San Diego elders look ahead to death

In sight of Heaven

They walk through the park toward the senior services center, which houses the shuffleboard court, game room, and dining room.
  • They walk through the park toward the senior services center, which houses the shuffleboard court, game room, and dining room.
  • Image by Craig Carlson

Aurore and Ethel Lee await their turn in the shuffleboard tourney. In the winter of life, they sit, legs crossed at ankles, on folding chairs at a card table. The skin on the tops of their hands is shiny, and speckled as trout. Their gazes flit to the shuffleboard court and then to each other. Between times, they keep an eye on their purses.

“We’re getting ready to play the third game. I’m in this one.” She waggles her fingers good-bye and grabs her shuffleboard cue.

“We’re getting ready to play the third game. I’m in this one.” She waggles her fingers good-bye and grabs her shuffleboard cue.

“I think people our age, older people, they mostly believe,” says Aurore. "They hope to go to heaven. We talk about it.”

"In rest homes,” agrees Ethel Lee, "they talk about it a lot, yes." Hell? Who will go there? "Rapists, murderers. Hitler,” offers Aurore. "If they repented in the end, they could get to heaven, though."

“We both, Aurore and me," explains Ethel Lee, “were raised Catholic. Even our church will not condemn a suicide, because they say at the last minute they might have repented. It's far less strict than it used to be, our church.’'

“When I was a girl, if you put lipstick on and went to Mass," says Aurore, "the priest would say, Get out of here, clean up your face, come back to the next Mass.’ ’’

“We talk — often— about making points for upstairs,” giggles Ethel Lee, pointing an index finger skyward. Above the covered court, the sky is a perfect blue and the clouds are like topping — Dream Whip, Cool Whip — heaped onto the horizon’s farthest edge.

“There’s got to be some justice someplace. There isn’t any here!" says Aurore. "We came here to visit, my husband and I. On a vacation. We got here, my husband died, I’m still here. We’d been married for twenty-nine years.” Her voice drops off and she straightens in her chair. A smile lifts the corners of her mouth: "I’m planning to see my husband up there. I’m planning to.”

“They claim it’s perfect, heaven is," says Ethel, her glance toward Aurore bereft of any pieties. "They claim we won’t have anything to worry about."

“I’m going through a hard time right now, I tell you. But it doesn’t do any good to cry.” Aurore’s wet eyes bore into the middle distance, from which can be heard the swish of discs sliding across the shuffleboard court. "Right now is rough."

“It’s gonna be better," promises Ethel Lee. "It’s gonna be."

They walk through the park toward the senior services center, which houses the shuffleboard court, game room, and dining room where, Monday through Friday, lunch is served. Other men and women — many more women than men — also stroll or hobble toward the center, most of them holding umbrellas or wearing brimmed hats or billed caps to shade them from the late morning sun. Into the area looking out onto the shuffleboard court drifts the aroma of chicken frying, sounds of a hymn played on a piano, clatter of cutlery and pans.

He stands near the shuffleboard court, at the pay phone, dialing “my better half.” Age? "Almost an octogenarian.” He’s a big, lanky fellow — plaid shirt, gray wash pants, a hairless skull (a phrenologist’s delight, this skull, with its outcropping of nodes, knobs, bumps). He drawls. “To heaven, well, the road up there is narrow. It’s easy to fall into hell. Anybody could fall into hell. Who’s in hell already? I’d say Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Beria, for sure. I don’t know, though, about Tojo. He did a lot of good in his way. I’m not worried about what happens to me, in the afterlife, either way. I'm worried about what I’ll do after lunch."

Another man — tiny, gnomish — waits to use the phone. His tremorous hand pushes dark sunglasses up off his nose, revealing eyes that are deep-set and blue. “Eternity? Well, that's a long enough time to make life seem no more n a coffee break. Don’t know where I’m going to spend it. It’s a dice throw. You do your best. But you don’t know what the Man Upstairs thinks of you until you get your assignment. He doesn’t think about you the way your friends and family do. The Bible says he knows your heart.”

Plump, smiling Mary, eighty-one, dressed in navy, sits on a bench awaiting her turn on the shuffleboard court. “I used to bowl, but now I can't bend. I came here thirty-five years ago from a little village in New York. Because I had arthritis. The arthritis didn’t get better, but it didn’t progress."

