The door to the office opened a crack and a head popped through. “Kopfka. Can we come in/”
Before I could answer, the door flung open and my oldest and best friend Richard Magrath walked in followed in short order by his two adult sons Patrick and Sean. They were dressed identically in what is best described as preppy chic: Blue Blazer with perquisite brass buttons, khaki slacks, white shirt with a subdued tie. I had learned preppy from Richard back when being a preppy meant owning two pair of Docksiders but it was a style that never seemed to change much which was why I had chosen if for this day and was dressed identically to them.
Getting up from the desk we exchanged hugs. Not the bro hugs of two casual male acquaintances but that of family, where you hold each other tight and pound on each other’s back like Vikings. It was only right. RP was, in many ways, more a brother to me than my brother. His sons called me Uncle Paul and were here out of love despite the fact each had traveled thousands of miles to be here on the budget of college students.
I was grateful for their presence. The events of the day required community. Not the community in the broader sense of the word, but the community that is the fingerprint of our lives. Those individuals whom you have met along your journey who have been incorporated into your life to your betterment. Those people whom you turn to for laughter, guidance, love, succor and support. Rich, Patrick and Sean were at the center of that group. Their presence would help sanctify the day but more importantly they understood my journey and could appreciate what it meant me.
After our hugging and back pounding were over Rich held me out at should length and said with serious “Kopfka, how are you doing?”
I smiled and provided him with my standard response to questions like this “It is a beautiful day in the neighborhood.”
Eyebrows raised, as if to say, “Don’t give me that shit”, he said “No, really.”
“Seriously, I am doing fine. Even great. It is a beautiful day. I am surrounded by friends. You, Patrick and Sean are here. Everything downstairs and outside are done to perfection. What else could I ask for…”
We exchanged glances. Mine saying “Really, you want to go into this now.” And his response equally silent was “Yeah, you have to.”
“Look around you. I wish he were here.”
On June 10, 2012 Elaine arrived in NYC.
We had agreed when I was in Brazil that we would try to do the impossible. That is, trying to maintain a relationship across two continents and thousands of miles. We felt that what we had found in each other was enough to warrant the effort and the loneliness that is bound to happen when one lives in a long-distance relationship. We also felt that we had some advantages. Both of us were old enough and wise enough to realize that the love we felt for each other was rare and irreplaceable. We also had a technological advantage. Between Skype, emails, and chats we could maintain almost constant contact.
But we also were old enough and wise enough to realize that technology does not replace the face to face, the belly to belly. And, as a consequence, we had agreed that we would try to be with each other as often as possible. Ironically, this was aided by technology. Elaine and I spent a good deal of our time working remotely. As long as we had our computer and a Wi-Fi signal we could work anywhere.
Her trip’s timing though was not only a result of new loves needing to be together. Dad was failing and I wanted them to meet before that opportunity expired.
That first day though I needed to introduce her to someone else. When we returned from the airport to my apartment in The Archstone, on NY’s UWS, we had a make or break moment for our relationship: an introduction to my best friend, closest confident, and occasional bed mate. It could have gone either way. My buddy I knew how the ability to charm anyone, but Elaine had some prejudices that would be hard to overcome. As a result, when I introduced the two of them I did so with a bit of trepidation. I should not have worried. Yankee, my 11 year old Australian Labradoodle, was at his most charming and Elaine, despite being a true cat person, felt instant victim to his charm.
The next day we drove out to Summit. I was excited to show Elaine the town in which I had spent most of my childhood and in where my parents still lived. I had not always had such fond thoughts of this tory dormitory town. As a teenager, I had thought the town boring, a bastion of white privilege (although we did not call it that, then.), and a place I could not leave soon enough. However, both the town and I had changed over time. The superb public-school system had attracted more Jews, Indians, Chinese and other groups who prized education. The nearby Short Hills Mall had stolen retail businesses away from the town which were replaced by coffee shops, day spas and restaurants. The quiet nature of the town, which I had thought boring in my teens, in my middle age seemed pleasant and relaxing. In those ways, it more resembled a town that I would not mind living in.
There were also the truck loads of memories. As soon as we exited the highway and entered the canopy of trees that define Summit to me I begin to share with Elaine various events, incidents and disasters that in which I had participated. See that rock over there, kids used to challenge other kids to fight there. That store used to be Baskin Robbins where I worked in high school and where, after hours, we would make liquored up milk shakes. That is where I kissed a girl for the first time.. That is where Rich lived, and I would “hitchhike” here all the time. The result of which was by the time we had reached my parents home on Rotary Lane, we had a full tour of memory Lane.
