Monday, November 27, 2006

Beyond The Sea

While I was walking back to the subway along the boardwalk on Sunday night, I happened to look out to the ocean.

I had just come from a rather exasperating visit with my father at the nursing home and I couldn’t help think that this day’s frustrations were just a preview of what life will be like when he returns home tomorrow. In short, I was miserable.

The day was beautiful, unseasonably warm, as they say, and coming in, I saw people on the boardwalk and one of the vendors was selling hotdogs and hamburgers, like it was the middle of July. I didn’t want to visit my father.

Coming back at 5 p.m., however, it was quite seasonably dark, reminding everyone in Coney Island that winter was indeed coming. And as I started my march to the Stillwell Avenue subway station, I looked out on the water saw a huge ocean liner, all lit up and sparkling like some fabulous jewel, heading out for the open sea.

I never thought much of cruises. The idea of being stuck with a group of people who turn out to be boneheads never appealed to me and, add to that all those stories of ship-board plagues, accidents, assaults, and other tales of woe and I pretty much scrapped the whole experience off my list.

But Sunday was different. On this night I wanted to be onboard that ocean liner so badly I could taste it. I pictured myself standing on the deck in a tuxedo, sipping a martini, as the Wonder Wheel, the parachute jump, and my life with all its problems, grew smaller and smaller until they disappeared.

Wait for me, I thought at the shrinking vessel, wait for me.

I would create a new identity, give out a fake name, and maybe put on a quasi-European accent, just to keep my fellow passengers guessing.

I would hit the dance floor every night and sleep until noon the next morning. I'd meet lords and ladies, counts and countesses, industrialists, and stock market wizards. I'd fall in love with a beautiful heiress (and she with me, of course), and begin a whole new life as somebody else.

Selfish? Of course. But then I will be the one bearing the brunt of my father’s care once he returns home. Yes, we’re going to hire people to take care of him, but right now it looks like I’m going to be a prisoner, forced to either give up things I enjoy or scramble to find hired help should something come up.

Close Call

I had a different attitude earlier on Sunday. I went to the nursing home and when I got out on his floor, I saw that he wasn't in the dayroom, his usual spot. Fine, I thought, he must be in his room.

But he wasn't. His bed was empty, there was no sign of him and I felt this pull at my heart. Immediately, Captain Catastrophe thought the worst. Did it finally happen? Had my father suffered another stroke? Had he died? Here I am complaining about taking care of him and now he’s dead.

I asked one of the nurses and she told me my father had gone to mass. I was about to ask if we were talking about the same man, but I didn’t think sarcasm would help. So I went down to the second floor and, looked around, and sure enough, there was my father in his wheelchair, up in the front row.

I hadn’t been to church in a while, but I didn’t feel like leaving, so I found a place in the back and sat down for the duration of the service. I couldn't help but notice that I was one of the few people in the room who wasn't in a wheelchair.

I received communion, but passed on the wine, and after the service I went over to get my dad. It took a little doing getting him out of there, as there was a back-up of wheelchairs, like cars at the Holland Tunnel. But we eventually got out of there and I spent a few hours with him.

We were in the dayroom and I really wanted to leave. They were going to be serving dinner pretty soon and my father was convinced we were in a restaurant. Every time an aide went by--or "waitress" in his view--he tried to flag her down. Finally, he started climbing out of his wheelchair.

"Where are you going?" I asked.

"I'm going to complain to the manager," he said.

I got him into his seat, told him I had to leave and reminded him that he was coming home in a few days. I pretended to be happy about it, but let's not kid ourselves. I'm going to miss the freedom I've had around here and I dread having to take care of my father, even if we do have hired help, it'll never be enough.

I've been sleeping in my father's bed, which is bigger than mine, and Mary, his aide, keeps his room quite clean, unlike mine, which is an ungodly mess. My dad's room is kind of like my stateroom, only I haven't sailed anywhere.

I'm not terribly happy at my job, I don't have a wife, a girlfriend, or a child. It just seems that so much of my life is up in the air and I'm at an age when I should be more settled.

I've spent so much time dreaming about being a great writer or filmmaker or whatever that I feel sometimes that my ship has sailed without me.

My siblings and I are going to try taking care of my father at home. However, we're agreed that if it doesn't work out, if we can't take proper care of him, or if he becomes too aggressive or violent, then he's going back into the nursing home.

I'm going to do the right thing for my father and my family and I will not run away, no matter how had it gets around here.

But I'm still working on my accent and keeping an eye out for passing ocean liners. You should always have a way out.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Moveable Feast

When my niece. Kristin, was little, she used to talk about Turkey Lurkey, a kind of Thanksgiving counterpart to the Great Pumpkin, who would give candy and toys to all the children.

