I’ve known Jerry since I was twenty-two.
In my sixties now, I’m driving my friend to our union’s health center, an hour’s trip from Hollywood out to Woodland Hills. Jerry is quiet. He knows I’m mad at him. I’m disappointed too. It took months to talk Jerry into making this trip, a year if you take into account my advice about changing doctors and treatment. Jerry knew this ride was coming. He had three days to prep for it, which meant packing a change of clothes and a tooth brush. And yet, when I came to pick him up, he wasn’t ready.
He wasn’t ready? I put in a week of calling, pressing his insurance to cover his need, and I set up a social worker’s visit to prove it. Still, Jerry wasn’t ready?
Jerry is never ready. This time I called him before I left my house, drove across town to be his taxi, and when I knocked on his apartment door he emphatically said, “You’re rushing me.”
Yes, I rushed him, to save his life.
Jerry is seventy-two and has fought cancer for two years, losing weight down to his bones and eighty-seven pounds. Did I rush him when I brought him food, when my wife washed his clothes, when I took him to “Two Guys” where Dolores the waitress chats with him on Friday nights?
Did I rush him when I found his new oncologist who told him how far the cancer had spread?
Did I rush him when I rented a wheelchair and set up this pending examination?
Did I rush him when I said, “Jerry, you’re very sick. You cannot go on like this. You won’t go on like this. We’ve got to get you to a hospital.”
“I can’t leave Flower,” he insisted. “She needs her medication, her eye drops, and she won’t eat unless I’m here.”
“Jerry, what you’re telling me, is that if your cat doesn’t die first, you will.”
“I can’t leave Flower.”
And he didn’t. Six weeks later his pet died. Only then did Jerry exit his apartment.
And now, after months of cancer denial, I’m finally driving him to a palliative hospital. Palliative care is all about making your last days on Earth as comfortable as possible. I’m worried about that, though. I don’t think my old friend is going to make it through the weekend. If they send him away, Jerry will die at home. Maybe alone. Probably alone. If they admit him, at least he’ll pass away under clean sheets.
But I heard he won’t get in. The Health Center’s hospital wing is closing and they’re not admitting more patients. It’s now too costly to run the facility on the funds generated by our union. A year ago, even six months ago, Jerry would have been guaranteed the medical attention and resources he needed to stay alive. Not necessarily today.
But Jerry procrastinated, expecting to get well on his own. And worse, he was alone. Jerry didn’t trust doctors, or anyone. Well, there were exceptions. He trusted me and Valerie, the manager of his apartment building. But beyond Valerie, me, and a few others, Jerry only trusted animals. He loved them. And they loved him back.
Flower was his last remaining cat, one of three he rescued. Cat number two, Slippers, came to him from a friend. It was a weekend cat-sitting favor. Slippers never got picked up. Thirteen years later Slippers died in Jerry’s bed, with Jerry in it.
If there is such a thing as a stern but loving god for pets, Jerry is IT. Years ago he climbed his neighbor’s fence to unleash a whimpering dog and feed it, give it water and attention. When the dog finally calmed after an hour of petting, Jerry realized the gate was padlocked. He would have to climb back over the fence to return home.
Jerry climbed. Jerry fell. Jerry broke his leg.
Jerry sued his neighbor for animal cruelty and medical expenses. His neighbor counter sued for trespassing. Jerry lost his case and hobbled for a year. From then on, Jerry never trusted neighbors either, or lawyers, or the legal system, or any government.
But as I said, he trusted dogs, of which he had many over the years. His favorite, more a son than a pet, was named Captain, a setter who never left his side. I knew Captain. He had loyal, loving eyes and always looked like he was smiling. When Captain finished his life way past the years dogs are supposed to have, Jerry dropped into a depression for months. I think it was the beginning of Jerry’s decline. Jerry lost his soul with the loss of Captain’s love, followed by the loss of his own normal sight.
Jerry was a camera operator in the film business, but when his eyes could no longer hold focus, Jerry lost his livelihood and his passion for work. For income and a place to call home, he switched to managing apartment buildings, which only added to his distrust of human beings. His black list was then amended to include tenants and landlords.
Jerry became a recluse. He hated Hollywood and always talked about moving to Portland. He never took the leap, which is a shame because Jerry didn’t fit in to big city living. He loved nature, trees and critters. All critters. And consequently, Jerry consistently donated what little money he had to animal shelters, but anonymously. Jerry didn’t believe in self promotion. Jerry hated publicity-seeking, tax-sheltering donors. And he didn’t trust them.
So as I now drive Jerry to the hospital, he’s already distrusting our destination. He’s sure this hospital will be no different than the first one which failed to stop his cancer. The nurses will be worthless, the food will be lousy, the doctor’s mediocre. And I’m thinking, Jerry, you can’t walk three steps or hold down a morsel of food.
Don’t you get it? Let the anger go.
I wheel Jerry toward the admitting window. The woman there asks me who I am. I explain that my friend made me the beneficiary of his meager bank account and the signing manager of his eventual cremation, so I’m the closest thing to a power of attorney he has. With Jerry so near death, I know the hospital needs someone like me to fill out his paper work. So I here I am, his legal guardian.
