Enough by Robert Weinberger

Finalist, 2016 Contest for Creative Nonfiction

silhoette of man with arm on head

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.

He knows that the life he loved is over. The daily swimming, the dinners, the vacations, the freedom, the independence. The quality.

He knows.

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.

Enough! Enough!

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?

robert-weinbergerRobert Weinberger’s memoirs, “My Letter: Eight lines, one hundred nineteen words, nine sentences,” “The Year of Living Nervously,” “Look Homeward, Brooklyn,” “Sex, Drugs & Vic Giovanni,” “Confessions of a Nervous Child” and “20 Minutes with Bobbie Koppleman” have appeared in Memoir Journal, Ink Filled Page, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, Hippocampus Magazine and Spilt Infinitive. Editors and readers of Hippocampus selected “Sex, Drugs & Vic Giovanni” and “Confessions of a Nervous Child” as the magazine’s “most memorable” published works in December, 2012, and April, 2013, respectively. A native of Brooklyn, New York, Robert lives in Los Angeles. Visit him at robertweinberger.com.

 

 

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  • ronnie wenker-konner

    MOVING…HEARTBREAKING…but most of all, real. When memories come in conflict with the medical community and death becomes a nightmare you can’t prepare f0r. Robert Weinburger is able to keep his love and respect for his father during times it would be easy to lose it. His father’s influence on a caring son, that only wants to do the right thing when there is no right thing, shows through. I, for one was able to share his stoy w9th us.

    • Robert Weinberger

      All too often elderly patients fall through the cracks in the healthcare system, especially as hospital patients. My brothers and I served as my father’s advocate, his voice, when he needed us most. Thank you, Ronnie, for recognizing that.

  • Clark

    It is a very moving story of your relationship with your father. When my father unexpectedly fell ill, I scheduled a flight to visit him. Unfortunately, he passed away before I could reach him. I have wondered how I would have said good-bye and any final words my father would have passed along to me. I hope my children will have great memories of me just like you have of your father. Thank you for expressing your love for your father for readers like me.

    • Robert Weinberger

      Hi, Clark. I’m grateful that I was given those last two weeks with my dad. Thank you for sharing your experience. I’m glad that his story touched you.

  • Luisa Mesa

    So moving and beautifully written! You and your dad were lucky to have each other… What a beautiful story of a wonderful relationship! A big CONGRATULATIONS to you! I am rooting for you for that Reader’s Choice Award!

  • Robert Weinberger

    Thank you Luisa for your kind words and encouragement. I consider myself the lucky one in our relationship. My father lived his life with dignity right up until the very end.

  • Logan

    One of the most emotional stories
    I have ever had the pleasure of reading. It makes me want to cherish all the memories I have of my father even more.

    • Robert Weinberger

      Savor the moments you have with your father, Logan, and continue to create memories that will last a lifetime. Thank you for taking the time to share.

  • Karen Struck

    So, so touching. The complexities of navigating the healthcare maze, finding caring advocates, and trusting what you know is in the heart of your dad — all so beautifully illustrated. What an honor you gave him! A last final gift.

    • Robert Weinberger

      Thank you for writing, Karen, and for bringing to the forefront the perils that await elderly patients in the healthcare system. That is why we MUST be there for them to help navigate the administrative nightmare; to communicate with doctors and nurses; to ask questions and then ask them again and again if the answer is unsatisfactory, even at the risk of being labeled a nuisance. Be their advocate, their voice. And, as you so eloquently phrased, “trust what you know is in their heart.”

      • Karen Struck

        Rob, Pieces like yours affords us all the comfort of knowing we are not alone in these situations. Thanks for the time you took to write and publish it. As a writer, I mentor veterans who have profound experiences and points of view to share. I provided them with the link to your story so they’d know there are venues for publishing personal narratives. https://www.wgfoundation.org/programs/military-veterans-writing-workshop/

        • Robert Weinberger

          Karen-I applaud the work you’re doing with veterans in pursuit of a literary career and am honored that you have chosen to share my work and introduce them to Hippocampus.

  • Jim Becket

    Wow, a beautiful portrait from a loving son. Totally engrossed in the story telling. I loved the book report section and how your father dealt so well with such an injustice that can mark a twelve year old. And you clearly are a writer yes a gifted writer. And his last days in our medical system where we saw the indifferent and the compassionate. So glad I happened to come across this. So fortunate you were able to be there with family and at the precise moment. A rich full life,

    • Robert Weinberger

      You’re absolutely right, Jim. My father came to my defense when I needed it most. I didn’t realize it at the time, but his confidence in my writing ability would have a profound effect on my shaky self-confidence. In his own way he turned a teacher’s thoughtless remark into a cause for celebration. Glad you found this link! Thank you for writing.

