Huffpost Healthy Living
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Jay Neugeboren Headshot

Searching for Bobby Fischer... and Bobby Neugeboren

Posted: Updated:

One year ago, on January 17, 2008, Bobby Fischer died in Reykjavik, Iceland, at the age of 64. In the fall of 1957, when Fischer and my brother Robert were both 14 years old and sophomores at Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, they were in the school's chess club together. By this time, Fischer had become the youngest player ever to win the United States National Junior Chess Championship. Yet when Robert, who would spend most of his adult life, beginning shortly before his nineteenth birthday, as a mental patient, would try to get Fischer to play with him, Fischer would refuse. "'With you, Neugeboren, I don't play,' he always said to me," Robert says. Why not? "Because," Robert says, smiling, "he said I played crazy."

After winning the United States Junior Championship twice--he was 13 the first time--Fischer went on to become the youngest player ever to become a United States Master, the first and only player to win eight United States Chess Championships, the youngest player ever to become an International Master, and in 1972, at the age of 29, by his victory over the Russian grandmaster, Boris Spassky, in Reykjavik, Iceland, the first American-born player to become world champion.

Fischer also became famous through the years for his eccentricities, and, especially, for his pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic, and anti-American rants--for what Dick Cavett called Fischer's "gradual decline into [a] raving lunatic."

The parallels in the lives of my brother and Fischer are often as remarkable as they are sad, and I've tried here to tell part of the story:

In the spring of 1956, when my brother Robert was thirteen years old, I gave him a chess set for his Bar Mitzvah. Robert was an excellent chess player, often winning against older and more experienced players, and when he entered Erasmus Hall High School as a sophomore in the fall of 1957--we lived in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, not far from Ebbets Field--he joined the chess club. Bobby Fischer also entered Erasmus as a sophomore that year, and he too joined the chess club. Bobby's sister Joan, five years older than her brother--I was five years older than Robert--had been the one to introduce Fischer to chess when he was six years old by buying him a chess set from the candy store over which they lived.
After Fischer defeated Spassky in 1972--a victory achieved at the height of the Cold War, and one that, in Cavett's words, "single-handedly collapsed the Soviet Chess Empire"--Fischer did not, in the remaining 35 years of his life, except for a rematch with Spassky in 1992 that resulted in Fischer's permanent exile from the United States, ever play tournament chess again. He became an itinerant madman and recluse--chess was nothing more than "mental masturbation," he declared--and his primary antagonist when he surfaced periodically, often in rambling broadcasts he made from the Phillipines, became the international Jewish conspiracy.

Jews were a "filthy, lying bastard people," hell-bent on world domination through ruses such as the Holocaust ("a money-making invention"), and the mass murder of Christian children ("their blood is used for black-magic ceremonies"). On September 11, 2001, he told a radio audience in the Phillipines that the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were "wonderful news." What he wished for, he said, was for the United States to be "wiped out."
"We all started together at Erasmus, but then the three Bobbies dropped out--" Robert often says "--Bobby Fischer, Bobbi Streisand, and Bobby Neugeboren." (When I told Robert that my research indicated that Barbra Streisand had not dropped out, but had graduated, and with a 93 average, he insisted I was wrong.)

Fischer dropped out of Erasmus during his junior year, shortly after his sixteenth birthday, and after he had won the United States Chess Championship for the first time. Robert dropped out a few months later when our parents moved from Brooklyn to Queens, and, at the beginning of his senior year, transferred him to Forest Hills High School. Soon after, he dropped out of both Forest Hills High and our parents' apartment, and, at 16, moved into a run-down apartment with several older men on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

Three years later, when Fischer's sister and his mother, Regina, moved out of their Brooklyn apartment, Fischer, who had been traveling in South America and Europe for tournaments, moved into the apartment and lived there by himself. His mother, a member of the Committee for Non-Violent Action, joined what was then the longest peace march in history--across the United States and Europe to Moscow. On the walk she met a man she would later marry, and with whom she would settle in England. During the remaining 38 years of her life, Fischer saw her rarely, and he became deeply distraught when, in 1997, he was unable to attend her funeral. Our mother left New York for Florida in 1973, and during the remaining 20 years of her life, so traumatized was she by Robert's illness, that she saw him only twice.

