Thursday, March 13, 2008
I've been fool...
I met Frank 18 years ago when I was renting a house he owned in North Hollywood. He was 70 years old then, married and living in another house a few miles up the road. He originally came to the states on a boat from Italy when he was 18 to join his older brothers and father and, when I met him, had his own yard cleaning/hauling service. He was a fairly private and no-nonsense man and, during the course of the three years as a tenant, I got to know him pretty well. During that time, he would stop by regularly, unannounced, to just check in and talk or comment on how my partner and I had improved his property by doing landscaping, painting and various other improvements during our stay. He spent most of his life doing jobs that involved hard labor…so, he knew and appreciated how much work we had put into everything.
Over the next few years, we would help him through a variety of personal changes, the most impacting was when his wife was taken out of his house, without his consent, by her sister (the wife had Alzheimer’s, which Frank didn’t know), followed quickly by divorce papers and the loss of "our" house to the wife's sister (she and her husband were crafty and a bit greedy) and worst of all…he was never told where the wife was and never saw her again. Ever.
At that point, Frank was basically alone. He has a son in Chicago from a first marriage, but they had not spoken in almost 20 years. He has a couple of brothers and relatives up in Modesto (4 hours away), but they aren’t a close family and saw each other only on occasion. His previous wives had always handled the bank accounts and bills (Frank had never written a check), so with the second wife gone…we told him we’d help with those duties monthly, as well as stopping by to visit him, and doing our best to get him out of the house for dinner once in a while, although at that point…he got around pretty good on his own. When my partner and I split up and moved out of the house, I continued this tradition. He had become a friend and almost an adopted grandfather and I just couldn’t imagine saying “Good Luck” and moving on with my life.
This continued for the next 15 years.
He didn’t care for or trust most people, was VERY stubborn and prone to giving the finger to people who, he felt, were trying to cheat or mislead him in some way and never was shy about telling a doctor or tradesman to “F-off” if they got on his bad side or tried to charge him for something that he thought was a “waste of time” (He and Nana would have gotten along just fine). Thankfully, he seemed to find me entertaining and trusted me and would say “Good boy!” when I showed up to do his bills or bring him something. He also got in the habit of saying "You’ve been fool your whole life”, which, if taken literally, was true. But because of his "broken down English" (he would frequently point that out, amazed that I always seem to know what he meant to say) and interesting wording, what he tried to say was “You’ve been fooling around your whole life”, which, he explained, meant I seemed to be enjoying my life and doing things to keep busy and out of trouble. Which, I hope, is true.
He loved going to Santa Anita and betting on the horses (just a dollar or two…mostly just for fun and to get out of the house), was very particular about food ("not like Mom used to make"), yet loved eating at the Hometown buffet, was full of “back in Italy” practical home-remedies (Castor Oil seemed to be a cure-all), and had a memory that would astonish me at times. He could remember the smallest detail of any variety of past jobs, places he had lived, people he had encountered along the way and his idyllic life growing up on their farm in Italy.
He was also intentionally and unintentionally one of the funniest people I had ever met. He had this mischievous side to him, with a smile like a scheming kid that would slip out now and then when he knew he had probably done or said something inappropriate or wrong…but had decided to do it anyway.
A couple highlights:
About 10 years ago, I showed up at his apartment (he had moved into an independent living apartment for seniors after selling his house), and noticed that there was a distinct smell of bug spray in the air. When I asked him about it, he said that he was sure that there were bugs in his bed because his scalp was itching so much…so he had taken Raid and sprayed UNDER his pillows and sheets, before going to sleep, to kill them. As I quickly took the sheets/pillowcases off the bed and into the laundry, I told him that he shouldn’t do that ever again because it was poison and could kill him, to which he replied “I only sprayed it under the pillow…I sleep on the top part!”. Thankfully, he didn’t do it again…
Frank would call me fairly often to discuss whatever it was that he had been thinking about during the day. He had a lot of free time, because he had stopped working, and would often get something random on his mind and feel like he needed to share it with me. About 5 years ago, I got a call and he said, very seriously, “Ken…guess what?” and I said “What? Is everything okay?” To which he quickly replied “I took the filthiest sh#t today.” After a second to take that in, I said “Oh…okay. Is that a good thing?” and he said “YES! I’ve never felt lighter in all my life. I feel like I could run like a jackrabbit!” I laughed until I cried…
It’s probably another reason I find TMI (too much information) more entertaining than shocking. Sorry if the last story was a bit TMI…but it was what he said.
My friend Cindy just reminded me of another story...about two years ago, Frank had been feeling especially weak and had been sick off and on for a few weeks. Over that time, he would constantly tell me that he'd been calling to his mother a lot and that he wanted to be with her. "I've seen enough". I came home from running errands one afternoon and there was a message on my answering machine from Frank (he usually didn't leave more than "Ken...it's Frank", before hanging up). However, his voice and demeanor on this particular message was different...very weak...slow...resigned. "Ken...it's Frank.....I'm....going...." which was followed by a long silence...then the call ended. I thought this was IT...he knew he was dying and had called me right before. I panicked, called back several times. No answer. I called the landlord of his apartment complex immediately and said I was driving over there now and needed him to let me in. My heart was in my throat, but we got into his apartment and he was...gone. I checked for his car...it was gone. I thought perhaps he had tried driving himself to the hospital, so I spent the next 3 hours calling/driving to each hoping to locate him or his car. Nothing. I went home and waited for someone to call. About 5 hours later, my phone rings. It's Frank. I said "Where were you? You left me this message saying you were "going" and then hung up. I thought you thought you were dying!" and he said "No...I was going to the racetrack. I wanted to get out of the house". I said...."Well, you left "the racetrack" part off of you message and with all of your talk about wanting to be with your mother lately, I thought maybe you were on your way.", to which he calmly replied, "No...she hasn't answered yet." and then he moved right off the subject and randomly asked me if I had seen Debbie Reynolds on TV lately. He hadn't and thought maybe she might have died and, somehow, he had missed hearing about it.
