Archive for November, 2013

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No Ordinary Afternoon

November 21, 2013

That Friday afternoon in November started out to be an ordinary one for most Americans, I suspect. It certainly was for me. I sat in Miss Pemberton’s typing class, an unfocused high school sophomore concerned with a great number of things, none of them typing.

Then the announcement came over the school’s intercom. The President had been shot. An atmosphere of surreality descended over the country. During the following days, a strange collective trance seemed to envelop us fueled by the backdrop of a constant stream of TV reportage.

Tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States. This ranks as one of those rare events that occur — the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the attacks on 9/11 — that profoundly affect the entire society. They grip us and create haunting memories that we can’t help but carry with us. For the generations that have come since this happened, it is perhaps only history. But for those who were old enough to be aware on that day, it is much more than that. We remember — where we were, what we saw, what we felt.

The killing of the leader of a major nation is always of great consequence; that the country was ours — the mighty United States of America — made it even more so. The shooting happened in public view at a time when TV coverage had become widespread. The victim was young and charismatic, and his death seemed to signal an abrupt change in the national psyche and a loss of innocence.

There will be much public reflection on what transpired the afternoon of November 22, 1963. Television will revisit the old black and white footage. The famous Zapruder film of the shots striking the President in his open limousine will be replayed. The perspective of important people will be aired. But it is each individual’s own recollections of that afternoon that sustains the impact of this date.

Certain images remain clear in my own memory. Exiting through the halls of my school and seeing — for the first time — teachers with tears in their eyes. Watching my classmate Marty Altschul walking home alone down Prospect Avenue, his steps slow and his lanky body slouched in sorrow. Feeling the somber mood that exuded almost palpably from the expressions of every person encountered.

The heart of the football season was upon us. My high school team, at that time rather pathetic, had only one winnable game on its schedule. That game against the even more hapless Cliffside Park Raiders happened to fall on that Saturday. The game was cancelled as were virtually all other scheduled events that weekend, athletic or otherwise. Instead, our eyes were fixed in disbelief at our TV sets. The madness continued as the country watched accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, surrounded by Texas Rangers as they escorted him from the jail, shot. It became increasingly difficult to make sense of what was going on and why.

The funeral procession captivated the mournful soul of the American people, a veiled Jackie maintaining her composure with her children at her side, the riderless black stallion skittishly following the caisson with the flag-draped coffin, the constant thrumming of the drums.  Our sorrow crystallized as we watched Kennedy’s son, not yet three years old, salute as the casket rolled by. We now faced an unsettled future, our confidence shaken, the possibilities — real or imagined — of Camelot shattered.

Much has been written about the sudden end to the flawed presidency of JFK and the subsequent controversy surrounding his death. That is not what makes this afternoon resonate still after half a century has gone by. Rather, it is the way in which this most disturbing and tragic event touched each individual on what was, by any standard of judgment, no ordinary afternoon.

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Goodbye, Old Friend

November 12, 2013

I last saw Arnold about two hours before his journey in this world came to an end. He lay in the hospital bed unresponsive, struggling for each breath. Bernadette told me to talk to him anyway, that he could still hear me. I had trouble saying what I should have said. I didn’t really say good-bye. I just touched his bony shoulder and told him that I would look after his house.

I now look at that old red house shrouded by overgrown evergreens across the street from mine, empty but for the memories. I have known Arnold since we moved here thirty-eight years ago, and I had spent much time there during the past two years.

Arnold was my neighbor. He was ninety-four when he left this world. He was one of the wittiest and most upbeat people I knew while he was in it. He lived a long and full life, remaining in his own beloved house until his final week. I suppose it was his time to go, but I miss him nonetheless.

After his second wife Lisa died earlier this year, Arnold soldiered on. He had difficulty walking, and the only way downstairs from the second floor where he spent most of his time was a rickety old spiral staircase. A home care aide — a kind and lovely woman of Ghanaian descent who was dedicated to him — came for several hours a day during the week and sometimes even on her own time on weekends. She would make him meals, clean and straighten, tend to his needs, cut his hair and beard, and most importantly keep him company. Sometimes she would bring along her little son who would call him Grandpa, something he’d talk about with pride. Another woman who Arnold and Lisa had befriended years earlier through their dog care business came on Saturday to shop for him. I would go over to help when help was needed and sometimes just to talk.

