Standing on your head matters

Dad is not “right” as you all know.

In the midst of a crazy conversation before lunch one recent Saturday, I decided to show him and Heather, his home attendant, how far I have gotten in my new goal: a hand stand.

I interrupted Dad’s crazy talk, and in quintessentially child-like manner, I said, “Look at me!!” and I did a facsimile handstand facing a wall.

“What in the hell are you doing?  You could hurt yourself!”

I peeled myself down in shock. 

Dad, as if snapped back into the present, was being my Dad.

The sheer shock factor brought him back.

Next goal: The tight rope from the Freedom Tower to the nearest high building.

If it doesn’t kill Dad, it may make him sane again.

The Holy Father and what I learned on Yom Kippur

I know, it is odd for me, a veritable caricature of a New York Jew, to restart my blog with a reference to Pope Francisco.

These have been odd days.  I haven’t written much because much has been the same or, in my father’s case, declining in an incremental and mundane manner.  (My siblings and I have resorted to an Olympic point system for the daily insanity/dementia status, as if it were a gymnastics events.  BOB (brother of blogger) is the former USSR, with low marks.  I am the USA, with high marks. SOB (sister of blogger) is Belgium or Switzerland, splitting the difference.)

On Yom Kippur, certain things resonated with me.

First, debunking a myth.  Jews fast for 26 hours on Yom Kippur.  If one has an easy fast, then supposedly he or she has been righteous with little need to repent.  The obverse is also true, a difficult time fasting (hunger, headaches, fainting) means one has to atone for really bad stuff.  As in, when we recite how we will die, “who by fire, who by flood, who by beast . . . .”, you ought to start praying for the quick and painless.  I had a relatively easy fast (ok, I had a cup of coffee), and I soooo had stuff to repent for.  So, midway during the fast, I knew that, easy fast be damned (ooops another sin), I should start praying for death by wild beast because it is a quick bite to the jugular and then they eat you.  No pine box needed.

Second, maybe G-d who doesn’t care if people believe in G-d.  Our rabbi believes in such a G-d.  Believers and non-believers alike can atone and lay off the yolk of sin, for themselves or before G-d, whichever.  What matters is that one owns one’s sins, resets one’s inner compass toward that which is good, right and noble.  And then keeps sinning but amortizes it with good deeds.  (Ok, the latter part is the Blogger Corollary.)

Finally, a person’s essential goodness can shine through all of the divisions and barricades that we humans erect to separate us from each other. I am thinking of the Holy Father.  I have read about the Pope and (here comes ANOTHER Yom Kippur sin . . . ) I watched the Pope address those assembled at the White House before going to shul.  I saw him greet well-wishers.  I have read about his opening his home to the poor, the hungry and the outcast.  And I have heard him take on the pressing issues of our time.

While I don’t agree with some of his views (seeking to limit some access to contraception under Obamacare comes to mind), I think his message is essentially to love life, do good, care for the stranger and walk humbly on this earth.

As I walked to synagogue, the Pope’s message stayed with me.  Aren’t these the universal precepts of our common humanity?

And I thought, he is rightly called the Holy Father.  (This coming from a Jew who has invoked G-d, Jesus and Moses in unholy ways.)

I could actually believe in a G-d who doesn’t care if a person doesn’t believe in G-d or in the G-d of Jews.  People of all faiths can be holy through their hearts, souls and by their examples.

G-d bless Pope Francisco, the Holy Father of his faith.


What Did Grandpa Know and When Did He Know It

Dad’s world is closing in.  He can understand some things.  But, he no longer tries to understand the intricacies of his care, his insurance, etc.  He refers any material matters to his children.  I think that is freeing for him, even as it is an admission — a resignation — that he can’t navigate the bigger world anymore.  We are here to catch him before he falls.

But at my son’s Bar Mitzvah, when he slowly came to the Bimah and — relying decades’ old some-kind-of-muscle memory — chanted the prayers before my son read Torah, I imagined that Dad understood that his grandson was being called to Torah as a Bar Mitzvah.  Linking the past with the present.  From generation to generation.

My son did a magnificent job, by all accounts (including mine).

Dad was in and out of reality during the day. He enjoyed dancing at the reception, as always, cutting up the floor.

But did he understand what happened?  Did he understand that his grandson accepted his birthright to become a Bar Mitzvah? To hold the Torah and read from it?

In my mind, I said, “Of course, Dad knew!”

But I had no idea.

Then my son said to me, days later, “Grandpa didn’t understand what happened at my Bar Mitzvah, did he?”

“Dude, I think he did, in moments, but I am not sure that he always understood.”

Silence. Resolution. Generational connection lost.  I could feel it in my son’s look and posture.  I felt a desperation to keep the connection alive.

Today, I asked his health aide (who was with him at the Bar Mitzvah), “Tell me for real, FOR REAL, did Dad understand what was happening at the Bar Mitzvah?”

“Well, this week, he told the visiting nurse how his grandson read from Torah so beautifully!!  Some days the light is on and others he is a little in the dark.  But he knew it then and sometimes he knows it now.”

And that is all I need.  I hope it is enough for my son.

A prayer for my son on his Bar Mitzvah

The rabbi told me we needed to bless my son on his becoming a Bar Mitzvah, so, my voice trembled as I gave him this blessing:

My dearest child:

You are a young man now.

Where does the time go?

And you have your own mind about things. I remember when you were 6 years old and you said, “I have to disagree with you, Emom”. And I said, “no, no, I don’t think that ever needs to happen.”

Well, you are a young man now.

NOW, you can disagree with me, but you will still be WRONG.

I admire so much in the person you are already and three things in particular that I think will form the person you will become:

Your insatiable curiosity and quest for learning about people and the world – near and far, existing and ancient. From the Mughals of Middle Age India to today’s German Muslims learning about the Holocaust.

From every fact I never knew to every one I have already forgotten.

Your boundless imagination – it is a place where the impossible is routine and miracles happen.   You are able to see the world in ways unconstrained by the so-called common wisdom and societal strictures.

You see unending possibilities where others see insurmountable road blocks.

Your gentle heart – this is truly the treasure of you.

It is what makes you, you.

Yes, you will have your own mind about the world, and it will be guided by your curiosity, imagination and heart.

May they guide you on a meaningful life journey filled with joy, with wonder, with hope, with laughter and with peace.

I love you more than you can ever know.

True North On the Road to Siberia

I have been generally quiet these past few months about Dad.  Out of respect for him and his privacy.

But, let’s be honest: a mouth as loud as mine can only be still for just so long.

Today’s events are par for the course for so many of us.  We try to preserve our parents’ dignity, by putting cash and credit cards in their pockets and remotely monitoring the financial doings, ready to step in at any sign of trouble.  We also hire lovely, underpaid people to handle our parents so that we don’t have to give up our lives to care for them.  One such lovely person left Dad alone for 10 minutes while she changed over the laundry.  He didn’t leave the apartment (thank G-d) but when she came back, he was on the phone giving his credit card number to someone.

REALLY, Dad?  Really, Heather?  Heather, can you just take him with you to the laundry room?  Dad, could you just speed dial your children instead of handing over personal information to anyone who calls?

Ok, Heather invokes the Blogger family data breach protocol, which means she calls the daughter least likely to curse, but also least likely to know what to do.  And that sends the cell towers buzzing.

Ring, ring, ring, on my cell.  “Hey, [SOB — sister of blogger]!” trying to sound cheery even though I know that a call during the day at the office cannot be good.

Ok.  So, Heather calls my sister who calls me.  I decide not to call my brother, BOB, because, while creating a national frenzy has some appeal (he lives pretty far away), I have the information to handle the data breach.  And why give another person indigestion?  [BOB, sorry you are reading this on my blog, but if I told you, in real time, you would have (rightfully) invoked Blogger family LOCKDOWN protocol, and that would have really sucked.  Besides, I am redecorating the bunker.]

First credit card:  only an endless loop of robotic voices.  But I got it cancelled in less than 20 minutes.

I know what you are thinking, Blogger is a rock star.  She is making this elder care seem like a walk in the park.  And I am so feeling the need to put on my sunglasses on a cloudy day in New York.

Second credit card:  Same company.  This time a real person.  Whoa.  This will be a cake walk.  I need darker shades because my light is so bright.

“I am sorry, but your information appears nowhere on this account.”

“I have power of attorney.  I have had it for years.”

“I am sorry but we need your father on the line.”

After much back and forth about the information on the customer service computer screen and the facts of life, I conference in Dad.

It was the crazy ordeal you would expect.  Heather got on the phone to make sure it was ok that Dad was talking on the phone about his credit card.  [SOB, she redeemed herself.]  Dad did what he needed to do and then hung up.

“Ok, we can cancel this card and issue a new card, but I will have to ask you a few questions.”

I am soooo ready for this. Sunglasses on. Check.

“What are the first three letters of your father’s mother’s maiden name?”


Silence.  It had to be right because I used it to cancel the card with robot customer service.

“That is not correct.”

What is this?  F#$%ing JEOPARDY?

“Itzik or Itsik.  It is my grandmother for Goodness sakes!! Itzik  Itzik  ITZIK

Itzikkkkkkkkkkkk. Or it could be spelled with an “s” I suppose,” said I meekly.


And it worked for the efficient robotic customer service that canceled my other [Bank name] card in a snap.

Yep, I threw it down.  Hard.  I can be (sort of) charming and then, presto, like a light switch, not so much.

What am I, an idiot? [DO NOT answer.]

“You will have to answer the following [trick] questions so we can verify that your father’s authorization was really to his daughter and you are in fact his daughter and he is in fact the card holder [and totally mess you up and enjoy doing so].”

“I am not charging anything.  I am trying to cancel something. But, ok, ask.”  I shouldn’t have added that verbal swagger at the end.

What am I, a schmuck? [DO NOT ANSWER.]

“I am sorry but you answered one or more questions WRONG.  I will need to conference in a security adviser.”

Brief hold with bad music.

“M’am, I have another person whose job it is to make your day miserable.  She will need to speak to your father again to authorize this next level of security.”

Are ya kidding me?

“It would be too confusing for him.  Aren’t there super-secret decoder ring-type questions you can ask me?”

“No, m’am.  We need to speak to your father.”

“No, you will not.”  And hung up.

What am I, the stupidest person ever? [DO NOT ANSWER. ZIP IT.  ZIP IT.]

It was too much.  I could not say why I needed to cancel the card.  I was trying to gloss over my dad’s infirmities.  I was trying to protect him.  And me.

So, what did I do?  I threw my phone against the wall and cursed in frustration.


True North

Dad is quite insistent that he needs to decamp and go north for better lodgings.  He has gone so far as to pack a bag.  Out of respect, I don’t look at what is inside. Who am I kidding?  For my sanity, I don’t need to see more evidence of Dad’s profound deterioration.

It could be that he wants to go to the Bronx of his youth.  Or our country house of my youth.  The house in the Berkshires always made Dad happy (we hated schlepping there on the weekends).

Others with deteriorating parents have also remarked on this restless need to be somewhere else.

But, I don’t think it is wistful remembrances of important landmarks.  He fabricates tales of his travel exploits.  Some involve having luggage stolen, getting lost, being at the mercy of people of questionable integrity, etc.  All quite harrowing.

And all profoundly disturbing and distressing for his kids and caretakers.  Dad is not flummoxed in the telling of these tales — like a detached (and unreliable) narrator.

Maybe a metaphor for his descent into dementia.  Maybe he is trying to tell us that he is being robbed of his mind.  That it is being wrestled from him.

And that he is powerless to stop it.

And, Dad, we are powerless, too.

Life Cycle

sc0003369c - Version 2This is a picture of my parents at Jamie’s Bar Mitzvah.  Jamie is my second cousin once removed.  I have seen him three times in my life.  But he and his father, my mother’s first cousin, had special relationships with Mom.  I get that. That Bar Mitzvah was probably a little over 30 years ago.  Don’t Mom and Dad look great?

My son will be called to Torah as a Bar Mitzvah in June.  My mother won’t be there in body.  My dad will be there mostly in body only.

The only child of our Mom’s and Dad’s grandchildren to be called to Torah. And they should be kvelling (filled with pride), standing next to him, making the blessings before he reads from Torah.

I robbed my mother of this moment by having him so late in my life.  Fate robbed me by taking Mom to her grave too early and by taking Dad’s mind from him.