She may have borrowed the name from the Chicken Little tale, but the gift-giving character sounds like her idea.

I remember the first year she told me about Turkey Lurkey and the following year I asked to tell me the story again. She started to do just that, but stopped suddenly.

"I told you this last year," she said, sounding a little confused.

Yes, she did, but I loved hearing it. The story, and her unique way of telling it, is one of my favorite Thanksgiving memories.

That was many years ago. Kristin is now a freshman in college and Turkey Lurkey is no more. And instead of a big family get-together, I spent a good portion of this Thanksgiving Day on the subway.

My sister and I started our day heading out to Coney Island to visit my dad in the nursing home. I had planned to hop the N train, but my sister very wisely suggested we crack down and take car service.

Given Thursday's god-awful weather and the fact that we would have to trudge into Manhattan to have dinner with my aunt later that day, I think that was a pretty good idea.

We got to the nursing and went up to the 7th floor to see our father. He was in the day room, or the land of lost souls, as I call it in my darker moments. We had his meal brought down to his room so we could sit with him while he ate.

As he lay in bed waiting for the food, my father told us he disliked his roommate his roommate, a poor bastard in a wheelchair and breathing from a tank of oxygen. He was convinced the guy was my mom's brother-in-law, Leon, whom he hated, but my sister assured him that Leon has been dead for four years.

It didn't matter. My dad is convinced Leon was responsible for putting him in the nursing home, even though we told him the doctor put him there.

"Leon was whispering in the doctor's ear," my father said.

Makes sense to me. The guy comes back from the dead to make sure my father gets stuck out in Coney Island. Oh, those golden years.

We didn't dare tell him we were having dinner with Leon's wife, Marie, also known as my mother's sister, whom the old man didn't like either. So we lied, as usual, and told him we were having dinner with his sister.

His meal arrived and it was hardly a vast Thanksgiving feast. The menu slip said this stuff was turkey, squash and green beans, but I just saw three piles of some alien substances that would never be mistaken for food.

Riding the Rails

Because of the stroke, the food has to be pureed and the liquids have to be thickened to a point where they're almost sludge. Otherwise there could be a danger of my father choking.

My father kept offering us his "food" and I pretended to like it, but, honestly, it was pretty awful. I reminded him of the old Thanksgivings we used to have at his sister Loretta's house, way up on 205th Street in Manhattan. All that food, all that company, all those people who are long since gone or grown so old.

He's coming home in less than a week and every day I feel a little more frightened. I want him to be happy, but I don't we have the skills or the resources to take care of him at home. He is so frail, physically and mentally.

We'll have to hire more people, spend more of his money, and I'll have to be a virtual prisoner. I don't think I can do it, but I'll worry about that next week. It's still a holiday weekend, right?

It was getting late so we wheeled my father out to the day room and I kissed him said I'd see him on Sunday. He said something that sounded like "what about you, Robert?" I told him I was leaving.

As we were walking to get our coats, my sister told me what my father had actually said: "I love you, Robert."

I don't think he's ever said that to me directly, at least not in years, and I felt like such a dirtbag, wanting to get out of there, wanting to leave him there for good. I started crying and told my sister I had to go back to the day room after we got our coats. This time I got it right.

"I love you, Dad," I said, and kissed him again.

On the way out, we ran into Sister Pauline, a nun from our neighborhood, whose mother is a resident there. Sister Pauline's mom is closing in on 100 and, though she's in a wheelchair, her mind is still sharp. She was talking to her son in Pittsburgh on a cell phone and after handing the phone back to her daughter, she turned to us.

"I remember cooking all those meals on Thanksgiving," she said, "and all those good times are gone."

Yes, so I guess the only answer is to enjoy the good times while you have them. We left the nursing home and went by Nathan's on the way to the train station. It was open and there were handful of people inside. I wondered what their stories were, why they were here on this day dedicated to families and togetherness.

If I were a feature writer or a columnist, I would have walked in there and interviewed of them. But I'm a business reporter, so we got on board the N train, and made it to my aunt's place in about an hour.

It was just the three of us, eating turkey and drinking prosecco, my favorite wine. I found it hard not to think of those old Thanksgivings with all those people. They're being picked off, like some murder mystery.

But the point of the day is to be thankful and if you pick up a newspaper and see what's going on in other parts of the world, you can feel pretty small when you complain about your own problems.

So, for the record, I am very thankful for all I have. I'm going to need a great deal of strength in the coming months and memories of the good times I had with my family are an excellent source of emotional octane.

