FRESH YARN presents:
I was at Ralphs in North Hollywood when my cell phone rang, piercing the silence in the meat and dairy aisle. I rummaged frantically through my knapsack and picked up before the last ring. It was my sister, Risa. "We got the news about Dad, Lor, and it's not good. It's pancreatic cancer." I slumped over the porkchop case. "He has weeks to months to live." I dropped the Armenian feta cheese I was holding, and ran out of the store. Somehow, I got home and called my father.
Alma Brookes, a caregiver originally from St. Marten, now living with Dad in his Manhattan apartment, answered the phone. She has a dark, rich voice that sounds like it's coated with molasses. It has a lilt, like gentle waves washing ashore.
don't understand these doctors, Lor, the liver is the next door neighbor to the
kidney. They are like a brownstone, close together. You know how many times they
lookin' at that kidney? I took him to all his doctor visits, I never missed a
one." She was crying. I assured her that there was nothing she could have
done differently, then I asked her how much time she thought Dad had.
"How aaaare ya?" My father elongated vowels for dramatic punch.
"Good, um, listen I'm coming to New York. I want to hang out with you."
"Teeerrific, Lorsch what's the occasion? Anything special?"
"Um, well I just want to see you. I miss you. I love you, Dad."
"Me too, Lorzhabee, see you soon."
With the prospect of losing one parent, I dialed the other. "Hi, Mom, have you heard? Are you okay?"
"Oh, come on," she growled, "we haven't been together for twenty-eight years. I'm fine. Why're you crying?" I didn't answer.
"Mom, will you see Daddy before he dies?"
"Did he ask to see me?" My mother's going to need an e-vite to my father's funeral.
"Listen, Shirley Bilsky's father lived for a year and a half after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I think they're jumping the gun here."
"Mom, the doctor said that when he jaundiced it would be very fast, maybe a matter of days. And Alma said he's already yellow."
"Oh, really?" rebutted Mom, "What does Alma know from yellow? Since when is ALMA an expert on YELLOW?"
I was in Dad's apartment on 96th and Columbus in 48 hours. He lay in a hospital bed.
"Hi, Poppy. How are you?" I smoothed his matted hair.
good, Lorsch." He looked awful.
"Does it pay well?" He asked.
"Scale plus ten. I want you to teach me that Russian lullaby you used to sing to us. Hey, Dad... can I get in bed with you?"
I lay with him and with as much energy as he could muster, he stroked my back." Two minutes later, he picked up his head. "Could you give me a lift to the bathroom?"
"Sure, Daddy." He shuffled slowly and daintily. I walked alongside him for safety. When we were halfway there he stopped abruptly. He attempted a soft-shoe with the walker, and sang to the tune of Tea for Two, "Da, duh duh, duh dudududu da duh." I roared with laughter.
"Hey, he said, "you're laughing, and I'm dying heeere." Our bathroom jaunt took forty minutes round trip.
That Sunday, we had a few guests. I got bagels and lox; Alma made Caribbean chicken and pig's feet. A winning combination. I didn't touch the pig's feet too many Weight Watchers' points. Our family totaled twenty including my sister Abby, her husband David, their kids Leah and Daniel and my sister Risa, her husband also named David and their two kids Mara and Sam. Alma's brood totaled forty including a range of folks--her best friend Lena, her daughter, Rachel, Rachel's very pregnant ex-lover, Sophia, and her daughter Cinnamon. This gathering allayed my fear that Dad was spending too much time alone. Apparently he had a bevy of broads from the Bronx caring for him, and, in fact, it seemed as though his apartment had become somewhat of a community center. He sat in his chair that Sunday smiling and drinking from his sippy cup. Though he barely spoke, I sensed that he delighted in the festivities. The next day he was exhausted and couldn't get out of bed.
I called my mother. "Hi Mom, I was going to come see you for Mother's day but Dad's not doing well so I need to stay here. Will you see him?" I asked.
"Nah he doesn't want to see me." Alma yanked the phone out of my hand.
"You listen to me, Sylvia. In the middle of the night Jerry say to me, 'When is Sylvia coming home? Will she be here for dinner?' You can not hate your husband more than I hated mines. He was a dog, but if that man were dying I would go see him in a second for my kids, because THEY loves him. I would do that for them." Alma handed back the phone.
