You just can’t trust a time portal. As soon as you think you can relax, eat a little dinner, another old family member drops by. Or, rather pops up.
“So,” says Uncle Shmuel, who has appeared out of nowhere and now miraculously speaks vernacular American English — albeit with a heavy Yiddish accent. “Nice place you got here. I see you keep your animals in your house. That one there sounds like a pig but looks like a dog.”
“They are our pets, Uncle Shmuel. The oinker is Nan. She just makes that sound. She’s kind of old. I think that’s the dog equivalent of ‘oy’.”
“Pets, shmets. Animals. In the house. What’s next? Toilets? Never mind, your life, your choice. Oy.”
“Can I give you something to eat? Tea? Coffee? Cake? If we don’t have it, I can go out and buy some.”
“Are you Kosher?”
“Uh, no. Not Kosher,” and I shiver, thinking of the bacon and ham that yet lives in our kitchen. “Oh, wait, here’s my husband. Uncle Shmuel, I’d like you to meet my husband Garry.”
Shmuel looks shrewdly at Garry, then at me. “He doesn’t look Jewish.”
Garry’s eyes twinkle. “But really I am,” he says and deftly pulls a yarmulke out of his pocket. You have to hand it to Garry. He’s very sharp. The yarmulke has “Joel’s Bar Mitzvah” printed across the back in big white letters. Fortunately, Shmuel doesn’t notice.
“So,” Shmuel continues after a pregnant pause, “You still have problems with Cossacks?”
“No. No more Cossacks, but too many politicians,” I reply.
“Cossacks, politicians, there’s a difference?” he asks.
“Not so much,” I admit. He’s right. There is no difference, except maybe for the absence of a horse.
“And for a living, you do what?”
“We’re retired. But before that, I was a writer. Garry was a reporter. On television.”
“What’s a television?” I look at Shmuel. That’s when I realize we are about to embark on an extended conversation. All I say is: “Oy vay is mir!” Which seems to sum it up.
Bill woke up refreshed on another warm and pleasant Florida morning. As he lie awake staring at the window shades, he wondered what time it could possibly be. In retirement, Bill did not worry about such things as alarm clocks. Yes, he had one just in case he needed it, but he tried never to set it. This Monday, however, Bill did have something he wished to do. So he decided to get up and start his week.
Not far away, at the county hospital, Harold was barely conscious. He had been transferred from Intensive Care to a regular hospital room. It was a trip from one bland room to another, although the current room did not contain so many machines humming and whirring, not that any of the noise was noticed by the recovering retiree.
The previous Monday Harold was brought to the emergency room. He had a stroke on Monday, or perhaps even the day before, no one knows for sure. Harold was not talking and they could only make a guess. The paramedics told a neighbor it did not seem to be a long time, but they were not sure.
Bill, and nosey Mabel Crockett, were the only neighbors who knew where Harold had gone. Neither knew of any of Harold’s friends or relatives, so Harold had to lie for a week in Intensive Care while Bill tried in vain to get news. Now he could finally go and see his retirement friend.
In truth, Harold was not in much better shape, but since he had moved to a regular room, he was allowed visitors. As no one had been notified, there was no one to visit Harold until now. Even though Harold had been a master planner in his profession, he had never planned for a life event of this magnitude. As a result, his future was in the hands of strangers to whom he could not communicate.
When Bill had finished his morning routine, including a light breakfast, he prepared for a trip to the hospital to see Harold. All through the previous week, Bill had tried to see Harold and was turned away on every occasion. He was not a relative and since there was no medical power of attorney or permissions granted, no one besides the medical staff could see old Harold.
At the moment Bill was ready to give up on Harold the previous week, a hospital volunteer slipped him the word the Harold had improved and would earn his way to a regular room. Now Bill was ready to go find out if Harold could tell him anything about friends or relatives. Just who should be notified.
Bill drove through the light traffic to the county hospital and parked in the multi-level parking garage. It seemed that all of the spaces on the first two levels were reserved for staff or the handicapped so Bill drove up and parked near the elevator. He rode down, walked across the roadway that lead to the Emergency Room, and entered the hospital.