My mother greeted Elaine as if a long-lost daughter saying to her “I don’t know what you have done to my son, but I have never seen him so happy.” Elaine, giving her the double cheek Brazilian beijos, replied demurely that I made her incredibly happy as well and presented her with a beautiful serving plate we had purchased for her. My mother, knowing her part well in this particular dance, made all the right cooing sounds about loving the plate which we never saw again. She told us Dad was waiting for us upstairs so up we went.
My father was in his wheelchair, at the card table he had turned into a desk, reading the ink off the New York Times as he done since the world was young and still had dew on it. He, despite the ravages that time can play on a person, was still a very handsome man. He was also unbelievably charming with a soft Austrian accent that had caused most of the women I had been involved with to develop crushes on him. He was no less charming with her and they instantly lapsed into a conversation that all but excluded me.
Pop’s fascination with Brazil was not news to me. I had always thought that a good deal of that fascination had been sparked by his Aunt Sidi’s immigration to Santos, Brazil in 1924 Over the years he kept in contact with Sidi’s children and grand children and in 1995 he and my sister had gone for a two-week trip where they had visited Sao Paulo, The Pantanal, and the Amazon. As a consequence, when he decided to speak to Elaine about various places he had been to Brazil. I was not at all surprised. What did surprise me was his reaction when Elaine began talking about Fernando de Norohna, a small archipelago with a protected marine environment 200 miles off the northeast coast of Brazil. Elaine was telling him about her visit to the island and how beautiful the fish were there when she mentioned during WW2 her uncle had been stationed there to help maintain a US Army Air base there. Dad became instantly attentive and asked a lot of questions about the island and even about what her uncle had done on the island. It was strange, even for an information sponge like Pops, to become so interested in an obscure place like this.
I would find out why he had been so curious a few weeks later and only then in context to a much larger mystery.
After a very Summit lunch of sandwiches from Towne Deli with Ente man’s coffee cake for dessert, Elaine and I got ready to head back into the city. As my beautiful Brazilian Princess said her goodbyes to Mom, I dashed up the stairs to let Dad know we were leaving. He was sitting at his makeshift deck, pecking away at the keyboard, no doubt writing a story or writing to one of his doctoral candidates. He always inspired me but no more so than in the last few months. He was so sick and feeble but he persisted. I knew at that moment he was unintentionally teaching me about life. Keep moving forward. I sat adjacent to him and with a signal he told me to wait. After tapping a few keys and looking at his screen he looked up at me and said “Are you leaving?”
“Yes, we are getting reading to go. I thought it would be nice if I said goodbye to you.”
“Goodbye to you.”
“Smart ass. Before I leave, I wanted to ask you what you think?”
“Stop it. Come on. You know what I am asking.”
“You mean Elaine.”
“Of course, I mean Elaine.”
“She is very nice.”
“That’s it? “
“She is delightful and smart and surprisingly she even laughs at your jokes.”
He laughed. Over the course of Pop’s illness we had spent a lot of time together. To cheer ourselves we would often tell each other jokes. Some of these jokes were so old that they were collecting social security. One of those bits of humor told the story about a young man going to prison for the first time. He is incredibly nervous especially when they lock him in his cell and all they turn off the lights for now. Laying in his bunk he begins people yelling out numbers followed by uproarious laughter from the cell blank. “35” would be yelled and peels of laugher. 42 would be called out and shouts of hilarity would ensue. The new inmate is astounded. He can’t figure out what is going on so he asks his cellmate what is going on. His celli explains that most of the inmates have been in prison for so long and know all the jokes so well that they instead of telling the full joke they just refer to by number. The new inmate says “Let me try it” and shouts out 51. Nothing just silence. He thinks well maybe there is no 51 so he shouts out 102. Again, he is greeted with silence. He asks his cellmate “How come no one is laughing?” And the celli replies “Its all about the delivery…”
It became a running joke with us, that whenever either one of us would tell an old joke we would refer to it by a made-up number. And, if the other did not laugh, we would “It is all about the delivery.”
So it was no surprise when Dad responded “It is all about the delivery.”
“Thanks Pop. I will work on that. But you still have not told me what you think.”
He smiled but in his serious professorial way and said “She will make you incredibly happy. I like her.”
“Thanks Dad.” And I hugged him a couple seconds longer than normal and kissing him on top of the head I choke out “See you in a few days.”
When I arrived back at the kitchen Elaine and my mother are still deep in conversation. It is late and I want to head back into the city and make attempts to hurry them along, but they ignore me and continue to chat until they are ready to finish. Hugs and kisses are exchanged, and Elaine and I finally make to the car. As I start the engine, I tell Elaine I have forgotten something and dash upstairs and finding my mother in the kitchen ask, “So what do you think?”
