Life Is What You Make It

June 24, 2008

Dear Friends of Clay,

It is said that people die the way they live. Knowing Clay as you do, you will probably not be surprised by the story I want to share with you. In the past week, as he approaches the final deadline of his life, Clay’s life force returned with gusto.

Not that it ever flagged for long. In the past year, he has astonished every doctor and nurse who predicted “It won’t be long now.” Last summer, after three months in a rehab unit in Riverdale, Clay revived from near-drowning in double pneumonia and worked with physical therapists twice a day until he could circle the floor twice on a walker at about the speed he used to reach while sprinting across town for an important lunch date. He was able to come home last September.

In January, pneumonia returned. We were sent to the emergency room by his primary care doctor for yet another CT scan. After waiting 8 hours for the test, the doctors had gone home and he was under imminent threat of being admitted by default. I threw a little hissy fit. The CT was done, but the radiologists had left so no one could read it. A sympathetic resident finally produced some results. They sounded foreign. It was a scan taken 9 months before.

I wheeled Clay out of the ER with the IV needles still in his arms, and we congratulated ourselves on a jailbreak. We had spent more than a year frantically circling around the revolving door of acute care, from gridlocked ER’s to repeated hospital admissions, where, nonetheless, each time one is treated as a tabula rasa, one’s body parts segmented like cheese cubes on an hors d’oeuvres tray with each one assigned to a different specialist and Medicare code, then on to a rehab facility and back around the revolving door again. Until we discovered palliative care. A doctor insisted on making a house call. Honest to God.

It was Dr. Sean Morrison, who leads the Palliative Care team at Mt. Sinai Hospital. He took over Clay’s care last January. The mission of palliative care is to keep a senior out of the hospital and give back some control to people over a stage in life that is uncontrollable. Dr. Morrison sat with Clay and me for an hour, at our home, and we had the first full and frank conversation about Clay’s ideas on how he wanted to play out the end of life. He wanted to remain at home, under only maintenance care by aides, and get out and see and taste the world whenever he could.

He was always up for rolling over to Lincoln Center for a rehearsal at the Philharmonic, or helping to swing himself into the car and heading downtown for a show at the New Museum, or the opening of Byron Dobell’s art show, or out to Bridgehampton to have Thanksgiving with Bina and Walter Bernard. He insisted upon climbing icy outdoor stairs, with help, to be present for our grandson’s first piano recital.

Starting in May, he wasn’t able to go outside most days. It wasn’t easy for him to remain upright in the wheelchair. But when his dearest partner-in-parody, Tom Wolfe, sent over his hilarious 8,000-word preface to the anthology of New York magazine being published this fall by Random House, I read it to him in savory 2,000-word bites that produced wicked laughter and a burst of ebullience.

The next day, Monday, June 17, Dr. Morrison made a home visit. He told Clay that he recommended that the tube feedings be suspended because the nutrition that had nourished him for the past nine years was not being absorbed and was causing him to choke. Clay nodded assent. His body was beginning to shut down.

Clay asked, “How long?”

“It won’t be long. A week to a month.”

Clay did not look surprised. The doctor took me aside in the next room. We spoke in hushed tones. Clay’s voice pierced through the half-open door. He wanted his wishes heard: “Don’t abandon me.”

An urgent inspiration possessed me. “Do you want to do one great thing, darling?” He nodded vigorously. “How about we go out and hear some jazz?” The light flared again in his eyes. Tonight? He shook his head up and down. I said, “Let’s see who’s playing at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola!” The show started in two hours.

He pulled up from his hospital bed and picked out a linen jacket and deep blue shirt and a suede cap. I touched up his face with tinted sunscreen and wheeled him in front of the full-length mirror. “How’s that for handsome?” He looked pleasantly surprised to see a picture of normalcy.

Dizzy’s was the quintessence of New York … seductive cocktail tables set beneath a window wall with a bigger-than-Trump vista across Central Park to the frosted layer-cake condos of Fifth Avenue. The aides and I ordered exotic drinks. Clay took a sip … the first taste in his mouth in years.

Clay sat tall and straight in his wheelchair and for the next hour and a half drank in the music as his sustenance. His attention locked on Mike Melvoin, the jazz pianist whose trio it was, an older man, with undiminished passion. He had been playing piano since he was three years old and was still, past 70, composing for movies and TV. He was another of those indefatigable creatives, like Clay, who produced his first publication at the age of eight, the Greeley Street News, and sold it up and down his block in Webster Groves, Missouri, for the up-market price of a nickel.

Melvoin voiced the philosophy behind his original compositions. “There’s a lot of pessimism and feelings of futility out there … it’s the job of music to dispel those feelings. This is a little song called ‘Life is What You Make It.’” Up-tempo drums kick-started a piece with strong major chords and a restless backbeat. Melvoin leaned in to the keyboard and swayed passionately up and down the octaves with his hands crossing and fingers flying, turning music into the thunder of life. Clay’s fingers drummed on the table … he was a drummer as a boy.

Between two aides, myself, and a cooperative driver, we cantilevered Clay out of the car service and back up to the apartment and into bed shortly before midnight. He was not the least tired. He wanted to talk. He gripped my hands and said clearly, with gusto, “It was a wonderful evening.”