The same receptionist who Bill saw everyday the previous week was on duty, but this time she was able to give him some information and a room pass.
“Good morning,” she said upon seeing Bill. “You will want to go to the fifth floor and when you get off the elevator, go right and down to room 502.” At that she handed Bill a room pass and instructed him to return it when he came down.
“Hello,” Bill said with a smile when he was finally able to jump in. “Thanks,” he continued as he took the pass and headed to the room. Oddly enough, no one ever asked to see the pass that Bill stuck in his pocket.
When Bill arrived at the room he discovered a whole group of medical people around Harold’s bed. They seemed to be discussing their plan of recovery for Harold. They all spoke as if Harold was not even in the room.
“He’s already been here a week and there is only slight improvement in motor skills,” one doctor announced to the gathering.
“We believe his cognitive skills will return to full capacity,” another doctor chimed in, “but only time will tell for sure.”
A nurse stated that Harold was being fed by a tube in the stomach because he was incapable of eating. The brown liquid in the bag hanging overhead would have to do for a while.
As the discussion of Harold’s condition, both good and bad, continued, Bill asked the nurse if he could see her in the hall. “Can Harold hear what all of you are saying?”
The nurse explained that Harold might be able to hear but perhaps he could not follow along too well because of the medication. “Then don’t you think we should be careful what we say about his recovery?” Bill wanted to know, trying to make a point she did not understand.
“Yes,” the nurse replied in a cheery voice, “please be careful what you say.” A frustrated Bill walked back into the room where the discussion of Harold’s condition continued.
A physical therapist discussed rehabilitation plans. This was followed by a speech therapist. She not only spoke of the relearning to talk, she also discussed the work that would be necessary to teach swallowing. This act that we all take for granted would have to be relearned following the paralyzing effect on one side of the body.
An occupational therapist was the next to speak. There would be a need to practice typical household chores, such as reaching for cans and bottles and opening them, preparing food, and doing everyday tasks.
All of the therapists and doctors announced a schedule they would follow each week. They discussed a timetable for success and how much they had hoped to accomplish in an optimal situation. As they left the room, Bill tried frantically to ask how long this would take and if Harold would fully recover.
As that was taking place, a slight smile appeared on Harold’s face. The Midwest planner was pleased at the extensive day-to-day plan they had laid out for him.
Bill woke with the Florida sun proclaiming the new day, as he did on most days. He did not set an alarm clock, it was against his retirement protocol. Instead, he waited for the room to brighten with the energy of a new morning.
As he wandered through his house, getting ready to meet the world, Bill thought of what he would do that Friday. It seems he had been on a futile mission all week. Nevertheless, he would try again, and give it just one more chance. It felt like the least he could do for his friend.
Bill’s morning routine could not exactly be described as a routine. Rather it was haphazard at best. He went to the washroom. He went to the closet. He went to the kitchen to start coffee. He went back to the washroom to shave. He looked again in the closet for what to wear and he went back to the kitchen for a cup of coffee. It took him over an hour to get ready to start the day, but that was Bill’s retirement plan. In other words, there was no plan.
His neighbor Harold, on the other hand, always had a plan. His time seemed to be allocated to the minute. While Bill liked Harold, he was not fond of the rigid lifestyle. That was no way to retire, Bill thought. Of course, it all did not matter now.
At the beginning of the week, Harold was found lying on his screened in patio and carted off to the local hospital, just a short distance away. It was not unusual for the Emergency Medical Technicians to pick up old timers in this part of Sarasota County, but it was still a shock to the few who knew Harold. Bill was one of those few.
Although a daily purpose was never part of Bill’s retirement goals, he nonetheless scheduled himself into a visit to the county hospital every day in a vain attempt to learn something, anything, about Harold’s condition. He was not immediate family and he was not named on any medical documents, since Harold, Planner Supreme, had no plan for this life-altering event. So Bill had learned nothing all week-long. Still, he could not settle his mind over the thought of Harold just falling over on his patio. So he kept trying to get a medical update.
