Wednesday, January 8, 2014
Arms behind her, Maya holds one book in her right hand and one in her left. “Pick a hand,” she says.
I peak and see a Barbie book in her right.
“Left,” I say and she pulls out two books.
I pick the one on top, When Mommy is Sick by Ferne Sherkin-Langer, about how a ten-year old girl copes with her mother being in the hospital again. It was one of the books recommended by Maya’s hospice therapist after Verna died in 2010.
I start reading about how the girl is sad because her babysitter slathers the jam on too thick and cuts the bread in triangles, not squares like her mother; how she refuses to draw or participate in class but, at her teacher’s suggestion, draws a picture of herself and her mother; how she loves having her friend’s mom push her on the swings, but still misses her own mother; how she makes a calendar and counts off the days until Saturday when she and her father will get to visit her mother.
The story ends as the mother comes home and pushes her daughter on the swings, makes her a sandwich with just the right amount of jam and cuts the bread in squares, and later reads her a bedtime story.
I am happy for the girl but sad for Maya. I start thinking of Verna and all the special times she and Maya spent together in four-and-a-half years: blowing bubbles in a park in Arizona, the smile on Maya’s face stretched a million miles; snuggling in bed to read; cuddling on Verna’s hospital bed to do sticker books together.
A tear rolls down my cheek as I realize yet again that Maya’s Mommy won’t be coming home. I finish the book and Maya looks over at me.
“There’s water on your face,” she says.
“I was crying because I miss Mommy.”
“Me, too,” she says.
“Mommy loves you so much,” I say. “I think she loves you and Miguel more than anything. She was so excited to be a mommy.”
“I am so glad she found you,” she says. Then she pauses. “How did she find you?”
“We worked together and I asked her to go see Wynton Marsalis with me (something Maya and I are going to do in March),” I explain.
“And then you asked her to marry you?”
I giggle. “I couldn’t ask her to marry me after our first date.”
“When was your first date?”
“July 21,” I answer, and I remember, of course, that it was in 1990, not quite 24 years ago. “I asked her to marry me two months later.”
“And what did she say?”
“She said, ‘Sounds like a good idea’,” I say.
“And then you kissed?”
“Yes,” I say, “and then we kissed.”
I picture the moment, lying together on my bed in a four-bedroom flat on 19th Avenue in San Francisco, after an evening with my mother, who was not happy that Verna was Catholic, and thinking about asking her to live with me but knowing she never wanted to do that again. So I blurted out, “I was thinking of asking you to marry me.”
I shut off the light. I get my book light and clasp it to the back of Thank You For Your Service, about physically and emotionally wounded veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Before I start reading I say, “Mommy loves you and Miguel so much.”
Ten minutes later as I get up to leave, I hug Maya tightly and say, “I love you so much, Maya.”
Sunday, November 3, 2013
Of the Red Sox’ three World Championships since 2004, I have only shared one of them with Miguel, this year’s last-to-first bearded barreling to the top of the heap.
In 2004, inexplicably, Miguel rooted for An-Evil-Empire-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named. As the Red Sox became the first major sports team to roar back from a 3-0 deficit, he and I could not share the joy together. As the World Series began, I was understandably nervous, and, while I am not at all superstitious, I did believe in the power of the Curse.
I remember Bucky ‘f***ing’ Dent in 1978 and being one strike away in 1986. In 2003, Verna, Miguel, my late mother-in-law, and I were in New York for a vacation and my niece’s bat mitzvah during the American League Championship series. The three of them were asleep in our midtown Manhattan hotel room during the latter part of game seven between the aforementioned Evil Empire and the Red Sox when Aaron Boone slugged a homerun off Tim Wakefield in extra innings and broke my Red Sox-loving heart yet again.
I stared at the TV screen in utter disbelief, Verna curled against me. She must’ve heard me sigh.
“Did the Red Sox win?” she asked.
“No, they lost,” I said, my voice halting.
“Are you OK?”
Tear welling in my eyes, I said, “Would you just hold me?”
I was teaching a Jewish cooking class in the high school program at a local synagogue in 2004 when the Red Sox were on the verge of capturing their first World Series title in 86 years. I kept running back and forth from the synagogue kitchen to the cramped office of the maintenance team, where Jack had the game on his portable television. By the 8th inning, most of my class and I were watching together.
