Abstracted And Distracted

I haven't thought too much about the news lately. I've avoided cleaning out my reader and haven't had the inclination or desire to clink links that friends forward. I haven't really visited or cared about visiting most of the websites I usually visit (though I did learn one thing this morning: "tl;dr" — if you're not one of the twelve people I know who read this regularly, consider yourself warned). The paper is sitting on the coffee table mostly unread. I sort of half watch ESPN or whatever is on. But yesterday I did see a story that caught my eye about a 96-year-old mugging victim in Woodside:

"I held onto the money," [the victim] recalled. "He's pushing one way. I'm pulling the other. He's stronger than me so he took the money and ran downstairs and I fell backwards."

. . .

[The victim] said he suspects the mugger robs senior citizens for a living.

"He was well-dressed. He's got better clothes than me, so business must be good," he said.

Fortunately the victim seems to be OK. His neighbors quickly came to his aid, which is nice to know. And now the police are asking anyone who has any information to please come forward. I hope someone does.

It's always scary when an older person falls and my first thought was that the victim in this story was very lucky. Muggers who prey on the elderly are especially craven. Had the victim broken his hip — even "accidentally" — the mugger's offense could have been much worse than just robbery.

Back in December an elderly couple went to a bank near where they live in Phoenix and withdrew a large sum of cash. Upon exiting the bank, an assailant or assailants attacked the 90-year-old man, hitting him, knocking him to the ground and absconding with a briefcase that held the money.

There was a happy ending in the short term — two good Samaritans driving by saw what had happened and pursued the assailants. A struggle followed, and although the assailants eventually got away, the cash was retrieved. Although the elderly man was hurt, his injuries were not immediately life threatening. His 88-year-old wife was shaken but unhurt.

I first heard about the incident from my cousin, who sent me a link to a news story about it. The story resonated because the two men who ran after the assailants did so selflessly — seemingly without hesitating — and were successful in recovering the lost cash for the couple. It was a heartwarming holiday season story. Still, people had questions — initial reports indicated that the elderly couple was withdrawing the cash "for charity" — commenters on the Arizona Republic website wondered why they didn't just write a check. The comment thread attached to the story ended up devolving into a somewhat ugly debate over whether the Republic was too cautious in reporting certain details about the assailants. The story was just another story you hear about where the names and identities of those involved are unimportant, or maybe even interchangeable.

It was one of those stories where, unless you actually know the people involved, the details were abstractions.

We were concerned about Pop Pop as he recovered in the hospital. We all knew that a broken hip was a serious condition, especially for an elderly person. We all knew about the risk of infection. And when Pop Pop was eventually diagnosed with an infection, we were already familiar with which one it was, having just read a book on the topic for book club. If nothing else, we were well informed.

When we got to Phoenix early in the afternoon of Saturday the 5th, Dad warned us that Pop Pop probably wouldn't be responsive, but everyone insisted that we should try talking to him anyway. Each of us tried saying hello and telling him we were happy to see him and some other things that I don't remember now. We stayed for some time and tried to stay out of the nurse's way while the doctor leveled with us about Pop Pop's condition. I silently wondered about the feasibility of a fecal transplant — after all, I had recently read about it in Slate. Sometimes I actually know when to keep quiet.

At 10:30 p.m. that night we were called back to the hospital. Pop Pop was dying.

While we were in Pop Pop's room, the nurse reminded us that one's hearing is the last to go, so we should feel comfortable to continue talking to him. Mom talked to Pop Pop while his breaths got faster and faster, then slower and slower and shallower and shallower and finally further and further apart. She told him that it was OK, that they would take care of Mom Mom, that he could let go. I found it hard to say anything to anyone, much less Pop Pop.

Part of life is learning how to act, and if I am ever in this position again, I hope I will have the strength to blab about anything and everything to whoever I'm trying to comfort. Maybe he could hear us — the nurse certainly thought so — she pointed at the heart monitor and said Pop Pop responded when Mom spoke to him.

I wouldn't exactly say I "recommend" it, but if you have the ability to be with someone as they pass on, you might find, as I did, that it helps focus the grieving process. There's something incredibly visceral and important and cathartic about watching someone you love die. The hours you spend are alternately gut-wrenching and meditative. The sadness is concentrated until there is nothing else left. Like a sort of emotional antibiotic, it wipes out nearly everything inside and leaves you totally empty, waiting for something else to fill the void.

In the days afterward, we returned to the events that precipitated Pop Pop's death. Pondering the what ifs are inevitable, and filling the void that sadness creates can be a fraught exercise.