When coffee was gone and toast was eaten, Bill was ready to make the trip to the county hospital. He stepped out into the Florida sun to find the day was already hot and humid. Neighbor Mabel Crockett, would tell anyone who would listen that “the air was so think you could cut it with a knife.” And so it was exactly that.
Bill hopped into his car in the driveway of his townhouse and hoped that the air conditioner would be at work right away. He was a bit disappointed at that, but he did not have far to go.
He arrived at the parking lot that was just two dollars for patients and visitors for four hours. “Don’t forget to have your ticket validated,” the guard warned Bill. If he forgot, the charge was double. Bill did not seem to care too much about that.
He entered by the Emergency Room and walked past the Trauma Triage and down the hall to the main lobby area. There he walked right up to the same receptionist who greeted him every day that week.
“Yes?” the elderly receptionist said with a sigh. She recalled Bill immediately and was prepared to go through the routine again.
“I am here to see my friend Harold. He came in through Emergency on Monday.”
“I know,” she said with a tired sound. It is the same sound that came with all of the disappointing statements she must give to visitors. “I’m sorry,” she continued. “Your friend is in intensive care. I can not give out information to anyone but immediate family.”
Bill started with his usual response, “But I might be…”
“I know, sir, and I am very sorry. It is the regulation and there is nothing else I can say,” the grey haired woman proclaimed with a heavy dose of sadness.
They stared at each other for a moment when Bill finally conceded. “I understand,” he said with a bit of a choked up sound. He could understand the rule, just not the dogmatic enforcement in this circumstance.
Bill started back down the hall toward the exit by the Emergency room. He passed pictures of important donors, including the Ringling Family of Circus fame. There were also paintings of peaceful ocean scenes that would seem to go with the best rooms at a Holiday Inn. Bill noticed none of it all week-long. He just knew how long the walk would take to the exit.
As he got half way down the hall, Bill felt a tap on his shoulder. “Excuse me,” a voice announced. “Excuse me, sir.”
Bill turned around to find the elderly receptionist right behind him. She seemed a bit out of breath, probably from her pursuit of Bill.
“I am not supposed to say anything,” she said softly, as if she was telling a big secret, “but what are they going to do? Fire me? I am a volunteer.” At that, Bill saw her first smile of the week.
“Your friend is doing better,” she stated, “And they should move him out of Intensive Care soon, maybe tomorrow.”
Bill grabbed the old woman and gave her a big hug. Tears formed in his eyes as he told the receptionist, “Thank you so much!” This was followed by another big hug.
So Bill thanked some woman he didn’t know for some news about a neighbor he hardly knew. The news itself really wasn’t anything at all, but it made Bill’s day complete.
If there was anything Harry did not need, it was more disappointment. He’d had a lifetime of disappointments, but it seemed he was in for another. Mistreated and mislabeled, he was now also abandoned. Unintentionally abandoned, but for Harry, alone was alone.
Harry came into the world with great hope. His mother picked out for her new-born the name of the most famous boy in the world. The little child was named after the boy wizard of book and movie fame, Harry Potter. She thought he even looked a little like the drawings of Harry on the book covers.
As he grew, little Harry had trouble learning. He never developed good reading skills. He often baffled his mother, telling her the letters moved, and words did not make sense when put together. Eventually, his mother told him he was stupid, and accused him of not trying. Just to confuse the issue, she followed that by telling him he was bright (which was true) and could read if he wanted to read. Which was not true. The further behind he fell in school, the more labels he acquired. But no one gave him the right label: “Dyslexic.”
The lad withdrew. He began hiding in the last place anyone would look for him. The library.
And so, a boy who could not read looked at the books in the comfortable Florida Public Library and waited. Maybe someone would come and read to him. Someone who would explain the stories. It was hard to find anybody to do this until he spotted Harold looking at the Harry Potter books. Little Harry decided that Harold was his new friend.
