With nothing more than a crystal ashtray in my hand, I ventured deeper into the dark. I couldn’t make out the two other figures in the room, but could sense their maleness. I hadn’t consented to this encounter, but couldn’t have refused. We were engaged in a game which, like most games, meant more than its ostensible rules and goal. I remember neither. I only remember that the three of us were groping around in the dark living room, my new stepbrother and stepfather, and I. It was to be a bonding experience, that game. My mother was preparing dinner in the kitchen, and had innocently, but not without intention, left me in the hands of these two strangers. And I was a little girl trying to avoid being touched and caught. Hence the ashtray, I suppose.
I wasn’t scared so much as afraid, the semantic difference informing the way I held my weapon, the way I faced the players. The two males didn’t scare me, but their male alliance, their pernicious approach, made me afraid. Had I not had that cold, hard instrument, had I indeed let myself be touched and caught, everything, perhaps the rest of my life, would have turned out otherwise. As it was, I bumped into my new stepfather and banged him in the funny bone with the ashtray. I’d like to be able to say I hit him unwittingly, except that I had been brandishing the weapon in my hand. And I’d like to be able to report that he laughed and said, “Okh,” and ceded the game to me. But in fact, he bellowed in pain and yelled out in momentary anger. Someone switched on the light and we three stood there staring at one another in the sudden glare. The game, one of the eventually dwindling attempts at family bonding, was over. My stepfather nursed his arm. My stepbrother, jumping to his father’s defense, growled at my stupidity. I left that room the loser by far, hurt and hating them both. And hating my mother for having brought me there in the first place.
There was a reason I picked up that ashtray in the seconds before the lights went out. It symbolized the way it was for me, the way I felt, though at 9, I couldn’t have framed it in thoughts. All I knew was that I felt threatened, vulnerable, out of place, and trapped. And I wanted to be accepted by the very people I didn’t want to accept.
My stepfather was, before this event, and ever after, nice to me. Despite conventional tales of evil surrogates, my purpose is not to depict him as one. He had his drawbacks, and I won’t ignore them in this, my belated final farewell to him, nor pretend he requires redemption or forgiveness at my hand. He took me in as part of the package that came with my mother, provided for me, looked out for me, and in time, came to love me. It was a simple progression, but it couldn’t have been as easy for him as he made it appear. How can such circumstances be easy? Regardless of his loneliness and the desire to provide his son with a stable mothering presence, the emotional reality of the life he decided to forge was challenging at best. He had to change his habits, share his privacy, open his wallet, inject me into his small but tight-knit family, into his milieu, try and mold me and his son into siblings, figure out how to behave with another child, a daughter yet, an orphan, a displaced little person, all while navigating a newly formed marriage.
I never considered my stepfather anything but the benevolent perpetrator of my victimization. His reticence and self-protectiveness combined with my own, and the oath I made on that day when I replaced the ashtray and went to cry in my room, and frequently thereafter, turned the possibility of bonding into an impossibility. It appeared we could never attain to more than tolerance of each other’s existence. Though in this, too, I was dissimulating. The oath I made was to never ever let him into my heart. I was going to keep my father there forever, and Shloime would gain no quarter. And though my father’s stronghold weakened over time, and my oath lost its bite, our fate was sealed that day.
My stepfather, Shloime (Solomon) Krystal, was born in 1912 on Nowolipie Street in Warsaw. Both his father’s and mother’s families had been Varsovians for generations. At the age of three, the family moved into a 34-unit apartment building at 33 Gensia Street with old trees and a flower garden in the courtyard. The building faced a military prison which, though Gensia and the surrounding streets were all destroyed during the 1943 ghetto uprising, is still there. The family lived in that house till “the end,” as my stepfather wrote me in preparation for my trip to Poland in 2005. By “the end” he meant the war, of course, the end of life as he had known it. Gensia, now Anielewicza, ran for a few miles from Nalewki to Okopowa Street and the Jewish cemetery, where his grandparents (“my zeides and bobbes”) are buried. So are the remains of the partisan Gabriel Friszdorf, his brother-in-law, that were brought from the Wishkov Forest near Warsaw after the war. In the cemetery, there is also a monument for the Yiddish writers Peretz, Dineson and Anski. On the corner of Anielewicza and Dzika, or Zamenhofa, there is a monument for the fighters of the April 19 ghetto uprising.
My stepfather had a biography much more lengthy and complicated than one paragraph, but it is not in my possession – neither the pages he began writing a few years after my mother died, nor the oral history he subjected me to, which I too late became interested in to be able to completely commit to memory. I do know sketchily that before the war, he’d worked in the Medem Sanitorium, a Jewish educational and health facility near Warsaw. The sanitorium, known for its secular leftist orientation and reformist pedagogical approach, including the establishment of a “Children’s Republic,” boarded children and young adults sick with, or at risk for, tuberculosis. He was very proud of having worked there. He couldn’t tell me enough – and he told me very often – how the director of the sanitorium had praised him and declared that Shloime gave the place its soul. He fled to Russia when the war broke out and was imprisoned there for having spoken out against the Communists while still at high school, or so he was told. Released from prison after the Sikorski-Mayski Agreement of August 17, 1941, which reestablished friendly ties between Poland and Russia to fight the Germans, he made his way to the Russian interior. After the war, he wound up in Sweden, where he gratefully remained for two years with his first wife, Mila, whom he’d known back in Warsaw from the Folkshule, and where his only son, Arthur, was born.
So what more should I be saying about him? I think I didn’t really know the man because of the distance I maintained between us. I don’t believe I’ll do him justice because of the negativity with which I imbue my memories and my description. Shloime’s life story is important. It is tragic and sad and difficult and happy, as full of folds and dimensions as a 103 year old man can have. And his was so, specific to a time and place(s) and history. His autobiography, which he wrote in Yiddish for the better part of 15 years in relative solitude and has never been translated or made public, may some day be disclosed. Or not. It isn’t up to me since I don’t have it. I can only tell, therefore, the only story I know.
This is not an attempt, therefore, to recreate his biography. It is the story of my farewell to my stepfather, my parent for all but the first nine years of my life.
Though I acquired a stepbrother at age nine, I, like he, am an only child, the product of parents who lost most of their families in the Holocaust. My mother was one of two siblings that survived out of four. She and her sister went their separate ways after making it through the harsh war together in a Russian kolkhoz, Bolshaya Plotina, near Stalingrad. They lived out the rest of their lives on opposite sides of the world – my mother in North America, my aunt in Israel. My father and his only brother were both alive after the war. My father survived it in Russia, his younger brother in Israel, where he emigrated before the war broke out. They never saw each other again after parting in 1936. Their mother, a widow since my father was two, and the rest of their family were murdered in Krakow by the Nazis. My father died young and left me an orphan at age seven.
Eventually, my mother was introduced to Shloime, a widower for the same number of years as my mother had been a widow. A couple of well-intentioned friends made the match: Sara Rosenfeld in our city of Montreal and Vladka Meed in New York, where Shloime lived. Two years after my father died, Shloime and Hannah were married unceremoniously at City Hall in New York City. Not only was I not there, I didn’t know about the impending event, nor its execution. And neither did Shloime’s son, who would become my stepbrother a few months later. After one short trip to New York, whose purpose was for us all to meet, my mother and I moved to New York in March of 1960, when I was in 4th grade. Maybe because of the way it was done, or just the fact of it, maybe because of the personalities involved, or the tragedies that threw them together, this new family did not blend. My stepbrother escaped the family drama five years later when he was 17, and went away to college in Wisconsin. When he returned to the City three years later, I had left for college in Montreal. Over the next four years, before I moved far away to Israel, we all saw each other sporadically.
My stepfather would not appreciate my lingering over the trials and tribulations of a failed blended family. He might not even have seen it as failed since his was not an introspective or analytical personality. And he certainly would not want anyone out there to see it as such. The personal was in no way of public concern. That went for being a braggart as much as a whiner. Keep your confidences to yourself. I may have learned some things from my stepfather, but in this he, or I, clearly failed.
Shloime liked people who were genteel, didn’t talk too much, and didn’t make too much of themselves. He liked people in general, always chatted them up wherever he went, and loved little children, though he had no clue about how to be with them. He esteemed people of higher standing, if he wasn’t cynical about how they got there. He admired true courage, obvious intellect, and genuine decency. He liked to help others, and was glad to be in a position to do so. But he was tough to please in his own family, unconvinced of any talents or skills we thought we had and needed encouragement to develop. I can only assume my stepfather didn’t get much standout praise from his own father since he was hard pressed to give any himself. In a way, if we lowered our expectations regarding his opinions, we could almost get what we needed anyway. Anything above a dismissive wave of his hand was a nod towards us. “Not bad” was a pass. And “Ohh, very nice,” that came and went as quickly, was adulation.
I’d like to say I don’t remember being dependent on his comments, and that I didn’t seek them out, but I must have. Of course I did.
Till I was old enough to earn a little money and buy clothes for myself, I was dressed by my mother according to his taste. This might have been in part because he paid for it, but more likely because they were of like minds in fashion. And he was opinionated in this as he was in all things. He wasn’t passionate about ideas. He was stubborn, and stuck to them like a loyal soldier. Once, in a discussion about flexibility in ideological positions, he insisted, “A serious person doesn’t change his ideas like he changes his pants.” My pants, according to them, had to be tailored, my skirts not too short, my tops not too tight.
Actually, he had an aesthetic eye, at least for clothes and pretty women. He thought my mother cut a handsome figure, and he liked to accompany her to the coat and dress makers, all family friends, who by this time had become store and factory owners and gave him nice discounts while he gave them business. He was not one of those husbands who pace the hallway, waiting for the wife to finish and free him, or sit in a corner reading the paper and peering over the top of the pages to grunt in concession to her choices. He’d usually stand around talking to the owner or the salesperson who was in attendance, and take the task of passing judgement seriously. A grimace, “Neh,” “Not bad,” and “Ohh, very nice” were the grades here, too. I never knew how particular he was till I dressed for my mother’s commemoration after her death many years later. He disapproved of the high collar on the top I put on, saying, “I always told your mother I liked her better with a decolte.” That surprised me.
When she and I returned from our shopping expeditions, she made sure we went through a reveal ceremony. I’d have to put on every new article of clothing and show it off for Shloime. I did it as a chore. He was always considerate, even if not more than that.
