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Tuesday, August 29, 2017

When Old People Go Missing

My cousin is missing. He isn’t where I left him.

There’s a coffeehouse I visit as soon as I come to Australia. It’s easier to find my cousin that way than banking on him hearing his cell phone or being at home. He likes to stay active — he wakes up about 4:00 A.M., hits the streets for his morning stroll and first coffee, then spends most of the day at the coffeehouse, sitting at the tables, talking with his friends (mostly old men) and the strangers who say hi (mostly young women).

He’s easy to find there, until he isn’t.

Čapek is my grandfather’s first cousin. He was born around 1924 in Berehovo, a small village currently in the Ukraine, near the Hungarian border. In the years before he was born and over the course of his life there, until he turned 15 and was moved to a concentration camp, it belonged to the USSR, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and possibly Romania. Even today, the town’s few streets on Google Maps have alternating Cyrillic, Hungarian, and Czech names.

Then the Holocaust happened. The town got cleaned out. He spent most of the war in Buchenwald, a work camp — the entire rest of his family was killed; he was a teenage boy, he could help the Germans.

After the war, he was taken to Switzerland to get better. Fortunately, he had tuberculosis and had been malnourished enough so that he couldn’t eat solid food. The ex-prisoners who could were fed regular food, and their bodies couldn’t handle the overload. Most died. He spent four years in a hospital, then traveled to Paris, where many survivors ended up, trying to find each other and piece together what was left of their lives. He didn’t find anyone. From there, he boarded a boat to Australia.

My wife’s grandfather also spent much of the war in Buchenwald. He also ended up in Australia. My wife’s grandfather married the rabbi’s only daughter, had five children, a number of grandchildren, and counted close to a hundred descendants before his death last year. My cousin, one barracks over from him in the camp, never married. For 20 years he was a tram conductor. He collected fares, told jokes, let anyone pass who forgot their fares — or said they did — and just basically became friends with everyone he met.

He lives in a tiny apartment just above Acland St., which is the St. Mark’s Place/Melrose Blvd./South St./hip and trendy cafe-culture capital in Melbourne. I know his address, but there’s no point in me going there. “If I’m home, I’m asleep,” he once told me.

As usual, my first morning here I just show up at the coffeehouse — it’s right in an arcade, one of those European-style malls with stained-glass windows and wrought iron that you walk through and you think you’re in an old movie. The cafe has two heavy wooden tables right in the center of the arcade.

Most mornings he’s there with a kind German and a grouchy Hungarian, shooting the shit with each in their respective languages. Today he’s not.

This is not alone enough to sound a warning bell. But my mom has been calling his cell phone and getting no answer, which is also not alarming on its own, but (a) it’s been happening for weeks, and (b) my mom has been nonstop asking me about finding him, which is hitting my anxiety on the head a little too exactly.

His friends from the cafe are also not there. Neither, I soon discover, is the cafe itself. The inside awning is still there, but inside the place all the shelves are empty, the kitchen is in boxes, everything is dust and shadow.

I’d imagined a hundred times over the moment I came back, talking to the barista. I’ve met him over fifty times, talked to him whenever I visited my cousin, known him, weirdly, for over ten years, although the time we’ve spent actually speaking would probably only add up to a couple minutes. But when you’re close to an old person, at a certain point you begin to envision — to fantasize, almost — how you will find out they’re dead. Or, worse, that something terrible’s happened to them, that they aren’t in the peaceful dreamless sleep of death but are somewhere unknown suffering through something and if we only knew how to find them, if we only paid them more attention, we’d be able to help them.

This happened with my grandmother in her nursing home, where they took excellent care of her, and where my parents visited her every day. How we’re not a part of their lives always, how what we mean by “their lives” is such a fragile and unguaranteed thing.

