Visits with Lenny

Entering the building, I’m once again struck by the quiet, the bright shine of the spotless floor, and the warmth. There is a sense of spirituality. Rosary Hill is a palliative care facility run by the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, New York, for terminally ill cancer patients.

They are not referred to as patients, but as residents. I am visiting Lenny, who has lived here for a year. As I walk towards his section, I wonder how one deals with the immediate prospect of dying.

His room has four beds, two of which are empty. The other resident, a new arrival, lies flat on his back and is close to motionless. Lenny is wearing clean flannel pajamas, sitting in his wheel chair and looking at a television screen.

"Hi Lenny, how’re you doing?" He looks up, smiles and extends his hand. His fingers are gnarled.

"Hello, Paul, pretty good, how you doing?"

Lenny is ninety — seventeen years my senior. Most of his friends and relatives are dead. He likes visits from volunteers. As I wheel him past the nurses’ station we wave at Sister Kathleen. With kindness and firmness she encourages Lenny to go outside during the spring, summer, and fall. "Go on, Lenny, it’s good for you." But this is a winter day and we head for the solarium on the second floor. On our way we pass a staff member, who grins and shouts, "Hey, Lennnny, how’s it going, Buddy?" Lenny laughs, nods and says he’s fine. A little further on we meet Lamar, the resident golden retriever of the Activities Director. Lamar meanders through the halls, quietly attracting attention from residents and visitors.

Entering the solarium we see that another patient, George is already here with his wife. The room is filled with sunlight. The brightly painted walls and porch furniture are non-institutional. Birds in a small aviary in a corner chirp life into the room. The two men like to sit near each other even though George can barely speak. Lenny and I usually start talking about golf.

"Lenny did you see Tiger on TV over the weekend?"

"Yeah, that was some golf." Lenny was a part-time caddy for many years and always enjoyed Mondays, when caddies could play at most clubs. He and his friends also used to play on public courses. Lenny frequently shot in the 80s and occasionally in the 70s. At least 70% of all golfers, including me, never shoot lower than 100. I appreciate how well he played.

We often talk about his family. His father died during the Depression. Lenny was 14. His words slow as he describes how his mother was left to raise five children. Four of them, including Lenny, never married. He is worried about his sister, who is now left alone in their house. Sometimes he says, "I have to get out of here. I can’t be just lolling around all day."

"What do you have to do, Lenny?"

"Well, I’ve got to get back to the house to give my clothes away. I’ve got to give my brother’s away too." Lenny’s brother died last year.

We also talk about home and auto repairs. If I talk about trouble with a furnace, he’ll ask about it the next week. "Did you get the burner fixed? What was wrong? How much did they charge? Two hundred bucks? That’s not too bad for work on a weekend." Sometimes we talk about his job as a custodian at a Westchester high school. I wondered whether the students were respectful of the custodians.

"How were the kids there?"

"How were the kids? They were great, really great."

We never talk about the specifics of his cancer and he rarely complains about his condition. There is one subject that angers him.

"Do you know what the undertakers charge to take you out of here?"

"No, Lenny, I don’t."

"Why they charge you by the mile from here in Hawthorne to White Plains." He never says what the cost per mile is. Just the concept annoys him. I shake my head wondering if and when I were in his position, would I have his basic faith and mental toughness?

Wednesday is Race Day at Rosary Hill. Five volunteers set up a room with a CD of horse races held several years ago at the Gulfstream Park Race Track in Florida. The CD contains four separate sets of eight races. On our way there we pass a custodian, "Hi Lenny," Lenny waves and says hello quietly. As we enter the Racing Room the volunteers, known to us as the racing commission, all greet Lenny by name. Other residents arrive by wheel chairs, walkers, and one or two with just a cane.

"And they’re off!" The voice of an excited announcer gives an animated description of the first race. "It’s MoJo and Nag Nag Nag in the lead as they head for the first turn with Wurthawhile, Raindance and Meat Loaf close behind." Lenny can’t use his hands anymore so I write down his three choices. Often I pick them. He calls me his bookmaker. Halfway through the races, Greg, a nurse, comes in with a pill and eye drops for Lenny. Greg jokes, "Put your head back Lenny and these drops will cloud your eyes." Lenny laughs softly and puts his head back.

The betting sheet shows the odds, the jockey and other statistics. New residents, particularly those who enjoy horse racing, study the sheet carefully. But, I’ve found that the same horses often win. One exception is Last Chance, a 17-1 long shot. Fred, a recent arrival, gives a short lecture to a volunteer on the foolishness of betting on 17-1 odds. "Why someone who bets on a horse like that will never do well in business. I’ve been going to the races my whole life, why before you were even born. With bets like that you just throw your money away."

The race starts and the announcer screams, "It’s Last Chance first out the gate." Laughter, subtle at first, erupts in the room. "And around the first turn it’s Last Chance by two lengths." The horse continues to speed away from the others. Lenny’s head rocks as he grins at the screen, and even Fred laughs. The residents who win get coupons, a dollar or a scratch off, which adds more anticipation. After the eighth race on the disc is finished, the commission closes the track for the week.

Recently, I went to see Lenny on a Thursday — music day. A pianist played and sang songs from the 40s and the 50s. The audience included two residents who were wheeled to the room in hospital beds. There was a man in a wheelchair wearing a baseball cap from a reunion of a Marine Corps unit. The piano repertoire included As Time Goes By, Bless Them All, Heart of my Heart, and Bill Bailey. The tempo was fast. A lady in a hospital bed smiled and clapped her hands with every song. The finale was You Are My Sunshine. Looking at the group and hearing the music I felt myself becoming emotional. I had to fight back tears. I looked at the Marine who, 63years ago, may have been in battles in the Pacific. Now he is a frail, gaunt, old man with gray hair. He and Lenny sang as the song concluded with the words, "Please don’t take my sunshine away."

I asked myself, "How do these people do it?"

After the program ended, I wheeled Lenny back to his room. His roommate stared at the ceiling in silence. I patted Lenny on the shoulder and wondered, "Will he be here next week?"

"So long Lenny, I’ll see you next Wednesday."

"So long Paul, thanks a lot. Yeah, great, see you then."

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About the Author: Paul Phillips