Getting Dead

Judith Lichtendorf


We were the kind of people who asked for the truth. Unvarnished. Like tough guys in a Grade B movie – give it to me straight, Doc, I can take it. So when the remission we hoped would never end finally ended, when the doctor’s bag was empty, when it was clear the jig was up, there we were, my husband and I, like it or not, stuck being us. True to our style, we asked the tough questions: what will happen now, how painful will it be, how much time is left. The oncologist who was one of the Biggest Big Shots at The Best Cancer Hospital in the Entire World had pale blue calm eyes that showed nothing. He just blinked a few times, looked at us, thought for a while and I guess he decided we meant it; we really did want to know.

As I’m sure you’re aware, he said, some cancers run their course more easily than others. Now, your kind of cancer. At this stage, it enters the bones. Which naturally turn brittle. Frankly, it can be debilitating. All it takes is a cough and ribs break. It can be a difficult … termination. Of course there’s medical relief, we have the ability to ameliorate pain…

And how much time?

So he described the timeline. Explained the bell curve. Drew a picture of the bell curve on a scratch pad. Explained it again, until it was quite clear to both of us.

After a while Joe said, well thank you for being so honest and straight. We left the office, waited for the elevator, he didn’t look at me and I didn’t look at him. I left him in the lobby to stay warm while I got our car from the garage—which didn’t charge as much as you’d think considering it was Eastside Manhattan, but I guess it’s subsidized by the World Renowned Cancer Center—and then we started our long ride home.

It was essentially a pretty silent ride. What was there to say? Four months are better than three months? Three months are better than two? I was fifty-five. Joe was sixty-three. We had been married for 19 years. Conversation wasn’t necessary. We were just quiet. Very quiet. By the time we got to East Hampton it was almost night, dark but not black. Purple. The huge trees on either side of Route 27 made a leafless canopy of entwined branches as we neared the East Hampton pond. The Hampton’s Jewish Center had left on a few dim lights.

Maybe we could go there Friday night, Joe said.

I had no idea what he was talking about. Where? I said.

There, he said.

I thought, the pond? And then I realized he was talking about the East Hampton Jewish Center. The Reform Jewish congregation he had snickered about for years. The Reformatory, he called it; a wealthy collection of once-a-year Jews doing their fashion parade on the High Holy days. The ‘Price-My-Outfit-Holidays,’ he called them. Money talks and God names buildings.

I knew I couldn’t laugh – if this was where he wanted to go this was where we were going. You don’t snicker when the terminal someone you love decides he wants to go to Temple. But this was a major one-eighty. Ever since I’d known him, Joe sneered at religion – any and all, he was an equal opportunity sneerer. He hadn’t been in a synagogue by choice for precisely fifty years, not since his own bar mitzvah. Sure, he’d gone to churches or temples for other people’s events—assorted weddings, bar mitzvahs, funerals. But for comfort? He called that a dry martini on the rocks.

In true despair you could omit the vermouth and the rocks.

If the mood hit him he would imitate what he called “Rabbi speak,” a technique he swore they all learned at the Hebrew Union Sanctimony Seminary in Cincinnati. “Rabbi-speak” was slow, drawn-out pronunciation, an exaggerated pedantic drone–like diction. As in, “Aaaaannnddd soooo, deeeaaar connngreeegaannttssss, whhaaattt lesssonnn cann weee learrrnn frommm thisss BUUURRRNNING BUSHHHH???”

When Phil, Joe’s own father died, Joe and his sister, Carol, had a screaming fight about where to hold the funeral. Carol won; their father would be buried in Connecticut, and by her conservative synagogue. Phil’s body was shipped up from Florida, Carol’s husband and her oldest son flew down to escort my mother in law, Violet, the widow, who kept complaining about the expense this was causing. Who needs this? She kept asking, who needs this? Phil doesn’t need it, I don’t need it.

Funerals are for the living, Carol told her mother. I need it. Your grandchildren need it.

I don’t need it, Joe yelled back. And my kids don’t need it.

When Carol’s Rabbi started the eulogy, and referred to Phil as a tender father, gentle, wise, calm and loving, my husband snorted and sighed and did everything he could but hold up a sign saying, “you never met the man.” After the cemetery, Carol tried to be angry with Joe, but he made her laugh as he quoted back more words from the Rabbi’s description of their dad: modest, patient, kind, humble, pious. And Violet, their mother said, look Carol, let’s call a spade a spade, your father could have cared less.

But that was ten years ago, before we knew what a prostate was, before the word oncology needed to be understood. Now, it was a freezing cold night, we were driving back from Memorial Sloan Kettering, and my husband suddenly had a mission. This was a Wednesday night, the day the weekly newspaper, the East Hampton Star, went on sale. One of the Star’s regular features is the schedule of all local religious services. Debbie, why don’t you jump out and buy a paper? Joe said. We can find out when this thing starts.

When we got home, I thumbed through. Friday night at five-thirty, I said.

I guess we could make that, he said.

My son, suddenly grown up, living in Manhattan, running his own business, was planning to come out for the weekend, arriving Friday night. You know Nick’s planning on coming out for the weekend, I said.

There was a pause. Maybe he’d want to come with us, Joe said.

I wasn’t sure that was a reasonable guess. In fact I was positive Nick would be sardonic and roll his eyes and say something like, okay, good luck Mom. But I said I’d call and ask.

He wants to go where? Nick said.

