The fall brings the Robbins back to their West End Ave. apartment, opens another season of the Shadow Box Theatre and also welcomes the Jewish New Year.
During dinner on erev Yom Kippur (the eve of the holiday), Art and Sandy seem particularly at ease and energized by their company. Sandy finished a successful day of auditions to find a new cast for this year’s season. A minor catastrophe (a dropped brisket and all of its juice on the floor) was averted by a re-do from Elizabeth, the Robbins’ part-time housekeeper, and Marcus Turnage, an actor from the theater, both of whom have been helping Sandy cook.
Before dinner, Sandy massages her long-time friend Fred’s shoulders and back, telling him he is holding too much tension. She waits for their youngest granddaughter Amelia to arrive from soccer practice. Sandy beams with the story of Amelia’s brother Colin, who called Sandy to get brisket recipe tips after hunting down a kosher butcher at his college in Ohio.
Tonight’s attendees – Art and Sandy, Marcus, Fred and his daughter Rebecca, the Robbins’ youngest daughter Laura, her husband Tom and Amelia - gather around a long, thin table set with blue earthware.
Sandy lights the candles, recites the traditional blessing and then adds her own:
May we treat our earth with respect and have peace in our world
And somehow we should have a real reverence for life and life force that has somehow gotten lost with what’s going on around the world.
The meal continues with much vocal obsessing over each course: first gefilte fish, then matzah ball soup, then brisket with potatoes and carrots and finally Laura’s apple crisp.
* * *
A few weeks later, on an October Monday, Sandy frantically calls her veterinarian. She is swollen with tears. Her dog, Rosie, hasn’t eaten since Friday and is moving very slowly.
While Rosie has terminal cancer, she had seemed symptomless for months. Just a week ago, Rosie had energetically ran and swam in the lake near their Golden’s Bridge home.
“She’s such a sweetheart of a dog. Somehow she knows it’s her time to go,” says Sandy. “She won’t eat.”
After three days with no return phone calls from the veterinarian and almost four days since Rosie had eaten, Sandy decides the best option is to bring Rosie up to their house in Golden’s Bridge one last time and have her put to sleep in an emergency clinic there. Sandy cannot bear another day of Rosie suffering.
Marcus, the actor who has been helping them increasingly, changes an appointment he has to bring Art and Sandy upstate.
Marcus pulls the Robbins’ car up to the front of their apartment building. Rosie is so weak she can’t climb up to the back seat on her own.
They bring Rosie to their Golden’s Bridge house and yard to give her one final opportunity to take a walk in her favorite place. Rosie cannot even get out of the car.
While Sandy and Art stay with Rosie at the vet, Marcus digs a grave in the Robbins’ yard for Rosie, right next to where Max, their last dog, is buried.
They made the decision to put her to sleep and bury her in one day.
In the days and weeks that followed Rosie’s death, her absence felt gaping.
“It’s amazing how much space an animal actually takes. Even though Rosie was a very quiet dog and was an easy dog, she was very loving. It’s always amazing how you can feel the absence of either an animal or a person,” Sandy says.
“It is what happens when you take an animal into your heart. Many people don’t commit themselves to love. Real love comes with pain.”
Nearly a year since we have met her, Sandy has decided that she needs to involve her board more strongly to guarantee a transition to new leadership for the theater. The year, with all of its drama, has also shown her that she will continue to do this work as long as she can.
Carol Prud’homme Davis, the theater’s managing director, says she has become more patient over the past year in understanding how much work a transition will take.
“I think that Sandy is probably the most knowledgeable person, at least in the United States, in shadow puppetry. I think her legacy is that she is an innovator and a visionary, which to me is much larger than Shadow Box and much larger than a title at Shadow Box,” she said. “If we can do what we need to do for a transition, where we keep the integrity of the mission, if we can do that, it will be amazing. Otherwise we just keep working, do as much as we can do as long as we can do it.”
Preparing to put on “Little is Big,” a show the Shadow Box Theatre hasn’t done in several years, requires weeks of Sandy’s full attention. There are auditions and disappointments when a cast member drops out just as rehearsals are about to start. There is new equipment to be bought. And there are rehearsals to teach the show to an almost entirely new cast.
Bookings for the show, to be performed in November and December, have come in slowly, but Sandy is hopeful more classes will sign on as the school year is underway. The theater’s two-person storytellings and workshops are in process all around the city.
Even though Sandy hasn’t been feeling well, she is as focused as ever during rehearsal. Watching the first full run through of “Little is Big,” she stands in the back of the theater and takes detailed notes on her note pad in the dark.
Every time the actors ask for a reply from the imaginary audience, Sandy yells back enthusiastically. When the audience is told they must sing to get the fish to appear again, Sandy sings loudly.
When Kristina Beechers, principal of P.S. 3 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, both the oldest school in New York City and where the Shadow Box Theatre rehearses, stops by, Sandy greets her like an old friend. Kristina says that the arts and partnerships like the one they have with the theater are definitional to their school.
Greg Alexander, a blues and folk musician, has been working for the theater and Sandy for 25 years. He is now its musical director. During the rehearsal for “Little is Big,” he says that every year it is a worry whether the theater will make it, but it somehow pulls through.