"What does she charge, fifty an hour?" asked Mom. "Should I come tomorrow?"
The day arrived for my mother to visit my father.
She shot into the apartment like a pistol, "Jesus, it's hot in here, can you open a window?" her request out before the door was closed. She scanned the room. "Humph he must have gotten a decorator."
Alma hugged Mom warmly. "Sylvia how you doin'? You look like a hippity-hop teenager. You cannot be 81 years old. Did you drive your fancy Toyota Camry into the city?"
"Achhh please I took the bus, I'm an old lady," she replied.
My parents were separated the day after I graduated high school. Nearly three decades and three cancer bouts later, my mother said, "I don't want to be buried next to that shmuck," and she filed for divorce--after a twenty-seven-year separation. They were separated longer than they were married. And I don't know why I can't let go of things.
Mom turned to Dad. He sat in his wheelchair in the living room, his head hanging down from weakness. "How are ya, Jer?" Mom stared at him detached and sad simultaneously. Alma and I scattered. As I left the living room, I turned back to look at my parents. I felt as though I was watching a slow motion silent movie behind a gauze scrim; grief muting my senses. They spoke for maybe a half-hour, and then Alma and I reappeared.
"Oooh Jerry," Alma teased, "You're eyebrow's are up, you look excited."
"Yeah, he's excited because I'm here," Mom said sarcastically.
"I'm not kidding you, Sylvia, that was the most Jerry has talked in a while."
"Yeah, well he's making up for the thirty years he didn't say a fuckin' word to me."
My father laughed. "It's good to see you, Syl. When you coming back?"
yah, I'll be back next week," she lied. And I knew it was the last time they
would ever see each other.
I hugged my mother and thanked her for coming. Alma and I went out to the balcony, where we would chat, smoke Marlboros and take turns sitting on the broken Porta-Potty.
My father was a feminist with sexist leanings. He marched on Washington for women's rights, but I'm not sure if he was more interested in the women or the rights. "Alma, do you think he slept around on my mother?"
think my name is Alma?" she bellowed. "I been having trouble with this
breast. So one day I lift up my shirt (she lifts up her shirt for a reenactment)
and I say, Jerry, is this one bigger than this one? He get a BIG hard on and say,
'Why you don't get in the bed with me?' It's a good thing I don't like the older
men, Lor, your father would have had me in TWO seconds."
"I aks him, Jerry were you a good father?" Alma said. He say, "Nah, Sylvia do that more." He say he not around when you were a kid. He worry about you, Lor say you got it the worst." I excused myself, went into the bedroom and perched next to my father. "Daddy, I don't want you to worry about me. I have a lot of wonderful things in my life, a lot of love; I'm going to be fine. Hey, Dad, you feel like singing?"
"And how," he replied with more enthusiasm than I'd seen since my arrival. I turned on my tape recorder, and he began, his once beautiful baritone, scratchy and waning
is du gesele vee is da shteeb,
(Very roughly translated: Where is the little girl? Where is the house she once lived in? Where is the street the house was on?)
"Come on Dad, big finish," I encouraged him.
"VAYMIN, HABLI oy oy oy oy oy." He grabbed his side in pain.
"Daddy, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, are you okay?"
"I'm fine, Lorsch. I'm getting better."
On Mother's Day weekend everyone dispersed. Alma's friend Lena came to relieve Alma. I realized in hindsight that this was the weekend that Dad's body began to close shop. He was unable to keep food or liquid down. In the middle of the night, I heard him wretching. I opened my eyes and saw Lena's wig hanging next to me on Dad's clothes rack. She stumbled off the pullout couch, bald headed, her breasts, (NEVER IN MY LIFE HAVE I SEEN SUCH ENORMOUS BREASTS) each one the size of a newborn, jiggling wildly in a tight T-shirt, no pants, just pantyhose, as she ran into the bedroom. Think Scary Movie Four. We stayed up all night with Dad. At 5:40 a.m. Lena threw on her hair and clothes and disappeared. At 6:00 a.m. she returned. "I got a surprise for you," she announced. "Happy Mother's day, baby." She carried two McDonald's platters with pancakes, toast and potatoes. Of course that week I was on a no carb diet, but it was such a sweet gesture that I ate it. She told me about her parole officer. When she first arrived in New York from St. Marten, she worked for the Social Security Department, passed on secret information and got caught. There I was six a.m. on Mother's day, my father dying in the next room, sharing a McDonald's platter with a felon.