Once I started dressing according to my own taste, which was diametrically opposed to theirs, it was clear I’d never get his approval again. It should have been obvious that if I were rebelling in my choice of style and “personal statement” against convention, I couldn’t expect even a nod from my stepfather. But that’s what a teenager will do, trying to find her own path by dismissing her parents’ injunctions, and yearning to be accepted by them despite it. Maybe my sense of this lack of acceptance was compounded by what I felt to be true from the start – he didn’t get me. Which might explain why, though I outgrew my teenage years, I never outgrew my teenage responses to his dismissals.
I decided to be nasty one day, too many years later for it still to matter, just to prove my point about what I was sure had become his indiscriminate criticism. We were getting ready to go downtown to the opening ceremony of that summer’s Weinreich Yiddish program at YIVO. My mother was no longer alive and my stepfather was already a very old man. I helped him pick out a clean suit and shirt, and went to get dressed. I came into the living room where he was waiting, sitting in his armchair. I had put on a red top and flowery Indian skirt. Foolishly, though predictably, I asked if I looked okay.
“You going like that? Neh! You can’t go downtown like that. Women don’t dress like that downtown.”
“Which women? Manhattan is full of all kinds of women.”
“Working women in an office don’t dress like that.”
“But I’m not going to work in an office. And this is how I dress.”
“This is New York, not Israel. Go change.”
The buttons had been pushed. I was in my 50s, for goodness sake, and felt like 15, an abashed, unattractive 15. I went back to my room, fuming and ready to cry. And I changed. I took off my top and skirt, and put on my dark-colored pajamas. I came back into the living room and stood before my stepfather, my judge and fashion critic.
“Now?” I asked.
“That’s better,” he said, barely looking.
“Really? You’re sure?”
Ashtray going for the funny bone, I said, “These are my pajamas, Shloime! If you’re sure, let’s go!”
“Your pajamas? You joking.”
“No, I’m not joking. These are my pajamas.”
“Very nice pajamas,” he chuckled.
That sense of humor, which he possessed to the end, diffused the moment. But I proved to myself what I’d suddenly understood to be true. He was, and might always have been, on automatic pilot with his criticism. Nothing was good till it was improved, and everything could stand improvement. In his near-blindness, he couldn’t distinguish between pajamas and street clothes, but he wasn’t going to okay my clothes till I had changed them.
I think I proved my own childishness at least as much as his consistency and inflexibility.
Shloime was a seemingly simple man, sparse, narrow-minded, tight, critical, uncurious. But today, looking back, as I try to depict and make sense of our relationship, I begin to remember things about him that point to hidden, and sometimes complexly contrary levels of being. In the matter of clothes alone, a lot can be seen. Though compliments from him were hard to come by, and he was critical of what didn’t suit him, he could show pleasure with what did. The way he showed it never rose above an emotional whisper, but he didn’t stint on that. He got a real boost out of being appreciated, and developed a lasting favorable disposition towards those who showed their appreciation. He held on to the compliment he received from the director of the Medem Sanatorium among his last remaining memories. He was sparing in his emotions but would put his hand on my arm when he talked to me tête-à-tête, his thumb idly stroking my skin. He lit up like an entire makeup mirror every time I stepped out of the elevator when I came to visit, standing in the already open door behind my mother, later on his own by the elevator door, ready to haul in my luggage, and finally leaning on his walker, his aide standing behind him. He always planted wet kisses on my forehead in hello and goodbye.
He had no need for material things. Maybe that was ideologically motivated, though it resulted in dogged frugality. Still, he made sure he and my mother would go on vacation, often abroad, every year. When asked what he wanted to eat, he would often claim, impatiently, “Okh, it doesn’t matter. I eat to live, not live to eat.” And this was true, until in his very old age he developed cravings for carbs and sweets. He ate like he lived, sparingly, inattentively, disinterestedly. And yet, another of his sustained memories was of the sublime sweetness of the melons he ate in the summers when his father took the family to the Polish countryside not far from Warsaw. Apparently a socialist as well, his father wanted the children to stay and work on a farm, and see firsthand how the peasants lived. My stepfather would describe how the farmers dried the melons on the rooftops of their thatch huts, how the sun brought out all the sweetness. He ate melon as the starter to every dinner during its season, and gave it a grade each time, noting how it never quite matched the delectable rooftop melons of this youth. Possibly, the sense that attended him like a personal smell that nothing could fully satisfy him again was the overarching theme of his life, and gave rise to the criticism he lobbed at most everything. Nothing he had in the present could ever match or take the place of what he’d lost. In this, we were uncomfortably similar. Too bad we couldn’t also understand each other better.
I keep trying to put a different spin on this story, be the adult in this childish imprint of my relationship with Shloime, but it keeps reverting.
Till I left home at 17, I mostly recoiled from the man who had suddenly become my stepfather. The moment I stepped off the bus stop at the Amalgamated, where my mother brought me to meet him, and where we were soon going to live, I took an immediate dislike to his looks with that Nixon-like nose and overly wide mouth. I disliked his demeanor with me from the start, both unctuous and humiliating, asking me silly questions at nine as though I were five, and making ridiculous remarks about me he thought were humorous. I disliked the way he’d stand by the window in the apartment we later shared and watch over glasses perched at the tip of his long nose what was going on down in the courtyard of our building complex. I hated to look up and see him, along with all my friends, peering out at us. Or see him watching for me when I was coming home, looming and busybodyish. I disliked the way he’d loudly blow his nose into an old, much used handkerchief. It annoyed me how he blew blasts of air out of his nostrils and moved his lips over his big teeth when he was edging towards a conversation. And I disliked conversing with him since he seemed always more intent on expressing the thoughts in his own head than hearing me. When he did hear me, I often didn’t feel heard anyway. He’d respond with a “Yeh?” and then go on about how things were when he was young. As a result, conversations were infrequent, guarded on my part and tentative on his.
In our small Jewish, East European, immigrant community of somewhat dependent familiars, people, in fact, liked my stepfather. Though he was not among the top brass – that was reserved for the professional class, the acknowledged, and the well-to-do, many of whom moved out of our community into more affluent neighborhoods – he was a white collar worker, an accountant. In this capacity, he often was called on for help. He was always seemingly in good spirits, hard to ruffle, easy to joke with, to confide in, to swap stories with, though he was careful to listen more and tell less. He and my mother would chew on the gossip over lunch, but were feign to entertain the gossips themselves. He would put a hand on a woman’s arm, as he did on mine, or on a man’s shoulder while they spoke to him, and draw them out even further. The older he got, the more avuncular, and when he was doddering, the more liking Shloime was the thing to do. “He’s such a nice man,” I’d hear from his neighbors, from his co-workers at YIVO, where he volunteered as an archivist into his late 90s, and later from the social worker, the nurse, and the physiotherapist who saw him sporadically (everyone, it can be said, but his live-in aides, to whom he was decidedly not nice). “He’s one of the better ones,” they’d say to me in front of him, and he would smile his wide smile and laugh shyly. “Tenk you. You, too,” he’d respond. “I love this man,” they’d crow when he was really old and it was safe to say. He was always friendly to them, though not always so enthusiastic about them. He behaved like a European gentleman to the few people who came to see him when he was confined to his house, and then in the hospital, even in the hospice. He was polite and respectful until he felt threatened, as he did by the invasion of his home by strangers, the live-in aides, when he sometimes resorted to verbal and even physical abuse. (He maintained an enviable strength till his last months.)
I had always wondered what that adoration was all about. I couldn’t feel it myself, and didn’t trust their rather than my assessment of him. How could it have rolled out otherwise for me? He was at the other end of the uprooting of everything I had had and had known. He was a stand-in for the first, the only, the lost man in my life. It had been just me and my sad mother for two and a half years. He was the reason my mother wasn’t all mine anymore. Most of my anger was directed at her, someone close who I could lash out against and hurt. My resentment was directed at him. When I hit my stepfather with the ashtray, it felt awful. He wasn’t close enough for that intimate an interaction, and my resolve to keep it that way only strengthened.
There were exceptional moments, of course. Otherwise, why would I be writing this, my final leave-taking of my stepfather, affirming, among other things, my connection to him and my desire to substantiate it? One of these moments took place when I threw my French study book down the incinerator chute at the end of 12th grade. The exams were bearing down on me, and I was a wreck trying to cram the year’s material into a few weeks of preparation after barely attending classes or doing any homework. I’d recently read an article in the New York Times that claimed four hours of sleep a night was all a body really needed to repair and refresh itself. The rest of the time in bed was fluff, according to the writer. I decided to put myself on that schedule for the two weeks remaining before exams. By the time of the French test, I was a mess. One evening, I came into the living room for a break. My mother was sitting on the couch, watching TV and knitting.
“You finished studying?”
“Maybe,” I grumbled, just wanting to watch some TV.
She started to ask me questions in her Polish-Yiddish accented French for me to prove my readiness.
“No, not now.”
She pressed me to answer.
“Leave me alone! I don’t want to do this now.”
“You don’t know the answer? This you call ready?”
I started to boil.
“Go back and study some more,” she persisted.
Well, I just lost it, and without further ado, committed murder on my book, banging doors and ranting. My stepfather grabbed his keys, and then grabbed me, pulled me down the 4 flights of stairs from our apartment, put me in the car, and drove me down to the beach. It was a long ride. The Amalgamated was nowhere near the ocean. He let me rant, let me tire myself out, and talked me down. That was probably the first, though not the last time he served as a serious buffer between my mother and me. And though I don’t remember at all what he said as we sat in the car by the sea, nor what I said – though I can imagine – I remember the intimacy in the calm he helped produce.
It is very strange to be mollified by the agent of your victimization against the perpetrator of your betrayal. It feels like a ruse, almost a trap. I was lured towards it while flailing against it. I didn’t want to give in to the lulling of my resentment, the warming of my coldness. And yet, at times it was tempting. What would the gradual rapprochement have led to, our steps leading us closer, first his, then mine? His and mine. Would he have felt at ease with that? The dynamics worked against us, in any event. My mother would have stepped over him to gain more access into my ever receding secrets. My stepbrother, in his implacable anger and thwarted possessiveness, was already calling me out for being too good. He’d have crafted a bigger wedge. I don’t know what my stepfather would have been capable of. Maybe dealing with his son and his own problems was just the right amount of porridge.
As for me, I did have rushes of emotion for him at times over the years and glimpses of appreciation. But I couldn’t say I loved him. Maybe I did and just couldn’t say that I did. But more likely than not, my childhood decision to never let him far enough into my heart to replace my father took formidable root there and precluded the development of the receptivity of love.
