Archive for the 'Dying' Category

I stopped for some borscht

My sweet neighbor, Sue, called me a couple of days ago to tell me that she had just made some beet borscht from local, organically grown beets. Sue does stuff like that and is always sure to call me with an invitation to partake in her latest culinary masterpiece. Borscht is just the half of it. Her other delights include warm, fatty chicken soup, designed to nourish the soul as well as the body.

“Come on by anytime for the borscht” she said. I finished driving the Help of Ojai bus around noon that Friday and, remembering her offer, decided to stop by Sue’s on my way home. I sent her a text message that announced by imminent arrival.

It was warm and sunny when I got to Sue’s. I knocked on the door twice but got no response. It was unlocked. I looked through the glass in the door and noticed a beckoning pint bottle of borscht sitting on the kitchen counter. I opened the door a crack. “Hi Sue, it’s Fred, come by for the borscht.” All quiet. Thinking that Sue had left it for me, I stepped in, snatched up the deep red bottle of cold elixir and drove home. Visions of a dollop of sour cream floating on top of the borscht flew through my mind.

I carried the bottle into my house. The phone rang before I could set it down. “Hello Fred. Did you take the borscht?” I told Sue that I still had it in my hand. Then she said that she had been home, but had been tending to Ralph, her husband. He had fainted and fallen. Now in bed, Ralph couldn’t remember how he got there. Fearful of what might have caused the episode, it prompted a trip to the emergency room. The usual tests, accompanied by the emotional tension of waiting for the results, revealed nothing that rest and chicken soup couldn’t make right.

Ralph is two months older than me. That fact is not lost on me as I consider that there, but for the grace of god, go I. And I’m already well beyond my biblical four score and ten. My friends are aging and experiencing problems similar to the one suffered by Ralph. Although I can logically understand the arrival of these maladies, it’s a shock when it happens.

Minor events, an ache, a pain, a spot on my skin that appears overnight, a stomach that behaves oddly, all give rise to concerns that are overblown and, yet, disturbing. The plethora of TV ads including pills, elixirs, catheters and other medical equipment including walkers, scooters and escalators that ferry one up the staircase were, at one time, of no interest to me. Now I pay a bit more attention, glad that I have no steps in my home.

This flies in the face of how I feel. My endurance has increased as evidenced by schlepping up and down Ojai’s Shelf Road trail. My strength has increased as demonstrated by my newly acquired Charles Atlas biceps. I can, if I wasn’t such a scaredy cat, qualify for the light welterweight boxing division. I have no debilitating chronic illness. And, not to brag, my sexual prowess is legendary…sort of.

A number of years ago while driving the Help of Ojai bus, I delivered a wheelchair passenger to the hospital. As I was putting up the chair lift, a local physician stopped to chat. He commended me for volunteering for this work. And then he reminded me that we all walk down the same path. His admonition has remained with me as a reminder that time is fickle and limited.

I know that today’s good health can become tomorrow’s burden. That my ability to tie my shoes can be delegated to another. That my trips up the Shelf Road trail can be traded in for a scooter trip to Rainbow Bridge. That the Help of Ojai bus may come for me.

And that’s why I have little sympathy for those who wonder why I’m in a rush. Why tomorrow isn’t good enough. Why procrastination is my enemy. Why what I shoulda done is not in my vocabulary. But sometimes I forget and look back on a week that flashed by much too quickly. A week that had no defining moment. And then I’m reminded of Ed Scanlon.

Years ago, when Ed was a passenger on my bus, I had decided to take photos of my clients. One Friday I pulled up at St. Joes where Ed was living. When I asked Ed’s permission to take his picture, he readily agreed and asked me for a copy. I asked about the purpose of the copy and he said it was for his obituary. Strange request, I thought. I took his photo. It sat in my camera for several weeks. I’ll print it for Ed tomorrow, I thought.

One Saturday morning I turned to page two of the Ojai Valley News. The page where they display the obituaries. And there was Ed. His photo was unceremoniously clipped from a group shot and was so awful that, at first, I couldn’t believe it was Ed. But it was. If only I had promptly done what he had asked, Ed would have looked dashing instead of like yesterday’s toast.

