Dec. 25, 2009

Josh Becker


            Harry sat in an uncomfortable hospital chair watching his wife Rose wither away and die.  She was connected to every machine in the hospital and hadn’t spoken a word in six weeks.  In the course of that six weeks all of her bodily functions kept failing, one by one.  Both of her oncologists agreed that she probably she didn’t have a week to live.
            Harry Baskin was 89 years old, and over halfway to 90, thank you very much.  Rose was 87 and would never see 88.  Harry never considered for a single second that he might outlive her.  It was inconceivable.  Yet, here it was.  They’d been married for 64 years.  They had three children who were all now in the 60s, and they had children who had children.  Harry and Rose were not only great-grandparents, but one of their great-grandkids was presently pregnant, so soon they’d be great-great-grandparents.  Oy!
            In Germany at the end of World War Two, during the invasion of Berlin, Harry was hit by a bullet in his right leg.  He was shipped home to Detroit to be cared for at the Veteran’s Hospital until he could walk again.  As fate would have it, Rose was a nurse at the hospital.  The first time Harry saw Rose was after he woke up from surgery – there she was looking down at him, a clipboard in one hand, a pen in the other.  She looked like a Jewish Rita Hayworth – auburn hair in a wave, big brown eyes, a slightly large nose, but just slightly, and what appeared to him to be extremely kissable red lips.  Her name tag said “Rose”  and her left hand holding the clipboard had no ring.  Looking down he saw that she had a slim, trim figure and shapely legs.  Hot dog!  Welcome home, Harry!  Harry grinned lasciviously, glanced up and found Rose looking right back at him.
            Turning to the doctor standing next to her, Rose said, “He’s up.”  She leaned in toward Harry.  “So, the wolf awakens.  See everything you needed to see?”
            “Honey, you’re the best thing I’ve seen in three long years.  Marry me.”
            She smiled tolerantly.  Literally hundreds of service men had come on to her in the past two years she’d worked there.  This soldier had simply managed to get there quicker than anyone  before him, so you had to give him credit for that.
            “Just rest, Wolfman,” said Rose, adjusting the IV tube.  “It’s not a full moon till next week.  Lie still.”
Harry kept smiling, closing his eyes and drifting off thinking of Rose.  Pretty red rose . . . HisRose . . .
            Harry and Rose were married on a particularly warm summer day in late June of ’46.  Jerry was born in January.  Rose’s Hungarian mother, Esther, said, “The first baby can come in any amount of time; all the rest take nine months.”
            Harry went back to college on the G.I. Bill studying to get a degree in business administration.  Before and after school he worked in a produce warehouse loading boxes.  It didn’t pay all that well, but luckily you didn’t have to think very much, either.  Harry had no big dream for the future.  He just wanted to make a living, support his family, and live his life.  That wasn’t a lot to ask, was it?
            Their first place was a duplex on Sibley Street, a block off of Woodward Avenue, and just a few blocks from the enormous, elegant Fox Theater, right next door to another large movie theater, the Palms-State.  From there it was only a short walk to downtown, with all of it’s restaurants, nightclubs, stores (like the huge department store, Hudson’s, Detroit’s answer to Macy’s or Gimble’s), the multitude of theaters encircling Grand Circus Park, Tiger Stadium – there were more things to do and places to go than they had the money or time for.  Someday they’d have the time and money for all those things, but for now they just had each other, and their children, and that was enough.
Sarah arrived in August of ’47, eleven months later, and Max arrived in July of ’48, also eleven months later.  It seemed that Esther was right.  Comically, Rose always blamed Harry for causing all of her deliveries to be in the middle of the hot humid Michigan summers.  Back then hospitals weren’t air conditioned; nothing was, except movie theaters.
            Sometimes on Saturday night, Rose would get her mother to stay with the kids, then she and Harry would dress up and walk to one of nearby theaters and see whatever was showing.  There were live burlesque acts before the movies then, like acrobats and comedians and contortionists.  Then they’d see movies where Gregory Peck impersonated a Jew, or gorgeous young Laurence Olivier played Hamlet, or the stunning redheaded ballerina, Moira Shearer, danced herself to death.  But it didn’t really matter what the film was since Rose and Harry were deeply in love and whatever they did together was always a joy.  No, they didn’t have a lot of money, but that didn’t matter; they had three beautiful babies, and more importantly, they had each other, and for both of them that was plenty.
            Business administration degree in hand, Harry marched off into the world of employment.  After several false-starts, driving a taxi, selling shoes, working on a construction crew, Harry got a low-end, white-collar position at a automobile headlight factory.  Finally, his college degree actually had some bearing on his job.  Now he got to dress up in a coat and tie and push a pencil all day, which was a hell of a lot easier than hauling wheelbarrows of dirt, or fondling the corn-covered feet of old ladies.