The truth is that everything about him, his personality, his looks, his goodness, his narrow-mindedness, what he did and didn’t do, is all but irrelevant to the bottom line question of whether I could ever have fully accepted him. I accepted him as a given, but could never just sink into him, never could find myself fully embraced as I couldn’t fully embrace him. He couldn’t have done or been anything to change that. And so, all my criticism, my analysis, even my meager mea culpas, are in the service of justifying my distance and my anthipathy. That oath I made after the ashtray incident was nothing more than a place marker I could hark back to, an amulet to rub as the prima causa of my attitude towards my stepfather. But the oath itself was inevitable, the resistance to him fated from even before the get-go.
Why, then, do I want to reclaim him? Is it only vindication, the revenge of the eternal victim? Is it a projection of the desire to reclaim my own father from the jaws of death? Or is it at least also a desire to (re)establish a sense of my belonging to my life? A man who parented me actively, passively, long distance and in the myopic clutch of the end of days is mine, whether I liked it or not, whether I loved him or not, whether I called him my father (which I did when I talked about him), my stepfather (which I did for clarification), or Shloime (which I did within the family). I am possessive of him as part of my narrative like I am of the ghost of my father who, let’s face it, can’t replace Shloime any more than Shloime could replace him.
Shloime was a careful stepfather. He didn’t take it upon himself to be the disciplinarian, though he supported my mother in her overzealous execution of the role. He did want to impress upon me a few things, though. My stepfather was pretty tight with money, and the morals he tried to actively teach me were mostly connected with the value of the dollar. To that end, he gave me an allowance that was at every stage less than I needed. I wound up always having to borrow from my friends if I wanted to go out with them. My vindictive response to this lesson in thrift was that when I started making money, I virtually gave it away.
One Christmas, when I was about 15, a friend from Montreal came down by Greyhound bus to visit with me. For some reason, she didn’t have enough for the bus fare home and I gave her the $50 I’d saved from my summer job. I could see in my mother’s eyes that she was pleased with my open-handedness. My stepfather shook his head at my friend’s irresponsibility and my naïveté. In my college years, I was easily convinced to give everything I had to a friend who wanted to set up a deal that, he promised, would bring a sizeable return. I did it for my friend, not the return, which never materialized when the deal fell through. I kept my friend and never saw, or asked for, any of that money again. I learned to despise money. To this day, I can’t be bothered to keep my books or stay abreast of what I have, how much interest I’m getting, how many dividends, when bonds mature, when they die. And whatever I have amassed that I know of is via my salary slipping quietly into my bank account.
Ironically, my stepfather thought it a fault in a man to be stingy. He asked about the generosity of my male companions when we went out together, and my husbands. But at the grocery store checkout, he’d hold up the line getting longer behind him as he went through every item on the receipt for his few dollars of groceries. He did likewise with the purchases I made on the credit card he let me use when I was in the States, though I paid it all back, and he’d always ask me why I spent so much money, no matter how little I had spent. I explained every year anew that I saved by shopping for certain items that were cheaper in the States than in Israel, but he didn’t listen to what I said. He repeatedly asked me about money that my mother had given me 30 years earlier when I settled in Israel. It didn’t compute. “Where’s that money?” he kept asking, as if I’d made it suddenly disappear.
To be fair, he would also gift me money, whether on these visits, or to help out from time to time. When he knew he’d be needing medical and caregiving assistance in his very old age, he started clearing out what was left in his bank account in order to be eligible for Medicaid, and made sure I got some of it. And, of course, he’d paid for everything all through my childhood and adolescence. My mother’s teaching brought in what they called “the pocket money.” They supposedly saved that for their yearly vacation trips, though I know she squirreled some away, in part to slip me a few dollars now and then.
Of course, the contradictions are not that surprising. It is clear to me today that he was prioritizing, and that the real problem was in his handling of the message. His style was disdainful and dismissive of what was not in step with his world view. The reaction that fostered was defensive and spiteful. But if I think about it, my behavior does in part hark back to his other message. He helped his family and his friends, the people he felt needed the assistance he could give. That seems to be what I did with my friends back then, though I thought I was being rebellious. As for being thrifty, I’ve had it easier than he did, have more I can spend than he did, and don’t expect to live as long and need to save as much of it as he did.
He also thought I should choose my friends more carefully. Honesty, intelligence and gentility were high on his list of valuable qualities to look for and possess. He wasn’t sure my friends had them. I’m not sure I did. Certainly not then. I lied to my parents whenever I had to, and found gentility a real hindrance to being courageously open to experience, which was more important to me then. By the number of times my stepfather would hiss “Stoopet” at me for something I’d done or said, intelligence was not my strong suit either, at least not by his standards. But I would have to say that if the measure of a person, and hence the judgment rendered regarding her upbringing, are postponed to whenever maturity sets in, his expectations, and his lessons, have not been ignored.
He never suggested I call him anything but Shloime, and when it was proposed that he adopt me and I become a US citizen, he didn’t exhibit hurt or insult when I rejected both outright. The offer of adoption, and hence citizenship, was broached to me by my mother, not my stepfather, not by both together. In my memory of it, the subject was raised in between other things, like between lunch and going back to school, or putting on my shoes and going out. On the fly. Not to be taken too seriously. As if my mother herself didn’t want me to take it too seriously. Was it to spare me the discomfort, or in hopes I’d not say yes? And what was the purpose of the offer? Was it to give me a sense of permanence, or was it for tax purposes? Was it simply time to decide whether to get me a green card as opposed to citizenship papers, or was it a veiled – or not so veiled – profession of acceptance? I was allowed to think about it, but there was no time necessary. What if Shloime had decided to at least be present for a sit-down talk about all of it? Would it have made a difference?
Shloime was not sensitive to anybody’s inner workings, least of all to his own. The decision to make this offer would have been based primarily on pragmatics. The results, the effects, the after shocks or redemptive value for me would not have entered into his thinking. My mother may have put the emotional spin on it, making it out to be Shloime’s idea and therefore significant to our relationship, but it landed with a thud almost as soon as it was hoisted. No one thing would have been the key to throwing open the heavy, creaking doors of our hearts.
The day I left New York, my mother sat in the armchair by the window with the best light, the one that became my stepfather’s daytime habitat in his old age, doing some needlework. She barely looked up when she said goodbye. It was Shloime who accompanied me downstairs, carrying my luggage. He stood with me, tears in his eyes, his hand on the nape of my neck, and planted his wet kiss on my forehead when it was time to go. I remember noticing all this but feeling only anxious to be gone. I thought nothing about how my departure affected them. I pardon my younger self for the self-centered oversight, but am also aware that more empathy and less self-defense would have made life with them more bearable, perhaps, and me a happier person. In reality, it was only when my own children grew up and started to leave the nest for the army, for travels, for college, that I came back to that day with a realization of what its impact must have been. My stepfather was sad to see me go and his tears were genuine.
Once I’d moved to Israel, Shloime didn’t always accompany my mother when she came to visit me. It may have been the cost, or, as he claimed on occasion, the politics of the country, which he scorned. He had been vehemently anti-Zionist, and then, after the Six Day War, both against the Occupation and concerned about the bulls eye presented to the enemies by a country for all Jews. Perhaps he preferred to avoid the danger, or maybe, though uncharacteristically, to be alone for a while. Whatever the cause, we saw each other in Israel no more than four times over the 43 years since I moved there. It’s not that I missed my parents. It’s just a fact that carries with it a sense of the looseness of the ties that bound when we were apart. I was grateful for that after years of having felt imprisoned by circumstances. But what about them as parents?
I have three grown children, who all live more or less close by. Though I don’t see each of them every day, there are few days when I don’t see one of them. I have two little grandchildren, which has added to the frequency. I left my parents behind when I left New York for Montreal. I grabbed that opportunity like a lifebouy and regretted it only once, when life got especially hard and I just wanted to be taken care of again by some ideal parents in an idyllic home setting. Of course, that had never existed and never could. My parents, for their part, were gradually able to find peace and companionship with each other when all the conflict and the drama left through the front door. Yet they, too, must have felt the loss of their children, at least of the ideal and the idyllic. They also got to see the grandchildren only occasionally, which must have been hard, especially for my mother, who, unlike my stepfather, felt they were hers.
My mother got sick in ‘95 and died the following year. My stepfather spent that year on the roller coaster ride that was the diagnosis, treatment, remission and recurrence of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma before the morning he received the phone call from the hospital that he’d better come right away. In his waning years, whenever we spoke of her illness, he’d confuse me with my mother and ask whether I remembered walking home with him from the first fateful meeting with the doctor and how we cried together. My mother died alone. My stepfather didn’t make it to the hospital in time. At 84, he became a widower once again, and would live alone for another 19 years.
I started coming once, sometimes twice a year to see him. My vacations in the States always began with a visit to my stepfather. This part of the itinerary was non-negotiable. I could no more postpone the ten long days in his house to the tail end of my Stateside vacation than I could cancel altogether. I planned these trips to the apartment in New York with an admittedly insalubrious premeditation on how many days I ought to spend with him and how many days at a time I could take doing so because I had never been able to spend more than ten gradually more confining and aggravating days at my parents’ house.
We were the same people we’d been before, of course, with minor adjustments. He still asked questions he didn’t listen to answers for, his deteriorated hearing notwithstanding. He still scrunched judgments and pronouncements around in his mind before letting them out on me in surprising and unpleasant bursts that were never intended for much discussion. That couldn’t be put down solely to a sign of oncoming senility. He still didn’t get who I was, or think he needed to know, which couldn’t just be attributed to the self-involvement of creeping dementia. When he told my husband once that he admired and loved me, that he thought I was smart and a good mother, I was very pleased but just as surprised, and couldn’t help question the knowledge he based that on. I’m not sure he was basing it on anything.
By and by, with no intermediaries and no interference, we forged a new and different emotional connection. On a long walk home from friends one day, he vowed to take care of me as my only living parent, and I promised to do the same for him as his daughter. It was a powerful moment for both of us. Maybe it was a function of this declaration, which put us on somewhat different ground, or of his aging, or an indication of a change in his cognition, but he began to see my visits as a gift, as though I were no longer obliged to appear. It took a while for me to realize that I was being released from the bondage of filial duty, and felt the liberation, in part, as the revelation of a painful truth. I once thought I would love not to have to come to see him every year, to send that wedge that had entered my life adrift. But the wedge proved to have fused into the structure and couldn’t be removed. It was I who felt it my indisputable duty to come see him, a gesture of my loyalty and my appreciation of his years of affectionate service. In my mind, despite the many years apart and the infrequent reunions, despite the limited phone calls and correspondence, and most of all, despite the death of my mother, who’d been the unifying factor of our connection, I continued to see him as my father, with or without the prefix “step-”.