Early in 1962, in the same year that Fischer moved back into his mother's apartment, Robert, following a drug-enhanced cross-country trip to California, where he lived for six months, moved back into our parents' apartment in Queens, became floridly psychotic, attempted to kill our father, was taken away in a straitjacket, and was incarcerated on a psychiatric ward at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens.

Both our mother and Fischer's mother were Registered Nurses, and in both families they were the ones who put food on the table and paid the rent. Fischer's father, Hans-Gerhardt Fischer, a German biophysicist, abandoned the family and divorced Regina when Bobby was two years old, after which Regina raised Bobby and his sister on her own.

Although our father did not abandon us (throughout our childhood, however, he and our mother constantly threatened divorce), and although he was a supremely intelligent man, he
failed at every business he tried, so that from the time Robert
was born, it was our mother who, working at various jobs, including 16-hour double-shifts as a nurse, supported and ran the family.

Like Fischer's mother, our mother, too, was a crusader for a peaceful, non-violent world. She marched with organizations such as Women Strike for Peace, and in the four small rooms of our apartment regularly went on tirades about how religion, by setting people and nations at war with one another, were "the cause of all evil in the world." Robert and I were forbidden to own comic books (which perpetrated violence), or to play with toy guns--"Use your finger! Use your finger!" she would shout when we protested that all our friends were allowed to play with guns.

During Bobby and Robert's teenage years, both mothers, fearing their sons were deranged, arranged for psychiatric evaluations. Fischer's mother took her son to the children's psychiatric ward at Brooklyn Jewish Hospital; our mother took Robert to the Director of Adolescent Services at Brooklyn's Kings County Hospital. Whereas the doctor at Brooklyn Jewish Hospital declared Bobby Fischer healthy, the doctor at Kings County told my mother that Robert should be hospitalized immediately, and that he would probably have to live in a mental hospital for the rest of his life.

A day or so later, Robert confided that he'd "cheated" at his interview--"I passed the admissions test!" he exclaimed proudly--by giving the psychiatrist answers he knew the psychiatrist wanted. Why? Because he wanted to find out what the inside of a mental hospital was like. Well, you might be able to get in, I said, but once you're in, it might not be so easy to get out. Robert agreed to a second evaluation, which I arranged at Bellevue Hospital, where the Director of Adolescent Services declared him to be totally healthy.

In the fall of 1962, at about the time Robert was leaving Elmhurst Hospital for an eighteen-month stay in a psychiatric facility that specialized in treating adolescents, Fischer began living at a YMCA. He also began denouncing the Russians, accusing them (with justification) of rigging their tournaments in advance, and railing against tournament promoters for stealing money from him. Although he continued, during his waking hours, to work obsessively at his game, he played in fewer and fewer tournaments, began moving from apartment to apartment, living in seedy hotels, and carting around suitcases filled with vitamins and herbal remedies he believed could stave off toxins secretly being put into his food and water by Soviet agents.

In 1968, when he was 25, he moved to California, where he spent his days riding busses and reading chess books, and his evenings prowling parking lots and placing white supremacist leaflets under windshield wipers. It was in California that he became infatuated with Hitler and the Third Reich, and began collecting Nazi memorabilia. Although Jewish, he joined the Worldwide Church of God, which was based in Pasadena, and which believed in baptismal immersion and the imminent coming of Christ, in following strict Sabbath proscriptions, and in Jewish dietary laws.

In 1972, he emerged from seclusion to defeat Spassky, but after this victory his whereabouts and life again faded into a self-willed obscurity.

During the years Fischer was living in California, Robert often talked of returning there--his months in California, he said, were the happiest of his life--but after living outside a mental hospital in New York City for more than a year, during which time he completed his second year of college at C.C.N.Y., he broke down again, and was committed to an insulin coma ward at Creedmoor Hospital in Queens, where he would reside for four-and-a-half of the next half-dozen years.

