The Hilarity In the Darkest Moments

In the last 10 or so conscious days of Dad’s life, he was present in a way that he hadn’t been in more than a year. 

He slept a lot.  And he seemed to dream because he smiled and reached out his arms.  I hoped that he was talking to Mom. 

But when he was conscious or semi-conscious, he was able to respond to our questions and if one of us said, “I love you,” he would respond in kind.

This was a gift to his kids in his final days.  

First, a back story:

BACK STORY:  Cocktail hour (with hors d’oeuvres) was a time-honored tradition in our family.  As old world as that sounds, we are Jews and so it was Jewish all the way — mostly food and a little alcohol.  Scotch was the drink of choice.  And the food was white fish salad, pickled herring, eggplant salad and, in a nod to the “new country,” mixed nuts.  Ok, so some affectations but we never forgot our roots.  In later years, Dad would alternate between scotch and wine.

So in those last days, we celebrated with Dad, as much and as often as was safe.  And we toasted his life.  Unfortunately, the serving set was less than ideal . . . .

So we all had wine together (scotch would have been too hard to handle).  And we hung out in Dad’s room.  (And when he slept, we had MORE.)

About five days before Dad died, when he was essentially unconscious, SOB (sister of blogger) had the brilliant idea to move a mattress in Dad’s room so that the three kids could be right there any case anything happened. 

SIDEBAR:  The usual night aides — wonderful women — helped us change him when needed and mostly slept in another room.

As I was helping SOB move the mattress, I looked at her and said, “You are on the other side of crazy.  And I am even more crazy for helping you.”  SOB nodded in a way that indicated, “true,” and was pleased that I acknowledged the sibling pecking order of — let’s say loosely — “sanity”.

BOB (brother of blogger) wasted no time throwing himself on the mattress and falling asleep.  SOB and I rolled him as necessary to make the bed.  SOB got on the mattress and beckoned me in the middle.

WAIT. STOP.  My brother tosses and turns and my sister wakes up at the slightest noise.  Is this 45 years ago and am I in the middle in the back seat of the car on family trips, feeling nauseated and poked and pinched by BOB?  Are you kidding me? 

“Nah, I just sleep on the comfy floor.”

“Are you sure?  There is enough room.”

“Yeah.  I’m good.”

Over the course of that first evening of Dad’s effective unconsciousness, Dad’s breathing changed to a Cheynes-Stokes rhythm — no breath for an insane amount of time and then four deep breaths.  Repeat, until you almost kill your children.

So, as you can imagine, that first night, SOB is lunging over BOB to check Dad’s pulse while I am watching wide-eyed and scared because Dad is not breathing.  And then he would start breathing again.

At dawn on each of those days, I would pick up my pillow and blanket and go into a different bedroom to sleep a few hours.  SOB would go to Dunkin’ Donuts.  BOB would continue going through photos.  Rinse. Repeat.  Wonder about sedation. FOR US.

And so it went.  And we shifted sleeping places over the nights. Because, we had some sanity left in us.

Dad died at 2:48am on a Friday with his kids around him.  No one pronounces a person dead, like in the movies.  You just watch it.  And let the initial wave wash over you.  And you know that, in the months to come, the waves will wash you up to shore with a mouth of sand while you are struggling to breathe.

Yep, there is pain.  But Dad had a good and long life.  There is no tragedy here.  There is no anger.  There is, in fact, guilty joy for being able to celebrate a long life well-lived.  An embarrassment of riches.

Ok, because I need to bring it back to humorous. 

Here are things I learned:

  • BOTH BOB and I snore.
  • Do not want to get between SOB and any patient.  Every now again I let my head get in the way of her arm reaching to feel Dad’s pulse.  A painful mistake.
  • BOB thinks I pick wine based on the freakiest or stupidest name.  He may be half-right.  My real goal was to make sure when Dad was drinking his last “cocktail”, we were giving him a good send off home to Mom.

And now I have to get all emotional. 

