Part 2: Do you have a Taurus?
This would be our adult relationship; we would fly to New York for a week and see them for a few days, alternating with flying them out to San Diego for some weeks. They would never fly out direct from Newark to San Diego, as they chose airlines according to the quality of the in flight meal. A typical route would be Newark to Atlanta to Denver, then on to San Diego.
I would ask: “How was your flight?”
Mary : “The chicken was tough.”
What should have been a 5 hour flight stretched into upwards of 9 hours and once they landed, they shuttled off to the car rental agencies to find the elusive Ford Taurus. It went something like this:
David: “Do you have a Taurus?”
Rental guy: “No, we don’t have any Taurus’ left.”
Rental guy: “Yup, fresh out.”
David: “Can you check again”?
Rental guy: “Can I interest you in a Sable?”
David: “You don’t have any Taurus’?”
Rental guy: “No, but a Sable is like a Taurus, only nicer and I can let you have it for the same price as a Taurus…”
David: “I don’t want a Sable! Mary, let’s get out of here!”
Somehow, they made their way to another agency and this script would repeat, over and over. Mind you, he drove an Acura hatchback back home, but on the mean streets of Southern California, only a Taurus would do. On at least one occasion, we had to pick up my parents at an airport car rental agency, with the promise of a Taurus in a few days time. Not trusting them on our commuter train, we drove them back down for the promised white Taurus, which had a highway shimmy and a sour smell of desperation. Several years earlier, we lent them our Acura Legend for a month. My father was an aggressive and poor driver, and my mother a survivor of a highway crash involving “black ice”. They returned the Legend with 8 deep finger indentations on the passenger side dashboard, marred by Mary’s arthritic, yet surprisingly strong fingers. Recounting the story years later, she claimed I imagined the damage, but Marie can corroborate.
Over the years, conversations wavered little. I would learn what food was being sampled at Costco and hear detailed comparisons between California and New Jersey Trader Joe’s. Our refrigerator would fill up with trays of frozen lasagna and hubcap-sized frozen carrot cakes.
Steve: “Mom, we just don’t eat this stuff! What are we going to do with all the leftovers!?”
Mary: “Invite your friends over. Everyone loves carrot cake.”
Steve: “You remember the still frozen Entenmmans danish you served guests when we were growing up?”
Mary: “Everyone loved that cake!”
Steve: “Mary, nobody liked it. It was stale, still frozen, and you got it at the day old outlet store!”
Mary: “It was delicious with coffee.”
Steve: “Mom, you served it with Sanka. It wasn’t even real coffee!”
Mary: “Steven, they loved it!”
Steve: “Aunt Judy loved it.”
Mary: “Everyone loved it. How did I raise such a snob?”
Me: “Snob? Because I didn’t like Sanka?”
Mary: “Oh well!”
“Oh well” was my mother’s polite way of saying “Shut the hell up!,” but the most charged word she ever uttered was “damn. ” This was in November 1967 when she was driving us kids to the YMHA in Patterson, New Jersey. I think it was directed at me.
Over the years, we had some family challenges. In February, 1997, my father proposed buying our then-for-sale Solana Beach home and moving out to California. Marie and I were in escrow on an ultramodern fixer, a bit further north and had our home on the market.
David: “Steven, I saw anguish in your face when that low-ball offer came in. I’ve got an idea…what if I bought your house?” (The asking price was too large a percentage of my father’s net worth).
Steve: “But dad, I don’t think you can afford it.”
David: “Well, you can hold paper on the house, and I can pay you back when I sell my house.”
Mary: “David, it doesn’t have central vacuum. I need a central vacuum cleaner.”
David: “Steven, can you put in a central vacuum?”
Bay Ponder (our friend and Realtor): “David, I think you buying the house is a brilliant idea!”
David’s chest proudly puffed.
Bay quietly to me: “Don’t even consider this!”
Me to myself: “Oh God!”
The planning was underway. David called Mrs. Dudlow, a New Jersey Realtor, neighbor and former patient of his. She was wintering in Florida, but would get back to him soon. In short order, Mary had a Budd central vacuum cleaner salesman over to quote the job. My sister K was “house-sitting” at 928, and, by report, was un-housebreaking Susan’s recently acquired rescue dog, Sally. From 3000 miles away, details were sketchy, but apparently, K had locked herself out. Tom, a cousin by marriage, came to the rescue and found a month’s worth of dog poop on the floors and rugs. Nothing a spatula and a little elbow grease couldn’t fix!
David’s plan was to pack their bags, ship the household lock and stock all the way to our considerably smaller, basement-less California home.
What of their 5 deep freezers? “There’s a garage.”
What of patient records and X-rays for the past 40 years? “Garage.”
Boxes of brittle margarine containers? “Garage.”
Boxes of green stamps, Shell Oil give-a-way knives? “Garage.”
