Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Two Whitey Grogans

When he was a young man, my grandfather was quite the formidable figure. Tall, handsome, in great shape, and, dressed in his NYPD blues, the last thing you wanted to see in front of you if you were a criminal. Working his way up through the ranks, he eventually made detective, and did it at one of the most notoriously dangerous precincts in the city, the 41st, also known as Fort Apache and made famous by Paul Newman in the classic film from the early eighties. Throughout his career he was awarded several citations for bravery in the line of duty – in one instance, while moonlighting as a supermarket security guard, he ended up in a shootout in the streets with an escaped murderer which turned into a toe-to-toe brawl; one where my grandfather found himself being pummeled in the face with the butt of his own gun, only to somehow recover and subdue the suspect with the help of a 300lb. New York cabbie nicknamed, ‘Tiny’.

This event in my grandfather’s life would eventually be turned into legend in a book entitled Growing Up Bronx, as the author, then just a nine-year-old boy, witnessed the entire battle from his bedroom window. He even gave my grandfather a name that echoed with the stuff heroes are made of, Whitey Grogan. If you didn’t know, you’d assume Whitey Grogan was a mythical figure along the lines of Babe Ruth or Elliot Ness; which, to me, he was.

Didn’t matter that his real name was “Abe” or that the guy I knew was more famous for swiping napkins and ketchup packets from McDonald’s, as opposed to beating escaped convicts into submission with his bare hands. Didn’t matter that I never saw the shiny cruiser he patrolled the streets in, and that, when I knew him, his chariot was a beat up, white Pontiac with a trunk filled to the brim with dozens of used tennis balls and racquets in case the grandkids dropped in with the challenge of a “Million Dollar Match.” Didn’t matter that I never witnessed his blazing forehand. Instead, he beat us by routinely hitting the ball a hundred feet into the air, shouting “Duck Soup!” and hurling hilarious insults designed to distract us. Thus, by the time the stupid ball finally returned to earth, my sister and I would be laughing so hard the best we could offer was a drunken, feeble, “Whiff!” at the empty air. None of that stuff mattered, though. To me, he was still Whitey Grogan. As strong and tall as he ever was. I was in awe of the stories he told, the places he took us, and the ice cream he bought us after services on Fridays. Years removed from chasing criminals in real life, he settled for chasing them on stage in his community productions of Guys and Dolls and the like, but he never lost his swagger.

Fast forward about a decade later, and I’m helping my grandfather go to the bathroom, as Parkinson’s has all but eviscerated every trace of the once-strapping, tough-as-nails, New York detective who once occupied this withered, old shell of a man that stood before me. When he passed on New Year’s Eve 1996, it left a void in me that will never be replaced. To say he was irreplaceable would be a severe understatement. Yet, he was gone. At his funeral, my father said, “Will Rogers once said, ‘I never met a man I didn’t like.’ Well, I never met a man who didn’t like Abe.” To me, that summed it up perfectly. After his passing, we all did our best to move on. What choice did we have?

For the next few years, my grandmother did her best as well, attending an occasional dance or social function, but she always went alone, unescorted. I only knew him for a third of his life, when his best years had already passed him by, but knowing my grandfather almost all her life, I can’t even begin to imagine the void that he left in her. But, she was a trooper and, to all of our surprise, kept on keepin’ on. I guess you don’t raise three kids in the fifties in the Bronx without a backbone of your own.

As I grew older and learned to live with my grandfather’s memories and, what feels to this day as his constant presence, I realized he didn’t leave a ‘void.’ He left a ‘space’ that was his spot in our hearts. That will always be his spot. And it is not a void. It is the exact opposite. It’s a space completely filled with his voice, his laughter, his pranks, and his lessons. Good luck trying to top, or even equal that, for any of us, let alone my grandmother.

Meeting someone new after a six-year relationship is difficult enough when you’re young. Meeting someone after almost a sixty-year relationship, when you’re on the wrong end of eighty, has to be just terrifying. Add to that, the legacy left by “Whitey Grogan” and you can see what, unbeknownst to him, this man -this short, jovial, unassuming, Hoboken-born truck driver named, “Irving,” was up against. I think the only thing in his favor was that he didn’t know. How could he? Sometimes ignorance is not only bliss it is a necessity.