The greatest lessons I learned are:

(i) we siblings need our own bedrooms,

(ii) we have the craziest memories of childhood and they are all different,

(iii) we siblings are in sync in a crisis, and

(iv) SOB and BOB are the finest people anyone could ever hope to meet.

Yes, SOB and BOB are the finest people anyone could ever hope to meet

I am the luckiest person ever.

Looking Around

One hard part of Dad’s death is that, now, there is no human barrier protecting us kids from the Universe. 

There is no one — even in theory — who can hold us, protect us or offer the wisdom of the ages.

We are the older generation.  Ostensibly, the wise ones. 

We were incredibly lucky, our grandparents died and then our parents and their generation.  In order. 

As we learned, in our extended family, too many people have to bury a child or a loved one gone too early.

Even when Dad was declining, he still held our emotional, mythical line between us kids and mortality.

Months and months ago, I had to get Dad on the phone with customer service at a credit card company.  I asked him, “Dad, can you tell the lady on the phone how you are?”

“Dad,” he answered.

Because, no matter where his mind took him and no matter how confused he could become, he was instinctively our Dad.

He always came back to us, almost magically, if he heard one of his children say,

“Dad?”

“Yes, darling?” was his answer.  Always.

Since he is gone, there is no one to whom we can call out, “Mom?” “Dad?” and get a response — at least in this dimension.

And still, sometimes, I sigh, “oh, Daddy . . . . ” 

And wait for a response.

And I know that, for us, any death that lies ahead is unbearable. 

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.

And the band played some more

So Aunt Roz was finally correct.  Her younger sister, Shirley, is dead. 

But if you read http://40andoverblog.com/?p=5014 and http://40andoverblog.com/?p=5029, you will get the idea of the odyssey.

The shunted child of an immigrant generation.  The “not-right” child that was institutionalized.  And forgotten.  And to all who asked, she was “dead”.

But she was, in fact, very much alive.  In state-run assisted living buildings; in state run psychiatric facilities.  Aunt Roz visited her once and put a deposit on a burial fund.  Aunt Roz’s nephew discovered her existence by chance, by going through Aunt Roz’s papers after her death.  He did not let up until he found her.

Shirley is her name.  Shirley.

And then that nephew — my adopted cousin — claimed her as kin.  Which no one had done for over 60 years.   60 years. 

My new-found cousin visited this sister every other week and she started to speak after decades of silence.

Back story:  My cousin is Aunt Roz’s blood nephew; I am not technically related to my aunt because she and my (blood) uncle never married.  Before I had to contact my cousin upon my aunt’s death, I never spoke to him.

Shirley died today. 

But because of my cousin, she did not die as an unknown, unclaimed soul.  She died as a member of a family.

And so, she needed to be accorded the burial and last rites of a family member. And I needed to have her buried next to Aunt Roz so that they can figure it out in heaven (if such a place exists).  My cousin was crying at the funeral home.  Shirley’s ability to reach out to his wife and him and speak, if only in monosyllables, touched his gentle soul.

My cousin is by birth Jewish, but only recently discovered this. I sat with him in the funeral home as we talked through the ritual requirements of burial.  He held my hand so tight, I thought I would lose circulation.

Not because he was scared, but (I think) because he has only begun to discover his lost family and now they are gone.  And he didn’t know what to do with his pain.

Except we are his family.  We are not related by blood or paper.  But by love.

He is my cousin and I am his, his wife’s and his daughter’s.

He was embarrassed that I put out my credit card.  I know that he would pay if he could.  But he can’t.  And it is ok, because I, too, claim Shirley as one of us, if only to bring her out of the darkness and loneliness, and, post-humously, into the bosom of family.  Because that is what I must do and it is a blessing that I can afford to do this.

May Shirley live in our hearts in her death because we did not know her during her life.

Baruch dayan emet.

When the future loss seems real right now

I have chronicled Dad’s decline, and his surprising cameos in reality.

