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.

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.

Oh, the relationships we find in this City

Unfortunately, our family has frequent flyer miles at a particular funeral home.  We all hope that it will be a while until we need these services again.

ULOB was buried on Friday.  Yesterday, I received a call on my cell phone from an unrecognizable phone number.  Usually, this is not a good sign.

It was Frank, the man who assisted us in the recent burials of AROB and ULOB.

SIDEBAR:  Uh oh, I thought.  And, then, I thought, is the Grim Reaper REALLY “phoning it in”?

Frank called to make sure that we were happy with the funeral home’s services.  He also wanted me to know that he was dropping a customer satisfaction survey in the mail to me and that he is available when we were ready to deal with the headstones and any other internment needs.  Really?

I know, you are all thinking of the personal relationship I have with MiniStorage (see http://40andoverblog.com/?p=5153 and http://40andoverblog.com/?p=5168).  Well, there is another relationship I didn’t mention…..

With Disaster Masters.  When it looked like ULOB might be able to get out of the hospital and want to go home, SOB and I met with a consultant who prepares homes of elderly people for assisted care.  He has a whole shtick, he visits the house, takes pictures, gives an assessment, and tells you what he can do and what he can’t do.

“‘Clean’ is a bad word. This place will never be clean.  You see that yellow on the ceiling?  That’s from 60 years of smoking.  We are going to try to make this place habitable.  Let me state even more narrowly:  habitable so the home health attendant doesn’t do the ‘I quit dance’!!!”

And then Mr. Disaster Master demonstrated — spinning around with hands flailing in the air.

ULOB was off the respirator and possibly leaving ICU and I was so scared that he would be discharged before we had time to sanitize the place.  Mr. Disaster Master wasn’t in a rush — probably because he has seen this before so many times.  At first he only wanted to speak to me because I had power of attorney, but when I wanted him to make the place habitable whether or not ULOB ever came home, he only wanted to speak to SOB, because as a doctor, she understood the vagaries of life and post-trauma health.

I congratulated him on figuring out who was going to be his ally.  And I told him that, nevertheless, I wanted a plan after the weekend (I had given him a downpayment).

I sent him a reminder email over that weekend, to which he responded:

“[Blogger]:

I need to learn how [ULOB] is doing physically and mentally.  These issues often change people.   Can he do the stairs after this trauma?  The PT and OT people should be TOLD that he lives in a tall 4 flight walkup when he gets into rehab.  These places generally only give one hour a day and ½ of that is billing time.  We want to assure that he is well up to speed. If not, then we may be looking at a downsizing move for him.  When I understand exactly what the deliverable is I will then be able to provide the right solution.  Till then we just play the what-if game and that is a waste of time for all of us.

Best, [Mr. Disaster Master]”

This guy sounds like an infomercial spokeman but, whoa, he could read a situation.

  • Anxious nieces.
  • A disgusting home.
  • A dying uncle who would, assuming that he survived the hospital stay, would surely die if he couldn’t go home to his disgusting home.

He knew so much about us — SOB, ULOB and me — in that hour that we were in ULOB’s apartment that it was eerie.

I really believe that he knew that ULOB could never go home again and he didn’t want to prey upon my willingness to throw money at the situation on the off-chance that ULOB pulled out a miracle.  It was frustrating in the beginning to feel that he wasn’t in a hurry, but he said it was because he knew his business.  And I believe that.  And he just didn’t think that his services would be needed after all.

Ron Alford (ron@theplan.com) is the one to call when needs like these arise.

He is a good man in rough city who helps people during heart-wrenching times.

Up to bat

In these days in December, the world is often too much with me.  So much more so this year.

This is the tenth anniversary of Mom’s death, HOSOB lost both his parents in this year, Dad and Aunt Glue are both failing.  So, frankly, are the remnants of Mom’s family. Their deaths will seal a generation.  They were the first ones born on American soil and they laid the foundations for our generation to grow and thrive.  We stand on their shoulders.

SOB and I know that we, along with our many first cousins, will soon assume the mantel of our family’s eldest generation.  The ones who are supposed to know everything, have the wisdom of the ages, the memories and secrets of the past generations, and the answers to the questions (whatever they may be) and, yes, the next wave of those to leave this earth (G-d willing). We are up to bat in a baseball game, as it were.

It is only now that these giants of my parents’ generation seem so young and human.  Now I understood that Mom and Dad and the uncles and the aunts were as clueless then as are we now.  The mantra, just keep moving because it is better than running in place or, worse, standing still, is still the mantra of our generation.

As long as Dad and Aunt Glue are still alive, there is always the illusion (although, not the reality) that there are elders who know more, who can bless us and what we do, and who can lead us out of the darkness and into the light.