            Their first actual house was a tiny, brick, two-bedroom bungalow on Curtis Street, a block from the brand new Jewish Community Center.  The kids would swim in the indoor pool and the adults would get together in the evenings to play gin rummy and canasta.  Everybody in the neighborhood knew everybody else, everybody recognized the make and model of everyone else’s car, there was always someone around to stay with the kids if you had to go out, and no one locked their doors – it truly was a perfect place to raise young kids.
            All those wonderful years while the kids grew up.  The sweet little three-bedroom house just off Palmer Park and the Palmer Park Golf Course, where the kids would collect golf balls and sell them back to the golfers for a penny each.  Where they’d all play catch or croquet on the lawn.  Where they’d set up an above-ground pool in the backyard every summer where all the neighborhood kids came to swim. 
            Over the course of many years, Harry slowly worked his way up the rungs of the corporate ladder at the headlight company.  Harry was diligent, honest, and reasonably smart, and when higher-paying positions became available, he got them.
As the Eisenhower years ended and the Kennedy years began, Harry, Rose and the kids moved out of the city and into the suburbs, into a sprawling, brand-new, four-bedroom colonial, where there was room enough for everything.  This was where Harry and Rose lived for the next 30 years.
            The kids grew up, went off to college, got married and had kids of their own.  And the decades drifted by in a lovely, pleasant, satisfied blur, the details all blending together to form an impressionist portrait of a long solid marriage between a man and a woman who were deeply in love.
            After all of the kids had been gone for years, and both Harry and Rose had developed arthritis, it seemed crazy for just the two of them to be rattling around there in such a big house.  So, like all good Jews, they retired to Florida.  They bought a small house in Del Rey Beach, dressed each day in shorts and sneakers, and contentedly lived out the rest of their lives.
            Now here they both were, near 90, blind, frail, sickly, and Rose teetering right on the brink of death.
            In the past week she had been visited in the hospital by her three kids, their eight kids, as well as five great-grandkids.  All of them stood around uncomfortably, because who can be comfortable in a dying woman’s hospital room, and told humorous anecdotes about “Mom” or “Grandma”  or “Bubby,” of how she wrapped leftovers in foil, then wax paper, then secured them with rubber bands; or how she stood and watched the washing machine run to make sure there were no problems; or how she never threw away a canned good in her life, so there had been cans in the back of the pantry that were 20 or 30 years old.  They all nostalgically chuckled and smiled, then they’d glance over at the desiccated remains of this once joyous loving woman, now connected to machines and tubes, and the humor would fade.
            Everyone would leave soon thereafter, but Harry would stay.  He had taken up residence on that uncomfortable green vinyl chair, only getting up occasionally to eat or go to the bathroom, but otherwise rooted there like a tree.  They could all come and go, but he’d be there when the time came.  He wouldn’t let his Rose go alone.  As darkness fell, Harry dozed off.
            “What about Sophie Horowitz?”
            Harry’s eyes opened.  It was dark.  Where was he?  Oh, right, in the hospital, with Rose.  Dying Rose.  Yes, it all came back to him.  But what just woke him?  He must’ve been dreaming because he was suddenly thinking about Sophie Horowitz, and he hadn’t seen or thought about her in 60 years.  Sophie, now there was a hot tomato.  Harry grinned as he turned on the lamp beside the chair.
            Rose was staring right at him.  She was awake.  Her eyes were wide open and she had an angry expression on her old lined face.  Harry was startled, like he was seeing a reanimated corpse.
            “So?” said Rose in an accusing tone, “What about Sophie Horowitz?”
            Harry couldn’t believe his eyes or ears.  “Rose.  You’re awake.”
            “Don’t change the subject.”
            Harry wanted to rejoice because his beloved wife had miraculously emerged from the coma that everyone had predicted said she’d never come out of, but he wasn’t able to because now he was on the spot and being backed into a corner.
            “What about Sophie Horowitz?” he asked cautiously.
            “Don’t play innocent with me.  You can’t piss on my back and make me think it’s rain.  I know everything.”
            “What do you know?” said Harry defensively.  Suddenly they were back in the duplex on Sibley.
            “I know everything,” repeated Rose.  “You think I’m a fool.  You think I don’t have eyes and ears?”
            “So go ahead, say what you mean.”
            “All right then, Mr. Big-Shot.  I’m saying you’re schtupping Sophie Horowitz during your lunch break and it’s been going on for months, that’s what I’m saying. Go ahead, deny it.”
            As opposed to denying it, Harry asked, “How do you know?”
            Rose pointed her arthritically twisted finger at Harry.  “Ah-ha!  So then you admit it.”
            “I’m not admitting anything.  I just want to know how you think you know what you know.”
            “OK, if you must know, Ethel Greenbaum told me.  She happens to live directly behind us, and her kitchen window looks out at the back of our building.  She saw you sneaking in and out of the back door during lunch, you poor dumb schmuck.  Who do you think you’re fooling?”