Something has changed.  I couldn’t articulate it until I bumped into SOB (sister of blogger) in the gym locker room.  Because why not discuss our deeply personal business when naked women are blow-drying their hair, I said:

“Something is different with Dad”

“He is winding down.  It is sad.”

“It isn’t just his heart failure —

SIDEBAR: everyone over a certain age is in heart failure.

— have you noticed that he doesn’t annoy us so much anymore?”

We both had a think about that.

Dad was once a maestro at making us nuts.  When Mom was dying, we knew that we would move in and disrupt our lives to care for her.  Dad was different; he was too damn annoying.

Now, we are talking about taking turns staying over (along with his 24/7 care) if necessary.

What is different? 

Dad is now a lovely old, nutty man who has — maximum — two or three habits that make SOB and me nuts.  That’s it.

Wait. 

Whaaaaat?

WHERE IS THE MAN WHO, WITHOUT EXERTING A MUSCLE, COULD MAKE ME NUTS BY TALKING ABOUT THE PRICE OF BANANAS OR COMMENTING LOUDLY ON OVERWEIGHT PEOPLE ON THE BUS? OR COULD BE PASSIVE-AGGRESSIVE WHEN A CAB DRIVER WAS TALKING ON THE PHONE INSTEAD OF ASKING HIM TO END HIS CALL?

Yes, the change.  Dad being Dad as he is now doesn’t make me nuts.  (Dad’s dementia, however, makes me sad, mad and crazy.)

I wished that my father would stop torturing me all these years.  Now I understand the maxim: “careful what you wish for” because the quid pro quo in my case is too heartbreaking.

Thankfully, dementia is not linear.  The old Dad shines through sometimes.  Just this weekend, in advance of Thanksgiving, where we serve brisket instead of turkey, he asked:

“Did you remember to get the lean cut of brisket and did you find someone who knows how to carve it?”

Oh, Dad, the miracle of your annoying ways made my eyes well up when I responded:

“Daddy, I am good at a lot of things, but not carving brisket.  You may have to deal with the usual thick slices, ok?”

Pause.  Silence.  Resignation.  “Of course, darling.”

Ah, the gifts that can light up an evening sky.

Trumpet in the Time of Migraine

I heard he played a good song . . . .

Ok, that is from Killing Me Softly.  A classic song that alludes to a song — not actually sung — that speaks of a woman’s (or every woman’s) hopes, desires and yearnings.

My son is learning to play the trumpet.  I was having a migraine.  We live in a NYC apartment.  “Killing me softly” were not the words that came to mind.

Torturing me screeeeeeechingly, but please kill me quickly.

In truth, my son is getting better (even said the curmudgeonly upstairs neighbor).

But if this be the music of love? (asked someone in a Shakespearan play).

Then stick a sock in it.

Love my child?  Of course.  Every tone that come out of his mouth?  Nah.  I have evolved from the true Yiddisha mama.

 

The truths about roller coaster rides.

The first truth about roller coaster rides is that it can be scary, exhilarating, fun and vomit-inducing, but, at its end, it delivers you to its starting point and you wobble out onto terra firma.

The second truth is that you don’t need to go to an amusement park to ride one.

Thursday began like any other day.  I was late getting to the office for a call with opposing counsel. I didn’t even try to blame the trains.  I emailed him on my subway ride to push back the call 15 minutes.

When I get out of the subway, I receive a text from Dad’s home health aide (HHA).

“Have your sister call me immediately.”

My sister, SOB (sister of blogger] is a doctor.  This is not good.  I call SOB immediately.

SOB, it’s [Blogger], call HHA immediately.  She just texted that she needs to speak with you.  Call me after you speak to her.”

I am shaking.  Is this the day?  I don’t exactly remember the walk to my office.  But as I start to turn on my computer, my ringing cell phone snaps me back.

“It’s [SOB], HHA had to call 911 because Dad is basically non-responsive.”

Is this the day that Dad dies?