Harold had been going to the library every Tuesday and Thursday to read books on engineering and machinery. Sometimes Harold considered histories, but one day he strayed from his usual plan to look at the books about which he’d heard so much. The Harry Potter series.
When Harry, the boy with the reading problem, spied Harold in the “fantasy aisle,” he instantly knew he’d found someone to read to him. Since Harry had become rather withdrawn in recent months, he began the relationship by staring at Harold and the first Harry Potter book.
The librarian’s assistant misinterpreted Harold’s attempts to send little Harry away. She thought Harry and Harold were together. So she opened the usually shuttered reading room, making it possible for Harold to read aloud to the boy.
Harold read to the boy that first day but had no intention of continuing. Nevertheless, it turned into a regular Tuesday and Thursday affair.
Harry knew old Harold was not a great storyteller. He was obviously uncomfortable reading out loud. But little Harry liked Harold’s awkward attempts at it. And Harry was learning. It seems Harold was keeping an eye on little Harry and when he could see the boy did not understand something he read, he would stop to explain it.
Sometimes the boy would be emboldened to ask questions. Even though the boy with the little wizard face was not yet learning to read, he was building his vocabulary.
Then one Tuesday there was no Harold at the library. Harry waited rather impatiently, but his new friend never showed up. The boy roamed the lobby, then just stood there staring off into space, as if he was lost. It was a sad sight. Thursday brought the same scenario. When the little boy looked as if he was going to cry, the Librarian stepped in.
“What seems to be the problem, young man?” she asked Harry in a businesslike tone.
“He’s not here,” Harry said loudly, and tears rolled down his face.
“Shh. This is a library. Now, explain to me. Who is missing?”
Harry tried to explain, but was so upset he couldn’t. Seeing this, the librarian’s assistant rushed over to help. When she finished telling what she knew, the three stood there staring at one another. Harry remained dejected.
At last, the assistant suggested, “Maybe your friend is ill and can’t come. I’m sure he’d be here if he could be.” Of course, she had no idea how accurate she was.
“But he’s supposed to read to me today,” Harry whimpered.
“I know,” the helpful assistant said, “but he can’t come if he’s sick. You know how your mother makes you stay home if you’re not feeling well, right?”
The boy didn’t know. His mother ignored him when he was sick, figuring it was a ploy to stay home from school. The boy looked at the Librarian and her assistant, his face full of sadness and mistrust. So the assistant went on.
“I’m sure your friend will be back to read for you very soon.” Of course, she had no way of knowing when, or if, Harold would be back to read.
Even while the three stood in the Library lobby wondering, a doctor stood at the foot Harold’s bed in the hospital’s Intensive Care unit reading his chart. This Thursday, Harold could not read, talk, or explain anything to anyone.
It was just about time for Tiffany’s favorite customer to arrive, so she took a spot at the server’s station. That was located at the end of a long bar. There, between the bar and the back wall, was an area for water, extra glasses and silverware. Neatly tucked into an alcove was a computer with a touch screen. On the modern device, the waitresses could place their orders which would go back to the kitchen or alert the bar tender of something to prepare. They also had a spot to bring dirty dishes for handsome young Hispanic bus boys to take to the back kitchen. It was not unusual for a waitress to be there, but Tiffany was there for a particular reason.
From the end of the bar, at the server’s station, one could look down the length of the Wild West Restaurant and Sports Bar and see the front door. When Tiffany’s favorite customer arrived promptly at 1 pm, Tiffany planned to direct him to a table that was in her serving area. If he sat outside that area, she would have to let one of the others wait on Harold. She just did not like that idea.
Tiffany had started working at the restaurant and bar three years earlier. She was in her earlier 30’s then and had a friendly and energetic way that got her hired by the hard-working managers. After a while, she became a favorite waitress for many of the regular patrons. She usually worked through the lunch hour and into the early evening. Sometimes she covered on a later shift where drunken patrons tipped her well. Despite that, she still preferred the afternoons.