It was hard to get really mad at him about stuff like that, because he was so matter-of-fact and childlike in his responses, that you just had to kind of let it go and try not to worry as much. He certainly didn't seem to...
Last January, I went out of town for four days and when I came back, Frank was missing…his landlord hadn’t seen his car since I left and had not heard from him. I knew that Frank never drove very far and, when he did, he was back in a couple hours. He didn’t like to “take the risk” of driving too much because of all the drivers on the roads (plus, he had bad vision/hearing and shouldn’t have been driving to begin with. Again…stubborn). I filed a missing person’s report and three days later, got a call from a patient at a nursing facility (not the staff…a patient) who said Frank wanted to talk to me (thank God for his ability to remember my number). I found him at a nursing facility, hanging halfway out of his bed, unaware of where he was or how long he had been there. Evidently, he had driven himself to the hospital the day after I left. They treated him, then moved him to the nursing facility without calling anyone to tell them (Frank had only three things in his wallet…his ID, his Medical card and my card/numbers).
He was never the same after that.
The past year has been a full time series of hospital, nursing and medical facility stays. I had to move him out of his apartment after a while, forced to go through all of his personal effects alone and having to choose what to keep, donate or throw away. It’s an odd feeling to go through the remnants of someone’s life and having to make those choices. But, he wasn’t able. He was far weaker, had developed some dementia by that point and often wasn’t sure what was real or not. He was prone to bursting out into tears while talking, often unaware he was even doing it and feeling embarrassed when he did realize it. He would call out to his mother regularly, usually when he felt pain or was sad, and tell me that she hasn’t answered yet. I would tell him that I was sure she was there and that I was sure she heard him. It’s awful to watch someone go through all of that, not to mention the separate nightmare of having to deal with insurance companies, hospitals and the variety of other medical-related mess that is our healthcare system.
I found him an assisted board and care living situation, but his condition got worse and I had to move him out of there a couple months later to a nursing facility full time. He has been there ever since, bedridden and staring at the wall most days. I would visit him every other day, the various nurses always saying “Oh, you are coming to visit your grandpa? That’s nice.” I eventually stopped correcting them about the fact that we weren’t related and just said “Yeah”. I would bring him two extra blankets from the nearby linen closet (he got cold easily), filled up his water pitcher with ice water (he wouldn’t drink water without ice) and making sure that he was comfortable. Thankfully, he always recognized me and when he was able, would say “Good boy!” or "You know what you're doing better than they do", then smile a bit in recognition and then go back to staring at the wall. Once in a while, there would be a horse race on cable and I would swing the TV around for him to watch. I did what I could to make him as comfortable as possible, all things considered.
I had avoided planning any long trips over the past year because there just was no way I could think about leaving him alone at any point. Sometimes you have to make choices in life that, although not everyone would agree is necessarily what you should do, you know, for yourself, it is simply what needs to be done. Frank’s condition would be fine one day, then not the next. Anyone who has cared for someone in that state knows what that is like. But, in the past couple of months, his condition had pretty much stabilized, for him, and he seemed to be settling into a regular routine/life. I decided to take this trip and get away for a little bit.
I asked Frank’s brother, Mike, up in Modesto (He and his wife had come down to visit a few times last year) to keep me posted on his condition by email, which he has. I met with Frank’s nurses/case workers and asked them to do the same. I slid a picture of Frank into my backpack, and even took digital shots of two framed photos that Frank has had of himself since I met him, with the thought that at least he was “with” me in some way and hopefully, in that same way, he could feel that too. I also had a nagging feeling that something was going to happen during this trip and, unfortunately…I was right.
Frank passed away today. He was 87.
I got an email with the news a couple hours ago. Evidently, he was taken to the hospital the night I left and has been in and out of there over the past couple of weeks. I guess his condition just got worse and, this time, he wasn’t able to bounce back.
It makes me sad to think of him being alone the past couple of weeks…the first time I have been unable to be with him in almost 18 years. I could have cancelled my trip, but he has been in and out of hospitals in worse condition over the past year and managed to make it through each time, so I figured I would just hope for the best and trust that it would work out.
As sad as I am, I do know that he has suffered so much over the past year…being unable to care for himself or walk, having to allow nurses to change him, feed him, and bathe him, the loss of his memory and frustration with knowing that he wasn’t getting any better. As hard as it was to watch, I know it was much worse to actually experience.
My hope is that he is now with his mother and other friends/relatives and, if all is as it should be…he’s feeling “light” and running like a jackrabbit somewhere up above.
I will miss you Frank and will continue to "fool" as long as I am able.