SOB and I know that we have to run to Dad’s house before anyone takes him to a hospital, so we can evaluate the situation.  He is almost 94 years old and has told us, again and again, that he wants to die in his bed.  And, unless there was acute pain or discomfort to relieve, being in a hospital is only torture for a person his age.  Old age is old age.  This is not a curable condition.  It is a fact of life.

I run part of the way there.  SOB is still in traffic.   I look at Dad.  He is now alert and comfortable on the gurney.  He knows me and seems relieved I am there.  He has no pain but looks so tired.  He smiles as he does when family walks into the room.  Our embrace is awkward because he is on a gurney.

“Dad, [SOB] is coming any minute and we will figure out whether you need to go to the hospital.”

“Yes, darling.  Let’s wait for [SOB].”

The EMTs tell me all his vitals are good.  Apparently, Dad slumped over at breakfast and HHA couldn’t rouse him.  She literally lifted him and had him lean on her while she got him to his bed in his bedroom.  The EMTs said he was non-responsive when they got there but with a little rubbing on his sternum, he started to wake up.

Dad hovered between life and death and came back to life.

So, TODAY IS DEFINITELY NOT THE DAY.  Still, the crisis isn’t over until the EMTs unstrap Dad from the gurney and they leave his house.

And Dad had mentioned heart disease, so the EMTs want to take him to the hospital.

“Dad is in mild heart failure.  Who isn’t at almost 94?  There is heart disease in his family, but he takes no medications, except an evening scotch.”

And then Dad says:

“They might not get paid if they came all this way and don’t come back with a patient.”

The EMTs smile.  They understand that my father wants to do the honorable thing.  They are also a little confused by his seeming clarity in one moment and his dementia in another. The EMTs wait for SOB to arrive (G-d bless professional courtesy).

Then Dad said:

“Before we go anywhere, I have to say goodbye to my wife.” 

The EMTs look at me and look at HHA, who is 50 years his junior.

“NO, NO, NO,” I say.  “Look at the wall.  See the painting?  That is Mom in 1967.  He needs to say good-bye to HER.”

341279902308_0_ALBOMG OMG OMG.  This still could be the day.  Oh, SHIT.

The EMTs were fabulous.  One was a little circumspect, probing about my knowledge of Dad’s medical and mental state.  I appreciated his concern and we walked a little away from Dad.

“Look, my father has been exceptionally healthy his whole life.  He is at the end of his life.  If he is not in pain or gasping, why would I want newly minted doctors (it IS July, after all) poking and prodding him?  But, let’s wait for the real doctor, my sister.”

Then that EMT starts to test my knowledge of Jewish culture and Yiddishkeit. The Blogger family name is stereotypically Jewish.  And he was testing me to figure out if I understood the Commandment to honor my father and my mother.

SOB walks in and consults with the EMTs.  Then she says to both of them:

“Last time he was in a hospital, it was for a brain bleed resulting from tripping on the sidewalk.  Although he was in neuro ICU and was watched by a private nurse, he got out of bed twice and fell both times.  Since then he wanders.  A hospital is not a safe place for him.  He has terrific 24 hour care at home.  And my sister and I are each a cab ride away.”

Both EMTs understood.  The circumspect EMT (who turned out to be an observant Jew) was more comfortable when we knew some Yiddish and when we told him that we had been through this drill before and we had tended to our mother in her dying days.

He said, “We have to call the supervisor.  I fear Hashem [G-d], my wife, gobblins and my supervisor, and your dad said he wanted to go to the hospital before you both arrived.

“I get that.  Make yourselves to home.  Can we give you something to drink or eat?”

The observant Jew demurred.  The other EMT said, his wife packs food.  So I asked, “you fear both your wife and Ha-Shem on this score.”  He nodded.

The EMTs and Dad start to talk.  They ask how he feels.

“It is the end.”

“End of what, sir?”

“The end of my life.”

Those words hang in the air, until interrupted by the arrival of the supervisor.  The supervisor calls the doctor on duty.  Everyone groans.

“What’s wrong with this doctor?” I ask, thinking the nightmare has just begun.