When I stayed with him, he was glad for my company, and lonelier when I left again. Almost as soon as I got there, he started counting the remaining days.
“So, I know you told me, but when you leaving?”
I’d show him on the calendar, where I’d placed a big red dot on the date. In the first years, he’d figure it out at a glance. Then he started to have to count the days. Finally, he’d insist on my telling him. He said it was because he “couldn’t see so good,” which, it turned out, was an understatement. The eye doctor discovered a cataract over the eye that was still functioning, the other, we only then found out from Shloime, having been injured during the war to the point of virtual blindness. My answer had to be specific, and his mathematician’s need for specificity grew rather than diminished with age. He needed to know more insistently what he couldn’t finally know because it never stuck. “So, what’s your plan for today?” he asked over and over first thing in the morning, and demanded an answer each time. The events hardly mattered, the timetable less so. Yet I had to give him all the details. He wouldn’t let me gloss over a single piece of information.
“Oyoy. So little time!” he’d sigh when he heard how many days were left of my visit with him. He’d sit with his head in his hand, his pinky idly playing with something on his scalp. Sometimes he’d be looking at me but thinking of something unspoken. Then, as if coming to a conclusion, he’d click his tongue and say, “Nu. What can I do?”
“You know I can’t stay. I have to go,” and I thought how cruel that was to him.
“I understand. The children are waiting.”
“Yes,” I’d say, though the children were already grown. “And work,” I’d add, just to make it less a lie. Then I’d quickly change the subject, and he’d forget it.
When I was with him, I also unwittingly reminded him of my mother and the 36 years they’d spent together – which made him sad. In his house, I cooked, cleaned and shopped a little and listened to him a lot as he talked mostly about his distant past in Europe. He repeated stories and segments within stories but was still able into his 90s to wind through anecdotes and return to the point that had inspired them.
Of course, that is amazing. But paradoxically, I grew to expect it the older he got. On a long walk by the ocean in Maine one beautiful summer morning, where my parents and my family met for a few weeks vacation, Shloime was telling me a story from his already long life at 81. He jumped from one point to another and I did my best to follow him. I began to worry when the points veered farther and farther away from what he’d been talking about. And then, he deftly proceeded to join up each point to the previous one like beads on a string of macrame. I simply became used to his cognitive fortitude. Maybe that’s why I didn’t recognize the fringes of his ramblings when they appeared in time as frays and not just quaint decorations.
He stuck to a fixed daily routine, which he claimed helped him keep on going in his loneliness. I’m afraid I disrupted it even as I tried to fit myself into it. On most days, he woke up around 9:00 (he claimed earlier since as a working man, he’d been up at 7:00, just as he’d later claim to be going to work downtown two or three times a week when he’d stopped altogether). He took in the paper, showered, and shaved. His daily breakfast was hot cereal, which he made by adding a packet of instant oatmeal and a cup of boiling water directly into a bowl. After drinking his coffee with a teaspoon of jam smeared on a piece of toasted bread – the staler the better – he washed up. If he wasn’t going to work that day, he went into the living room to read the paper in his favorite armchair, the one by the window. Nothing sudden, nothing spontaneous, nothing fancy. He was that kind of man – spare and abstemious. “Everything in moderation,” he used to say, where his moderation tended towards the minimalist.
The shade on the living room window had been broken for years but he refused to have it fixed. His few remaining years, he claimed, made it cost inefficient. And so, it hung down to the sill, obstructing any possible light. The same expediency had him in threadbare pajamas and shirts, sheets, and towels. He wouldn’t, but also couldn’t, shop for anything new, and didn’t want anyone to trouble over him.
I was invariably taken aback by the condition of his person and his house when I arrived. He was diligent about keeping himself clean, and did so as best he could. As for the rest, I understood that it was easier for a new broom to enter a scene and immediately see what could be done. I understood that it wasn’t an easy task to actually do those things, and that it often also meant fighting with Shloime, who just wanted everything to be left alone, no changes, no money squandered, no unnecessary effort made on his behalf. As feeble as he was becoming, he could get spitting angry and bark and be nasty. He could be insistent in a way that made no sense, except when you understood that stasis kept things still enough for him to grasp, and every change, no matter how small, confused him. Here, too, it wasn’t clear where his fundamental nature ended and his dementia began. As time went on, he became more unrecognizably recognizable. It was hard to ask where Shloime had gone since he was right there, only more so. And that extra emphasis, those familiar qualities in Bold, made him feel strange to me.
He acted in a way I knew hastened his decline, like refusing to get properly fitted for a hearing aid, like sharply ending his physiotherapy session after his initially polite welcome and the therapist’s instruction to perform an exercise (“Non-cooperative,” I saw her jot down), like making up excuses after a while for not taking his daily walk. But there was little I could do about it. What I could do was roll up the broken shade and afix it on each side with paper clips. At my next visit, I saw the thin, brittle shade, ripped at the point of contact with the clip, hanging again.
In Shloime’s routine day, he’d call his son and his sister at 10:00 to see how they were doing. Then he went down to the grocery store to buy what he needed, mail letters, pay bills, and run whatever errands he had or could find. The best part of my visits with him would be the half hour walks to the supermarket on Broadway, which promoted long, now mostly pleasant conversations. My stepfather could always take the 88 steep steps back from Van Cortland Ave W and Bailey up to Gale Place better than I could. It had been a matter of pride for me when he’d reach the top of those steps barely out of breath while I, 38 years younger, would be trying to catch mine.
We all joked about how Shloime would be the first person to live forever, and some part of us believed it. Which is why I was unprepared for his announcement at 97 on Bailey Ave, about 1/3 of our way home from Broadway, that he had to sit down. It hit me that everything would be getting more difficult, and his world was about to start closing in on him. Again, I shouldn’t have been surprised. He’d been leading me through the labyrinth of neighborhood streets, buildings and elevators for several years now, “a short cut,” he called it, in which he could avoid the hills and, of course, those stairs. I should have seen what was happening, but, as with his cognition, I took his stamina for granted. I thought maybe the short cut was for my benefit.
That morning on Bailey, though he had to rest, there was no place to sit by the apartment building we’d stopped at except the steps, and he refused. It was beneath his dignity. He just stood for a minute or two. I hadn’t thought of bringing water. Why would I? He had only his wool winter casquette to shield him from the hot sun. Probably the lighter hat had worn out and hadn’t been replaced. I was startled and concerned. When we reached the door of the building for the first of the elevators to the upper street, he realized he’d forgotten the keys that unlocked it. I worried about how he’d make it back to the apartment. But he did, still strong of will if not of body. I helped him to his chair and made him drink some water, where he slept for most of the rest of the day.
We never tried that walk again. Or the other favorite walk to the Van Cortlandt Park lake by the golf course that also meant the labyrinth and too much walking. I asked a friend one day to drive us down there. But it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t the two of us treating ourselves to a well-earned cup of coffee on the water. I think he felt that more than me because when I suggested another drive down, he declined. Another part of our relationship, and one of the nicest, dropped away.
Around 12:30, he ate his lunch: a piece of kelbasa, black bread, a banana, and a fruit or coffee yogurt. He washed up again and went back into the living room to read in his chair till dinner. At 6:00, he’d return to the kitchen to cut his half grapefruit or slice of melon into messy sections and prepare a salad. He’d warm up some of the leftover Zabar’s chicken from the Sunday meal with my stepbrother, or heat up a Meals-on-Wheels dinner. When he was done, he finished all off with a small bowl of his own home-made apple sauce, which he continued making till he was forced to stop using the stove. He’d left the gas on several times, burning food and pots, and endangering both himself and the apartment building.
He ate these same 3 meals every day, more or less 365 days a year, certainly in the years after my mother died. The dishes he washed after each meal and the sponges he used to wash them were all covered in the same grey matter that seemed to have taken over his life. It shaded the area around the armchair and the pants he wore at home on which he rested his newspaper, smudged from years of newsprint. It was around each light switch and coated the shower curtain. It lurked in his closets in the form of a recurrent foul odor the source of which no one was ever able to determine or eliminate. I scrubbed and bleached the dishes when he was busy elsewhere since washing the dishes was, he’d proclaim, his job. I bought him a new shower curtain. I laundered his pants. But the greyness persisted.
After dinner, when he still could, he’d go for a short walk around the neighborhood or to his sister’s a few blocks away down Van Courtland Park South. Back home, he read till 11:00, though most of that time he actually dozed, slack-jawed. The first time I saw him with the bottom half of his face fallen away from its bones, I was frightened. Afterwards, I’d just make sure he was breathing. At 11:00 he’d invariably wake up and shuffle into his bedroom. I’d hear the clatter of chess pieces being emptied onto his desk from the old wooden box that came with a set I once bought him for Father’s Day, and the tap tap tap of the pieces being set upon the board. He’d play till after I’d fallen asleep.
My stepfather had always been a stubborn man, and always thought he was right. If he got an inkling that he might be wrong about something, that issue became suddenly unimportant. In his old age, when more was stacked up against his ability to be discerning, he was as sure as ever, and all the more stubborn, about whatever matter was at hand. Take the matter of the brewed coffee.
One morning, I walked into the kitchen to pour myself a cup of coffee. I love fresh coffee, especially the smell that fills the morning, but my stepfather had taken to preparing for the morning by starting a fresh pot in the evening on his way to bed and leaving it to heat all night. This morning, what I was pouring into the cup was especially black and thick, like burnt syrup. When I tasted it, the pungency fried my tongue.
I spilled the viscous brew into the sink. I was about to empty the pot and start a new one when in walked my stepfather.
“What coffee is this?” I asked him.
“What you doing?!” he jostled me to get me away from the sink.
“It’s terrible. I’m making a fresh pot.”
“It’s not terrible,” he said, as if I was being dramatic. “I wanted to try this one,” he said, opening the refrigerator and pointing to a plastic jar in the door.