My son’s Bar Mitzvah will be a joyous day but it will be incomplete. Because Mom and Dad will not be there — in the ways I imagined they would be — and I will miss what I imagine as their inevitable tears of joy and pride.

But I know that Dad will labor up the steps to the Bimah, with help.  And he will say the blessings, from memory instilled long ago.  And he will be present, infused by Mom’s spirit hovering over him, as he stands next to his grandson as his grandson reads from Torah.

And, in my mind’s eye, I will see Mom and Dad as they are in the picture.  Vibrant and proud.

And I will cry tears of joy and loss.

Childhood Artifacts

My son is taller than I am.  His voice is much lower.  His feet are big.  I have to get him to deal with the beginnings of a uni-brow.  He will start shaving soon.

He is growing up.  It is wonderful (I say wistfully) to watch him become independent and, well, transform into a young man.

But, then, he threw me a curve ball.

“I think it is time we box up and give away some of my childhood artifacts.”

He is separating from his childhood, like a baby from the placenta. And by saying “childhood artifacts,” I think he is trying to make it all feel less emotional, less big, less close.

“I think the Magic Blanket and Puppy need to go away.”

In my heart I am crying:  “Oh, no, not Puppy the stuffed dog that kept you company at night? And the Magic Blanket that kept you and Puppy safe?”

As if reading my mind, he says:

“You know Puppy isn’t real and the Magic Blanket doesn’t really keep me safe.”

Oh, but they are and they did, Sweetie.  They made you feel safe and secure at night when you were young and the darkness was scary.

RIP Puppy and the Magic Blanket.

The First Spring Day

Although ol’ man Winter tarried in the night (and night after night, week after week, it seemed), Spring came this morning.

(Forgive the bastardization of both a Biblical verse and an old Paul Robeson classic.)

The City was alive today.  If I did not ride the subways everyday, I might be astonished at all of the people who live in this City, who flooded Central Park today.

Flowers are budding. Boom-boxes on full volume. Sheep’s Meadow a sea of people. The promenades alive with children and parents, tourists and citizens.  A veritable celebration of, unquestionably, the first spectacular, sunny and warm day of 2015.

My sister and I walked through the Park, marveling at the City come alive again.

We wondered at warmth and flowers.  And their restorative effects on the soul.  A chance to grow with the flowers — maybe this year, to grow straighter or maybe lilt to a side, but whichever, maybe a little bit happier.

New bursts of energy to last until the lazy days of the long, hot summer.

Resolutions of healthy habits that will be dashed with tonight’s pain of that ill-conceived run or bike ride.

The true rites of Spring.  Rebirth and renewal. And, best of all , ecumenical.  


Beyond Queer

My son turned to me, in a loving voice, and said, “E-Mom, you are my father figure.  I mean that in a good way.  And, if you were younger, I would call you a tomboy.”

There is so much to parse in those sentences.  I, of course, thought, “waaaaait, I am not young?”

If you were to look the historical attributes of “father” — the predominant wage earner, the one who handles “big boy” problems (like girls, budding sexuality and buying Sports Illustrated swim suit editions), the one who works late, and the one who desperately wants to play sports with my son — then I fit.

Except I am not a man.  I am a woman.  And I don’t want to be Ward Cleaver, whether or not my son thought it was a compliment.

I think maybe he was trying to give me legitimacy as a parent in the paradigm of the traditional family, even though I am not a newcomer to him — I was there at conception (a doctor’s office) and present throughout these ensuing 13 years.

It struck me that, while we have seemingly endless vocabulary and theories about gender identity (there are apparently at least six) and sexual orientation (there are so many more than six), our community has not spent as much time or effort on the vocabulary for our queer marriages and families.

So many default to the terms, “wife” and “husband”.  And yet in same-sex families, we know that we don’t one of us called “Mom” and the other called, “Dad”.

I believe that my son was trying to tell me that: (i) I am old, (ii) I have a place, (iii) he struggles sometimes with the non-traditional family structure and may have had to defend his two-mom home, (iv) he is relieved that he can shoe-horn me into something uncomplicated, and (v) he loves me.

Maybe it isn’t vocabulary, but just society lagging behind marriage equality.

But some new vocabulary would help.