Click here to read chapter 1.
He sat in a wheelchair in a dingy room facing a mattress on the floor where his son's prone form lay sleeping, or unconscious, or dying, or dead; Hopewell couldn't tell. The room was familiar, and raw emotion was rushing through his brain like a strong wind. All he wanted to do was kneel down and learn his son's state, but he couldn't move his arms. Then panic started to set in.
He awoke from the dream to the same tiled ceiling above the hospice bed, and he could hear people whispering. He turned his head toward the source and saw Jessica and one of his daughters, both seated and leaning close to each other, so that they could hear one another. He didn't want to disturb their conversation, because his daughter's face was very stern, so he stared in their direction, patiently waiting for it to conclude. As he lay there, he wondered how aides were able to make such whispering sounds without using air, which wasn't being expelled from the lungs they didn't have.
His daughter's name was Sandra, and she was always serious. Folks used to say that she had her mother's sense of humor, meaning of course that neither of them had one to speak of. Her black hair and makeup were always in place, and her clothes were always clean, free of wrinkles, and pressed with severe creases. He couldn't see her shoes, but he had no doubt they weren't scuffed or worn. She was wearing a black suit today, which meant that she was going to court afterward, probably to argue some dreary corporate lawsuit. He had never been all that happy about her choice of profession, wanting children who would stick up for working stiffs like him instead of arguing the minutia of corporate law.
When she was a child, he had repeatedly tried to get her to answer to “Sandy,” but even then she always insisted on being called by her given name.
When they stopped whispering to each other and Jessica again straightened up, Sandra began looking for something in her purse. Jessica said, “Good morning again Mr. Hopewell.”
“Bert,” he said. “I keep tellin' ya ta call me 'Bert.'”
Sandra looked up and closed her purse. As she was moving her chair towards his bed side, Jessica said, “I'm sorry, Mr. Hopewell, but it would be difficult to comply. The rules of the hospice in regard to how clients are to be addressed are very clear.”
“Well, ya should make an exception f' me.”
“No, she shouldn't, Dad,” said Sandra, still pulling her chair towards him. “If a supervisor heard her addressing you that way, it wouldn't reflect well on her.” She situated herself, making sure nothing was out of place or in danger of being wrinkled, and continued, “How are you this morning?”
“I'm great,” he teased, “The aides say that I'll be goin' back home soon.” She rolled her eyes but didn't say anything. “OK,” he continued, “I won't be goin' home soon. My body's fallin' apart, and the only way I'm goin' anywhere is feet first. Ya happy now?”
“Dad, please, this isn't easy for me either.”
“Well, a little laughter would make it easier all around, but you'd never do that, would ya?”
She decided to let it go. “Are the aides treating you well?”
“Yeah, Jessica's been great.” He acknowledged the aide with a nod of his head. “Ever'one here is won'erful, and the derms on my skin keep the pain away. Better n' it was in dat hospital, when they was tryin' ta keep me alive alla time.”
His ear-phone started to twitter. He grabbed the device and fumbled its fitted form into his ear. Immediately the twittering stopped and a soft female voice told him that “Jim Crenshaw, director of Client Relations for the Westfield Hospice Center, was calling.” He said, louder than his normal voice, “I'll take the call,” and he immediately heard a man's voice say,
“Hello, Mr. Hopewell?”
“Hello Jim,” he continued loudly. “What's up?”
“I have your aide, Jessica, on the line with us, and she has told me that you have requested that we make a special exception to the rules governing how you're to be addressed by the aides. Is that correct?”
“Yeah, I'd like Jessica 'n the other aides ta call me 'Bert' instead-a 'Mr. Hopewell.'”
“That's fine, Mr. Hopewell, consider it done. Is there anything else I can help you with?”
“Yeah, you can call me 'Bert,' too.”
The other emitted a short laugh and said, “OK, um, Bert. Will that be all?”
“Yeah, that's it, thanks.”
“You're welcome. Goodbye.”
The call immediately disconnected. He looked to the aide, still sitting up straight, hands in her lap, and said, “Thanks, Jessica.”
“You are most welcome Bert,” she responded.