But the truth is that wisdom comes from reflecting on the past.  Humility comes from failure.  Regret comes from somehow knowing if you were sure enough of your convictions and felt strong enough to press your point of view, the outcome would have been better.

The lessons of the generations that must be learned again by each succeeding generation.  Over and over, until the end of time.

This is life and its journey.  These are some of the immutable facts that govern the species.

One day, maybe this will change.  Until then, I will try to act with kindness, with humility and with the memory of those who came before me — what they did right and what went terribly wrong.

 

 

Uh, oh, another “Dear Mom” blog

Dear Mom:

I know you are watching the events as they unfold down here on Earth.  Dad is remarkable in the ability of his body to heal so quickly — and just days shy of his 92nd birthday.  Ok, the mind is another thing.  That is a bit of a mixed bag.

Dad’s week has been packed with life and all of its emotions, from heart-breaking to uplifting, from triumph to quiet desperation, from funny to painful indignity.  And we, the kids, whether in person or on the telephone, have been on the ride along with him.

We went from feelings of sheer terror in taking Dad for a walk around the block (would he fall?) to POB’s dancing with Dad in the house to the sublime — a soft shoe routine in the supermarket, he with his cane (and his home aide ready to catch him) and I with a new mop that we desperately needed.  But later he couldn’t get up from the table without help and was dizzy, so he needed a long recuperative nap.  So, we will do soft shoe when we can, but we aren’t ready to go on the road. We do what he can do and no more.

We spent days going through pictures, reminding him of the family.  He is getting really good at this.  He remembers you, without any sort of coaxing.  One of his home aides told me that Dad talks about you and how he is still married to you and still in love with you, no matter that you died 10 years ago.  He told her the secret — that you appear somewhere in all his paintings.  He knows your spirit lives in the house.  And, of course, your portrait remains as evidence that this is your home.

In a weird way, I think that the home aides are a blessing.  Dad can talk to them all day.  Now I realize what life has been like for Dad these last few years.  If Dad can’t go to the studio to sculpt (he hasn’t been able to for a few months) and he isn’t with us on the weekends, the days between are deafening silent and slow.  I wanted to cry for his loneliness.  But now he sings for his home aides, offers them a cocktail (which they refuse) and the house has noise.

But there are hard moments.  Moments filled with the indignity of aging and a child having to care for a parent as if he were a baby.  And, when he is discombobulated, the air seems to fill with a toxin that hurts my lungs.  There are also less profound crises, like the day there were no bananas for breakfast and Dad was not strong enough to go to the store or be left alone.  Imagine, a reasonably successful New York lawyer unable to answer client emails because she has to bring bananas for breakfast.  Still, he asked, “how much a pound did you pay?”  “Before or after I add in the cost of the cab to hand deliver these to you, Dad?”

At least today, there was levity amidst the crazy talk.  Aunt Glue and Cousins J and K came to visit.  Aunt Glue and Dad were both a little off, but they enjoyed their conversation.  The rest of us didn’t quite understand the conversation, but I tried to let go of reality and roll with it.  Cousin J tried to correct Aunt Glue’s somewhat vague statement, and I asked her, “at this table, what does it matter?”

Aunt Glue and Dad, the remnants of our greatest generation, stronger in body than in mind, gained fortitude and joy from each other’s presence.  Aunt Glue is the only one alive who knows to call Dad by his original, Yiddish, name, Nachum.  “So, Nachy”, she said, “tell me all.”  I wanted to live in that moment because she has said that in the same way for as long as I have been alive (and longer), when they were strong and infallible and blazing the frontier.  When Dad was Dad and you were alive.

At least Dad has you, always.  As do we, your children.  But, in these moments, I wonder why I had to grow up.  I love you, Mom.  And I love Dad, come what may.

Love, Blogger

 

 

 

Phoenix rises, then stumbles. Repeat.

Take anti-nausea pills before reading.  It is a little like being a castaway at sea.

Dad came home yesterday afternoon.  He was relieved to be home.  There is an amazing “muscle memory” about being home.  He knew how to motor around the house to find the things he wanted even though he was wobbly on his feet and could not put the words together to talk to us.  Also, we ordered a wheelchair, a walker and a cane because we didn’t know his needs.

Shortly after he got home, he wanted very much to call the United Jewish Appeal but the reason made no sense.  And it was the Sabbath.  His frustration was rising and logic wasn’t working.  So I dialed POB’s cell and I said (actually, I was desperately directing her), “Dad needs to speak to the UJA, so pretend.”  I passed the phone to Dad, and turned up the volume so SOB and I could hear.  “Hello, Mr. [DOB], this is “Rachel” from the UJA.  Thank you for your pledge . . . .”  She went on until Dad said, “ok, thank you very much.” Dad was satisfied and almost looked as if he would nap . . .  Nah, no luck.

