You’re holding a drink in your hand and you’re making the rounds at your 20th or 30th high-school reunion. The senior you were in love with — let’s call him Rob — is now a shadow of his former self. Or the bubbly cheerleader — let’s call her Lizzy — who was the envy and scorn of all your classmates is now in need of cheering up herself. Time was not kind to them. Would it not have been better if you had skipped the reunion? To remember them at their best in the school’s yearbook?
And this leads you to think about yourself. Were the years kind to you or did they take their toll on your face, body, mind, spirit?
A couple of weeks ago, saddled with these thoughts of aging, I get into my car and make the one- and-a-half hour trip from Galilee to the coastal city of Netanya. The night before, my father, Joseph Labi, had called from his home near Tel-Aviv and asked me if I wanted to visit his brother, Tino Labi, at the nursing home. ”Yes, I’ll come,” I said instinctively It was too late to back out. And deep down, I did want to see what has become of my “British” Uncle Tino.
In Netanya I meet up with my father and together we drive to Beit Ami Nursing Home.
From outside, the nursing home looks like a three-star hotel in a typical seaside resort. In fact, at one time it was. In the lobby we meet the nursing home’s director and the woman social worker. She’s surprised by my father’s apparent good health, his posture. She directs us to the elevators, says, “The first and second level are for the able residents. The higher up you go, the more help they need.” I press 5.
The doors open to a wide recreation room taken up by rectangular tables. Old men and women are seated in wheelchairs. Some of them stare vacantly at the large windows beyond, or the wall-mounted TV with the volume muted. Some are asleep in their chairs, others sip tea and nibble on biscuits. I scan the room from side to side, wanting to pick out my uncle, a Rock Hudson look-alike. My father points him out and walks toward him. I follow. Uncle Tino has his back to me. I come around and see his face. The shock in my face is unmistakable. What has become of his movie star looks?
I approach him and shake his pudgy hand. He looks me over, slowly begins to recognize my face, makes the connection with his brother at his side. ”How come you still have all your hair?” he says in his English accent. I smile. He smiles back, reveals a set of even dentures. The decades melt away. I pull up a chair and ask about his health. He recently fell, broke his hip bone, underwent surgery. A brace is wrapped snugly around his large midsection. My father, hard of hearing, relies on lip-reading to keep up with the conversation.
In the 1950s my father and mother, newlyweds in the still-young Israel, packed up and immigrated to England. Tino followed. Dark, not-so-tall and handsome, girls fell for his Mediterranean features. James Dean would have killed for his hair. Tino (and my father) greased their wavy, strong hair with Brilliantine. Joseph started a family (me!). Tino went without, the consummate playboy. He did marry an Englishwoman once, the wedding ceremony held in Scotland. Upon their return, her parents said they didn’t want him. He wasn’t English. Tino had a son by her, did not see him until some thirty years later, told him he was the father. The son told him to go F*** himself.
My father offers to wheel him downstairs to the patio, to take in some winter sun. Tino smiles eagerly, happy to be taken beyond his prescribed area. Once on the patio, he lifts his feet off the wheelchair’s footrests, rests his large house slippers on the floor.
Tino always liked food, and lots of it. He spent his life as a cook in many of London’s restaurants. At night he gambled his earnings on racing horses and racing dogs. He spread the love, the wealth on Friday, was broke on Monday. He moon-lighted in his mini-cab in the streets of London. He drove drunks home after the pubs closed. He drove waitresses home late at night to their government-subsidized housing, much like his tiny flat on the East End. In the mornings, unable to sleep, he fed the ducks in Victoria Park with day-old Jewish bagels.
I had stayed at his flat with friends in 1979, on the way to America. He had began to lose his hair then, his scalp was full with hair plugs. ”It cost me a bloody fortune,” he tells me now and runs his hands over his bald head. He’s preoccupied with hair. ”Your father still has some, the son-of-a-gun.”
For the past ten years, he’s been a snow bird, living in London in summer, flying to Israel in winter. That changed three years ago. He became sick, chose to live his remaining days in Israel. My father, age 85, and Tino, 82, are the only surviving brothers from a family of 18 brothers and sisters (two mothers, one stud of a father). Everyone’s gone.
Tino’s mind is lucid at times. More often it’s murky. His money’s running out. My father is unable to handle his brother’s financial affairs. He recently signed over legal custody to the State of Israel. The State will have the final say about his physical needs, help keep him in the nursing home.
We say good-bye to Tino. My father drops off fruit and cookies my mother had baked. We leave. We stroll through Netanya’s famous outdoor market. The sun’s kind. We lunch at a typical Jewish North African restaurant, order Libyan couscous with a medley of vegetables, spicy fish in red sauce, rounds of beer.
My father boards the bus, goes home. I get in the car and return to Kfar Tavor, thinking I didn’t run into Rob or Lizzy, but somehow I’d taken part in a family “reunion.”
Be healthy, father. Be good, Uncle.