Lyn and I have been walking buddies for decades. In near-frozen sleet or sweltering heat, we set our alarms for 6AM and meet on the sidewalk between our houses for 6000 steps and a chance to empty our hearts. Over the years, we have given our walk-talks a rather uninviting name—vomiting. At our opening step towards the southern end of Long Island, the one of us in most need to unpack her woes says, “I’m vomiting first,” and begins her story. The other listens; (listening by the female definition is softly agreeing and/or giving stern advice.) The vomitor gets her say all the way to the county line or as we call it, “Ji-Soo’s block.” But at the turn north towards home, the other gets to vomit her woes.
Our topics are eclectic; politics, family, religion, fashion or any experience that’s a thorn in our sides or a tear in our hearts. Our last walk began with the heartbreak of caring for a loved one.
Like Lyn’s dad now, my mom spent her last years frail and weak. Often, Lyn will ask me elder care questions and most times I’ll recall specifics of my mom’s decline. They’re never pleasant conversations, especially when we remember happier times when our parents, who were also friends, would meet on the sidewalk between our houses (not at 6AM) to share a laugh or catch up on the events of their full lives.
Yesterday, as Lyn and I walked under a cornflower blue sky, taking in neighborhood gardens and doling out, “Good mornings!” to fellow walkers, she told me about her trip to the barber with her dad.
At 95, Frank uses a walker. Lyn helps him with his jacket and hat, guides him into his car, (he hasn’t driven in many years) and stows the walker in the back seat. She drives for less than 3 minutes to arrive at the same shop Frank has gotten his hair cut for fifty years. Lyn parks the car as close to the barber’s as possible, reclaims Frank’s walker, helps him from the car and guides him inside. There was a time when a younger Frank would walk to the butcher shop, cross the street to the Chen Brothers Dry Cleaners and make a quick stop at the post office before popping in for a haircut, but now enters; less than 100 lbs., pale and stooped.
All the chairs were filled with customers enjoying their manly ritual of a shave, haircut and a verbal play by play of last night’s home team game. Just the pick-me-up Frank would have enjoyed after a week of being shut-in with his home health aide, but his usual barber was engaged. Even the barbers he occasionally used over the decades were snipping away on other heads. One young barber at the very end of the shop stood behind his empty chair. “Over here,” he called out to Frank as if he was summoning a servant- totally oblivious to the old gentleman’s walker, his pace or the woman he needed for support.
Frank’s barber stepped into the scenario, “Take the first chair, Frank.” Then, with a scowl, added to his young colleague, “you trade chairs!”
Frank’s last haircut was eight months earlier, but as he ages, simple errands become exhausting. With her father’s struggle in mind, Lyn told the young barber, “You can make it a bit shorter than usual.” Just as she left for the seats at the back wall, the sound of the electric shaver buzzed loudly. “That young pup, as Lyn described him, “shaved my Dad’s head—no warm towel, no styling, just a buzz cut to get the job done.”
At home, Frank looked back at his bathroom mirror in shock. “He gave me a baldy,” he woefully exclaimed.
Lyn’s dad, US Navy war veteran, Sergeant at Arms at our Civic Association, who, in his later years devoted a life of service to bringing clothing and food to those in need, was dismissed as being too old to care about his looks.
I understood Lyn’s chagrin because I also had to see my mother being treated shabbily in her old age—not by a simple young barber, but by extremely well-educated medical staff* as she went into surgery caused by hospital neglect.
Mom tried to hide her breathlessness and heart flutters from her family and doctor for as long as she could, but was finally convinced to get tested at St. Francis Hospital (famous for its cardiac surgery). The results were so alarming, she was immediately admitted for bi-pass surgery. After a long stay followed by longer cardiac re-hab, she was allowed home. Months passed but, it was clear she wasn’t getting better. Breathless and in pain, she allowed us to return her to St. Francis where new tests showed she needed another bi-pass and valve replacement. I had never heard of two triple bi-passes in less than 90 days. The doctor’s terse explanation to me was, “sometimes these things happen.”
Mom’s second healing took even longer. I visited her daily, hoping to see a sign of improvement—it didn’t come. Instead, I received a phone call just hours after I returned home saying she needed urgent surgery for her bed sores. Jim and I raced back to the hospital, calling my brother with the awful news and listening to his insistence that we find a lawyer to sue the bastards. I wasn’t interested in punishing a hospital, I was praying for the return of my healthy, sweet-natured mom.
I got to her room as aides lifted her onto a gurney. We rode the elevator, mom’s hand in mine. In an outer room, mom was told to remove her denture, while another aide covered her lovely silver hair with a paper elastic-band hat. It drooped over her eyes. Two hospital staffers who were chatting about an un-related topic, noticed my toothless, paper-doffed mom and laughed. I took a broad step to place myself between them and my mother. I thought all my focus was on her cure, but in truth, at that moment, my mind and heart wanted them dead.
My mom, although she could have waited out the war at home, worked for the US Army in our fight for a free Europe and against the tyranny of the Japanese Empire. Later, while running her home and raising her children, she cared for her dying mother-in-law and up to her illness, even though she had no connection to Judaism, voluntarily archived for Queensborough Community College’s Kufperberg Holocaust Center. In the six decades, I knew her, she never laughed at another’s misery.
Lyn and I finished our walk, planned for the next day’s activities and parted. I took off my sneakers, re-heated my coffee and wondered what happened to the America of my youth, when our elders were revered and respected. I still don’t know the answer.
*Like all jobs and careers there are wonderful caring workers and awful ones. Hospitals have their share of bad apples—this story is about a handful in only one.