The Great Plotnik

Sunday, January 02, 2011

The Hundred Year Old Man

The Chief turned 100 yesterday. Sadly, he couldn't come to the party. But we all remembered him. If Duck and I had been in Stiletto City we'd have made the big boychik a martini.

Here's a story Plotnik wrote about his stepdad, just after he died.

Chiefie’s Last Chocolate Bar

I could drop dead tomorrow. A cabbie could run me over in the crosswalk. A chunk of granola could block my carotid artery. Leukemia, carcinoma, stroke, all possibilities. I’ve got to live for today, this hour, this minute. These are the kinds of thoughts I have when people I love die.

No matter that the person in question was one week shy of 94 years old. For months Harry the Chief had been telling me “Listen to me, boychik. I’m 93. I'm not going to last forever.” We didn’t want to listen. We thought he would live at least as long as his mother, who made it to 99.9.

But a week before Thanksgiving, Harry blacked out and fell. My Mom saved him that time, but he fell again a few days later. This time, when the paramedics took him to the emergency hospital, his heart valve was practically sealed shut. He was no longer to be allowed out of bed, even to walk to the bathroom. Living like this was not an option for The Chief.

They tried a risky angioplasty to repair the valve, but found a blockage in his carotid artery. They fixed the first blockage but found a second. After each procedure, Harry was re-confined in the Intensive Care Unit. ICU’s are staffed by humans, who have priorities. You help the child or the young mother before you help the 93 year old man. He kept picking up hospital-borne staph infections. When I saw him last, he was delirious, convinced he was in a bad hotel where no one would tell him the check-out time.

Two nights later, his heart raced and his oxygen levels fell. He had signed a Do Not Resucitate order, but they tried to bring him back anyway. The Chief wasn’t buying. And that was that.

In the end, I feel blessed that I got to know this man -- he lived several lives and had many different layers, as we all do, and you can't complain about 92 1/2 years of good health. I met Harry when I was 15. Forty four years later he was still solid as a rock. He bailed me out of jail in college and never told Mom. "Boychik, why don't we just keep this to ourselves," he said. For that alone, he's in my Hall of Fame.

We had a nice visit that last Monday. I bought him a chocolate ice cream bar. I can see him now, chewing his ice cream in the ICU, smacking his lips, smiling. I kissed him goodbye on his bald head and he smiled again. I like having that smile in my mind now, because it was one of my jobs in life to make The Chief laugh. I always saved my best jokes for him. He particularly loved the ones with elaborate setups: “A rabbi, a priest and a one-legged bear are playing golf in Paris...”

And then he died. The next day Mom asked me to accompany her and Harry’s two kids to meet with Rabbi Shmotsky, who was to give the funeral oration, although he'd never actually met the Chief. We’d talk to the rabbi about The Chief, to give him something on which to base his eulogy, and he'd take it from there.

The Chief was proud to be a Jew but his jaw would have dropped if he could have seen Rabbi Shmotsky. I changed into a sweater and nice shoes to meet the man, but the Rabbi opened his office door wearing a Hawaiian shirt and cargo pants. Two guitars and a banjo were spread around the room. He kept glancing at his watch, as if he was late for an audition with The Singing Nun.

I was stunned. But I was mad at the whole process -- the Chief was gone. At the gravesite, citing the tradition that says “We don’t let strangers bury our dead,” the rabbi allowed time for each of us to toss shovelfuls of dirt on top of the coffin in the grave, then had us back away so the mortuary laborers could finish the job with a back hoe.

Returning to my mom’s house, our family and friends ate corned beef and turkey from Art’s Delicatessen, Harry’s favorite. At sundown, after most of the people had left, one of our religious cousins decided it was time to say Kaddish. This is a sacred obligation Jews like Cousin Jake take very seriously. One is supposed to face East, towards Jerusalem, and stand and repeat the obligatory prayers.

