THE CLUBHOUSE TURN by Leon Olenick
I was on my rounds, visiting a nursing home, and was asked by a staff member to speak with Max, one of the residents. I entered the room and found him in a chair reading the sports page of a local paper. A frail man, his six foot frame was filled out to only around one hundred pounds- his drawn cheeks revealed his bony face and toothless mouth. His legs were skeletal, unable to support his body.
He introduced himself to me by saying,
“You have to lose some weight. You’re too damn fat”.
“You’re right. I wish I could give some to you.”
We laughed. I sat down and asked him how he was.
“How should I be doing? I’m stuck here in this cage.” He went on to tell me about his life.
“You know, I was a street guy. I gambled, whored, took drugs- I was one of the wise guys. I was respected. My friends were loan sharks, bookies, con artists and number writers. Those were the days.” He went into many stories. As he spoke he gained energy and became animated. We visited for a long time as the stories flowed.
“So, tell me Max, you are a hospice patient and you are aware you are approaching the end of your life. Is there anything I can offer you at this time?” He looked into my eyes.
“I used to hang out at the track every day. I met my friends there. I knew the horses and jockeys. That was my home. I have no family- the track people were my family. I’ll tell you what I need: one more day at the track, a pack of cigarettes, and some gambling money”. I did not respond. I told him I would stop and see him again next week.
“This was good. I like you.” He said.
I left his room, his stories dominating my thoughts. What could I do for this character? I called the local race track and told them Max’s story. The public relations woman was touched. She said, “Why don’t you bring him here as our guest? We will make sure he has a seat in the clubhouse and treat him to lunch”. I told her I would try and arrange it. I then contacted the nursing home to see if this was feasible. They were excited and said they would provide transportation and an aid. All was set. I confirmed a date and went to tell Max. He could not believe it. I thought he was going to hug me. Excitement enveloped his entire being.
“Hey Leon, don’t forget the cigs!” I laughed as I left the room.
The big day was upon us. I picked my wife up at home. She had never been to a race track, and I wanted to share this day with her. On the way to the nursing home, we stopped at a convenience store to purchase a pack of Marlboro One Hundreds, his cigs of choice.
The CEO of the nursing home decided to join us and bring four other patients who she knew would appreciate the day. It was a very unusual scene as the patients filed into the van, schlepping their oxygen tanks, wheel chairs and canes. We followed the medivan in our car. When we arrived at the track, we were directed to VIP parking, and a representative from the public relations department met us. She introduced herself and told us she would be our escort for the day. When we entered the track she escorted us to the clubhouse. Max said this would not work for him. He told her that his home is down by the midway where he is close to the action.
“That’s my hangout.” We proceeded there.
She handed Max a program and said , “Look at the fifth race”. He opened it and in large print it read, “The Max Schwartz Handicap” (the name has been changed for privacy purposes). His eyes became bright in disbelief. She also told him he would be escorted to the winner’s circle after the fourth race to present the trophy to the jockey. His smile was larger than his face. We had all chipped in some money so he would be able to place a bet on the races. He was too weak to walk to the window, so he picked the horses and we bet and brought him the ticket. He stared at the ticket to make sure it was correct, the ash from the cigarette hanging from his mouth dropping on the ticket. He brushed it away. After losing the first three races he smiled and said, “It’s like old times. I lose every race”. The pari-mutuel board lit up for the fourth race. The top of the board read in giant letters,
THE MAX SCHWARTZ HANDICAP
He stared at it with utter joy, a toothless smile encompassing his entire face. No words were necessary. The bugler stepped out to blow the horn for the race. He was dressed in the colorful attire of the track. A red formal jacket and black pants were tucked into his high boots. The announcer said “Welcome to the Max Schwartz Handicap – four furlongs”. Max leaned back in his wheelchair. His Marlboro was hanging off the side of his mouth. The contentment in his face told his story.
“And they’re off!” Max hung on to every call from the announcer.
When the race was complete he was wheeled to the winner’s circle. He presented the trophy to the jockey and had his picture taken with the horse, the jockey and owner.
We stayed for one more race. Max began to lose his energy. It was time to leave. We thanked the track representative for all her planning, work, compassion and presence. The van was waiting, and all the patients from the nursing home piled in. It was a grand day.
The next day I went to the nursing home to bring pictures my wife had taken. Max’s bed was empty. His body was absent; his soul remained at the track.
I did not agree with the life style Max chose to live. It was also not my task to judge him. I was present to help him with closure so he could leave our world in peace. A copy of the picture from the track was placed in his coffin.
I sincerely believe that when we honor another’s needs, we are also recognizing our own needs. We have a tendency to judge people. If we are able to release that need within ourselves we will be granted the ability to see more clearly. Max reaffirmed the truth within me that says, “Be who you are, and not who you are expected to be.”
Rest in peace Max- you have completed your stretch run.
Read this out loud to my hubbatzin Barry just now and had to stop to cry at points. It’s so powerful, these are great talents you have – chaplaincy and storytelling. What a blessing you are in sharing this!
You should write a book about your experiences in Hospice (in your spare time.)