By Debra Solomon Baker
It is the night before Lee Staebler’s birthday and we have just uncorked the ten dollar bottle of red wine that I picked up from the Walgreens on the corner. There’s no living room here, no collection of Waterford standing guard behind the glass doors of a maple chest, so I flag down Nurse, who is in the dank hallway, and request two plastic Dixie cups from her stash. These babies are normally reserved for water, a chaser for the army of pills that keep the residents here alive. There is an alcohol famine in this place. Even cheapo wine from Walgreens is a rare commodity.
I hand over the gift bag with the black shoelaces he requested and a lucite picture frame with one photo hiding the others underneath. The photo in view captures Lee and my son, Max, across the table from one another, the chessboard Lee’s sister painted for him resting between them. Lee wears a baseball cap, like always.
While I unthread the frayed lace in his black New Balance, I recall how my daughter, Sarah, wondered about the illogic in buying Mr. Staebler new shoelaces. A wheelchair kidnapped his body many years ago. She has never seen him stand, so shoelaces seemed sadly futile, maybe even pathetic.
Once upon a time, my kids’ great-grandmother, Baba, lived at Delmar Gardens Nursing Home, and Sarah would traipse around and paint the fingernails of anyone who could not refuse a pigtailed toddler with two jars of polish. If recruited for one of these super-duper manicures, your fingernails (and cuticles, and sometimes even knuckles) would alternate colors, red, blue, red, blue– no extra charge for that novelty.
Her big brother, Max, who was already a chess whiz, who already had a fortress of trophies at home, discovered Mr. Staebler lugging a hand-painted chess set that weighed around four hundred pounds.
Delmar Gardens nursing home was a desert of intellectualism, so Lee, whose mind remained sharp, but whose body had become a real bastard, was searching for an opponent, a directionless pursuit out there in the relative Sahara.
And it is here where the relationship between Max Solomon Baker and Lee Staebler flourished. The retired business professor, bullied by Parkinson’s, could silence his hands and his eyes just long enough to steer the knights and pawns on the right course and to play an occasional oldie on the nursing home piano.
Lee remembers their first game. “I had him at a disadvantage and all of a sudden, he came up with one of those blind moves, where you have a piece hiding behind another piece. I think he was in third grade.”
During our outings to see Baba at Delmar Gardens, we’d listen to revolving spins on the good old days when she’d shimmied on tabletops; we’d deliver slapdash manicures and maneuver chess pieces.
Then Sarah, maturing from her role as Head Cosmetologist of Delmar Gardens Nursing Home, attached herself to Bea. Bea frittered away the years mastering online solitaire. She cherished Sarah’s homemade banana bread, pretended Sarah was a talisman in the lonely computer game, hugged her like a grandparent would. Bea was eighty-eight years old once. The next time we visited, she informed us that she was eighty-six. She was inching closer to middle age, closer to me.
After Baba died, we’d continued our treks to Delmar Gardens, not for the odor of feces that pervaded the hallways, or for the stale popcorn that sat in that carnival-style machine (free for visitors, 25 cents a bag for employees). But because Max and Sarah were more terrified of wooden roller coasters than of people with hunched bodies who screamed, “Help! Somebody help me!” from their wheelchairs. They always chose the nursing home over Six Flags.
Children cannot hear echoes of their own voices in these refrains. They are too distant to realize that frailty will, indeed, summon them too, that they will not be exempt.
* * * *
Max is now fourteen years old and Lee has transferred to a different nursing home, Westchester House. The website boasts “easy access to all the city has to offer” and then delivers an inventory of hospitals within three miles.
For nearly half of his life now, Max has been competing against Lee Staebler. Like most chess games, the match-ups between Max and Lee are not 90-mile-per-hour affairs. Max will slam down a rook and then shift in his seat. He will bounce his right leg and nibble at his fingernails. He will rest his head in his palm. Lee will sip Sprite from the straw. Max will devour the Snickers I purchased from the half-empty vending machine. Sometimes, Lee will orchestrate a flawless block. Sometimes, Max will realize that Lee has forgotten his turn or made an illegal move, maybe confusing a bishop for a rook. “That’s a knight, Mr. Staebler, I’ll turn it toward you.”
