of like the indigent defendant who is assigned a court appointed attorney. This new doctor introduces himself, listens to Dad’s heartbeat, fidgets with the I.V., and provides us with a brief recap of Dad’s condition – all within a matter of minutes. For this, he will bill Medicare for his time.
Another doctor, a pulmonary specialist, skips the introduction (until we ask him to identify himself), listens to Dad’s heartbeat, skims through his medical chart and reiterates what the court appointed doctor has told us – all within a matter of minutes. For this, he will bill Medicare for his time.
Doctors on parade continues. The cardiologist, the same man who treated Dad for twenty years and accepted my mother’s bakery treats at Hanukkah, sends an associate, a doctor by proxy. The associate prods, pokes, adjusts, reads, nods, reassures and leaves. Medicare will receive a bill.
At the other end of the spectrum is the ear, nose, and throat doctor who realized the seriousness of Dad’s condition and admitted him to the hospital. He offers us information, guidance and compassion, and we hang on his every word. He acknowledges Dad by his first name and talks directly to him, none of that condescending and how are WE doing today jargon. We don’t care how much he bills Medicare.
To us, he is a God.
These meetings usually occur at 6 a.m. when doctors make their “rounds,” the time when elderly patients are jolted out of a most needed sleep, many without their dentures in place and without family members within reach. When they are at their most vulnerable. My brothers and I catch on to this ruse and beat them at their game, camping out in Dad’s room and sleeping on a smelly futon and a recliner designed for minimal back support. We find out, through the hospital grapevine, that we are the only family to attempt this maneuver. I’m glad we do it: three grown underwear-clad men, haggard, unshaven and bleary-eyed, yet focused on our father’s well-being. We are his protectors. His voice. His advocate.
Every morning a nurse enters and writes the name of the staff for the day on the Dry Erase board. Good morning! it exclaims cheerily followed by a litany of extensions for the head nurse, nursing assistant, nurses station and housekeeping. Margaret, Lena, Ethel, Rebecca, Michele – we lose track. They are our lifeline to the medical community, the gatekeepers of information, medication and providers of hands-on care. We learn more from them than any of the doctors. Dad forms a bond with a lovely young pregnant nurse. Buy her something from the gift shop he whispers to me, and when we present her with a stuffed animal for her unborn she bursts into tears. She hugs my father, and we never see her again after her shift is over.
Dad hates the feeding tube. He complains that the milkshake-like liquid gives him a full feeling; he wants to take it out. You can’t, I explain, falling short of saying that it’s the only thing keeping him alive. He protests, and I don’t have the heart to argue. Let’s wait for the doctor, I say.
The basement cafeteria is my hangout, the place where, as the TV song goes, everybody knows your name. I’m there so often that one of the cashiers, a tough gal from New York, covertly gives me the employee discount upon checkout.
Sleep is elusive. Every half hour after midnight a nurse tiptoes in to check Dad’s vitals. At 3 a.m. I find myself wandering the halls in search of food. It’s like a scene out of one of those horror movies with Jamie Lee Curtis, the deserted hospital with one patient. Only now it’s me in a t-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops making my way through a maze of basement corridors desperate for the oasis called a vending machine. I finally find one and when I deposit the coins in the change slot the Kit Kat bar sticks and doesn’t drop. I bang the machine, shake it, then pound on the glass. My frustration is less about that Kit Kat bar than the truth about Dad.
My father is very sick.
I stumble back into the room, flickering TV images in the background, and crawl back onto the stinky futon.
I hope you win your football pool this year, Dad whispers.
Thanks, Dad. Try to get some sleep.
Who can sleep? I have to pee every twenty minutes.
We spend the days in an endless cycle of CNN and Law & Order. Dad is partial to the SVU franchise and Mariska Hargitay. He gets a kick out of watching Donald Trump vie for the Republican presidential nomination. Never happen, he predicts. It’ll be Jeb Bush versus Hillary.
After ten days he is transferred next door to the hospital’s rehabilitation center. We are ecstatic. To us this is progress, one step removed from discharge.
