My parent’s yard was much bigger when I was a child but it is still plenty big enough for my dog Yankee to tear across the front lawn doing his version of a NASCAR race. He runs around me in circles, tongue flapping, tail wagging and getting more excited with every lap as we approach the front door of the house. For the past 10 years he has been my best friend and companion and for the past two years he has been acting as a therapy dog for both of my parents. From the gyrating motion of his tale and the speed of his laps I can tell that he is very excited to see them.
As Yankee sets new speed records running in circles I look up at the house my parents bought in 1967 when I was 10. I remember moving in. It was so different and scary. Different because this house, a split level colonial, was so much different from the modern style ranch house I had spent most of my first ten years in. Scary because I was the new kid on the block and had left a group of friends that I had known since earliest memories. As I step onto the front steps of my parents’ house, I remember the moment that fear faded way. It was the first day we moved in and we had the doorbell rang and when my mother went to answer she saw two 10 year little men, Danny Sylvester and Todd Ranke, standing on the stoop, their Sting-Ray’s laid helter skelter on the front lawn. They were wondering if any kids moving in and could they come out and play.
Funny, all these years later, I still felt like the new kid on the block even though my parents were the only ones left from those days. I think of Danny now leaving in Georgia and writing him on September 12, 2001 to let him know that Todd was among the missing and presumed dead in the World Trade Center. I had only seen Todd a half dozen times since High School but his death had personalized the terror attack for me even though I had witnessed the entire tragedy with my own eyes. Seeing the horror and knowing that Todd had perished as I watched gives me nightmares to this day and climbing these steps I never fail to think of that first day, when he and Danny asked if my brother and I could come out to play.
Yankee is doing his best imitation of a good dog sitting at attention and waiting for me to open door to my parents’ home. When I do he races into the house looking for my father first racing up the two flights of stairs to the master bedroom and when he doesn’t find him there clumps back down the stairs and dashes into the kitchen to see if he can snatch a friendly pet from my mother. He finds my mother sitting at the kitchen table reading a book and he immediately thrusts his head into her lap for a proper pet but my mother on seeing me gets up to greet me a look of relief and happiness on her face. Happiness because my mother revels in the love of her children and relief because she knows that she will not carry the burden of my father’s final journey by herself and the hug she gives me tells me all that more.
She tells me “I am so glad to see you” and she hugs me harder.
“I missed you too Mom. How is he doing?”
She shakes her head and says “I don’t know. He isn’t eating very much. He is not drinking. Most of the time he is off on another planet jabbering away about things we cannot understand and then out of the blue he says something that is completely cogent. Completely in gear and you wondering what is going on….” She shakes her head and hugs me a little harder
“Let me go say hello.”
My father loves the outdoors. When my parents decided to expand the kitchen, they decided to add a sunroom at the same time. Directly adjacent to the kitchen it serves an extension to the existing dining room. It was designed with great care to ensure that it would allow as much of the outdoors inside as possible. Two of the walls are entirely of glass, a vaulted ceiling with a half-moon window at the top, and sight lines were such that no matter where you sat in the room it was nearly impossible to see anything but the old growth trees and lawn of my parent’s backyard. It had quickly become my father’s favorite room in the house. It is where he would read the newspaper, where he preferred to entertain guests and when the weather was too cold or too wet where he preferred to write. So when it came time to bring my father home for the last time it seemed the best place to place his hospital bed and the accoutrements that went along with it.
Walking into the room it is very hard not to let my emotions get the better of me. Pops is in his bed, a sheet and blanket covering him to his chest, his head propped up with pillows. His illness had not robbed him of his looks. He handsome and his face belied his 86 years but even with the sheet and blanket covering him I can see how emaciated he was. When this adventure had begun his 6’2” frame carried 222 lbs. Now he weighed just over 140 lbs. The man who had for most of my life had epitomized strength was now so weak he could barely lift a fork. The towering intellect that had made him one of the most important and respected men in his field was now reduced to incoherent ramblings.
I lean over and kiss him on the forehead and said “Hi Abba.” Abba is not the name I normally called him. Most often it was “Pops” a name I gave him in high school that originally was meant to be a little disrespectful but had become an endearment as I grew older. But years ago, when I traveled to Israel with my Dad I had learned of his “secret” Zionist past and how he plotted to immigrate to Israel before his parents had managed to arrange passage to the United States. Sometime during that conversation I had learned that he loved being called Abba. It made him “kvell” and ever since then when I wanted to be tender with him it is what I called him.
He looked up at me with a surprise look on his face and grabbing my hand in a very strong grip said “Pablo, how was Rio. I am glad that you are home. ” I am completely taken back. According to both my mother and sister this man had been talking nothing but nonsense for the past few days, yet he had remembered that I had gone to Rio.
