All of a sudden, my father could not take a step forward or back. His legs were starting to splay. He strained to stay vertical by gripping his walker.
“Le, I gotta sit down!” he shouted. I was shepherding him to doctors’ appointments. We had one more to go.
“Don’t worry, Dad. We’re almost there,” I tried to reassure him. Actually, I was really worried since I’d never before seen such a frightened look on my father’s face.
“I mean now!” he shouted.
We stood suspended in a dark red brick hallway between two giant medical buildings with not a medical practitioner in sight. I grabbed Dad’s frail frame, spun him around, pushed down the seat on the walker and cast him into it. Phew, I thought, close call.
I had never seen my father so weak. Once he was sitting safely, I ran to the office of his doctor to get someone to rush down with a wheelchair. The medical office staff seemed rather nonchalant, even uncaring. I returned to my father. Someone came down twelve minutes later. By the time they had wheeled him up to the ninth floor, he had improved—perhaps it was just low blood sugar, they suggested.
Ironically, however, we had just left the general practitioner’s office where his blood sugar was taken and came out normal. My father reported feeling fine. Well, as fine as one suffering from congestive heart failure and a host of other ailments, can be, at 89. In fact, we were heading for the cardiac specialist who had already performed two different quintuple-bypass operations on Dad in past years.
I recalled when Dad was in the recovery room the last time. The doctor promised, “Al, I just gave you twelve more years.” That was twelve years ago when Dad was still practicing law full time.
My father had always been terrifically proud of his work as an attorney in West Los Angeles. Now, despite the fact that he could no longer write or stand, I knew it was mentally stimulating for him to continue working part-time. The “boys,” his middle-aged law partners, would travel down the hall to seek his counsel. It clearly made him feel needed even if he did fall asleep at his desk on a daily basis. The numerous legal files piled high atop his desk fed his sense of fulfillment.
Dad had been working since he was 10. His first job was helping his father deliver vending machines. Later he sold curduroy pants at Sear’s, a hot ticket item in those days. He took various other jobs to put himself and his brother through college. Dad attended law school at USC and started his practice executing wills and divorces. In time, he stopped doing wills because he hated to see family descendants practically come to blows over items in their estates. He ceased doing divorces because he was disturbed by how much his clients argued with each other. After all, he was married to Mom for 49 years and they rarely disagreed.
In time, my father graduated to more dynamic clients, becoming the lead attorney for the architectural firm of Welton Beckett, who designed many of Los Angeles’s most famous buildings. Al always prepared fully and judiciously, winning almost every case he tried. In one instance, when another lawyer terribly fumbled a case, the judge pointed out my father, who was observing at the back of the courtroom, and said, “Take a lesson from Al Grossman. He’s the best attorney around.”
With his phenomenal memory, he could remember every paragraph in every law book he’d ever read. He always acted like he was right, but the crazy thing is that he always was right. The alchemy of his determination, smarts and confidence assured him long-lasting professional success.
At one point, angered by some dastardly deeds done by his law partner of 30 years, Al walked out on him. He set up an entirely new law practice with new partners and associates. He was 73.
When I was a teenager my father’s unending self-satisfaction annoyed me. Nightly, over dinner, he regaled the family with his legal triumphs, and it made me think less of myself. I wished he’d paid more attention to my achievements (my good grades), rather than his own.
Dad may have had a huge ego, but he had a big heart too. When his brother Hy phoned him to defend a poor neighborhood kid in trouble, Dad headed over to the jail and got the boy a suspended sentence so he wouldn’t be sent to juvenile hall. I was therefore inclined to forgive his ego; his generous, ethical nature often prevailed.
My father began to decline around ten years after my mother died. The diabetes, together with the heart condition, sent him to the hospital on a regular basis. So my sister and I often came to visit. He would never admit that his feet were going numb or that he couldn’t fully feel the gas and brake pedals on the car. He kept driving anyway. When he casually mentioned it, we insisted he stop driving. He reluctantly relinquished his car keys forever.
During a mild summer day when the home nurse was changing the dressings on his unhealable heel (due to diabetes), Dad surprised me with an idea.
“Hey, Le, I think I should get a computer.”
“Why, Dad? Your fingers don’t really work that well. It might be hard to use.”
“Oh, yeah, I forgot about that,” he admitted.
I thought it was the most ridiculous idea on the planet. There was absolutely no way he could use a computer as the progressive effects of Parkinson’s disease had curled his fingers into fists. Dad had never before been interested in computers. I conjectured that his idea had to do with the fact that he knew he’d never walk again and that his excruciating foot might have to be amputated. Thankfully, it did not.