My body shook and shivered as Keith Foulke tossed the final out to first base and the Red Sox were victorious. I immediately called my father in Florida and said, tears in my eyes, my voice staggering, “They did it, dad. They did it.”
“Yes, they did,” he laughed.
By 2007, Miguel was rooting for that team, but when the Red Sox made their playoff run I asked a former student of mine, who works in the ticket office, if I could purchase two tickets to the World Series should the Sox advance, which they did. So Miguel and I were at game two that year and he was behind the Red Sox’ opponent, the Rockies, until we walked into the largest Red Sox souvenir shop on the planet, the Yawkey Way Store, a commercial retail sensory overload of Red Sox t-shirts, pants, jerseys, jackets, trinkets, mugs, hats, banners, pennants, jewelry, watches, baseballs, bats, gloves, scarves, toys, lunchboxes, baseball cards, license plates, placards, posters, and more.
“Dad,” he said to me then as we strolled in the store, “maybe I can root for the Red Sox and the Yankees.”
I was flabbergasted and elated. My son and I would be cheering for the same team, together, at the World Series. He even got two batting practice balls before the game, choosing to give one to his school’s bus driver, an avid baseball fan.
But for some incredibly strange reason, I was not home during Game Four that year when the Red Sox completed a four game sweep of the Rockies and won their second World Series title in four years. I was in the back row of the 3000-seat Marin Veteran’s Auditorium watching Peter Frampton at the same venue where he’d recorded portions of Frampton Comes Alive in 1975.
Miguel saw the game with Verna, and shouted and pounded the air and then the ground and jumped on top of her when it ended, his own personalized victory dance when one of his sports team wins a championship. And I was not there to share the moment with him. And then the Red Sox aura faded for him by spring training 2008 and he was back with the team from the Bronx.
Until the end of the 2009, which was strange considering the Yankees had just won their 844th World Series.
And while I was very excited for the Giants in 2010 and 2012, and believe me his victory celebrations were borderline dangerous—for him and anyone around him—it’s just not the same. The Giants are my second favorite team, and I started rooting for them once I moved to San Francisco in 1987, but the Red Sox have been my team (for almost my entire life), and my father’s team, and my mother’s team, and my grandparents’ team, so I have this patrimony-DNA thing going. Rooting for the Giants and being a Red Sox fan for life is like having a close friendship with a woman you’ve known for a long time while happily married to your true love, the one with whom you’ve weathered Titanic highs and lows.
So there Miguel and I were last Wednesday night, only six days after we’d been at Fenway Park again for a World Series Game Two, this time with two of my nephews, as Koji Uehara wound up to throw a two-strike pitch to Matt Carpenter in the top of the ninth. I’d phoned my father moments earlier and put him on speaker phone so we could share the game together.
As the game ended, I said to my father, “Can you believe it? Three times in our lifetimes?”
“No, I can’t,” he giggled.
When our conversation ended I realized Miguel had not broken into a celebration at all, though he was clearly happy that the Red Sox had clinched.
“Miguel, how come you are not going crazy right now?” I asked, somewhat surprised by his muted response.
“The Giants are my team,” he stated matter-of-factly.
Ah, baseball is a strange game.
Thursday, August 29, 2013
Sometimes I can only remember what Verna looked like from an image of an actual photograph, not from a picture in my head. That happened fairly soon after she died. I remember our wedding day, for example, but the images that float in my mind are from our photo albums or framed photographs on the walls of our home.
Tomorrow is the 3rd anniversary of her death. I hearken back to that day and the images are both clear and fuzzy, like fiddling with a binocular or camera to bring an image into focus. Hospice provided special assistance during Verna’s final days, and someone came over at least every other day to bathe her. They asked me to dress her in old t-shirts, ones they could actually cut off her body and disturb her as little as possible. She still had ones that were from her early twenties, which had been more than 20 years earlier.
I can see the t-shirts, one from El Salvador in the early 80s when the right-wing government assaulted civilians almost daily, and it said, “Yo soy periodista,” which means “I am a journalist,” and it showed someone fleeing the marauding tanks of El Salvador’s army and death squads (partly financed by the United States), proclaiming their innocence. But I can’t see Verna’s face. I remember what she looked like, but only from the photographs we took during those last days, one of her face, puffy from steroids and water retention, cuddled on her hospital bed against Maya.
