Smiles, Pizza and Brain Damage

SantaGraphicI’ve been putting it off for months. Five and a half actually. Then six days ago I wrote a post about why writing holiday cards seems phony for me. There’s nothing spontaneous about it. It’s boring homework that has nothing to do with real caring – for ME that is. Maybe for you, mailing cheery greetings with family photos comes from the heart.

So I’ve been thinking about real caring lately and I realized I could never publish that article because one – it was too negative, and two – I had yet to demonstrate caring instead of writing about it. A responsible act of kindness is still waiting for me. Last July I wrote the reminder, Go see Rob.

At five pm today I finally saw Rob again.


Rob and I have been friends since the ninth grade. Our paths have merged and parted, merged and parted throughout the years. But each time we reconnected, we picked up where we left off. With old friends that happens. You know what I mean. And you also know that when a long time friend drastically changes, the friendship changes too.

Rob changed drastically in June of 2012 when he died from a heart attack and came back a few minutes later with a brain that barely worked. Consequently, Rob’s body barely worked. Rob was barely connected to any of us, needing help with eating, walking, talking and urinating. He was lost in confusion when we met again in his hospital room. No one knew if my old pal would ever recover, but we all promised to help him try. I wrote about it Sept. 27, 2012 in a post titled, It’s Never Too Late.Hands on WALKER

Since then, slowly…very slowly, Rob learned to slide one foot in front of another while shaking over a walker. Bits of conversation returned, but only with whispered three-word sentences. On a good day, he could laboriously lift a fork to his mouth. This “recovery” was Rob’s big come-back and it was never going to get better. Bathing, dressing, shaving, all the standard stuff needed 24/7 assistance. And yet…every now and then Rob would push his soul out of his busted brain and mumble a funny comment that let us know our friend was still with us and that he wanted our company. Company and friendship…MY friendship. He didn’t want to lose me, but in significant ways he had.

My visits with Rob these past two years ripped me apart. I understood ten percent of what he said and faked responses with nods and agreements, pretending we were conversing as I filled in his side of the conversations. Rob appreciated my few short stays but as I said, I found our face time almost intolerable. I couldn’t bare to watch him struggle. And I couldn’t stop projecting what I would feel like if I were Rob, trapped inside a crippled shell. Even worse, I couldn’t stop getting bored while pretending to enjoy our contact. And heading back to my car, I always felt relieved and then guilty about it. Going to see Rob had turned into a depressing job that was easy to postpone. By last week I had run out of excuses. I had to go see my friend.

At five o’clock this evening I headed towards Rob’s front door carrying two pizza boxes and a bottle of Pinot Grigio. As I passed the kitchen window, I could see Rob slouched over the table as if he were taking an test. I pressed the doorbell, glancing into the living room. Gary, his boarder-turned-caretaker, was watching TV as he waited for me to arrive. Seconds later he opened the door, smiling and happy to see me. I feigned good tidings and cheer, then put the pizzas on the table where Rob was sitting. Under his nose was an open magazine. He wasn’t reading it. He was staring a single picture.

PizzaAll characters were in place now. It was time to begin the play.


“Rob, look who’s here!” Gary exclaims. “It’s Irv! He brought pizzas! Your favorite!”

No reaction.

“Look at Irv, Rob!” I get no look. “ROB…LOOK-AT-IRVING!”

I get the look, with vacant eyes. “That’s right, Rob. Irv came to visit! And he brought some wine. Wanna get drunk?”

Rob pulls the bottle out of its gift bag. Down it goes in front of Rob’s face, never to be opened.

I grab my friend’s sixty-six year-old hand. It feels warm, dry and fragile. Our eyes meet again. There’s more recognition now, with a hint of a grin followed by a slight squeeze on my fingers. “How’ve ya been?” I ask. “Life treating you okay?”

What a dumb question. I’m not surprised I get no answer.

“He’s gotten quieter,” Gary tells me. “But he’s not as paranoid, and he’s off his psychotropic meds.”

