Monday, October 12, 2009

A Slice Of Life

Apart from my blogs on Woodstock, I haven't used this site to interject real life into my ongoing discussion of various games. Today I feel compelled to share a tale of two strangers. When I aspired to be a fiction writer, I had a great title for a collection of stories: Strangers I Have Known. It's still a great title, I just never wrote the stories. I certainly lived them, especially in Las Vegas where tourists were quickly sized up, swarmed, digested, and spit out.

This is a recent story, in fact from the past two weeks. It's about two men I met, one day and one universe apart.

The first was part of a "heart partner" program set up earlier this year at the local hospital. It's a good program in which an upcoming heart bypass patient is paired with a former bypass patient. Last week my wife celebrated the first anniversary of her bypass, and a day before that milestone we had lunch with her latest heart partner. In these meetings, the program pays for the two patients and their spouses/caregivers to have lunch. We spend the hour answering questions and sharing our experiences. Our experience was all positive: a terrific surgeon and hospital staff, rapid progress, less pain and incapacitation than expected, less assistance required, a sunny attitude and plenty of support, and a minimal recovery time. We convey the importance of trusting the ICU nurses who have seen it all and are anticipating everything that could go wrong; the need for patience and satisfaction with small daily progress; the value of having a spouse give lots of physical and emotional support, and so on. We've done five of these lunches, and four of them have been fine. The couples have communicated well, both their fears and hopes, we've answered their questions and put them at ease, and everyone has felt positive about the surgery.

Then there was the couple I'll call Ed and Edna, both about 70 years old. She's having the surgery, reluctantly but ready to get it over with. We got our food, sat down, and started by telling her that the surgery wouldn't be awful as she expected and telling him that he wouldn't have to help her as much as he thinks he will. "Oh, I ain't helping her!" he exclaimed with finality. "She wasn't there to help me when I needed it. I ain't helpin' her! I'll drive her to the hospital and drive her home, but that's it. I don't know how she's gonna eat."

That was for openers, and the next 45 minutes didn't get any more promising. My wife lost her appetite; I was speechless. "I got my own problems," he went on. He clearly had Parkinson's and showed us the patient bracelet that confirmed that he had surgery earlier in the week. He also had the surliest attitude I've ever seen a man display toward his wife. We gathered that they had been separated for awhile, while she tended her dying sister, their closest relative. The sister died a month earlier. "I couldn't see her on the street," he conceded, "Plus she owns half the house, so she's back." Isn't that precious? His sneering hostility made Archie Bunker seem like Gomer Pyle.

He got to the heart of his beef soon enough, telling us about the time in the not-too-distant past when she was so sick that a priest gave her absolution. "You'd think getting absolution would make you think you're getting a fresh start," he told us. "But not her. She just kept eating and drinking the things she's not supposed to." He turned to her. "You brought this on yourself. You want me to tell them more? They won't like it."

We already didn't like it. He pointed to a stain on her sweater and bragged about how she was eating something and wouldn't shut up, just kept yapping and yaddaing until he bopped her (or the food) lightly enough to send the food flying onto her clothing. Nice. We tried for awhile to give them something positive to take into the surgery. She was scared of the whole thing but knew she had to have it done and was ready. He was adamantly opposed to her and anything she wanted to do. He had his own problems. My wife and I gave each other WTF looks but decided to hold our tongues, first because it wouldn't change anything and second because we have better things to do with our energy. We left there shaking our heads, having met our match in that obstinate bastard.

Here's the kicker. It came midway through lunch, after he did the absolution riff and quizzed my wife on her attendance record at Mass. Ed turned to me and asked, "are you Jewish?" "Yes," I replied. He turned to Edna and nudged her shoulder. "I told ya!" he said.

Good luck, Edna.

The next day at work, I got a phone call while playing with some research. It was the Hall of Fame museum bookstore, located just outside the Giamatti Research Center entrance. The nice lady there calls me when someone buys one of my books, so I can inscribe it personally. I scooted downstairs quickly and entered the bookstore with a "who's the person with impeccable taste?" In this case it was a 70ish gentleman I'll call Bob. He had a still shrink-wrapped copy of This BAD Day In Yankees History which I was happy to sign for him. "I'm actually a Yankees fan," said Bob, "though I got pretty disenchanted with Steinbrenner in the 90s and I've lived in Houston since 1980." I signed the book and we stood in the bookstore talking. He was a distant relative of Hall of Famer Mel Ott, so we talked about going to games at the Polo Grounds. Also talked about NY Giants history, and when I noted that I wrote a book about the 1911-1912 Giants, he got himself a signed copy of that one, too. I bring this up not because it proves how easily my books sell themselves, but for a reason that will become clear later.

Bob and I moved into the more spacious atrium in the library lobby to continue our conversation, about the old-time Yankees (he grew up watching them in the 1940s) and his favorite player, Joe DiMaggio. I took him out to a photo that's part of the museum's media exhibit, and told him a good DiMaggio story related to the photo. He laughed robustly and told me what a great time he was having in Cooperstown. He was on his way to Albany to pick up a brother or sister who'd be traveling with him. They were going to see a bunch of the sports Halls of Fame, starting with Canton before coming to Cooperstown, then heading east to Springfield and finally the tennis HOF in Newport. There was some leaf-peeping planned elsewhere in New England, all in all quite a trip. "Good for you," I said.

"Well," he smiled. "I have bone cancer and lung cancer, so I have to have my fun while I can." Indeed.

There you go. Who knows how long Bob has. He doesn't know. But get him someone to drive him around New England in October, give him a couple of books to read, and turn him loose. That's the kind of person I want to be around, people like Bob and my wife who extract everything they can out of each day. Let's not take that last phrase for granted. Did we manage to extract something positive from lunch with Ed and Edna? Sure. We learned that once in awhile there is a free lunch, even if you do pay for it in other ways.