Friday, September 17, 2010

First Cars and Kaddish


I like the idea of taking the train to the office but actually riding the train messes with motivation to improve my character. I find the signage and bustling rush hour crowd bewildering. There is a central casting wild eyed guy stretched out in the back of the car. The six rows of seats around him are empty and people are crammed like sardines toward the front. My kids ride the train a lot more than I do and would laugh at my befuddlement. They are card carrying urbanites, even derisive about the provincial character of Altadena, the location of their school, just ten miles from Hollywood. One of Spuds's classmates has never been on Hollywood Blvd or to Silver Lake. I rode the bus all over town when I was their age and was usually nonplussed by the parade of creeps and what we called “derelicts” back then. I know my kids are accustomed to city sights pathetic and ugly. I guess it is inevitable that they to see how the world really is, but to their mother they will always be too young for hard reality.

I probably could manage taking the train to work. It really doesn’t take all that much longer than driving and when I transfer to the Red Line at Union Station I usually snag a seat. Often though it is inconvenient not to have a car at the office and always, it is sad to leave Rover at home. He is crushed when I leave without him and missed by everyone at work. I am tempted to have a green “mental health dog” vest made for him so he can accompany me on the train, but we decide that it’s time to buy a third car.

I love cars but far too infrequently am I in a position to shop for one other than via window. I flirt for a long time with a 1972 International Scout II at my mechanic’s and it is deliciously butch, roll bar and all. It is rusty but savable and I mentally paint and reupholster it again and again. I do some financial calculations pertinent to the restoration I fantasize and cannot sanction the extravagance. I like vintage trucks and sport utility vehicles and every once in a while get the notion to buy one. But Jewish girls seldom haul anything. To buy way more vehicle than one really needs because it looks cool is profligate. At least until the kids graduate from college.

I wouldn’t buy one but I love riding in German cars, even if they are owned by Jews. Most of the German manufacturers, and Swedish cousin Volvo, build cars that last forever. It is remarkable how many Mercedes and Volvos from the 1980s and 90s thrive and drive. American cars of this vintage are seen less frequently, obsolescent pretty much from first manufacture. Based on the quality and design of American cars produced during the period it is surprising that the industry didn’t go belly up a lot sooner than it did. There are a couple recent American models that are better reviewed and much more presentable than the cars of yore but Japanese and European cars are still generally way more stylish.

I love the Volvo C30 which pays homage to the toady 60s models with the cute rear window. There are very few used ones available and they are way out of our price range. Rover, who the kids, despite my ire, now call “Gramps,” would find the backseat way puny. By the time I can afford a used one, I fear that will no longer be an issue. I’ll keep the wagon for now. Sherman tanks have some practicality issues so my second choice for our new driver is a third Volvo.

I find some cool 1980s warhorse models on Craig’s List but the ones that don’t have bad transmissions or salvage titles are snatched up almost immediately after the listing is posted. I find a new ad for a 1998 S70 with very low mileage at a fair price. I rush over to claim it with my best carhead friend Lito along to check out the car and help negotiate the sale.

Lito has been with the company nearly 25 years and until my father’s death three years ago they were cheek to jowl. The car is being sold for a friend by the purveyors of a body shop on Pico and La Brea. Sans glasses, I see a woman of indeterminate ethnicity, but it appears that she may have dreads extending beyond her waist. I tell Lito she is either a Rasta or one of my people. As I approach she morphs into an Orthodox Jew, clad in a long veiled head covering rather than braids. Even in the heart of L.A.’s most Orthodox neighborhood it just doesn’t occur to me that an Orthodox Jew would own a body shop, but her bearded, yamulked husband runs the show and a portrait of the glowering Lubbovacher Rabbi Shneerson graces the wall. They speak in Yiddish to each other. They pass four phones back and forth and converse in urgent Yiddish and English. They converse with employees in Spanish just about as rudimentary as mine.

The car is covered with dust but seems in good shape. Certain that the seventeen year old will not go near this blog with a ten foot pole, I will note that this is perhaps the ugliest Volvo model ever manufactured, almost Soviet in its affect. Lito drives it and it checks out. The negotiation is pro forma. I think we both know the figure we will agree on. It is the exact amount of money I have in an envelope in my purse, but I do have a couple hundred tucked deep in my wallet, just in case. I accelerate our arrival at the magic number by shamelessly adding that it is my son’s Bar Mitzvah money, which it is but sort of indirectly. “Oh, you’re Jewish…?” The deal is done. Lito rolls his eyes. He has spent most of his adult life manacled to a Jewish business. Nevertheless, he appreciates a good bargain and suggests we tint the windows on the car and resell it at a big profit.

I tell the seventeen year old that I am looking for a car but that I haven’t had any luck and that it will take a while. He is fearful I will keep the new car for myself and that he and his black wardrobe will be relegated to a dog hair infested, reeking of Mom, station wagon. I have the car washed and bring it home as a surprise. On the cusp of eighteen, nothing is really all that much but the sight of his very first car, shiny and black and through his eyes magically not ugly, melts his fa├žade. He will drive himself now wherever he wants to go.