I remember that after she died one or two people suggested I gave her too much pain medication, kept her foggy on purpose so she was unable to communicate lucidly (or at all) with family and friends. I found some Hospice documents earlier this year while cleaning out the electric recliner chair in our living room before we gave it to my sister-in-law’s aunt during the last months of her life. The documents vindicated me and showed how our Hospice nurse had ordered rapidly increasing amounts of medication—Ativan and morphine. At one point the nurse, Lacey, said to me, “I can’t believe she is able to handle so much medication.”
I remember that I was sometimes impatient when I squeezed drops of pain medication into Verna’s mouth, against her cheek, causing her to choke and cough on the liquid. I can actually see Verna, still, in my mind, her hair matted against the pillow (green cover), as her body went into spasms if I rushed the medication in too quickly.
On Friday evening, August 27, 2010, I remember I gave her medication from a syringe and she had close to a 30-minute coughing fit. My brother-in-law, Jim, and his wife, Liz, were with me. Verna’s body thrust forward with every cough, her eyes squeezed shut in almost agony. She finally calmed down and went to sleep for the night.
She never woke up.
On Saturday afternoon, the hospice nurse said she was in a deep sleep, not a coma. I continued to give her medication orally four times a day and twice as a suppository. I remember the exact moment before Verna died when her breathing became labored as her chest rose and fell, and the amount of time between each breath grew longer and longer. And then she stopped.
I wasn’t sure where this remembrance was going when I started. I also remember one of my favorite photographs of Verna and me, taken in 1990. We are standing in the kitchen of the four-bedroom flat I shared with roommates on 19th Avenue in San Francisco, where a constant flow of traffic always rumbled by on one of the city’s major arteries. My left arm is around her shoulder, and I am wearing a white dress shirt with thin blue and red vertical stripes and navy blue pants. Verna has on a black dress with a buttoned v-front. It is August or September, and her normally olive, half-Hispanic skin was even more golden brown after a summer outdoors as a day camp counselor for young teens (which is how we met). The smiles across our faces are wide and bright. We clearly looked as if we belonged together.
Tomorrow I will go to the cemetery with my good friend Amanda, and maybe her daughter, and tidy up the gravestone area and then replace the old artificial flowers with new ones we picked out yesterday. We will go there, to remember. Always.
Sunday, July 28, 2013
Verna was almost always right. She used to say we should wait at least a few years after we got married in 1991 to have kids.
“You’ll thank me later,” she said. “For the time we had to ourselves.”
First she said she didn’t want kids until she was at least 30. Then at 30 she was in the middle of a job transition, so she said no kids until her employment situation was settled. Then another six months until she passed the probationary period at the City Attorney’s Office where she’d begun as a paralegal in 1996 or 1997.
I protested, argued, attempted to cajole, whined, sulked—all to no avail. And Verna was right. Having children has been the best thing to ever happen to me, but waiting six-and-a-half years after we married on a foggy late afternoon in San Francisco's Rose Garden on Sunday July 28, 1991 was a very good decision.
Verna and I had time for hilly bike rides in Napa that included stops at wineries, lazy Sunday mornings with the newspaper sprawled out in front of us, dashing to the movies on Friday or Saturday nights, or bopping at dance clubs with friends.
And then we became parents, first in 1998 with Miguel, and then in 2006 with Maya, days after Verna’s initial cancer diagnosis. Both Miguel and Maya enriched our lives more even if our time was no longer just ours.
There were several times during Verna’s illness and subsequent recurrence that I would get angry or petty or just plain stupid and Verna would retort, “Someday (when I am gone) you will appreciate me!”
And she was right.
I can’t go back and undue my pettiness or anger or stupidity, but I do reflect back on certain moments and scenes from our life together and wish I’d acted differently.
But I can’t alter the past.
So on this sunny Sunday, on what would have been our 22nd wedding anniversary, I am sad and wistful. Maya asked me if I was going to the cemetery. She said, “You should bring a flower.”
Sunday, May 19, 2013
Spam, spam, spam used to be an all-purpose food or a great skit and song by Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Now, it’s also a boatload of crap that filters into an email folder.