I run down the street. I stop in every place on that street he went — the bank, the other coffee shop, the early-bird special lunch place, the bakery where he used to fry donuts in the morning, as a favor to the owners or as an actual job I was never able to figure out. He just loved hanging out there and they gave him something to do. I’ve been in the country less than 24 hours. Just an evening, a sleepless night, and now this early morning. Except for the eateries there’s nothing else open. I’ve been searching for him for an hour and it’s still only 8:00 in the morning. The world is whirling around me; I’ve crossed the same street a dozen times, I’m no longer being careful about the direction of the cars. I’m crying openly. An old woman asks me what’s wrong. I ask her if she knows Čapek. I describe him — short, hunched over, bald, mustache, a psoriatic scar on the top of his head (I feel guilty saying this to someone else, but it will help, I tell myself, it will help), likes to wear one of those dinky Outback hats like in Crocodile Dundee.

The old woman blinks at me. Crocodile Dundee? It was from the ’80s, I tell myself, that counts as old these days. She should know what I’m talking about.

There is a supermarket called Woolworths. My only association is the dinettes from the 1950s American South, the restaurant where they wouldn’t let black people eat with white people at the counter. They’ve never had that problem here; nobody knows a Woolworths is for anything except groceries. I’ve never seen Čapek in here, but figure it can’t hurt. And I hit pay dirt. One of the self-checkout supervisors remembers him. She says he was always the nicest person in the world, but a few times he’d thrown fits, yelled at people. She thinks he was having Alzheimer’s fits. She thinks they took him to a nursing home, but she doesn’t know for sure and she doesn’t know which one. She’s apologetic and a little accusatory. You didn’t know they took him? What kind of relationship do you have to him?

I’m his cousin, I say. But I don’t live anywhere near here.

I get back to my in-laws’, feeling more alienated than ever. The kids are up. I make sure they’re okay but I can’t play with them, I have something to do, and they’re confused — we’re on vacation, isn’t my work in another country? But I get to work.

The only thing I can think of doing is, I search for a list of elderly facilities in the area. I start calling them in Google Maps order, the closest first. It’s about to be a Jewish holiday tonight. I’m only there for a week. If I lose today, I’ve lost 3 out of my 7 days in the country.

I start calling down the list and find two things very quickly: That every nursing home uses an annoying voicemail system, and that none of them can tell me if he’s here because of patient privacy. But what, I ask, if he doesn’t know how to tell them that I’m a legitimate relative? What if he doesn’t recognize me anymore? I hang up from the fourth place, feeling every bit of the queasiness I managed to avoid on the plane seeping into me. The phone rings. It’s my father-in-law. He suggests I call the local Jewish bureau. They might not be quick, but they must have resources for situations like this. He’s the only adult who was awake during my search, and he has the kind of mind that’s perfect for this. He sees everything like a puzzle. Once you see problems like puzzles, you can solve them.

I call and tell the very kind receptionist what’s wrong and give her all my information. She says it’s no problem and she’ll be able to find him in a week, maybe two. I thank her and slip off the phone.

Then I call the fifth place. “Hi,” I say fast, “can you put me through to Čapek Roth’s room?”

“I’m sorry, I don’t think there’s anyone here by that name,” the man on the phone says. “Are you quite sure he’s here?”

No, but that doesn’t stop me. I try the fourth place again, then the third. Then the second.

And the receptionist who picks up this time tells me he’s just gone down for a nap.

The next morning is the first morning of the holiday. I wait outside the electric doors till someone walks through. I squeeze past them so I don’t use electricity, and then I get Čapek’s room number and take the stairs.

And there he is. Sitting upright in a bed, swathed by white paper-thin bedsheets, and, disconcertingly, without his mustache, which I don’t realize till he lowers his coffee from his mouth. Which somehow makes up for the lack of mustache, because coffee is the ultimate normalizer.

And there’s that moment where I’m not sure what is real and what isn’t, and if it’s really him because I can only see half his face with the coffee mug up, and scariest of all, whether he remembers me or not, but then he lowers the mug and says, as chill as if he’s back at the cafe and making jokes in German, “Matthue! How did you get here?” and just hearing the syllables of my name from his mouth, just having myself as the point of reference for him, means that even if everything isn’t okay, it’s still okay for now.

And I hug him, which I’ve never done before, and feels a little violating because he’s in bed and weaker than he used to be and he can’t really do anything about it, but also feels a little bit like what we need. And I laugh, and I say to him, “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.” And then I tell him.


Photo: Lost Old Man by Alexander Kluge.

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