Sidebar:  POB should be nominated for an Academy Award, since she performed while on a crowded bus with SOS, who was quite confused.  (She told him that we were testing his phone skills and SOS loved the cloak and dagger of it.)

SOS was scared to see Grandpa injured.  We were all scared of the future.  BOB was busy cleaning out all of his junk mail and organizing recent files.  Man on a mission. We all found ways to soothe our individual terror at our new reality.

When SOS, POB and HOSOB arrived, we all gathered around and went through recent pictures to jog his memory.  SOB and I had previously gone out shopping and HOSOB brought some liquid relaxation (wine).  By this point, it was “cocktails and hors d’oeuvres” hour because that is the way one does things in Dad’s house.  Since he wasn’t so steady on his feet, we pretended to give him a “scotch” but it was club soda.  The upside of a little dementia — he thought it was scotch.

Cousin Gentle arrived later on.  By the time we ate dinner, he knew that he was surrounded by family, and very happily so, but only remembered the names of the eldest, Cousin Gentle, and the youngest, SOS.  Also, his evening attendant ate with us, so we could weave her into the fabric of the day (and she is lovely in any event).  BOB stayed until today, so at around 9:30, the rest could leave for much deserved rest.

Sidebar:  At this stage, rest is elusive.  Sleep is a non-starter.

The night was long and difficult according to BOB. And BOB looked like he hadn’t slept.

By morning, Dad was better, but still inconsistent in strength, gait and comprehension.  Dad was using the walker and BOB was playing in the wheelchair.  BOB challenged Dad to a race.  It was actually very funny to watch them go back and forth.  A little insanity amid pervasive insanity is very healing.  And it demonstrated that Dad’s personality is intact.  It is his memory that needs work.

He started to nod off after lunch and had a long nap. SOB and I went out to get supplies and some fresh air because we were either trying to keep Dad engaged or listen for any sign of a problem while he slept.  We saw this in the drug store and thought it captured our feelings — we just wanted to SCREAM out of fear, frustration, lack of control, uncertainty of the future, you name it:

And, then.  And, then.  Good ol’ Phoenix.

He woke up able to walk without any support but the real proof that Dad was Phoenix rising was that he did not go for the fake scotch at cocktail hour.  I had to put a little scotch in the club soda so there was a faint smell of liquor.  Dad was still not happy but mollified somewhat.

POB and SOS came over for a surprise visit at dinner because SOS wanted to see Grandpa and he was sad that SOB and I might be lonely and scared “alone” with Dad.

Sidebar:  I can take no credit for the soulfulness, generosity and sense of family that is in my son’s heart.  POB is responsible.

POB was talking to Dad and he had some good recall of random things.  And, he was even grousing about the fake cocktail.  I overheard this, and I said, “Dad, you have to earn that cocktail!!  Get strong, get steady, get your memory back!!”  Everyone laughed.  My father saluted me.  He knows his kids are his bosses — his essential personality shining through.

It was time for him to go to sleep. The attendant was going to help him wash up.

I kissed him and said, “Goodnight, Daddy, I love you.”

“Goodnight, my darling, I love you.”

“Can you tell me my name?”

He hesitated.  “Maybe tomorrow.”

“Ok, Daddy, maybe tomorrow.”

Maybe, tomorrow. 

In a flash

It is day three of the second worst ordeal of my life.  The first was the death of my mother.

On Monday, Dad came to Rosh HaShanah luncheon — cheery as always, gracious as always, happy to be with family, as always.  Lest you think he was an angel on earth, he did hold forth as to matters of politics, HOSOB’s painting, or poorly behaved people in his congregation.  He doesn’t say anything in a catty way; as to the latter category, he merely sees their inadequacies as explanation of their behavior.

As the lunch wound down, we all said our goodbyes.  We all kissed and hugged Dad and wished him a happy and healthy new year.  He wished us the same with a force that can only come from a parent to child.  It was not unusual.  No portents of the coming events.

SOB and I often talk about that one day when Dad is late to a dinner or doesn’t pick up the phone.  That one day when Dad leaves us.  We always wanted it to be quick and painless – a coda for a life well-lived and a fortunate man who shared his good fortune with others.

We were not prepared for a call that Dad collapsed in the street (on his way to a doctor’s appointment) and had a huge contusion on his head and some bleeding into his brain.  SOB and I rushed to the hospital.  As the day wore on, the confusion seemed more pronounced and settled.  He knows us but he doesn’t really except that he is calm with us and he trusts us.  So, there is some comprehension through the haze.  And his essential personality is intact.  He is a lovely man and the nurses are happy to take care of someone who says please and thank you and generally grateful for the help.

Dad is in ICU and there is a kids’ playroom, so the nurse gave us a ball to throw with him that first day.

Final score:  Reflexes: 90%;  Cognition: 0%; His humanity: 100%.