I wish he had the real thing. I’m not that tight with Jerry. Our friendship grew from the years we’ve known each other, not out of deep connections. Which means I’m here because no one else is. Years ago Jerry’s world shrank to three friends, a two-room apartment, a mattress on the floor, a litter box, two lamps, a table, a box of his photos, twenty books, and a home-built computer.
As I deal with Jerry’s admittance forms, I notice he’s observing other patients around us. All of them are sick — nursing home sick, hospice-like sick. And I think something is turning around in Jerry’s head because when I ask for details regarding his hospital records, he’s sounding resigned — no ornery resistance, no rude comments, no condescending tone in his voice; just resignation.
A heavy-set nurse joins us. Her name is Janet and she manages the palliative care division of this hospital. After a quick head-to-toe evaluation, I see dire concern solidifying Janet’s face. Jerry absolutely needs to stay here. And now Jerry knows it, and talking to the doctor in the examining room I hear my friend finally utter the words, “I don’t think I’m gonna make it to Monday.”
The doctor leaves, the doctor returns, Jerry is admitted and immediately hooked up to IV’s in Critical Care where a team of life-savers assemble around his bed: two doctors, a nurse practitioner, Jerry’s social worker and a resident rabbi. This is my friend’s support group. His parents died long ago and he’s estranged from his only sister and niece in Florida. He has two other buddies: Matthew, a retired school teacher and George, an attorney. Both men have families. Both are financially struggling.
A month ago, Jerry pulled his life’s savings out of Wells Fargo and gave it to Matthew. It was fourteen thousand dollars, and Jerry’s intention was to donate that money to a Los Angeles animal shelter. But Jerry never wrote a will conveying that. He didn’t want anything on paper. Why? Because he didn’t want the IRS taxing his money if they knew he had it. So Matthew agreed to be Jerry’s secret bank.
Yes, miracles DO happen.
Jerry’s medical team brought my friend back from the edge. After three weeks of recuperation and tender loving care, and I mean that, Jerry was discharged to go home with more chemo therapy at another facility. His cancer was still inside him, but hopefully it could be contained.
So I’m driving again to Woodland Hills to take Jerry back to his Hollywood two-room hole. He’s weak and frail but he’s complaining about the traffic, the smog and the time it’s taking to get him home. I’m happy to hear all this. The old curmudgeon is still with us, expecting to pick up where he left off. To help with that, I wheel him into his apartment.
While Jerry resettles and dials his phone, I stick around to make sure he’s okay. And as I’m putting fresh milk and juice in his fridge, I hear him say, “Matthew… Yes, it’s Jerry.” He pauses. “Of course I’m still here! Come by tomorrow. I want my money back.”
I don’t hear Matthew’s response but I do hear Jerry’s side of the call, and it’s heating up with words I can’t repeat.
Jerry slams down the phone. Apparently Matthew assumed Jerry would be gone by now, so he spent the fourteen thousand dollars to pay off his daughter’s credit card debt. He’s sorry about it, but he can’t give anything back.
I watch Jerry return to disappear, his arms going limp in the chair. His oldest friend betrayed him. As far as Jerry is concerned, no one can be trusted. No one.
Jerry calls George, his attorney friend. Jerry wants George to help him sue Matthew. But George is a friend of Matthew as well, so friend #2 will not sue friend #1.
Jerry hangs up and turns to me with a hard stare. He’s cutting George out of his life too. That just leaves me and Valerie, the building manager. We’re Jerry’s last two friends. He divorced years ago. He’s totally isolated.
But now Jerry’s telling me he doesn’t want to be a pest and burden in my life. Meaning, he doesn’t want to be associated with anything negative, like my feeling obligated to drive him somewhere or bring him more food.
I understand fear of rejection, so I agree to step away, assuming Jerry will call when he needs me.
He never did. Six weeks later Jerry died under clean hospital sheets…without me. But he didn’t die alone.
Jerry was given a new family — his nursing staff; Nannette, the social worker; Lori, his nurse practitioner; Janet, Head of Palliative Care; Dr. Rhodes; and Rabbi Berger. Jerry wasn’t Jewish and he hated religion – all religions. But he liked Rabbi Berger. They talked a lot, right to the end. And I also heard that Nannette and Lori wept at Jerry’s side, holding his hands as he slipped away to the Other Side.
I don’t know why they all liked Jerry so much. Maybe they saw the Jerry I first met forty years ago, before the disillusionment and distrust seeped in. Maybe they saw a Jerry that finally appreciated the kindness of strangers and left this planet with a glimmer of belief that caring love does exist, and that it comes from people as well as pets.
I found out only recently that Jerry’s father cheated on his mother and abandoned the family. Jerry was raised by his aunt, which explains so much now. All those times I got frustrated with him, I wish I had remembered that my friend, like all of us, started his life as a toddler needing love. I don’t think Jerry got much of that. The little I gave him wasn’t enough.
So now I’m fulfilling his last request: to bequeath his remaining savings to the Animal Welfare Trust Fund. After losing his stock market investments and cash to a desperate man paying off debt, Jerry’s entire life’s fortune amounted to $2326.22.
So Jerry, I didn’t let you down. I gave the gift and I said that it came from you.
Rest in peace old friend. And please…try trusting again.