I Ran over My iPad, My Mother Died, Then the Shit Got Real:
An illustrated autobiographical tragicomic novella in 10 chapters
by Steve Eilenberg
Part 7: Ania and Chad Come to Town
Monday morning, January 21st, 2013: Mary is taken by ambulance, over David’s threats and protest, to Hospice House. Sarah was there to make sure it happened, and suffered another punishing encounter with David. The hospital staff was about to remove Mary’s dialysis catheter, but Sarah managed to forestall them. Hospice House could medicate Mary using this, without sticking her each time. There was no gunfire, although hospital security was on stand-by. It was just a really sad and pathetic event in an otherwise unremarkable gloomy January day.
Hospice House took her in, bathed her, washed her hair, and brushed her teeth. Mary luxuriated in the quiet of her private room. Actively dying people are generally quiet. Sarah said Mary looked as if she just visited a spa for a full treatment. Between Sarah and Karen, the room was decorated with some family photos and flowers. The room was large and furnished with bland, dormitory-style bed, chairs and couch. There was a bathroom with a shower and toilet, mostly there for guests and for show. Great efforts are made to minimize the smells that accompany death and mercifully, there were no food odors. Institutional food smells to the dying can be like burnt buttery microwave popcorn smell is to the living.
From my 3000 mile view, there seemed to be an unspoken detente between the M and D camps, but this may have been due to different visitation times. Marie and I flew in two days into Mary’s hospice sojourn. Camped out at the nearby, familiar Hasbrouck Hilton, I pointed out where my iPad was run over, then showed Marie the neighborhood.
Strangely, we took Mary Street to Poor Street on our walk towards the hospice. Hospice House was leasing an upper floor in an undistinguished office building with an awkward, tightly spiraling underground parking lot.
From the Hilton, take Mary St then turn on Poor St…
Most of the M camp, including Chopstick, ascended to the 5th floor and checked in at the front desk. Mary’s bed was in the center of the room. No food was in sight. Nor were there visible tubes. No machines beeping and no roommate coughing. She was under plain white linens. Medications were largely for comfort, and keeping her secretions to a minimum. She was resting with her eyes shut. Her lids didn’t flutter and she lay still. Strangely, her face lost about 20 years. She looked quite beautiful. We told her we loved her and talked about some of the family pictures on the walls. For her part of the conversation, she would phonate “mmmmmm” when appropriate. She was with us for the day. While sounding bucolic, it was quite heart wrenching.
The peace was briefly interrupted when an aide objected to Chopstick’s presence in the room. To be fair to her phobia, Chopstick was resting, legs splayed on the cool linoleum floor and could have caused her to trip, but really? The supervisor asked Sarah to remove the dog. Chopstick knew that she couldn’t comfort Mary any longer, but was there now for Sarah. Watching Aaron walk Chopstick out the door was a sad footnote to this day. Soon after, camp David showed up and the M clan headed out into the cold winter air for a bite to eat.
Friday was largely a repeat of the previous day, except Mary no longer phonated. She looked comfortable, but not clearly present. The linens remained sharp and alarmingly unwrinkled. The staff was efficient, with an emphasis on Mary’s comfort. We were at bedside when Karen and David arrived. There was no acknowledgment of us. Karen proclaimed David’s love for Mary and reassured M that she (Karen) would look after D. She went on to say that she had moved into her (Mary’s) bed and finished with a loud telling of a Yiddish story. David said nothing and left with Karen. The afternoon was punctuated by a visit from my cousin Ann and her husband Tom. Ann had lost her parents and both sisters under unfortunate medical circumstances and was very sympathetic. Tom was characteristically sturdy and supportive. We were glad for their company. We sat around Mary’s bed and chatted, as if Mary were with us and just uncharacteristically quiet. There was no Sanka coffee, and thankfully, no half defrosted, stale Entenmanns coffee cake to be served.
At this point, Mary couldn’t even handle having her lips moistened as a single drop of water into her mouth lead to an alarming, unprotected death rattle. The nurse told us that Mary’s time was near and Sarah, a former hospice nurse, concurred. We alerted Susan, who drove down from Buffalo to see Mary at the end. That night, we went out for a pizza, focaccia sandwiches and beer. It was another chilly night and felt quite surreal. Fearing we would never see Mary alive again, we retrieved Chopstick from the Honda and took her for a short walk and, after a poop, sneaked her up the service elevator, narrowly evading the late night staff.
There was no phone call that night. We reconvened in Mary’s room in the morning, with Chopstick flagrantly in tow. Mary was about the same, but perhaps even less present than the day before. Her breathing was steady and her body remained motionless. We made a field trip around the corner to the ‘Gutterman and Musicant Jewish Funeral home,’ conveniently located just a stone’s throw from the Medical Center that provided Mary’s care! None of us had ever ventured to the back room of a funeral home before. We were shopping for a casket and some demystification of what might come next.
Mary was frugal, but was drawn to “fancy” things, as she called them. The ‘Abraham’ casket was a simple pine box and quite traditional. If not for my wish to be cremated, it would have been my personal choice. I think Mary would have been afraid of splinters, so that was out. The ‘Samson’ model sounded too much like Samsonite, so that was out. The ‘Menorah’ had inlaid legs that looked like Mary’s favorite dining table and was a strong contender. We ultimately decided upon the ‘Jahleel’. The other decisions would have to wait and none of them were really ours to make.
Upon returning to Hospice House, we found ourselves face to face with Karen and David. Karen was pacing and withdrawn. I told David of our morning’s field trip. He was furious and said her dying was unnecessary, as her renal function in the hospital was just fine. As was his habit, he quoted me her laboratory values. First I, then Marie, reminded him that these lab values were the result of dialysis and had no bearing on her actual renal function. Was I explaining human physiology to my internist father or a confused old man? He insisted we take her back to the hospital.