And may Turkey Lurkey stop by your house and shower you with gifts, candy, and memories that will last a lifetime.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

I'll Be There

There's something so depressing about Coney Island in the off-season.

The place exists for summer, sunshine, and people, but lately it's been sorely lacking all three.

Sure, there are some people on the boardwalk and I guess the Polar Bears will start coming around to go swimming. But it's not the same.

I've been spending more time out there since my father suffered a stroke last month and went into the nursing home for treatment. Sunday is my usual day and I'll be there again tomorrow with my sister to visit him for Thanksgiving Day.

My usual routine is to get there in the afternoon and wheel him downstairs to the lobby, where we play cards for a while. Last Sunday he wanted me to take him outdoors, but I told him it was too cold.

"I don't like this atmosphere," he said. "I want to get out of it."

"I don't blame you," I said.

My father will be coming home next Thursday, a week after Thanksgiving, and I can't say I'm looking forward to it. I've enjoyed being on my own around here and I know when he returns he's going to need constant care. We're hiring people, but I don't think it'll be enough.

I guess I'm being selfish, but my father is still not in the right frame of mind. Some days he thinks he's in a hotel, other days he thinks he's in a library.

He refers to my mother in the present tense, as if she's still alive, and it breaks my heart every time. I stopped telling him that she's gone because it just seems to confuse him and he never remembers anyway.

My sister and I got a first class scare this week when some schmuck at the hospital who calls herself a social worker said my father was being discharged this Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, a holiday weekend.

Needless to say when my sister called me with this bit of news, I freaked. I was in the middle of very difficult story and I had to drop that and deal with these bureaucratic bungholes at the nursing home.

We weren't ready for him. We don't have the staffing step-up, his room hasn't been prepared, we just can't take him now. And why the hell did they tell us he was being discharged on Nov. 30 if they weren't going to stick to that date?

They were talking about my father as if he were a package being delivered by Federal Express--only the FedEx people are far more professional.

I left a rather vicious voice mail message for the social worker, then I said, screw this, I'm not going to argue with this scum bucket. I'm going to the top.

So I called the hospital administrator and did my best Joe Pesci impersonation and told her that they would not be discharging my father ahead of schedule and that there would be serious consequences if they tried.

Ride At Your Own Risk

"Oh, no," she said, "there's been a mistake. I don't know why the social worker said that."

Really? I've got a few ideas, especially since my sister butted heads with this very same bitch last week about how they were treating Mary, my father's aide, when she came to visit him. They knew she wasn't family, so some of the staff were talking to Mary like she was a dog.

In fact, Mary called me from there about a week ago and told me what was going on. She got so upset she started crying. Now Mary is one tough cookie so to hear her reduced to tears was pretty upsetting. But she made a valid point.

"I can't fight with them," she said, "because they'll take it out on your father."

You mean the hospital staff would actually punish an 85-year-old man just to be mean and spiteful? Oh, no, never say it! That could never happen, not in a million years. (Are you getting the sarcasm here? Good, I knew you would.)

Anyway, we got squared away on my father's discharge date and I felt compelled to explain to this woman that we wanted our father to come home (lie) but we needed more time (true).

I took my father back to the dayroom on Sunday and got ready to leave. As I was stepping onto the elevator, I heard one of the aides shout "Jim!" and I saw my dad getting out of his wheelchair and getting into another chair at his table. The hospital wants the stroke patients in their wheelchairs at all times for fear they might fall.

The elevator doors were closing as the aide ran over to my father and I thought about hitting the button and going back into the dayroom to calm things down. But I didn't.

I walked back to the train station along the boardwalk. Yes, there were a few people around. A woman was walking her dog, which was sniffing at the furriest cat I have ever seen in my life. The thing looked like a porcupine. Maybe it was just the particular breed of cat, or maybe the cat had lived through enough Coney Island winters that it grew a heavy coat for protection.

I walked by the go-cart track on the way to Surf Avenue. All the carts were in storage and the place seemed deserted, like a ghost town, but there was music coming from somewhere.

Just my luck, it was Michael Jackson singing "I'll Be There." I thought of how I had quickly left the hospital, how I hated going back there, and how I dreaded my father's return home. I didn't feel particularly good about myself.

There were signs all over the go-cart track. Absolutely No Bumping, one of them said. Ride At Your Own Risk, said another. They sound like good life lessons. Especially that last one. You ride this life at your own risk.

There were actually two game stands open--the BB gun range and some basketball game and the barkers both perked up when they saw me.

"Don't go by, give it a try," one of them said.

I kept going, walking by the big clock that counts down the days to July Fourth, when Nathan's holds its annual hotdog eating contest. It was 226 days and 19 hours on Sunday, so we're even closer as I write this.

And come tomorrow we'll be closer still.

Friday, November 17, 2006

A Cold Burrito

This night should have worked out better than it did.

It's Friday, always a good thing. I wanted to do something different, so I went to a reading at KGB Bar, a cool East Village saloon/reading space.

I don't go there often, but when I do I usually have a good time. It's small and the crowd is always supportive. I feel that if I'm going to live in New York I should go to places like this, instead of parking my rear end in front of the television and slipping my brain under the sofa.

I was so proud of myself. Instead of going to a movie and hiding in the dark for two hours, I was going to be out with fellow humans, listening to real live people reading their work. It sounded emotionally satisfying and rather sophisticated.

So how did it end up with me being angry, frustrated, and alone? Well, I think it started with the burrito place.

The reading was pretty good, but as the place filled up with mostly friends and family of the authors, I began to feel more alone. A woman next to me asked me how many authors would be appearing after the intermission and I told her three. (Turned out it was only one more author, but it felt like three.)

I guess I thought things might happen from that little bit of conversation, but I found this woman and I didn't have much to say to one another, despite our mutual interest in writing.

The reading ended and I got ready to leave.

"Have a good one," I told her.

"It was a nice talking to you," she replied.

You call that talking? I had to struggle for every syllable I said to you, honey, so if something nice passed between us, I didn't see it. And if you're being sarcastic, bite me.

There was still a pretty large group of people in the place and I was tempted to hang out for a little while longer, Miss Personality notwithstanding. But everybody seemed to know everybody else and I didn't feel like lurking on the fringes of conversation. And I was hungry.

I walked down Second Avenue, which was filling up with the Friday night crowd. I was going to eat at the Thai Cafe, which I really like, but I couldn't take another night of eating by myself in a restaurant.

I've done it too often and it's just depressing sitting there shoveling food into my mouth why groups of buddies laugh it up or young couples hold hands and smile into each other's eyes. I needed a fast food place that wasn't a fast food place, if you know what I mean.

I looked at gyro places, a hamburger joint, which claimed to have every burger imaginable, except, of course, a turkey burger. I was walking up St. Mark's Place when I spotted Chipotle, a Mexican food chain (duh...). I've eaten at the Bowling Green branch and liked it, so I went it.

The Bowling Green location is a gold mine. by the way. I walked by there on Monday on the way to the post office during my lunch break and the place was jammed like the IRT at rush hour.

People were crammed up against the counter while a line of customers snaked around the interior. It looked like a movie version of a New York eatery, only this was real.

Burrito Junction

The St. Mark's outlet wasn't that crowded on Friday, but it still took me a long time to get my food. I ordered a burrito and watched it sit on the counter, half-finished, as the woman who was supposed to be working on it struggled with another order. It was like Chaplin's Modern Times when the assembly line gets all fouled up.

For some reason, the woman dumped the contents of the burrito into a new wrapper. And then her co-worker did it again, like some kind of strange ritual or rite of passage. If you can take the burrito from my hand, it'll be time for you to eat...

When she finally got to mine, the attendant started wrapping it up, even though I kept saying I wanted lettuce. Finally I had to wave my hands in front of her face and pretty much shout "I want lettuce!"

As I was paying for my meal, I heard her say something in Spanish, and with my paranoia running full blast, I figured saying something about me. I looked at the tip dish with all those dollar bills and decided they didn't need my paltry single.

As I was getting my napkin two young guys were talking as they dumped their trays.

"I remember this movie, Twister, I used to watch when I was a kid," one said. "My nanny and I used to watch it on tape."

Your nanny? I remember Twister; I saw it when it came out, at the multiplex in Southington, Conn., back when I was a reporter for the Republican-American in Waterbury.

It was a miserable piece of crap (the movie, though the newspaper wasn't much better) full of mindless destruction and abysmal dialog. (Just like the newspaper!) I went and found myself a table.

So I'm sitting there by myself, struggling to slice open my cold burrito with plastic utensils. Everyone in the place was rubbing me the wrong way. The young guy in the t-shirt who steps right in the path of the woman on his way to the counter. The fellow on the crutches who bangs against the blond's chair on the way out.

Two young guys are leaving and they see more young guys at another table and it turns out they all know each other, they're shaking hands and exchanging greetings like its Old Home Week.