For day two, he mostly slept, with notable interruptions of bursts of songs from the Big Band years.  The nurses love it but, then again, they haven’t heard Dad’s limited set for as many years as we have.  Late that night he got confused and fell.

Day three started with physical therapy.  He can walk, with assistance.  He had a vague sense of POB and me.   He quickly fell back to asleep.  He slept through an echo-cardiogram (which looked good even to a non-doctor).  He had another round of physical therapy.  He walked fast and steady.  And he did call SOB by name (no, he does not call his eldest daughter “SOB”).  I hope the anti-seizure medication will wear off because it is adding to his confusion.  He seems to remember us by name now.  A few minutes have passed.  Ok, not so much any more. Reflexes: 30%; Cognition: 0.5%; His humanity: steady at 100%.

But wait there is more.  Today, the Kumbaya Guitar Lady/The Singing Nun came by because she heard that Dad likes to sing.  Fortunately, he slept through it.  We, however, could not.

While Dad slept, we spoke with nursing services and got things in order for Dad.

Then I called his long term care carrier.  After one hour of terrible telephone music, only interrupted by being transferred from claims to intake to woman from hell, I learned that long term care kicks in after 100 days of 24/7 care diagnosis.

“So, if Dad is still alive, we’ll talk,” I said.

“Oh, no, someone will contact you in 5 business days to go over everything we just went over.”

“But we just went over everything, didn’t we? And what if I am unavailable when the  call comes?”

“No problem, m’am, you can schedule the call.”

OK, I thought, let’s schedule a call for a hypothetical need that 3.5 months from now and they won’t pay the full freight. “Great, mornings are best for me —“

“Oh, no, m’am,” she interrupted, “you can’t schedule with ME.  When you missed the first call, you can call back to reschedule.  But we promise that we will make the first call within 5 business days.”

Oh, great.  “Take your time, really,” I said.

It was 5 pm on a Friday and the private nurse service hasn’t called.  So I called the service.

“Your call is important to us so please continue to hold, or if you would like, leave a message and we will return the call in 30 minutes.”

Really?  Nah.  So, I wait on the line.   After hearing those words not less than 9 times, I have imagined that the recording said, “if you are a patient and have died while waiting for us to answer, please accept our condolences.”  Actually, they were lovely when I finally reached a human.

So now we need to have someone manage the care that Dad needs.  A house manager, as it were.  We can sit with him and talk to him and feed him, but fill out the forms?  Are you kidding me?

So, SOB, POB and I chat while Dad is sleeping.  We discuss that HOSOB should bring the painting that Dad critiques and tell Dad that he won’t change the size of the car in the street scene.  Just get it off his chest.  Or maybe HOSOB can tell Dad about the dangers of fracking, because while we agree with him, we don’t need the details.  At least not now, when we can only focus on Dad and, possibly, showering and brushing our teeth.

BOB arrived and we sat with Dad through dinner and for a while afterward.  Dad was awake but confused.  BOB got to do the manly things that we girls hesitate to do so as to give Dad some privacy and dignity.

Sidebar:  BOB asked Dad if he was sleeping well in the hospital, and Dad nodded yes.  This surprised BOB because unfortunately he has been hospitalized a few times and can never get a good night’s sleep.  SOB offered matter-of-factly, “sleeping well in a hospital requires a brain injury”.  We say the craziest things when we have to wear hair-nets and sterilized robes, while sitting on in our Dad’s room in the ICU Burn unit because there are no beds in regular ICU.  All these plastic surgeons running around and my father is in bad shape and I have to stop from thinking, “should I ask someone about my droopy eyelids?”

So, what have we learned today: brain bleeds are bad but if you have one you can sleep soundly in a hospital and everyone looks ugly in hair-nets.  Was this knowledge really necessary? Nooooooooooooooooo.

I always worried how Dad would die.  But I never worried that there would be anything left unsaid.  I am lucky that way.

It absolutely gets better

As a girl (in the 1960s and 1970s), I was fearless, self-confident and wholly comfortable with my body.  That is, until I became a teenager.  Then, as quickly as a flip of a switch (or so it seemed), everything changed.

Aside from the raging hormones that could have alone turned me into an alien, I had unfamiliar feelings and longings.  And I didn’t fit neatly into the role of a 14 year-old girl who had to wear skirts (dress code) to school.  But, generally, I liked the way I looked.  And I liked the way other girls looked, too.

Except, I was supposed to be looking at boys.  Once I realized my “mistake”, I knew “fitting in” was something I would have to study, like any other subject in school.  And I figured it would be hard, like Biochemistry (yes, I was precocious at 14), but I was smart and a good student.  So, I thought, “I could do this”.

