ONE MORE CUP OF COFFEE BEFORE I GO
They say I shot a man named Gray
And took his wife to Italy
She inherited a million bucks
And when she died it came to me
I can’t help it if I’m lucky.
It wasn’t long after Jimmy died that I found myself standing alone in the big silent house in Manhattan Beach, wondering about my next move. I had never allowed myself to focus on the aftermath. I just figured that whatever would be would be. Let it come, I had thought fatalistically. In truth, I was flummoxed about what the world would look and feel like without Jimmy. So I did what Ialways do: I kept moving.
Men in white coats and vans had come and gone in groups, collecting the vast amounts of medical equipment. Except for the flat-screen TV over the fireplace and a simple wooden cross I had mounted just inside the bedroom door, Jimmy’s hospital suite was stripped bare and painted. The deep mounting holes that held the mechanical chair to the grand wooden staircase were sealed and re-stained.
Otherwise, the house was the same, right down to the martini shaker on the counter, awaiting Dad’s evening cocktail. I had placed a bouquet of orange tulips at the place where I usually set his plate at night. It would be quite a few days before I even thought of firing the burners.
When someone dies suddenly, his or her finances are frozen. Bank accounts and credit cards that Dad and I used for household expenses just stopped. I had plenty of cash. I just had to find it.
The last thing I wanted to do was dig through boxes of banking records. No matter. The gardeners were paid and I kept the house humming through the holidays, while Dad’s suite stayed cloistered out of respect for the man who had guided my world for more than five decades.
Out of habit, I went to Jimmy’s room every few days to open windows so the heat wouldn’t become unbearable. Then I’d seal them at night. From time to time, when I was sure no one was around, I’d linger at the spot where he had died in his bed. The greatest gift my mother gave me was my belief in God, which I had always kept to myself. At those moments, though, I asked God to take care of Jimmy. I’d quietly leave when I felt composed enough to keep my visits a secret.
Marta had done a yeoman’s job packing up his clothes and getting them to our local Goodwill. Even though she spared me much of the heavy lifting, my body still felt like a lead-filled piñata at the close of each day. I was present enough from time to time to plug the leaks that sprang open in our world of leaks. That was about the extent of things I could handle. If one of our cars needed tires or a new headlamp, I was the man to handle that. Otherwise, just roll me over and let me be. Using sleep to pass the time can be a blessing in disguise.
Somehow, I knew of a temporary cure for my monolithic malaise. Women would get my motor running, I decided. As Dad and I fought death those last few years with every weapon at our disposal, I had kept those instincts buried, but I had never forgotten my early times in Southern California as a freewheeling single guy. I recalled with fondness those mornings “sneaking” back to the Manhattan Beach house as the sun rose, trying to keep the RPMs down on my old BMW so as not to wake the neighborhood.
As tempting as it was to reminisce about all this potential girl nonsense, two things stopped me dead in my tracks: The first was that I was no longer that same man. The second and most important was Sonya, who was becoming the love of my life. If you’ve not come head to head with a badass, green-eyed English woman before, you have something to look forward to.
I met Sonya in the late summer before Dad passed. After a fantastic first date, she disappeared to focus on settling her only child, Max, at the Gallatin School at New York University. I passed along as much New York advice as I could muster through social media, but Dad and I were down to our last months, so I was rarely able to emerge from my steel curtain of controlled emotion. Ironically, as Sonya prepared to return to her empty nest, Dad and I went eastward for our farewell trip to New York City.
After both Dad and I miraculously returned to California, Sonya and I became inseparable. Dad actually invited her to the opera, a sure sign of his developing fondness for her. After a few weeks, as the end drew near, she left for a while, praying that I would still be in one piece upon her return.
One day, when all was said and done and I was standing alone (again) in the big, silent house in Manhattan Beach, Sonya returned. I had been shattered by Dad’s death—no doubt about it—but I was equally determined to regain something that resembled a life. I had learned more from my father about living those last five years than I could have imagined. Leave it to Jimmy to guide me even in death. From the beginning, I felt strongly that my father had somehow gifted Sonya to me. It seemed highly unlikely that I would meet the woman I would spend my life with just weeks prior to his passing.
Sonya and I bought a modern, light, four-bedroom house down the road. On the day we closed, I took a large framed picture of Dad in his Marine Corps uniform, painted in Okinawa, and placed it on a high eve over the kitchen so he could look down on us as we cooked and ate.
After I had hung Dad’s picture, I started down the stairs of the new house, trying to focus on the final engineer’s report. During our various trips overseas, I had ripped most of the rotator cuff tendons in my left shoulder. Not to be outdone that day, I missed a stair and began to fall head over heels. My only option was to use my left arm to slow the fall, ripping to shreds however few tendons were still hanging on.
After three and a half hours of surgery, in which the orthopedic surgeons made seven incisions, they managed to rebuild most of my rotator cuffs except for the infraspinatus and the bicep, which were beyond repair. After months of physical therapy, I could practice yoga if I used two blocks and a strap and set my mat against a wall.