She says hello to a man passing by. Is he her husband? “No. I don’t have one. He has passed away."

Mary doesn’t believe in “something beyond.” She believes in reincarnation, "coming back," she taps the bench, “to this world. I want to come back as a girl who can sing and dance and play the piano. Those are my three ambitions. In the afterlife, I think God is going to be good to me and let me do those things." She won’t remember, she supposes, the awkward, tone-deaf woman she feels she is now. "I believe that when you do come back, you have no recollection of who you were before. It’s all new.”

She doesn’t think hell exists in the afterlife. "I don’t believe God could be as cruel as some people do. I believe hell is right here on earth.”

Excusing herself, she says, “We’re getting ready to play the third game. I’m in this one.” She waggles her fingers good-bye and grabs her shuffleboard cue. “In my next life, look for me. I’ll be dancing!"

Yawning, a mustached man on crutches, his left foot in plaster, watches the games without interest. He has been, he says, retired for twelve years. The afterlife?

"I'm ready for it, that’s all! Sign me up. My mother’s there, father, sisters, brother, my best friend Woody, two wives, one son.”

The mustached man’s friend Joe hitches up his Bermuda shorts and complains they’ve hung too loosely ever since a surgery excised his gallbladder. “What do I think about hell and heaven? I think one would be hot — five-alarm hot — and one would be very pleasant. I’d rather stay right here. Where it’s pleasant enough." Joe winks.

The mustached man: "Heaven, you’ll meet a lot of your friends and your family — at least those that’s saved — up there. You'll recognize ’em, by sight.” Joe snickers. The bald man shakes a crutch in Joe’s direction and demands of him, “What’d be the use of goin’ up there if you didn't recognize ’em? In hell, you probably won't recognize anyone there. They’ll all be on fire.”

A third man, speaking English with a strong German accent, joins the conversation. "There's a nice crowd down there, all kinds of people. We will go down there, eh? I don’t want to go to heaven. I won't go. It's too high. I'd fall. I want to go down there.”

They file into the dining room, the men and women. They bring with them the occasional sharp odor of urine, of sour mouth, diabetic fermenting breath.

They wear hearing aids, eyeglasses with thick lenses. They are shored up by walkers and canes, and deep inside they bear unseen prosthetics — metal hips, plastic joints, aortas and ventricles, pacemakers, tubings.

Wearing a gray suit, white shirt, and red tie, Mr. Patrick, eighty-five, stands at the dining room door, tending the cash box and lunch tickets "Today is chicken day. Fried chicken. It’s real popular. We always sell out.”

Those at the door buying tickets agree. Chicken day is the best meal of the week. "I come every day for the company,” says a white-bearded man in khaki shorts. "To get out of the house."

"Sure you do, sure, yes,” says Mr. Patrick, beckoning the man in, taking his two dollars, making change.

After he sells his tickets, Mr. Patrick has time to talk. “I have one sister. She passed. One brother, he passed. The other brother, he’s in Ohio. Was married fifty-nine years. My wife, she passed a year ago last January. I think of meeting her in heaven. I think I’ll recognize her there. I think we’ll all be recognized when Christ comes. It’ll be a change, in how we look. We'll have on our heavenly bodies, but we’ll know one another.

“Heaven will be a beautiful place, the Book says. Streets paved in silver and gold. Walls of jasper. No day and no night. Hell, the bad place. I know it’ll be hot.

"Some people, they don’t think of God or heaven and hell. They don’t take time. But I’ve thought of it. You prepare yourself to go to your job in the morning. So you prepare yourself for heaven. You prepare yourself daily and nightly to be seated there.

"Oh, yeah. It’s comin’. He will come. There are so many things are coming to pass, so many things are being fulfilled. It’s getting to where it’s like now what it was in the old days. They kept on tellin’ ’em it was going to rain, and they didn’t listen. It rained and they hadn’t prepared themselves for it. They didn’t believe. If they hadda believed, they woulda been saved too, gone along with Noah on the Ark. But they was fiddlin’ and dancin’ and messin' around... ”

"And talkin’ trash,” says a woman, handing him her lunch ticket.

"Yeah,” Mr. Patrick smiles, "an’ talkin’ trash.”

His father was a minister in a Baptist church near Memphis. "My family was religious people. When I was a boy, I went every Sunday. It was an encouraging environment. I remember more about then than I do about now.