When Fischer defeated Spassky in 1972, and when, a year later, our parents moved to Florida, Robert was a patient on a locked ward at Creedmoor. Three years later--Robert was then in his first lock-up at Staten Island Psychiatric Center, where he would live, on and off, for the next two decades--our father, without ever having seen Robert again, died.

During these years, and ever since, Robert became obsessed with Jewish dietary laws, demanding of each emergency ward, hospital, and group home in which he lived that they provide him with kosher food. He often celebrated the Sabbath and Jewish holidays, would ask me to say Kaddish with him for family members who had died, and would frequently read in his Siddur (Jewish prayer book). At the same time, though without Fischer's anti-Semitic venom, he would also regularly disavow his Jewish identity, claiming to have been born a Baptist, to have converted to Christian Science, and to have evolved into a Buddhist.

During these years, there were long stretches when Robert and I lost touch with each other, and I would usually locate him again only when I'd receive a call from a hospital psych ward, asking if I were Robert Neugeboren's brother. Fischer, too, disappeared for long periods of time during these years, living, for the most part, outside the United States--in Budapest, the Phillipines, Switzerland, Japan. At one point, worried that secret agents might be manipulating him by sending signals through his jaw, he had all his dental fillings removed. "If somebody took a filling out and put in an electronic device, he could influence your thinking," he explained. "I don't want anything artificial in my head."

By the time Robert was in his late thirties, he had lost all his teeth--they had either rotted, been pulled, or been knocked out--and he had begun wearing dentures. Earlier, when he had his own teeth, he sometimes expressed the belief that alien forces were speaking to him through his fillings. And when, some time in the mid-eighties, the staff at South Beach Psychiatric Center punished him by taking away his dentures--and subsequently losing them--Robert refused to be fitted for new dentures. He has been toothless ever since.

In the decades that followed on his 1972 defeat of Spassky, Fischer often turned down lucrative offers to play chess publicly, including a $1.4 million dollar offer from the Hilton Corporation to defend his title in Las Vegas, and larger sums from dictators such as Ferdinand Marcos and the Shah of Iran to play in their countries. In 1992, however, at a time when the movie, Searching for Bobby Fischer was in production (Fischer was enraged that the producers were using his name without permission), he emerged from his 20 year retirement and agreed to play a $5 million dollar rematch against Spassky on the island of Sveti Stefan in Yugoslavia.
At the time, in an attempt to bring the war in that country to an end, United Nations sanctions had been imposed on Yugoslavia and its President, Slobodan Milosevic, and Americans were forbidden to do business there. Fischer denounced the ban, and the Department of the Treasury warned him that if he played chess in Yugoslavia, the penalty could be a $250,000 fine, ten years in prison, or both.

At a press conference preceding the match, Fischer took the Treasury Department letter out of his briefcase and spat on it. He also stated that he was not an anti-Semite (since he was pro-Arab, and Arabs were Semites too), and demanded that tournament officials raise the toilet in his bathroom to a level higher in the air than anyone else's.

The Treasury Department responded by indicting him and issuing a warrant for his arrest. Fischer played the match, defeating Spassky easily, but now officially a fugitive from justice, he continued to live in exile, never again in the remaining 16 years of his life returning to the United States.

A dozen years after the second Spassky match, in July of 2004, while Fischer was attempting to board a plane scheduled to take him from Tokyo to Manila, the Japanese government accused him of trying to leave their country with an invalid passport, and imprisoned him for nine months. A year later, in 2005, he moved to Iceland, which had offered him citizenship, and he lived there until January 17, 2008, when, at the age of 64, and following a long illness, he died of kidney failure.

When I called Robert and told him that Bobby Fischer had died, he said he'd already heard the news.

"I don't believe it's true," he said.

He didn't believe that Fischer had died? But it was in The New York Times this morning, I said.
"The New York Times? All the news that's fit to spit, if you ask me," Robert said, and repeated his belief that Fischer was still alive. "He lived on our street, you know," he added, "at the Nostrand Avenue end, across from the candy store--where all the Irish lived."