“He’s been sued a lot.  He will want to enforce transport to the hospital.”

WAIT. WAIT. I have power of attorney.  My sister has health proxy.  We, and our 24/7 nursing care, take excellent care of Dad.  We see him all of the time.  We know his wishes, his medical history and, hell, what he eats in the diner and what he hates in a museum.  We speak to him everyday and see him every weekend.  Dad has told us what he wants and he trusts us.  And we love him.

DIDN’T YOU SEE THAT HE WASN’T AFRAID ANYMORE WHEN HIS CHILDREN ARRIVED?  THAT HE PERKED UP? HOW CAN THIS DOCTOR OVER THE PHONE ENFORCE THE TRANSPORT TO THE HOSPITAL?

Well, he did.  SOB and I would not stand for it.  Dad was sitting in a chair talking and feeling comfortable.  He didn’t need to go to the hospital.

“Call the doctor back. NOW!”

At this point the EMTs are rooting for keeping Dad home.  And I was ready to name Dr. [Blank] in a lawsuit.  After the doctor spoke to Dad, he asked to speak to the daughter who is the lawyer. NOT THE DAUGHTER WHO IS THE DOCTOR.  This is some paranoid dude.

“Yes, Dr. [Blank}.”

“Ms. [Blogger], BLAH BLAH BLAH. BLAH BLAH BLAH. BLAH BLAH BLAH” – I made the universal hari kari sign so everyone in the room could feel my pain — “Your father could have any number of issues.”

“Dr. [Blank], he is almost 94 years old.  Can any of those potential issues be prevented by a hospital visit today? We can agree that the answer is no.  And you have our family’s thanks for not compelling transport to a hospital.  I appreciate your advice on guardianship.  Thank you, doctor.”

The EMTs cheer the outcome.  We hugged one EMT and I said to the observant Jew, “I won’t hug you or shake your hand, but I would if you weren’t observant.”

“Thank you.  In this case, I fear my wife first.  Hashem, second.”

SMART MAN, THAT EMT.

All non-essential personnel left.  I went out to get pizza for everyone.  To celebrate success after the two hours that felt like ten.  We ate.  We all sacked out for an hour.

SOB went into Dad’s bedroom to check on him.  He was glad that he stayed at home.  He was glad to have his children around and he felt loved and supported by all of his children, even though our brother lives far away.  He told SOB what a lucky man he is and what a good life he has had.  The drift toward the inevitable is beginning.

We all got up a kibbitzed.  Soon it was cocktail hour.

“Dad,” SOB started, “there needs to be a new rule in the usual [Blogger family] protocol in these circumstances:  If ambulance comes, no scotch at cocktail hour.”

Dad wasn’t so ok with it.  So I had to draw it from him.  The new addition to our protocol:

IF AMBULANCE,

THEN

58128Dad fought it tooth and nail and enjoyed the tussle with his kids.  He was present in a way he is not usually.  His mind was more clear (but still out there).  He was a little pale, but he survived.

The day turned out to be a great day, because:

We met wonderful people — the EMTs — who care about the people they help.

And, Death took a holiday of sorts for our family.

SOB and I stagger off the roller coaster.  The ride was rough but everyone survived. 

Life Is Beautiful

Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined the immense joy in seeing my nephews happy and proud.  Never did I think I would have a child, much less adore him, warts and all.

Never did I imagine that I had warts.  (Ok, we ALL grow up.)

Never did I imagine that my brother-in-law would be my brother, too. Or that my sister-in-law, 7 years my junior, would evoke such respect, love and awe for her “male management” in the Shap Shack.  [I wish we were closer in geography, time and heart.]

Or that my brother and I, sometimes so diametrically opposed yet so alike in manner, in humor and in comic timing, would sit companionably at a table where he and my son were feasting on pork in a Jewish home.

Or that my brother’s son would come north and share sleep away camp with my son, his cousin.

These are the gifts of family.  Gifts of age. And, with age, the gift of perspective.