As he was taking the device our of his ear, Sandra said, “Dad, it works best if you keep it in your ear all the time.”
“Why? My ears are fine. I don't need a hearing aid.”
“It's not a hearing aid, Dad. Well, yes, people do use it that way, but that's not it's primary purpose. It has to learn the sound of your voice, so that it can connect them with your brain waves. It can't do that unless you keep it in your ear.” She paused for a moment. looking at her hands in her lap. Speaking to them she said, “It's embarrassing hearing you speak when you're on the phone.”
He waved his hand in disgust. “The only reason I got the damn thing was 'cause they stopped sellin' cell phones.”
“Been a long time since those days, Dad.”
“Yeah, and I'm-a man-a them days. Mark my words, someday, when you're around my age, there'll be some new tech that ever'one'll be usin' 'cept you, 'cause ya won't be able ta get used to it. Your kids'll tease you about not using it n' all.”
“I doubt I'll ever have kids.”
“Then your sister's kid will. Either way, you'll know how it feels ta be so old you can't learn new things anymore, and ever' new thing is just a reminder that yer left behind.” He turned to Jessica. “Ain't that right, Jessica? Your chassis' a thirty-three-ten. That makes you much older n' me. We're just a couple a old farts, ain't we?”
Without missing a beat, Jessica rolled her eyes toward the ceiling and said, in a spot on Yiddish accent, “Oy, gevalt, eer bito bey'deh meshuga.”
He giggled immediately, but Sandra's face took on a look of mild shock. “Dad, I think she may have just insulted us.”
“No, she didn't. She's teasing. ”Turning his head towards Jessica, he continued, “Ain't cha?”
“Of course I am.”
Twisting to the aide, a confused Sandra asked, “Why was that funny?”
Her father immediately exclaimed, “Pfft--if you have to ask, it ain't gonna be funny.”
Turning back towards him, she said, “I'm not interested in the joke itself. I just want to understand why you found it funny.”
“I dunno, I can't explain it. It's just funny.”
Jessica said, “Shock is often a driver of humor. The last thing anyone expects from an aide is an exasperated call to the heavens in another language. And Yiddish phrases, more than any other, seem to elicit the most mirthful reactions.”
Sandra turned toward the her, “Except for me.”
“Yes, except for you. . .”
“Yes?” Sandra prompted.
“I don't know if anyone has made a study of this, but I've noticed that the use of Yiddish has been declining and I suppose that people of your father's generation will be the last who will find humor in--”
“Hold on,” Sandra exclaimed, “I've got a call.” She turned her head, looked at her lap, and was silent. After a few moments, she looked at her father and stood up, adjusting her purse on her shoulder. “That was my legal aide reminding me that we have to leave now if we are to be in court on time, so I've gotta go.” She kissed her father on the cheek.
“But you jus' got here,” he said.
“I've been here for quite awhile, Dad, but you were asleep for most of it. I'll be here tomorrow morning, and Patty will be in this afternoon.” To Jessica, she said, “See you tomorrow.” The aide nodded, and they both watched her briskly leave the room.
Bert said to Jessica, who was still peering through the doorway, “Saved by the bell, huh?”
She turned toward him, “Indeed.”
“Where were you going with that line-a bull?”
“Out onto a high-wire without a net, I suspect.”
“My 'line of bull,' as you put it, is known as a 'white lie.' It is a set of strategies used to get out of situations where speaking the truth would not be socially appropriate.”
“I thought aides couldn't lie.”
“I was not, strictly speaking, telling a lie. The use of Yiddish in the comedic arts has been declining for years, and I was using that fact to try and redirect her attention from a discussion of her sense of humor--but you are correct in that we are incapable of deception.
“But ain't that still tellin' a lie?”
“Yes and no. There is one exception when it comes to maintaining cordial relationships. Admittedly, it is an ethically fraught strategy, and is to be avoided where possible.”
He thought about this for a moment and said, “You ever done that wit' me?”
“No, I have not.”
“You tellin' me the truth?”
“Yes.” Raising her right hand, palm out, and while making a crossing motion over her chest with her left, she added, “Cross my batteries and hope to power off permanently,” and smiled.
All text copyright ©2013 Peter K. Levy