I hear this grating noise over my shoulder and some guy on roller skates sails up the length of the room to the counter. I can hardly eat this damn burrito and it goes down like wet cement. I open up the Village Voice to check my horoscope and it goes something like this:

"The last few drops in your chalice will soon evaporate," it said. "Your luxurious indoor swimming pool (you know, the one in your fantasies) has barely enough left in it to give a water bug traction.

"And you haven't reached out your arms and cupped your hands in a gesture of feisty anticipation for far too long. So what are you going to do about it all, Gemini? Here's what I suggest: Fill 'er up! (PS: The gas tank of the flying car you sometimes take for a spin in your dreams is also on empty.)"

Great, I got the worst of both worlds here. I don't understand it, but it sounds terrible. I figured it was time to call it a night.

I don't know, but it seems like I'm in a definite rut. It's been said a thousand times, but once you get to a certain age, you really have to work at making and keeping friends. They don't just pop up at the park or playground like when you were a kid. You have to search for them--and not feel like a desperate loser while you're doing it.

On the subway ride home, a man with a guitar got on at Court Street and started singing an off-key version of the Beatle song "Something." I like giving money to street musicians. They literally are singing for their supper and they don't go walking around the car with their hand outstretched, giving you a sad story. These people try to entertain you.

And since I hadn't tipped the burrito buttheads, I thought it would be nice to throw a bone to the working stiffs before the night was over.

I fished out this Sacagawea dollar coin I've been meaning to ditch since the Post Office vending machine spat it out to me on Monday. I squeezed it, trying to put all my anger and frustration into it, like I was driving out an evil spirit.

When the guitar man walked by, I dropped the demon coin into his little black satchel and watched him get off at DeKalb Avenue.

I'd like to say I'm cured of my anger and frustration, but, of course, it's not that simple. No, it's going to take time and effort to make my life more rewarding. I'm going to have reach out my arms and cup my hands in a gesture of feisty anticipation and see what the hell happens.

Fill 'er up.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Old Soldiers Never Die

I bought a poppy from an old soldier this week outside my office.

I walked by him initially, as I save a single each day for a homeless woman who hangs out around the stock exchange.

Each time I see her, I give a dollar bill and she responds with an automatic "God bless ya." I figured I've been blessed enough times I could probably run for pope. Do I have to give money to everybody?

I was about to walk into my building when I began to feel guilty about not buying a poppy. My father is a World War II veteran, recovering from a stroke, and I can't cough up another dollar to help out the cause?

I turned around and fished out my wallet.

The man was just giving a poppy to another guy when I got there. I checked his cap and, yes, he was a Second World War veteran, too.

"My dad's a vet," I said, as I pushed the folded dollar into the can.

"Is he still around?" He asked the obvious question.

"Yeah, he's in a nursing home now."

"My wife is,too," the man said. "But you're young yet."

"Young?" I laughed. "I'm going to be 50 next year."

"You're halfway there," he said. "You've got 50 more to go."

We both laughed and I went to work. The "poppy" is actually made of paper and according to the tag on the stem, it was distributed by the Jewish War Veterans of the USA.

Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree...

I grew up on World War stories, both from my father, the movies, and TV. When we were kids, we loved going to see "army pictures" as we called them, watched Combat on TV, and played army all the time, fighting the Nazis over and over.

My father always used to criticize the war movies, from the battle scenes right down to the quality of the actors' salutes. (He maintained most of them couldn't give a decent salute.) He also got angry when he saw actors like John Wayne and Frank Sinatra portraying soldiers.

"Frank Sinatra did all his fighting in the movies," he'd say in disgust.

I found it hard to believe that the latest World War II movie, Flags of Our Fathers, failed at the box office in spite of rave reviews. An article in the New York Times said World War II apparently isn't real to movie-goers today, that the stories from that time have lost their meaning.

I guess I shouldn't be suprised, but I feel like the sacrifices my father's generation made are being washed away.

My dad had a habit of repeating himself a lot, but with the army stories, I didn't mind. I could hear them again and again, and now, sitting here, I wish I had recorded them so we'd have them for all time.

His stories became mine. I re-told them throughout high school and even today I pick out one of the good ones and repeat it for my friends. You would almost think I was the one who fought in the war.

I used to ride down to the post office at Grand Army Plaza at night so he could mail order forms to his company and somewhere along the way, he'd start telling me one of his war stories. His unit was called "The Timberwolves" and they lived by the motto "Nothing in Hell Can Stop the Timberwolves."

He'd talk about basic training out in the desert, where he'd throw a short piece of rope into someone's tent and shout "snake!" And then he'd laugh as he described his victim running across the sands with his tent draped over his head.