We talked about other things for a while--about how things were going for him at his home, a supervised residence for about two dozen former mental patients that was located in the Hell's Kitchen section of New York, and just before we said good bye, he mentioned Fischer again. "I don't think I look like him," he whispered.


When Robert and I were boys growing up in Brooklyn, he was called Bobby. But once he entered his teen years--at about the time he joined the Erasmus chess club--he stopped using the name Bobby. In the years that followed, in fact, especially during his first days on a psychiatric ward, he would more often want to be known by his middle name--Gary--than by either Robert or Bobby.

When he was Bobby Neugeboren, however, and beginning when he was three years old, he was famous in our neighborhood for his singing, his tap-dancing, and his imitations of Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson. He would perform on street corners, in candy stores and barbershops, and at family gatherings, and when he did, people would cheer and throw money at his feet. During his teenage years, he acted in school and summer camp productions, where he usually had the lead, and where people were forever telling him he was going to be the next Fred Astaire or Danny Kaye.

Robert was also a gifted writer, publishing poems in little magazines (often mimeographed) when he was in his teens, becoming editor of the weekly newspaper at our summer camp (where our mother was Camp Nurse, which service she traded for our fees), and of a mental hospital newspaper during his first long-term internment.

In 1957, after Fischer won the United States Open Championship, The New Yorker ran a "Talk of the Town" piece in which it described him has having "a mischievous, rather faunlike face," and noted that "though school tests have shown [Fischer] to have generally superior intelligence, he does no better than average in his studies, displaying little interest in most of the subjects taught and being restless in class."

The New Yorker could have been describing Robert, who, until he ballooned up in recent years from side-effects of antipsychotic medications, had had a playfully mischievous and faunlike face. And though Robert would, in his senior year of high school, win a New York State Regents Scholarship to college, and though he often did spectacularly well on annual New York State Regents exams, his teachers (and our parents) repeatedly complained about his poor and sometimes failing grades, his restlessness, and the ways in which he would, with jokes and banter, delight and distract other students.

In competition, Fischer was, from his early years, known for his killer instinct--"I like the moment when I break a man's ego," he told Dick Cavett after his triumph over Spassky. But as ruthless and mean-spirited as he could be in matches and in his anti-Semitic and anti-American rages, with friends, as long as they did not betray his whereabouts, Fischer had a reputation for being exceptionally generous and kind. In Reykjavik, when he was playing against Spassky, he left thousands of dollars under pillows and elsewhere for the maids who cleaned up his room.

Although Robert complained ceaselessly about money--"I have no money! I have no money!" he'd cry out again and again--he would regularly give money away to other mental patients, even though the giving left him broke. When I once asked why he gave away so much of what he had, he shrugged and gave an answer that seemed to him self-evident: "Because they've had very hard lives."

But he could also be nasty, especially with those paid to care for him in mental hospitals: screaming at them, hitting them, biting them. And in the months before and after Fischer's death--in his own sixty-fourth year--Robert's health, like Fischer's, began to decline precipitously, and as it did, the rage he had previously vented on hospital workers, he now poured forth on the staff and residents of his group home.

He began, also, to be hospitalized every few weeks: for heart problems, lung problems, anemia, blood clots, incontinence, injuries from falls, and--most of all--from myriad problems associated with Parkinsonian symptoms (tremors, drooling, troubles with balance and walking, lack of impulse control), which conditions were themselves a result of the massive amounts of antipsychotic medications he had been taking for more than four decades.

The more his physical condition deteriorated, the nastier he became: screaming and cursing at people in his residence, striking staff members, and being generally uncooperative--refusing to shower, refusing to clean his room, refusing to clean up after himself in bathrooms and communal spaces.

Until a year or so before this, Robert had been enjoying the best, and healthiest, period in his adult life. Whereas he had never, in the preceding five decades--when he had been hospitalized approximately 60 times for psychotic episodes--lived outside a locked facility for even two full years, he had now been living in a group home, the Clinton Residence, on West 48th Street, for more than seven years without even a single hour of hospitalization.

