A little tradition, a little Seinfeld and a lot of love.

Dad’s funeral service was really beautiful. 

(At a later time, I would like to share some of the eulogies with the permissions of the speakers.)

We headed out to the cemetery, located along the Long Island Expressway, where New York Jews have bought burial plots for generations. 

SIDEBAR:  The near universality of this practice has come in handy over the years.  I remember when both Mom and Dad were much younger, we had two funerals — one in each of their families. 

As we were rushing from one graveside service in order to be fashionably late to another, I heard my mother say under her breath, “a shtetl in life; shtetl in death.  Thank G-d!”

My father was a veteran and the last of his brothers to die.  We requested a honor guard because we thought it an important tribute not just to Dad, but to the whole generation, and to the ideals for which they fought and to the resulting scars that would never truly heal.

We arrived at the family plot.  The two cadets were waiting there in full uniform and at attention. 

When we were ready, we nodded and one cadet started playing Taps.  As he played, everyone had their hands over their hearts.  Even those at nearby graves.  When a veteran is being buried, respect must be paid.  I know that when I see someone in uniform, I quietly pray that they will go home to their families, safe and sound and in one piece.

I looked at my father’s coffin, draped with the American flag.  His generation went to war.  And they fought so that their children would not ever have to do so again (or so that was the hope). 

Our family has demonstrated our love of country through these five brothers and their children and children’s children.  In every generation, a Shapiro has served in the armed forces.

The sun was shining, and the wind was whipping, and the two cadets folded the flag with such precision that I felt as though our family was about to be given something truly priceless.

The more senior cadet walked to my sister and presented her with the flag, saying:

“On behalf of the President of the United States, ——

SCREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEECH!! STOP THE MUSIC.  CUT!! STOP TAPE!!!!!

WHAAAAAAT? We all stopped.  The spell and majesty of the moment were SHATTERED. 

Then a cousin saved the moment by muttering under his breath (but at the top of his lungs, as is our custom):  “He meant Obama!!!!!”

Ok, we could continue ———

——————— the United States Air Force, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.”

Even with the snafu, the flag is indeed priceless.

And, in that moment, the sad and the beautiful, the creepy, the orange and the inspiring, the funny and the mundane all existed and were inextricably connected, as they are in every moment. 

The rest of the burial went according to tradition.  We shoveled dirt on the grave as a sign of respect in Jewish tradition.  I think we all wanted to shovel more — because of tradition — but at the same time, we didn’t want to bury Dad because we didn’t want him to go.  I think about that conundrum and it haunts me still. 

And I was sad to leave Dad there in the cold but I rationalized that it would be ok because he was next to Mom. 

And he was draped in the flag, although not in the actual grave.  And yet, in life and in death, he was always cradled in the bosom of his family and his country. 

I hope the same end for everyone in this country and, most especially, the members of our armed services who keep the rest of us safe.

 

Lucy and Ethel and Nat

I have mostly stopped blogging out of respect for Dad because the week to week life of an aged man needing 24 hour care is something that is reserved for family, on a need to know basis.  To discuss the details, although helpful to those in similar situations, would have been an indignity to Dad.

But some things are funny and sad.  And they need to be shared if only so we all know that life and death, love and hate, laughter and mourning, all exist at the same time, in every moment of our lives.

BOB (brother of blogger) came home to see Dad on a Friday.  Dad’s joy was unparalleled at having most of his family at the dinner table, even though the rest of BOB’s family was still in Dallas (which is to be expected; they have school, etc.).

Saturday morning, Dad was barely responsive and unable to walk.  We knew this was the beginning of the end.  Except, not quite.  Because Dad is the comeback kid.

Still, we all came running.

At around 7pm, by sheer force of family will, we had Dad in a wheelchair in the living room and drinking wine and toasting life.  But we had to help him sip and then we had to get him back into bed.

But, if this was going to be the end, then our Dad was going to have whatever he wanted.

And, in the days ahead, that amounted to wine and chocolate ice cream.

SIDEBAR:

THIS IS AN IMPORTANT PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT:  Ask your loved ones for their ice cream of choice for end of life/palliative care purposes.  I was surprised that SOB wanted chocolate (I was sure the answer would be vanilla) and that BOB has no preference (I was sure it was strawberry). Avoid the wrong ice cream choice at all costs.  Don’t worry about the meds (other than the “chill” meds).  Worry about the ice cream.  TRUST ME.