My family and Alma returned to Dad's apartment on Monday. Alma took one look at my father and ran to the phone. "Rachel," she said to her daughter, "Jerry only gonna last a few more days. You come over and perm my hair tonight for the funeral? What I'm gonna do without him, Rachel?" she cried. "Thanks. Loves you too."
While Alma stayed with Dad, my sisters and I bustled about making plans. Chava Koster, the rabbi we chose, was out of town but assured us she'd be back in time. We communicated through e-mail, though secretly I longed for papyrus scrolls. She suggested we read a book of Jewish customs. There was so much to think about. Should he be buried in a shroud or a Brooks Brothers suit? The Jews like to bury the deceased as quickly as possible. Sometimes a family member sits with their beloved for twenty-four hours guarding the body, like a sentinel. It's called shmiro. I considered doing this, especially after I found out that Dad would be alone in a fridge until the funeral. Abby checked out the cemetery in Jersey. She learned that the plot Dad purchased forty-eight years ago for himself and Mom, which then overlooked a beautiful garden, now overlooked a Marshalls. We found out that if Mom was serious about not wanting to be buried adjacent to Dad, she could request a different location. The cemetery was not unlike a condo.
My sister Abby, who is an architectural preservationist and lives with her family near Princeton, is one year older than I and we were raised sort of like twins. Risa, nine years older, is a prominent choreographer. We piled into a cab and went to Riverside Memorial Chapel on 76th and Amsterdam to take care of business. People in the "death industry," are not hip and cute like Claire on Six Feet Under. They are expressionless and sun deprived. Cliff, a young Pacino type with a stutter, greeted us. First we had to choose the chapel. We picked the larger of the two because it had a piano and big, pretty, stained glass windows, and we were hoping for a good turnout.
"I'll t-t-take you to the caskets." Cliff said. The showrooms are in the basement." There were two of them. Think Anne Taylor and Anne Taylor's Loft. We entered the more upscale of the two. The first casket was horrifying, $60,000.00, gaudy, very Carmela Soprano. The next one was $70,000.00 and King Tut- ish. "Could we see something simpler?" I asked. And he led us into the Loft.
"What about th-th-this? Orthodox Jews are buried in a p-p-lain pine box," he offered.
"It looks like something you'd ship tomatoes in," said Abby, as I reached into the casket and pulled out a clump of hay--the kind they use in nativity scenes.
"It's only f-f-f-ourteen hundred dollars," said Cliff brightly.
"I don't care, my father isn't going in the ground in a freakin' apple crate," I said.
"I'm s-s-s-o s-s-sorry miss, um, knotty pine?"
"Too Crate and Barrel" replied Abby. We busted out. Weeks of anguish were released in torrential laughter. Since Abby has strong feelings about wood, we put her in charge of the decision. She chose a simple blonde ash casket and we went to the office with Cliff to do some paperwork.
"Are you interested in a c-c-casket nameplate?"
What's that for, I wondered, so the other dead people can learn his name?
"Aftercare p-p-planner book?" Cliff asked.
Even if there IS an afterlife, and it's a busy one, I thought to myself, a Dayrunner seemed excessive.
"We won't need any extras. Why don't we start The New York Times notice?"
Cliff helped us with the wording. For example... adored by grandchildren, or dear brother of "OH MY GOD." Risa yelped. "WHAT DO WE SAY ABOUT MOM?" I made a suggestion. "How about, resented by former wife, Sylvia Walter Jaroslow?"
In the thick of it all, Risa's dance company had a benefit on the Lower East Side. Dad was a big fan of Risa's work, and this would probably be the first concert he ever missed. A bunch of us went. When we returned to Dad's that evening, Abby and her family and the hospice people had gone home for the day. Alma was still there and Risa, her kids Mara, 24, a statuesque P.I. and Sam, 11 going on 40, and I joined her.
At 10.30 p.m., Sam and I went into the bedroom to give Dad his morphine. "Oh, my God, Mom," Sam called loudly, "It's happening, come on Mom, it's happening right now, Grandpa's going. Come quick. Grandpa's going now, Mommy, right now." Everyone ran into the bedroom and surrounded my father. Risa wailed, "Daddy, Daddy."