It was harder than Biochemistry and you couldn’t learn it from a book.  My high school girl friends were “into boys” in such a natural, innate way. I withdrew into myself because I knew that this difference was too basic and I couldn’t fake it.  I wouldn’t make close friendships because I had this secret and this unease about where friendships ended and romance could begin.  I needed to keep people at bay.  Invisibility was my goal when it came to talking about boys, what you did with boys, make-up, etc.  Just blend in.

All through high school on Saturday nights, I used to take long walks around the East Side so my parents didn’t know that I was friendless or weary of feeling like the outsider.  Only years later, did I learn that someone else was doing the same thing because she had the same issues, except her route was different enough so that we never bumped into one another.  We would have recognized each other because we knew each other from camp and Hebrew School.

Inside, I was confused and sad and I knew, just knew, that my troubles were my fault.  How could I fix something that I couldn’t even talk about?  I medicated with food and alcohol.  Brilliant.  I added significant weight gain to my problems.  And nothing makes teenage life worse than being fat.  Now I was a liability to be around if you wanted to talk up cute boys.  I was less than background; I was avoided.

I remained heavy through my college years.  I was still struggling with wanting to be straight and not wanting to deal with this horrid, scary secret. On campus, a right-wing newspaper printed the names of the members of the GSSG (Gay Students Support Group).  I was secretly grateful that I was too scared to join.  I remained anonymous but I saw the effects of being “outed” on some of my friends. What happened to them confirmed my every nightmare.  “Out” meant parental disapproval (and worse), no chance of having children and discrimination. I wanted my parents to be proud and I wanted a family.  But I also wanted love.  What did I do to deserve this fate?  I had to have done something so unspeakably wrong to be exiled to a long and lonely road.

But sometimes the desire to feel whole can make a person go to crazy extents.  During college, I kept trying to put myself in situations where I might meet lesbians but only at a distance.  Two girls giggling in a bathroom piqued my interest, but I stayed in the background.  Invisible.  My comings and goings seemed mysterious enough so that my friends assumed that I was a Soviet spy meeting my handler.  No joke.  They still tease me to this day.

When I was graduated in 1985, I resolved to live a double life – try to marry a man and have an emotional (or romantic?) relationship with a woman. I had a hard time keeping up with the lies about why I was a no-show with my college friends or why I spent so much time with a particular woman when my mom would ask. I was a handful of shards of glass, each reflecting a portion of me, but not adding up to the whole.

I joined a gym to relieve some of the stress of my life and because I simply got sick and tired of literally wearing the weight of my troubles. I joined a gym to stop the “you would be so much more attractive if you lost some weight”.  I really channeled my anger and fears into exercise.  I was angry at G-d for making me gay and I was fearful of what would happen if I acted on those feelings.  Maybe you can imagine how sweating buckets can calm you down and make you so tired that you needed to adjourn those quandaries until the next day.  And, the next day, and so on.  I used work-outs at the gym to avoid my issues.  The upside was that I was really getting into good shape.

When I got thin, the family’s mantra “you are so thin and pretty now, I am sure the boys are knocking down your door!” returned.  In truth, I tried boys.  There was one lovely man I came close to marrying.  But he sensed the issues that lay right under the surface and called me on them.  “Do you need to sow some wild oats or should we just not have female housekeepers?”  And then, “should I wait?”  “No,” was my anguished answer.  (“If only you were female,” I thought.)  G-d bless him and his family forever.  (He has a lovely wife and two adult children now.)

In New York City in the 1980s, there were still no positive images of lesbians, let alone images of feminine lesbians. What was I thinking throwing away a solid relationship with a wonderful man? But, he and I both deserved to find our heart’s desires and soul mates.  At least he did; I couldn’t see how I was going to meet someone.  I didn’t want to be with a butch woman; I was a woman who wanted to be with a feminine woman.  They were invisible (unless they were on the arms of butch women). I was looking for a hypothetical feminine, pretty, Jewish (not essential), well-educated, funny and slightly neurotic lesbian.  Whoa, tall order.  I figured I would be alone for the rest of my life.  If it sounds sad, you can be sure that this is an understatement of how I felt.

Somewhere, on the other side of town, was a woman in a relationship who was wondering if she would ever meet her soul mate, her heart’s desire. We would have recognized each other if we met because we knew each other from camp and Hebrew School.

If I was going to leave a relationship with a wonderful man because of this “girl thing”, then it was high time I started gluing the shards of my life together.  Even though my father’s “I would welcome him as a son-in-law” echoed in my head and threatened to push out my brains through my ears, I tried to be open and honest with my family, my friends and, yes, me. And that required coming out.

My told my friend NYCFOB (dear NYC friend of blogger) in a cab, “you know my boyfriend John?  Her name is [girl’s name].”  I could see her brain working; a lot now made sense to her.  “It changes nothing between us,” she said simply.  She gave me a gift of a lifetime – in those few words, she said to me: “I am your friend even if you lied to me because I get that you thought it was necessary.  And I don’t care about the gay thing.”  Then, “who else knows?” She needed to know whom she could call and with whom she could shriek about some serious scoop. I still think she doesn’t know that we know that she has the biggest heart and a wellspring of love and acceptance tucked beneath a New Yorker’s veneer.

