My friend Benno Schreiber
I write about Benno because someone needs to. I worked with him for about 4 ½ years. He became my friend. He is unforgettable. What a wonderful human being.
I met him in 2006. My friend Shelley called me and said she had someone who could really use my help, and could pay my price without complaint. She told me that more than anything he needed organizing.
Benno lived in Innwood, in the same apartment building as Shelley. So, I drove in from Beacon as I often did whenever I visited Shelley. We went to his apartment, #3C. Benno greeted us, and I walked with him as he showed me around his 3-bedroom apartment where he had lived for almost 40 years with his wife and daughter. He now lived there by himself.
Physically, Benno was a short man, perhaps only a few inches taller than I am. He had that widow’s hump. He was bent over. Because of this, all his belongings, paperwork, whatever had his attention, were strewn about the floor in a path meandering through the entire apartment. It was like a labyrinth. This was his system.
I had been in the business of redesign. I’d go to people’s homes and offices and redo their space. Make it work. I had been working with an interior designer and stylist. If a client’s budget was under $20,000, we would be hired as a team to revamp their home. I also had many private clients, and Benno became one that day. He was the only person I continued to work with, actually became an advocate for. He became someone I cherished, protected and I made sure that under my watch, he would live a life that he designed.
He had this open area like hallway that ran along the middle section of the apartment. There was a desk, and this is where we sat side-by-side putting his life in order. I said to Benno, “what should we do?” He answered me in his strong German accent, “You’re the organizer Andrea, you tell me.” So I started to go through papers, looking for what was most pressing. I discovered 5 active cell phones, 2 cars, both with a multitude of outstanding parking violations, and months of bills that required attention. There were legal documents, lawyer statements, German pensions, cards regarding his wife’s passing the year before. And then, there was the daughter. There were files and files on her.
I sat Benno next to me. I told him that I would make phone calls that were going to require his presence. I did not know his stamina. We sat together for about 6 hours that first day. He sat patiently. Informing me on the pertinent stuff. Paying bills, cancelling services, taking care of business. We finished the day with a trip to his favorite diner. Benno, Shelley, myself, and a couple who had been very close and important to him for many years. In Benno style, he footed the bill. He was so generous.
That is how it went for some time. Week one was full-time. All day at Benno’s, then I spent the nights at Shelley’s.
I don’t recall how long it took to put things in order and relieve Benno of the burden of loose ends and loads of unfinished business, but we were really making progress.
What emerged was a lot of clarity for him around how he wanted to live now. He had let so many things accumulate that he had been unable to make decisions. We were now making decisions daily. He was beginning to stand straighter. Shelley was giving him reiki, grooming him by cutting his hair, shaving him, giving manicures, and pedicures. I was asking the questions, making the calls, and acting on his behalf. He had a new system.
Finally, enough had cleared, some trust was emerging and we were getting down to what was bothering him. His apartment was in order, he had one cell phone, I was negotiating the parking tickets, one of the cars was sold, and the other was gifted.
Now what? What do you want, Benno?
He was considering having his daughter move back in. Her stay in a facility was coming to a close. Where was she going to live? Her actions had put her there. There had been a lot of trouble, which Benno had accepted. Too ashamed to seek help, he and his wife had always let things play out. Now it was coming up again. Shelley and I had a pow wow with him and we called the facility where Gene, his daughter was staying. They were talking quite naturally that Gene would be coming back to live with him. Oh god. It terrified Benno. We knew that, and we asked them to hold on, that we’d get back with them on Monday. We sat again with Benno. Are you sure? No, no, no he wasn’t. She should stay, be fully admitted. This way she’d get the daily care she needed. Surely that would prove more secure and stable for her. It was hard for him to admit it, but it was the truth.
What did he want?
He wanted to move. He wanted to live in the Atria assisted living center in Innwood. Great. By now, I was aware of his expenses as well as what money came in every month. He was caught up. Assisted living would support him, and his finances would allow him to live in that manner. Another decision made. Benno would move. By virtue of that decision his daughter would stay where she was. The niece was coming in. She would arrive shortly. She was coming to assist this next step. Thinking that Gene would be coming back to the apartment to live with Benno was partly her idea. It was Friday evening, and Shelley and I left a very uneasy Benno. He must have felt the challenge of having to defend his own position. Saturday morning I got a call. Benno was in the hospital.