My father's pratical jokes always went too far and he told me how he once picked up a dead rattlesnake and approached a Southern soldier he knew had a deathly fear of reptiles.

The Southerner was not amused as he picked up his rifle and told my father that if he took one more step he would be a dead man. My father decided to bother someone else.

There was the time they were crossing an irrigation ditch on night maneuvers and one of the soldiers fell off the footbridge and into the rushing water. The soldier let out of this terrible wail and one of the corporals came running up shouting, "that was the scream of death if ever I heard it!"

Perhaps, but the fallen soldier was still holding on to the bridge and had not been swept away to his demise.

He'd talk about the men he served with, "Tiger" Ryan, Benny Tornetta, and a guy he would just call the Big Swede. There was the crazy major who walk fearlessly through an artillery attack, while his soldiers were face down on the ground, and yet this very same man was terrified of snipers.

"I came up to him one time," my father said, "and he was in a foxhole. I asked him what he was doing down there, and he said, 'snipers got me pinned.' "

It's strange how this man had no fear of a massive artillery shell, but was terrified by the thought of a little piece of lead.

Of course, all the soldiers hated snipers, who would stay behind in a village, kill a few men to slow the troops down and then come out with their hands up to surrender.

One of my father's buddies was able to pick off a sniper and as the man shrieked in agony, the soldier declared, "scream, you bastard, it's music to my ears!"

My father never bragged about how many Germans he killed or how brave he was in combat. Quite the opposite, he readily confessed how he was terrified, especially during artillery attacks, when shells were screaming through the sky and blowing up around him.

He wasn't much for medals either, saying he was most proud of his intact ass.

Battle Zone

My father was once trudging through a freezing rain storm one night in Holland and looked down to see the corpse of German soldier, its face distorted by a sheet of ice. My father figured he most have set a broad jump record leaping away from the body.

There was a night time battle, which he summed by saying, "man, the shit was flying." And that said it all.

There was the night he and some of his buddies were out on maneuvers and they saw a German soldier coming. The soldier, thinking they were his buddies, asked what time it was. One of the Americans who could speak German responded and the soldier walked into the group of my dad's buddies.

"Yeah," my father would say, changing the pronoun. "They cut this throat."

I found later through my uncle that my father had come back from the war in pretty bad shape. He had two or three friends, also named Jim, who were killed in the same day. One of the men ran a hunting lodge somewhere out west and the three men had talked about going on a trip out there after the war.

I heard one story years ago, where my father was supposedly stuck in a foxhole for one long night with one of his comrades. He talked to the man all night and later found out the soldier was dead and he had been talking to a corpse.

I'm told that after the war he struggled to find a place in the working world. I'm sure the war scarred my father, perhaps accounted for his rages, his insensitivity, his downright meanness. It's hard to say and much too late to correct.

I went out to the nursing home to see my dad today. It was raining pretty hard and the boardwalk was almost empty. We played cards for a while and he said we should go upstairs so I could visit with Mom. I had to gently remind him that Mom was no longer with us.

I mentioned Veteran's Day and he didn't seem interested. I know he always resented guys who saw no action during the war but bragged about being soldiers.

He said there were soldiers stationed London who just about cried when peace was declared. They were nowhere near the action, they worked in offices and they had a whole city full of women whose men were off to war. War wasn't hell for these guys.

I wheeled my father around the floor and he pointed to one man in a wheelchair, saying, "I know that guy." I thought he might have been imaginging things again, but the other man turned and said, "hi, Jim."

It turns out they share the same floor and eat at the same table. This man, also named Jim, is 91 years old, 6 years older than my dad. I asked him how he was doing.

"We're waiting to die," he said simply. "We have no future."

I started to say something, give him some kind of stupid pep talk, but I shut up. Who am I to tell this man how he should feel? He's the one going through this experience, not me.

I took my dad back up to his floor so he could have supper, and then headed out. It was too dark to walk on the boardwalk, so I walked down Surf Avenue in a light rain. I think of how my father marched through much more severe weather, in much more dangerous areas, and I think how that's all being forgotten now.

So I'm glad I went back and bought that poppy. I did it for my father, for "Tiger" Ryan, the Big Swede the crazy major, and all the other soldiers who gave up so much so many years ago.

I don't know if I'm doing it right, but I'm going to salute you guys anyway. As my homeless friend would say, "God bless ya."

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Walk in the Rays of a Beautiful Sun

In case you're wondering, I won't be going to L.A. next week.

My Uncle Joe and his wife are celebrating their 25th anniversary on Nov. 11 and they had invited me out there for the festivities.