So it was that my father ended up using a wheelchair. One afternoon I struggled to get him off the couch. He tried to grab the wheelchair armrest, missed it and slumped to the floor. My petite size was no match for his nearly six-foot frame. His dead weight did not inspire miracles in me. After twenty minutes of trying together, I ran across the street to hail a younger neighbor who, with her daily workout body, was precisely the Wonderwoman we needed.
The neighbor lifted Dad into the wheelchair, waited to make sure he was okay and left. I guided him to the bathroom. The wheelchair could only make it as far as the door. I wished the neighbor had not left. Now I had to get him onto the toilet by myself. By this time, Dad urgently had to go.
I let him hang onto me awkwardly as I pulled him onto the toilet. While he sat, I unzipped his pants and wriggled them down along with his underwear, past his shriveled penis and bony knees. I did not want to look at his privates, but it was inevitable. Bodies, sensuality, sex, were all taboo topics in our family. Even though I was 49, I felt an odd mix of shame, disbelief, lament and fear that I would one day end up as helpless as this.
I held onto Dad while he relieved himself.
“I’m sorry, honey,” he muttered, humbled that he had to turn to his daughter to wipe him.
“We all have to go, Dad. Don’t feel bad.” Yet I immediately felt bad that I had put it that way because the idea of his mortality did come to mind.
I felt a peculiar kind of sadness, not only for my father’s decline, but for some lost image, lost identity. Here, my father, the great lawyer, turned out to be just the same as everyone else. The pedestal was disintegrating along with his body. The whole experience was a kind of rude awakening, a discovery that even my father, extremely smart and well respected, could be so vulnerable, so human.
Just a few months before he died, three representatives of a charity supporting independence for the elderly, came to the house. My mother had joined the organization as a volunteer senior peer counselor. After she passed away, Dad had served on the board in her memory and raised lots of money, but had been inactive over the last few years. I inwardly questioned their timing, only to have my instincts affirmed. Although they had already driven away, my dad kept his voice to a whisper. “They just want my money.” The staff had visited, pretending to care about him, and he played along, feigning continued interest in the charity. At this point in life, what he really cared most about was whether Nadal was going to beat Federer at Wimbledon (he did). With his body failing, television had become his only form of entertainment.
Al had always enjoyed a good party and he really wanted to make it to his 90th birthday. We reserved a private room at a local restaurant. He had outlived so many clients and friends, that the gathering only drew twenty or so guests. Average age: 78. Nonetheless, the cellist played, the food disappeared, tributes were shared and favorite stories repeated.
I must share one that still makes me laugh about my grandmother’s Yiddish accent. My Aunt Flo explained that on one of my dad’s birthdays, his mother purchased some monogrammed handkerchiefs. The problem was they had the letter H on them. Later, my mother privately asked her mother-in-law why the handkerchiefs had an “H.”
Grandma responded, “I vanted to get something for my Helbert.” My mother kindly explained that it’s not really Helbert, but Albert. Grandma returned them and came back with a fresh set. This time the “H” was gone, but they sported an “E.”
My mother asked again, “Why do they have an ‘E’, Mom”?
Grandma emphatically declared, “Because you told me his name vas pronounced Elbert!”
In the past, Dad and Mom would always dance until the band went home. This time, Dad wanted to leave the party early. I could only imagine what he was feeling. Perhaps he was mourning his eldest daughter’s absence, due to her premature death six months earlier. Or maybe he was just plain physically uncomfortable. I quickly wheeled him around to say good-bye to everyone, and good-bye it was. He never saw any of his guests again. Attending his own ninetieth year celebration was his penultimate triumph. He had one more win up his sleeve.
During Dad’s last stay in the Catholic hospital where he regularly received treatment, the chaplain, Sister Mary, came by his room. Over the past several years, she would always stop in and tell him a joke, often the same one. This day, she offered a prayer, and even though he was an agnostic Jew, he accepted. When she left the room, he turned to me and said, “Well, why not? It couldn’t hurt.”
Upon his death, the doctor checked for a pulse and officially pronounced Albert Grossman deceased. The doctor lifted the sheet and, despite the many afflictions his poor body had endured, I was still surprised to see that he had become just skin and bones. The fact that his love for life gave him the strength to live in his feather of a body, which had served way beyond its capacity, was his final achievement. My father wasn’t afraid to die, but he was disappointed as heck that his life had to end. I can’t help but hope that I will live my life as richly, and one day, when my time comes, face death with such a fearless spirit.
©Leanne A. Grossman