After she was well established at the restaurant, a retired gentlemen from the Midwest became a regular Wednesday and Saturday afternoon customer. He was very punctual, arriving right at 1 pm each time. Tiffany knew his order and he was easy to serve. When Tiffany had left for a few months to try a new, and allegedly exciting place, she found she missed the atmosphere and the friends at the Wild West. She did not realize how much like family they were until she went away. The customers were nice, the managers were fair and friendly and the other waitresses were like sisters. When she got the opportunity, she returned.
Harold started coming to the Wild West Restaurant and Sports bar shortly after he had left the cold Midwest climate for sunny retirement on the Gulf Coast of Florida. He liked the Soup and Sandwich special each Wednesday and Saturday so he quickly made that part of his schedule. You see, Harold was very well-organized and when he put something on his schedule, you could depend that he would follow through on it. That’s why all of the employees knew Harold was about to walk in the door.
Tiffany had a sweet spot for Harold, as the saying goes. Even though he did not say a lot, she found him rather endearing. She looked forward to his dependability as well as his smile. It just sort of indicated that there was some order in the world. Despite the lack of conversation, she knew he appreciated these twice weekly visits
When the front door opened at 1 pm, Tiffany was ready with a smile, but the patron was not Harold. Nevertheless, she politely smiled as a young man took a seat where Tiffany had planned to place Harold. It was OK, there were other places for Harold that he would like. A few empty tables had a good view of one of the televisions. So, she brought the young man water and a menu and returned to the server’s station. She tried to watch the door diligently, but the lunch crowd kept taking her away from her post.
At 13:30 it was apparent something was wrong. Time had gone by quickly before Tiffany realized Harold was late. He always came through the door at the exact minute. Some days she was convinced he waited around outside for a few minutes so he could be precisely on time at 1 pm. This particular Wednesday he was not there at 1, 1:30 or at 2. Harold did not arrive for lunch.
Tiffany’s disappointment was noticeable to her coworkers. She liked how nicely Harold fit into the routine, and now he was missing. Could he have gone to another restaurant? Could he have scheduled some place new? Could she have lost her favorite customer? Questions swirled through her head. What could possibly be the answer? Perhaps he was sick. Perhaps he had an accident. Perhaps he was stuck at home and had to make his own lunch. Whatever was the issue, she hoped Harold was doing well and had good food.
At that very hour Harold was indeed having lunch. A middle-aged nurse, who looked like she had not slept for a day or two, was hanging a fresh bag to feed Harold intravenously directly with the stomach tube. It was not the sort of meal he was used to on a Wednesday afternoon, but it seems he was in no position to object as the stroke had left him rather speechless. Today’s meal definitely was not on his schedule.
Charlene was delighted with her tree. Everywhere else, when someone had a statement to make, it was always stupid toilet paper. All over the tree and then it would drizzle or rain and for weeks, the tree looked like it had some kind of hideous fungus on it.
She had done a much better job. Bright, colorful. It was a cheerful, happy tree and what started with anger, ended in art. She barely remembered why she started “fixing” the tree. She thought something had made her angry and she wanted to show the world, but before she was even a quarter of the way through it, the project had morphed into Art.
Brianna was going to be really surprised when she stepped out of the house that morning. Not a single sheet of toilet paper. Just bright colors swinging gaily from the little tree by the gate.
If you have been stopping by this space for a while you may recall a series of stories about Harold, the retired planner from the Midwest. He tried to organize all of his time with care, but life had a way of throwing up little distractions along the way. Then came something he did not plan, a major detour. Links to the original stories follow this unexpected event:
Bill rolled over to take a look at the alarm clock. It was almost 8:30 so he decided to spring into action. He never set the alarm clock. He saw no need. He was retired and had always longed for the time when the alarm clock was not to be used to alarm him out of his sleep. Some days he got up by 7:30 am, other days it was 10. It depended largely on how late he stayed up reading or watching television.
Since he needed to make a call at 9 am, the affable retiree rushed about the house in a rather disorderly fashion, leaving a bit of a mess in his wake. That did not bother him as there would be plenty of time later to clean up the place. Now he was making coffee and giving just the slightest thought as to what he would buy today at the supermarket.
