“St. Pete” — Gerald Karey (Turkey)

St. Pete

Gerald Karey (Turkey 1965–67)

Death was a frequent visitor to the Ebb Tide Retirement and Nursing Home in St. Pete.

It usually arrived during the night – perhaps there was a biological or psychological reason for that – but whatever the reason it allowed the staff to deal quietly and discretely with it, in order shield the residents from the grim reality that death had taken another.

Not that it made much difference to the residents who knew Ebb Tide would be their final stop on what Mrs. Daphne Delacourt from Piscataway, New Jersey – who as a young woman appeared in a number of amateur theatricals and was given to dramatic gestures and phrases – liked to call life’s great journey.

But while the residents didn’t dwell on dying or talk much about death, most shared a resigned acceptance about its inevitably and it was never far from their thoughts.

“Who are you kidding, you ain’t walking outta here. Tear up your bucket list,” Tony Morelli, a retired New York City cab driver from Staten Island, who ran the perpetual nickel-and-dime gin rummy game in the day room, told newcomer Spencer Beecroft, a Sandusky, Ohio, pharmacist, who said his daughter in La Jolla promised to take him in after a few months.

The man died six weeks later and if Tony had any remorse about possibly contributing to the man’s death with a dose of cold reality, he never let on.

Still, the staff at Ebb Tide did what it could to hide the presence of death stalking the hallway. Every three hours at night, starting at midnight, a staff member would open each resident’s door and listen for the sound of breathing. The elderly are notoriously noisy breathers and any prolonged silence in a room prompted a closer look. It usually meant the resident had passed, the approved Ebb Tide term for died.

Some of the staff also maintained there was a profound, hushed-silence in the room of the newly deceased, suggesting that death hovered close-by. The management of Ebb Tide discouraged such talk, to no avail.

When they found Spencer Beecroft, a well-practiced routine commenced. A gurney was brought from the basement via a freight elevator while members of the staff shooed any residents who came into the hallway back into their rooms. Beecroft’s body was placed on the gurney, covered with a sheet, carried to the basement and through a door marked, “No Admittance. Authorized Personal Only.”

The body was placed in a refrigerated compartment for temporary storage. Later in the day, after the appropriate notifications were made, the body was picked up by a hearse at the rear of the building and brought to a local funeral parlor to await further disposition.

The residents were not notified of the death until after breakfast, although several remarked on Beecroft’s absence during breakfast. Staff director Winston Lakewood announced Beecroft’s passing in the day room. He invited the gathered residents to participate in what Lakewood called a “Ceremony of Remembrance,” asking if anyone wanted to say something about their dear friend Spencer. But Beecroft had only been at Ebb Tide for six weeks and there wasn’t much to say beyond, “He was a very polite gentleman,” and “May he rest in peace.”

Mrs. Delacourt accompanied on piano by Edna Fitzgerald, a retired schoolteacher from Des Plains, Illinois, sang “Amazing Grace,” to conclude the ceremony.

The gin players and kibitzers returned to their game. Tony Morelli looked up from his cards and muttered, “SOB, he owes the table a buck thirty-five.”

Another player, Benny Morgan, a small time lawyer who used to chase ambulances in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, said, “Maybe we should put a lien on his estate. Deal the cards, Tony.”

In 2014 journalist and blogger Gerald Kare published Unhinged: Reflections, Opinions, Humor, Reminiscences, an Occasional Rant, Reportage – A Random Chronicle of Our Times [Small Batch Books]. His blog can be seen at geraldkarey.blogspot.com.

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