By Sunday, BOB was having his first goodbye moment with Dad before he left to fly home to take care of his family.

ANOTHER SIDEBAR: Dad never goes down on any of the first fifty counts.  How else do you think he got to 96.5???  We all knew BOB was coming back before the FINALE.

Monday afternoon, we re-enrolled Dad for hospice.  He had been kicked off of hospice three times because he so far outlived every guestimate.

Tuesday afternoon, the hospice doctor was scheduled to come to examine Dad.  Earlier that afternoon, Dad awoke from 36 hours of total unconsciousness and wanted fruit and ice cream and wanted to get out of bed.

EVEN BIGGER SIDEBAR WITH PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: Death is never as linear, neat or as easy as in the movies.  It is a war of attrition.  At no point is it clear that the elderly or infirm person will die; it is clear however, that the caretakers might kill themselves.  Resist the urge to go out the window.  Close them.  Child locks are best.  Just sayin’.  You eat more and drink more than ever you thought was possible. Go with it.  The gym and the drying-out will have to wait.

So, Dad is being fed ice cream and fruit in the dining room, just as SOB is saying, “he needs to be back in bed before the hospice doctors get here….”

Sidebar:  It was important for the hospice doctors to see him how he was — dying — and not judge him by his “perk” in mild energy and appetite. We needed hospice so that when he died, he would go from our warm embrace to ritual cleansing to burial and there would no interference by EMT or NYPD because that would defile his body.]

DING, DONG.  KNOCK, KNOCK, KNOCK.

OH, SHIT.  THE HOSPICE DOCTORS!!.

SOB slow walks to the door, yelling, “coming!!!!” as I pop a wheelie on Dad’s wheelchair and careen him toward his bedroom.  I stop to get my scarf that is strewn on a chair, because I want the full-on Snoopy “Curse you, Red Baron!!” look.

Janet freaks out — but we need to have flair in these difficult times.

As Janet opens the apartment door, I finish my dash into Dad’s room where his wonderful aide is taking a short break.

“Quick, into the bed!!!!”

“Sorry, Dad, I know this is hard. . . . .” as Heather and I left him and place him on the bed, and then swing his body so that he is lying comfortably.

Dad goes back into his semi-coma before we even get him on the bed.

Heather and I barely assume our places in the chairs in Dad’s room before the hospice doctors come in.  But everything is like a movie set.  If this were the 1950s, we would be casually smoking cigarettes, as Dad is resting comfortably.

SOB looks at Heather and me and mouths, “strong work.”

The doctors note Dad’s strong pulse but acknowledge that hospice is indicated.  And they order all of the appropriate comfort paraphernalia  — from medicine to diapers.

Dad never regained consciousness.

And Lucy and Ethel took their bows.

Lessons from My Father

Dad died peacefully in his bed, with his children around him.

The last of our greatest generation.  The last of the generation who grew up in poverty, fought in the wars that American won, worked hard and, with the help of the GI bill and public education, lived the American Dream.

And, most of all, Dad was a good, kind and loving man.  And, as the rabbi said, he was an extraordinary, ordinary person, who felt so fortunate in life and was always ready to share with others less fortunate.

The Shiva candle burned for a week.  That final day, I watched as the flame flickered and weakened.  I was scared that I would lose Dad as soon as that candle went out.  As the day wore on and the candle was finally extinguished, I knew that I needed to make sure that the best of Dad lived on in me.

And he was a whole lot nicer than I am.

Today, I was on the subway heading to work, and torturing myself with reading my siblings’ beautiful eulogies and listening to Ode to Joy (Himno de la Alegría), which I played for Dad in his last days.  Ok, not Jewish, but I wanted Dad to leave this world with stirring music. (I also played Psalms as is our tradition).

I got off at my stop (Penn Station) and walked quickly to the staircase.

There was a man blocking the staircase.  Everyone, including me, was exasperated that he was slowing us down.

But, I felt Dad put his now immortal hand on my shoulder, and I looked more closely at the man.  He had a cane and looked far too enfeebled for his age.  He looked like the many of the people in Penn Station — a little shabby and a lot down on their luck.

And I could tell he could not figure out how to manage his suitcase while negotiating the stairs with a cane.

“Sir, please let me be of assistance,” I said more as a statement than a request.