Now I hate to fly and I've been using it as an excuse not to go on any serious kind of trip in years.

It sounded like it would be fun, with so many of my cousins showing up. They told me there was a lady they wanted me to meet and I've been striking out on the East Coast so much, I wondered if things might go better on the other side of the country.

So, like a lot of things, I pretended to think seriously about doing it. And in the end, I didn't do it.

I've got reasons (excuses?) starting off with my father's condition. I don't know what's happening with him and my sister is worried the nursing home might call while I'm away and tell her that the rehab is over, come pick up your dad.

I spoke to Joe and he understands. It's his brother, after all, and he knows what we've been going through.

I promised I'd get out there soon, and I'm thinking about moving out there after we get my father's situation sorted out. But then I've been talking about moving out there for many years and I'm still in Brooklyn.

On The Run

I started my day on Fourth Avenue in Bay Ridge, watching the human tidal wave known as the New York Marathon roll by.

No matter how many times I watch the marathon, I never get tired of it. All the people, all the nationalities, the costumes, personal messages--it's a blast. And then it's over so quickly.

This year I was down by 65th Street, hanging with a co-worker, while yet another co-worker ran by us on her way to the finish line.

A group of bagpipers played for the runners, and one lady took a break from her run to do a jig right in front of them.

From there, I was off to Coney Island to visit my father, who is confined to a wheel chair. I got there just as they were serving lunch. A tape machine was playing this old song called "O-o-h Child," which talks about how things are gonna get easier, some day when the world is much brighter.

I looked around the room at this elderly, sick people. Many of them didn't seem to know where they were. One lady sat in her wheelchair and just wailed like a baby.

It was upsetting, but getting anxious or depressed doesn't help the situation, so I took out my mother's mass card, the one with St. Martin de Porres (his feast day was Nov. 3) and I prayed for this lady, and for my father, and for everybody else in the room.

The fact is they are in a tough situation and they are getting the best care possible. But they are a time in life when there is no much more that can be done for them. It shows you have to do your living now, see and do things while you are still able. And don't poison yourself with regret.

I met my sister-in-law today, when my brother walked into the hospital with his new wife. They've been together for a while and married for about a year, but this is the first time we laid eyes on each other. It's kind of complicated, but since I'm slowly losing my father, I could use some new family members.

Poker Face

We took my father downstairs to the lobby and it turned into one of those situations where we talked around him, but not to him. Between the dementia and hearing loss, he really can't participate in most conversations. He kept on insisting he had to pay a bill, apparently convinced he's in a hotel.

I didn't argue. I just told him the cashier was off today and would be back on Monday. I even wheeled him over to the office and showed him the locked door. That seemed to satisfy him.

After my brother and his wife left, I played poker with my dad. I had to tell him what to do on several occassions and he would only toss away one card. But he did surprise me once.

"What do you have ?" I asked him.

"A straight."

Convinced he was wrong, I took a look at his cards. And, son-of-a-bitch, he did have a straight, the old bugger.

There's a fabulous old Wurlitzer juke box in the lobby and somebody put on a Righteous Brothers album.

Well, after "You Lost That Loving Feeling," and "Unchained Melody" I had enough, but they kept on singing, the bastards, belting out a bunch of songs I never heard of and a really painful rendition of "The White Cliffs of Dover." If people had sung it like that back in World War II, the Nazis would have won.

It was getting late so I took my father back upstairs and told him I had to go. I promised I'd be back next week and then I headed back down to the boardwalk toward the train station.

Yes, Coney Island is the last stop on the subway, but you know, it's also the beginning of the Atlantic Ocean. So, people leaving that nursing home for the last time are heading off on a whole new voyage, aren't they?

I got a call tonight from my niece, Kristin, who is a freshman in college (I still can't believe it!) in upstate New York. She was doing some project and she had all these questions about the health of various family members. God, she started to sound like the emergency room doctor I spoke to the day my father had the stroke.

She sounded so mature, so intelligent, nothing like the little baby I bounced on my lap, well, it's like last week to me, but it really was 17 years ago. I told her of my desire to go to L.A. and she thought that was a good idea. She said it's a good place for creative person.

We talked a little while longer and then she had to go. I told her I loved her and when I hung up, my first thought was, God I'm a lucky bastard.

So, yes, maybe someday we will actually get it toghether and get it undone. Maybe we will walk in the rays of a beautiful sun.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Dream War

I had a dream last night that should have been a nightmare. But it wasn't.

All the ingredients were there: It was Halloween night, I had just watched a short zombie film online, and I was in this big old house by myself.

In the dream, I was in the middle of an air raid. The place looked something like Manhattan and I guess I was going to work.