With none of the teasing of my father she says “She is a keeper.”
The next few days Elaine and I explored New York City and our new love. We had romantic meals at places like Barney Greengrass, Shake Shack and Hill Country BBQ . Elaine said she loved as much as I did despite the absence of white table cloths and napkins. We went for long walks by the river in Riverside Park with Yankee serving as a ubiquitous third wheel. It was simple. And it was love. And when she left after 10 days I felt as alone as I have ever felt.
5 days later my father told his physician that he thought that the decision to go on dialysis had been precipitous. He didn’t require it and he wanted to stop. Despite the Dr’s warnings that ceasing the treatment would ultimately result in his death, he made the decision to stop. A week later he lapsed in coma. It was a difficult time for me and even thought Elaine was in Brazil I leaned on her for succor and support.
Today, I had an early morning appointment in the city. It is a meeting that I have been trying to arrange for a long time so I did not want to cancel it. I also did not want to leave my father but I had been assured by his Dr’s that nothing dramatic was going to happen today and that since he was comatose I wouldn’t be missing out on conversation.
So around 5AM I headed into the city to beat the traffic. It was good to be there as I have not been in the apartment in about a week. The only thing missing was you. But I loved being there and it was nice being away from the sturm and drang that has been going here. Sometimes I think it is good just to hear the sound of your own thoughts.
As you know, there are a lot of things running through my mind right now.
There is fear from losing a person who is not only my father and my hero but my friend. How will I fill that void and that gap that he will leave.
There is doubt. My mother has made the decision to end my father’s dialysis as he was incapable of making that decision. Is this the decision that Dad would make if he were competent…is this what he had planned when he ended his dialysis treatment. Has his life been a death by a thousand cuts of late and is this the only way to end his suffering? Or should we institute dialysis until his competent to make his own decision knowing there is a 50/50 chance that he won’t recover even with the dialysis.
There are memories. So many and they drift to me like leaves drift to the ground in the fall. Some make me smile and some make me cry because they touch my heart so.
There is frustration. My sister has been a rock and very good to me but to get her comfortable with the decisions that have been made I have had to be gentle, kind and persuasive. I have had to filter my mothers comments as she has a tendency to think this is always about her and translate so that my sister understands the real thoughts and real emotions behind her actions. And then there is my brother who when we talked about the situation yesterday afternoon called my mother a murderer. Mind you he was not making plans on coming up here to say good by to my father nor has he been a lick of help in my Dads care but he is part of the family and for all of our long term happiness he needs to feel comfortable in the decisions we make. It took enormous effort and restraint to be honest with him and yet get him to the point where he could accept my mother’s decision.
There is fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of the inevitable. Fear of my own mortality and seeing myself in my father.
All of these emotions and thought flitted through my mind as I drove into the city…to my appointment and back out to Summit again.
Back in Summit I immediately went to the hospital to look in on my father. There is an open lobby there in which someone has long ago donated a baby grand piano that is sometimes played by a volunteer and sometimes played by a visitor who feels they need to express themselves musically. Today as I entered it was being played by a guest who had decided to play “Time To Say Good By.” I wondered as I heard the familiar notes whether this was a message from god or just some musician expressing himself.
My father was still comatose when I entered the room. His breathing was shallow but he looked like he wanted to wake up but could not. My sister and mother were sitting with them both lost in their own thoughts and they brought me up to speed. He hadn’t awakened. The Dr’s try to get him to wake up but that they could not and that things were looking grim. During the telling of the story both my mother and sister tried to correct each other which made my ears buzz as conflict was what I wanted the least of today.
I left an hour later to head to meet Richard for lunch. He was in town on business and when he heard about my Dad he volunteered to come to Summit and have lunch. We got sandwiches and sat on the back porch and talked about my father, the mystery surrounding his military service, his son’s Patrick travails with bipolar disorder and alcoholism, his job….but mostly it was just nice being with a friend.
All to soon he had to leave and I had to go back to the hospital. When I arrived at my Dad’s room I had quite a surprise. My father was awake. He was not making a lot of sense but he was asking questions. He wondered how long he had been there. He thought his last memory was being downtown and did he fall and was my mother still in NY. That sort of thing. At one point I could see that he was having trouble speaking because his mouth was so dry. So I went to get him a glass of water and my mother yelled at me “What are you doing he shouldn’t have any water. You need to ask the Dr” It made me very cross because I had talked to the Dr. and he had said Dad could have anything that he wants. It took some discipline not to be angry with her and calmly explain that to her because she was being very vile. But I managed and managed to get him to drink some water which helped his lucidity some.