We are wrong. Within twenty-four hours the slide begins. Dad refuses to participate in the daily regimen of exercises prepared for him. We plead, cajole, and just about force his wheelchair into the state-of-the-art gymnasium. He protests that he is tired, worn out. It pains me to write this, but I wish we had listened. He was right. What no one realizes is that he isn’t improving, his body is wasting away. And then he says something I never heard him say, ever.
I can’t do this.
A team of new doctors converge with a barrage of questions.
What is today’s date?
When is your birthday?
Do you know who the president is?
Dad looks at me as if to say, Why are they asking me these stupid questions?
What did you do for a living?
I owned a business, dad proudly answers. I started it from scratch, and I made a lot of money.
You tell them, Dad. You tell them how you started that business with $3000 when you only had $3600 in the bank, a wife and two small children. You tell them how you put aside cash in individually marked envelopes to distribute to the factory workers at Christmas, even when the business struggled. You tell them how you hired a woman as an equal business partner, long before such a practice was commonplace.
You tell them.
We are caught between a rock and Medicare. Medicare will not cover the cost if you do not participate in the program. You are required to leave immediately, like a hotel guest unable to pay the bill. A nursing home is out of the question. My father and mother promised that they would never do that to each other, and we plan to uphold that decision as well. But then, what?
Before we can decide, Dad is rushed to the critical care unit. He is failing. A tube is inserted down his throat to help him breathe. His room is quiet except for the beep of the heart monitor and the whoosh of the breathing apparatus. The critical care doctors and nurses offer us kindness, empathy, and, most importantly, the truth: life as Dad knows it will never be the same. At ninety, it is just too damn hard to recover from this. The options are clear. Stay in this state of immobilization forever, or remove the tube and let nature take its course. I pray he doesn’t wake up, that he doesn’t open his eyes, that he doesn’t realize what is happening to him.
But he does.
Just for an instant. He grabs my hand, a good, firm grasp. In his eyes, I see the fear, the weariness.
He knows that the life he loved is over. The daily swimming, the dinners, the vacations, the freedom, the independence. The quality.
And then, in one clear motion he waves his hand furiously back and forth, back and forth in a horizontal motion, like a windshield wiper blade across glass.
It’s okay Dad, I whisper. Go back to sleep. And he slowly closes his eyes. We are unanimous in our decision to remove the tube knowing that it is just a matter of time before he is unable to breathe on his own. I know how personal of a decision this is for each and every family, but for us it was, and remains, the right one.
Dad is moved to hospice care on another floor where he’s given personalized care. He is shaved, bathed and conversed with. He is treated like a human being. And when we leave for the evening his hospice nurse hugs each of us. Thank you she says for allowing me the privilege of taking care of your dad.
Dad’s heart continues to beat, but his body slowly crumbles. Talk to him, encourages the hospice nurse. Hearing is the last sense to go. He can hear you. Tell him it’s okay to go. Tell him you’ll all be okay.
And that is what we do.
Sometimes they won’t leave when you’re in the room, she gently tells us.
And that is what happens.
We are summoned back from the visitor’s lounge. Dad’s beating heart slows. We surround his bed and hold his hand as he takes his last breath. And just like that – poof – ninety years of a life ends. In an instant it’s all gone. I flash on everything. The boyhood on the lower east side of New York, the four years in the Navy, the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the South Pacific, marriage to my mom, the birth of three children and a grandchild, the start of a business and then another and another, the cruises in the Caribbean, holidays, birthdays, barbecues.
And then there’s my life. Walking me to kindergarten; watching HAIR on Broadway for my sixteenth birthday and wanting to crawl under the seat from embarrassment when the cast disrobes on stage, with Dad enthusiastically applauding in the seat next to mine; driving to the dorm on my first day of college and driving me home four years later. And the little things: relaxing together in the Jacuzzi, sharing a chocolate bar at the movies, the three-times-a-week phone conversations, talking about living life and how to enjoy it.
All of those precious moments pass through my mind in a series of fleeting celluloid images. Dad was there when I came into the world, and I was there when he left it. There is nothing more simultaneously heartbreaking and beautiful than that.
My father was the wisest man in the world.
He lived ninety years – almost all of them in good health. He had no regrets, no recriminations, no bucket list. He did everything he wanted to do.
And when he left this world, he did it on his terms.
Now, how many people can say that?