It has been a worrying time at the Schaffer’s, and at our house as well. Aaron’s Bubbie needs to see Arnold, so she accompanies Papa and Aaron and me on our visit. Arnold’s eldest daughter Susan, my friend since childhood, greets us at the door. She lets us know that her father is having a slow day. She needn’t really say anything. I can tell from the cast of her face; the pursed lips around an anxious half smile.
We creep into the den, four of us this time, and my mother Lois has not seen Arnold since he turned bad several weeks ago. He is even paler than before, but the swelling in his feet seems to have abated. He now has several dried white flecks about his lips and his head barely turns, only his eyes move across the room as he watches people deal with his struggle. I watch my Mom, my sidelong glances searching for her reaction to her desiccated friend and neighbor. She blinks hard, blinks again and smiles at Arnold.
“Hi, Arnold, “she says softly, as if speaking to a just awakened baby.
Arnold looks at my Dad, wordlessly asking him about the latest addition to our small party.
Dad chuckles, shrugs, and says simply, “Lois wanted to see you.”
We take our usual places. Aaron and I on the couch, next to Arnold’s chair, my Dad leaning in the doorframe. Mom sits on the edge of the couch across from Arnold. Mom is a trooper and she looks over at her friend and says, “It’s nice to see you Arnold.”
He says, “Lois, I’m not doing so good today.”
Aaron tries to jump in with a bit about his new snowboard. Being an only child, and for five years, the only grandchild, he gets frustrated when he is not the center of things. But he isn’t the center of things. Not here, not today.
My Mom and I share a familial trait. When we get nervous, we talk. And Mom’s nerves are showing. She says, “Nice your family can be near.”
“Where’s Mimi?” Mom asks. Mimi is Arnold’s wife.
“Upstairs,” Arnold rasps.
“Has she heard from many of her family? I remember her sister. What was your sister in law’s name?” she asks.
Arnold shrugs helplessly.
Aaron and I learned early that what Arnold seemed to enjoy was company, and conversation that he could listen to, but not have to participate in. We saw our questions just leave him more and more drained. Dad must have learned that, too, somewhere in his forty years of practicing medicine. Mom seems uncertain about his lack of response. It is nerve-wracking. She loves this family. She helped raise their kids, taught them in preschool; a good neighbor. In some families, there is conversation until the very end. Not here, not now.
Aaron tried another tack, but I cut him off with a nudge.
“Shh,” I said, “Let Bubbie talk. She hasn’t seen him for a while. We’re over here all the time.”
He growled in frustration but kept quiet. Arnold closed his eyes, his face suddenly as serene as a Buddhist master.
We got up to leave, first Mom and Dad while Aaron and I lagged behind. I took Arnold’s hand, bent down and kissed his forehead. It was dry.
“Be good,” I whispered.
The corners off his mouth went up. I released his hand, took my son’s hand and led Aaron out to the street, my parents already one hundred feet ahead of us.
Aaron’s face was angry.
“That was a wasted visit,” he blurted out.
I looked down.
“What?” I said, shaking my face in disbelief as I looked at his scowling forehead.
Very slowly and distinctly, as if I didn’t speak English fluently, he repeated himself. “That. Was. A. wasted. Visit.”
He bit off each word.
“I never even got to talk to him.”
The scowl left and his chin quivered. Aaron was near tears.
“Aaron, Bubbie hasn’t seen Arnold in a long time. They’ve been friends for forty years. She was nervous. She didn’t know exactly how to act at first.”
“ Do you remember the first time we went over to visit and you were afraid to look at Dr. Schaffer? Do you? Do you know why? … because you were nervous. Being around somebody who’s sick, but isn’t going to get better is really hard, isn’t it? It doesn’t get any easier just because you get grownup.”
“ Do you know what I see in my mind when I see Susan or Robert standing next to their Dad? That sometime I’ll be the one standing next to that chair. Not for a long time, I hope, but it’ll happen. It happens to everybody. It’s the great circle of life, just like in Land Before Time, it’s just that this is real. This is hard for everybody, our job is just to try and make it easier for Dr. Schaffer.”
“You know, Aaron, when Bubbie looks at Mrs. Schaffer, she’s probably thinking that she might be the next one. Wouldn’t that scare you?”
“I guess so Dad, but I still think it stinks. I didn’t even get to talk to him.”
“Aaron, we talk a lot about sharing. You talk about it at school. You better learn to share. Cause it’s not just about toys and turns. Dr. Schaffer is Bubbie’s friend, too.”