On October 19, 2004, my mother, Meigh Eisler, awoke early in the morning with chest pains. She declined my father’s offer to go to the emergency room–she would wait until 9 o’clock and call the doctor.
When Dad checked on her again, Mom was dead–felled by a heart attack while trying to get to the bathroom.
At the time it seemed a good way to go. My mother was 78 and had a phobia about doctors and hospitals.
At her funeral, I attempted to explain some of my mother’s idiosyncrasies to the people who had gathered to pay their respects. My mother had been active in the community, especially in women’s groups. The synagogue was packed when I arose to speak.
My father, Bernard Eisler, known as Bert, never said much about my remarks. “It was kind of long,” he allowed.
When I mentioned how surprised my mother would have been at the outpouring of affection for her, he said, “A lot of those people were my friends.”
His attitude gave me some satisfaction that in my eulogy I had talked only about Mom and had said not a word about her 58-year marriage to my father.
Understandably, my father was worried about his own well-being after my mother’s death. “Topsy-turvy,” he kept saying. “I can’t believe it.”
My parents had battled a lot, but in the end I could see that through it all they loved and depended on each other.
As the mourners filled our house, one after another gave my 82-year-old father the same advice: Take some time. Think about what you want to do. Don’t act rashly.
To help him through the transition, our rabbi offered to set up a system where for 30 days someone would bring food to the house.
Instead, at week’s end he packed his suitcases and moved from Lynchburg to a senior-living center in Baltimore, a few miles from where my brother lived.
Once he made clear that he wasn’t going to accept plates of food from the temple ladies, moving to a place that served two meals a day seemed a sensible thing to do.
He would never again return to the city in Virginia where he and Mom had lived for 56 years. When we sold the house, he played no part in cleaning it out, even to salvage personal items. He was gone.
Five days after Mom’s death, my father was living in a new city, in a building full of strangers, with no car. My brother had told him that at 82, driving outside the familiar confines of Lynchburg was out.
My wife and sister-in-law had nothing but praise for his new surroundings. But I was concerned. I always had a close relationship with my father. We look alike. We share the black-hair gene.
My father loved newspapers and watching Meet the Press. He spent his life working in an office. I lived the journalist life that I knew he’d have liked to have had.
Unlike the others in my family, I didn’t take at face value the opinions my father expressed about things. I knew what he was thinking. When he said how much he liked his new apartment, I knew he hated it. He didn’t want to live in a building full of old people. He carped about the people who sat in the common room all day long.
“What are they doing there?” he would ask. “Why are they just sitting there?”
Most of the people who live in such places are women, and my dad wasn’t comfortable with women. After all, he kept pointing out, his wife had just died. He thought there was something inappropriate about dining or going to a movie with a woman friend. When a man in the building whose wife suffered from Alzheimer’s went to dinner with another woman, my dad talked about how wrong that was.
Whether the period of mourning was still in effect or not, Dad wasn’t in any shape to start dating.
Almost from the moment he arrived in senior living, he seemed to slow down to the common denominator of the building. Each day he seemed to get a little slower.
Still, at Christmas he was strong enough to travel from Baltimore to Delray Beach and stay for a week with my sister-in-law, who owned a condo there. He had enough money saved up to stay the winter in Florida. But he worried about meals. He would have to find a place that served meals; eating out would be too expensive.
After living his whole life in a town where a $150,000 house was a mansion in the best part of town and where dinner out was still less than $10, he got sticker shock when he looked at prices of condos or cruises.
After that week in Florida, he returned to Baltimore.
It was amazing to me that a man who had more than enough money to last the rest of his life spent most of his time worrying about his next meal.
What really bothered him was Sunday nights–the one night a week when dinner wasn’t served at the center. If I didn’t drive from Bethesda to Baltimore to feed him, he hinted that he would get nothing to eat.
Because I sometimes had other things to do on Sunday nights and my brother traveled often, I tried to explain to him that he could get food delivered.
Frozen foods sat in his freezer. He claimed, if you asked, that he knew how to use the microwave, but I think that was just bravado.
Once, my wife, Judy, made him some frozen chicken soup, and he called to ask how to defrost it. Until then, she said, she’d thought it was a joke that there were men who didn’t know how to boil water.