Early in 2006, not long after Fischer had moved to Iceland, the staff psychiatrist for the Clinton Residence recommended that Robert move to Wanaque House, a block away, on West 47th Street, where he could enjoy greater independence. Wanaque, home to 15 former mental patients, was a turn-of-the-century five storey brownstone that, inside and out, looked more like a small residential hotel than a psychiatric facility. At Wanaque, which was administered by Fountain House, a community center for former mental patients, Robert had a room of his own (instead of having to share one), cooking privileges, virtually no curfew (1 A. M.), less medication monitoring, and less supervision.

But at Wanaque, almost from the day of his arrival, he started having serious physical problems, and the more his physical health failed, the more his anxiety and irritability rose. He began urinating and defecating in public spaces, and stuffing large amounts of paper towels in toilets and sinks; he became unable (or unwilling) to dress himself, wash himself, or get up or down staircases without assistance; he began cursing more and more, and employing racial slurs against young black residents who, the staff feared, would retaliate by beating him up.

One day in the spring of 2007, an aide mentioned to Robert in an off-hand way that the staff had begun looking for a nursing home for him. Robert responded by announcing angrily that he would never live in a nursing home.

In September of 2007, on a morning when Robert was unable to move his legs or feet, he was taken to Roosevelt-St. Luke's Hospital, where doctors concluded that his problem was due not only to drug-induced Parkinsonism, but to anemia, which condition had probably been aggravated by a severe loss of blood brought on as a result of an anal fissure for which Robert had been hospitalized a few weeks earlier. Roosevelt-St. Luke's transferred Robert to the Kateri Residence, a skilled nursing and rehabilitation center, for physical therapy.

At Kateri, Robert did exceptionally well for a week or so--began walking almost normally again--and was calm, lucid, and in playfully good spirits. When I visited him with my two sons, Aaron and Eli, and mentioned that on the following day, I was going to City Hall with my fiancée, Kathy (she was 57, I was 69), to get our marriage license, Robert wept softly, gave me a hug, and then turned to his nephews. "This is very good news, you know," he said, "because this way, if they have children, the children won't be bastards."

A day or two later, the director of Wanaque called to warn me about the situation at Kateri, where he director had hung up on her after accusing Wanaque of "dumping" Robert on them. When I attended a conference later that day, the Kateri social worker assigned to Robert said that Wanaque was refusing to take Robert back, and that Kateri would, therefore, discharge him to a nursing home as soon as possible. She handed me a small brochure. "Pick out five nursing homes," she said, "and we'll do the paper work."

I took the brochure, which listed hundreds of nursing homes, and said that I wouldn't know where or how to begin sorting things out and choosing a place for him.

"Well, your fiancée's a social worker," the woman snapped. "She'll know what to do."

A few minutes later, as if revealing a confidence, she told me that the people at Wanaque and Fountain House were a bunch of liars and that I shouldn't believe anything they said. She also said that I should only look for nursing homes outside Manhattan.

But Robert only knew people in Manhattan, I protested.

The social worker again insisted that no facility in Manhattan would take him.

But why not? I asked.

"Because he's schizophrenic!" she said, her voice singed with venom.

After the conference, I found Robert in a lounge, and from the calm, joking man he had been a few days before, he had regressed to the raving wild man he had been 20 or 30 years ago, during his worst times in state hospitals. He began shouting at me, ordering staff around, and soaring off into flamboyant riffs about religion, family, politics, and childhood events that were comprehensible only if, like me, you had known him across a lifetime and could decode his references.

A day later, the Kateri social worker telephoned to report that Robert had become so unruly that they had had no choice but to transfer him to an inpatient psychiatric ward at St. Luke's hospital.

When I visited Robert the next day, he was as floridly psychotic as I'd ever seen him. Given Robert's history of stability during the previous eight years, the chief of psychiatry was baffled, and I explained what I thought had happened: that Robert had been caught in a crossfire between two institutions--one telling him he could never go back to where he was living, and to the neighborhood that had been home to him for eight years, and the other telling him that he'd been dumped on them and that they were shipping him out to a nursing home. Incarcerated, then, in an inpatient emergency psych ward for the first time in 15 or 20 years, it was hardly surprising that he would, by his behavior, seem to be saying: I'm a mental patient on a locked ward again? Well, I've had lots of experience in places like this, so you just watch my smoke now--you just watch how much of a mad, difficult psychotic patient I can be!

