The carefree days of summer have given way to a more somber fall as 85-year-old Hank Blum sits at the Gracie Mews diner on 1st Avenue and 81st Street with his wife, daughter, granddaughter and a family friend.
Hank, a recently retired optometrist who is known for his upbeat personality and sense of humor, is more subdued than normal. It has been a hectic few weeks.
Hank and his wife Patti were on their yearly trip to Ogunquit, Maine, this time to celebrate their 42nd wedding anniversary. Hank was only one lobster-meal deep when they got the news that Patti's 74-year-old brother had fallen and broken his hip.
They cut their trip short, raced back to be by his side and have been caring for him ever since.
This week, the week before school starts, Hank and Patti have been babysitting Leah, their almost-seven-year-old granddaughter, for two full days.
“I'm exhausted, totally unequivocally exhausted,” says Patti of their packed weekend.
Yesterday Hank spent the day with his brother-in-law while Patti took Leah out to breakfast. Patti took Leah with her to the dentist and then they went to the Nike store on 57th Street to get Leah a pair of new shoes for the school year. Leah choose black sneakers, a sign that she is growing out of what was a long pink phase.
“Grammy Santa,” Leah calls her grandmother.
Today Hank and Patti brought Leah to Victorian Gardens, the amusement park in Central Park that takes over Wollman Rink in the summers.
“Camp Grammy and Papa,” she calls it.
But “camp” is over—Leah starts second grade in two days—and Hank and Patti meet Leah's mom (their daughter Randi) at the diner for dinner and the handoff.
Although they are exhausted, they are sad to say goodbye, and light up anytime Leah says something; it's the same way with all of their grandchildren.
“I have been told that I've been trumped by my own children. That's okay, you're going to be trumped,” Randi laughs.
Along with Randi, Hank and Patti have their son Marc and Hank's two children from a previous marriage, Barry and Bonnie. Between them all, there are five grandchildren: Eric, Laura, Leah, Sabrina and Dylan. Patti calls them the “loves of their lives.”
The waiter comes by to collect the family's orders. Hank orders soup—extra hot, as usual. The hot broth helps his ease his breathing. In addition to atrial fibrillation (AFib), Hank suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Hank visits his pulmonologist, Dr. David Posner, regularly and credits him with helping him though his disease.
Dr. Posner credits Hank's sense of humor and his “indomitable spirit” with why he has done so well.
“I have not let this get the best of me. I still don't feel sorry for myself…[but] I have a condition that deteriorates.”
This year his condition progressed from Stage 2 to Stage 3.
On a recent visit, Dr. Posner explains that they can continue to adjust his medication (six pills and two or three inhalers a day), but there is not much else they can do.
“It's not a good disease. It's progressive,” says Dr. Posner. “His lungs aren't great.”
* * *
By October, Hank is in better spirits. His brother-in-law is on the mend and life is back to normal.
Hank is now more than six months into retirement, and although it took him five attempts over 15 years, he shows no signs of going back to work this time. Yesterday, he stopped by the office. He says some former patients saw him and were begging him to come back, but he resisted.
“I said no. I will not go back,” he says.
Hank still frequents his usual hangouts like 40 Carrots in Bloomingdale's and he's still ordering his usual—coffee frozen yogurt with a dollop of chocolate on top.
Hank and Patti have also been spending time with their children and grandkids. They recently went to Westchester to visit son Marc—“he makes the best filet mignon on the grill”— and enjoyed hosting their five-year-old granddaughter, Sabrina in the city.
“I love having sleepovers with her. She's so talkative and bright,” says Patti.
Patti signed up for the New York Sports Club on 3rd Ave and 92nd St last week. With Hank now home for good, she has been wanting to explore new things for them to do. Hank signed up as well, although either has yet to go.
“Patti will go,” he says. “She loves to swim.”
But doubts he will himself.
On a November day, Hank decides to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It's been more than a year since he's been, despite its close proximity to his apartment.
Recently, Hank and Patti signed up for ID cards at the New York Public Library in midtown. The new identification cards available to city residents, including undocumented immigrants, give all cardholders perks like discounts on Broadway shows and eligibility to one-year free memberships at various museums, gardens, zoos and theaters. Hank and Patti recently used their cards on a trip to the Museum of Modern Art.
Today Patti is visiting her brother, who is back at home and doing much better, while Hank visits the museum. They leave their apartment together. In the lobby, they run into a neighbor, Iris. They talk about the city.
“New York is the best city in the world. Everything's here,” says Iris.
Patti agrees: “It's the best.”
“[In NYC] you're alone but never alone,” says Iris as she walks outside.
Patti says goodbye to Hank and follows her out the door.
Hank waits for the M79 bus, which arrives within minutes, and takes it to 5th Avenue.
He walks in the ground-level side entrance of the Met at 81st Street, searching for the membership desk and avoids having to walk up the iconic museum steps.
Hank flashes his IDNYC card at the membership desk and a women gives him a free one-year museum pass within minutes.
“That was painless [and] not a penny!” he says. “Maybe she'll put a bedroom in here for me,” he jokes.
Hank takes the elevator up to the 2nd floor and walks into the room housing Greek and Roman Art.
He takes in a 5th Century B.C. sculpture for a few minutes.
“Look at the workmanship. Look at the face,” he says as he stares at the limestone bust.