On the one hand, finding his attackers would bring justice, if not to the family then at least to the community. On the other hand, it does not bring back Pop Pop.

And as long as the as the assailants remain unnamed suspects with sketchy descriptions, it's easy for me to wish a swift, strong, severe justice on them. They are abstractions to me. If nothing else, justice is good for abstractions.

The police description of the assailants noted that they were young, perhaps even teenagers. I have penciled in some details. I feel like I've seen this type of young person — I have a vague idea about how his bluster sounds. I imagine that they set out that morning to rob some old dude. Maybe they even referred to Pop Pop as "some old dude." I can imagine them not thinking — or caring — that they would cause this kind of harm to an elderly person.

And just as they were unconcerned about Pop Pop, I feel a similar unconcern about the assailants' fate. If you're not careful, the rage starts to percolate in your gut like a bad bacteria. You can start to feel a little like Ronnie on the Jersey Shore like when he unironically said to Sammi that she should "Man up and be a woman about it!" — sort of exasperated to the point of incoherence. (That was something that actually made us laugh last week as we sat around waiting for the autopsy report to come back; it ensconced itself in our lexicon for a few days at least after that.)

The other way to express it is that actions have consequences — every action does. Another bit of popular culture that was stuck in my mental space last week was MTV's Teen Mom. At some point I just turned to Michael and Jen and told them that if even the girls on Teen Mom know that actions have consequences, then so should Pop Pop's assailants. Obviously a highly imperfect analogy, but like I said, if you're not careful, something will fill the void. These kids didn't know Pop Pop as a husband, a father or a grandfather. They need to be somehow reminded. Hopefully it's worse for them to know the details.

Once Pop Pop died, the Phoenix Police really began focusing on the case, it now being a murder investigation. Again, strange to see someone you know on the news, but at least the Silent Witness pieces had a special purpose.

One mystery that was cleared up in the subsequent reports — at least for the news-watching public — involved the cash itself. The reason Mom Mom and Pop Pop were coming out of the bank with a huge sum of cash wasn't so they could ostentatiously fill some Salvation Army kettle but rather because Pop Pop, as a member of the residents' board at the senior living facility in which they lived, had always coordinated the Christmas bonuses for the employees at the facility. During the year residents contributed money to the Christmas bonus pool, these funds were deposited at the bank down the street, and at the end of the year the funds were withdrawn to be distributed to the employees of the facility — which is what Pop Pop had just done when he was attacked.

So in effect Pop Pop died for a gratuity — though I prefer to look at it as dying doing something fundamentally decent. When you think about it, it's not often that someone is able not only to live life in a way that is fundamentally decent but actually die doing the fundamentally decent thing. Maybe that's not the worst thing in the world. Courtesy, decency and treating people respectfully were all values that I always associated with Pop Pop.

Sometimes I also wonder what the assailants would think knowing that they tried to steal employees' Christmas bonuses, but that's neither here nor there now.

As the news reports said, Pop Pop and Mom Mom were to have celebrated their 70th anniversary this year. Although Mom Mom was too sick to attend Pop Pop's funeral, she was by his side holding his hand when he passed away. She was ready to get better, and when we left her on Saturday she sounded positive that she would get better. We told her that we would talk to her soon.

On Tuesday — the day after Valentine's Day — there was one of those comfortingly counterintuitive pieces in the op-ed page of the Times about how, Joan Didion aside, widows generally grieve for less time than people assume. The piece even gave a little dig at Joyce Carol Oates, whose latest book is a memoir about grieving. "That's all interesting," I thought, thinking of Mom Mom.

I went out for the morning and returned to a phone message from Mom telling me to call her.

"Sad news," she said when I got her on the phone. Mom said that late Monday evening — Valentine's Day — Mom Mom passed away. As far as anyone could tell, her heart simply gave out. This just under nine days — 212 hours — after Pop Pop passed away.

I know it's simplistic to think that our bodies just give out from heartbreak, but it's hard to see it another way. It's mysterious and cosmic and a bunch of other words that are probably inappropriate but which come to mind too quickly and easily when you're stunned and amazed by certain news. Like I like to say, "amazing" is an overused term, but something about the way Mom Mom passed away was amazing to me.

Maybe at first I wanted to be more amazed than sad, but now that it's sunk in a little more, I think I'm just sad. We all are.

The funeral for Mom Mom is tomorrow. It's not really feasible for us to get back out to Phoenix so soon. What's important is that Mom and Dad have a lot of support back home, and it was very good for all of us to be there for the week we were around. They're thinking we might have a memorial service when the whole family can be together. That will be nice for everyone.

Posted: February 17th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: For Reals No For Serious

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