When I called the Kateri social worker, and asked if she might talk with staff and get back to me with any information as to what might have precipitated Robert's abrupt transformation, she assured me she would ask around and call back.

I never heard from her.

At this juncture, I called the director of Wanaque, who assured me that Wanaque would take Robert back, at least until they could find a nursing home for him. I also called people I knew in the city's mental health system. Three days later, Robert was discharged to Wanaque, and back at Wanaque, his psychotic symptoms vanished as suddenly as they had appeared.

The staff psychiatrist at Wanaque, however, was "at his wit's end," he confided a few months later. The problem, he explained, was that the medications used to reduce Robert's Parkinsonian symptoms (by producing more dopamine in the brain), had the opposite effect on his psychotic symptoms (where medications were used to reduce the amount of dopamine in the brain), and finding a pharmacological balance was fine-tuning of the most difficult and treacherous sort.

In addition, all the nursing homes to which the staff had been making application for Robert, were rejecting him. The logistical problem--true for thousands of others in Robert's situation--soon became clear: group homes such as Wanaque were ill-equipped to care for elderly people with histories of mental illness who developed disabling medical problems, while nursing homes that could provide such care were ill-prepared--and/or unwilling--to accept people who had psychiatric conditions and histories.

By Thanksgiving, 2007, Robert had become the only person at Wanaque who had a (temporary) home health aide assigned to him. The home health aide attended to Robert five days a week, nine to five, helping him with the ordinary stuff of life--getting dressed and washed, cleaning his room, getting to and from meals and medical appointments. When Robert developed a blood clot in his left leg, the hospital saw to it that a physical therapist visited Robert two mornings a week for a while, and, Robert's physical health continuing to fail, he was given a wheel chair, and home health aides were assigned to him ten hours a day, seven days a week.
Sometimes Robert cooperated with staff, and sometimes he didn't, and sometimes when he fell he refused to get up off the floor, and sometimes, feeble as he was, he struck out at his aides and nurses. At meetings with the staff psychiatrist, the Wanaque director, and his home health aide, he persisted in voicing familiar desires--what the staff psychiatrist called his "nonsense"--about moving back to Staten Island and getting a job there, about kosher food, and about dead relatives who were now living with him at Wanaque...

Although Robert continued to live in the city in which he had been born and had resided for his entire life, and dozens of his cousins and old friends lived in the city, in the eight years he had been out of a mental hospital, I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of visits he had had from any of them. So that just as his brilliance and fame had been less spectacular--more local--than Fischer's, so his state of exile was less spectacular, and considerably less newsworthy.

In limbo, then, between two states of misery--Wanaque, and a place yet if ever to be found--he continued, day after day, to live in a room that was less than a hundred feet square, which room contained a bed, a dresser, a chair, a small desk, and a broken TV set on a broken cabinet. Kathy and I visited with him often, and many visits were delightful (while waiting in the street one day to let two men who were lugging a huge TV set pass, one of the men turned to Robert. "Thanks for your patience," he said. "Why?" Robert replied without missing a beat. "Do you think I'm a doctor?"). His memory, especially long-term, remained intact, and he delighted in reminiscing about friends and relatives, about homes and hospitals he'd lived in, about Erasmus, about California, about our growing up together in Brooklyn.

Bobby Fischer, he informed us at lunch one day, had moved into Wanaque and was living in a room on the floor above his. Really? I said, and when Robert insisted it was true, I told him that I still had the chess set I'd given him for his Bar Mitzvah, and I offered to bring it to him. He said no thanks, that it was better that I keep it because everything in his room that had any value--and much that didn't, he added--was always being stolen from him. Then he talked about walking home with Fischer from school, and about a satchel, containing Fischer's chess set, that Fischer always carried with him.