"When I went away from home, I prepared myself to go out into the world. I made a covenant with myself. My mother didn’t want me to leave. But I told her, when I left home, I wouldn’t follow no bad crowd. The way I was goin’ was a way so many boys got killed. They was just in the wrong crowd, which they were. If theyda connected with the church — that’s what I did.

"It was during Prohibition, when I left home. The boys of my age, they’d go to those whiskey houses. I worked construction. I was kind of a lone guy. I mixed some, but I didn’t do ever'thing I saw ever’body else doing. I saved my money. Pretty soon I had a car. I'd haul ’em around, those who wanted to go to the whiskey houses.

But I wouldn’t do what they would do. I didn't approve of that. I’d transfer ’em, ferry ’em, take ’em to these whiskey houses, but I wouldn’t go in. I’d pick ’em up afterwards.

"I always got along good in life. Heaven gonna open up to me.”

The long dining tables have filled. The faces bobbing above tabletops are wrinkled, split at the seams, worn out with wear and tear of years, like the purses the women grip tightly in one hand or tuck, under the table, between their feet.

The women’s fingers bear gold bands, diamonds in intricate settings, the highpronged solitaires of the Thirties and Forties. The strings of beads, the brooches, scarves inventively tied, all the thousand and one guiles of femininity, were arranged this morning at the mirror. Women who were highbreasted prom queens, cheerleaders, pompom girls, still have, as they did in high school, their cliques. "I believe,” says one member of such a group, “that in heaven, there are many mansions.”

"Mmmm,” her friends agree.

Number Two: "We believe what’s in the Good Book.”

Number Three: ‘John 2:14: ’Age is unknown when we get our glorified bodies’"

"Angels flying,” smiles Number Four, as she wraps a chicken leg in her napkin and tucks it into her purse.

"H-E-double-toothpicks,” says Number Three, causing a ripple of laughter, "that’s what we called hell when I was a girl. There will be gnashing of teeth there, pain and suffering all through eternity."

Number Two: "When I lost Roger, he was badly wasted toward the end. I hated to let him go, but I had to. I felt I lost everything, which I did. I told him, ‘I'll be along soon.’ And he is waiting for me. Sitting on a bank, fishing. Up there.” Her companions regard her solemnly as she swipes with her napkin at tears. “The hope of heaven, that’s what we live on."

Benny, meal finished, takes a chair at an empty table. "I was sitting in my house this morning. I realized I had a little business to do downtown.

So I thought I’d come by here first, have some lunch." Benny was born in Kentucky, grew up in Indiana, and went to a hardshell Baptist church as a boy. Looking around the lunchroom, noisy with talk and banging cutlery, Benny says, "Oh, yeah, some people here are really unhappy." Benny isn’t. In his mid-seventies now, retired from the defense department, he says he's perfectly healthy and considers himself fortunate. He tries to live right. He doesn’t worry.

Long ago, Benny left the Baptist church. “I go down to the Salvation Army. I get a lot out of it, seeing those young guys come in there, confessin’ to themselves and to God. It’s really enjoyable. Women, men, ever’body gets up and shakes hands and hugs one another. Women cry. Then they get up and talk about their lives. Thank God for it, the Salvation Army!

"In the Salvation Army, when people die, we say they've been ’promoted to glory.’" Benny doesn’t think of hell as "lakes of fire, all that." During World War II, he was a navy pilot. "I got shot down in the Philippines. Hid out for fifteen days in the jungle. I was more afraid of the boa constrictors than I was of the Japanese. Those boas, they get around the middle of you and squeeze you to death. There in the jungle, I’d be sound asleep. I’d hear the leaves rattle, and I’d wake up. First thing I’d think of is not the Japanese, but those constrictors. I literally got starved out. Another day in the jungle, literally, I woulda got out my knife and skinned out a snake." Those fifteen days, that’s Benny’s idea of hell.

At another table, all taken by couples, men and women are joshing, planning the afternoon, wrapping up leftovers to take home. They consider the afterlife in terms of each other.

"I’m only afraid he’ll die before I do," says one wife.

“Well, I’ll sit on a golden porch swing and wait for you," says her husband.

“He’ll be wantin’ you to bring him the new Playboy,” says a man across the table.

"Is there sex in heaven?” grins his wife.

"There is not,” says another of the husbands, winking. “There is only hand-holding."