I can’t remember exactly when it was, but some point, maybe around 2001, my mother started saying the name ‘Irving’ when mentioning my grandmother; “Irving’s taking your grandmother to dinner.” Or, “Your grandmother’s bringing Irving to the party next week.” At first, I was incredibly protective; not only of my grandmother, but of my grandfather as well. Who is this guy who thinks he can come in and take the place of my life-long hero? This guy drove a truck all his life while my grandfather was making the entire city a safer place to be and risking his life on a daily basis. Not to mention, physically, he was no match, either. And yet, here was Irving. He stood closer to five than six feet, waddled when he walked because of a bum leg, could hardly hear you, and had a nose and a voice like Jimmy Durante. Turns out, my grandmother, not willing to ‘settle’ for anything less than the handsome prince she felt she deserved, rejected this “Irving” at least ten times before finally caving and agreeing to ‘a date’ (What exactly you do on a date in your eighties is anybody’s guess). My grandmother was a beauty queen who would routinely get mistaken for my mother’s sister when she was younger. She and my grandfather painted quite the striking picture when they were in their prime, and even later on as well. Compared to her, Irving was chopped liver. But, eventually, his persistence won over the lonely princess and she capitulated.

Next thing you know, they’re inseparable. Going on cruises, out to fancy dinners, etc., etc. If there was one area lacking in my grandmother’s life, it was my grandfather’s frugalness. It wasn’t that he was ‘cheap,’ it’s just the way he was raised. He put every penny away for a rainy day, never spending a dime on anything he deemed ‘unnecessary’, as that money was for my grandmother come a time when “I’m not around anymore.” Thus, they never went anywhere or did anything unless my parents took them along. You can imagine how happy my grandmother was to finally be given a taste of what all her friends and neighbors had been bragging about and urging her to do all those years. Maybe this Irving wasn’t such a bad guy after all.

For the next two or three years, that’s the way it went. Irving and my grandmother were boyfriend and girlfriend. Birds of a feather. Both of these birds had long lost most of their actual feathers, but they flocked on, nonetheless, completely enjoying each other’s company. Once, she even confided in me they still had sex -or at least, “a form of it.” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cringe in horror. How do you react when your almost ninety-year-old grandmother decides to have a sex talk with you out of the blue? George Burns once said, “Sex after eighty is like shootin’ pool with a rope,” so I can’t even imagine what they did or tried to do, but the thought of two people that late in life still trying to please each other was quite beautiful to me.

On one particular visit, I realized Irving was beginning to grow on me; on all of us. He was always by her side, and by default, ours, and she seemed to really like him, as did we. Perhaps she even loved him? Sure, he wasn’t Clark Gable, but whatever she needed -doctor’s appointments, foot massages, a return to Marshalls -Irving was there. He was older than my grandmother by a full year, so he would often joke he was “robbing the cradle.”

As I got to know Irving, I grew to respect him more than I ever thought I would. Turns out, he fought on D-Day, went to school with Frank Sinatra, and originally thought my sweet nana was 'a snob'. He wasn’t just a ‘truck driver,’ either. He worked three trucking jobs while supporting his family(one son became a police captain and the other a district judge). He’d work his 9-5 job, then, go straight to another which lasted ‘til about ten or eleven, then he’d go to a third which he would work until about six in the morning, get home in time for a whole two hours sleep, then start the whole day over. He did this for forty years with almost no vacation time. My first thought, after “You’re crazy!” and “How the heck can anyone even do that?!” was, “You’re lucky you didn’t kill anybody driving twenty hours a day, six days a week, for forty years with practically no vacations!” But Irving insisted he never needed sleep. He just didn’t. And, as he continues to prove to the rest of us, even now at ninety-four, by waking up at four a.m. to drive an hour in total darkness to Miami Int’l Airport to pick up his son who took the redeye, he still doesn’t appear to need a good night’s sleep. The bottom line is, as I would come to learn tenfold down the line, the man had an unbreakable spirit.