“It was great Pops. Elaine sends her love and kisses and told me that when you get well you must come and stay with her in her house. She has a room waiting for you.” He gripped my hand tighter and looked at me with a raised eyebrow as if to say “come on, don’t bullshit a bullshitter. There will be no trip.” I grip his hand a little tighter and double down “You will love her house. The bottom floor has walls of glass and there is lovely garden where you can see some beautiful birds and monkeys. And there is a pool where you can rehabilitate yourself. “
My father smiles back at me, his eyes flashing confusion and awareness, as if he were searching for words and cannot find them. Finally, he was great difficulty says “It is good to see you.”
“You too Pops.”
I walk to the couch adjacent to my father’s bed and sit and try to engage Dad in conversation. But the spark of awareness that was there when I walked into the room has slipped away. He continues to talk to me and ask me questions but the sentences are disjointed and don’t make any sense. At one point he begins to recite “The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson with a gusto that suggests that he is channeling some old memory, perhaps a school recital. He booms out:
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
‘Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns’ he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
‘Forward, the Light Brigade!’
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldiers knew
Someone had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
Listening to him, I am relieved that he is lost in a difference place. It is comforting to me that he doesn’t know what it is happening to him; that he is lost in some old happy memory that provides him with joy as opposed to being trapped in the reality of the present and facing the unknown of what is next. But there is also a part of me that wonders whether his selection of poetry is totally at random or if there is a deeper meaning. Is he undertaking his own charge into the valley of death.
It is late on very hot, extremely humid day in mid-June. My mother and I are waiting in my car for the ambulance carrying my father in the parking lot of the Berkley Heights Nursing and Rehab Center. The facility is housed in a building that looks like it could be inexpensive chain hotel; a single story brick building with a high, steeply angled, roof. It is surrounded by a large green lawn with little landscaping. It looks pleasant enough but for some reason this place is giving me a very bad feeling that I try to rationalize as just heebee jeebees that I have gotten from too many investigative reporters on television exposing awful conditions in nursing homes.
But I know some of the bad feeling comes from doubt that we have made a good decision to place my father here as rehabilitates in preparation for surgery. As a family, we had almost no familiarity with nursing homes, rehab facilities, and the like. All of my parents immediate relatives had either died quite suddenly or after a relatively brief illness in hospital. Fortunately, or so we thought, the hospital offered assistance in making this decision through their social work staff. I don’t know why I found it surprising that this advice would come from that department. Perhaps, it was because I had always thought of social workers as professional who helped people through various emotional and psychological trauma’s in their lives and while I suppose that our families situation could technically fit that definition the service they provided did not.
Instead of providing with counseling and advice they provided my parents with brochures from the various facilities and arranged interviews with representatives any facility that they wished. They provided no counseling or advice. When we asked them what they thought of one facility or another they would tell us that it was against the policy of the hospital to offer any opinion. When we pressed them a little harder they would tell us that if they could venture an opinion it would not be based on anything but conjecture as they have never visited any of the facilities.
I understand the legal limitations that companies operate under these days. If they made a recommendation and a client had a bad experience that they could and probably would be become part of a law suit. But that is sort of like saying a Dr. doesn’t want to provide you with a diagnosis because he is frightened that he might be wrong and be party to a law suit. The Hippocratic oath states “First, do no harm.” How can a hospital send someone to a rehabilitation center without knowing how the facility operates and do no harm. To us and our experience the social workers in the hospital while kindly were acting more like the three monkeys covering their body parts than medical professionals.
My parents had made the decision to go to Berkeley Heights Nursing and Rehab Center under pressure on a single afternoon, while I was at work. They had been told that my father was being discharged the next day and they had to make a decision immediately. It didn’t given them anytime to check online to see if the facilities have outstanding violations, or to have someone in the family physically inspect the facility. They told me at the time that the reason they had made the decision they did was because the facility was near enough to my parents’ home that my mother would feel comfortable driving there herself, they supposedly had very good rehab facilities, and there representative seemed bright, trustworthy and helpful. But in the end it is a blind decision made more with hope than with solid information.
The ambulance finally arrives we walk to catch up with my father in the lobby of the home. We are not alone there. There is a crew of about 20 residents in wheel chairs in the lobby. They are dressed in clothes that looked plucked from the steepest discount bin and their level of self-sufficiency range from being able to push their own wheel chairs to drooling. They are all staring at us and remind me of a scene from a Stephen King novel or from George Romero’s night of the living dead. It is, in my over active imaginative way, as if they are they are to consume my father and indoctrinate him into this netherworld of human existence. I am both scared and disturbed by the scene.