As for my parents, let’s just say that their rejection was hurtful and ugly, although it had a happy ending. Imagine a nice Jewish girl whose grandparents were the pre-World War II remnant of Russian Jewry, and parents who were poor children of immigrants of the Depression Era.  That means I was raised to need my parents’ approval on a daily basis.  Imagine that nice Jewish girl being cast out.  The gym was my haven.  I could sweat and lift weights and expel some of the anger and hurt I felt.  As I processed all the changes and charted a rough course for my life, I started not to want to be invisible or ignored anymore.  I had arrived – 115 pounds, toned body, good looks.  I was ready to fit in and conquer all social settings – gay or straight.

So, I joined a hip and groovy gym. It is a rule of life that if your gym is hip and groovy, you will work out in a sea of tall and beautiful women in that blond, willowy way with perfect gym outfits.  I wasn’t ready to be “out” because I still preferred ambiguity. Secretly, I wanted cute boys to talk to me as some sort of vindication of my sexual appeal – that men might want me even if I wanted women.

The muscled, handsome straight (and hell, even gay) guys talked to them and not to me.  Even the trainers didn’t pay attention to me.  I was still invisible. I know it doesn’t make sense, but nothing relating to body image, sexuality, and desire has anything to do with logic.  It was probably because I was too scared that if I came out, there was no going back.

Life got a lot better over the years.  I realized that you have to be a little out in order for people to find you.  Family hurts healed (with my mother’s wanting to ride on our synagogue’s Gay Pride float and my father’s making a huge stone sculpture of two women with a child). I had good romantic relationships (and some horror shows, let’s be honest).  I was happy.  I had friends.  I was an up-and-coming lawyer.  I found my groove.

Still, the gym was complicated. Working out made me feel strong, in control and let me expiate work anxiety and stress.  I started to understand that maybe I didn’t fit in because, for me, the gym was not my primary social outlet.  I went there to get sweaty and release endorphins.  Ahhhhh.  Still, I wanted to be noticed.  I know, I know.  It doesn’t make sense but it is what it is.

At Rosh HaShanah evening services in 1996, I was living the quintessential lesbian drama – my present girlfriend sat to my left and my ex-girlfriend sat to my right.  I was looking up at the ceiling, finally introducing myself to G-d. (This alone should have wiped away my sins for the year.)

In the midst of this bad movie, I heard a singing voice I recognized.  I turned around and I saw her. She was my best friend at sleep-away camp when we were 10 year-olds.  We went to Hebrew School together through senior year at high school.  I thought, “she is too cute to be gay”.  It’s that internalized homophobia ingrained in many of us who came of age in the 20th century and, no matter how we try, it still sometimes slips out.   (And I had very attractive exes.)

I looked for her after services, but she had left in a flash.  Ten days later, at Yom Kippur service, I was carrying the Torah around the synagogue during a ritual where the Torahs are marched around the sanctuary. I saw her again. POB (soon-to-be partner of blogger).  I knew somehow that we were living in parallel bubbles that “kissed” ever so slightly over the years.  We were both in relationships and just looking for friendship.

Our friendship was deep and supportive.  We leaned on each other when things got hard in our relationships.  We pushed each other to re-invest our emotions in those long-term relationships.  Nevertheless, our relationships ended between 1998 and 1999.  In spring of 2000, we realized that we were each other’s intended ones.  We fell into a happy rhythm of life together and started to think about having a baby.

Still, the gym was an important part of my life.  Sometimes we would go to the gym together after work, around 8pm.  We didn’t work out together; we needed our separate areas at the gym. I was working out the toxicity of life as a young partner in a law firm; she was just getting a fitness work out.

Then my mother had a recurrence of breast cancer.  I needed a punching bag and boxing gloves.   Our gym had those.  I watched others and then just copied them.  Tears would stream.  The rings on my fingers under the boxing gloves cut into my flesh.  I was bleeding and I was punching G-d as hard as I could.  In summer 2002, POB and I had a little boy.  In January 2003, my mother died.  I needed to punch out my unspeakable pain and sadness, but with newborn and two working moms, there was no time for the gym.

2002 through 2008 were rough years.  Setting aside various economic and professional upheavals (which don’t matter much in the end, anyway), POB’s mother’s chronic illness worsened to a point that hospital stays on respirators were not uncommon.  Ultimately, she died.  Our son presented with some developmental issues, which are resolving (something for which we are grateful everyday).  There was much joy and happiness, of course, in those years, but joy and happiness don’t make for interesting writing.  And besides, as a neurotic, urban-dwelling Jew, it is my cultural duty to emphasize the gut-wrenching, the embarrassing, the bizarre and the ooky.