I had spent so long in the role of Dad’s unstoppable type-A medical advocate that I mistakenly thought I was bulletproof. The torn left shoulder was a mere warning shot. While the shoulder was healing, I fell off a ladder twice, compounding the injury. While still on Vicodin for the shoulder, I walked in a daze on hot sand and burnt a foot so badly it necessitated surgery in my left leg to laser- out the malfunctioning veins. Finally, after a long run on an uneven beach, I lost all feeling in one leg and was hit with wrenching double nerve pain in the other leg. An MRI showed that the nerve bundles that run through the lower spine were completely occluded and I had met a most fierce opponent: spinal stenosis.
I was the first patient scheduled for endoscopic back surgery that July day in 2017. By the time I was scrubbed and ready, the spinal surgeons at UCLA hospital had further reviewed the MRI and concluded that the operation would be more dangerous than they had originally anticipated. They wanted permission to fully open the back to get better access to the spine. I said “yes.” It proved to be a tough, long surgery. I was bleeding so badly that they accidentally nicked my spinal cord, but were confident that they had repaired the damage.
I returned home after about four days. Within hours, intense pain and subsequent paralysis set in. The same Manhattan Beach paramedics who came once for Dad took me down my stairs on a sled and rushed me to a local hospital, where they didn’t know what to do with me. I was shaking with pain as two techs stuffed me flat into an MRI tube, the most painful position imaginable. After fifteen minutes of a scheduled one-hour MRI, I couldn’t endure another moment and they took me out.
Luckily, they had captured the image we needed. It showed that the surgery had gone haywire and I was bleeding internally. A private ambulance rushed me back north to UCLA Medical Center, where I underwent two emergency surgeries within days of one another, resulting in a “natural” spinal fusion of my lower back. They put two large drains into my back that filled every few hours. I was on a Dilaudid drip for ten days and have no memory whatsoever of seven of those days. (Dilaudid is stronger than heroin or morphine.)
Sonya, Sofia, and Gianni were at the hospital 24/7. My youngest, Juliana, was at school in Boston and had to stay put. I hallucinated for more than a week, communing with nurses posing as voodoo priestesses, and ripping the IV leads out of my arms at regular intervals. I even escaped from my bed and stole a wheelchair to “take a tour of the ship.” After that, the doctors put an alarm on my bed and posted a nurse in my room all night. I have no independent recollection whatsoever of any of this.
My kids told me that I was very funny throughout the ordeal. Much to my relief and their astonishment, I did not yell at, or insult, anyone. After the third surgery, when I had not yet regained my memory, one of the surgeons came into my room to ask if I knew what had just happened to me. According to the kids and Sofia’s boyfriend, Alex, I looked at the surgeon as if he was on the heroin drip and not me.
“You just performed a hemi-laminectomy on my L3, and a medial facetectomy on the L3-L4 and L4-L5,” I said. “Two drains are collecting blood from the spinal area.” At this point in the story, my eyes started to droop. “At night, the blood drips down to the basement where the rats have at it. The rats are taken to NASA and are split open to see what is wrong with . . . my . . . back . . .” And then, in mid-sentence, I fell sound asleep while the kids howled with laughter.
One night, believing I was hallucinating, I looked at my dark room and saw Sofia’s big black eyes shining at me like an owl. How can that be? I thought. Sofia is in New York. So I lifted my head and peered out again. Sure enough, there were Sofia’s piercing eyes staring at me. Thinking I was bat shit crazy, I tried to sleep. Later, I found out that Sofia had spent days sleeping in the chair across from me to make sure I wouldn’t bolt from the bed.
It was during daylight of my third week in the hospital when I finally “awoke.” As the world focused around me, I thought I had been napping on my yellow couch in my New York City office. My son, Gianni, was sitting in a chair across the way. I introduced him to my new “secretary,” Caitlin, who was really the nurse who had just come on duty. Gianni and Caitlin played along.
“You must be hungry, son. Let’s go get some lunch.” I started to stir, anticipating a nice martini.
“No, no, Dad, let’s wait for Sofia and Alex. They will be here soon.”
I was incredulous. MY SON REFUSING A MEAL? Impossible! “Come on, we’ll call them from the restaurant. Let’s go somewhere nice.”
Gianni pulled his chair next to my “couch.” Only then did my fuzzy brain focus enough to realize that I was in a hospital bed. He put his hand on my shoulder, and the days and nights of my caged torture slowly began to crystallize. I didn’t need to ask him any questions. They all rolled out in my memory like an awful movie. I was struck by one fleeting image: of Sonya slumped to the floor, crying uncontrollably, unsure if I would ever walk again.
Gianni could see that something had changed in my demeanor. The party was over. I remember feeling dejected and my eyes welled up. “It’s OK, Dad,” Gianni reassured me again and again.
It was hard to ignore the obvious. There I was, hooked up to every machine possible, peering at my son with almost three weeks of beard growth on my face. How many hours had I spent looking at my own father in that same position? In the irony of all role reversals, it dawned on me that the difference in my age from that of my kids was about the same as between Dad and me.