The walk to my father’s room does nothing to relieve my fears. We walk by several rooms where elderly people lay in their beds staring up at the ceiling, mouth agape with only a television to keep them company. I cannot believe we are putting my father together with these old people. He is 84 years but he has never been old to me. Two weeks ago he was driving to New York several times a week to advise students, he was working on both a professional manuscript and a novel that he hoped to have published and now we were putting him a home where people are barely living and are being warehoused until death. All that I see scares me and tells me that we have made a horrible mistake placing my Dad here.
But there is also something else within it that scares me. I see myself in a home like this. I am single and have no children. When I get old is there where I will live the final days of my life and warehoused and forgotten? The thought chills me and blink my eyes and shake my head in the hopes that it will knock the thought from my consciousness.
My father’s room is what you might expect from a chain motel 3 months before undergoing major renovations. The room has faux wainscoted walls that are painted white where they are not scraped to the bear wood by indiscriminate movement of furniture. There is armoire made of pressboard that would not pass muster at Walmart that contains a small television. There is a matching locker made of the same material and in the same condition. The floors are linoleum and non-descript except where the floors are scratched and gouged. The bed, which is twin sized, is in the far corner of the room as if it is hiding from the rest of the world and who can blame it.
As nurses and ambulance attendants move my father to bed from gurney a fight breaks out in the hallway between a staff member and a resident. There is a lot of yelling at full volume, the resident claiming he has not been given his medication and the indignant staff member telling him to wait his turn. They begin calling each other names that suggest they know each other’s habits and sexual preferences before someone separates the two of them before the argument escalated to blows.
Our introduction to this facility had not gone well from the horror film greeters, to the warehoused patients in the rooms we passed, to the unnerving fight we had just listened to. I was horrified and a brief look at both of my parents faces showed me that I was not the only one who was disturbed by this place. My mother was wide eyed and looked as if the thought of touching anything would cause her grievous injury. My father while stoic, had a look on his face that I only seen a few times before…at Yad Vashem and a cemetery in Sopron, Hungry where his Uncle Ede is buried…it is a combination of sadness and anger.
When the folks attending to my father leave the first thing I do is close the door to my father’s room and turn to my father and say “So what do you think?” He looks at me and gives me his brave face and tells me that is nothing he can handle for the few weeks. I tell him that he doesn’t have to stay here. That we can find a better place for him if this place is not to his liking. He tells us that it is okay. That he only has to be here for a few days and that he can handle “Berkley Hardware” for a few days. He is making a joke, referring to a store we frequented when we lived in this town and is a few blocks from the facility. I am relieved to hear him make a joke evening though this place is not funny in the least to me.
It is with great trepidation that we leave him that evening and as I kiss him good bye I whisper in his ear “You don’t have to be a tough guy. If you don’t like this place just say the word and we will find you something better.” As I drive away I can’t help but feel as I had abandoned and failed my father.
The next day we return. We are shocked to find his hands looked as he has engaged in a bare knuckle brawl. According to the staff he had somehow managed to wedge his fingers into the loose wainscoting on the wall. They did not apologize for the loose boarding nor did they fix it. They simply bandaged my father’s fingers and moved his bed a little farther away from the wall. In fact they didn’t apologize about a lot of things over the next 10 days. They didn’t apologize for dropping one of my father’s medications on the floor and then insisting that my father take it or for the vile things they said to him when he refused. They didn’t apologize for the daily fights that took place between the residents of the home and the staff that seem to bully them more than caring for them. They did not apologize for the amount of time that it took the staff to respond to my father’s request for a bed pan that more than once left him shitting on himself. They didn’t apologize for a litany of things that made my father’s time at “Berkley Hardware” a time of pain and suffering as opposed to rest, recovery and healing.
Needless to say the inadequacies of the staff and the facility drove us all crazy. My mother was the most effected. Not only because they were slowly torturing the man she had loved for 62 years but because she had grown up the daughter of one of the earliest gerontologists practicing in New York City. His care of the elderly, seasoned with love and kindness, differed greatly from Berkley Hardware where their version of care seemed to be flavored with indifference and disrespect.
From the beginning we begged Dad to let us find him a better place to recuperate. We could not trust this place and we were more than fearful of his mental and physical health. But every time we brought it up he refused to even consider being moved. At the time I thought it was sheer stubbornness on his part but looking back on it now I wonder if it wasn’t something else. Perhaps he was trying to prove to himself that despite his depleted physical condition he still had strength. That even he was not strong enough to walk, mentally he was still as strong when he survived the Nazis in Vienna and the battlefields in Europe.
It was great relief that 10 days after my father’s arrival at Berkley Hardware we returned him Overlook Hospital for the operation that we hoped would return to him the use of his legs.