This is snail mail in the text message world of teenagers, of Max.
“I’m not mad that he takes a long time to move, but sometimes I just wonder what he’s thinking about, whether it’s the different strategies and moves, or is his mind going elsewhere?” Max says.
It doesn’t help Lee’s game that a shaker of salt sometimes proxies for one of the gang of sixteen or that lately they play with a king that is sans head. “The queen must have gotten tired of his shit,” I mumble.
Lee’s speech is slurred and quiet, but wit has not deserted him.
“Yeah,” Lee answers. “She threw him in the dungeon.”
And it doesn’t help Lee’s game that Parkinson’s screws with your eyes. With your concentration. With half your universe, it seems.
“You’re in check, Mr. Staebler, and I’m attacking your queen, so you’re probably going to take my queen, right?” Max waits.
* * * *
Once I’d brought Lee some shaving cream along with his booze and arrived at Delmar Gardens with an altruistic glee. I knocked on his wooden door, then just busted right in, without waiting. And there sat Lee, in his wheelchair, naked. I mumbled a weak “sorry,” closed the door, and left the goods at the front desk. And after a week, I scribbled him an apology note. I’m sorry I didn’t wait, that I shredded your dignity, that my good deed turned sour, and I’m sorry you’re stuck living with a roommate who lies in bed all day, groaning, and calling you a motherfucker for no reason.
* * * *
The nurse delivers the 7:30 pills, two tiny white gifts, to the birthday boy, and asks Lee who is winning. Nurses have always assumed that Max is Lee’s grandson.
Max’s grandpa, my father, and Lee both grew up in the forties, both Brooklyn boys fanatical about their Dodgers. Both of them love classical music, though Lee’s collection consists of forty CDs stuffed inside a single dresser drawer, while Max’s grandpa has his catalogue of thousands all alphabetized on the desktop.
Max’s grandpa wasn’t diagnosed with Parkinson’s when he was 51. Max’s grandpa doesn’t park in a wheelchair waiting for every hour – on the half hour—to arrive so that he can swallow some white pills. These pills combat the Parkinson’s paralysis, which tackles Lee whenever the medicine fails to arrive with machinelike precision.
Max’s grandpa lives in a pink two-story in Boca Raton, complete with a swimming pool, a team of gardeners, and a guy named Sal who comes to fix anything that breaks. Lee lives here in Westchester Village, where the font on the activities schedule is too small for him to decipher. He has a collection of books, but he fights to read, to write, to concentrate, even to smile, as people with Parkinson’s disease are often plagued with inexpressive faces.
Years ago, Lee earned high school letters in soccer, basketball, and track. Years ago, he joined the military, married, divorced, married again, fathered four babies. Years ago, he hosted sherry and cheese parties, parties where they played chess to the symphonies of Tchaikovsky. This was all long before Max was born.
I am the center point on the Max-Debra-Lee number line, born 33 years after Lee, 32 years before Max. I see both directions, fuzzy at times and then, frighteningly clear.
I set an alarm every morning for 6:20 am. I teach writing skills to middle school kids, many who would rather be playing Grand Theft Auto IV on their X-box machines. I still have images of my eighth grade teacher, Mr. Roach, belting out a song about coordinating conjunctions, still feel like an imposter, wondering how and when I matured enough to be the parent and the teacher of teenagers.
Sassy have-nots bark from a list that is stuffed inside my pocket —you have not traveled to Africa, you have not run a marathon, you have not water-skied on a lake. My hair grays, my knees wrinkle, and sometimes I toss on a tie-dyed padded bra for a spot of added excitement.
I shush thoughts of being trapped in a room somewhere, of my life stuffed inside three drawers, of waiting too long for a nurse to change my soiled sheets. I shush thoughts of eyes that are too weak to read, of arthritic hips, of falling asleep in a wheelchair in front of a no-salt breakfast. I pray that if ever, or whenever, I land in a nursing home, some sweet young thing will smuggle in bottles of Absolut Vanilla for me to spike my diet cokes. With red wine in hand for Mr. Staebler, I pray for alcohol karma.
