the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

It’s the Real Thing

Tuesday Night

9PM – Sophia’s stepfather, Vartan, is not doing well. He is at a rehab center near Cedars Sinai in Beverly Hills. Sophia and her mother have been at his side constantly for weeks and they are exhausted, so I told her that I would stay all night and watch over him. Sophia told me to caress his hand and talk to him to help him sleep.

9:15PM – Vartan has an amazing life. He is older than Sophia’s mother. He fought in World War 2, and was a POW in a German camp. He went through turbulant times in the Soviet Union. He was a prominent cancer surgeon in Russia. He moved to America with Sophia’s mother because he loved her. Rumor has it that they fell in love while still married to others, and they waited decades until they were able to be together.

10:20PM – Everyone here seems to be elderly and in pain. If you’ve been to a place like this, you know what I’m talking about. If you don’t, it’s better off you don’t know.

10:30PM – The sounds. The screaming of the man in the next room.

10:45PM – In one day, I’ve gone from writing about the hormonal teenage years of early manhood to writing about the inevitable weakening of man because of old age.

11PM – I can’t wait until morning arrives, for the nurturing power of the sun. I know this sounds insensitive, but I don’t want to be in this place anymore. I’m getting dizzy. Don’t faint. Be a man. Be a man like Vartan. Think of all the stress that Sophia and her mother are under, doing this every day.

11:15PM – How many of my blogging friends are nurses? Kudos to you for the work you do.

11:30PM – There is another man in the room, in the other bed. He constantly watches sports on his TV. Every time I walk by, he wants to talk with me. He is lonely. He used to work for ABC Sports. He thinks that I am Russian. He wants to talk about the famous Olympic hockey game between the USA and the USSR. He was supposed to cover that Olympic event with ABC, but he was assigned to bobsledding instead. He has always regretted that day.

Midnight – Vartan is going in and out of reality. Sleeping pills don’t work. He tries to leave the bed. The nurses have to “soft restrain” him to the bed. It is painful to watch. At times, he knows who I am. At other times, he is in his own world. I try to decipher what he is doing in this other reality by watching his movements.

12:05PM – He is talking to someone in Russian. But this person is not there. Who is this person that he is speaking to? I don’t know.

12:10AM – He is petting what looks like a boy’s head. Or a dog? Perhaps it is a dog he had as a child? He is making rapid movements with his hands and fingers. Swatting flies? Conducting an orchestra? Writing on a blackboard?

12:45AM – The nurse enters, wanting to change the soiled sheets. What a tough job these nurses have! Still, it is a little sad that there isn’t more of a human touch to the caregiving at this facility. One patient seems interchangeable with the next.

12:50PM – Vartan is doing his hand movements, and the nurse just finds them an annoyance as she changes the sheets.

2AM – I decide the hand movements are Vartan performing surgery. I find that dignified. He senses that he is in a medical facility and is doing what he is trained to do. He is not just some old anonymous guy. He is a skilled surgeon, and he wants everyone to know that.

3:15AM – Earlier in the evening, Sophia had sent over some Chinese food from a local restaurant, but eating Kung Pao Chicken in this facility made me queasy, so I hardly touched it. But I’m just noticing that at the bottom of the bag sits a can of Coke. Not Diet Coke, but real Coke. Woo-hoo!

3:30AM – That was the best Coke I ever had. Seriously. This post could be a commercial for the intense power of Coca-Cola. This Coke was my escape out of here. It’s the real thing. It transported me. Coke does not belong in a rehab facility. It is the soda of youth. I close my eyes and I am at a summer picnic, drinking Coke. And there is BBQ. And women. Life affirming stuff.

4:10AM – Vartan is doing his hand gestures again. But, this time, I notice that during the movement, he brings his hand to his mouth, as if he is eating something. That’s it! He is NOT doing surgery with his hands. He is picking something — from a tree? — cherries? grapes? apples? — and eating them. He grew up on a farm. Is this eating of the fruit his equivalent to my drinking the Coke? Is he at a picnic too?

5AM – I try to calm Vartan down again by caressing his hand. He is a cool guy. He used to laugh at me because I sipped my vodka.

This is hard. Soon, I will go home and Sophia’s mother will replace me at his side. We’re all hoping that Vartan recovers.


  1. V-Grrrl @ Compost Studios

    I’ve buried four parents (mine and my husband’s) and sat with my sister when she was only 33 and dying.

    It is hard. So hard. It made me more compassionate, more tuned in to the gift of life, and it also made me DREAD aging and all that goes with it.

  2. Heather

    I am a nurse.

    I also spent the night at a hospital.

    You’re right—it all sucks.

  3. wn

    This is an honorable post for what you have described as an honorable man.

    Aging, although a necessary part of life, seems so cruel.

  4. sarah g

    You made me teary. It is hard. Yet thank God that you are with him, that his wife is with him. Thanks be to you for sophia. for being there when she, when they, need you.

    i visit rehab centers, restoration centers, dementia centers etc; for those who dont have that family beside them. it isn’t easy, but at least they have someone sometimes. it breaks my heart to watch them be lonely so my grateful prayers are raised that for all the good he did; he is now with family during these times.

    my prayers are with you all.

