Since we were divorced for 12 years, I didn’t anticipate that one day my life would include visiting him every other day. His doctor warned me, when he was in the hospital, “If they learn that Steve has no advocate, they will warehouse him for the rest of his life. He needs you.” For my son and because of the many times he helped me, I had to step up and be his “person." After all, we had remained best friends after our failed marriage. I was just 21 and he was 42 when we tied the knot and, of course, the marriage was doomed from the start. Still, he spent every holiday with us and we were parents and partners together throughout our son’s life.
The funny thing is that he used to call me “AdvoKate” and “The voice for those who could not speak,” because of how enraged I became at injustice and how I placed myself at unnecessary risk for others. For example, when I was a senior in college, I could not believe how many men were incarcerated because of dysfunctional childhoods. In my mind, they never had a chance, so I signed up to teach a poetry class at Rahway State Prison. When Steve found out, he was furious. “You know what kind of poetry you’re going to hear?” Since he was a truck driver, most of his words cannot be repeated here. But if you think of Andrew Dice Clay, you would be on the right track.
Other times, when I was in a department store and saw a parent striking a small child, Steve turned his back as I approached the woman and said, “Why don’t you try f-ing picking on someone your own size?” Even though I would be a terrible fighter if it came to that, the F word was usually enough to scare the parent and to make her stop. I would walk back to Steve and he would growl, “Get him, Tiger!”
Still, my visits to the nursing home were not noble in any way and I didn’t approach them with a warm, giving heart. I hated it. The place smelled like urine and more. His rotating roommates were all in different states of being permanent vegetables and the aides were incompetent. Steve was already in trouble for throwing a shoe at one after she left him on the toilet for 2 hours. Because even his trunk was paralyzed, he didn’t have the force to reach her with the shoe, but he tried. When they wrote him up for “misbehaving,” I marched to that nurse’s station and ranted, “I’d throw both shoes at you! How would you like to be left naked on a toilet for two hours?”
Meanwhile, Steve refused to leave his room to participate in any activities, even meals, because at 59, he was a full 20 years younger than most of the residents. I would beg him to, at least, go to the dining room for one meal a day. He’d say the best he could with a paralyzed mouth, “I’m not eating with f-ing people who need someone to cut their f-ing food!” I would reply, “Steven, you need someone to cut your f-ing food too.” He would simply turn away and the visit was over.
I tried taking him out of the nursing home to eat, but that got too difficult for me. He weighed 230 pounds and by the time I got him in the car and the wheel chair in the trunk, I was so exhausted. The last time I tried to give him a fun day put an end to the idea for good. I had purchased a new Sebring Convertible and I thought Steve would really enjoy going for a ride. I struggled to lift him and drop him into the front seat, fold up the wheel chair and get it into the trunk without scratching my white exterior. I put a New York Yankees cap on him and a Penn State cap on my head and dropped the top. I put Born to Run on the radio and took off on Route 78. The sun was shining and the wind was blowing my hair. I turned to Steve and asked, “Isn’t this great?” He replied, “I’m going to throw up.”
“What? In my new car?” I quickly pulled over and reached across him, unbuckled his seatbelt, and gave him a little shove so that his head would be facing down when he vomited. Oh my God, I forgot that his trunk was paralyzed and saw that his head was going right towards the sidewalk. I quickly ran around the car to catch him before he hit the cement. We both decided, with me doing all of the talking, that I wouldn’t take him out anymore.
In addition to all of this conflict, despite painting the biggest smile on my face each time I entered his room for two, Steve seemed to not even care that I was there. I was taking two hours out of every other day, after working full time, to stop to see him. I was basically a delivery girl… that’s it. “ Where’s my coffee? Where’s my donut?” And then he would stare at the television. The doctor explained to me that after having a stroke, his brain was so attracted to the television that it was such an effort to turn away and that I shouldn’t take it personally.
Well, since it was Halloween and I had to take my own son Trick or Treating, it was my plan to rush into Steve’s room, put the coffee and muffins on his food tray and leave immediately. I reasoned that the aide could cut the muffin for him after I left. As I entered the automatic glass doors, my stomach turned. After adjusting my sight from the bright October sun, I focused and saw a line of twenty to thirty wheel chairs all along the hallway wall. The first thing that I focused on was the plastic, orange and black, Jack O Lantern trick or treating buckets each wheel chair occupant had in his or her lap. In the wheel chairs were grotesque wrinkled, toothless witches; nodding, drooling vampires; hideous fairy princesses with sparkly pink crowns atop dingy, grey teased hair. Then, I saw Steve. He was wearing a red, plastic too-small fireman’s hat and a plastic yellow cape that resembled a fireman’s coat with red strings tied under his double chin. His wheel chair had a cardboard fire truck taped to the arm rest. My eyes scanned up from the photo of the ladder and hoses to Steve’s left arm, which was strapped in his wheel chair by a seat belt- like restraint. Within flashbulb seconds, my eyes scanned higher to see the elastic chin strap making a red mark beneath Steve’s unshaven chin. A little higher, I saw his stroke-affected mouth with one side so low into the deepest, most despairing frown. The last blow was the tear drop rolling down from his left eye partially erasing a red circle of makeup that was painted onto his face to form a rosy cheek. That’s when I lost it.
“What do you think you’re doing?” I screamed. Three aides, at different check points along the caravan of wheel chairs faced me. He’s not a goddamn child! He’s a grown man! How dare you?” I ripped off that plastic hat, undid the straps and ripped the cardboard fire truck into ten pieces within two seconds. I cut into the line and grabbed the handles of the wheel chair and pushed as fast as I could, running at full speed, until I was in his room. I quickly washed his face with brown industrial paper towels and Lysol smelling hand soap and carefully lifted him back to bed. I gave him a sip of coffee through a straw and cut his pumpkin muffin into bite size chunks.
When I calmed down, I had to do what I tried never to do in front of him. I cried hysterically. I sobbed openly and loudly. He reached his good hand out to take mine and struggled immensely to be heard. Even with his frozen jaw, drooping lips, and sputtering tongue, I received his message loud and clear: “Get him, Tiger,” he said. He squeezed my hand firmly with all of the strength he could muster, and turned his full attention to the television where Casablanca was playing on the Turner Classic Movie Channel.
I was relieved because within just a few moments, I knew in his mind, the real Steve was Humphrey Bogart saying sweetly, “Here’s looking at you kid.”