“But this is instant coffee! See? Look.” I spun off the lid and held the opened jar towards him so he could see the now coal-black, freeze-dried granules at the bottom of the almost empty container. The jar must have been 13 years old, sitting in the fridge door since my mother’s time, when she had kept instant coffee in the house in case we ran out of the ground or didn’t have time to make it.
“It’s not instant,” was his answer, as he looked straight at the crystals.
“Sure it is,” I persisted.
“How do you know it’s instant? It doesn’t say it’s instant.”
I searched the jar for the magic word that would convince him because neither his eyes nor my certainty would. But unfortunately, he was right. It didn’t actually say it was instant. Instead, on the back were simple, clear instructions with a picture for each of the three stages for making instant coffee. I showed him the pictures but he only glanced at them.
“Why doesn’t it say it’s instant? It’s not instant.”
“Well, ok,” I said, deciding to stop trying to prove this to him. It wasn’t going to work. Basically, the point was not to let him drink it. With the one tablespoon of granules he had measured out per small cup of water, and the concentration after a whole night of warming on the hotplate, it was a lethal potion. “Don’t drink it.” I warned him. “It’s disgusting, and much too strong.”
“I like my coffee strong.”
“This is too strong! It’s unhealthy. It’ll make your blood pressure go through the roof.”
“My blood pressure is normal,” he countered, with a dismissive wave of his hand, which again was true, because of medication.
“It won’t be for long if you drink this. I’ll make a fresh pot.” I started to pour it out again.
“No, no! What you doing?” he exhaled impatiently, pushing my arm away from over the sink.
“I don’t want to drink this, OK? I want to make us another pot.”
“Leave me alone,” he finally snapped at me. “I want to drink this coffee. I don’t have to watch anything at my age.”
He was angry, about to berate me for being insolent, make me go to my room like in the old days. I backed down. Let him drink what he wanted. What did I care? He had a right to his dignity, and I to my unthreatened space. Had I lived there, had I had to deal with him and this nuttiness all the time, I’d have dug in and adopted the role of watchdog. I’d have hated it, but I’d have had to, I guess. I sensed his resentment towards my stepbrother, who was devoted and very protective but also scolded his father for not paying attention, nagged him to be more careful, in ways that annoyed and insulted him. I didn’t want to take on that kind of role.
My stepfather had been a communist in the spirit of the times in pre-war Europe, hoping for a better world for all people. What remained of his ideology manifested itself in his work for the union (ILGWU), his position on the committee that founded and ran our Jewish Socialist camp (Hemshekh), his volunteer work as an accountant for the Congress for Jewish Culture and as an archivist for YIVO as a pensioner. It came through in his readiness to help his friends. It was also articulated in one of the “philosophical talks,” as he called them, that we had from time to time in the early days. In response to some adolescent rumination regarding my worth, when I asked him outright if he thought I was special, he answered that I was not. The explanation of his world view that nobody was special, that we are all the same and are worth the same, only slightly mollified me. I was hurt. I appreciated the theory, but not so much what he thought of me.
That was till his 70s, when he started slotting people into stereotypes. In his 90s this tendency had boiled all the way down: Blacks were lazy and couldn’t be educated. Hispanics were loud and kept dirty households. Lesbians were women who couldn’t get a man. And a woman who divorced her husband and took up with another man was a Slut. That would be me. Finally, I was special.
But however bigoted his ideas got, he was a mensch to just about everybody. He befriended his neighbors, now mostly Hispanics, particularly the woman down the hall who looked in on him from time to time, and the man one floor down, a long-time cancer patient. My stepfather helped him in some way that was never clear to me, but the man always remarked on it when we met in the building. It probably doesn’t need saying, but my stepfather outlived him.
As he got older, he also got more critical of my choices – from the clothes I wore to the friends I had, from matters of money to what I was studying. I never learned how to deal with my stepfather and my need for his acceptance. The best I could do was to understand, as a parent myself, that people are flawed and sometimes weak. As such, parents can hurt and insult, thwart and demean, over-indulge and undermine their kids without ever meaning to, but perhaps also despite knowing better. This ought to have helped me get past my paradoxical expectations of him to accept me for who I was. And yet, despite that understanding, the encounters with my stepfather often abashed me.
Till it started going the other way. One summer, it was over. He stopped hounding me because he no longer remembered what to hound me about. And so, the nature of our relationship changed perceptibly through no fault, and no work, of our own.
In the course of time, he got needier, less able to do things by himself, and more demanding. We used to be able to cohabit in the apartment and interact mostly around meal times, when we’d talk while preparing, eating and clearing away the dishes. We’d talk at intervals in the living room. We’d go out for walks. I’d go out and meet with friends. I’d have a kind of curfew even then, when I was already an older woman, and he needed to know where I was going and with whom. At first, I think it was out of habit – that’s how things had been till I left the house at 17. It never had a chance to change. But as his dementia deepened, so did his anxiety, which made leaving him problematic.
He also needed more contact, more company as he became less capable of amusing himself. My stepfather used to read, write his memoir, play chess. He had been an excellent chess player, but his chess companions eventually squeezed him out of their games when he lost his sharpness. He played by himself off chess games published in the newspaper or in chess books. But he gradually lost his concentration, and then his retention, his sight, and finally, his interest. He started coming into my room to see what I was doing and then sit on the couch till nature called, or he got hungry. Or he’d keep calling me into the living room and tell me to sit down and talk with him.
One morning, we were engaged in a long conversation over breakfast about the state of my kibbutz, a recurrent topic. He asked his usual questions, and I answered them yet again, attempting to be patient and solicitous. After a momentary pause for a bite of toast and jam, and a slurp of coffee, he looked up at me over the glasses at the tip of his nose, smacked his lips once and said, “So Helen, maybe I already asked you this, but tell me, how is the kibbutz today?” All the air when out of me. I felt suddenly abandoned. Conversation, the meaningful exchange of ideas between two people, was in that one seemingly innocuous act of repetition, erased. I simply couldn’t start the same discussion over again. And from that day on, I couldn’t make the effort to supply thoughtful answers to his questions. It looked to me that he was going through the act of conversation rather than being capable anymore of engaging in it. And so, I gave in kind, which led to another transition in our relationship.
In his last years, interjections like “Maybe I already asked you this, but…” prefaced the few remaining questions he’d ask me over and over. “Oh, yeh, you already told me that” was his reaction to my short answers. He seemed to recognize his dysfunctional memory though he forgot everything else, including what he’d forgotten. How was it he forgot everything but “remembered” the narrative he retold at every opportunity down to the facial expressions and body movements, the intonations and periodic chuckles, the syntactic turns and grammatical errors? The story cycles about Warsaw, his imprisonment in a Siberian labor camp, his eventual release and relocation in Sweden, and his emigration to America, came progressively closer together, and were told in the same way each time. Once he told the identical story three times in a row, without a break. Of course, I was taken aback, but I also marveled at how, despite not remembering he’d just finished telling me the same tale, he needed to make no effort to recall it.
Conversations, disjointed, repetitive and dull as they were for me, became his only pastime, besides eating. He became voracious, perhaps out of boredom, or some chemical change in his system. He could go through a loaf of bread a day, and started to put on weight. We had to hide the carbs from him. But I snuck him chocolate now and again, and he loved it.
He would also putter around the house, and I needed to be alert to his movements. Anything beyond the silence of his sitting in his armchair or shuffling back and forth with his walker in the corridor for exercise boded potential danger. When he was still using the stove, I had to make sure the flame had lit when he turned on the gas, and that he wouldn’t burn the pot by forgetting about it, or his hand by remembering. I had to make sure he wasn’t trying to fix things in an attempt to feel useful. He took to changing light bulbs because he’d flipped the wrong switch to turn on the lamp. No longer sensitive to his body, or his strength, he often broke the bulb in his hand, and wondered where the blood and the shards all over the floor came from. At night, he could fall on his way to the toilet. And I began to worry about what I’d have to do if he didn’t make it there in time. I slept with my door open and learned to wake up when he did.
Saddest was witnessing my stepfather’s years of loneliness and confusion. It was his confusion that had led to the termination of his working life, which in turn led to more loneliness, and both had nothing else to do but grow. Not working meant not getting out of the house much, no more traveling on the subway with the teeming crowds and the bustling life of the city he liked being a part of, not meeting with the people at the office who loved and pampered him, no longer coming home after a day’s “work” deserving of the rest and quiet that was still a matter of choice. His dementia was already upon him when he’d take his briefcase, nothing more than his usual lunch and a newspaper inside, to the subway. At 98, he had just recently started taking the bus from the corner at Hillman and Sedgwick to the 231st Street station instead of walking, and the elevator up to the platform instead of the 2 long flights of stairs. On the train, he’d open and then fold, in that elongated New York subway fashion, the day’s Times. He’d read the date at the top and the first headline in its bold letters, and then stare at the page, or at the floor, or just close his eyes.
That summer, when I traveled with him to work on occasion, it was obvious he had turned a corner. No one had witnessed the clues till then. But I was there in the sweltering heat of the subway. I was there to prop him up as he stood swaying perilously in the moving subway car till someone got up for him. I was there to see him wonder which way to go when he got off the train, when he got lost in the muddled system of elevators at work, when he exited the building through the prohibited emergency exit – for the third time, I was told – and set off the security alarms. The previous winter, I’d also been there, stomping my feet in the cold, when he insisted on waiting for the connecting bus home in the below-freezing wind for 20 minutes to save the cab fare. What could happen, what did happen, when I wasn’t there? And all the objective dangers were made worse by his lack of awareness of his condition, and the threat he had begun to constitute to himself.
A further indication of the onset of his dementia was his obsessive worry. In my teenage days he used to ask me mockingly after a few hours out with my friends, “What you have so much to talk about?” In his old age, he’d ask me why I found this or that person worth being with. But now, the questions of where, when and with whom I was going, when I’d be back, who would take me home were fired at me from the moment I informed him of my plans till I entered the elevator to descend. I would answer a question or two, and began making him write the only really relevant information on the white board by his armchair: HELEN HOME 11:00 P.M. I had him read it several times aloud to help him remember. I refrained from giving him my cellphone number, though it felt like I was denying him something he had a right to, like I was withholding something more meaningful than that from him. But I had to preserve my sanity. If he remembered I was around, he’d call. But he would also forget he’d called, and my phone could ring every few minutes till he’d forget and stop.
“So, tell me again. Where you going? When you coming back? Who you going with? Should I wait for you for dinner? Why you going? Who you going with?” he hounded me from where he stood leaning on his walker in the doorway of the apartment.