Me: “To the hospital that did this to her?”
David: “Any hospital…”
Me: “And then what? She is near death!?”
David: “They’ll treat her”
Me: “Treat what?”
David didn’t answer.
Me: “Dad, we really need to discuss some things…”
David: “What’s there to discuss? Your victory?”
(These are not the words of a confused old man, but instead a calculating, vengeful person. I was stunned and momentarily saw red. Enraged, I approach my father with clenched fists. I had an overwhelming urge to push him out of the room. If the tables were reversed, he would have already thrown a punch).
Writing this, I am transported back to his blind rages and how his soft doctor fists felt against my young ears. At age 8, I took up judo after being beaten up by 4 or 5 kids, after unintentionally hurting their ringleader while wrestling. My father thought my confidence needed repair, so enrolled me in a self-defense school. Truth be told, my confidence was fine, as I knew I couldn’t hold my own against a whole gang of kids and have a pretty high pain tolerance.
I progressed from ‘no belt’ to a ‘white belt’. If memory serves me, belts progressed to ‘yellow’, ‘blue’, ‘purple’, ‘green’, ‘brown’ and ‘black’ with different degrees for each color denoted by white bands. As I progressed, Mary would head out to the local drug store and buy Rit clothing dye. The yellow transition went swimmingly, but blue, and then purple, were visually increasingly ambiguous.
Me: “Mom, why can’t we just buy a new belt?”
Mary: “Yours is perfectly fine”.
Me: “You’ve already dyed it three times!”
Me: “So what color am I suppose to be?”
Mary: “I don’t know, but it looks fine”.
Me: “Mom, no one can even tell what color I am!”
Mary: “The mystery should make you look even more dangerous!”.
Me: “Mom! That’s not how it works! It makes me look stupid!”
Mary: “Oh well..”
I enjoyed the Saturday morning Judo classes, but really got a kick out of blocking my father’s punches from age 11 on. My becoming a physically impenetrable 11-year-old did not sit well with him and only added to his many frustrations.
In Hospice House, Aaron sensed the escalation and in a flash was between us. He calmed me down and gently shooed David into the hall, where Sarah was now pacing. Undeterred, he laid into Sarah, who in return call him “a nasty, sad old man”. He sneered at her and left with a quiet and very distraught Karen.
A few hours later, Chad and Ania paid us a surprise visit. Ania is the daughter of Mary’s brother, Paul. Paul is an ailing retired veterinarian from Virginia and his daughter is a pharmacist and soon to be full-time mom. I hadn’t seen them since Ania’s marriage to Chad some years earlier. Chad, if I remember correctly, is a security guard in a nuclear power plant somewhere in Virginia. As far as we could tell, Chad’s hobbies were smoking cigarettes and shooting guns. I don’t know if they came up on Ania’s accord or at the behest of her mother, Eva, a devout eastern orthodox Christian. Several weeks earlier, Paul flew up to visit Mary in the hospital. Details are sketchy, but Mary dismissed him after he asked her if “Jesus Christ was (her) personal lord and savior”, or some such thing. Now, Ania was there, trying her hand at saving Mary’s eternal soul. Ania didn’t count on Mary’s late stages of dying, so had to change tactics. A small framed picture of Jesus appeared bedside and prayers were quietly coming forth. Her goal was complicated by hovering, agnostic Jews not having it, and a drooling dog milling about.
After several hours of scintillating conversation with Chad, my mother clearly had had enough, and felt it was a really good time to die. I had to stop Chad mid sentence, something about … “guns don’t kill people”. Mary’s breathing became slow and irregular. There were progressively long pauses and then nothing for a long while. The pause was followed by “AHHhh,” but it could have been “UHHhh”. It was unmistakably her voice. The last sound to pass her lips. Her eyes opened half mast. Her face sank like a soufflé. She looked…well… dead. Not at peace like in the movies, just dead. I closed her eyes with my palms, like they do in the movies and her face felt stiff and artificial. I lifted the sheet over her head for our sake. We bowed our heads and with an unfamiliar lump in my throat, shed some tears. Several of us retreated to the lounge and called Karen. She bellowed like a dying animal. I don’t know how the phone tree progressed, but before long, we were talking to Peter, who gave us his heartfelt condolences. Hospice House called the funeral home and they dispatched a hearse and driver.
Ania and Chad disappeared into the employee break room. I thought it was out of respect, but was sadly mistaken. Having no further use for the hospice, the M camp migrated to the Hilton lounge for a makeshift memorial. We ordered a bottle of Viognier and a couple of whiskeys. With Chopstick in tow, we had a bittersweet remembrance of Mary, and completely forgot about Ania and Chad. After a late and painful night, we agreed to meet around noon at 928 for some reconnaissance.
Soon after disbanding from the Hilton, Sarah received a call from the funeral home. It seems that Ania and Chad hid out until we left, went back into Mary’s room and placed a religious scapular on her body. Chad told the funeral home driver that he was her son, Mary’s doctor son from California. He said “it was Mary’s wish to be buried with a scapular”.
Suspicious for good reason, the driver called Sarah’s iPhone, the only contact number he had at hand. Even being agnostic, we viewed this as a desecration and a show of utter disregard. At some level, I did understand that in some peoples’ minds, attempting to save a soul trumps honesty. This, after all, is not an unfamiliar story. With this act, Chad did give me the ‘gift’ of momentary distraction, allowing a brief fixation on something perverse and shockingly unexpected.
Coming Soon! Part 8: The Policy