  • Robert Rubino

    Such a loving, soulful tribute. Your father’s support of your grade-school writing ambitions was expressed with just the right touches of delicacy and unadorned pride. Your translation of his hand moving “like a windshield wiper against glass” to mean “Enough! Enough!” is about as powerfully concise as a writer can get. Bravo.

    • Robert Weinberger

      Coming from the author of “Spinning Shame Into Nostalgia,” this is high praise, indeed. Thank you ,Robert, for taking the time to read a fellow Hippo writer’s work. And congratulations on your masterful story and runner-up placement!

  • ron herbrand

    Came across this link. Wow. Very moving. I’ve had to go through very similar situation myself. Must say, I know how it feels, the frustration and sadness all mixed up together. But Rob’s story ends on such a real and life-affirming note. Thanks for putting into words what so many people have felt and experienced.

    • Robert Weinberger

      Ron-I wish you could hear from the readers who haven’t posted, yet shared their stories with me personally. The emotions are similar – frustration, anger, helplessness – it’s a universal situation. Thank you for taking the time to share your experience.

  • Michael Weinberger

    I am the brother of the author of this memoir and wow! I felt like I was right there with my dad going through that period of time again. I’m blown away by the responses I’m reading from people who were moved by what my brother wrote and who shared their own stories. My dad was a modest guy who would probably shrug and say “its no big deal” but I know he’d be proud of this story as we were of him.

    • Robert Weinberger

      It’s almost one year, Mike. And you were there through it all. Thank you for writing in. I am proud to tell our story.

  • Nadine S.

    What a warm and loving portrait of your dad! How lucky you were to have such a wise and pragmatic man cheering you on throughout your life. I appreciate your vivid and accurate descriptions of the frustrations of hospitalization of a loved one and the juxtaposition to the amazing warmth and respect of hospice workers. It struck a chord with me and transported me back to my similar experience with my grandma a few years ago. Well done!

    • Robert Weinberger

      Thank you for writing, Nadine, and yes, my dad cheered me on throughout my life. I appreciate you sharing your experience with your grandmother and for recognizing the wonderful work of hospice. These angels came into our lives with compassion and understanding and maintained my dad’s dignity until the end. Can you ever imagine a healthcare worker offering up a hug and thanking you for the PRIVILEGE of taking care of your loved one?

  • Mary Lou Simo

    As the daughter of a 93 year old mom currently in the hospital, boy can I relate! Sleepless nights, endless tests and what a spirit your father showed through every step. The rock solid support of this paternal love for his child is palpable. It shows itself at every corner, in childhood, adulthood and in the last days of life. What a beautiful story. What a great way to grow up! Thank you for sharing such a personal story so beautifully.

    • Robert Weinberger

      Hi Mary Lou – I’m touched that you can relate to this memoir, and I wish you and your mom well. Having you there as an advocate for her is a great comfort. Hospital stays often take a toll, physically and emotionally, on family members so please take care of yourself. Thank you for joining the discussion.

  • John

    This really hit home for me! Such a great story Robert! I lost my mother to a terrible disease called CJD when she was only 63. I was there for her last days and breath. She was always there for me growing up, and I was there for her when she passed on. Like she used to tell me “Look after your health and your family. Once either is gone you can’t get them back.” Thanks for sharing your touching story Robert…it brought back MANY great memories for me!

    • Robert Weinberger

      “Look after your health and your family. Once either is gone you can’t get them back.” What a wonderful and comforting legacy your mom left for you, John – wisdom that comes from years of experience. So sorry you lost her at such a young age, but take solace in the memories she left behind. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  • Arthur Alexander

    Robert, your story really connected with me, having just lost my own Mother a few months ago. But rather than focus on personal aspects and experiences, I’d rather focus on your writing, and a beautiful and touching piece of writing at that. You write in very a simple and sparse way, you don’t really say “much”, but what you do say and how you say it touches me to the core. It’s really not what you read, but what sticks with you when you’re done reading that, in my opinion, is the true measure of the writer’s substance. You have a real gift of story-telling and touching people’s hearts and minds, and here you did it again.

    • Robert Weinberger

      Arthur, first let me offer my sincerest condolences on the loss of your mother. As someone who recently lost a parent, I fully empathize with the emotional roller coaster than accompanies such a life altering event – now, six months from now, and beyond. The initial shock wears off gradually, but not the emptiness. Thank you for reading this memoir and for taking the time to post a comment. I am humbled by your praise and your revelation that these words touched you “to the core.”