Occasionally some worthy, important emails are sent to our spam folders, but mostly it is just plain junk. I don’t ever open the real spam, for fear of unleashing an incurable virus that will shut down the entire company’s computer network. But just by reading the subjects and senders I get a healthy dose of humor.
Sex is a big spam topic. I’ve received an endless supply of spam emails about erectile dysfunction, and even though I am in my mid-50s, I am not sure I can ever go the Viagra route. Not that I am judging anyone else. One spam advertised, “Enlarge with sample…larger is stronger is better.” Shouldn’t one see a real doctor for problems south of the proverbial border? But just in case, there is a Canadian pharmacy that offers a bulk discount on Cialis. Let’s hear it for socialized medicine.
Today spam emails popped up from Female Seduction Services about a video that would make women want me and another about techniques to “bed chicks”. Not to sound too much like Andy Rooney, but I am not sure I would be attracted to those kinds of women. OK, correction: I would definitely not be attracted to those women. And not to sound too confident, but I think the women I want to want me already do. Cue Cheap Trick—I Want You To Want Me.
Companies are not just selling sex. There are Disney vacations, low-cost loans, luxury jewelry, as in replica Rolex watches (I don’t even wear a cheap watch), and pain medication (that probably doubles as a penile enhancer).
And my spam folder, which I don't empty regularly, only has twenty-four emails as of right now. It usually grows (no pun intended) to a couple hundred or more before I get around to deleting everything. I am sure I inadvertently erase an email from someone I know or a company I’ve used, but that’s just how it goes in this Internet age. I can only keep track of so many emails, for larger is stronger is better is not always true unless…
Friday, May 17, 2013
I told a friend recently that my mother was neurotic and emotionally needy. A true statement, but I realized those three words don’t begin to capture the woman who birthed me more than fifty-four years ago three days shy of her 22nd birthday. Especially now that she is confined to a skilled nursing facility in Connecticut, beset with Lewy Body Disease—a brutal combination of Parkinson’s and dementia—and struggles to feed herself or remember the names of her five grandchildren or where I work, a place she has visited many times. So it is easy to see her in one or two dimensions, as a product of her neurosis and needs and disease, but that is only a sliver of the woman.
Beverly Bernstein loved to dance. My father did not. So she bopped and boogied at home with her oldest son (me) to American Bandstand while she ironed clothes. She always danced with one of her first cousins at family functions while my father sat on the sidelines. She loved music, mainly rock and roll. She took me to my first concert when I was four, a rock and roll show hosted by Dick Clark. We had front row seats at Hartford’s Bushnell Auditorium. Dick Clark singled me out during the show, thrust a microphone in my face, and asked me about myself. When he learned I had a younger brother, he asked if we fought and could I scream for him? I curled into the seat to hide.
My mom took us regularly to the library, the town pool, weekend outings to the amusement park. She played word and number games with me before bed. She was one who always got up in the middle of the night if I was sick. She signed my brother and me up for extracurricular classes. I took tap and music at the University of Hartford and recreation classes across Bloomfield in the summers.
OK, her neurotic side was frustrating at times. We lived on a dead-end road—four houses—that backed up to the woods. One trail, maybe a couple of hundred yards at most, led to Blue Hills Avenue, a major thoroughfare through town. I was not allowed to cross Blue Hills Avenue alone until I was 12. I went to Treasure City to buy 45s. Or I biked to Rockwell Pharmacy for comic books and candy.
She got me my first job when I was 16. She walked into the Cow’s Barn (or Farm?) and asked if they were hiring. The next day I was hired as a cashier and stocker. I worked there that summer, after school during my junior year of high school, and all the way up until June 1976, right before I went on a six-week trip to Israel with other teenagers from Hartford and Baltimore.
When it came time to apply for colleges and money was an issue for our family, my mother spent several hours a day, preparing the financial aid forms for the various colleges I was eyeing. Her hard work earned me enough to supplement the scholarships I’d also won.
I had emergency surgery on a perforated ulcer in 1988, less than a year after I’d moved to San Francisco for graduate school and a change of pace in life. She came out and stayed at my home in the city and visited me every day with the daily paper. I couldn’t eat food, but she befriended my twenty-something hospital roommate, who was donating a kidney to his brother, and they ate frozen yogurt every evening and bragged about the other great meals they were enjoying.