For a brief second, I could not face Gianni. As I buried my head in my pillow, I could see Dad’s face and I could clearly smell him. When he was walking into the Greenwich house with his beloved mother, with me watching from the treetops in my last dream of him, I longed for one more moment. This was my moment. Voiceless words sounded deep inside me, and I knew.
Snapping back to reality, I gathered my composure and looked up at my big, strong lumberjack of a son. “Come on, Gianni, I want to walk.”
The nurse, sensing my new sobriety, lowered the bed rail and helped me swing my legs toward the floor.
“Ready, son? Let’s stroll.”
“Anytime you are, Dad. Just take it slow.”
I felt my feet on the ground and pushed off the bed before I could lose my nerve.
Gianni grabbed me around my thin shoulders, while the nurse guided the two rolling IV stands and followed behind us. I held on to Gianni as tightly as I could. I did not know it then, but I had lost twenty-five pounds during my hospitalization and was extremely weak. The first few steps were searing. Gianni knew I wasn’t about to retreat.
As we emerged from the room, I could see every eye at the nurse’s station turn toward us. We continued to hold on to each other and slowly walk down the hall. Finally, we turned a corner where a bank of chairs and tables marked an empty waiting area. “Let’s sit down for a minute,” I suggested.
Gianni and I sat side by side while I caught my breath. Recently, the kids had started referring to me as “Pops.” I thought they meant to honor the passing of a generation while breaking my chops at the same time. Perhaps, though, they were also trying subconsciously to get me to slow down and live at a reasonable pace. No need to worry about that. Nature had certainly taken care of that.
With Gianni’s help, I stood to begin the long slog back to my hospital bed.
“You know,” I said to Gianni as I held tightly to his shoulders, “I think it’s time I taught you and your sisters my grandfather’s recipe for meatballs and sausages.”
A huge smile crossed his face. He’d been asking me for the recipe for years. It had never been written down. “If you want to learn, you have to watch over and over again until you understand it like a second skin.”
“I hope you live long enough to teach me,” Gianni cracked wise, giving me the business. He had been so worried about me that it was good to hear a little irreverence in his voice.
“Well, son, you never really know what the future will bring. But I wouldn’t bet against me. A lot of guys lost their shirts betting against your grandfather.”
“I know, Dad,” Gianni started, and then recited my mantra. “You just can’t help it if you’re lucky.”
I chuckled. “You just might be ready after all, my boy.”
He slowed his pace and turned toward me as if I was about to spill the secret of a lifetime, like where Jimmy Hoffa was buried.
“Ready? For what?” he blurted out excitedly.
“For the meatballs, meathead! Take it easy; one thing at a time . . . one thing at a time.”
While making the Mount Everest-like trek back to my room, I decided that circumstances warranted a “final recipe.” I would adopt the character of the most manipulative man I had ever known: my father. Powerful opioids coursed through my raggedy brain, but I made my decision, as I often do, by asking myself, What would Jimmy do?
“Can I have a few minutes to myself before Sonya comes?” Sofia and Gianni shuffled off to the cafeteria in a daze.
I had carefully learned how to disarm the bed alarm by pressing three consecutive numbers on the base of the bed. I made it to the bathroom, dragging one of the lighter room chairs and placing it in front of the sink. I piled towels on the chair so I wouldn’t slip. I somehow retrieved my bath kit to remove shaving cream, a razor, and as many blades as I had. It took some time and a lot of blades, but I emerged cleanly shaven. I even managed to rinse and comb my hair. I settled victoriously back into bed. CNN was giving me a welcome update on the news of the world.
When the hospital door opened, my momentary solace became an emotional three-ring circus. First, the senior spinal surgeon, Dr. Van Allen, walked in. He had heard enough about me in the weeks after the botched first surgery to be scared. If he had crippled me, I was not the kind of guy to go gently into the night. Things would go very badly, like screwing up nose jobs on the Gabor sisters. Lots of people would hear about it. It took three surgeries, but, somehow, a good result had been achieved. When the surgeon saw me shaved and sitting up with a big smile, palpable relief spread through his being.
Then Sonya and the kids walked in.
I smiled that smile of Jimmy’s as I carried him home from Abe’s Steakhouse that night so long ago. He and I had exchanged knowing glances in the elevator just before the door to the apartment opened and my mother pummeled him with her lightning-fast fists for being out all night drunk. He had known what would happen, but he’d done it anyway.
At that moment in the hospital, I could see life’s intricate handiwork come full circle. The road that brought me to this moment had been long and steep. In return, it gifted me the true knowledge I had always sought but was afraid to admit: I was a man blessed by the universe.
Jimmy was nothing if not lucky. And so, it seems, am I.
I put out my arms to embrace everyone in the room. We were all fellow conspirators now.
“Doc,” I said to the surgeon, “get my discharge papers. I’m ready to get out of here. I have things to do.”
In this way, the meatball matter was decided.
Note: The recipe, Pop’s Meatballs & Sausages, will be available in the printed book, Last of the Gladiators, A Son’s Memoir.