This I Believe

Ricki - Scotia, New York
Entered on January 26, 2007
Age Group: 50 - 65
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Zena Drucker Won’t Die

When she moved into the home for the terminally ill last June, 87-year-old Zena Drucker knew it would only be for 3 months – if that.

The privately-funded Home would house two people during their final days, tended to by nighttime nurses and daytime volunteers. The residents would receive care and companionship in a lovely environment. But this wonderful idea hit a few snags in reality.

If you didn’t die in three months, so said the by-laws, you were out.

Zena, who had been on home hospice care, started to go downhill just when the Home was to open, so she became one of the first residents. As she settled into one bedroom, a succession of housemates quietly succumbed to cancer in the other. Zena’s circulatory problems proved more difficult to predict.

She thrived on the loving care. A large (at first) black woman from the South with a fondness for Jewish cooking, she’d clatter around in her walker, hovering over a bubbling pot, instructing a volunteer on the finer points of cooking shortribs. She’d chat on her phone, talk back to the TV, and tell stories.

My favorite was “snakes’n’gators”. Thirteen-year-old Zena had been ordered by her mother, a cook, to help at a birthday party for a pampered 13-year-old. “I’d have to wear white gloves to serve her. They didn’t want to see any black hands near food. I said no. And the boss lady said, ‘you’ll be happy to do it or get out’ and she called us niggers. I knew if I didn’t do it, I’d have to run through the swamp to get home at night, full of snakes’n’gators.” She ran.

After four months, Zena was gently reminded that her time was up. She lapsed into spells of anxiety. Where would she go? She had no home, no family. Sometimes she would say that all was fair, she’d known the score. But other times, she’d accuse the board of “playing God.”

Just before Christmas, days before her 88th birthday, Zena was packed up and moved to a nursing home. I expected the worst when I went to visit.

I couldn’t have been more surprised.

Instead of in bed, deep in despair, she sat in her armchair, feet up, in an exact replica of her room at the Home, complete with stuffed dog Dino, homemade afghan, dolls, and photos. She was within an arm’s reach of a TV, DVD player, piles of word search books, and a book, “Buzzards Are Circling But God’s Not Finished With Me Yet.” Small bottles of booze – doctor-ordered – were spirited away in drawers. Flowers and food baskets festooned every surface, with birthday and Christmas cards.

“How ya doin’, baby? Like my room?” Zena was all smiles.

Cliches flooded my brain: Cups half full rather than half empty, clouds with silver linings, lemonade from lemons.

Soon after, Zena asked a visitor why the Lord hadn’t yet taken her. And she answered, without hesitation. “You are here, Zena, to teach all of us.”

This I believe: optimism makes all the difference.