We would normally talk about current things — how he missed Lisa, how Bernadette’s parents were doing, the state of his own health, the difficulties of making ends meet. But at other times he’d tell me about bygone years. Arnold could tell his stories with great verve and a sparkle in his eye. The one about the time he guarded Italian prisoners of war at a base in South Carolina during World War II, how his first wife Rita would come to the gate to meet him after his duty ended, smiling and waving at those prisoners, how they were so taken with her they baked a cake for her when they found out it was her birthday. The one about how he met and wooed his second wife Lisa, how she would come into the store in which he’d taken a part-time job and buy one of everything — one apple, one muffin, and finally, at the liquor counter where he worked, one small bottle of wine — until one day he asked since she was alone perhaps he could join her sometime for a bigger bottle of wine. There were stories about his younger years growing up in the Bronx, about the many dogs in his life — the ones he’d owned, the ones he’d cared for. But other stories he told with melancholy in his voice,  about Rita’s unexpected early passing, about the illness and tragic death at age fourteen of his son, a sorrow that stayed with him forever.

Whenever business needed tending to, he would call me, usually for a trip to the bank or the post office or the pharmacy. Calls of a more urgent nature came as well, for Arnold began falling with greater frequency. He had broken a vertebrae in his neck two Christmases ago in a fall, so this became a matter of great delicacy. Both small and frail, Lisa could not get him up, so Bernadette and I would go over and gingerly position him so that the two of us could lift him without disturbing his neck. All the while Arnold would be making  jokes.

One particular time the call came during supper. We ran over to find Arnold on the floor in the dining room. A whining dog could be heard from behind the closed kitchen door. They still occasionally cared for a few clients’ dogs from their former business.

“Are you okay, Arnold?” asked Bernadette, ever the nurse.

“I sure hope so,” replied Arnold. “I can’t die yet. I still have payments to make on my car.”

The dog, a large beautiful white mixed-breed, then came in and sat next to Arnold, gazing at him with what seemed like great concern.

“I think he’s worried about me!” he quipped.

After Lisa’s passing, Arnold became less and less mobile. Several times when he fell, the fire department had to come to help him up because the situation would be too difficult for us to handle. He would joke with them as well as he lay on the floor.

There reached a point when Arnold could no longer navigate the spiral staircase, so he remained upstairs. He either sat in his bedroom   to eat and watch TV or used a walker to get to his “office” in the spare bedroom where he would occupy himself for hours on his computer. Bernadette suggested that he get a hospital bed downstairs thus enabling him to live on the main floor. There, at least,  he would be able to get to the kitchen and have access to the entrance of his home. After considerable red tape and bureaucratic snafus, this was accomplished.

Of all the items I moved downstairs for him, the most important was his computer, crucial to Arnold because it had become his primary means of passing the time and engaging in the outside world. His laptop sat on an old desk filled with a clutter of papers and surrounded by a tangle of wires plugged into various power strips in a style worthy of Rube Goldberg. I traced each to its device: fax machine, printer, router, telephone, desk lamp. I finally extracted the laptop and brought it to the desk in his new quarters. Next job — getting him back online. Not being technically inclined, I enlisted the aid of Leo, our neighbor two doors down. He connected to the WiFi network from his house, but the signal was weak, and Arnold didn’t know either what his network was called or what the password for it would be if we did find it. Finally Bernadette remembered that this information could be found on the side of the router, and Arnold, smiling ear to ear, was back in business.

One of my last trips to his house came when Arnold called because he couldn’t get out of his new bed. When I arrived, he explained that the mat at the bedside had slid away when he put weight on it, and his new slippers didn’t grip the floor well enough for him to stand. I helped him up and into his office chair which he used to roll wherever he needed to go, propelling himself backward as if in a rowboat by pushing off with small steps.

Later that day, I made a side trip to Home Depot and bought a non-slip runner to bring to him for his bedside. I brought it over and put it next to his bed and tested it to make sure it didn’t slide. It did not, but a hitch in the operation occurred when Arnold tried to wheel his office chair next to the bed. The edge of the runner buckled up from the wheel trying to pass over it. I returned home for some double-sided tape for the edges. Several test rolls proved that problem solved. He asked me to come back early the next morning to unlock the door because the podiatrist would be making a home visit.

At 7:30 the next morning, I unlocked his door and entered to find Arnold on the floor near his bed.

“Arnold! Are you all right? What happened?”

“I fell last night trying to get out of my chair. I spent the night on the floor. The bed is a lot more comfortable.”

“Why didn’t you call?”

“I couldn’t. I already had put the phone on the night table and couldn’t get to it.”

I ran home to get Bernadette. She propped him up a bit with a pillow to make him more comfortable as we debated how we might get him up. He was on his side in a very awkward position. Arnold said just to call 911.

The firemen who came a few minutes later had been there several times before, so they were familiar with Arnold and his situation.

“So you spent the night on the floor?” one of them said.

“Well, unfortunately, I did. Have you ever spent the night on the floor?”

“I did, but I hadn’t planned on it,” the fireman chuckled.

