Monday, September 10, 2007

The End of Men IX: Poker

There are three old men who congregate at the little round table by the window of the restaurant where I go to write and eat a cheese soufflé and sip iced tea. They are each handsome in that way of men who are 60-something and take care of themselves; men who have lived a pretty good life and are settled into their silver hair and their leathery, sun-browned skin.

Most weekend mornings when I arrive at 8 a.m. with my laptop and my paper bag crammed with scribbled-on paper, they are already here. And every time I see them they remind me of my dad.

They remind me of how he used to look, how his bright blue eyes used to pierce through the brownness of his summer tan. How his ear-to-ear grin shone toward me like a beacon welcoming a ship into harbor.

Their voices remind me of his—New York Jewish, with that edge of the wise ass, the joker; and the way they congregate together around that little table, reminds me of poker night and how, every Friday evening after dinner, Dad’s friends would come by to play cards, drink beer and fill our house of women with the smell of cigar smoke and that other thing that men bring into a room with them—that thing I cannot name but can feel when they’re around.

There was Meyer Salko, the comedian, wise-cracking and chomping on a cigar as he dealt the cards. Milt Ebner was over 6-feet tall and yet, one of the gentlest men, in voice and manner, I’ve ever met. Milt would chuckled softly, stacking chips or picking up cards as his friends carried on. Marty Abramowitz, built like a wrestler, loved to provoke the women in the next room with baudy comments, as he sorted chips and took swigs from a green glass bottle of beer. Now and then, Mark Handelman (my favorite) would join the game—but he lived in Brooklyn or some other far-off land and couldn’t often make it. And then, of course, there was Dad.

I don’t know how to describe my father, where to place him in this scene. I’m too close, nose pressed up against the glass of memory, trying to catch the details. I can see how happy he looks, his curly black hair kind of mussed, the collar of his blue button down shirt open as, grinning, he reaches for his cards.

The game moved from house to house and there was always, somehow, the memory of being with the mothers in the other room, the mothers and the other kids who were like cousins to me: Shelly Salko and her little brother, Adam and Jill Abramowitz, Stuart Ebner, who’d remodeled an old Jaguar with leather seats and a real wooden dashboard.

It was beautiful.

Last year, as Dad was deciding whether to stay with my mother or to move out, I asked him, “Where would you want to live if there were no limits on cost, location or accessibility?”

“By the ocean,” he said, immediately wistful, as if my question had sent him tumbling into a dream. “There’d be beer in the refrigerator and an endless poker game in the kitchen and I could play or not play—and the people would be funny and warm and,” he added, “they’d probably be Jewish. As it turns out, I like Jewish people.”

Mom was selling their home, they’d legally divorced, the papers were in her name. She’d told him that. a)he needed to stop driving and b) it was time that he moved into a nursing home. Dad was not ready for either of those conditions and was looking around for options. I’d offered to take him in, though I couldn’t imagine where we’d put him in our crowded house. Neither could he.

“Ideally,” he kept saying, “I’d live in an efficiency apartment with a live-in aide. Someone who’d cook and clean for me in exchange for free rent.” The problem with this plan was that Dad could no longer shower himself, feed himself, and it was becoming clear that soon, he’d be unable to walk.

He struggles to stay on his feet, to continue driving. There is so much he cannot do now. Yet he must keep moving.

Dad started using a cane a year ago. More recently, at Laura’s house, he is using a walker to shuffle between his bed, the bathroom and the wooden chair where he sits to watch TV.

Until last month, when he had his first (and last) fender bender, Dad was waking up early three days a week and driving himself to work in Melville, Long Island, two hours each way. He couldn’t get himself to the car. He couldn’t get the key out of or into the ignition so his aide, Katie was doing all of that for him, starting the car and driving it around to the side of the condo where he would slowly, make his way to it and climb in.

After the accident, which Katie witnessed, she finally joined the ranks of the many people who’d refused to help him drive anymore—and finally, Dad "decided" to stop driving.

There is a cat at Laura's house, and Im hopeful it will help Dad to feel less homesick, for I think he will miss Mookie, the feral kitten he and Mom adopted a few years ago; and who became, those last few years at home, his only real companion. Perhaps that's why Dad seems a bit of a cat himself these days. He does just what he wants to do, regardless of the consequences to anyone else.