My mother has always tried to be physically fit. She started jogging in the 1980s, and my brother and I were there when she finished her first three-mile race. Later, she became an avid walker. Up until two years ago, she was walking 5-7 miles a day at least four times a week.
Now she can barely move without a walker and rarely gets out of bed. Her hair has grayed considerably and she looks older than her seventy-six years. We used to have long phone conversations, ones I feared might never end, but now it is hard for her to talk more than a few minutes.
My brother and I cannot believe how far she has deteriorated in such a short period of time. Some of her nurses don’t think she will ever leave the skilled nursing facility. Her husband, my step-father, Fred, is dutiful and kind and would walk across the world’s oceans for her. They used to go dancing, to the movies, out to dinner, visit family. Now he is reduced to being a bachelor of sorts, though he has two sons in the area.
My mother always made us feel loved as we were growing up. There may have been some impossible or unreasonable emotional expectations from her, but the love was (and is) real. She is needy, and now she needs us more than ever.
Friday, April 19, 2013
Dear God-It’s more or less been a while. I am sorry I haven’t been a better communicator, which I know is surprising since so many of my co-workers (and friends) often wish I would shut up. I know I used to communicate with you more regularly. I attended synagogue regularly as a kid and prayed and led services for many years. And we used to talk every night before I fell asleep when I was in grade school. I think our relationship worked pretty well back then. I prayed for Marcy G. to become my girlfriend for three years and you somehow found the time to make a miracle of epic proportions (for me) when she agreed while she and I were in the fifth grade. OK, the relationship only lasted five days, but they were mostly magical days.
Anyway, I am writing to you now about something more serious than my love life. It’s about cancer. I don’t feel as if I’ve asked you for much lately—I probably didn’t pray enough when Verna was sick—but I do need your help.
Cancer.We need to eradicate it right now. Today. And you’re the one to do it. I know it’s too late for Verna and Gayla and Deb and millions and millions of others whose lives were cut short or cruelly terminated by this wretched disease. I need you to end the suffering of those afflicted with cancer and their families and friends so anxious about what cancer means.
What do you think? Can you do it?I had tea last night with a man whose wife died this past Valentine’s Day (really?!?). She had non-Hodgkins lymphoma, but died of septicemia while undergoing treatments for a recurrence of the disease. He has two kids, 11 and 5, and they, like Miguel and Maya, have to live a long time (God willing) without their mommy. He understandably still can’t get over losing his best friend, but he knows he can’t slow down because he has two daughters to parent. What’s up with that?
Over the past few months, I have encountered more and more people either with cancer, a relative with cancer, a friend with cancer, or someone who knows someone who knows someone who has cancer. Last summer, while the kids and I were vacationing back East, my father’s first cousin told me about a cousin of hers on her mother’s side who is 32 or 33, has a toddler (under three), and an adoring husband, and she has stage IV cancer. What’s up with that?About three weeks ago I learned that one of the dads whose two kids go to Maya’s school has some kind of salivary or throat cancer. It’s rare and treatable, but the radiation alone is wreaking havoc with his life. Just walking a few hundred yards outside with his wife and dog taxes him for an entire day or more.
And there is my first cousin, Arlene, a sweet, sweet woman who has raised two kids basically by herself after her husband died during lung transplant surgery more than 15 years ago. She is undergoing treatments in Boston for a very rare nasal cancer. The prognosis is very good, but she has suffered enough. And so have her two boys, who are now young men.
So I don’t get it. I am not saying you owe me anything, and there are plenty of crises on this planet that deserve your attention. But, if you have any extra time for a little Earthly intervention, I would like you to consider eliminating cancer or, at the very least, helping us find a cure by the end of the month.I don’t have much to offer, but I feel it is major in a spiritual development kind of way that I went from being a 34-year agnostic to a believer again. The world and the people in my immediate circles of life could certainly use a pick me up, a little joy and happiness, given what has been happening here and abroad. So why shouldn’t I be selfish and lobby you to end (or help us end) cancer?
Thank you very much.Humbly,
Steve (you probably already know my Hebrew name means joy or happiness)