by Sanjay Talwani
November 27, 2012
A man on his deathbed smells delicious chocolate-chip cookies baking. He makes it out of bed and crawls downstairs to the kitchen, where he sees the cookies cooling on the table.
He reaches up for one, only to have his wife smack his hand away.
“Don’t touch them!” she says. “They’re for your funeral!”
That’s one of many jokes Fritz Behr has told Dr. Justin Thomas at the St. Peter’s Hospital Cancer Treatment Center lately. Behr visits the oncologist on Tuesdays, and has promised to bring two jokes with him at each appointment.
“It’s like ‘Tuesdays with Fritzie,’” Behr said, alluding to “Tuesdays With Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson,” a 1997 book about a young man’s visits with his dying former college professor.
Behr, 79, has a big repertoire of jokes and also has stage four cancer. A tumor was removed from the back of his tongue about a year ago and he refused follow-up radiation therapy.
About 36 days ago, he decided not to eat, which he could do only with great difficulty anyway.
Now he spends his days at home, with plenty of visitors. He said he feels no hunger or pain, although he smells food and sometimes dreams of it.
“I got no regrets,” he said. “I’m as happy as a clam.”
He didn’t expect to make it to Thanksgiving but enjoyed it at the home of his daughter, Lorraine Formaz, and her husband, Pete. Fritz sipped coffee.
“The doctors tell me you can live for months without eating, if you drink enough water,” he said. “It’s amazing.”
Behr came from Nazi Germany to New York City at age 8, and became a patrolman with the New York Police Department back when officers, if they weren’t in a car with a radio, communicated via call boxes on the street.
He ascended the ranks, eventually overseeing hundreds of officers throughout all five boroughs in various tasks.
His life changed on Sept. 11, 1976. Croatian nationals who had hijacked a plane also planted a bomb in Grand Central Station. Behr was among those injured during the attempt to diffuse it.
“I should have been dead then. The guy over here’s dead,” he said, gesturing as if at a colleague. “The guy over here, his fingers are gone. The guy over here, he doesn’t see so good anymore.”
Shortly thereafter, disability pension in hand, he moved out to Montana on the recommendation of a colleague who had moved to Livingston.
He had earned a law degree in the meantime from St. John’s University (“Right at the top of my class, thank you very much,” he said) and worked for Attorney General Mike Greeley (a Democrat) for more than 11 years, and then in the office of Gov. Stan Stephens (a Republican) where, he said, he sucked up job duties “like a vacuum cleaner,” before retiring again in 1993.
He took up skiing in his 60s. In recent years, he waged a one-man crusade against litter on local roads, particularly in the South Hills, driving a truck with a “Litter Patrol” seal that looked almost official.
Sometime in mid-2011, he began having difficulty swallowing.
He went to a throat specialist, who said he had a sinus infection. Another specialist said he had acid reflux.
Finally his primary care physician, Dr. Don Skillman, recommended he go to the famed Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
There, about a year ago, a doctor diagnosed him correctly: “You have an ulcer on the back of your tongue,” she told him.
A biopsy revealed it was cancer, and surgeons removed part of the base of his tongue.
And so began difficulties with food. He began using a feeding tube, gaining liquid nourishment from “a hanging bag” three times a day, he said.
After about a month at the clinic he was faced with the prospect of radiation therapy. He refused.
Back in Helena, he had continued complications with his throat. He ate through feeding tubes, either through the nose or directly to the stomach.
He’s had “wonderful care” at St. Peter’s Hospital, he said, including therapy to help with speech and swallowing.
He learned to swallow enough to handle pureed foods, and was able to free himself from the feeding tubes.
But every bite, every meal, remained a challenge.
“Angela is an excellent cook. She has worked very, very hard to accommodate me and nurse me,” he said. “But all that pureed food looked awful. Didn’t taste that good either.”
After consulting with doctors and Angela, he decided he didn’t want to go through the hassle of eating anymore. Angela said she supports his decision, although he tends to make his own decisions in any case.
“I’m not interested in prolonging my life,” he said. “I’ve had a long and interesting life.”
In addition to family in the Helena area, he has a son in Arizona. Another one died about 17 years ago at age 30, Behr said.
That son, he said, was an alcoholic and drug addict who squandered opportunities at Carroll College and died of AIDS, while Fritz held his hand.
“I told him, when he couldn’t breathe anymore, ‘Let it go, Fred, let it go,’” he said.
There are lots of tragedies in everyone’s life, he noted, and lots of wonderful things.
He’s especially thankful for the care from St. Peter’s, in particular the hospice care. A nurse comes a few times a week to check on him and see if he needs anything.
He’s made arrangements for his funeral. Mediterranean Grille will be catering it, and some friends say they’re going to play bluegrass music.
He’s on just a few medications, including a painkiller he takes sparingly.
Among the medals, badges and plaques honoring his police work is a frame with three documents: A Nazi-era passport, with a picture of 8-year-old Fritz and a red “J,” for being Jewish; a certificate of naturalization, with a photo of Fritz in early adolescence, marking his American citizenship; and another certificate from the German government, issued just last year, officially reinstating his German citizenship.
“I got to come to this country, I got to be of service in New York and Montana,” he said. “What could be better?”