When our son was six years old, POB and I were able to clear some personal time in the family schedule.  I chose to return to the gym.

What a difference six years makes. My first day, I was in the locker room and to my horror I discovered that I packed form-fitting running tights that go down just below my knees and a geeky t-shirt that stopped at my waist.  Two things to note: I couldn’t remember when last I shaved my legs, and if this outfit looked good on me, I wouldn’t need to go to the gym.

Now, our son is 9 years old.  He is 70 pounds and still jumps in my arms when I come home, so I need strong leg, stomach and arm muscles so as not to end up in traction. Now, I do sit ups and pull-ups.

I hate pull-ups but I do three sets of three (sometimes four).  And all the gym boys think it’s really cute that a gray-haired, middle-aged lady can do unassisted pull-ups.  No, joke — I get compliments, fist pumps and high-fives from male trainers and regular gym rats.  And they give me technique pointers.  And I know that some of the women are watching me. They are not checking me out; they are wondering how they could try a pull-up when no one is looking.  At long last, the “buff and beautiful” (even the trainers) notice me and talk to me.  It took some gray hair and a few pull-ups to be the belle of the gym.  Of course, now I don’t need that kind of attention.  At 47, I have lost some elasticity and agility, but age has given me determination and self-confidence, and, yes, helped me negotiate a comfortable detente with my body.

And now I am visible at the gym? The gym gods must be crazy indeed.

So, this Thanksgiving, I am grateful for my life, my family and my wholeness.   It does get better.

~ note from Blogger:  Special thanks to the Soeurs for editing and remembering and loving me, in all my guises.

Days of Awe, 5772

Jews have a strange way of celebrating holidays.  Take the New Year, for example.  Most of the world celebrates a new year with parties, presents or hangovers.  Not Jews.  It’s all about death and destruction.

Our new year 5772 begins Wednesday at sunset with Rosh Ha-Shanah, the birthday of the world.  (I always forget to ask if that is based on the first day or sixth day of creation).

Every new year, we begin by fighting for our mortal lives.

On Rosh Ha-Shanah, our ancient rabbis taught that our fates for the coming year are “penciled-in” and, ten days later, on Yom Kippur, they are sealed – for life or death, for health or sickness, happiness or sorrow, wealth or not-so-much wealth. And because Jews can be lugubrious at times, we go through the recitation of how many ways we could die — water, fire, disease, famine, war, etc.  (The list goes on and on.  Who knew that there were so many ways to die prior to modern warfare?)

During the 10 days, one can sway G-d from the harshest of punishments by our good acts, repentance and atonement for our sins committed during the prior year (here, 5771) and return to the principles of our faith.  Nevertheless, it all pretty much puts a damper on any thoughts of parties with confetti, funny hats and noise makers.

We don’t even sing happy birthday to the world.  If I were the maker of the world, there would be hell to pay (no scare tactics, there) if some massive number of earthly beings, sea creatures and plants didn’t start a rousing round of “G-d’s a jolly good fellow — um — non-corporal entity”.

Living year-to-year like this makes a person wonder why a Jew takes out a 30-year mortgage, or eats vegetables instead of ice cream.  I guess I understand the 30-year mortgage — why buy something with cash if your fate the next Yom Kippur is shall-we-say “tentative”?  Better to borrow money and leave more liquid assets to your heirs, should the fate have a negative prognosis.  But vegetables?  Well, I guess on a day-to-day, they are important to digestion, the specific details of which are somewhat of a preoccupation of our people.

It isn’t all sack cloth and ashes.  We do gather for a meal together but we are focused on not talking about the tragic outfits at synagogue or the odd recombination of couples from last year, because it is not settled law whether for atonement purposes, these sins are included in last year’s sins or next year’s sins.  And we act so sure that we will live another year, that we don’t start with dessert.  The sheer hubris should get us deeper in trouble, even if we don’t have to account for it until 5773.

And then there are people like me, who think that G-d (if G-d even listens to the rituals we ascribed to Heavenly declaration) has billions of creatures to judge, so that’s why some of the good get caught up with bad and the some of the bad seem to get rewarded.  Also, what a downer to have to note everyone’s sins 24/7 (ok, G-d rested on the Sabbath, so 24/6), and then have to remember all of them to give an initial prognosis on Rosh Ha-Shanah and then listen to 9 days of whining about why it wasn’t really stealing, gossip, adultery, pork or whatever.  On the 10th day, I would flood the earth and start again.  Wait, G-d did that once.  (And by the looks of global warming, it is happening again.)

Still, I am looking forward to these ten days of awe.  It is a religiously mandated time-out of the usual rhythms of life.   At different times during these ten days, there is time for quiet, for chanting, for meditation, for family and for solitude.