“Some of this stuff is so old. I guess that's why it's here,” he jokes before turning serious.
“I can't believe I'm going to be 86. 86,” he says. “I'm the last one standing. All my friends are gone…I feel like I'm in a waiting room for something.”
Hank is at peace with dying. He's already made detailed end of life plans. He finds graves “barbaric” and wants to be cremated.
“I don't want my kids on Father's Day to schlep out to see my grave. Take my ashes and sprinkle them in Central Park—but not where the dogs pee and shit,” he laughs.
Instead of a somber funeral, he's told his oldest daughter Bonnie that she's in charge of making sure they have a big party.
“I had a great life. What I had, you celebrate it. I want everyone to get drunk.”
But as he creeps closer to his next birthday, he has been re-evaluating his lifestyle.
His children have been urging Patti and him to move to Connecticut for a while but they have always resisted. They loved the energy of NYC and besides, one of the biggest barriers was the worry that Patti, a non-driver, would feel isolated and dependent on others to get around.
On a recent visit to Randi's house in Fairfield, Conn., Hank sat outside near a brook in her backyard. He felt a great sense of peace wash over him. Even Ethel the dog seemed to love the new environment.
“My breathing was easy. I was so relaxed. The world was my oyster,” he says.
A couple of weeks ago they discovered an over-55 retirement community in Fairfield, Conn., that intrigued them. They took a tour and liked it. While they haven't committed yet—the unit they were shown had too many stairs—they are seriously considering it.
Hank feels like this could be an ideal set up. Patti—who is 18 years younger—will enjoy being in the same town as daughter Randi and granddaughters Leah and Dylan, who live in Fairfield, and close to son Marc and granddaughter Sabrina who live in Rye Brook.
To make up for the lack of public transportation, he'll buy a car. No longer up for driving long distances, Hank feels comfortable driving locally, and he wouldn't mind play chauffer.
When Hank eventually passes, Patti's brother could move in with her, and have the car.
(That would ease another worry they had. “A lot of things are scary. I've never lived alone. I went from my parents' house to being married,” she says.)
The train station to NYC is close; she could be in the city visiting her girlfriends in an hour and 10 minutes.
Hank says he isn't nervous about leaving the neighborhood he's lived in for decades and “starting from square one again.” He says they make friends wherever they go and he's confident Patti will make new girlfriends in the community setting easily.
Financially it could make sense as well. Hank figures if he sells his one-bed room apartment on 79th street he could make a profit, even after buying housing in the retirement community. It gives him peace of mind to think that Patti could live comfortably with the leftover money.
Hank thinks he will still go into the city periodically to see a Broadway play, visit a museum or for a doctors appointment (he says there is no way he would switch pulmonologists from Dr. Posner) but says he would be content with a change of pace.
“I've done it all. All I want to do is sit,” he says. “I don't mind living in Connecticut. The less I do the better ... It's such a different way of living. The hustle and bustle is over. Give me a brook, give me a book. It's what I want now.”
He says the decision is ultimately Patti's; he learned a long time ago that it's best to do what she wants.
“If it happens, I'm happy. If it doesn't, I'm happy.”
Hank walks through the photography exhibit. He once spent his free time shooting all over the city before being “done” with hobbies. He isn't impressed so he leaves.
He walks by a group of students sitting around a giant stork sculpture, sketching.
“Why would they draw that? It's ugly,” Hank laughs.
He walks by a gigantic black and white mural (Sol LeWitt: Wall Drawing #370) consisting of geometric shapes with parallel bands of lines spanning the length of the entire wall. It looks like it could have been part of an eye test.
“I should have had my patients look at this,” says Hank.
Hank continues onto the Modern and Contemporary Art Wing, one of his favorites. As he looks at the paintings his thoughts turn to Thanksgiving, just a couple of weeks away.
It is Hank's very favorite holiday. There are no presents to distract, just good food and even better company. It's the one time each year he has his whole family there. Bonnie will cook the turkey and host at her house in Long Island. Barry will fly in from Florida. Marc will come from Westchester. Randi will bring the pies and cakes. Hank will make his mother's secret recipe cranberry sauce. He can't wait to see all five of his grandchildren there, sitting around the table.
“It gives me a chance to sit back and look around me and see my legacy,” he says. “To know you have such great kids…I'm the nucleus. I look at this and this would not be there without me.”
“And Patti,” he quickly adds.
Two days after Thanksgiving Hank and Patti will be on a plane enroute to Jamaica. He thought their big family vacation there this past June might be his last international trip, but he felt great there and couldn't pass up the deal he found online. This time it will be just Patti and him relaxing by the pool. With such a busy year, they are looking forward to “doing nothing.”
They may make it back up to Ogunquit, Maine for some more lobsters. Grandson Eric, an actor, will be in rehearsals for a play there.
Hank stops and sits down on a bench in front of a vibrant room-sized mural (Thomas Hart Benton's “America Today”). He's getting tired and he needs his energy. This weekend he and Patti are watching Sabrina and taking her to an art class. He can't wait.
It's time to leave. Time to leave the museum and possibly New York City some time soon. He never thought he'd say that.
This series is a production of the Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health. It is led by Dorian Block and Ruth Finkelstein. It is funded by the New York Community Trust. To find all of the interviews and more, go to www.exceedingexpectations.nyc
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