Monday, April 20, 2009

Me and Rabbi P

I drive up Bathurst St. blasting rap music laced with profanity out the window. This is how I prepare myself for the quiet and painful experience that the 6th floor of the Apotex Centre at the Baycrest Centre for the Aged guarantees.

My visits with Rabbi P typically consist of hanging out with Rabbi Plaut’s caregivers, Ray and Arlene, for half an hour while holding Rabbi P’s hand. Occasionally, I get a “Hello Dear” or more often a smile. After almost 20 years of knowing each other first as editor and author and now more like grandfather and grandaughter, this is where we are at.

This time when I walked through the doors, there was a crowd of people gathered in the beautiful foyer. “Right,” I thought. “It’s Passover”. I looked down at my clothing which consisted of a dirty black coat with a few buttons missing, an old black sweater, jeans, my decade old combat boots, and then remembered that my hair was tied back with the elastic band that had recently held together a manuscript on medieval monasticism.

“Is it OK if I come in? I’d like to look for my friend?”
“Of course”, said one of the women in charge. “They love having guests for services.”
“Even guests who haven’t showered yet?” She motioned me inside.

Now, in the last two decades, I had often sat in the majestic sanctuary of Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto and found Rabbi P quite easy to spot. Today was a little different, but I still found him easily. He was comfortably snoozing during the sermon and I sat down beside him, and put my arm around him.

“Wow, Rabbi. Sleeping through a sermon. Times have certainly changed.”
He opened his eyes. “Hello Dear.”
“That’s OK. You can go back to sleep. I’ll let you know if the rabbi says anything you don’t already know.”

The rabbi doing the service at Baycrest did an admirable job considering the audience. Another rabbi, accompanied by his wife, was able to come to the front of the room and say a blessing for the Torah. Another man was able to chant from the Torah. Rabbi P’s caregiver proudly told me that when the Torah came around the room for people to touch, Rabbi P did so.

The rabbi drones on about embracing the present moment. I am flashing forward four decades. My primary school nemesis Lara and I sitting next to each other in this same foyer with the same trees that somehow grow inside. She in the final stages of Alzheimer’s and I am afflicted with something sexy like a slow progressing space occupying legion in my left hippocampus. And since it is slow moving and since I am still consumed with the rage of a 10-year old, I am trying to figure out how I can remove the brakes from Lara’s wheelchair and send her careening off the 6th floor balcony of the Apotex Centre where we are, as we were 70 years ago, neighbours.

Rabbi P coughs. His nose is dripping again. I reach for his towel and wipe his nose. What’s a bodily fluid between buddies. I pat his knee.
“I love you Rabbi.”
A moment of clarity comes and goes.

Services end. We go upstairs for lunch. Rabbi P begins feeding himself so I check my work e-mail on my iPhone. An author in Chicago has sent an e-mail with a red exclamation mark. “Where are my proofs?”

I should get back to it but the chocolate ice cream has arrived, and I’m on call.
“OK Rabbi. Chocolate ice cream. Let’s do it.”
Yes I infantalize him. He requires more attention than my 2-year old. He also has the Order of Canada, authored a commentary of the Torah, 30 plus books under his belt, numerous honourary doctorates....

“Rabbi”, says his caregiver. “Open your mouth and Natalie will feed you.”
“Down the hatch, Rabbi.”

I remember 20 years ago when we first met. He was about to turn 79 and I had just turned 22. After firing two research assistants, he took me on to help him research a book on refugee law. I was at his house one late afternoon, and he invited me for dinner. I called my mom to tell her I wouldn’t be home.

“Natalie, don’t forget to use a napkin. And the outside fork is for salad.” My mom was more intimidated by Rabbi P than I was. He was just my boss.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Don’t worry about it.”
“And say please and thank you.”
“Miss Fingerhoot.” came the voice from the kitchen, the German accent thin but present. A voice so gruff, so absolutely un-lyrical and so unforgettable.

“What do you want on your pizza?”
He gave me The Look. The one that he gives when he is displeased by my 20-something Canadian mannerisms.
“We are ordering pizza Miss Fingerhoot. What would you like on it. No pepperoni.
“Ummmmm...mushrooms are good.”
“Thats can have anything on your pizza and all you want are mushrooms. You’ll have what we order.”
“OK. That’s totally cool with me.”
The Look.
The pizza shows up and Mrs. P brings out TV tables from the 1960s. They are brown and yellow and have leafless trees on them.
“Gunther, ask Natalie what she would like to drink.”
“What would you like to drink, Miss Fingerhoot.”
“Water would be great, thank you.” My mother would have been proud.
“Water...”he paused. His clear blue eyes narrowed - a hint at the mischief that I’m sure at one time defined him before Hitler sabotaged his life and the rabbinate got to him.
“I’ll get you water.” He went into the kitchen and came back with two full glasses. Thrusting one at me, he declared:
“Here, Miss Fingerhoot. Here is your water. L’chayim.” He downed his glass and wiped his mouth with his sleeve like a soccer player chugging water after being on the field on a hot day, which he had done before Hitler sabotaged his life and the rabbinate got to him.
I followed suit. And then started choking quite violently.
“Gunther! What are you doing to her. Maybe she’s allergic to vodka. Now what are you doing to do.”
“She’s not allergic to vodka, are you Miss Fingerhoot. I bet you’ve drunk plenty in your short life.” He became serious for a minute: “Would you like another?”
“Gunther!!” Mrs. P whacked me a few times on the back. Finally, the fit subsided. I had drooled vodka down my shirt, my nose was running. He wiped my chin: the party girl and the almost octogenarian.
“Someday, you’ll tell everyone that you had a drink with the old Rabbi.”

The ice cream is finished. “Water, Rabbi?” I ask. He takes some gratefully and closes his eyes. The visit is done. I say goodbye to Ray and leave the lunchroom, but can’t get out of the 6th floor. They lock the patients in here.
“Ray...what’s the code. I keep forgetting.”
18. Chai. Life. “Give me a fucking break.” I say under my breath.

The Look. Will I ever escape it?

I leave the Baycrest Centre for the Aged, get in my car, put on 50 Cent , and cry.

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