“I told you. I have to go,” I answered, holding the elevator door open. “I wrote everything on your board.” The elevator started buzzing. “Goodbye!”
“Where you going?”
“Goodbye! Everything is on your board.”
“Wait! You didn’t tell me….”
“Goodbye! Don’t worry!”
Eventually, I told him my plans only as I was getting ready to leave. I promised to call while I was out. But when I did, he’d already forgotten to worry, forgotten I’d left, probably forgotten I’d ever been. “OK,” he’d say lightheartedly. “Have a good time. Thanks for calling. Bye-bye.” On my return, he’d be waiting at the door, agitated, “Where were you so long?” no matter how long I’d been out, much as he used to greet me at the elevator when I’d arrive from the airport to help me with my luggage. “Oy. So heavy! What you have in here?” he said every time, even when all I had with me was a light carry on. On one occasion, I tried to suggest that it wasn’t the suitcase that was heavy but he who was not as strong as he used to be. “Could be,” he chuckled. He did maintain a sense of humor to the end, but he also kept insisting that my luggage was too heavy.
It took a while for me to unlearn the lessons in honesty I received as a child, but I did in tandem with his condition. As it deteriorated, I not only withheld things from him, I also lied to him. It was in part for his own good, but it was sometimes strictly for my own. Like the time I lied to him about my car, which had been totaled in an accident on the highway mid-vacation. When he saw the new white car, he surprisingly remembered that the original one had been red. He wondered if he was confused about the color and I allowed him to think so because I didn’t want him to know I’d been in an accident.
The progression of his dementia didn’t follow a straight line. There’d be a sudden unforeseen hiccough up followed by a descent for several rungs. This occurred one day when shortly after I left the house to meet some friends, I got a call from my stepbrother that I needed to get in touch with my stepfather. He’d been calling out to me from the living room. When he’d gotten no answer, he emerged from his armchair and shuffled around the house looking for me. And when he couldn’t find me, he went into a panic and phoned my stepbrother. It was with that incident that I decided I couldn’t stay in his apartment with him any longer, for both our sakes.
From then on, with the 24-hour caretakers staying in the house, I stayed elsewhere. My not living with him changed the dynamics between us and diminished the intimacy yet again. But it also relieved him of his anxiety over me, and my sense of being a prisoner of it. I was relieved of many overseeing duties and my nervousness regarding them, but the time with him became more, not less, stressful. Watching his decline, the eroding of his personhood, and his growing inability to communicate meaningfully was alarming. And pretending he wasn’t at times driving me crazy, or depressing me, or just boring me was awful because I also knew I shouldn’t feel that way to begin with.
I felt horrible witnessing the decimation of the man my stepfather had been, the steady undoing of everything he’d accomplished, the melting down of the integral identity of a figure of whatever consequence into a mess of a person whose pieces didn’t fit together anymore, whose physical being was no longer in his control, whose emotions were subject to unexplained turns, whose bookmark in time had drowned and was drifting in the past. I felt sad and appalled when I realized I was losing my place as his daughter, when, as part of all this, he felt he knew me but wasn’t quite sure from where. In fact, I could easily imagine him in the later stages of his dementia asking, on my departure, “Who was that?” just as he had after a courteous half hour visit with my cousin, his sister’s niece, whose family he’d helped when they came to the States from Poland.
Yet I’m not sure this was all I felt, or felt the strongest. The last lesson he taught me was what can be expected at the end of this journey. It was more frightening and depressing to watch my stepfather in his last metamorphosis than it was anything else. It by far overshadowed the pride and admiration I’d felt at how healthy and able he’d been for so long. It wiped out the 88 steps he could take as if at a single bound in his 80s, the winding stories he could weave without losing the thread, the traveling by subway to work late into his 90s, the dearth of meds he was on till his doctor started loading him up when he was about 100. None of that could mitigate what was happening to him. I couldn’t put a positive spin on the cancellation of a life, of Life. All that had been went down the chute once he was no longer who he’d been. And I was left envisioning the same future for me.
When his senility, or dementia, or Alzheimer, or whatever one considered or dared call it, got really bad, I was freed from any accountability to him. I could finally be a separate adult. I was 60 years old with one remaining parent, who could no longer wield any power or control, or remember that he ever had, before I could feel free to live my life in his presence without having to offer explanations or justifications, without needing permission or approval, without, if I decided not to, coming home. But then, my guilt over this, compounded by the fact of not having been there more for him, of not having ever really let him into my heart till so late in our lives and from so far away, made me over-compensate. I got into a routine that seemed imperative to me, but I ran myself ragged keeping to it. Every morning, I felt propelled out of wherever I was staying to the subway that took me to his apartment in the Bronx to visit with my stepfather for several hours. I didn’t think or feel. I just went, going towards something some part of me didn’t want to face. Once I was there and saw him in the doorway, smiling at me as I came out of the elevator, it was heartwarming, but also disheartening. I was glad to see him on his feet and still happy to see me, yet I was discouraged by how dishevelled, grisly and untended he looked. After the wet kiss and the hug, through which I felt the brittle bones of his curved back, I followed him as he made his slow, shuffling way to the armchair in the living room. I gave the aide the time off, but made sure he’d return 15 minutes before I intended to go so I could ready Shloime for the change as I handed him over and took my leave. I was determined not to feel the desperation I’d experienced when I hadn’t yet guaged how long I could last before needing to end my visit. The need was only occasionally connected to a schedule I had. It was more about an urgency to breathe. For the time I was in the apartment alone with my stepfather, I was tightly wound, on the alert. Even the fallow periods, when he’d be off inside himself or asleep, which increased in frequency and length, were tense for me as I expected him to rouse himself at any moment and want my immediate attention.
I couldn’t do anything while I waited except roam the house, looking at his past, our past. I browsed through the books, old records, and photo albums, rifled one more time through the drawers that contained mostly old clothes and artifacts, some of which had been my mother’s, checked out the tchochkes, some of which had been brought over from Montreal and had actually been procured by my father. My mother’s needlework, now as grey as the rest of the house, met me on the walls of every room. I hoped I might find some new clue I’d previously overlooked to the lives I’d left behind when I went away, but of course, I never did.
The roaming saddened me. All that old, forgotten stuff had heart. It had been part of people’s lives and reflected them. But the people were gone. And that included my stepfather. He was living in a house whose contents testified to his life, but he had nothing to do with any of it other than the comfort it afforded him of knowing where he was. I gathered enough sadness in these forays to replace the anxiety for a while so that when my stepfather returned with a loud “OY!” from wherever he’d been, I felt reconnected and warm towards him. I’d kiss him on the head and listen to his dream or his memory, which he could no longer distinguish between. He would talk for a little while. I tried to think of questions I might not have asked him before, for my sake. I’d notice every time we spoke, how his answers were getting shorter, less defined and more circumscribed. I’d watch this with interest like a researcher, watched as he gradually lost who he was. Frequently, he’d answer, “I don’t know. My head is tsedrayt.” And every so often he’d punctuate his silences with a kind of lament, “Helen, Helen, Helen.”
“I don’t know,” he’d chuckle. After a few rounds of this, I showed him the photos of my children that I’d brought him, and go over some facts about them again. I’d tell him a little about the kibbutz and my work, though now, instead of tirelessly asking me questions, he had to be told where I lived and what I did. I was more patient because there was less of everything, including his desire to know. But after my two hour limit, before I’d lose that patience again, I’d begin to get ready to leave. The aide would return, I’d say goodbye, plant another kiss. “No, don’t get up. I’ll be back tomorrow. I promise. No, you’re not alone. Your aide is here. I’ll be back tomorrow. Bye.”
I inched out the door, literally and figuratively, as he sat in his armchair, eyes closed and adrift. What was going on behind the closed eyes? What thoughts, questions, wisdom, insights? There were supposedly no memories, or next to none. What, then, could be formed around only the immediate present? Where was he when he detached from me and sat with his head leaning on his curved hand, as if shading one eye from the light? He’d often rouse himself with a deep and audible sigh, and a sentence indicating conclusion. “What can you do?” Or “That’s how it is.” Sometimes he’d come up from the depths and declare clearly, “It’s better to talk about the present.” What he appeared to be left with was maybe only images — of his parents, his home, things he loved and missed. Maybe only feelings, or just impressions, which are even less defined. Whenever I asked him what he’d been thinking about, he’d chuckle and twirl his hand in the air above his head. “My head is swimming.” At first I thought he was dizzy, that it was a physical feeling he was describing. Then I realized it was the sensation in his head of unconnected bits. Perhaps it was both – the feeling produced by synapses trying to connect but neurons only managing to break off in splinters and fly to wherever there was a place to land. There were apparently no thoughts, either, nothing verbalized to form a story board of any kind. Maybe there were portraits or landscapes, possibly fragments of scenes. But none would have been coherently connected to names or facts, even though there weren’t too many left to juggle. There was Warsaw, there was his cousin Usher, who outlasted almost everyone else in his mind, and there were Mommy and Daddy. They stood in for everyone and everywhere. Possibly behind closed eyes and deep in his crusted brain, there were whole memories playing out that his confusion and severely clipped short term memory erased as soon as his lids fluttered open.
If I left before he opened his eyes, he’d forget I’d been there at all. And I’d carry my guilt and sadness to Manhattan, where I’d try to enjoy myself.
After a while, when it became too difficult, I peeled back on the scope of my devotion. Again, I decided I was doing us both a disservice, and I staggered my visits with my stepbrother so that I came over on the days he didn’t. I’d lie to my stepfather the next time I came and tell him that I visited him daily. Or I’d leave after an hour and tell him I’d been there all day. This power to create a version of the truth felt both devilish and kind. I could make him believe he always had company, and I wouldn’t actually have to be the one providing it in all its heaviness for me. I thought I could help dispel the sense he was rightfully developing that he was alone. In fact, he felt alone even when there was someone there with him, as there always was – his caretaker, his son, or me. He was alone inside his head, the swirl of disconnected and ephemeral images swallowing him up. Soon, even my fibbing didn’t matter since whatever I told him was immediately forgotten.
I knew what I was doing. I was retreating from my stepfather as he was retreating from me. It took time to process this, understand my complicated and often contradictory emotions, and forgive myself for those less admirable. And each time I went back home, I was afraid of how I’d find him on my next visit, or if I’d ever see him again.
