“I see death’s door opening!”
That was my father’s greeting as I arrived at his room in Bryn Mawr Hospital after a frantic cross-country flight. My mother had tried to prepare me on the phone. She said, “The doctor says it’s kidney failure, and that it goes quickly. First, he’ll become euphoric, then disoriented, and then he’ll just … fall asleep.”
So this must be euphoria, I thought. “What does it look like, Dad?” I asked. But he just stared at me with an unnaturally bright, unfocused gaze, as if to say, “It’s a good opening line – and it’s all I got.”
That wasn’t unusual. Everyone knew that Jules Bogaev was a festival of one-liners. His explanation for why he, his brother and his father all became urologists: “Piss runs in the family.” His explanation for his infamously irascible bedside manner: “You know what? I hate people. But most of all, I hate sick people.” When patients called him at home he practically put them through a stand-up routine. “How’s your stream?” he’d yell down the line. “Did you void? Jesus Christ, I told you to void!”
Somehow, he made it through the office hours, the endless rounds, the seasonal spawn of new medical students at Jefferson Hospital, by telling stories. We referred to his stories as the Ten Greatest Hits, including “The Nurse Washing the Dead Man’s Socks” and “The Thumb Through the Heart.”
“There we are, four hours into an operation to repair a ruptured kidney, and the patient goes into cardiac arrest. Russell and I look at each other, he’s the chief surgeon and I’m assisting, and we’re both thinking the same thing. See, this guy is old, he’s 76, and he’s not going to make it. It’s not worth taking extreme measures; he’s too weak. But just as we’re about to take off our gloves, the intern, Patek, a really nervous type, pushes us aside, grabs a retractor, uses it like a mallet to crack open the sternum, and reaches in with his hands to manually massage the heart back into rhythm. That’s how we did it back then. But you see, the tissue was so old and decrepit; it was rotted through… like wet paper. So before you know it, his thumb goes right through the guy’s heart. Russell and I just stand there, dumbstruck, looking at each other and then down at our patient, now deceased. And then I point at Patek and yell, “Murderer! You killed him!”
My father would punctuate the last line by emphatically pointing his finger and stabbing the air, as if he were jabbing the invisible nervous intern in the chest.
“Thumb Through the Heart” was a real crowd pleaser at cocktail parties. He said it slayed his audience every time.
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In the hospital, weakened by diabetes, kidney and heart failure, my father didn’t have the energy for reprisals of the Greatest Hits, but his wit never left him. For hours he would lie in bed, asleep, or appearing to sleep, and then suddenly his eyes would pop open, he’d raise his head and look around the room, as if he were checking to see which side of death’s door he had landed on. Once, when his gaze arrived at me, sitting by the bed, I said with my usual genius for stating the obvious, “Hi. I’m still here.” After a beat, he came back with, “The problem is, so am I.”
One afternoon the podiatrist came in to check out my father’s gangrenous toes. He was a young guy, nervous, like the intern of “Thumb Through the Heart”. He prescribed dialysis, explaining that my father might be able to avoid amputation if he arrested the kidney failure. But my father had no intention of arresting anything. The podiatrist looked shaken as he argued that he had patients much older, much worse off, much less alert, who did fine with dialysis. He had tears in his eyes as he pleaded his case. He asked, “What do you want, anyway? It’s only going to get worse. You could stop it here. For God’s sake, where do you see yourself in two weeks?”
My father replied, “Where do I see myself in two weeks? I’ll tell you where I see myself. I see myself in the crematorium.”
Damn, that was a good line.
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On the fourth day of our bedside vigil, a nurse suggested that we offer our father something he really loved to eat, since it was likely he’d soon stop eating altogether. When my sister asked him what he’d like, he thought for a few moments, and then said, “I want a Dove Bar.” The diabetic wanted a Dove Bar. And my therapist sister, the former macrobiotic who lived for years on a diet of rice cakes and almond butter, grabbed her coat, dashed into a 7-Eleven for probably the first time in her life, and brought back the classic version, vanilla ice cream covered in rich, dark chocolate.
When I returned from lunch I found my father delicately wielding the heaviest known ice cream novelty bar; his thumb and forefinger grasping the wooden stick and his pinkie finger aloft. Earlier that day he hadn’t had the strength to hold his plastic cup of ice; we’d been shaking the chips into his mouth. Now, not only did he eat nearly the whole thing, he ate it without getting a spot on him. He ate that bar with surgical precision, with complete control, even with a touch of dramatic flair. Perhaps it crossed his mind that “The Dove Bar” might end up on another Top Ten list of family stories. After all, he hadn’t come out with any deathbed confessions, or any long-withheld revelations of any kind. Instead, the stories of “The Dove Bar” and “The Nervous Podiatrist” could be his legacy to us.
He died two days later, in the middle of the night, alone.
After the hospital called, I thought about animals, how they go off and hide when they’re dying. But my father didn’t hide. I imagine for him it was more a matter of the rightness of things, of allowing himself to exit the stage only after the audience had left the theater, the lights had dimmed, and the cleaning crew had made its late night rounds.
The day of the Dove Bar incident, after my father had finished his last earthly meal, hand-delivered by his oldest daughter, and had then sunk back on the pillows to sleep off the glucose payload, I had the urge to leap up, point at my sister, and yell, “Murderer! You killed him!”
She wouldn’t have thought it was funny, so I didn’t do it. But I wish I had. I’m sure our father would have appreciated it. I’m sure, even in his deep, nearly final sleep, it would have cracked him up. I would have slayed with that one.
Barbara Bogaev is the host of "Soundprint," public radio’s national weekly documentary program. In more than twenty years in broadcasting, Bogaev has interviewed rock stars and war correspondents for NPR’s "Fresh Air with Terry Gross," talked with poet laureates and conscientious objectors for American Public Media’s "Weekend America," and hosted and produced science, news and arts programming for NPR member-stations WHYY and WXPN. A Philadelphia native, she began her radio career as the producer of the award-winning talk show, "Radio Times with Marty Moss-Coane." She blogs at alwaysmorequestions.com.