He had 2nd degree burns on his body
But how did this happen? His niece’s husband found him Saturday morning in the bathtub. Although he had gotten up to go the bathroom around 2 a.m. and heard Benno in there, he had gone back to bed. It appears Benno had had a heart attack. Had had difficulty adjusting the hot and the cold faucets. What came first no one knew for sure. We all knew the hot water faucet in Benno’s bathtub ran scaulding hot. At any rate Shelley told me all she could, and I waited until Monday to go in and be a part of this very unfortunate situation. Shelley and I could hardly believe what was happening. We knew Benno was uneasy, but his life was starting to shape up for him. It was like he felt he didn’t deserve it.
Before going to the hospital I went to the apartment to find the power of attorney documents that I had discovered, which had been drawn up at an earlier date by Benno’s lawyer. I called a meeting at the hospital. Benno’s niece, Susan was still in town, the neighbor, Bryan was there, and I arrived to come to a decision on Benno’s behalf. We all sat around his bed and I said just like the sun will come up tomorrow that Benno needs a power of attorney, and who is it going to be. Benno decided he wanted both Susan, and Bryan. Fair enough. Next bit of business: the doctor wanted Benno to have open-heart surgery. Benno didn’t want it. Everyone agreed. I submitted the paperwork confirming the two power of attorney’s. Shelley, who had been a faithful care-taker on her own time, continued to be there for Benno. His decision now, to heal his wounds and to ignore the urging of the doctor to open him up. He would live his life out as long as his heart would allow.
We cleaned, and cleared the apartment. Had a sale, services picked up any remaining items. We made arrangements at Atria. Benno was on the mend. He was also concerned about his daughter. It was time to have the difficult conversations with her on the phone about what he had decided. Meanwhile we were there to pick up the pieces and make sure this man was going to spend whatever time he had left in a very nice assisted living center of his choosing.
Benno was born December 21, 1919 in Germany. He was a Jew. His natural gift in life, besides being a fabulous guy, was his voice. He was a cantor. He always loved singing. In his early 20’s, right about the time he was beginning a career as a cantor, he was put into a concentration camp. He and his brother were the only survivors from his family. They were both on one of the first 4 ships that sailed to New York transporting holocaust survivors at the end of the war. He met Beatrice on the pier when he arrived in New York who became his wife. Benno got a job making soft-sided luggage. He and Beatrice had their daughter Gene, who if she were born in this time would likely have been diagnosed and treated in a mental health facility. Benno worked hard for his family. He also had a knack for money. He finally started receiving a pension from the German government after relentlessly pursuing his rights to it as a holocaust survivor. I was privy to tons of papers that described his journey. He bought bonds, invested well, and had created a sound retirement for himself and his daughter. By the time I met Benno, all I had to do was unearth these gems, find out what he wanted, and do my best to straighten out a very disheveled life after his wife’s passing.
Shelley and my part
Shelley and I had always wanted to film him, and create a documentary. Life happened, we didn’t document him, but we experienced him.
Around 11 a.m. January 2011 Benno passed away taking his morning nap. He had a heart attack in his room in the Atria. A place he had called home for 4 years, where he sang his heart out to the staff and guests regularly.
I met Benno in the summer of 2006, and was a part of his life until he passed. I wrote this today out of my own urge to complete some things in my life. This month of May 2013, I have been quietly letting anything come to the surface that needs my attention. I am moving on to a very new life just as Benno had. It feels right to honor him. In theory, Shelley who is my friend was really my client, and Benno our mission. I honor Shelley, her heart, courage and commitment. Benno had called us his angels. We called ourselves Team Benno. It’s easy to do what it takes when the aim is clear and you have a team. This brief article sticks to the facts, but there were a ton of laughs. We had thought about what may have happened had we not entered his life. Likewise for myself, it feels right to remember the part I played with him. I’ve been in the first year of my own business and have moments where I question just what I offer. I am a fierce advocate when I need to be. I find that it’s a powerful exercise to examine what needs completing, and do what it takes to do so. Many gems will then surface.
Here’s a video of him from Christmas 2010 just a few weeks before he passed on. Shelley and I celebrated with him with homemade pate, sweet wine, and singing.