"Oh, you should talk to Jerry," says one of the husbands. “He likes to talk.” He points out a tall, slender man in dark glasses, dressed in a red jacket emblazoned with‘‘STP," a brimmed white cap on which is printed, "Once a Marine — Always a Marine."

Jerry, seventy-seven (nine days older, he says, than “Ronnie"), used to read a lot. "Now,” he says, "I’m blind. I’m totally blind in one eye. Degenerated maculae. It’s progressive —

I don’t read. Braille I only use when I identify women.” Pushing his empty tray forward, Jerry tells of a friend who's always trying to convince him of paradise's reality. "He's an idiot. He talks about Jesus. I tell him, ‘Charles Manson, who’s been in jail for over twenty years, today has more followers than Christ did when he was first living.’ I tell him, They say Jesus walked on the water. Well, the stupid ass never learned to swim.’

“When I get to the point I don’t enjoy staying here any longer, if I get to the place that I’m dependent on someone else, I’ll kill myself. Then I want to be in a Glad bag."

Jerry grew up in Pennsylvania and signed up with the Marines before he finished high school. “I was in Nicaragua. Sandino. I was chasin’ Sandino. He was just another bandit. But he got assassinated. And he became a martyr. Like Martin Luther King. Or Lincoln. If Lincoln hadn’t been assassinated, who would remember him? Nobody remembers James K. Polk. He didn’t get assassinated.”

After the Marines, Jerry joined the New York City fire department. "I've still got my fire helmet. They measured it to my skull." At thirty-two, he was burned. “I’m the only guy in town who can kiss his own stomach. It’s on the back of my hand.” He shows the hand, a patchwork of skin.

"It dawned on me, a couple of years ago, I should have had skin grafted from my buttocks. That way when somebody said to me, Kiss my — , I could have said, ‘I don't have to, I can kiss my own.’

"I was brought up an Episcopalian. At four years old, I was in Sunday school plays. I was confirmed at fourteen. Married in the church." In 1958 and 1959, while he was getting a divorce, Jerry lived at the San Diego Athletic Club. "They had a Bible in the room. I read it from cover to cover while I was staying there. I can quote you chapter and verse. The Bible is no more the word of God than the menu is the word of men. It's like any other history book.

"I know adults who still believe in Santa Claus. They’re taught this — about heaven and hell — when they’re kids. They don’t ever grow up. Even the Marine Hymn. The last four lines. ‘If the Army and the Navy/ever look on heaven’s scenes/they will find the streets are guarded/by the United States Marines.’

"People are stupid. When I was a boy on the farm in Pennsylvania, a medicine man would go around with a horse and wagon. He'd have several cases full of bottles of molasses and whiskey mixed together. It cured everything. You took a swig of it and it tasted good. You felt better. Hell, you were swacked."

Leaving the lunchroom, Jerry walks across the grass to a picnic table in the park. There he meets Lillian, a small, full-bosomed woman in red coat and straw hat trimmed with red ribbon, and Iris, in slacks and green jacket. Jerry makes a place for himself between the two women. Lillian purrs, "Jerry doesn’t have a line in his face."

"You know why, Lillian. It’s because I don’t worry about things. I’ve told many a boss to go to hell."

Jerry tells Lillian that her father was a rabbi "because it’s a good living.” Addressing the two women, he asks, "Why do you think people preach? The same reason other people go out and steal. The only profession I have less respect for than medicine is religion. Did you ever hear of Christ working for a living after he began preaching? Did you ever hear of him working at his trade? As a carpenter?"

"He was good at teaching them to love one another,” says Lillian.

Jerry snaps, “So, when did he stop wars?"

“My father was a very unusual man. He happened to be the chief rabbi. To make a living, yes, Jerry, you’re correct. To be a rabbi was the only way he could earn a living. That’s all he had been trained for. He came to America from the Ukraine. We lived in a little town in Illinois. He died when he was thirty-nine.

"And when he died,” she continues, touching the white curls beneath her hat brim, "the city fathers came to my mother. They asked, Do you have someone to help you? Will your brothers from Chicago help you?’ She said, ‘God, God will help me.’ Who did help her? God, in the form of her brothers.”

Lillian was eight when her father died. “In the way kids nave, I distinctly recall thinking, 'Papa has died at thirty-nine, I won’t live past that.’ When I turned thirty-nine, I was totally disappointed."

