My father had been in poor health for a couple of years, but as the summer of 1983 began, it was clear that he was dying. After a number of operations and setbacks, he was moved into a room in the hospital where I had been born, 31 years earlier. Arnot-Ogden Hospital - Elmira, New York.
I am now almost 62 - so these events happened exactly half a lifetime (so far) ago.
I had taken a leave of absence from my Portland job and flown home, to be with my mother and brother. There was nothing to do but sit in the room, read, doze, wait.
I remember two sounds, as the hot, humid summer days dragged on and on. My father did not talk. Each breath, in and out, was accompanied by the sounds of air bubbling thru the fluid constantly filling his lungs. The nurses drained fluid frequently, but it soon returned, as did the bubbling sound deep in his chest.
That sound was disturbing enough, but, every few hours, we were asked to leave the room while the nurses turned him in the bed. His cries of pain reached the corridor - no words, just hurt.
There was nothing to be done. Each night, we'd return to the house my parents built before they were married, and was the only home I knew until I left town for college, in Baltimore, at 17. Each new morning, we'd dress, eat something, and drive to the hospital.
There were bad days, when we were certain that the end was near. I remember waking up one morning and saying to myself, 'this is the day my father dies'. But he kept on, without any of us trying to fool ourselves with hope.
This went on for many, many weeks, but it was eventually clear that nothing would change soon. It was time for me to fly back to Portland, to attend to matters there.
It was my father's 75th birthday, July 8th, when I was set to leave. It was another bright, hot, humid Upstate New York summer morning. I went up to his bed - his eyes were closed and his labored breathing regular. I can't remember if I held his hand, but I said something like, "I always hoped you would be proud of me."
It was over a month later, in mid-August, when I got a phone call at work from a family friend who said, "you better come immediately." I quickly made a plane reservation, left work and went home to pack. As I was waiting for a taxi to arrive my phone rang again. It was my boss's secretary who said, in a quiet voice, "we just got another call for you. Your father died an hour ago."
It took me well over a year before I felt like a human being again, and 1984 turned out to have a couple of major, very positive, turning-points in my life, but that's another story.
Why am I having these memories today?
Karen's mother, the inestimable Sylvia Stolzberg, turned 102 yesterday. Karen has been there, in Santa Cruz, since Tuesday, as Sylvia is now in that twilight period, 'between two worlds' as a friend put it. Very weak now, she is at times conversant, joking, and eating - at other times simply sleeping, sleeping, sleeping.
Between two worlds.
Tomorrow, Karen and her brother are driving down to Pasadena, to check in with the workers who are doing some long-deferred painting and repairs at the now empty family home, where we have had so many joyous (and a couple of somber) family events over the decades. It was originally planned that Sylvia would also be going to Pasadena for a big family birthday party, but that was cancelled when she began this last big decline, last week.
At some point tomorrow morning, Karen will have to say good-bye to Sylvia. My poor father, 30 years ago, showed no sign of knowing me the last time we were together. I am hoping that Karen is able to have more.
Here is Sylvia, with a friend, last Thanksgiving: