Villa Marie Claire

Hot Dogs, Cars and Polka Music

Chuck Mihalik was craving some deep-fried eats from Rutt's Hut, the last hot dog mecca in Clifton. Although he was living in a residential hospice center, he felt well and he longed for another meal from the place where he and his wife always enjoyed.

Like so often during his 82 years of life, Chuck tackled the problem head-on. He offered to buy dinner for the entire staff at Villa Marie Claire, if only someone would arrange for him to get the fat-fried dogs. A staff member immediately reached out to Rutt's Hut, which in turn, donated the night's feast.

"Uncle Charlie was a frequent flyer over there and was craving their hot dogs and hamburgers," said Michelle Rodgers, Chuck's niece, who always referred to him as Uncle Charlie. "When the food got there, he was delighted. He said even the smell of it made him happy. I think it brought back a lot of memories."

Bringing joy to people in their last stages of life is what staff members at the Villa strive to do each day. Despite the erroneous belief that hospice is just for people several hours or days away from death, the care given by hospice workers and especially at the Villa, often prolongs living without pain and suffering. It's a time for patients to bond with their loved ones, reminisce, enjoy music or just immerse themselves in the quiet. And yes, for some, to eat hot dogs.

"The staff at the Villa is just outstanding," Michelle said. "The loving compassion and kindness they showed Uncle Charlie was amazing. You know, you hear horrible things about the way some elderly people are treated and I wasn't there all the time, so I asked him when no one was around, 'Are you being verbally abused? Do you feel safe here? You can tell me.' And he said, 'This is the place for me' and smiled. He was very happy at Villa Marie Claire."

Michelle was especially glad to see Chuck happy because it had been a while since she saw him smile. His wife died from an illness in 2015, and for the last several years he desperately missed her and wanted to be reunited. He also lost both of his adult daughters, one before and one after his wife's death.

Before that, Chuck, an executive with a company in Parsippany, built a life for his family that also allowed him time and energy for his other loves – animals, Buicks and boats. He always had pets, dogs and cats whose welfare he often put before his own. He kept a boat on Greenwood Lake for years where he spent many a lazy summer weekend. As for the Buicks, he owned multiple old roadsters, including one that Babe Ruth used to dart about town. He shared his passion for years with fellow members of the Restored Rusty Relics Antique Auto Club.

"Even when he was so sick, his face still lit up when he talked about cars," Michelle said. "And that's what was great about Villa, the staff was there to give him what he wanted – whether it was talking about cars or getting hot dogs – they always tried to make him happy."

Chuck had been diagnosed with rectal cancer and felt he wouldn't survive chemotherapy so he choose to forgo treatment. He was at peace with his decision as well as his choice to go to Villa Marie Claire, Michelle said.

"He chose to die with dignity," she said. "The staff took such good care of him – kept him clean, brushed his teeth, shaved him. I think they might have even given him a haircut.

"And they told me exactly what to expect. I might not have wanted to hear it at the time but I knew what was coming and then I was glad I did. Even when Uncle Charlie wasn't responding anymore, I knew he could still hear us and they played polka music, which he loved. They always spoke to him as a human being, not someone waiting to die."

Chuck went to the Villa in early March 2019 and died on April 18, 2019.

"Uncle Charlie would have given the Villa two thumbs up," Michelle said.