  5. The Glamorous Life Association

    Well written.
    I know the honor and hell of watching someone in their final days. You want to run from this, and at the same time wouldn’t miss it for the world.

    Hang in there.
    It is gods work to comfort the dying.
    He totally appreciates you for this.

  6. followthatdog

    Last year at this time, my husband was in Chicago watching his favorite aunt in similar circumstances. He said the hardest part for him was knowing that his aunt would have hated the indignity of it all. I’m so sorry. I hope that your memories of Vartan as the person he was before this final phase will long overshadow these.

  7. Busy Mom

    Been there as a nurse and a family member. It’s never easy, especially at night for some reason.

  8. Nancy

    This sounds hauntingly familiar to my experience with my dad the last four months. Watching his grip on reality wax and wane has been the hardest part of it all. Anything you can do to help him stay grounded is good. Have him near a window (so he can keep his circadian rhythms in check), have him watch TV news, keep him as busy and active as you can during the day (playing cards, wheeling around rehab, etc.) will help him sleep better at night. I’d like to say it gets easier, but as you can guess, it really doesn’t. It just gets to be a different kind of hard.

  9. thordora

    The smell and the sounds. I hope to never be on a palliative ward ever again.

  10. paperback writer

    I was ten when my grandmother died. My parents, grandfather and I watched her as she took her last breath. The weeks and days and months before this, my grandmother slipped further and further into her own world. Spinning between calling me by my mother’s name, my aunt’s name and my own name. More often than not, she slept, which was a blessing to me.

    Since my mother is a doctor, she refused to let her mother die in a hospital. So, in her own bed, surrounded by family (and one crazy scared kid) she died.

    Kudos to you.

  11. Ro Abreu

    Followed a Twitter here. I am a third generation nurse, a chronic family caregiver, and I am very familiar with the vigil you describe. I also believe it is holy work to sit with the ill and dying, in a way a mitzvah. Bearing witness for one another teaches us so much about what we are doing here, who we are.

  12. Joie

    Sending love and also thanks for the Coke imagery. I know JUST what you mean.

  13. Tuck

    Thoughts and prayers with Vartan.

  14. Gwen

    My dad did a bunch of weird things with his hands before he died. The hospice people told us it was common, that they believed he was waving at the ones who had gone on before him and were waiting to take him to the other side. Never really bought it, but it’s sure a nice story

    I’m sorry, Neil. That sounds truly rough.

  15. Tracy

    My stepdad is 84 and suffers from a progressing form of dementia. Sometimes I have to assure him that I know the ship’s captain, and that we’re heading for a safe destination.

    Be agreeable and reassuring, they tell me. Whatever they see – that’s how it is. So that’s how I act. That’s what I do.

    It’s very hard, indeed.

    I hope he was picking fruit, and that wherever he was, it was beautiful.

  16. Pearl

    Only after reading your post, and just before commenting, I recognized the meaning of the post’s title. Wonderful use of the slogan, and perfectly written blog post…real deal Neil!

  17. Heather

    Powerful just to write about it.

  18. deb

    life sometimes feels like it sucks from beginning to end. maybe with a slight reprieve somewhere in the middle.

    my father in law just died last month. it’s been very tough on my husband in a whole host of ways. i know how much sophia and her mother appreciated and needed you to step in as you did.

  19. Peeved Michelle

    The part that made me well up was the part about the Coke. Hospitals, with that odd smell and the thin fabrics and the old linoleum, have a way of sucking the vibrancy out of everything.

  20. Kelly

    Yikes, I lost a family member to cancer and this is rough stuff. I always imagined having a 7up though…crystally clean 7up. Every sip I could hear that bald guy from the commercial chuckling “ah ah ah ahhhhhh”.

  21. MDTaz

    You are on a sad errand, it’s not an easy or pleasant task. But it is a privilege, I think, to accompany someone when they make this passage, a final gift.

  22. Jennifer

    Sat with my granddad 2 years ago in hospice. Watching him go in and out of reality was odd. He would speak to childhood friends and tell someone that he always saw in the corner of the room “No!” The hospice nurses were amazing. They all believed the people there were seeing the other side and all the people waiting for them.
    It is a great gift to sit with someone as they go. It’s hard, but in some ways wonderful.

  23. kanani

    It’s hard. But Vartan really is a parallel universe right now. Let’s hope he’s having a good time. And go ahead. Tell him all the things you’ve wanted to for a very long time.
    Big hugs, Neil.

  24. ingrid

    I’m so sorry. It matters that you are there.

  25. Michelle

    Beautiful. Thank you for the wisdom and poetry of noticing.

  26. Vicki

    This is awful. I remember when my husband’s grandmother was in the last stages of her cancer and he would go to New York and stay for days at a time, sleeping in the chair near her bed. But when he got home, he wouldn’t say anything to me about the hospital. It’s hard to be strong in times like these. Here’s hoping to a better end to 2010 than its present beginning for you and your family.