When we asked him to stop driving two years ago, he said, “It’s none of your business.” When we said that, in fact, it was our business because if he killed someone we would be held liable (in Heaven and on earth), he told us, collectively and individually, “Butt out.”

“Maybe we could report him, anonymously, to the police and suggest they take his keys,” my husband and I schemed.

“Perhaps we could “lose” his keys,” we daydreamed. But in the end, when I sat down again to discuss our concerns with Dad and promised my family I'd take his keys away, he burst into tears and I couldn’t do it.

A wave of memories had washed into the room: I remembered the time when he’d told me, “I always wanted to be a truck driver”, all the times he’d driven me to college near Buffalo—nine hours each way—and how he’d seemed to love doing it.

I remembered trips to the camp he directed in Bear Mountain, singing with Mom and my sisters in the backseat, the windows of the wide green Plymouth rolled down. “Put your hand out the window,” he’d instructed. “Feel the wind against it. Feel how it pushes against your hand. That’s how an airplane works. The faster you go, the more resistance you get and that lifts the wings off the ground.”

I remembered the six-hour drive to Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where we’d driven right onto the ferry bound for Nantucket. That reminded me of the seagulls on the top deck and how they’d grab bread right out of my hands.

I remembered lifts to school, and lifts to friend’s houses and the few times when just Dad and me would drive to Kreiger’s Ice Cream Parlor for a hot fudge sundae. Dad would order wet walnuts. I’d ask for extra whipped cream.

All of those car trips, all of those miles rolling under his wheels. I couldn’t do it.

As I drove away, I imagined Dad letting Mookie jump up on the table and into his lap. I imagined her licking her paws and letting him clumsily stroke her head.

A few weeks later, on Thanksgiving, ABC aired an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” in which an elderly man with spinal stenosis crashes through an outdoor marketplace, killing several people. “Isn’t that what your father has?” my sister-in-law asked. The room was silent as all heads turned toward me.

What in the world am I going to do?

Dad has never used a cell phone, operated a computer, surfed the Internet. It is almost as if he lives in another world.

The surgery that was supposed to arrest the progression of the condition that was twisting his spine like a DNA helix only made it worse. Dad had entered the hospital with more hope and enthusiasm than he’d mustered for anything in years. Afterwards, he sat at the post-surgical rehabilitation center(aka nursing home), in pain, angry and belligerent with the staff, weakened by the surgery and the long days of isolation.

It was there, at the nursing home, that I started to detect the presence of a new Dad. It flickered on and off like a loose light bulb, alternating between Dad the Buddha, a philosophical wise man and Dad the baby, a tantrum-throwing child who berated the nursing staff and insisted on being spoon-fed. (“He need to feed himself,” a nurse told me, her thick Caribbean accent made it hard to understand. “He be home alone soon and then what he do.”)

Dad, the Buddha, lived in the airy world above the other residents. (“I’m not like them. They’re old.”) and sat for hours on the terrace overlooking the train station, he was philosophical and wise, until his catheter started burning—then, every few minutes when urine flowed, he’d shriek in pain, shouting and cursing like a Tourette’s sufferer.

I was exhausted by these visits. After just half an hour, somehow, all of my energy had been drained out of me.

“Please call Dad,” I whispered into my cell phone--reaching across the country to my sisters in California (and Brooklyn) from the terrace overlooking the Great Neck train station.

They did what they could, within the parameters of their geography and their own particular relationships to this man, this mystery, this bear at the top of the stairs.

We all did.

About two years ago, I spent the night in my sister Jenny’s old room, for some birthday or holiday celebration. Dad was sleeping in my old room across the hall where he’d moved when he and Mom separated.

I heard him stumbling to the bathroom and opened my eyes just as he tripped—on his own foot, the right getting caught under the left—and slowly pivoted to the ground, landing with his head in the laundry basket on a stack of folded towels.

“Oh, my God!” I rushed to help him to his feet.

“Don’t worry about it,” he called face-down in the basket.

What was I supposed to do? Leave him there, turned upside down like a marionette with cut strings. Of course, I leapt from bed. Of course, I helped him back to his feet. Of course, I worried about it... all night.

The next morning, as my kids crunched on corn flakes and I nursed a cup of tea with organic cream, Dad described another fall. He’d tripped on a scatter rug in the kitchen and fell, cheek first, into the cat’s food dish. “Mookie didn’t like that!” he joked, as Max and Katie stared, open-mouthed, not knowing whether it was okay to laugh.