I pulled my mother outside while my sister was trying to have a conversation with my Dad and I said we have to ask him about his treatment. She was very resistant to this idea. I explained as well as I could that both Marissa and I needed to know what he wanted and if we could get him to understand the situation it would be best for all of us moving forward. She reluctantly agreed and then sent sister and I away to scavenge him some food. By the time we got back she mouthed the words “I talked to him….he is fine with what we are doing.” Now I need to say something not nice about my mother. She lies all the time. All of her children know this and have discussed it. She tells them often to manipulate people into doing what she wants or cover up something she doesn’t want you to know. But since we all know that she lies we can’t trust her when she said what she said.
So somehow we convinced her to leave the hospital and go home and rest so we could talk to our father and try to get him to answer our questions about his treatment. We both succeeded and failed in this. We were successful in informing him of his condition and what his options were. He told us that he thought the prudent course of action would be to have dialysis. We failed in the sense that my father was not fully competent to make any decision. Half of him was here and the other half in la la land.
This of course produced a lot conflict in Marissa’s and my hearts. What should we do. Should we follow the course we are on now. Should we get him started on dialysis again and let him make a decision when he is fully aware. In the end I told Marissa that nothing could happen unless Mom gave the order to start dialysis again or Dad, in a competent state of mind, told the nephrologist what he wanted. I ended up calling his nephrologist who was very gentle with me. First he told me that he would try to talk to Dad. Then he told me that he thought that from the conversations he had with my father that while Dad had never explicitly said he wanted to die his actions implied that it is exactly what he wanted to accomplish. That he thought the right thing to do was to let him go. And if there was conflict in the family that there were trained professionals on staff who could help us all come to a decision we are comfortable with.
It was left to me to have a conversation with Mom about Dad’s care. Needless to say this was not easy. She was angry and defensive and wondered why we had to have this conversation with Dad and why didn’t we do as were told….I had to be very gentle and very patient with her which I was and explained that all I was trying to accomplish is to make sure we are all on the same page about Dad’s treatment because if we weren’t and the inevitable happen it could rip us up as a family. I eventually got her calmed down. I told her we were almost there. That no one wants to see Dad suffer anymore but we just need to be at ease with letting him go and that takes a little time and reassurance from the Dr.’s and to some extent Dad.
Needless to say I am exhausted. Too long a day. Too many emotions. But I need to tell you that you were with me all day. I had you in my heart. I knew you were thinking of me. I knew you were sending me powerful love. I knew you had Dad, my family and me in your prayers. You help make me strong. You helped me be patient with my mother and my sister and myself. You helped soothe my fears because whenever I needed to I could feel your hand in mine. Thank you for being there for me.
Now I need to go to sleep. I am exhausted. Will you meet me in my dreams. Will you hold me in my arms and whisper you love me in ear?
I love you more than Brazilians love sambas.
When my father regained consciousness, and was able to make decisions on his own, he made it clear he did not want to receive any more treatments. He had decided he had enough. That life being tethered to dialysis and the travails associated with it such as three times a week being carried up and down stairs on a stretcher and then a 45 minute drive to and from dialysis had degraded his quality of life to the point that he was ready for his journey to end.
The decision was made for Dad to come home. A hospital bed would be set up in the sunroom and there he would receive hospice care until he took the final step into the “good night.”
I had a dilemma. Before Elaine had left we had agreed that I would fly to Brazil for the July 4th holiday. Now, with my father in his final days I felt that leaving would be at best inappropriate. But my sister and mother convinced me otherwise. Dad, they explained, would not be with it as one of the side effects of renal failure is slow drift into a world of imaginings and hallucinations followed by coma and eventually death. Dad would not miss me. And if the end was near it would not be so imminent that I could not fly home for final goodbyes. That after Dad was gone, I would be far more needed than right now.
I went despite my misgivings about spending Dad’s final days with him. I rationalized that this is what Dad would have wanted me to do. Whether it was the right thing to do or not it is what I needed to do. We spent much of that trip talking about my Dad. How the world would be altered without him. How I would miss him. How much I loved him. Elaine listened to me. She cried with me. She comforted me. She loved me. When I left 8 days later, I was stronger for love and felt capable of facing when came next.
The flight from Rio lands at JFK at 6:30 and I was at my parents’ home by 9:00. After kissing my mother hello, I went to see the patient. Throughout my time in Brazil my sister and mother had reported that Dad was happy although mostly he made no sense. She told me that he was mostly out of it, thoroughly enjoying a world of his own creation that was only interrupted from time to time by random burst of classic poetry like Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade.” It was this version of my father I expected when I went to see him. Instead, the Dad I saw was bright and alert whose first words to me were “Oh good your back.”
Two days later he died.
I turned to Rich. “Tomorrow, it will be a year…”