  27. Neil

    Just so I don’t get in trouble with anyone, remember that this was only one night doing this. Sophia and her mother have spent way more time doing the hard work. This is not written to get kudos. I just was giving my impression of the night.

    Also, we are still hoping for the best for him — a recovery —

  28. The Breeders' Digest

    You’ve given this man’s final days a lot of dignity with this post.

  29. Alison

    Thinking of you all.

  30. HSaboMilner

    Realism. Your post is pure realism. It touched me. Your compassion for Vartan comes through in spades. This one night was a gift for you, so you understand even more what Sophia and her mom are going through.

    My thoughts are with you. Know that you and your family are supported by real people who care about you.

  31. Trish/Astrogirl426

    I agree with the comment about this process being a mitzva. Being able to step up and do this is what separates the grownups from the children. Good for you.

  32. Finn

    You’re a good man, Neil. Thank you for sharing this with us.

  33. churchpunkmom

    Wow. What an awesome piece of raw writing, Neil. Love it. Great job.

  34. Danny

    So sorry to hear about Sophia’s stepdad. I know that Cedars-Sinai vigil quite well and send you all a lot of love.

    P.S. Have you run into any celebrities yet?

  35. Annie

    I visit a woman once a week in a nursing home and I hate the place. I would rather die than live in one. Vartan sounds like an interesting man. I hope he gets better soon. xoxo

  36. Introspectre

    Well written, Neil, and not an easy thing to write of. I cried right through it, thinking of my grandpa in the hospital. Every day I would wear diamonds and flowery sundresses and anything, anything to counter the morbid spell of the place. I… I have yet to write about that time. It was hard enough, but he should have lived and a nurse gave him the wrong meds… and he died horribly instead and I stopped blogging for two years (?). Sophia’s father sounds like a man of strength and character, as was my grandfather, and I wish her and her mother love and calmness and healing as they sit and caress his hands, night after night. My prayers go up to the heavens for Vartan, may he live to grace his family with the tales of his slumbering travels and tell you about the picnic as well.

    Thank you for writing this, Neil. Thank you.

  37. slouchy

    This reminds me of the way it was with my mother after her stroke.

    Tough stuff. No question.

  38. Loukia

    Praying for the recovery of Sophia’s step-father. I have spend many nights in a hospital, taking care of my sick child, and those nights are nights I’ll never forget, no matter how badly I want to forget them. Of course, I could never sleep, so worried was I about my son last year with his pneumonia. It was very lonely, scary, horrible. Night tme for me is always scary, always. I crave day time. It seems that bad things always happen at night. I hate that. Also, I love nurses. I put nurses on the highest pedestal of all. I simply adore them, adore them.

  39. Aunt Becky

    I’m a nurse too. Sending you and Sophia my love.

  40. teahouseblossom

    Beautiful writing, Neil. I am sure he was happy, wherever his mind had taken him. He has had a life well led.

  41. Jade

    I visited my husband’s grandmother at nursing home frequently before she died; the sheer delight on her face when she saw me and listened while I told her the myriad boring details of my days made the atmosphere, the too-bright lights, the visceral assault on my sense completely worth it.

  42. mamatulip

    This reminds me a lot of the time I spent with my mother in the hospital.

    Hang in there.

  43. Paris Parfait

    What a tough time for Vartan and for Sophia and her mom – and you. Excellent point about Vartan and his roommate wanting to be known as something other than a sick old man. Sigh. Life is hard and so unfair. A moving post, Neil.

  44. lisa

    There is nothing dignified about suffering. I just lost my mother on November 5th of ’09 and it was a horrific experience. After 8 and a half months of watching her slowly fail(I cared for her 3 days a week)I was spent. My brothers were spent. She died in her bed at home surrounded by many people those last 3 days. It was a wretched experience to listen to her breathe those last few hours. I wanted the pain to end for her. I can’t get it out of my head. The sounds, the smells and the suffering. I will spend my last days in a nursing home to spare my girls the anguish of having to be the ones responsible.

  45. deb

    The first post I read of yours was about the young women you sexually harassed because of your own issues. Then I read this post, you struggling with the same things we all struggle with, life, sickness, death and I realize that we are all the same. All composed of ugly and beautiful, darkness and light, all of us connected by our unfailing humanness.

    I’m a nurse, I care for all kinds of people and it is my belief that we all deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, to be seen as humans first, flawed second. Your post pushed me to put my money where my mouth is.

  46. 3boys1mommy

    Nurses are angels! I’m exited to hear Vartan is better.

    p.s I sip my tequila… it’s like I’m not even really Mexican.

  47. leah

    have done this, with my dad. it’s a very surreal experience. it’s good you got some thoughts out, you are a good husband and son in law.

    my husband only visited once when my dad was in the hospital, his boss even told him he should stop working and go see his father in law, dying in the hospital.

  48. sas

    you are a trooper for sticking it out.

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