by Robin M. Meyerowitz
I recently came across a photo of Sean Connery and immediately thought of my dad. When I was young people would often approach and ask if he was the man who played James Bond. Since he was South African and had that lovely lilting accent, strangers were not altogether convinced when he denied being the handsome actor (even though Connery’s Scottish brogue was entirely different).
But as far as I was concerned, my dad was James Bond — dashing, self-assured and quick with a witty comeback. As a kid I loved to watch him shave. It was a daily ritual that followed our early morning breakfast, just him and me while my three younger siblings slept. He ate toast with jam and drank hot Lipton tea and I had Captain Crunch cereal. Afterwards I trailed after him in his plaid bathrobe into the big, blue bathroom, where he filled the sink with warm water. I sat on the counter and watched his reflection in the mirror. He shaved twice. First he lathered on regular bar soap and then slowly, carefully, shaved in short upward strokes with an old-fashioned metal double blade razor. Mirrors steamed up and the bathroom smelled of soap. After that he applied Barbasol white foam shaving cream and repeated the entire process, deliberately and precisely, only hesitating if, on occasion, he nicked himself and a spot of blood appeared on his jawline or cheek. As a surgeon, unfazed by blood, he tore off a bit of tissue to stop the bleeding and stuck it to his face like a snowflake on a window before it melts. Finished, he slapped on aftershave and smoothed his hair back with a comb. This routine went on for years until I reached the age when I paid more attention to my grooming than his.
Decades later I was in my own bathroom in my San Francisco flat washing my face, when my phone rang. It was my mother. I knew something was wrong by the way she choked out my name, “Rob.”
“I think Dad had a stroke.”
Before she even finished her sentence I screamed “Noooo!” so loudly I shocked myself. Within an hour I was with Dad, lying on a hospital bed, only semi-coherent. He kept repeating he wanted a cup of tea, motioning with his hand as if bringing a cup to his lips. He didn’t know where he was or what was happening. For him, it was morning. Breakfast time.
A doctor introduced himself, said Dad had had a cerebral hemorrhage, a massive stroke that instantly made him blind, paralyzed him on the left side and from which he wouldn’t recover. They couldn’t contain the bleeding so it was likely to spread. The doctor’s voice shook and there were tears in his eyes. Why would he be so emotional about my dad?
“Did you know him?” I asked, confused.
The doctor nodded. “Yes, I worked with him for years.” He looked away to blink back tears.
We were at my dad’s hospital. He’d been Chief of Staff for years. Of course, everyone knew him.
Within a day my three siblings arrived and assembled around Dad’s bed. We stayed with him for days, taking turns holding his right hand, the side that still worked, and even though he could no longer communicate clearly, he seemed to take comfort in having a strong grip on one of us. Realizing he wouldn’t recover, we’d made the agonizing decision to keep him comfortable but not try to extend his life. He’d written that he didn’t want to be kept in a state where he wasn’t fully functioning so we all agreed to abide by his wishes. I had never felt so broken apart and gutted. When I wasn’t by his side I walked around as if in an alternate universe, one I couldn’t relate to or comprehend. Everything felt surreal. I couldn’t taste food; I talked to people as if through a fog. The only thing that seemed real was sitting by my dad, and holding his hand. We told him we were all there. We were fine. He could go. We were so exhausted we got punchy and said stupid things like Follow the light.
After several days, a nurse walked into the room.
“I heard Dr. M was here,” she said.
German shepherds, golden retrievers, poodles, and huskies (like the two neighborhood dogs Dad and I petted on our walks around the block) pranced across her uniform. Dad would have liked that. She walked up to him and patted his arm, taking in the beeping machines and the IV pumping drugs to keep him calm and out of pain.
“I don’t like to see him looking so scruffy,” she said. “He was always so well-groomed and put together when I saw him walking the halls. I think he could use a nice shave.”
It hadn’t even occurred to me to notice that in the days Dad had been lying in bed, his beard had grown. Who would think that, as you’re dying, part of you is still growing? Within a few minutes she found a razor and filled a small, pink, plastic bowl with water and soap, and balancing it gently on his chest, she started to shave away days of stubble. He didn’t move or seem to notice. She was so gentle, each stroke slow, steady, careful. Tears welled up as I watched her work, mesmerized. I was so grateful she offered to do this task. For just a moment I was transported back to the warm, blue bathroom, sitting in my PJs, watching my handsome dad shave.
When she was done, the nurse wiped his face. “That’s so much better; he looks like himself now.” I could barely choke out “thank you” through my tears.
But she was right. My James Bond of a dad looked like himself when, a couple of days later, loosening his grip, he slipped away from us.