An excerpt from the book Life With Pop: Lessons on Caring for an Aging Parent by Janis Abrahms Spring, Ph.D. with Michael Spring.
July 25, 2003
Dad and I pay a visit to his eighty-five-year-old friend Arthur Levy, who was struck down by Alzheimer’s and a stroke, and is living, if you can call it that, in the Hebrew Home and Hospital.
Dad can’t walk far these days, so I sit him in a wheelchair and push him into the facility, first stopping at the front desk to ask for Arthur’s room number. “He’s on the second floor,” the receptionist tells me. Oh, no. The Hebrew Home is like a filing cabinet. If you’re on the first floor, you’re in rehab and recovery is possible. On the second, you’re filed away for life. The only way out is through the basement, the morgue.
Dad and I get into the elevator and push “2.” We find Arthur fastened to a wheelchair, in front of a blaring TV, slumped to one side. “Hi, Art,” Dad calls out. Arthur doesn’t respond. His gaze is fixed on something far away. “Hi, Art,” Dad says again. I try to intervene in a perky voice. “Arthur, Louie Lieff has come to visit you. How are you?”
Arthur looks at Dad as though he’s seeing him for the first time. He registers nothing. “Let’s go,” Dad says. He shakes his head, noticeably disturbed, and mutters under his breath, “terrible,” and again, “terrible.”
The two of us are relieved to get back into the car and head to a fresh fruit stand on a back country road. Dad is subdued, even more so than usual. I get the feeling that he’d rather die than be like Arthur – so vacant, so stripped of functioning.
We stuff a bag full of Washington cherries, bursting with color and flavor, and drive to an outdoor café in West Hartford Center. Dad’s favorite table is waiting for us, right along the sidewalk, where he can eat a hearty brunch and eye the young, trendy shoppers parading by. He has his agenda, I have mine – to probe his thoughts on dying.
Death is no stranger to Dad. He has lost two generations of loved ones and must know, given his list of ailments, that he’s a medical miracle to have survived them all. With Arthur still on our minds, I speak the unspeakable. My approach is gentle but hardly indirect.
“Dad, may I ask, do you ever think about dying?”
About three seconds pass before he answers flatly, “No.”
I try to keep the subject on the table, just in case he wants to say more. “I think about it all the time,” I say.
Another few seconds pass, then, with a wicked twinkle in his eye, he announces, “Isn’t this a great bagel?”
The truth is, it is a great bagel. And what makes it even greater is that it’s smeared with real vegetable cream cheese – not the low-fat, doctor-prescribed kind, but the big, buttery, loaded-with-cholesterol kind. And the coffee is smacking-hot and delicious. And we’re sitting outdoors, not in a home for the elderly, and Dad can still pick up that monster and stuff it into his face with his own two hands. So, why, why talk about dying now? I take the cue, sit back, and let the sun warm the space between us.
JANIS ABRAHMS SPRING, PH.D is an award-winning author and board-certified clinical psychologist in private practice for 36 years. Dr. Spring is a recipient of the Connecticut Psychological Association’s Award for Distinguished Contribution to the Practice of Psychology, a former clinical supervisor in the Department of Psychology at Yale University, and a media guest on programs such as NPR and Good Morning America. She and her husband live in Westport, CT. For more information go to: www.janisaspring.com. Copyright 2009.