Contributed to The Globe and Mail
Published July 17, 2019
Updated 3 days ago
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We found the tin, a Christmas tin, the second day after your death. It was under the bathroom sink where you housed much of the dialysis paraphernalia, pain killers, many of the hopeless (my word), life-prolonging (your perspective) materials that kept you alive while you waited (17 years) for a second transplant – which failed.
After you died, my cousin and her husband arrived to help. They loved you. I loved you.
We could not find your will. We could not find critical financial information, passwords, a health-care directive, lots of details only you knew.
The financial adviser advised. There would be a long and necessary (ridiculous) process required to probate if the will could not be found. You were meticulous about many things, almost compulsive. You maintained files with decades of no-longer-useful invoices and receipts, but because you did not want to talk about death you made no provisions for the ending of your life. There were no documents, no conversations. You felt, I think, that if you spoke death’s inevitability aloud (a 24-year chronic disease that had taken you to brinks and back might do that), you would lose your edge and die because you’d laid yourself open, punctured the dike, allowed a breach. You were vague, circumspect. Spelling things out meant you were making space for death, and death had no place in the fight to live which you undertook with an iron will.
But, without the documentation required by the government, we were at loose ends.
We had searched your office. You were a hoarder of proportions I had not guessed and I had lived with you for 48 years. Your office closet hid the underside of a mind bent on every transaction. In this, you exerted absolute control. That relentless deterioration of your physical realm, that life by subtraction, you countered with record keeping of another kind.
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For 24 years, I watched you disappear. Bit by bit. Kidney disease. A transplant that required massive doses of steroids to trump outbursts of rejection. A failed transplant. Mutations brought about by aggressive drug therapies and invasive technologies. Cancer. Broken Bones. Stenosis. Pain. Heart failure. A complicated hip replacement. An attempted second transplant. Death.
The forced life on machinery that prolongs the human being, even as it modifies that being’s identity, transforms, without understanding, the battered emotional, psychic, physical and spiritual nature of the altered existence created. The costs for the one transformed proliferate. And costs lead me back to loose change. A tin. How interesting the choice. A Christmas cookie tin. I had seen it there for years, under the sink, beside the toilet paper, the bactericidal wipes and the industrial hand sanitizers. I thought, perhaps, it housed your secret stash of painkillers: the hydromorphone and fentanyl patches you stockpiled just in case.
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You were, after all, a just-in-case child. Your parents had survived the Holocaust, having lost children and partners before they met one another and had you, a 1948 baby. As a second-generation son, you carried their anguish and fear, as well as their hope for a safer world in a new country, which they found in 1958, when Poland finally allowed immigration and they could flee. You thrived, but underneath, the just-in-case child, the one who heard his father’s stories of camp and ghetto, who saw the framed picture of a father’s murdered children, saw the damning effects of a mother’s unrelieved agony for her own murdered child and missing husband. That child lived in you.
In one final attempt to find the will, I discover a bright red folder in a hanging file on my desk, in what I thought had been my own thoroughly ransacked study: “Mendel’s Will.” I had not noticed it before. Opening it, I found your will and a single page, typed with a heading, underlined, in caps: IMPORTANT INFORMATION FOR DEBORAH. Financial records, bank accounts, investments, insurance, death benefits and one line which read, “Loose Change’ Bathroom Sink +$1000″.
In the tin, I found $1,000 in rolled loonies.
The tin held, as well, a slip of paper with your recorded deposits into this little private bank, a stay against … what? The tin was too heavy for you to carry – you had withered so, barely able to move, your thin arms palsied, the walker jagged in its advance across the living-room floor. The tin too heavy for me in my own 67th year.
(I learn much later that such just-in-case money socked away is called bintella in Yiddish, a term I try not to forget.)
I have the fund intact in the tin. I think of the money sewn into clothes by mothers frantic to protect their children, money salvaged in camps by guards as bodies rose in gas chambers. I think of your extraordinary courage as one who lived with chronic and incurable disease, who gave to his sons every ounce of the strength he had, wrapped now in the tin box the story of his own fear and ingenuity, thinking that if he failed, when he died, if the banks failed and the world crashed, and the fascists came once more to find us, we might have a little cash to buy our way out, for a little while … perhaps.
He made no sense, this husband I mourn. He tried so hard and he made no sense. But of course, a refugee fighting to stay, dying to live, understanding that maybe loose change might open a crack in a world that can be so devastatingly unkind, well, a refugee like that who discovers freedom in a new country (even if he cannot find a cure) is an agent of change. He is forever on the loose in the hearts that he loves, and that love him so.
Deborah Schnitzer lives in Winnipeg, Man.