At the risk of offending Cousin Jake, to me the Kaddish sounds like it was written by Monty Python: “Oh God, You are So… Big! And Gosh, Lord, We Are So… Impressed!”

To do this for The Chief was distasteful to me, but Harry probably would have enjoyed it. He'd have said: "Take it easy, Boychik, I don't mind." Still, when Jake asked me which way was East, I pointed him North. So sue me. I say it was accidental, Barb says not. Either way, I now have another smiling photo in my mind of Harry enjoying the vision of the whole family facing Nova Scotia as they went through the rituals about which he couldn’t have cared less.

Later that night, and all the next day, we sat around my Mom’s house telling stories about the Chief. My son Danny laughed about the night in the Armenian restaurant, after Harry had lost much of his memory. He kept asking for coffee, but couldn’t remember drinking it. “What the hell do I have to do to get a cup of coffee around here?” he would yell at the flustered waiter, as cup after empty cup piled up in front of him.

Staci remembered Harry chastising a Save-On clerk for not realizing that Harry, an old Jewish man, and Staci, a young African American woman, were related. “What, you can’t see the resemblance?” he barked at the clerk.

My brother Ric remembered Deck The Rabbi. Ric’s wedding to Paula took place only six months after Mom married Harry, so it was the first event we had had with Harry standing in the Dad position. After the large, gala ceremony, Harry, Ric and Mel Meyer, Ric’s best man, went into a back room with the Rabbi to sign the Wedding Certificate. The Rabbi then insisted Ric pay him three times his agreed-upon fee. He said he was worth it. He also said he wouldn’t sign the Wedding Certificate unless Ric complied.

This Rabbi was a weddings-and-funerals guy, not anyone who knew the family. So he didn’t know about Ric’s infamous hot streak. My brother spoke softly. Had he heard Rabbi correctly – had he really asked for three times his fee?

“Pay, up Sonny,” were the last words the Rabbi spoke before Ric slammed his right fist square into the Rabbi’s chin, knocking him unconscious. The Rabbi dropped to the floor, landing directly on Harry’s shiny black wedding shoes.

Harry looked down at the Rabbi lying on the floor, then up at his new stepson. He nodded his head, didn’t say anything for awhile. Then, he put his hand on Ric’s shoulder and said: “Boychik, you killed the rabbi.” They all waited for the rabbi to wake up, stand up, sign the paper, accept his $100 gladly, and stagger to his car, then the three marched back into the party.


When it was my turn, I remembered a very different moment. It was Mom and Harry’s 25th Wedding Anniversary and the whole family assembled for the weekend in a rented house on Lake Arrowhead. On Saturday night we played the Desert Island game, where everyone wrote the name of his or her favorite song on a piece of paper and dropped the paper into a hat. We would then pick a song from the hat and try to guess whose favorite song it was.

It was simple to know a Sinatra song was Judy’s favorite and an Aretha song was Barb’s favorite, but I was surprised when I pulled from the hat a piece of paper on which was written the title “Is There Anybody There?” Although many in the room hadn’t heard this song before, I, of course, knew it well, because I had written it. And when I looked at Harry’s beaming face, I knew it was he who had chosen my song as his favorite.

At that moment, an Oscar and a Grammy could not showered me with more pride. I can recall that feeling right now, as well as see The Chief’s smiling face chewing the hell out of that chocolate ice cream bar in the ICU, enjoying it the way we’re all supposed to -- as if it would be his last.

Jan. 2005


At 6:52 PM, Blogger The Fevered Brain said...

Wonderful, wonderful stories. Happy Birthday, Harry!

At 8:23 PM, Blogger mary ann said...

Delightful, thanks for sharing this with all of us. We all love The Chief.

At 1:21 AM, Blogger J and J said...

Thanks Doug for sharing. I got pretty choked up reading it to Jerry, Uncle Harry was one very special Mensch!
Jerry especially was amazed about the story of Ric clocking the Rabbi...what a hoot!


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