I have no more time to procrastinate or worry about when my health will begin to falter. I know it will and I will deal with it then. But now I’ll eat my borscht with a dollop of sour cream. I won’t let it spoil, like some dream.

She’s been gone a year…

My sweetheart of nearly sixty years died a year ago today, August 23, 2017.

I’m not sure if it seems like a long time ago or just a blip in the universal clock. I do know that I have been counting the months since she died. And the weeks. This has been a particularly tough week for me, grouchy, snippy and all too ready to argue about meaningless slights. My temper, usually under control, has exhibited itself in ways that do not please me. I look at my face in the mirror and wonder where the smile has gone. I sleep less and eat the wrong things. I often skip meals and find food tasteless.

I look at the collage of Ila’s photos on the wall. They span the time between her grade school graduation and an older, wiser person sitting on the couch in the living room. She’s ill, but still smiling at the camera with that honest, loving face. The face that always left me smiling too.

In Costa Rica last month we were without her. A family incomplete because of her absence. A family that felt just a little bit guilty while laughing and playing together. We posted photos of the trip on a website we created to memorialize the adventure. We posted too many photos, I thought. Until my random clicking landed me on a photo of the kids…Isaac, Bella, Morey and Sammy. Smiling with honest faces. Casual in their posing. Full of young life and brimming with happiness. I smiled, then I cried. Not tears of sorrow but ones of joy.

I sent the photo to Jackie. I knew she would like it because Sammy was glowing and being a kid, free from any artificial constraints and loving every minute of it. Happy to pose, not because we asked her to, but because it was the most natural thing to do.

I sent an e-mail to son David thanking him for posting the Zip-lining and river rafting photos. I told him that I hoped Mom was looking over my shoulder and getting high from it all. That she could enjoy her family and get pleasure from the happiness of others.

And then I cried again, by myself. Like my heart was going to break. It’s been awhile since I did that. Without constraint. Without embarrassment. Remembering. And it felt good.

Ila died one day after her sweet daughter’s fifty-sixth birthday. Nancy always tells me that she will easily remember Mom’s passing since it was the day after her own birthday. But I know she will remember it regardless of when Ila died. She’s that way. Loving, focused, serious and a crier. She seems tough but she’s really a closet pussy cat.

I bought Ila’s diamond engagement ring when I was twenty. I really should say my father bought Ila’s engagement ring when I was twenty. It must have been important to him since he was not a man who could, nor would, throw money around.

Ila accumulated other jewelry during our sixty years together, including a treasure chest of pieces given to her when her mother Marge died. Marge was a collector of fine clothes and jewelry. Ila was the opposite. The engagement ring was very special to Ila. She didn’t wear it much because she thought it too valuable to lose. But I really think it was because she felt it was too showy. It lay in the dark for the last twenty-five years in a safe deposit box.

Over time , Ila gave most of the other jewelry to the kids, but she held onto the ring. I was never quite sure what she intended to do with it. It’s quite beautiful, like its owner was. It sparkles in the sunlight like Ila did whenever she appeared. It’s hard as a rock, which Ila could be when it was necessary. And it’s sharp as a tack, like Ila was when confronting me or the kids with some misdeed. But most of all, it is a testament to my love for her over the last sixty years.

And I will pass it on to the someone who most reminds me of Ila’s quality, her honesty, her never-give-up attitude and her unbounded love for family. Someone I’ve loved since she was a baby in my arms. Someone who misses her mother as much as I do. I’m sure Ila will be pleased.

Carbon Paper

Carbon Paper is not the name of a rock group.

It was Monday morning, and I was headed down the hill for my workout at the Ojai Athletic Club. I’ve been anal about working out since I met Jackie and decided that I needed to do something to narrow the sixteen years between us.

When I first met her, I could only make it half-way up the Shelf Road trail. Now I can do the round trip without having my chest seek refuge in another body. Loss of a good slice of my belly fat, and the discovery that I actually had ribs, were additional perks that came with burning an extra four hundred calories each morning.