A few months later, he fell in the driveway when getting out of his car and, unable to rotate himself even to his side, lay on his back in the driveway, watching the clouds going by. “It was a nice day,” he laughed, telling me this.

“How long were you there?” I asked, horrified.

“About an hour,” he said. “Maybe a little longer. I knew someone would pass by eventually. A couple of kids from up the block went by and I called to them but they didn’t hear me. It was the garbage men who got me up.”

After that, my sister subscribed him to the Life Alert system. Now he can push a button, which he wears suspended on a thick black cord around his neck, and speak with a dispatcher who’ll call for help—the police or a neighbor—to stand him back up.

Every time he falls, I get a phone call—often at one or two in the morning, after everything is okay. This disturbs me, making me feel these things at once: I wish I’d been there and, I am so glad I wasn’t.

Even with all these challenges, Dad was determined to keep working, keep driving and he was desperate to stay out of a nursing home.

When Mom convinced me to convince him to visit one, the prestigious, impossible to get into Hebrew Home for the Aged on New York’s Upper West Side, I drove him there. They insisted he sit in a wheelchair and as I pushed him along following the tour guide, his head began to loll forward. Each time it did, one of the tour guides would ask me, ignoring Dad as if he weren’t there, “Are you sure you don’t want the Alzheimer’s tour?”

“He doesn’t have Alzheimer’s!” I must have said six times—to the same three people. When we left, I agreed with Dad. He didn’t belong there.

He decided to move in with his friend, Laura, a Registered Nurse, who’d become, over the past 15 years, his best friend. She’d encouraged Dad to join her theater troupe and I’d never seen him so alive. “Who knew that all this time I was an actor?” he once said to me, eyes bright with the kind of passion people beam when they’re in touch with a part of themselves that’s been repressed or sleeping. In their productions, Dad found himself cast in scenes from Streetcar, TK, TK.

“That’s how he used to talk to Mom,” my sister Jenny once said following a particularly troubling—but beautifully acted—portrayal of a troubled marriage.

“Really,” I asked her. “I don’t remember that.”

I remember a different Dad than my sisters do.

Yesterday, Dad lay on his bed, too weak to do the work I’d come to help him with. He’d been anticipating my visit all week. Last Wednesday, I drove to Union City, New Jersey, setting up my computer on the little card table beside his bed. He dictates and I type. We are keeping his promise to complete a report he was working on. Dad longs to work.

The report, held in his head, for he can no longer hold a pen to write notes, and the promise to complete it, haunts him. He lies against the pillows and tells me about his life—as I sit with him, I feel my own rhythm slowing down to meet his. Like a record player shifting from fast to slow speed >>>>

Normally, when I first arrive, it’s hard for me to simply sit, to listen and respond. I flutter around the room, tidying this, moving things about. I shuffle through my papers. While he shuffles to the bathroom with his walker, a process which takes almost half an hour, I run downstairs to make a cup of tea and check my cell phone messages.

For about a year, ever since Dad decided to have all of his teeth pulled (“It’s easier,” he said. “I can’t brush them. The dentist is a big hassle because I can’t keep my head still.”) he’s been unable to chew solid food. While he was living at home, Mom would pulverize whatever food she was eating—lasagna, chicken stew, soups, spaghetti and meat sauce—in the Cuisinart and he’d eat it through a fat plastic straw. As he became more and more feeble, and his hands were less and less functional, he had to be spoon-fed (or he did not eat.)

At Laura's house, he is being fed a detox protocol, gallons of water, juices, flax seed, herbal supplements. He also drinks chocolate Ensure (toxic with chemicals, sugar and nothing his body needs except for calories), eats peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Oreo cookies and bananas. All he wants is sweets. "Im not sure he can really taste anything else," Laura suggests.

Last week, at his 80th birthday party, Laura told me, “Your father hasn’t eaten anything in three days. He says he has no appetite. I’m worried about this. He’s depressed and sometimes old people do this, will themselves to starve…” She does not say “to death” but I hear it.