But most important, these are, yes, the gifts that make life beautiful and bountiful and safe.

The gifts that wait for us to grow, change, reject what was, and then, coming full circle, accept what was and, as a consequence, what is.

And the gifts for which, even in the moments of sorting out the affairs of the living and the dead (and those hovering in between), I am grateful.  Because it means that SOB, BOB and I will have each other. And, that, in bad times, in desperate times, in unfair times, we can rely on each other. 

Because no matter how far off any of us travels, or how bad things get, there is, at long last, the ties that bind. The door that is wide open.  Even more important, the loving arms that beckon us into a secure embrace.

And that makes life, indeed, beautiful and full.

[P.S.: I rented a Texas-size car for visiting day at camp.  Just in case SOB and HOSOB want to join the road trip.]

 

 

The Years Spin By and Now the Girl is 50

Dear Mom:

So I have moved 50 times ’round the seasons.

And my dreams have lost some grandeur coming true.

There were new dreams along the way.  Some of them still matter; some were fantasies of youthful exuberance and abject cluelessness.

I am not scared of growing older.  (Ok, I am not happy with droopy eyelids you gave me.)

And now I drag my feet to slow down time (or the circles, to keep the Joni Mitchell motif).  Really, to hold onto to the stories and memories of you, Dad and the older generation.  I look at the old pictures to remind me of the people who made me (for better or worse) the person I am today.  Those fallible, lovable and wildly eccentric (ok, our family once was poor, so I think we only qualify as “crazy”) people.

I am starting to forget some of the stories. Dad has forgotten almost everything. I can’t lose you any more than I already have.  And I need room to experience and remember the joys of your grandchildren, all three wonderful boys, and especially my little guy, SOS.

Years ago, when I imagined turning 50, I thought I would have security, maturity and direction in life.  And I fully expected that you would be telling me the story about my birth, as you always did.  Life doesn’t conform to expectations; they are really hopes and desires locked into a time and place.

Even though life at 50 is nothing as I expected, I feel lucky looking in my rear-view mirror and I am (cautiously) hopeful about the road ahead.

Ok, maybe I am scared a little about the road ahead.  I have to remember that I am strong and the road these past years hasn’t been a cake walk and I am still standing.  And I have to draw on the memories of those who made me strong without wallowing in the past.

But it is hard when you, my biggest cheerleader, are gone.  And sometimes, late at night, when the world is too much with me, I need a guiding hand, a loving voice, and my Mom who had lived through so much, quieting my fears.  I try to imagine you.  It doesn’t always work.

Tonight, we had a pre-birthday dinner.  SOB and I fought over the check.  (Could you tell her to let me win just a few times?)  SOB and I told the stories you would have told about SOB’s birth, BOB’s birth and my birth on our birthdays.  The same stories, over and over again.  And they get better with each telling.

One of the best stories concerns SOB’s birth.  Aunt Gertie, who had three sons, waited until you opened your eyes to storm into your hospital room and screeched at Uncle Leon [Dad’s brother], “See, Natie could give Elsie a girl!!”  Mom, you always said that was the most painful part of childbirth.

Have I mentioned recently how much you would have loved and adored HOSOB?  Such a pity you never met.  And I know you would be so happy that Cousin Gentle rounds out the crew.  I know, I know, why can’t Dallas be closer to New York?  You tell me, Mom.  You are as close as they get to the Big Guy.  Ask Him to work on plate tectonics or something.   See what you can do.

Mom, you are the missing person at every gathering, every simcha and every sad time.  And I miss your warm hand always reaching out to hold SOB’s or BOB’s or mine.  Even at the end, you always reached for us.

And we still reach back, hoping you feel us across the great divide.

I love you forever, Mom.

~ Blogger

Life as told by a snail’s shell

fossil spiral snail stone real ancient petrified shell -

I have listened to a lot of people these last months, because I needed guidance through the morass of life.

Many friends recently have expressed regret about not having visited so-and-so and spent more time with great aunt [fill in the blank].