World Book encyclopedia? “Garage.”
Encyclopedia Britannica? “Garage.”
Old Highlights magazines from the long shuttered office waiting room? “Garage.”
By the way, our garage could barely hold two cars. David assured me that if their house didn’t sell after a year or two, they would simply pack up and go back to 928. Problem solved!
I would be allowed to visit our Solana Beach home, but was not to clean, fix, or comment on anything. Remarking on decor or landscaping mishaps would not be tolerated. They would terminate Margo, our house-cleaner, and Manuel, the gardener, as my father could take care of the yard with a ladder and some power tools and no one needs a housekeeper.
I thought back to my childhood at 928. The yard was littered with small and medium sized rocks, doll parts and brown dirt. The dogwood, oak and cherry trees were slowly dying and birch trees were already dead. Cutting the grass entailed sending plumes of dirt into the air and hurling rocks into the cars, his patients or the house. If a patient missed an appointment, David would fire up the chainsaw, march out to the yard in suit and tie, climb a tree and start cutting off branches willy-nilly. While some sick or dying branches were taken, generally they were the healthy ones that just had the misfortune to be in a reachable position. At times, he would fall out of the tree, or worse yet, hang precariously by a snagged pocket or jacket flap. David, a short bald man with a comb over and severe glasses, was sometimes spied hanging from a branch by neighbors who would pantomime his antics with glee, over dinner.
Marie and I had an accepted offer on our ultramodern fixer, but not much cash for necessary repairs. Our Solana Beach house was taken off the market even though David was not actually buying it. About this time, Sarah, my baby sister who lived near us in San Diego, announced that if we went through with the sale, she would move to another state. The final straw was David’s response to my latest proposal. With little earnest money coming to us, I proposed that we maintained an equity position in the house and when eventually sold, would benefit on any financial upside. I also requested a detailed plan for what would become of K, whom all assumed would move out to San Diego with the deep freezers and encyclopedias. What provisions would be in place to move her out when the time came? This proposal did not go over well and David accused me of trying to cheat him and send K into the streets.
In response to being called a scoundrel, I called Bay, and asked him to contact the couple who had made a reasonable offer on our home a week or so earlier. We met with their Realtor that night and soon had the house under contract. I came home and told my father I wouldn’t sell him the house after all, as that was tantamount to going into business with family members, something he strongly discouraged his entire life. He retracted the accusation and begged me to reconsider his offer. He told me that Mary was being driven to drink by my decision. In fact, she did have a glass of wine at dinner her last night with us. The Taurus had been returned a few days earlier and they were taking a cab to the airport. I gave my mother a goodbye kiss and hug, then approached my father. I hugged him and told him that I loved him. Arms down by his side, he was gently sobbing. I heard later from my mother that he wet his pants in the cab and squarely blamed me for this.
It took a few years for things to settle down. He would again take the phone from Mary and talk about his old patients and journal articles I knew nothing about. We were, after all, just two doctors talking… His hearing continued to deteriorate, but he refused to wear his hearing aides because they made his ears itch. I offered to buy him better ones, but I don’t think he heard me or just didn’t want the fix. By then, he had an iPhone, which was never out of reach. I purchased them a hearing-impaired, auto transcribing telephone. It worked remarkably well, except for long pauses in conversation, when it transcribed and he was reading. It felt like I was calling him from Mars. Other than that, there was one unanticipated problem with the phone; it auto-archived in text all conversations with excellent fidelity. Confidential conversations, mostly with Mary, I learned later, were being read offline by both K and David. I don’t know if they did this together or independently. This was shocking, but not surprising.
Back in the day, David tape-recorded all answering service calls from patients and listened to them, not necessarily to make sure the message was being delivered accurately, but for other content. He once played back a flirty conversation between a patient and the service operator. They planned a date at the Kresge’s soda bar in a week. K, meanwhile, would unscrew the microphone from the phone’s handset and listen in on other people’s calls. This same person was once quoted as saying “I don’t want you talking about me or even thinking about me! Is that clear?” Clearly, this did not apply to others.
This eavesdropping was unanticipated and problematic, as I generally only pocket dialed my father and now had to steer clear of the auto-transcribing telephone. E-mail was not an option and Mary was fearful of cell phones, so I bought a non-transcribing telephone for Mary’s bedroom.
The bedroom was chosen because, several years earlier, my father contracted bacterial endocarditis, spinal infection and sepsis. He nearly died, but over the course of many months, managed to return home to an uncomfortable rented hospital bed, occupying much of the dining room. He never returned to the master bedroom, so this seemed a safe place to install a phone. The problem with this plan was my mother’s knees, which were so rickety at this point that she could not get from her station in front of the dishwasher, or basement washing machine, to pick up the phone in time. It would go to voicemail, would be eventually discovered and the call returned by my father, on his ever-present iPhone. To his credit, he would sometimes ask if I wanted to speak with Mary.
