The end of any year holds the hope and promise for an even better year to come, while urging us at the same time to reflect on what has transpired. At the dawn of 2021, I can’t think that I know anybody who would like 2020 to stick around for even a minute more than is required.
It’s been one for the books, as the sports guys say.
The hardships and pains of this year have taken their tolls on each of us. I have countless friends who are musicians, many of whom I’ve known over the span of five decades. Most of them haven’t worked since March or April. While their bank accounts are hurting, so are their spirits. Musicians are musicians to create music for those who can’t. It is a calling. And going without music—for both player and audience alike—wreaks havoc upon the human soul.
The same can be said for actors, directors, and the crews whose stages went to black at the beginning of the pandemic. Few cries of “action” have been broadcast over the sound stages that dot our landscape. Television shows have been put on hiatus, while the late-night satirists are working from what appears to be the corners of their own living rooms.
Some of the activities we take for granted have been curtailed or altered to states being unrecognizable.
Personally, I’ve been to one restaurant since March 13. It was an uncomfortable lunch with a dear friend. As another friend noted early on in this adventure, “I’m a New Yorker. I go to restaurants.”
Baseball, with its cardboard cut-out audience, was unbearable. Even the song says, “take me out to the crowd.”
I’ve tried to turn a deaf ear to those who deny the existence of a virus that has killed more than 330,000 Americans, and who refuse to be just decent enough to do whatever one can to help defuse the time-bomb that could kill their friends and families. But I can’t. I’m angry at those represented by Proud Boys who believe their knowledge of infectious diseases somehow usurps that of Dr. Anthony Fauci.
There were empty seats at our Thanksgiving tables, and even more at Christmas. Hanukkah seemed hollow, lacking the laughter that so perfectly accompanies the latkes I learned to make from my grandmother. I can only imagine that Kwanzaa, which began its celebration just last night, might be missing something as well.
Even those who lack a spiritual or religious grounding, I would hope find value to the one idea that is shared by all religions: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. How basic can it get? How base can we be to deny kindness?
There are shops and salons and bars that will never see my business again because they chose their “freedom” and their “rights” to deny me mine. This is not what we used to be. We were a proud “can-do” nation in which some have morphed into belligerent and peevish “won’t-do” citizens.
That can-do spirit is clearly held by the first responders, as well as the medical staffs who are putting their own health and safety at risk during a health crisis none have ever experienced. Many have yet to share a meal with their families since early in the pandemic, let alone celebrate the holidays meant to foster peace, love and charity.
Their own mental health is at great risk as well. They fight depression, frustrations beyond the norm, and debilitating sadness over those who have suffered or died. They hold the hands of dying strangers whose families await word in hospital parking lots.
I’ve had a host of health issues over the past eight years and have seen first-hand medical professionals at work in careers that I hope are deeply satisfying and meaningful for each of them. How could they not be? Four hospitals and a care facility were my homes for a total of about ten months. I got a life-flight to Denver without knowing I was aboard an airplane. I was intubated and put on a ventilator. For 16 days, I was in an induced coma and on life support. I spent another 30 or so in ICU at UCHealth. I remember little about it.
My memory has been cobbled together from memories belonging to others.
When I was transferred to the skilled nursing home facility that we called Shady Pines, I couldn’t stand without assistance, let alone walk. The body’s muscles atrophy quickly in ICU. I wasn’t strong enough to endure the surgery I needed—the last (knock wood) of six. I had a feeding tube because I didn’t have the energy or strength I needed to eat. For nine weeks, twice every day, I was pushed and prodded and pushed some more in both physical and occupational therapy programs.
The young woman doing all of the pushing was named Stephanie. I called her Sarge.
She never let me quit and never let my hopes fade. She was a cheerleader for the good-health world she wanted me to rejoin. I re-learned how to eat, stand, walk, and use the bathroom.
I’ve thought of Sarge often during this unnecessary pandemic. She was a Jewish woman, engaged to an Asian man, and they were building their first home in a Denver suburb. I loved hearing the progress reports of their future.
Stephanie works taking care of the sick and the elderly, a group that is most susceptible to the Covid-19. And, as we all should know, nursing homes have been hardest hit.
While I was in Denver, I had a couple of bouts with nosebleeds, one of which landed me back at UCHealth for four days. There, stuck with a Rhino Rocket deep into my sinus cavity, I was being monitored in-room. One of the nurses, whose name, I’m sorry to say, I can’t remember, asked me to order my breakfast for the next morning. I said that I didn’t really care. Then I carped a bit about the cafeteria not having espresso. Off-shift, that nurse returned to my bedside with a triple espresso.
An act of kindness (mitzvah) is something to be cherished, as well as something to which to aspire.
Sarge visited me at the hospital while I was awaiting the surgery for which she had helped me prepare. She brought me two gelati. She squeezed my hand as she said goodbye.
I am so grateful for the nurses, doctors, lab technicians, therapists, and housekeepers who are in charge of our care. They work hard and they deserve our unflagging support and respect. They seem to have an inner strength and desire that the rest of us don’t. They do the jobs that most of us flinch away from in disgust.
Hospital patients are usually treated and cared for by health-care professionals who seem to rotate on and off shift in no particular order. Also, because patients are ill and taking any number of medications, the memory is perhaps not open to easy recall. That’s my excuse. While I may not remember their names, I remember their care and kindness, their compassion and patience.
I know they’re all wearing whatever protective gear they need—and then some. I just wish they could get that mask message across to their prospective patients.
Photography by Courtney A. Liska
Cuban Black Bean Soup
Close to the top of my bucket list is to visit Cuba, a trip which will be expertly guided by my friend Michael Sanders. Until then, I will stay warm on wintry nights with this soup.
1 pound dried black beans
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 medium green bell pepper, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 ham bone or smoked ham hock
1/2 c. olive oil
2 tsp. salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/3 c. distilled white or apple cider vinegar
Rinse beans, then place in a large (4 quarts or larger) Dutch oven or soup pot with a lid and cover with enough cold water so that it comes to one inch over the top of the beans. Soak overnight.
Drain the beans, then return the beans to the pot. Add enough cold water so that it covers the beans by an inch. Add the onion, pepper, garlic, ham bone or hock, olive oil, salt, and a generous quantity of black pepper. Stir to combine
Bring to a boil over high heat. Skim off any foam, then reduce the heat to low and cover. Simmer until the beans are soft, and the soup is creamy, not watery, 4 to 5 hours. Check after 2 hours. If the beans seem dry add another cup of water. The final consistency should be velvety and thick, and the soup should coat the back of a spoon.
When the soup is nearly finished, stir in the vinegar and simmer uncovered for 15 minutes more. Pull the ham bone out of the pot, coarsely chop the meat, and return to the pot.
Serve over rice if desired, garnished with chopped raw onions, red bell peppers, and/or sour cream.