I have lived almost two years in the eye of family death and destruction, some of which I have not shared on the blog out of respect for others.

In the last few months I haven’t had so much to blog — I have been so overcome by illness, loss and regret.

I have come to a conclusion.

And the snail shell is the guide. 

See how it moves out from a tight center and gets larger?

The ones we hold very close are at the center.  If everything is all right with them, then we move on out along the spiral to others or adventures  — we become expansive and welcoming.  We reach out and explore. We are intrepid.

But, like a snail, if we or those who are close are threatened, we recede to the recesses of our shell.

We, humans, prioritize expenses, resources and goals.  And that affects the people in our lives — those immediate and far flung. There is no shame in that.  But there are regrets.

Sometimes we prioritize out of selfishness, fear, worry, competing needs, inability to cope. Name the issue or “ism”.  At some point, I think we mature toward a more stable and responsible and loving set of criteria for the core and then the outer spokes of the snail’s — or, rather, our — shell.

So, AROB’s nephew needs to be ok with not visiting with ULOB in the few months before he died following AROB’s death. CLSFOB needs to be ok with not visiting her childhood neighbor in the years before he died. Both had loving families, watching over them.

And I have to be ok with so many, many, things I didn’t do in my life when it mattered most.

There is a life lesson that sticks with me from 2007.  My beloved cousin, Ricky (z”l), knew he had little time left.  But he believed that he had enough time to reach out to, and settle issues with, those whom I would view as on the outer spokes of his life.  Time is not something we can control.  He ran out of it — time — and had to skip over people who were meaningful to him and whom felt his impending loss acutely, when saying his final goodbyes.

My cousin was unique in so many loving (ok, and controlling) ways, that he was true to the person he was, in reaching out to those “outer spoke people”.  Over the course of time, “his way” gave comfort to those, like me, who didn’t enough time to say, “I love you and, if we are lucky, we will all be on the same rung of hell together.”

SIDEBAR:  Because who, really WHO, makes it to Heaven? And, for what, a tuna on rye because G-d and you are the only ones who made it?  SOB says she doesn’t want to go to Heaven because she will miss me.  So, HOSOB and she have made that eternal sacrifice to go to Hell.  SOB will follow me, and well, HOSOB will follow her.  HOSOB is such a wonderful human that he may, in due course, get promoted to Heaven and have to live off of tuna sandwiches.   Poor, poor, man.  And then SOB will be really pissed at me for keeping her in Hell.  I will let her go, but she lied to get into Hell, which is a problem for Heaven, so you see the eternal issues that could go on if there is an afterlife.  I am really hoping that Mom (z”l) has serious yechas (Yiddish for influence) in the hereafter.  Otherwise . .  . . well, I will be in the worst shit because I actually will be in Hell and there ain’t no getting lower.

But that is where my cousin and I are different.  I need to start from the core and travel outward because life can be cut short — as his was.  He remains a force in my life — a measuring stick for my accomplishments and failings — but I have come to some different conclusions.

Because I am getting older, too.

I am starting to understand that, if you have young children and an aging elder generation and a stagnant economy, life is about running from responsibility to tragedy to work and back again.  If, you are lucky, you have the time to spend with people outside of your core group and grow from the experience.

So, if you don’t have time — or simply don’t have the physical or psychic energy — to visit with those on the outer rung of the shell, forgive yourself.  If it were your responsibility, these people would be in the inner part of your shell.  The hard and important truth is that these kind people who helped along the way in life were not in your inner shell when they were sick and dying.  Maybe ten years earlier.  But not now.

Mourn these people, because you loved them and they touched your lives in meaningful ways — even if only for a short time, a long time ago.  But not because you should have been more attentive.  They may never have expected that from you.  Or have been comfortable with your seeing them in diminished capacity.

Forgive yourself.  And focus on the core people and move outward from there.

SIDEBAR:  And, if your core group is 50 or more (counting Wingate), you will get in shape just by running.  But you will have a smile on your face.