Thursday, December 15, 2011

Sundays With Charlie -- Part Two

By Mel Waldman

Note: This is part two of a three-part series called "Sundays With Charlie, The Funniest Man on the Planet." Read Part One.

On Sunday, November 27, 2011, I visited Charlie at his Crown Heights home, the apartment where Bobby Fischer had lived in his childhood, now the secret hiding place of the funniest man on the planet.

His granddaughter Helen, a highly competent-take-charge-no-nonsense woman of 31, picked me up and drove me to Charlie’s place. She warned me that Charlie looked different and sometimes sputtered foul language. On the other hand, she pointed out that Charlie had made significant progress, coming back from the dead.

“We thought he was going to die,” she said.

“Charlie’s a fighter,” I said. “A survivor.”

“Yes. But in the beginning, when he became violent, we didn’t know what was happening.”

“Charlie’s not a violent man. The violence is a dark byproduct of the illness. My father suffered from Alzheimer’s. The dementia caused him to have violent episodes. But when I took care of him and set strict limits, he calmed down. I strongly believe that Charlie’s dementia is the cause of these episodes.”

“Yes, we know now. I fired the first primary care physician who overmedicated him. He made Charlie into a zombie. My grandfather could have suffocated from the potentially lethal cocktail he took. If he had remained under this doctor’s care, he’d be dead today. And when Charlie gets agitated, I calm him down.”

“You saved his life, Helen.”

“Charlie raised me. I’d do anything for my grandfather.”

With Helen as my guide, I climbed the rickety stairs to the 4th floor. Mythological images of Charon taking me across the River Styx to Hades rushed across my mind, and suddenly, I felt swept away into a surreal universe.

Was I strong enough to enter my dear friend’s dark reality? Of course, I was, for he was Charlie, my lifelong friend, a man I loved like a brother. I knew Charlie had lost over 100 pounds. Did he look like a Holocaust victim? I didn’t know. But it didn’t matter. And certainly, as a therapist, I’ve worked with patients with HIV, AIDS, cancer, and other life threatening diseases. I never walked away from a patient. So why wouldn’t I be there for my buddy?

And so I entered a bittersweet dreamscape, crossing the threshold into Charlie’s world. The first few seconds when I saw Charlie, I was filled with an overwhelming joy, even ecstasy. Charlie seemed joyous too. Indeed, Helen and Gladys told me Charlie had been flooded with tempestuous waves of elation and anticipation. The day before my arrival, Helen and Gladys frequently reassured him that I was coming. Our pending reunion had launched him into a stormy sea of contradictory and conflicting emotions.

I too experienced a gamut of powerful, chaotic emotions before our reunion, during, and after our rendezvous. Yet our new beginning started with joy.
Later, the darker emotions emerged; sadness, loss, many losses, fear, anguish, rage, uncertainty, and bewilderment.
The first few hours seemed dreamlike, mini-episodes of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone. But as I adjusted to Charlie’s new world, I rediscovered our strong, fierce, and gentle friendship.

The old Charlie I knew was a super-responsible man who took care of his family. As previously mentioned, Charlie and Gladys have been married for more than fifty years. Charlie’s an antediluvian man, a dinosaur in the most beautiful sense of the word. He worked for the same company for many years. On weekends, he often got gigs as a drummer.

A Renaissance man, he loved knowledge, technology, gadgets, especially computers, cultural activities, including his visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and all subjects strange and bizarre. And of course, he loved comedy.

The new Charlie is home-bound with two aides on 12-hour shifts. Most of his care is divided between Helen and Gladys. My buddy requires help in getting out of and into his hospital bed, as well as getting into and out of his wheelchair. He needs help moving into a more comfortable position on his bed.

He wears a diaper for he has lost control of moving his bowels and urinating. Someone has to clean and wash his body and change his diaper. Often, his devoted granddaughter has this task. His wife is unable to do this.

His hands are constantly clenched. He looks like a boxer posed to fight. But in actuality, his clenched hands cause much pain. Yet when he tries to open them, he also experiences a lot of pain. In general, his body is constricted. I do not know the cause of these constrictions. Possibly, they are related to his diabetes.

Because of Charlie’s physical limitations, he can no longer work on his computer. He used to spend 12 or more hours on the computer, one of his favorite toys.

A tube is attached to a hole in his stomach. He receives his medications and fluids through this tube. He eats baby food.

It hit me then, that suddenly my dear friend Charlie's life circumstances were distinctly not funny, not funny at all.


Writer Mel Waldman is a psychologist, poet, writer, and artist. His stories have appeared in dozens of magazines including HARDBOILED DETECTIVE, ESPIONAGE, THE SAINT, and AUDIENCE. He is a past winner of the literary GRADIVA AWARD in Psychoanalysis and was nominated for a PUSHCART PRIZE in literature. He is the author of 11 books. His most recent book, I AM A JEW, is a collection of essays, memoir, short stories, poems, and plays about his exploration of his Jewish identity. He has sold a series of short stories to the British publisher of POSTSCRIPTS, including literary mysteries, stories of suspense, and horror. These stories will tentatively be published in 2012 and 2013. He is currently working on a novel inspired by Freud’s case studies. His email address is

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