A few days later, I begin a juice fast. Losing 20 pounds in 23 days. I suppose this is related though I dont really see that it matters. My pants are looser and my skin is clear. In the process, I began to experience a "healing crisis" as the symptoms of every injury and ailment Ive ever had surfaced (briefly) and dissolved through my skin, What I mean is, one morning I woke up with poison ivy. By lunch it was gone. Another day, I woke up with a lyme disease ring on my thigh, it dissolved in front of my eyes, and Katies. Are you sure you werent leaning your other leg on there? Katie asked. "No," I had to admit. "Im not sure." Then, all my joints started to ache. This symptom has not gone away as quickly and it worries me. I keep googling "achy joints, caffeine", "Achy joints, healing crisis". I avoid googling for:"achy joints, arthritis", "Achy joints, father projection", "Achy joints, multiple sclerosis", though I think about it.

These old men at the restaurant talk about politics a lot. As I sit at the next table, where the electrical outlet for my laptop is situated, I overhear snippets of conversation about George Bush, NAFTA, and Israel. They talk about travels, peppering their conversation with references to places they’ve been: “Mystic is a charming town..”

“When I was in Haifa...,”

“Well, in Turkey,” one man says, “What can you expect.” I try not to eavesdrop but I am fascinated and can’t help myself.

Their cadence and pattern of speaking sounds exactly like Meyer, Milt and Marty—and Dad.

“You know they make a different kind of clam chowder in Rhode Island,” says the man in the blue zip neck sweatshirt. The one with the neatly trimmed silver hair, gold watch and glasses. “There’s Manhattan, the red one. There’s New England, that’s the creamy one. But in Rhode Island the broth is clear… as clear as sea water.”

Yesterday, a thirty-year-old woman joined their table, flirtingly engaging them in a lively discussion of what sounded to me like mountain climbing in Nepal. After comparing notes about altitude sickness, hiking shoes and restaurants, she sighed, suddenly quiet. “My father died last year,” she said, eyes sparkling with memories and tears.

In these beautiful, kind men, she has found a glimmer of someone she loved very much. I watch as the man with the glasses reaches tenderly for her hand just as she’s withdrawn it to brush her bangs behind her ears. Awkwardly, she returns her hand to the table and he reaches for it again, patting her wrist.

This is what reminds me of my father. This worldly manliness translated into a simple gesture of tenderness so minutely calibrated that, for a moment, we are all connected in this father-daughter dance. With tears in my own eyes, I return my attention to my own table, my own thoughts, having intruded long enough—a silent participant, borrowing a father in a sunny restaurant in New Jersey.

I am borrowing fathers a lot lately, as I have been doing for some time. My own father hasn’t ever been completely available to me. These days, he seems to be time traveling, misty-eyed and vague, he talks of the past with a clarity and a memory for detail that’s astonishing. Other times, like this week, there are glimmers of another kind of father.

As I told him about my awful Mother’s Day and my difficult marriage, he listened, focusing his attention on my story. He offered wise counsel, without taking sides.

Later, when I realized I’d monopolized our time together with my sad story, the very thing I’d promised myself on the way over I would not do, I apologized, saying, “I didn’t mean to unload all of this on you.”

“It’s not a burden to me. It’s a gift,” he said. “And anyway, that’s what fathers are for.” This comment unleashed a new wave of tears, but they are good rich tears. We have connected again across so many rivers—time, illness, and uncomfortable absence from one another’s lives. We are, for the moment, for the time we have left, a father and daughter again.

I cry all the way home. I cry as I write this down. These tears are good and healthy: salt water—scourging a wound.

Dad will be 80 this June. Mom and I are planning his birthday party. I visit Dad at Laura’s to get the list of guests he wants me to invite. His list reads like an outline of his life: Meyer, Milt and Marty. Mark Handelman. Nat and Wendy, Sherman and Lorraine, the Berthens.

Laura has offered to host the party and I have offered my home, as well. But when I ask if he wants to have the party in Great Neck, if that will be painful for him or pleasant, he smiles as if it’s all the same to him. “Great Neck will be fine,” he says. “Let’s make it easy for people to get there.


TEAM said...

hey there amy..ozaro?? this is shelley aka keishya salko...i was doing, of all the odd things..a google search for my dads name meyer salko..and found you and your stories...if you are ever around gn area whn i come in from puerto rico where i am currently living i would really enjoy seeing you to have a chat or take a walk...

Amy Oscar said...

Wow! Hi Shelley (Keishya)!
I'd love to see you. I'm not often in GN now, as my parents have sold the house. But let me know when you're coming in and maybe we can set up a rendezvous.
If you're on facebook, send me a friend request and we can connect that way.
or email me at