Time passes, as it does. There are weeks, sometimes months, between our visits to Westchester House. During that time, Max attends to piles of math problems, has weekly basketball drills, checks his Fantasy Football team a few hundred times, researches about albinos in Tanzania for the Model UN club, co-hosts a sports radio show on Friday nights. During that time, he attends religious school and watches Saint Louis Cardinals games with his buddies.
Time passes. I walk the mutt around the block 600 times, make dozens of peanut butter sandwiches, do mega-loads of laundry, have senseless meetings at work, go for early-morning jogs around the neighborhood, scribble comments on students’ essays. I dream of drafting an anthology of short stories, of watching piles of foreign films, of seeing my own father more than twice a year when we head down to Florida.
Dad traveled to our home to meet his newborn granddaughter, Sarah, and then for the bar mitzvah of his grandson, Max. Eleven years flew away between these weekend visits. I dream of having him escort me to a piano concerto at our symphony hall, of him watching Max dance out of a chess tournament with a first place trophy, of seeing him applaud for Sarah when she lands a small part in a school play. And I wish I were a daughter who strokes her father’s arm and holds his hand sometimes, a daughter who confides in him about the shaky moments in a marriage, and who sends him funny greeting cards, just because. I forget to be her. Or maybe I just don’t know how.
Chess players know that the game is not about wishing or hoping, but about careful planning, about being keenly aware. The game is about scrutinizing the board, gazing several steps ahead and then grabbing hold of those moments when you can see into that future and you know, shazam, something breathtaking is staring at you.
Time passes. Lee wins a few quarters at Bingo, visits with his daughters, maybe daydreams about his first wife or about the birth of his namesake. Maybe he frets about the cell phone that cycled through the nursing home washing machine. Maybe he tries again and again to stifle the woman in the hallway’s refrain, “I wanna go home, I wanna go home” by remembering the days in the Coast Guard or on the Islip basketball team, which held the county title for many years. Despite her singing, the woman in the hallway will never go home.
Maybe Lee makes a watercolor painting or two with his stash of paints, and maybe he imagines himself resurrected from the wheelchair, sprinting through fields of wild marigolds. Maybe he practices chess, playing both sides, imagining what Max might plan, trapping both the bishop and the queen, building his strategy, perfecting his end game. I don’t know what he plans or hopes for, or dreams. Maybe he wonders where we are, worries that we might never return. The gaps are long.
* * * *
Lee Staebler loves the game of chess. He loves tossing away his real world, loves that when engrossed in a match, the problems of the pieces are the only reality. Gone is Parkinson’s. Gone are nurses who have moved him too roughly into his bed. Gone are cut-up chicken dinners with overcooked broccoli.
So we sit here at the table—this elderly man, this teenage boy and this middle-aged woman—celebrating his birthday, moving the pieces, taking sips from our cups. I imagine Lee as a rook gliding effortlessly across the board. I imagine him dancing the tango, not crawling like a pawn, one tiptoe at a time. I imagine him with the majesty of a king, sitting atop a plush throne.
After the final checkmate, after all of the pieces are deposited back inside their cozy green bag, Max will wheel Mr. Staebler back to Room 404, bend down to him, deliver a one-armed hug, and say, “Thanks for playing, Mr. Staebler. Happy Birthday.” I will stand there breathing in my son’s youth, my son’s patience, my son’s steady kindness. I will breathe in his light.
Chess players know that though the king is the most valuable piece in the game, he is also frail. The king is the vulnerable one, the one in need of strong armor, the one to whom we must pay careful attention. We must not leave him unprotected. Or all alone.
Max and I will walk together down the stale hallway away from Mr. Staebler’s makeshift home. Max will carry an invisible trophy that sits in his heart, sparkling. We will search for a nurse, and then wait for her to punch the secret code into the keypad, which will open the front door of Westchester House, locked tightly from the inside.
I will whisper silent vows.
Then, with my son next to me, I will walk to my minivan and drive miles away from this place, away from the solemn reminder that bodies do crumble, that minds do weaken—and that our game’s final moves are closer than we dare to see.
Copyright Baker 2017