            “So what’s this got to do with Sophie Horowitz?  Even if I did come home during lunch, who’s to say I wasn’t in the basement?”
            “Doing what?”
            “Fixing the furnace.”
            “Smart guy.  Lois Markowitz is Sophie’s best friend, and you think your little Sophie didn’t shoot off her big mouth and tell everything?  Wake up already!”
            He was caught and there was no way out.  “Yeah?  So?”
            Out in the hospital hallway, a nurse and a doctor both heard voices.  It was the middle of the night, who would be talking?  They followed the sound to the doorway of Rose’s room.  The light was on and though they couldn’t quite hear it seemed that a very old man was having what looked like a heated discussion with the tiny, withered old woman in the bed. 
            The nurse turned to the doctor.  “Isn’t she supposed to be in a coma?”
            “I guess she woke up,” said the doctor.
            Rose glared at Harry.  “’Yeah.  So.’  That’s an answer?  Tell me why you were schtupping Sophie Horowitz?”
            Angrily, Harry pointed his finger back at her.  “Because you weren’t schtupping me, that’s why.”
            “I’ve got three babies to take care of, a husband to feed, a house to clean, groceries to buy, maybe I don’t always have time for . . . you know what.”
            “So, you stop, that means I’m supposed to stop, too?”
            “Yes!  You are!  I went through a lot of tsouris having three babies in a row like that – your babies, too, let me remind you – and what did you do?  You watched, that’s what did.  And in case you forgot, it was hot as blazes all three times.”
            Harry lowered his head in shame.  “I thought you didn’t love me anymore.”
            “Because I wouldn’t do it with you for a few months, you thought I didn’t love you anymore, so now you could go carry on with Sophie Horowitz?  Have I got this straight?”  He nodded.  A look of pure disdain filled Rose’s face.  “You stupid putz!  I just had three of your children!  Is that when a woman stops loving a man?  Did I marry an idiot?”
            “I’m sorry, but that’s what I thought.”
            “Well, that’s no excuse, I’m sorry to say.”
            Helplessly, Harry shrugged his frail bony shoulders.  “Why bring it up now?”
            “Because I just wanted you to know that I’ve always known.”
            “Why didn’t you say something before this?”
            “Because I had to hold our family together.  Obviously, you weren’t going to do it.  And that’s why I kept it to myself.”
            “OK, so now you’ve told me.  You always knew.  Does it matter now?”
            “Yes,” said Rose emphatically, “it does.  It matters very much to me.”
“So, I just wanted you to know that I don’t forgive you.  You’re a coward.  The first second it got rough, you crumbled.  You have no spine.  Damn you!”
            Rose lowered her head to the pillow, closed her eyes, exhaled deeply and died.
            Harry sat there looking stunned, his face was a study in frozen horror.
            The doctor and the nurse came into the room and attended to Rose, performing the official procedure necessary for declaring someone dead.  Harry didn’t see or hear them.  Rising very slowly to his feet, Harry picked up his cane from beside the chair and walked out of the room.
            Limping badly from his old war wound, Harry made his way up the hall into the vacant waiting room.  He stood there for a moment completely befuddled, not knowing which way to turn.  Finally, after a long confused moment, Harry sat back down.  Where was he going to go?
            Within an hour Harry and Rose’s family began to arrive.  They found Harry seated all by himself in the waiting room – a bent, withered old man staring sadly at the floor.  He didn’t say hello, look up or acknowledge anyone.  To all appearances he was consumed with grief.
            Soon there were twelve family members filling the waiting room, all trying to stay away from the grief-stricken old man who wouldn’t talk to anyone.  Everyone kept saying, give him his space.  They were married for 64 years.  It’s a terrible shock.  It must be unbearable.
            The doctor and the nurse entered the waiting room.  The whole group of family members stopped talking, turned and approached them.  Jerry, the eldest child (at 63), stepped forward as their representative.
            The doctor said, “You know, your mother came out of the coma at the very end.  She and your father had a conversation.”
            Everybody looked shocked.  Jerry said, “A conversation?  About what?”
            The nurse said, “We couldn’t really hear, but they were talking all right.  Ask your father.”
            The family members all looked at each other in amazement.  Rose had come out of her coma and spoken right at the very end?   This was incredible news.
            They all turned to Harry sitting there all by himself, still staring straight down at the floor.  Pushing in, they all crowded around him.  His children, and their children, and their children, too, all suddenly eager and interested in what Harry had to say.
            Jerry asked, “What were mom’s final words?”
            Very slowly, Harry lifted his head.  He looked at all of the expectant faces peering back at him.  He sighed deeply.
            “Rose’s final words were,” said Harry, “’God bless all of you,’ and she also said that she loved each and every one of you very, very much.”

            Everyone smiled happily . . . except Harry.