I like NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross. She has interesting guests and knows enough to ask brief questions while letting her guests grab the spotlight. Jonathan Banks was Terry’s guest this Monday morning. I had no idea who he was until he began musing about his roles in the award-winning Netflix series Breaking Bad and its current series, Better Call Saul.

Jonathan usually plays an understated bad guy. At seventy-one and five foot nine, he looks a little like me with his bald head, big nose and all-knowing squinty eyes. During the Fresh Air interview, he said “When you look like me, you better know something about acting, cause you ain’t no leading man.”

At one point in the conversation, Jonathan was talking about the evolution of the art of making multiple copies of scripts; he recollected how carbon paper was once a mainstay in that process. As interviewers often will, Terry interrupted and told the listeners what carbon paper was. I laughed out loud at the notion that some people had never heard of carbon paper and, a moment later, felt a bit older than I did ten seconds earlier.

I then found myself dragging old memories from my storage device, each of which had aging at its core. For example, I was reminded of a conversation I had many years ago with a woman, a good deal younger than me, about whistling. I said, “Speaking of whistling, do you remember Lauren Bacall and the famous line in the movie To Have and Have Not?”  Bacall said “If you want something, just whistle…you know how to whistle, don’t you? You just put your lips together and blow.” And my lady friend said, “No I don’t know Lauren Bacall…who was he?”

Or my old Rabbi who said “Whenever I look in the mirror, I see a young man.”

Or when I was the youngest guy at the business staff meeting, then average, then the oldest.

Or my mother and brother, both victims of the ravages of aging, that cause me to occasionally count backwards by nine as I try to assure myself that I still can.

When I was thirty, I figured I hadn’t yet lived half of my life. At forty, I thought I thought I was beyond the half-way mark. At sixty, I hoped I would have half again to look forward to. At nearly eighty, I don’t do that anymore.

I sometimes read about improvements planned to the state water system, the bullet train and the long-term impacts of climate change. And I wonder if I’ll live long enough.

I think about multi-year projects that I might not start, because I might not finish.

But I’m a quick learner.  So aided by example, I’ve decided to forget about running out of time and, instead, run a bit faster in the time that’s left.

Yesterday, my daughter Nancy sent me a video of her Rabbi, Paul Kipnes, as he was crossing a suspension bridge in Costa Rica. Walking backwards with some uncertainty on the swaying structure, he compared the whole world to a very narrow bridge. A scary one that puts fear into our lives. But the important thing, he said, is not to be afraid to cross that bridge. Staying on one side and failing to move ahead is not a viable alternative.

And I remembered Chuck Peterson. A pleasant, unassuming man, successful and seemingly satisfied with what he had accomplished. At age 92 and living in Montecito, he and his wife decided to leave there, build a home in Ojai, plant two thousand olive trees and split their time between Ojai and the management of their resort business in Costa Rica. They did just that. And Chuck died two years later at 94.

I remember thinking, why would a guy do that at 92? I didn’t realize it then, but Chuck was a risk taker. It didn’t matter how much time he had left. It only mattered that he did what he wanted to do. Doing things that made him happy, without worrying about his ability to complete them. He had learned a lesson that made sense to him and he was intent on repeating it.

Or as Karl Wallenda said…Life is being on the wire, everything else is just waiting.

It’s hard

It’s hard remembering the good times. I seem stuck on the bad ones. The awfulness of the disease and the things that it did to her.

I wander through the house looking for something to do. How many times can I do laundry? I turn on Spotify to fill the silence but it fails to quiet my mind. I walk past the condolence cards set up on the island in the kitchen and think about the kind words spoken by the senders.

All the cards are meaningful and every one of them has some special thought penned by the sender. Some are quite beautifully written and others not so much but equally welcomed. There was an outpouring of cards a week ago but now they sort of appear randomly. Like everything else in life, things seem to return to normal and other events take the place of those that fade.