I received an email from my stepbrother in early January 2015 in which he informed me that my stepfather was very ill and that it was hard to tell what the outcome would be. He had contracted what in his 90s had become a yearly bout of pneumonia, and was in hospital. That was all my stepbrother could tell me, except that he wasn’t home much, and that my cousin would give me updates. He was vague about whether I should fly over.
My cousin, on the other hand, was blunt. A doctor friend who’d visited Shloime thought there was no real hope he’d survive this bout, pending a miracle, but no way of knowing how long he’d last. My stepbrother had decided to sign a DNR order (Do Not Resuscitate) after first considering a feeding tube. Supposedly, my stepfather had always said he wanted no hookup to machines. I know he always said he never wanted to be a burden to anyone. He kept saying this beyond any reasonable chance that he wouldn’t be. He became a burden slowly, or if not a burden, a charge, once it became evident he needed assistance to get to doctors, to get his meds, to remember to take the meds properly, to do his paperwork, even his own accounting. The charge became a burden the day I caught him out when we went to his workplace together. His not wanting to be a burden often made him one as he struggled against us to maintain his autonomy and dignity. Eventually, he let go, but by that time, he couldn’t help but be a burden.
I was not consulted prior to or informed after any major decision regarding my stepfather. These days I excused the “oversight” by the fact that I had little hands-on input regarding him. I spent about a month with him out of every year. My stepbrother took care of everything all year round. It stood to reason he’d feel like the sole party responsible for his father. So I told myself. Yes, this statement is loaded, and if I fired, I’d wind up lodged inside the turgid history of the sibling relationship within the unblended family. Aside from requiring too long a detour, it would take more stomach and resolve, and thus more readiness for return fire, than I possess. Suffice it to say that agency regarding my stepfather was usurped by his son, who felt he was the rightful and sole bearer of the crown – and the burden that went with it. In my meekness, in my desire to avoid both conflict and responsibility, and from my distance of oceans and continents, which necessarily precluded hands-on care and management, I ceded my part. Add to that a virtual lack of correspondence or contact between my stepbrother and me between visits, maybe only slightly less my doing than his, and the roles in the care for my stepfather were pretty well fixed.
I may be ready here to disclose what I have, in the course of writing this “eulogy,” discovered about my part in the victimization/accusation pattern. It was easier for me on many levels to not claim my stepfather. I believe I can do it now because now it’s also easy. It goes with no territory except these pages. To have claimed him earlier would have meant taking responsibility for our relationship, for our correspondence, for helping alleviate his loneliness, for taking care of his needs in his last years, and of his death. I got off easy by acknowledging my stepbrother’s role as his “real” child, a status my stepbrother agreed with wholeheartedly. But that, too, was an acquired right I helped establish. I wanted it that way. I don’t so much rue my behavior – because I understand it – as admit my part in what came of it. I can’t blame my stepbrother for expecting to make, and for making, all the decisions regarding my stepfather since that’s how I played it, too. It might have hurt me that I was treated off-handedly in decisive moments, relegated to being an observer rather than an agent, and it’s not as if there was no neurotic underpinning on the other side, but I can now see how I was, in fact, the agent of my passivity.
I also know my stepfather loved me, and deserved more from me than he got. Though I don’t believe he expected it or thought me ungrateful. In this he let me roll. Whatever he got, he took. At least, that’s what I felt. Maybe he expressed something else to my mother, something, for example, that might have made her ask me if I’d be willing to have Shloime adopt me. But I don’t know that that’s true.
And maybe, so as not to now be the victim of my own guilt, I should allow for the possibility that what he got from me was enough because it didn’t demand more of him.
I got updates from my cousin over the next few days. Things seemed to be getting better, and then got worse. The problem, it turned out, was chronic aspiration, which meant repeated and finally fatal pneumonia. My stepbrother had started arranging for a hospice, from which I understood that I’d better come if I wanted to see my stepfather before he died. Four days after my stepbrother’s email, I got on a plane for New York.
I arrived at the hospital straight from the airport. My stepfather was lying in bed, weak, sunken, and derailed. The illness had exacerbated his dementia. The agitation that the unfamiliar environment produced, and the drugs he was getting for the agitation, ramped everything up. He was, as always, very happy to see me, but he had no clue who I was. And that’s how things remained. I attempted at one point to explain, to remind him.
“Shloime, it’s me, Helen!”
“I know. Heh heh,” he chuckled at my silliness. “What you think, I don’t know?”
“So, who am I?”
“You are Helen,” he answered, in the schoolboy tone he used when we tested his memory.
“I’m your daughter, right? Remember?”
“My daughter? I don’t have a daughter. I have a son.” In all our lives, he had never raised a hand to me, but the sting of this pronouncement made up for it.
“Shloime! You remember Hannah, your wife? You were married for thirty-six years?” I repeated what had been one of his favorite mantras.
“Sure I remember.” But I wasn’t so sure. He could have been thinking of his sister, Hannah Fryszdorf, who had died decades earlier. Or his first serious girlfriend, also Hannah, whom he lost early in the war when she returned to her parents in Warsaw, and he escaped to Russia. Or no one at all. No, I wasn’t sure. But I could not yet let him release me of his parenthood.
“Do you remember Hannah had a daughter?’
“Yeh? I don’t remember. You know, my kop is a little farmisht.”
“Well, but try to remember. She did. And when you married Hannah, you got her daughter. That’s me. So, I’m your stepdaughter.”
“My stepdaughter? Nah. Not possible.”
In fact, although I know he loved me, he never liked the concept of stepfather. I believe there was an emotional distance from my own children because they were not his blood relatives. And all of us were pushed into the background by the revision that was made for him over time of his biography, partly because of my extended absences, and partly despite my existence. The resulting narrative was easier for him in his final dotage to absorb and hold on to, but was a disservice to both of us and an insult to me.
My stepfather had had two wives. The first was my stepbrother’s mother, who had died almost sixty years earlier. The second was mine, whom my stepfather married three years later. Traces of his second wife slowly disappeared from his life story as narrated back to him by his son. Pictures of them together were no longer anywhere in sight. There were a couple of photographs of my mother that I found lying face down on a dusty shelf in the living room where my stepfather never got to anymore. All the photographs within reach were of his first family, except the few I brought with me of my children, which I would dig out from under the pile beside his armchair when I got there. The dementia began the gradual fading of his memories. The intentional lack of attention to that part of his life finished it.
This had other repercussions as well. Though my stepfather eventually became unsure at times of who his son actually was, he was still aware that he had a son. He did still recognize me, and fit me into what remained of his life story as someone he had once known in Warsaw. I had to accept that role, even though it hurt, even though it meant he had already said goodbye to his daughter.
One day in the hospital, I got Shloime duty. Possibly because my stepbrother had left for the morning, he became very agitated. Though my stepbrother was variously his son, his cousin, his father and, strangest of all, his younger self, he was Shloime’s anchor. The doctor ordered some medication to calm him down, and his agitation subsequently turned into a full blown psychotic episode. He was being chased by enemies from his past. They were going to beat him and throw him in jail. He could see them on the corkboard that hung on the wall opposite his bed. Nothing I said would calm him down.
“Akh! What do you know?” he spat out angrily.
He’d seen it all during the war, everything save the concentration camps. He’d been caught and beaten and thrown into a Russian prison for speaking out against the Communist regime, a false accusation made by an unknown informer. He’d been sent to a Siberian labor camp, where he was part of a work crew that hewed and chopped trees, bound the logs and dragged them to storage in exchange for a piece of black bread and watery soup. My stepfather was the son of a lower middle class shoe manufacturer. He finished school, which not every family could afford to assure their children, and went to work at the Medem Sanitorium. He had been very happy there, but the sanitorium was evacuated when the war broke out. My stepfather had never done a day of manual labor. He would surely not have survived the labor camp.
One day, he saw a new group of prisoners that had been force marched to the labor camp. He thought he recognized someone. He wasn’t sure. When the group walked past, he realized that the gaunt, pale man who was being dragged on the shoulders of a fellow prisoner was his brother. As it quickly turned out, they had been thrown together entirely by chance in this Siberian labor camp miles from home so his brother could die in Shloime’s arms. What morale he had managed to maintain, he lost that day. But one thing helped him and another saved him.
My stepfather, always diligent and honest, was instructed by his more veteran crew mates on how to cheat the authorities by working less and eating more. Since loaves of bread were dispensed according to the number of trees worked, he was to maneuver the chopped sections so that one or two could be counted as part of the next tree. In this way, he could get an extra tree’s worth of bread every now and then.
At one point, his body and immunity weak, he developed a boil on his arm that became badly infected. He was allowed to go to the infirmary, where a tender-hearted doctor ministered to him. He spoke to my stepfather while he lanced the boil. He treated him like a human being, not only as a worn and fevered prisoner – which would in itself have been enough to be thankful for. Shloime broke down and cried. The doctor was moved by my stepfather’s grateful tears and took such a liking to him that he arranged a job for him in the infirmary, which most likely saved his life.
Though he had been rescued by the good doctor, my stepfather’s delusions that morning in the hospital seemed to stem from what he’d come to know of evil, and specifically where it began for him. He begged me to save him from those who were chasing him, and he was inconsolable. He dismissed outright my assurances that I would. He was sure only his son could save him, and as far as he was concerned, his son was gone. Hence his challenge when I promised him that his son, who had just called and talked with him, would be there in just a few minutes.
“How do you know he’s coming?” he asked, stubbornly as ever.
“Because he told you.”
“When did he tell me?”
“He just spoke to you. You heard him.”
“He’s not coming back,” he all but wailed.
“He is! He’s on his way right now. Just a few more minutes.”
“How do you know?!”
“He said so.”
“What if he lied?”
And on it went till I thought he might do himself real damage. Finally, his son showed up. He calmed down, and fell asleep.
A few days later, we moved him to hospice.
“Oy. Oy. Oy,” he kept kvetching loudly one evening in his now usual repertoire following a visit from his sister a few hours earlier. Then, all of a sudden, he stopped, as if deciding this wasn’t what he wanted to be doing after all, and announced he wanted to sit up in a chair. This was so great! I almost skipped down the hall to get a nurse. We got him seated, shifting his skeletal yet surprisingly heavy body from the bed, and he proceeded to be himself, the person we’d known before he slipped down the well. He was talking clearly and recalling things we’d learned not to expect from him anymore. He asked me if it was true that he had had a visit from family members that afternoon.