Dad continued to wind down like a toy with a battery that was losing its juice. He was having trouble keeping on weight, so doctors recommended that he drink Boost or Ensure every day. He couldn’t open the easy-to-open caps. Rather than ask a “stranger” to help him, he had us open a week’s supply every time we came to visit.
My dad had become a big Chicago Cubs fan, apparently because their games were on cable in Lynchburg.
With spring training under way, his life seemed to gain some purpose. Now, living in Baltimore and reading the Sun every day, he had two teams to root for, the Cubs and the Orioles.
And he made a friend, Leon Kaplan, a former Maryland Department of Transportation official who joined Dad for nights of watching the games. They became best friends, which did more good for Dad than the depression pills.
Leon had a car, which meant when I couldn’t get up on a Sunday night, Dad had someone to go out to eat with.
In late April he seemed to be doing fine. We took him to a concert at Strathmore Hall, and he negotiated the aisles and steps with no problem.
Watching baseball at night seemed to fulfill him. He was more up on the players than I was.
Three weeks into the baseball season, Dad began to complain that his heart was beating arrhythmically. I discovered that his new team of doctors had changed the levels of his medications.
He had managed to live with congestive heart failure for 25 years, but when he moved to Baltimore, every doctor he went to see felt the need to change something.
The heart palpitations seemed to be linked to problems with the medicine balance. Dad spent 3H days in the hospital and was let out in time for Passover. Now he had an oxygen tank and tubes to carry with him. I could tell what he was thinking: He was becoming like the other old people.
Dad came to Bethesda for Passoveron Saturday night. He brought his friend Leon with him. My dad sang songs and chanted the Kiddush. The bathrooms in my house are not on the same floor as the dining room, but he got up and down the stairs without help.
The following Tuesday morning Dad called to say that he wasn’t feeling well. We told him to lie down–maybe he had a cold.
On Wednesday morning he was very weak; he checked into the emergency room at Northwest Hospital near the center. He tested positive for pneumonia.
On Wednesday afternoon, although ill, he was still Bert Eisler. He was talking, he was feeding himself, he was expressing frustration. But when I went back to the hospital the next morning, his condition had changed.
He was talking, but I couldn’t understand what he was saying. I didn’t know how to respond to his unintelligible sentences. Once he asked for a sip of Snapple, and I was able to understand that.
At 12:30 PM, the nurses brought in lunch. “Here’s your lunch, Mr. Eisler,” they said cheerfully, as if everything was normal.
Except Mr. Eisler couldn’t hold a fork. This change in his condition seemed to arouse no concern among the doctors and nurses. It just seemed to be the way it was. “The doctor will be by later,” the nurses would say.
I took the fork and fed Dad some macaroni. He looked up at me with the eyes of a puppy.
For 30 years I harbored the usual issues between fathers and sons. Adequacy and inadequacy. Living up to expectations. Now I was feeding my dad what would be one of his last meals, and whatever tension had existed between us melted away.
I brushed the macaroni off his gown and held the straw to his lips. I felt his forehead and patted his black hair. I called my brother, who was on a business trip in California, and told him to get home.
That night, in my absence, they put Dad on a respirator. He had signed a living will, but according to the doctors and nurses present at the time, when the moment came to choose between breathing and not breathing, he chose breathing.
Seeing him on Friday was the most painful day of my life. Tubes were stuck everywhere. He was heavily sedated.
On Saturday morning he was removed from the breathing apparatus and moved up to the hospice floor. He could breathe on his own. One of his doctors said the decision to put him on the respirator was a mistake: “You don’t want to know what kind of people work in these hospitals at night,” he said.
While we were there, the phone rang. My daughter, his only grandchild, was on the phone. Dad interrupted his labored breathing. “Is that Sara?” he rasped. “I love her.”
By Monday afternoon, he was working hard to keep breathing. Once in a while he would say something, then rest. I had told friends that Dad would be okay as long as there was a ball game to look forward to.
My father’s last words to me were “What time are the Orioles on tonight?”
Unfortunately there was no game that night.
This article appears in the August 2005 issue of The Washingtonian.