I remember looking at this city on an island as bombs were going off and then this huge airship, like an some kind of futuristic zeppelin, crashed head-on into a building that looked a bit like the World Financial Center.

I should have horrified, but I wasn't. I wasn't frightened at all. I was more...enthralled? I stood across the street when the World Trade Center was attacked, but in this dream I didn't feel the terror that I did on that day. No, it was more like a show to me than the start of World War III.

Still, I did dream of an aircraft crashing into a building and that's a little too close to the real thing.

Even in the dream, the old Catholic guilt kicked in as I angrily ordered myself to pray for the victims who had died in the explosion. I thought the same thing on 9/11, before the second plane hit, when we all believed the horror had ended with the attack on the North Tower.

I had planned to go to St. Peter's a few blocks up and pray for the people who had been killed. Then the second plane hit the South Tower, and well, you know the rest...

In the dream, some kind of missle strikes near me, but doesn't explode. The warhead clatters to the ground a few feet away from and I start to run because I'm sure it's going to explode any second. But, again, I'm not terrified at the prospect of being so close to death. I'm just making tracks.

And again this mirrors reality in some way, as it recalls the attack on the South Tower and how I and God knows how many other people ran like hell when the building before us exploded. Only then I was frightened beyond words.

In the dream I keep running until I see a woman in some kind of medical outfit jogging in the other direction. I know she is a med student out for a run and I yell after her, warning her not to go near the unexploded warhead.

The last image I recall from the dream is a reporter in a trench coat holding a tape recorder up to the woman's face and asking her questions. I am supplying details, but I am not the one being interviewed.

It's been said that you are everyone and everything in a dream. So in addition to being me, I guess I'm the jogger, the reporter, the suicidal blimp, the exploding building.

Meanwhile, Back in The Real World...

What does it mean? I don't know. I haven't been thinking much about 9/11 lately and when I do, I always shudder, even after all this time. This dream was almost like a theme park version of an air attack, with all the fireworks of a terrorist attack, but none of the terror.

I broke my normal routine today. I had to go out to Coney Island with my sister to meet with the staff of my father's nursing home and discuss his progress and his future.

I guess I was a little nervous about that, since I had offered to work from home and I was worried I wouldn't make my deadlines. But I did, barely, and then hopped a train out to Coney Island.

The hospital had about 10 people meet with us in a conference room. I couldn't believe that many people had to speak on a man who is on a short-stay program. But I did appreicate the thoroughness with which they discuss my father's case.

We got the usual complaint about my dad: how he makes inappropriate--read "filthy"--comments to the female staff and tries to grab them as they go by. My sister and I are a little fed up with this complaint by now, having heard it many times before.

So he's a dirty old man--so what?

You've never encountered this before in your career with the elderly? You can't hanlde one aging diabetic with dementia? I can't believe this is a first for these people, but apparently it was. I explained to them that we can't help them, that my father is even less likely to listen to us when we tell him to knock it off.

So the plan is to send him home at the end of the month. We'll have to get more people in here and spend down his finances so he can go on Medicaid. That means I have to find a ton of paperwork, go through all his assets, which is annoying because every time I turn around, I find some other account worth thousands of dollars.

What the hell is this? When we were kids my father was dodging bill collectors like they were vampire bats and fighting with my mother over every dime she spent. Now all of a sudden he's Daddy Warbucks. But I guess that's how life is for working people. You only start to see the money when you're about to die.

We stopped by to see my dad, who recognized us, but thought we were all staying in a hotel. In keeping with the Halloween theme, my father lately has claimed to see my aunt's husband, whom he hated and who died about four years ago.

"I don't want that guy around me," he told me the other week.

He loathed my aunt's husband for so many years that his hatred is keeping the man alive longer after he's dead. My father created a ghost and now it's haunting him.

Frankly, I would rather my father never came home. I know that sounds harsh, but that's how I feel. The staff told us he goes to wood-working classes, plays bingo, and does other things he doesn't being to do at home, where he just sleeps all day.

But if the doctors think he belongs at home, that's where he'll be. He may not be around much longer, so perhaps it's best that he leaves this world under his own roof.

I spoke with my shrink tonight about the dream and we found the lack of fear interesting. Since I worry and fret about things all the time, maybe the dream was a kind of wish fulfillment, where I could go through terrible experiences and not be frightened.

And this strange city that kind of looked like Manhattan and kind of didn't? Maybe it was a theme park, after all, as I was heading out to Coney Island the next morning to see my father.

I just hope it wasn't a premonition. I've got enough to deal with right now.