During David’s illness, Sarah, Susan and I rummaged through his office, looking for passwords, websites, bank accounts and debts, trying to reconstruct his financial house. We did our best, scabbing it together and paying some overdue bills. Mary rose to the occasion and was managing, albeit with stamps, hand written checks and envelopes, but she soldiered on.
David’s financial plans were horribly flawed and he largely kept Mary in the dark. In the 1960s, he indiscriminately purchased non-editioned porcelain Boehm birds.
“Each one of them will put a kid through college,” he would say. He had at least 20 of them, but only four kids. The remaining 16 would pave Easy Street. For example, the porcelain below is a “least tern” that retailed in 1968 for $3500. It can be had today, retail, for about $1400 or just a few hundred bucks on e-Bay. These remained unsold, unbroken, un-stolen and heavily insured until his death.
He was also a seasoned practitioner of “buy high and sell low,” reacting with his gut, and this man had dyspepsia! Family lore had it that a massive fortune slipped through his fingers when he precipitously sold Electro-Nucleonics just before a huge rally, on bad advice. Apparently this gas centrifuge company’s symbol was mistaken for another tanking stock, and on bad advice, the stock was sold.
Back to his near death episode: David was in the ICU of his former hospital, a blighted institution in Paterson, New Jersey, run by nuns. The attending physicians were mostly foreign graduates with heavy accents while the “true American doctors” hung diplomas from places like Guadalajara, Mexico, the Caribbean or the dreaded New Jersey College of Medicine and Dentistry. I met some of them. One sported pinky rings, was paunchy, and stupid as dirt. The food smelled and looked like diaper poo. The ancillary care was sincere, but overstretched. His personal physician, Dr. Barnett, was defensive and cocksure in his abilities to diagnose zebras while hearing hoof-prints of horses. I called Dr. Barnett shortly after reviewing David’s chart, with a few questions. Were there Hospitalists at Saint Joseph’s Hospital? Who was managing his fluids? Where was the infectious disease doctor? His answer went something like this: “I’ve spent some time at Columbia (I’m thinking South American). Your dad will probably not survive this. I’ve called in the top specialists available, but some are on vacation.”
David briefly went into a dangerous heart rhythm, as he was going down the tubes. This was rapidly corrected, with the cardiologist “all over it.” In spite of his infection, and the fact that his rhythm normalized, he wanted to put in a pacemaker and would not waver. He was desperately hoping to do so before my father died, as it would be easier to bill. I met him bedside. He had a yellow oxford shirt, a paunch, dyed black hair and tanning booth dark skin. He was off golfing, but would be back soon to put in the pacemaker. With a wink and a click, he was out, on his way to what I imagined was a clown themed miniature golf course. It was, after all, the middle of January.
After this long and trying weekend, I returned to work. Before my first case, the front desk was putting my father’s call through. David was on his ever-present iPhone, in the hall, awaiting a new PICC line, as the other was improperly inserted and infected with MRSA (to a hospital, think modern day leprosy).
His speech was garbled, but the message was clear:
“Steven……(sobbing)……. I think I made a terrible mistake..coming to my old hospital….I think I’m going to die here…They don’t know what they’re doing… Steven, can you help me? Can you get me out of here?” I told him it would be a challenge with him being so sick and Dr. Barnett not having privileges elsewhere. As we spoke, I heard Dr. Barnett ranting and warning him that no one could do any better and they wouldn’t know him like he does. It was sad and pathetic.
A few hours later, I arranged a transfer to the cardiology service of The Hackensack Medical Center, which had a reputation for not sucking as much as Saint Joseph’s. If one was to believe the endlessly repeating phone message when on perpetual hold, it was the place to be:a top pick from the Penny Saver and other prestigious institutions. Dr. Barnett fired him as a patient and an ambulance took him away.
Despite the long odds, he survived and graduated to a rehabilitation center near 928. His spinal infection and resultant fractures slowly healed, and he would eventually cruise the halls with the aid of an underpaid black female aide, and a walker with yellow fuzzy tennis balls. Dr. Barnett wouldn’t return his calls, and he was at the mercy of a one armed GP who generally sent nurse practitioners (NP) in his stead; likely, the NPs were an upgrade.
I knew my father was on the mend when he accused me of ripping him from Saint Joe’s hospital and ruining his relationship with Dr. Barnett. I reminded him of his tearful phone call to me, pleading to get him out of Saint Joe’s and away from the incompetent care. He was incredulous.
David: “I have no memory of this. Mary, is any of this true?”
Mary: “Yes, David, I dialed the phone for you. Steven’s right”.
David: “I have no memory of this…absolutely none!”
Coming soon! Part 3: The Dead Husband’s Club