The only thing Bill tried to be punctual at all week was the Monday call to his neighbor, Harold, who lived just a few doors down. The way Bill saw it, old Harold probably relied on the weekly call.
The Midwest planner from down the block seemed to know no one and had little contact with the world. Bill was convinced he was doing Harold a big favor. He did not know exactly how Harold felt about the weekly sojourn to the giant Publix supermarket, however. It must have been a Monday highlight for the newly retired neighbor and new friend.
A quick glance out the window revealed a perfect Florida morning. Bill loved this area of Florida. In honesty, he settled there because the property values were quite depressed in Sarasota County after the big recession, and he got a good deal in a good neighborhood of old timers, like himself.
Now it was time to help out an old guy who needed a friend, so he called Harold on his AARP phone and waited for his tentative voice to respond. Bill was quite amused as he thought of the same surprised tone Harold had each Monday morning when he answered the phone.
Much to the amazement of Bill, there was no response. He let the phone ring a long time before giving up. “I wonder what the old guy is up to this morning,” Bill thought. So he decided to wander down the street and ring Harold’s doorbell.
As he went up the steps to the front door, a voice called out. “You ain’t gonna find no body at home, young man,” Harold’s next door neighbor called out as Bill chuckled to himself. Not too many people referred to him as “young man.” In fact, no one did. He turned around and walked in the direction of a woman who did seem to be a lot older than Bill or Harold.
Mabel Crockett was well into her eighties but still rather spry. She kept up on the neighbors by frequently finding an excuse to do things around the outside of the house. It was unnecessary as there was an Association to deal with maintenance and yard work, but she liked checking up on things.
“So where is old Harold this morning?” Bill asked in a cheery tone.
“They carted him off pretty early, I reckon,” Mabel said in a deep southern drawl.
“What?” an astounded Bill exclaimed.
“Well I ain’t one to meddle in other folks’ affairs,” she lied, “but I seen that Sunday paper still settin’ there on that landing he calls a porch, so I just took a walk over there. In the back I could see he was, uh, just layin’ there on the ground in that screened in patio. So I went on home, dialed 911, and it’s a good thing.”
“Good thing?” Bill questioned.
“Why, he was still breathin’ when they loaded him into that big ol’ ambulance. Leastwise, I think he was still breathing. The young feller drivin’ that big vehicle said he still seemed kinda fresh.”
“Fresh? That seems a strange way to put it,” Bill said with a rather incredulous tone.
“Well, I guess it was because he couldn’t a been layin’ there too long. Anyways, they said they was taking him over to the general hospital. Right over here a piece,” she said pointing to the south.
“Oh my,” Bill responded with a great deal of concern. He said good-bye to the old woman and rushed to his car.
When he arrived at the general hospital, he went right to the emergency room and inquired about Harold. His questions only got questions in return. “What time did he arrive? What was the problem? Did he come by ambulance or did someone bring him?”
Finally, the woman without the answers invited him to take a seat and someone would come out shortly. By “shortly” she must have meant an hour.
After the long wait, a nurse with a clipboard in hand appeared. “Are you here about the elderly gentlemen who had a stroke?”
“Stroke!” Bill exclaimed as he got all choked up about someone he barely knew.
“Yes,” she said calmly. “Are you the next of kin?”
“A relative perhaps?”
“Do you know who is next of kin or related somehow?”
“Do you know who his doctor is?”
The series of questions went on until Bill finally explained that he was just a neighbor. In fact, Bill did not even know Harold’s last name. The nurse looked disappointed but thanked Bill anyway and went back to her station. Bill followed.
“Excuse me, nurse, will I be able to see him?” Bill inquired.
“No, only immediate family,” she explained.
“But we don’t know if he has immediate family,” Bill said with a sense of urgency.
“I’m sorry,” she said as if she has had to say that a thousand times before.
As he left the hospital Bill realized that the master planner from the Midwest had no plan for this. Although Bill rarely planned anything, he decided he better go home and make one.
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