He says he is starting to like driving more and more. I love to drive. My mother loved to drive and often recounted that a man yelled a compliment after driving behind her to the bottom of the series of hair-pin turns that comprise Coldwater Canyon. He said she drove like a man. Decades later she obfuscates about a few fender benders and I had her license revoked. She was more relieved than angry. I hope it is a long time before I beg my sons to drive me where I want to go.

I like my mother’s physician who specializes in geriatrics and palliative care. He is amused by Mom’s flirtatiousness, deep seeded and Pavlovian I guess in the presence of a male. We talk about the way dementia has of boiling people down to their essence. He calls with a conundrum. When I decide not to approve the broncosopy procedure originally, he agrees. He’d forgotten that my mother lives at a board and care. The broncosopy is necessary to diagnose the cause for her pneumonia and subsequently treat it and she cannot return to the board and care until it is certain she is not contagious. Two nurses call at midnight for me to “witness” via phone my consent for the procedure. The following afternoon she is wheeled in from surgery, a murmuring wet rag, as the hospice social worker arrives with a stack of forms. I authorize sanctions, which will most likely hasten my mother’s death, focused only on the hospice worker’s crooked lower teeth.

I visit my mother without an escort several times. I am self congratulatory and treat myself to fattening snacks afterwards. Mom is in a brand new enormous room in a recently completed wing. There is a flat screen t.v., computer and a huge built in couch. The nurses are friendly and efficient. Because my mother looks so good a number of them note that she’s doing really well but add that she’s awfully confused. Instead of “duh,” I reassure them that the onset of severe dementia preceded this recent hospitalization. I work a crossword puzzle and make what I hope are comforting responses to my mother’s inchoate jabber.

I am informed she has been moved and the letter “B” precedes the room number and I surmise she has been transferred to a double room. At the board and care she has attempted in the middle of the night to foist her roommate from her bed toss her to the floor and alternately has climbed into bed and fallen asleep beside her. I arrive at the hospital to find that she has been transferred to the old wing of the hospital. Half of the ward is taped off for construction. The halls are narrow and ancient fluorescent lights cast a gray pall. My mother’s new room is half the size of her private one and there are two beds crammed in. A shriveled woman in the other bed writhes and groans. I take the only chair and utter some platitudes while my mom stares blankly. An LVN enters, navigates roughly around my chair and snaps, “Move, you’re in my way.” The cries of the woman in the next bed grow louder. My mother becomes agitated.

I locate the nurse station looking for Mom’s R.N. A tiny Asian woman emerges. In broken English she explains that the ward is full and that the roommate has the same type of infectious pneumonia as my mother, hence the decision to place them together. I explain that my mother is afraid. I do not mention that she may become so perturbed by the noisy roommate that she’ll get out of bed and clobber her but I do encourage them to keep an eye on her. I attempt to get information about my mother’s condition but the nurse doesn’t understand me and points to various lab numbers on her chart. I give up. The new wing is almost churchlike but here in the old building it seems that there are moans and screams emanating from every room. I am reminded of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and I leave without returning to my mother’s room to say goodbye.

I feel guilty when my mother, with her “do not resuscitate” order, is in the opulent room. Medical services are rationed but care during the last year of a patient’s life accounts for 26% of U.S. medical expenditure. I am sickened by the grim tiny new room and my mother suffering with a moaning roommate. I presume Mom will be cured of the pneumonia in a few days and after over three weeks of hospitalization will return to the board and care home where she will continue to decline and I hope that her death there is a peaceful one. In Welcome to the Monkey House, Kurt Vonnegut describes Howard Johnson’s like chains of “ethical suicide” parlors and for the most part, the notion of assisted suicide is relegated to science fiction. For all his genuine compassion, the real life advocate of euthanasia, Jack Kevorkian, comes off as a crackpot . Furthermore any serious discussion about helping the terminally ill end their lives pertains only to patients who can call the shots themselves. The issue of euthanasia for patients who are non compos mentis is rarely discussed.

Advocates of assisted suicide often present as analogous the naturalness with which pet owners have put down a suffering animal. While there is something distasteful about this comparison, it is nevertheless telling that thousands of ailing elderly patients suck up a hugely disproportionate percentage of medical resources and endure painful treatments even when no possible improvement to their quality of life is foreseeable. We manufacture and distribute weapons designed to kill and so as a society we have no blanket policy with regard to the sanctity of human life. Is a dementia ravaged nonagenarian more precious than a teenager on a battlefield?

I could do some boning up at the Hemlock Society in the name of my mother’s dignity but I am a coward. I am even more cowardly because I have tried to exact a promise from my own children that they don’t let what’s happened to my mother happen to me. It is Yom Kippur and the third anniversary of my father’s death. My mother’s name will be included on the list of ailing folks and the congregation will pray for her. I will call out my father’s name before the mourner’s prayer for the dead is recited. Then, I will whisper my mother’s name to myself. L’shana tova. Shabbat Shalom.

1 comment:

Fionnch├║ said...

Thanks for a dignified response to the jadedness of youth, the foibles of maturity, and the unease of mortality. All good lessons to end these Days of Awe. Not sure what the lessons are, but that's to ponder. xxx me