“Me neither,” said Arnold with a smile.

They managed to lift him up and get him seated in his roller chair with more than a few groans from the poor old guy. He must have felt miserable after lying there sleepless most of the night on the hard floor, but he didn’t complain. Arnold thanked the firemen and insisted despite their prodding that he didn’t need any medical attention. Bernadette and I left after he had settled in to wait for the doctor. His home care aide would be arriving shortly as well to make him breakfast.

The next few days I didn’t get over to see Arnold because we had much to do and were away for most of the weekend. That Monday morning when I came home from class, a neighbor came over to tell me that an ambulance had come to take Arnold away. My heart sank at the news. Teresa, his aide, had left a note on my mailbox to call her. I did, and she told me that since his night on the floor Arnold became so fearful of falling again that he was spending the nights in his office chair trying to sleep. She said he was breathing rapidly and didn’t look well at all. A visiting nurse who had been scheduled to come to change the dressing on a leg wound saw him and immediately called the ambulance.

We visited him the next day in the hospital. He said he felt better and even joked a bit in his normal manner, but his lungs were congested and he had an IV. Bernadette felt pessimistic about his prognosis. On our next trip there, her fears turned out to be reality.

I wish I could have told Arnold how special I thought he was, how much I admired him for his indomitable spirit and his good humor and his zest for life. I wish I could have said a proper farewell. I guess this will have to be it.

So goodbye, old friend. I hope your passage was peaceful. I think of you each time I walk out my door, no longer to take out your garbage or pick up a prescription or chat about your day, but only to gaze wistfully at your old red house without you in it. I miss you, Arnold, and will remember you always.

Arnold's house

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To Honor Those Who Have Served

November 11, 2013

Remember

Today is Veterans’ Day. For many Americans, it is not such a notable holiday. There are parades here and there and a few stories on TV news magazine programs. The Post Office, government offices, and courts are closed as are some schools (their option). But I wonder about the emotional connection that seems to be missing. I fear that the impact of the significance of this day is minimal for far too many Americans .

However, for some Americans, this is a day that cannot be ignored. These Americans are the ones who have served in war. They are also the fathers and mothers, the sisters and brothers, the husbands and wives, and the sons and daughters of those vets.  This day is a time to acknowledge the sacrifices they have made, something in my opinion that should be done at every opportunity, not just on one day.

Since its institution as a holiday in 1919 to commemorate the November 11, 1918, cessation of fighting during World War I — supposedly the “war to end all wars” — there have been numerous occasions for American soldiers to be called to take up arms. World War II. The Korean War (or Korean Conflict for those who like to overlook reality). The Vietnam War. The Gulf War. The Iraq War. The War in Afghanistan. And if history is any indicator, there will be others yet to come.

We need to pay tribute to these Americans who have heeded that call even if we are not one of them. We need to think about those who went to war and returned forever affected by their experience. We owe them that much.

If you are not a veteran of war, if you have not been sent away from your home and friends and family to a strange and hostile far-off land, then you can’t know what it’s really like. You have not had to experience the often random and brutal death and destruction that is part of war. That is understandable. But you can do something to open your eyes to the realities that others have lived through on your behalf.

Read what those veterans who have served have written about these realities. They wrote what they did to try to get you to understand — at least a little bit — what it was like to be there, and what it is like to carry the scars, both physical and emotional, back home again. Read the poems of Yusef Komunyakaa about the soldiers’ perilous life in the jungles of Vietnam or those of Brian Turner who writes with such insight about the trials of serving in the Iraqi desert. The time and location may differ from war to war, but the essence of the experience remains the same. Whether you agree or not with these or any other wars, the people who are sent and who must make the sacrifices deserve your attention.

Visit the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. Touch the names on that shiny black wall and watch those who come to mourn or remember. Talk to a veteran, at the very least to thank him or her for their service. Talk to their family members to perhaps feel some of their emotion and reflect on the situation in which they have found themselves. Better yet, do something positive to aid a vet who is in need, or contribute in some way to those who are already doing so. The Wounded Warrior Project is one such organization which has been doing wonderful things. Check out their website. Help in whatever way you can, even if it’s making a small donation.

So today is Veterans Day. Do what you can to recognize them today. Pay attention to their stories in whatever form they present themselves. Remember their stories on normal days as well because their normal days in many cases have been forever changed. Though it is, I believe, our obligation to do so, start to look at it as a privilege to honor those who have served.

To paraphrase the words of my friend Sarah, the proud daughter of a Vietnam vet, Happy Veterans Day to all the people who left everything behind to fight for our country and who teach us about the true sacrifice of war.

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Like Young Lovers Do

November 5, 2013

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Mark and Maggie got married.