“That’s good,” I say, thinking nothing is good when we talk about Rob as if he’s not here. Gary grips his arm.

“Rob, stand up. We’re going to set the table. Get up, Rob.” Rob stays put. Gary lifts him out of his chair. My friend is wobbling again, as he did in rehab two years ago.

Gary throws down three plates, pours three glasses of water, opens the pizza boxes and drops two slices on Rob’s plate. Rob stares at his food, I’m staring at Rob, Gary’s looking at me. It’s a quiet moment.

“Actually he’s pretty healthy,” Gary informs me. “But I still have to make him eat.” Rob’s skinny as a bean. But clean, well shaven and nicely dressed. He doesn’t seem sad, but he doesn’t seem happy either.

“I wonder what’s going on in your head,” I say to Rob.

“It’s hard to tell what he thinks,” Gary adds, “But he knows you’re here and he knows who you are.” Shifting to Rob, “Fold it in half, buddy. It’s easier to pick up that way. Use both hands.”

Rob slowly moves his right hand towards his plate, but he’s having trouble lifting the pizza. Eventually he gets it close to his open lips but the sausage and mushrooms fall off. I grab his fork, stab the meat and bring it to his mouth. He gobbles it and now I know Rob again needs to be fed.

“The neurologist said his brain is shrinking.”

“It’s the drugs in me,” Rob whispers.

“You’re off those meds,” Gary tells him. “You’re not depressed anymore. Eat your pizza.”

My pal picks at his food, I go for seconds and glad there’s water and not just the wine. My food gifts are salt bombs. “Want the water, Rob?” I ask, pushing his glass closer.

“He drank a lot before dinner,” Gary informs me. Then he moves closer to my friend, cuts up his pizza and sticks the pieces one by one into Rob’s open mouth. He’s taking it down fast. “See?” Gary says to me. “He loves pizza.”

I’m glad I brought it. Eating is the only thing Rob looks forward to anymore.


We move to the couch. “Sit next to Rob,” Gary says. I sit next to Rob. Gary turns on the flat screen to show me a documentary he just finished about brain damage rehabilitation. Gary’s an artist, a songwriter and documentary filmmaker. Gary met Rob years ago while he was making a movie about Graham Parsons of the Flying Burrito Brothers. gram-parsonsRob once played music with Graham. Rob was once connected to all the rock stars of LA. Rob once had a thriving business licensing vintage film clips of sixties and seventies variety shows. Rob once had a music museum. It burned down in the nineties and his business is out-of-business.

My eyes move from the film to my friend a few inches away. He’s smiling, nodding to my words. And I see now that he’s joyful. Sincerely so. So I rub his back and he looks my way. His grin goes wider. I can almost see him glow.

“He’s really happy you’re here” Gary says.

I know that. And I also know that in ten minutes I will be leaving and relieved. I’m so sad now. Some big change is happening in January, something Gary wouldn’t explain in front of my friend. But I was assured it would be better for Rob. I also know it would be better for Gary. He will be married in three months and leaving this house. Rob doesn’t know that. And I’m wondering if assisted living is in Rob’s future. I’m also wondering if loosing his home will kill what little joy he has left.

Or maybe he’ll face the music and deal with it with dignity and integrity like he always has. Everyone loves Rob. All his caretakers cherish their time with him. He’s a kind, gentle soul, never complaining, always appreciative for any attention or help he’s given.


Paul Surratt

Rob, you’re a better man than me. You’re my mentor and friend. I hope Gary reads you my card. I hope it makes you smile.





  1. Jerry's Cousin says:

    A sad story that plays over many times in society. We can only hope and pray that someone will fill Gary’s place as a good caregiver for Rob. Only time will tell. Life must go on. I’m with you, Irv, hoping Rob will deal with it with dignity and integrity. We can have hope.

  2. Irving H. Podolsky says:

    It wasn’t a happy holiday yarn but I felt it reminded us, who are more fortunate than Rob, of WHY we are fortunate and appreciate it more. And that reminder goes for me too.

    Best to you, JC.


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