He looked at me, somewhat suspiciously and then somewhat relieved.

“Let me carry your suitcase down the stairs right behind you.”  He nodded.

We descended the stairs at his pace.  Many people behind us were sighing loudly in frustration. I didn’t care.  Even though a few minutes earlier, I was one of them.

We reached the landing and he looked unsure how to get out of the subway labyrinth and into Penn Station.

I pointed him in the right direction, but realized that there were more stairs, so I took the suitcase and deposited at the top of the stairs, so when he finished climbing them, the suitcase would be waiting for him.

At that point, I think he was getting uncomfortable with my help.  And I also knew that there were no more stairs until he had to board his commuter train.  So, I directed him and shook his hand and wished him a safe trip.

I dedicate these moments of kindness to my Dad because while the candle’s flame went out, the example of his life is not extinguished.

I love you forever, Dad.

Dear Hillary

Dear Hillary:

I know you will never read this.  And, why would you, since you are feeling the sting of the election more than anyone.

I believe in you.  People excused the egregious in Trump and skewered the human in you.  We all have our failings and our embarrassments.  You were ready, committed and the most able steward of our country in these treacherous times in these treacherous waters.

Pundits will analyze the reasons you didn’t hit 270 but all that is bullshit.

The excesses of Wall Street that brought our nation to its knees was short-lived by those who caused it; those who suffered the job and home losses, coupled with outsourcing, etc., never recovered.  And then, a Black family — who truly embodies all that makes America great — successfully inhabited the White House and got done what they could with a recalcitrant Congress. And, let’s be honest, they did it better than any white family could have ever navigated the shit that hit January 2009 to January 2017.

And that made the racist and those fearing the end of white privilege foam at the mouth.

Not understanding that view, I didn’t even count it in the election calculus.  (Many of my friends knew better.)

Together with those who were left behind in the financial recovery, the DEPLORABLES voted in that creature.  So, they effectively bombed our system.  People who wanted to stick it to Washington and didn’t care about the outcome.

(And the Democrats were contemplating their navels instead of creating an intractable blue wall.  You ran a fine campaign and won the popular vote.  Bernie would have been buried under the scrutiny of a prime time election.  A socialist and a lifelong politician and he was different? Are ya kidding me?)

So, they excused the inexcusable.  And with the help of the Russians and FBI, gas-lighted the country about your emails.  Let’s just say it — the State Department system was not secure enough for the sensitive emails you needed to send.  You served your country by not saying that in your testimony.

So, a woman, who also embodies all that makes America great and has served her country, was denied the White House.

No, you are not perfect. (You shouldn’t have ever had to be. ) No one is; certainly NOT POTUS45.

I am still inconsolable.  I had 300 wristbands made that say “WE ARE STRONGER TOGETHER” and inside, “Love Trumps Hate”.  (I hand them out.) 

I stopped watching the pundits.  I stopped looking on social media.  I stopped believing the press.

Then the dreaded moment happened.  He was sworn in.  And I couldn’t even watch you walking in (ok, I saw a snippet and cried and stopped watching).  Grace under fire.

But the marches changed everything.  Because we are uniting.  I am ready to fight.

The DC march should have been in your honor.  Because we are all galvanized and united in action because the person who should have been POTUS45 had to watch as this buffoon, this humiliating caricature of the worst of America, took the oath of office.

Hillary, you didn’t win the electoral college, but you won the popular vote and started a revolution.

Maybe, in the long lens of history, you will have done more for us by not ascending to the Presidency.  We will never know.  But, I, for one, am committed to making your vision a reality.  (Although, seriously, do I have to call it a pussy hat in front of my teenage son???)

I predict that the history books read, “Hillary Clinton was the first woman elected President.  She was not sworn in.  Instead, she sparked a revolution that created the change she envisioned implementing as president — equal treatment and equal justice under the law; social and economic equality; compassion for all our citizens and immigrants; and a nuclear-safe world.  She is considered a great stateswoman and a hero of the 21st century.”

On Saturday, I marched with my family and friends. My sister and I carried pictures of our mother and grandmother with us at the march, and we wore your campaign buttons.

#ImStillWithYou.

Love, Blogger

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.

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?”

“ITZ”

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.

Silence.

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.

DO NOT SAY IT. BUT, YES, YES, I AM.

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.