"Jerry, Jerry," Alma cried out. He took two very deep breaths, stuck out his jaw and clenched it twice. An excruciating, deafening silence ensued. Suddenly, a stream of red liquid shot out of Dad's mouth. Alma said knowingly, "That's the bile." When I wiped the red liquid off my father's mouth, I realized it was the cherry applesauce she insisted on giving him the day before. Finally Alma said, "Close his mouth, Lor," and I did. Then I read a prayer aloud beginning with
"Dear God, Please take the soul and spirit of Jerry Jaroslow into the sweetest corner of your mind, the most tender place in your heart "
rubbed Dad's skin, talked and held each other. We fell apart like a tag team;
one person on the floor sobbing hysterically at a time, the others comforting
that person. An hour and a half later, it seemed like it was time to call the
people who would escort Dad to the funeral home. My niece Mara took over, as the
rest of us were too undone. Risa gave her the number and she dialed.
Risa bawled, "No wait, I don't want him to go. Mara, call them back and see
if we can have more time with him."
The people arrived. Mara buzzed them up and opened the door. Two thugs in suits, straight out of Goodfellas, stood in the hall. "Good evening, ma'am. RESIDENCE REMOVAL!" said one, kind of upbeat and casual, like he was delivering Szechwan from Hunan Balcony. "Is dat da body over there?" he went on, as he walked toward my sleeping nephew. "No, this way," Mara redirected them. Risa felt it would not be good for Sam to see his Grandpa being taken away, so she didn't wake him. The rest of us crumpled and hid in the living room while Mara guided them. They took him out on something that looked like a cross between a stretcher and a dentist's chair. We went down in the other elevator just in time to see them pulling away in a dirty, old, banged up yellow station wagon. It was among the saddest moments of my life. I expected a shiny black hearse like in the movies. My Sis promised me there would be one for the funeral. As I turned to go back into the apartment, there was one of Dad's Depends on the curb on 96th Street. It was two a.m.
The following night, Alma's boyfriend, Anthony, stopped by after working a twelve-hour janitor shift, to shine the shoes Dad would be buried in. I was sitting on my father's bed deciding what to sing at the service. I was going over "Sunrise Sunset," when Alma ran into the bedroom galvanized, "Lor, that's the song. You got to sing that. You got to sing that," she repeated. She was jumping like she had seen the Lord in the living room. "You sing it so beautiful in your voice, and it's like sunrise you born, and sunset you dead."
"I hadn't quite thought of it that way, Alma, but you're right. Do you know that Daddy sang this song in a musical he starred in on Broadway called Fiddler on the Roof? Daddy's sister Ruth was also in the show, and so was I.
"You are shitting me," she screamed, and the decision was made.
May 20th, 2001, hundreds of people came from all over to honor my father. He would
have been thrilled; he had a full house. Friends and family greeted us in a green
room. Mom was already there when I arrived. "Mommy, are you doing okay?"
I hugged her.
Before the service, Abby, Risa and I went into the chapel to see Pop. He looked peaceful and dapper. Risa was relieved. She begged them not to touch his Einsteinian eyebrows, and they hadn't. The service was beautiful, moving, funny, and sad. Here's how it went.
Klezmer music (a gorgeous haunting lament) Steve Elson on clarinet, Art Baron
We walked in a procession ushering my father's body to the shiny black hearse. We were cloaked in warm, crying kisses, when a woman with blonde, cotton candy hair came over to me and shrieked, "UGH when you sang 'seedlings turn overnight to sunflowers' I LOST IT, you have GOT to sing that at my funeral, I'm putting it in my will."
In the days that followed, I stared and slept in Dad's stark apartment. I fielded calls, everything from the mailman wanting to know his forwarding address, to Omaha Steaks wanting to know why he cancelled his steak subscription. One warm night I wandered downtown to the half price theatre ticket booth. There were hundreds of people in line. It was five to eight. I got on the end of the line, though I was certain it was too late and crowded to get a ticket. Out of absolutely nowhere, a TKTS guy walked right up to me, and asked me what show I wanted to see.
"Bells are Ringing," I said. "Why?"
He took me straight to the ticket window, past hundreds of anxious tourists and theatregoers, and got me an orchestra seat.
"Why are you doing this?" I asked.
"No reason, ma'am," he answered plainly. "I just do it sometimes."
I knew Dad was floating above me in midtown.
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