A Room of His Own
Jay S Zimmerman
It was an orthodox Jewish funeral, though my father was never orthodox, and I can’t remember the last time he was in a synagogue. In fact, I don’t ever remember him attending since my Bar Mitzvah. Our family celebrated all the typical Jewish Holidays and, except for my youngest sister, a Lubovich devotee committed to an orthodox Hasidic lifestyle, we were a fairly secular family. So, I was rather surprised to be standing here. The day was typical south Florida, hot, sticky and bright, and I stood in my suit, sweating, shovel in hand, staring down into the grave. The sound of the earth covering the coffin filled my ears as I lifted the shovel and watched his new white pine home being covered in a cascade of black dirt. I was burying my father. I heard a large rock thud against the wood and saw the top portion of the un-nailed coffin jar loose and move slightly off center. His arm around my shoulder, the mortuary director whispered in my ear, his funereal breath questioning if I desired him to go into the grave and straighten the coffin lid. I laughed to myself, “My Dad might just like a room with a view. “I shook my head “no" and whispered back, "I don't really think it matters now, does it?"
As I continued to shovel the dirt before the bulldozer finished the task, I thought back over the last months. My father had decided he was ready for hospice. Too much pain for too long, too many middle of the night siren-filled trips to the ER, too many days in intensive care, too many doctors wanting to try procedures they thought might help him survive just a little longer. No more invasions into his body. The hospitalist was comforting and clear. It was time. My father was ready. No more treatment. He had reconciled himself to the reality of dying.
My Dad had a sweet tooth. I remember taking him to a doctor's appointment (he was using a walker by then). He spotted one of his favorite delis, smiled, "Let's get a pastry." I recalled this particular time because the place was filled with old Jewish folks with walkers and getting to the cash register meant entering a walker traffic jam. "Only in Florida," I chuckled to myself. My Dad could now eat all the candy and pastries he wanted. No more worries about clogged arteries or putting on weight. No more sneaking snacks behind my mother’s back or her disdainful looks when she caught him. She worried constantly about his health.
Arrangements made, he was transported to an inpatient hospice while they prepared his home for in-home care. The hospice was located in the oldest building on the hospital campus. Ironic, isn’t it, housing the nearly dead in a building about to collapse? That first night in hospice my sister and I brought him a large bag of chocolate candy and relished in his smile. His eyes sparkled as he enjoyed the pleasant change from hospital food. We talked and I asked if he wanted anything at home. He nodded, said he would like to be able to look out the window from his hospital bed. I thought, “a simple last request.”
Nothing is simple with my mother. She is anxious and worries a lot and likes to live by routine. Any change could easily upset her. She had full time help in the house but we all thought this was more for company and less for help provided. She was lonely. My father and my mother were married for over 60 years but he was a workaholic and rarely there to provide her company. Since his near death experience ten years prior, due to his respiratory system approaching collapse, she had had to give up smoking and accommodate her life to his. He was a man who did not take care of his health and would need to be forced to see a doctor. It was hard for her to watch him refuse to do what he needed to do for himself. His behavior could lead to her becoming more controlling and demanding. She feared his dying and her being alone most and this led to many fights.
A change in the layout of his bedroom upset her and she refused his request. “It won’t look good with the furniture that way. I won’t have the room turned upside down," she said. In reality the room wouldn’t look any different with the head of the bed by the window. And anyway, the man was dying; why would the layout of the bedroom matter to her? But she was in her 80s now and change is much harder as we grow older. Plus, her life had been turned upside down by his illnesses and she craved sameness and stability. We insisted, telling her it was his dying wish to be able to look out at the world for his last few weeks, but she refused. My father came home at the end of the week and had a view of the stark white wall. He never spoke up for himself. A lifetime of trying to please her, a woman very hard to please, coupled with his own guilt about being absent from her life, kept conversation to a minimum. He capitulated as usual, claiming “It was easier this way.” My sister and I knew we could no longer be his voice.
A few weeks later, he ate breakfast and while waiting for some medication slipped quickly and quietly into death.
It was a little over a year later, not long after his unveiling, when I received a telephone call from my sister. “You won’t believe it, Mom is moving Dad.” I didn’t know how to react. My first thought was “even in death, no rest.” My mother didn’t like where he was buried and so, now that the unveiling was over, she had arranged to move him somewhere else in the cemetery where she wouldn’t have to walk over other graves to get to the bench next to my father’s grave. She had him dug up and transported to his new “room” under some trees and changed where she and my younger sister would be buried so they could be next to him. Hearing all this, I wanted to pull out what was left of my hair, but realized it was a done deed. It was sometimes hard to know what motivated my mother. In death as in life my Dad would have no voice. I just hoped he would enjoy the short trip and my mother could take pleasure knowing they would be together one day in a pleasant spot under the trees.
Weeks later, after his move was completed, I was sitting at my computer thinking of him and missing him. I was recalling special times we had together—going for pastries and for pies at the Toddle House, the stories about Sinbad he would tell me when I was 10 and the stories he would share about the difficult early years and his army days in World War II. I remembered he would bring home donuts in the middle of the night, when I was 8, upon his return from his second job, driving a cab. I recalled all the odd and interesting investors he introduced me to, as I got older and tagged along to work, and the relationships I developed with some of them. The memories comforted me. These are the memories I prefer. I imagined my Dad now sitting in that great Toddle House in the sky, having a piece of pie looking down at all this, shaking his head, smiling and saying “Free at last, Thank God, I am free at last,” and indulging himself in another slice of the coconut cream.
Jay S Zimmerman came to writing and poetry from his life as a visual artist, composing poems to go with his art and writing fiction and nonfiction, finding as much joy in painting with words as with other visual tools. He has recently been published in Three Line Poetry, I am not a silent poet and Flying Island. He was born in the concrete caverns of New York, amid the trolley bells and sounds of subways, travelled south to Miami Beach and thrived in the warm sands and salt air dancing to the musical rhythms of Klesmer, Cha Cha and Bossa Nova, finally venturing to the dark soil, flat farmlands and rolling hills of the Midwest where his roots have grown and been nourished for over 40 years. He is an artist, photographer, psychologist, and social justice advocate.