Iris believes there’s a heaven. “I definitely do," she says

Jerry growls. “I asked a woman one day, ‘Where is heaven?’ She said, ‘Up above.’ So I asked her, ‘Does it ever occur to you that what’s up above, twelve hours from now will be down here?' She said, 'No, heaven’s up there and that’s hell, down below.’ ‘Well,’ I said to her, ‘the Earth turns.’”

Lillian: “I only know about my own two beautiful daughters, beautiful Suzy and Leonore the brain. Suzy came home one day and she was very much perturbed, and she said, ‘I don’t want to die. I’m very much afraid to die.’ She was very young then. She asked me, ‘What happens to you when you die?’ I told her, ‘You fall asleep and you don’t wake up.’ She said, ‘That’s what I don’t want to happen to me.’"

"Definitely," says Iris, “I believe there’s a hell.”

Lillian: “I don’t.” "Sometimes" sighs Iris “I think it’s right here on Earth."

Jerry turns to Iris and says, "When I was a kid, I read that George Washington could not tell a lie. That he chopped down the cherry tree when he was eight years old. Do you know when that story was first told? On December 6, 1809, on the tenth anniversary of Washington's death, by a Parson Weems in Virginia who was teaching honesty to his Sunday school class. Weems makes up this lie about Washington in order to teach honesty. And that’s typical of religion.”

Lillian responds, “You have offended Iris. If I were you, I would apologize."

“How did I offend her?"

“By being tactless."

"As I have said, people resort to tact when they figure they can’t afford to tell the truth."

“No,” says Iris, “tact, Jerry, is doing things in the nicest way that you can possibly do them and not hurt people’s feelings. That’s what tact is.”

"But when you go into court, you swear to tell nothing but the truth.” Jerry stares hard at Iris.

“You can be tactful,” says Iris, "without telling a lie.” “But Jerry, Iris is not in court.” Lillian soothes his arm and pats his hands, which are folded atop the table. “We’re sitting here in the park. On a lovely sunny day. We're having what's supposed to be a pleasant conversation."

Iris: “I will have a new body. But I will, yes, recognize people. Definitely. I’m expecting to see my husband there. He’s been dead just over four years.” "The immigrants who came years ago to Ellis Island," says Jerry, “they were eager to get to the United States because that’s * where the streets were paved with gold."

"And some of them found it,” notes Lillian, lighting a cigarette, exhaling, smiling. “It’s easy to understand why you’d be bitter, Jerry. After all, you’ve lost your sight, or most of it."

"That just began four years ago."

"You mean, you’ve been bitter longer than that?” asks Iris.

"People say, ‘Jerry, think positive.' I say I am simply realistic. I don’t think positive or negative. I think realistically.”

He coughs. Lillian pets him on the back and says, “My conception of heaven is certainly different from Jerry’s.”

"Your idea of heaven is just to be able to look at me, isn’t it?"

"No, Jerry. Right now my conception of heaven would be to win the lottery. I’d pay off my debts. All the people who have outstanding judgments on me, I’d say to them, Take it and don’t bother me for as long as I live.’

"As to hell, I think I’ll have to agree with Iris. Hell is right here on Earth. My conception of real hell would be to be seated in a room with nobody to talk to except ignoramuses like Ronald Reagan, Jerry Falwell, and Jimmy Lee Swaggart the slime."

"Did you ever hear the one about the three nuns who died and went to heaven?” asks Jerry. "They were met at the pearly gates by Saint Peter, who said to them, Before you can get into heaven, you’ve each got to answer a question.’ He addressed nun number 1, asking, Who was the first man?’

“ Adam,’ she said.

“ ‘Good,’ said St. Peter, ‘You pass, come in.’

" ‘Who was the first woman?’ he asked the second nun.

“ ‘Eve,’ she said.

"And St. Peter said to her, Good, you pass, come on in.’ Then he asked nun number 3, When Eve first saw Adam, what did she say?’

“ Why, I don’t know,’ said the third nun.

“Saint Peter said, Look, Sister, if you want to come in, you’ve got to answer the question.’

“ ‘Gee,’ the third nun said, ‘but that’s a hard one.’ "Saint Peter, swinging wide heaven’s gates, said, ‘That’s the answer. Now you can come in.’" Jerry, grinning, looks to Iris, who smiles politely, and to Lillian, who laughs.

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