Services. At the Jewish Center. On Friday night. And he thinks maybe you’d want to come. And I said I’d ask you, which is the only reason I’m asking, there is absolutely no need or obligation—

Sure I’ll go, he said. No sweat, Mom, if he wants to go, if it’s important to him, don’t worry, I’ll take an earlier train.

Winter had started. It was one of those raw, it’s not-cold-enough-to-snow-but-it feels-like-snow evenings. A night for two pairs of socks and sweatshirts on top of pajamas. The wind was howling outside and the last thing I, or anyone sane, would want to do is put on boots and a coat and help my now ever weaker husband into his sweater, his down coat, his scarf, his hat and ear muffs and then hold his arm while my strong son supports the other and because our SUV is now just the slightest bit too high for Joe to easily hoist himself into, Nick and I help maneuver him up and in. I get behind the wheel, Nick sits behind his stepfather, punches him lightly where his shoulders should be inside the layers of clothing and says, hey, old man, we made it. Hit the gas and drive, Mom.

Don’t drive too fast, Joe says. The idea is to get there in one piece.

And off we go. It’s a quiet ride.

I drop them at the entrance and find a place to park. When I get back they’ve hung up their coats and gone into a small room—not the famous addition, the huge, stark, ash-wood Architectural Digest vision of a Holy Sanctuary— this is just a dingy area in the original summer cottage building where a few people are gathered. It looks like we’re in the right place; there are three rows of folding chairs in a sort of semi-circle. A pile of dark blue leather bound books that could be prayer books. A man in a black robe is talking quietly to another man I recognize as the guy who owns the fancy Main Street drug store. The other men and women clearly know each other, nodding, chatting. No one smiles or says anything to us. Nick looks at me and raises his eyebrows. I shrug. My husband whispers to me: I need to sit down.

Let’s sit down, I say to my son, and I plop into the nearest chair. Joe sits next to me, and Nick says, hey, I’ll get us some equipment, and brings over three prayer books. My husband sits between us, his eyes closed, his face its new skim milk color, his expression perfectly tranquil, waiting. My son has figured out that the book reads backwards and is moving along; he’s probably searching for Eden with Adam and Eve and the serpent. I’m holding my husband’s cold hand and swinging my leg, waiting for something to happen. It’s ten to six. The black-robed man is the Rabbi; he walks to a lectern, says good shabbos everyone, looks like we have a minyan, so let’s begin.

It’s as if a starter’s gun went off. I know a bit of what’s going on from my childhood shul-going days, but Nick and my husband are totally clueless. The Rabbi rattles along, shifting seamlessly from English to Hebrew, snapping out page numbers as he races through the service, and the rest of the small crowd mumbles passages, stands up at times, sits back down, mumbles some more, stands up, sits down, does some ragged responses to prayers or exhortations the Rabbi chants. Eventually everyone stands up and the Rabbi says the last prayer in Hebrew, then we all repeat it in English. Finally the classic song Adon ‘olam is butchered; a few of the congregants know the words but no one seems able to establish a tune. I remember singing it as a kid, but the melody they’re trying to sing has nothing to do with the one I learned. At the end of the song, the Rabbi says well, good shabbos everyone, there’s some cake in the hallway.

We couldn’t race out of there—we needed to wait until people closer to the hallway and the coat rack moved through so we could work our way towards the exit. No one nodded to us, no one smiled, the Rabbi walked off to the same corner of the room and continued his conversation with the Main Street drug store guy. I grabbed my coat, got the car and pulled around front. Joe struggled into his seat, Nick hopped into the back, and we took off. This time, the silence wasn’t all that long. Nick gently poked his stepfather again, and said, so, old man, what’d you think?

My husband said, I think I owe you big time.

I said nothing.

Nick said, what are we going to do about dinner?

I don’t know what I expected, Joe said. I guess I hoped there would be something.

Maybe Chinese? Nick said.

Joe said, some kind of—I don’t know—meaning? Some feeling like I made sense, like this was making sense. Some clarity. Joe paused. How about a burger. I think I’d rather have a burger.

One late March afternoon, a few months before he died, after another useless visit to the Big Deal Oncologist at the cancer center, we were waiting, again silently, for an elevator. All we wanted to do was get the hell out of that building, and every single elevator seemed to be going up instead of down. When finally one stopped and the doors opened, a young mother, father and a little girl were inside. The mother and father looked straight ahead, and their little girl was half asleep, nestled in her father’s arms. She was probably about five, wearing a princess costume, a long pink tulle and satin gown, which was crumpled up around his arms, revealing her skinny little, bare feet. She was wearing a child-sized fake diamond tiara and she was totally bald.

By the time I pushed Joe’s wheelchair down the ramp and out of the building, the parents and their little girl were gone, into the evening and off to their future, and Joe and I were once again starting our own return trip home. Wheel chairs should offer riders the option to turn and face the person pushing, so you can converse face-to-face. Ours didn’t, of course, so at first I didn’t hear what Joe was saying.

I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you, what did you say?

I said, where is God for that family? He said it in a very loud voice. People on the sidewalk reacted, stopped and looked at us.

You know, Joe said. I see that child, I see those parents, and what can I say? How can you complain when you see something like that? How could anyone have the nerve?

I pushed for a while.

He said, I don’t have any complaints. How could I have complaints?

And then after another pause he said, anyhow, even if I had a complaint, who would I complain to. Who would listen?

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