A few years into their relationship, my grandmother began having ‘episodes’. T.I.A.’s the doctors call them; mini-strokes, which eventually resulted in her driver’s license being taken away. My grandmother was a fiercely independent woman all her life, so having to suddenly rely on someone just to go to the supermarket was a major adjustment for her; and for my parents as well. But there was Irving. Every, single day for months on end, he would chauffeur his best girl around town, saving my folks gas, time, and, more importantly, heaps of stress. My parents were a half-hour plus from my grandparents, thus when my grandfather was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, they did the back and forth every day for ten years; sometimes twice or more in a day. Now, as my grandmother, too, became increasingly dependent on those around her, my parents at least had some help. Irving, it seemed, was not only a blessing for my grandmother, but for the rest of us as well.

When my grandmother fell and broke her hip in two places, and needed to be admitted to a rehab, there was Irving. The rehab wasn’t around the corner for him, either. It was near my folks. So, while most men his age, who had lived much easier lives, sat staring blankly at a flat screen in some old age home gurgling into their oatmeal, ninety-two year-old Irving would drive to the rehab, stay there all day, every day, then drive home at night; only to repeat in the morning. Occasionally, my folks would convince him to stay with them, but he was so full of pride and stubbornness, he would refuse most of their requests, even demands. That’s Irving. “I don’t wanna be a bother,” is his favorite expression. Eventually, after many, many months of watching this seemingly indestructible, Jewish Iron-Man bail them out, or arrive in the nick of time to assist in the care of my grandma, my mother developed an acronym; “TGFI”- Thank God for Irving. It has become our mantra.

When my grandmother suffered the major stroke, just months after finally recovering from the broken bones, the rehabs, the doctors, and the therapists, who was holding a vigil with us at her bedside while she lay in a coma, close to death? You guessed it. The stroke was a big one and left my once vibrant, energetic, and happy-go-lucky grandmother with a lifeless right arm, trouble speaking, and a myriad of other issues, such as, but not limited to; severe incontinence, food aspirating, complications from dozens of medications, and basic, overall helplessness. The woman who relished the chance to upstage my professional singing mother every chance she got with a rousing rendition of New York, New York that would almost always bring the house down, was now virtually bedridden and in need of constant care.

As the money began to drain from her savings, and all the good times my grandfather chose to pass up so the love of his life would have security went for naught, it was Irving who arrived every day, like a geriatric Lancelot, to sit with the nurse and assist her with anything and everything my grandmother needed. Irving the ninety-year-old 'truck driver' was indeed much more than met the eye.

My parents and Irving became a home-health tag team. If one wasn’t able to get there, the other would. While all this was going on, Irving had his own health issues to deal with. At one point about a year ago, he was admitted to the hospital with a liver infection and, for a time, it looked like he wasn’t coming out. It not only felt like we were again losing a member of the family but one we had come to rely on implicitly. Miraculously, as my grandmother had done half a dozen times herself, Irving cheated death, and, just days after leaving the hospital, was back at my grandmother’s side.

Now, as I type this and my grandmother lay in her hospice bed, unaware of her surroundings, completely unable to speak or to feed herself, and we prepare for the final moments of her life, once again, it is with Irving by our side. This time his son had to drive him, as a particularly tough day of dialysis has left him very weak. But you’d never know it. True to form, he hasn’t complained a bit.

Just like my grandfather, my grandmother’s mind and razor sharp wit have been the last things to go. So we know it’s time.

I’ve heard stories of men half his age who abandon their wives after years of marriage for a tenth of the hassles and nightmares Irving’s had to endure with my grandmother. And they’re not even married. They’re just boyfriend and girlfriend. They’ve known each other only a tenth of their lives. They met less than ten years ago when both were at, what they thought, was the end of their lives. They'll never share a ski trip together or a wild, drunken night of passion under the lights of Paris. Yet, I still can't help but envy them. It’s amazing how, just when you think it’s over and all your work is done, it’s just the beginning. It’s amazing how one person’s selfless commitment to another can affect the lives of so many.

As I reflect on the saving grace this unsuspecting man with the funny walk who came out of nowhere has been to my parents, my entire family, and me I can’t help but think there will forever be two Whitey Grogans in my life. We love and thank you for everything, Irving Goldstein. God bless you.