Fischer's death, and Robert's friendship with him when they were boys--and the strange, sad, grotesque parallels in their lives--had put into relief, yet again, the sorrow of Robert's life: his early brilliance, flair, and sweetness, and how they had devolved into an ongoing misery whose pain and despair I could only imagine. And yet, it occurred to me, the mad thoughts and acts that had marked most of my brother's adult life had served--as they had with Fischer, I believed--to defend against feelings and thoughts immeasurably more terrifying than the symptoms of madness he, or Fischer, exhibited.

Madness itself, in addition to being a defense, was also a kind of exile, of course, as was, in both their lives, years without end in which these men were disconnected from almost everything--friends, relatives, places, work, passions--that had held meaning and pleasure for them when they were boys growing up in Brooklyn.

How had it happened? How could it be that such otherwise bright, gifted young men had descended into a darkness from which they never fully emerged? And what--in their biology or in their situations--in their genes, or their families, or their choices, or their sheer bad luck--had brought about conditions of madness and misery that had, across lifetimes, proven refractory to amelioration or reversal?

How could it be that the sweet giggling infant I would, in our Brooklyn bedroom, lift from his crib and take into my bed, so we could snuggle and laugh together--how could it be that this child, ablaze with promise and delight once upon a time, had turned into the agitated, fearful, heavy, shapeless old man
--all flab and dead weight--who, as I discovered on the evening of one of his hospitalizations, I could barely lift.

Taken to Roosevelt-St. Luke's because of a fall that had left him badly bruised and confused, Robert was, when I arrived, lying on a gurney in a dark corridor, covered in his own piss and shit, and unable to keep from screaming at me while I struggled to maneuver him into a wheel chair so that he could continue moving his bowels. An hour or so later, after he was settled in his room, we talked in the easiest way--about Wanaque, about summer camp, about his niece and nephews--and when visiting hours were over, I kissed him good bye and he smiled at me. "I really appreciate your coming here, Jay," he said, and he did so in the calmest, most natural voice, as if he were a man in whose life nothing had ever gone wrong.

In April, 2008, Robert celebrated his sixty-fifth birthday, and became eligible for a permanent home health attendant. Three months later, on August first, a nurse arrived at Wanaque to interview him, to give him a medical exam, and to evaluate his eligibility. When she introduced herself and put out her hand, Robert shook his head sideways. "I don't shake hands," he said angrily.

The nurse moved away, and I whispered to Robert: "Look, you can behave any way you want, but if you screw up this interview and you're not approved for a permanent home health attendant, you can count on Wanaque shipping you out to a nursing home as soon as they can."
He looked at me and nodded. "Okay then," he said, and for the rest of the interview, and the physical exam, he was a model of cooperation, charm, and sanity. A few days later he was approved for a permanent home health attendant.

A month later, while we were having coffee together one afternoon, I told him that Kathy and I would be able to visit with him on Labor Day.

"That's good," he said, smiling, "as long as we don't have to work too hard."

By this time, the staff psychiatrist having found what seemed a workable balance in Robert's medications, and Robert no longer fearful he would have to spend the rest of his life in a nursing home, he was in generally good health and good spirits, so that when it came time to eat--the staff at Wanaque had prepared a splendid Labor Day barbeque--he made his way to the dining room without a wheel chair, a walker, or even a cane.

When we were done with our meal, Robert reached over and, eyes moist, took my hand. "Glad you could be my guests today," he said to me and Kathy. "It's been a good day, don't you think?"

And just as I had been wondering, a few months before, how it could be that the spirited young man I had grown up with had turned into a debilitated, lifeless old man, so I now wondered about the mystery--and miracle--of his resilience. It never ceased to surprise and amaze: that people who had had the most wretched and unenviable lives--physically and emotionally and for extended periods of time--were able, as Robert was, to survive and to do more than survive: to retain an ability to be themselves in all the complexities and contradictions of their identity, history, and feelings, and to be capable still of taking some ordinary pleasure in this often cruel and incomprehensible world.

From Our Partners