“Yes,” I said happily, and told him about his sister’s visit.
“Why you laughing?” he asked, eyes clear and focused, with a little glint of his own.
“I’m laughing because you surprise me.”
“I surprise you? Oh, that’s good!” he chuckled. “Why I surprise you?”
“Because,” I tried being delicate, “sometimes you remember things and sometimes you just don’t.”
“Like what?” he asked, curious.
“Like who visited you this afternoon.”
“Someone visited me this afternoon?”
I left him that evening still sitting in his chair, looking quite fine. It was so tempting to think that any change for the better in his cognitive or physical condition signaled continued improvement. But that would have been foolish. Though doctors are the first to admit they are often wrong regarding time, we supposedly had wiggle room only between one doctor’s prognosis of 3 days, which had already passed, and another’s 2 weeks. And yet, knowing my stepfather, his strength, what seemed to be his determination to survive, and just the fact that he’d already lived for almost 103 years, way beyond anyone’s expectations, I assumed I would leave New York before he did.
I got back to the apartment from the hospice at 8 p.m. and fell into bed shortly thereafter. Jet lag could by now not account for my exhaustion. I was reading a short article in a magazine – the best I could do these days – and eating blueberries. As I was reading, my hand brought a blueberry straight toward my forehead instead of my mouth. I laughed aloud. I thought how I’d seen my stepfather do things like that lately. I was so tired, maybe I was losing it, too. I turned off the lights and fell fast asleep. Someone called my cell. I couldn’t bring myself to answer. Then the home phone rang me almost awake a couple of times. The third time it began ringing, I jumped out of bed and ran to the phone in the other room. I was finally awake enough to panic that the call was about my stepfather. But it was my aunt asking after him. I just said, “I’m sleeping. Everything’s ok,” and went back to bed till early morning. I got up refreshed and started my day, which looked like every other day.
At the hospital that morning, the doctor came to check on my stepfather, whose vital signs were still enviable. She decided to put him in a reclining wheelchair so he wouldn’t be lying in bed all day. She sounded quite sanguine, as if he was indeed getting better rather than worse. I was tempted to follow her unusually encouraging lead, but I knew that even if he did get better, he’d be weaker and more debilitated and would succumb in short order to another bout of aspiration-induced pneumonia. The reclining wheelchair never materialized. The doctor may have wanted it, but they didn’t have one on the floor. I was exasperated, as if there was finally something we could have done for him that would make a difference. But of course, it wouldn’t have mattered.
The same day we talked about getting him out of bed, my stepbrother started making funeral arrangements. By this time, the idea was no longer a shock to the system. We spoke about it no differently than when we were arranging the hospice. It would have to be done, and we had to figure it out. According to the social worker at the hospice, there was only a four hour window between death and the morgue, so we had to make sure arrangements for a funeral were in place no matter what was going to happen. We also began inquiring into the matter of reinstating home care should he get well enough to leave the hospice. It was a very disjointed state of affairs.
On January 18, ten days after I had arrived at the hospital in New York, I woke up at 4:45, got all my things together, finished packing, tidied up a little, and headed out to the hospice to spell my stepbrother, who had stayed the night. Both he and my stepfather were fast asleep. It was 6:20 and there wasn’t any coffee ready yet on the ward. The coffee shop I frequented for the wifi didn’t open till 7:30. I went into the family room across the corridor from my stepfather’s room and waited. I hoped it would be a good day for all. I was leaving for the airport in the afternoon, and that would be that.
The evening before, that family room had been packed and curiously festive. We’d had a kind of living wake for my stepfather. My cousins brought my aunt and a bottle of wine. My stepbrother brought a friend, the woman who’d been Shloime’s first live-in caretaker. Two other friends, who’d known my stepfather most, if not all, their lives, also arrived. Somebody had brought snacks. We drank and nibbled and flowed between the sick room and the family room. The ward filled with our noise. My aunt cried. It was too much for her. I drank till I felt relief, almost happy. At one point, we all drifted into Shloime’s room and gathered around and on his bed. I started singing a Yiddish song. Some of the others joined in. And then my stepfather began to sing, too. Not loudly, not all the words, and definitely not in tune. That would have to be in the next life. But he sang, one song and then another, and another. We laughed, tears in our eyes. Another glass. Another song. Till he closed his eyes and fell asleep, and we dispersed.
As I had predicted, I left New York with my stepfather still kicking. But I knew I’d never see him again. The notion was wrenching but the feeling at departure was disconcertingly no different than any other time. If he had been awake when I left, he might have said, “Oyoy. So soon?” and I’d have lied again and assured him I’d be back in short order. He’d have demanded a date or a time, and I’d have given him one. But he was asleep when I said my goodbyes.
Once I’d left New York, news about my stepfather again became scarce. I’d call the room at the hospice and get a busy signal or no answer. I asked my stepbrother for emails about him but got none. The little I found out was from my cousin, who I kept using as an intermediary.
One day, she told me he’d been delusional for hours, followed by a bad night. I knew that a very bad night was usually followed by a quiet 24 hours, which, indeed, it was. But he needed medication throughout the rest of the next day to keep him calm. How can you calm someone who senses the end is near? Once at the hospice,when I was alone with him, he said levelly, “I think I’m dying.” I caught my breath. I was at a loss. Here was a chance to stop the charade we’d been maintaining that he was in a rehabilitation center to help him get better, and tell him the truth, allow him to meet his end straight on. It seemed wrong, immoral, in fact, to do anything else in the face of death. But again, I shirked the responsibility. It was too big for me. I wanted to spare him the knowledge. What could he have done with it? He was not a believer. He was not sentimental or romantic. He was a practical man. Even if I’d steeled myself to do what was arguably the right thing, he’d have forgotten it almost immediately. All this went through my head while, in fact, it might have been more dreadful for me to admit the truth to him than for him to know it.
A friend of mine, a rabbi at the Jewish home which was housed in the same building as the hospice, stopped by to see him for me, and told me that he was getting weaker. I thought that was like telling me the sun was cooling down. Complete extinction wouldn’t happen any time soon. But he was, in fact, getting weaker and less responsive, and the weaker he got, the more he slept. Till one morning, he was extinguished.
His wish, like all robust people, had always been to die in his sleep. He should have been more specific about what he was wishing for. He died in his sleep all right, but his last years and dying days were long and arduous. My mother had died when my stepfather was 84. His friends began to die off slowly and then rapidly, or were molding away in their own dementia and invalidism. He had a tiny family left – the sister, who lived just a few forbidding blocks down the hill, her daughter’s small family, the son of his deceased sister, and us. Except for his demented outbursts, and my stepbrother’s pounding the fact of his dementia into him against his obstinacy, quiet reigned around him. In his head was where his life resided till that, too, started dissipating. All he was left with in his final days, past the paranoid delusions in which he relived his wartime traumas, past the truth he would wake to every morning that so much was lost and so many in his life were gone, was the longing for his mother and father. “Where is my Mommy? Where is my Daddy?” he mewled in his hospice bed when he was a 103 year old man. It was heart wrenching. We remain the children we once were despite everything we go through, whatever we become and do with our lives. In the end, all we want is to be held and loved.
There was no funeral. My stepfather was not cremated as per his other wish. My stepbrother wanted him of a piece so he’d feel his father was there when he visited his grave. I guess it is more important to accommodate the sentient living, which is perhaps why my petition to bury him in the plot he’d reserved next to my mother instead of next to his first wife was accepted. This was the one time I was part of a decision about my stepfather. I finally took an active interest in this, partly as a result of my stepbrother talking out loud to me at the hospice as he tried to figure out what to do; partly because I had a “legitimate” stake in the matter since my mother was involved; and partly, perhaps mostly, to keep him in my family. It was my last chance, albeit through negotiating on my mother’s behalf, to stop the eradication of my stepfather from my history. This man, against whom I had waged a relentless separatist battle since he’d come unbidden into my life over half a century earlier, was not going to be taken away from my story, and the bond that had formed between us despite itself would be expressed. Despite my doggedness, despite his prudence, despite more time and distance apart than together, Shloime Krystal was my parent. And as such, he’d be buried next to my mother, as he had intended.
Really, he wouldn’t have cared, being a staunch realist. Dead is dead. He’d have decided on the expedient thing, which was that there was a plot ready, waiting and paid for. In any event, burying my stepfather next to my mother spoke of a degree of decency on my stepbrother’s part towards me in the end. At least, that was the thought I chose to be left with.
There was an email in my inbox from my stepbrother with nothing in the body of the text. If I later thought that was intentional, my stepbrother perhaps engaging in literary hermeneutics even then, it wasn’t. He insisted that he’d written me a message in that email. But there was none there. Neither was there a phone call.
As events unfolded, I learned of my stepfather’s death from the condolences sent by a friend in another email. About half an hour later, I saw a public post announcing it on Facebook. Everyone had known my stepfather was dead before I did. My consolation would have to be that I found out through my friend’s private email instead of first seeing the news on the internet. In all honesty, I worked hard to see it as consolation, wiping everything else away with noblesse obliges born of a self-preserving desire not to feel mortified.
Posts started going up by people who remembered or had been affected by my stepfather’s sense of social obligation. It was very moving. They remembered his generosity in helping others. He helped children go to our camp whose parents couldn’t afford it. He helped people get work or get an apartment in our coop housing. In his capacity as an accountant, he filed taxes for those who couldn’t manage it themselves and couldn’t afford to pay for the service. My mother always said he was nicer to friends and acquaintances than to his own family. I must say that despite my own criticism of him, I thought him a decent and kind man. He had his drawbacks, to be sure. His inflexibility and frugality could drive us all to distraction. But he also wound up being the voice of reason for me, the buffer between my mother and me in the fraught and angry teenage years, a man who raised and cared for me as best he could. And though he may have been limited in this, it wasn’t always his fault. He loved me and saw me as his daughter, as evidenced in the way he introduced me every year to the same neighbors and colleagues. “This is my daughter,” he’d say proudly, putting his hand on the nape of my neck. “She’s visiting from Israel.”
I spoke with my stepbrother a couple of days after my stepfather had passed away. He told me about Shloime’s last hours. At the end, my stepbrother lay down on the bed next to him and sang his father to sleep with a Yiddish lullaby he mostly made up. That image became more poignant to me with the passing hours. It was a loving image, and very sad. And that’s how Shloime Krystal died – cuddled like a child in my stepbrother’s arms, the son singing the father to sleep.