As the weather gets colder, Art and Sandy are going to intentionally close up their house in Golden’s Bridge for the first time and not return until spring.
“We need a super who shovels the snow. We need a taxi service,” Art said. “I can’t walk on the streets. The need of a car is difficult. That’s a real loss for us. The logistics in the winter are formidable.”
Art and Sandy are also facing the likely, and more troubling, long-term prospect that after they die none of their children or grandchildren will keep the Golden’s Bridge house, and it will be sold to someone else.
For both of them, but particularly for Sandy, this is hard. She wants to add a clause in their will that the family can rent the house for five years and then maybe one of the grandchildren, a bit older, will want it.
“You have this house that you love so much and no one wants it,” Art said. “When you die, you put the toys in a box, and it’s over folks. They are just toys.”
Sandy does not like talking about this topic.
“I can do this (Art opens his palm) and Sandy does this (Art closes his fist),” Art says.
In the coming months, Sandy believes she may have to have surgery to insert a pacemaker, as her heart has been even more erratic than usual. One day, during a recent medical test, her heart rate was as low as 41 beats per minute and in the next days it could go as high as 110. It was only prevented from going higher because she is on medication.
“I work very hard. I work very long hours and somehow I don’t believe that I need to rest. I also know what is normal for me, and this exhaustion is not normal,” Sandy said.
In October, with the news of the prospect of surgery and Rosie’s death still fresh, Sandy acquired an infection, after she had a growth removed from her arm. This seemingly minor procedure landed Sandy in the hospital for several days and left her feeling weak for weeks.
While in her hospital bed, exhausted, emailing, making phone calls for the theater and resting, she was most concerned about Art, whom she hadn’t spent a night away from since her last hospital stay more than two years ago.
“I really can’t leave Art alone. It makes me nervous as hell,” she says.
“He’s a rather independent soul. I told him, ‘All you have to do is fall.’ He said, well the phone will be near me. I said, ‘How will the phone be near you?’”
Art refused to have their children or grandchildren stay with him while Sandy was in the hospital, confident that he would be fine and wanting his space. At Sandy’s urging, he allowed Marcus to stay.
A week later, on a late Friday afternoon in the Robbins’ apartment, Sandy is back home. The fall sun is setting over the Hudson River from their kitchen and living room windows. Art’s therapy groups are done for the week and Raymond Todd is finishing up his work in the theater’s office.
Friday afternoons are typically when Art and Sandy pack up to go to Golden’s Bridge, but this weekend, they will instead stay in the city to rest and regroup. Their granddaughter Kayla is going to come to spend time with them and help them for the weekend.
This afternoon, Art went outside by himself to run an errand. His return is announced by his walker wheels slowly squeaking through the apartment’s foyer.
Art enters the kitchen with a dozen roses balanced in his walker basket.
“That’s beautiful! What are we celebrating?” asks Sandy, her face lighting up. “You are celebrating that I’m home?”
When asked about how he handled the time while Sandy was in the hospital, Art is full of truth guised in humor.
“She was being a pain in the ass. I certainly wouldn’t want you to get more upset, so I had this guy (Marcus) come here who snored as I walked the house. He slept so deeply, if the house was on fire, I’d have to shake him. But if it made you feel better that he was sleeping here, fine,” Art said.
“I thought, you know, somehow like a mother, you listen for your child to cry, that he was listening,” Sandy said.
“He would hear nothing,” Art said.
And Art’s dreaded compression socks, which Sandy takes on and off for him daily?
“He did help. And sometimes I didn’t take them off and left them on. Sometimes Elizabeth helped. I had various people help.”
“Good,” Sandy said.
“You see, I’ll survive,” Art said.
“But you were very glad I came home,” Sandy said.
“You are goddamn right. You broke our contract.”
Art says that needing and accepting support has been extremely challenging for him, as a man used to independence. When his children suggest getting some type of home attendant, he shrugs it off.
“I don’t need someone there too often. Ninety percent of the time I wouldn’t want them around or near me,” he said. “I need my wife in the middle of the night to massage my legs, to put on those damn compression socks. I can still get myself dressed. She has to drive me places. I resent that. It is a constant conflict of dealing realistically with what you need and not being regressed by it. Thank God, I’m in a profession where I can work and get stimulation and autonomy.”
Art says that others have suggested assisted living to them, but he resists it vehemently, largely because they love their lives as they are.
“The whole idea of bingo at 3, movies at 4. No. And then I think about other people who go to the early bird special in Florida. Save me from the early bird special. These are awful solutions.”
For now, their informal network of care and continuing their life, as they always had has still worked.
“So far we’ve been avoiding all of these solutions and making the best of it.”
The sun is now down. Sandy puts the flowers that Art purchased in water in a vase in their kitchen sink. Art uses a gripper tool to reach some grapes that have fallen on the floor. They are both happy for the quiet weekend together at home.
Art puts his arm around Sandy and gestures to the vase.
“Can you think of a better flower, than a rose for Rosie?”
Sandy begins to tear up.
“I didn’t even think of that,” she says.
She leans on his shoulder and gives him a kiss.
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