Each followed a long and sometimes trying path to arrive at this most blessed event. Only they know all of the twists and turns and sometimes dark corners through which they had to journey. But Mark and Maggie found each other. The strands of their lives wove together to merge in love and harmony, and this joyful union became a reality.

How I became involved in this marriage is a story I can tell, one with its own twists and turns.

I have known Mark and Maggie since their arrival many years ago at the school in which I taught. Mark started as a substitute and then got a position as a reading teacher. Maggie was initially a first grade teacher, then moved up to fourth, and eventually ended up as the seventh grade English teacher. Both of them are terrific teachers, the kind you would want your own kids to have. They are funny and kind, insightful and resilient, patient and honest, and beloved by all. They are my friends, and I am forever grateful for that.

Char is also my friend. She was from Paterson (as was Mark, as fate would have it). I met Char on the other side of the world when we both served as volunteers in the Peace Corps. Life separated us for three decades until the technological miracle of the internet enabled us to reconnect. I am forever grateful for that as well.

Char is a master story teller, and about a year ago she told me the tale of how she married two of her friends in California, where she now lives. And how exactly does one do that? By becoming an ordained minister. Online. Just like that, one can be the means by which young lovers can legally be joined in wedlock. At that time she told me that I should do the same because one never knows. I merely chuckled at the thought.

This spring a group of friends with whom I taught met for dinner. I don’t see them as often since my retirement, so I relished the thought of the evening together for we always have a good old time. However, it was to be more eventful than I had expected. Over cocktails and out of the blue, Maggie announced that she and Mark would be getting married. Amongst all the oohs and ahhs, the suggestion sprang forth (I honestly don’t even remember from whom) “Why doesn’t Donald marry you!”

So what are the chances that this would progress beyond this seemingly flippant comment during dinner? Well, Maggie and Mark liked the idea. They would not be getting married in a church. I have been good friends of both for many years. So why not Donald?

And that brings us back to Char. The following day I returned to my old e-mails and found the website she had sent me. There it was. The Universal Life Church.

And just what is the Universal Life Church you may be asking? Well, so did I.

It turns out that this is no fly-by-night organization (depending, of course, on how liberally you want to interpret “fly-by-night”). There are many prestigious people who are and have been ministers of the ULC. The list is as long as it is diverse, including Conan O’Brien, Bryan Cranston, Ray Bolger, Hunter Thompson, Mae West, Paul Newman, Richard Branson, and all four Beatles. OK, so one must liberally interpret “prestigious” as well. But the mission statement of the ULC is quite admirable in any case:

“The Universal Life Church strongly believes in the rights of all people from all faiths to practice their religious beliefs, regardless of what those beliefs are, be they Christian, Jew, Gentile, Agnostic, Atheist, Buddhist, Shinto, Pagan, Wiccan, Druid or even Dignity Catholics; so long as they do not infringe upon the rights of others and are within the law of the land and one’s conscience.”

Not bad, huh? Except maybe for those stinking Pagans. But I digress.

I proceeded to get ordained myself. It was a grueling process during which I had to memorize passages from the Old and New Testaments, the Torah, the Koran, and the Upanishads…oh, wait a minute…that was to join the Masonic Lodge. But I did have to fill out an online application. And so on May 5 of this year, I joined the ranks of the ordained with this official e-mail notification:

“Let it be known on this date that in accordance with the laws of the Universal Life Church Monastery, as ordaining officer, I, Brother Martin, do ordain you into our ministry. From this day forward, you are entitled to all of the rights of an ordained minister. You have the authority to perform marriages, baptisms, and all other ceremonies of the church. You are an independent minister of this church. This is a position that carries with it a burden of responsibility; please respect others and comply with the laws of the land.”

So, on November 1, I joined in wedlock Mark and Maggie. The wedding was held outdoors. It rained all morning, but the skies cleared for them, and with the backdrop of the changing autumn leaves, Mark and Maggie walked down the aisle together.

In spite of not getting a chance to rehearse, the ceremony went smoothly (except for me not signaling the guests to be seated, quickly rescued by Gil, the groundskeeper, who did so quite gracefully, I was informed). It included several readings by Maggie’s nieces and nephew: an invocation of blessings from the Four Directions, a Celtic Blessing, and the beautiful Maya Angelou poem “Touched by an Angel.” I managed to slip in a few poetry excerpts too (oh, those English teachers). Mark and Maggie exchanged vows which they had prepared themselves, wonderful vows that came from the heart and moved many of us to tears.

I pronounced them Husband and Wife in my most reverent and official voice. They then turned to walk hand in hand into their new lives together, looking happy and beautiful beyond words, beaming from within. Like young lovers do.

And I am forever grateful for that.