I don’t feel like doing much. No, that’s not entirely true. I think if someone called right now and said “meet me at the coffee shop”, I’d go. The house is big and no human sound emanates from its walls. I’ve tried the sofa near the TV, the chair in front of the fireplace, the wobbly chair in the sun room and that little couch in the bedroom where Ila would sit trying to tie her shoes. It’s an uncomfortable couch but we spent a lot of time on it talking, arguing and holding hands.

And then Lisa called. She and Hal wanted to take me on a field trip. Field trip? They arrived, I got my dorky hat and a bottle of water. Got into their car, drove down the hill and five minutes later we were at the Aaronson horse ranch. Short field trip, I thought.

I’m not a big fan of horses. They always seem to eat the wrong things, stand around clueless in the hot sun, and spend an inordinate amount of time with the vet. But I figured any port in a storm. I followed Lisa to her horse’s enclosure and watched her reinforce an already unbreakable bond with the animal. I did the usual carrot offering and watched as the mare picked daintily at the straw.

I met Al. Interesting guy. Must be as old or older than me yet he moves with the quickness of a cat, tends to the many horses housed at the ranch and comes complete with a history that he shares with anyone willing to listen. He told me about Joel’s first wife, Edith, who passed away years ago. It helped me with my own grief.

We visited some of the horses, and met some horse people (who are unique and thoroughly into loving and caring for their animals.) I was tiring and was ready to go home. But Lisa said “Would you like to meet St. Angelica. She’s pregnant.” I thought, ok one more and then home.

I was alone at the fenced enclosure. A very pretty Angelica came to me but didn’t seem to be looking for food. I stroked her face and scratched behind her ears. She lowered her head and lightly nibbled on my shoe. She rested her warm head on my shoulder. I talked to her, not horse talk but people talk. “Is that you, Ila? Are you reminding me of how you used to tie your shoes?” A silly thing maybe but at that moment I felt warm and happy. I was close to my sweetheart. I could have stood there forever. But Angelica had other things to do, walked away, and left me with a lasting memory.

Sweetie Died

My one and only Sweetie died last week. She wrestled with Alzheimer’s for seven years and it finally took its toll.

It’s like peeling an onion. The first piece is your short-term memory. You will ask the same question over and over. Next comes a jumble of long-term memories. We’ll remove your ability to enjoy music, movies and live entertainment. Crowds will be your adversary. Your appetite will diminish and you will forget how to use a knife and fork. Your sweetheart will cut your food into bite size pieces. You’ll eat a lot of chocolate ice cream but not much else.

We’ll make dressing yourself a chore that takes more precious time away from living. You will forget how to tie your shoes. Along the way we’ll even add a few things, like headaches and pain. Or wild dreams that cause you to sit upright in bed and yell at the dark intruders. You’ll constantly repeat the same stories and create ones that are more fantasy than fact. You will visit the hospital ER several times and stay in the hospital some nights where you’ll rail against being there.

We’ll make you think you live someplace else other than your home. And wonder if your parents are still alive and do they know where you live. People will arrive who want to take care of you but you’ll swear at them and tell them to get the hell out of here or you’ll call the police. Your sweetheart will try to cope but he will feel much of your pain and anguish. Your sole entertainment will be getting in the car, driving into town, turning around and going home. Getting out of the car in your garage and walking to the house will become a terrible adventure.

Your sweetheart will turn his back for an instant and you will fall in the bathroom. And then you will fall a few more times. He will call the fire department to come and lift you from the floor, and you will tell them to mind their own business. You will finally get to bed, the paramedics will leave and he will wait for it to happen all over again.

You’ll sleep a lot on the chair in the sun room, the soft one in front of the fireplace and the couch in front of the TV. In a lucid moment, you’ll sit on the edge of the couch and say “I can’t do this anymore.”

Eventually you’ll have a caregiver because your sweetheart is exhausted. The hospice nurses will visit every day. They will bring a hospital bed, a walker, a wheelchair and other things that you thought you would never need. They will know things about life and death that only come from doing it over and over again.

You’ll fall asleep for days. Then, without warning, you will be gone. And your sweetheart will feel his heart bursting from his chest. And he will be alone for the first time in fifty-seven years.

And everything will remind him of you. He will fill his time by crying. And he will love you more than ever.


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