Something in me needs space to think about my family and the world and my place in both.  I have a visceral need to course-correct some aspects of my life and to resolve to do some things differently and do other things better.   I think this need comes from my fears about the future of the world, our country, our economy and our humanity and their effects on my ability to provide for my family.  And I need these Days of Awe to figure out how I can transform my fears into hope and action.

May this be a year of peace and other blessings for all of us, all over the world.

 

Like a Hurricane

Our newly re-acronymed child, SOS (source of sanity) needs to go back to TLP (the little prince), at least for a little while.

On Saturday night, we hunkered down after checking in on all local relatives who might need help.  TLP wondered why we couldn’t camp out at the beach like his cousin, his aunt and his other grandfather (not my dad).  (In fact, to add insult to injury, we made him come home from visiting them at the beach in anticipation of the hurricane.)

They aren’t camping actually.

In fact, they didn’t intend to “camp”, since they live in a perfectly lovely house in East Hampton.  We tried to explain that Hurricane Irene could cause downed power lines and flooding, which would then lead to “indoor camping” by necessity and not by choice.

TLP thought it would an important manly experience, except he forgot that he is a (little) man who likes his amenities, let alone “essentials” like TV, computer access, running water, flushing toilets, etc.

You get the picture. He knows what he wants until he realizes that it is not at all what he wants.  Until that eureka moment, he has the determination of . . . of . . . well, POB (partner of blogger).  Genes are a boomerang.

It is ok that he is not so self-aware of his lack of earthiness.  He is only 9 years old.

Sunday dragged on and on.  TLP couldn’t really focus on the usual mind-numbing TV because he wanted to go back out to the beach.   The hurricane washed out our week at the beach, at least initially.  When the owners of our rental called to say that the power was out and there was flooding on the property, TLP became inconsolable.  Ok, ok, ok, ok, his entire life up to this point has been a vacation.  It is I, I, I, I, I, I, who needs a vacation. Me, me, me, me, me. (It may be important to note that I am ranting here and not TLP.  I can see how you might be confused.)

POB needs some time away, too, but she has had the summer off so, this year at least, a week at the beach is more tradition and less a sanity-saving device.

I had already started looking at other options.  Of course, anything west required a plane and airports were backlogged.  Going south was clearly a non-starter since that was the trajectory of the storm.

Northwest, maybe. Lake George.  Aaah, the Sagamore.  I loved the Sagamore years ago, even though tennis whites were required on the courts and I had to buy clothes in the gift shop.  What does a New York Jew know about tennis whites?  Oh, yeah, Wimbledon.  But that is in England.  Oh, wait!  These people descend from those who came from England.  Ahhhh.

I called the hotel and they had available condos, etc.  So, maybe they allow lavender on the tennis courts?  After all, these are trying economic times.

I took down the information and said I would call back, because I needed to confirm with POB that she was ok with all goyim all the time at a WASPy retreat. POB has some of that blood line in her so I figured her first question would be ask what would there be for us to eat, because clearly she understands the differences in the traditions.  We don’t drink martinis and we don’t eat honey-roasted bar nuts (we eat healthy, raw nuts).  Clearly, we would starve.  In fact, she did ask, and I looked at her with the “after all these years, you think I can’t read your mind” look.  In a calm, but slightly hurt voice (intending to get some martyr points), I told her about the condos with full kitchens that we could stock up in case we couldn’t recognize any of the food.

I guarantee you the first thing anyone at the Sagamore would think upon seeing our family is not, “oh, Jews”.  Especially when they see my accidentally too-severe Janet Napolitano (US secretary of something) style of haircut (thank you, IFOB (Italian friend of blogger) for drawing that parallel).  In fact, I was betting on an upgrade to the furthest and possibly nicest available condo on the property.  We would get the privacy we want and, if they were particularly freaked out, I planned to ask about Shabbat services.  Hell, they would offer in-condo dining, absolutely free.  Grand slam homer for a patched-together vacation, if you ask me.

My delusions of vacation were interrupted when I called back to book the reservation.  In the 6 hours between my calls, Hurricane Irene had hit them hard.  That area was not supposed to be really affected.  I felt bad for my gloating over the dyke-Jew plague I was going to bring on them.  So, we’ll go there sometime soon, when my hair grows out and we will pay full price.  It is the least we can do.

Ok, no vacation plans.  And the boy who earns the acronym TLP is inconsolable.  So, today, Day 3 of When Havoc Struck The Blogger Family, we set out to the train museum in Danbury, Connecticut.  POB and I decided we needed a road trip and we needed to ease TLP into the staycation reality.  He was happy and POB and I were relieved to have him immersed in something.  And the trains were pretty cool, I have to say.

Tonight, we got word that our rented house will be in reasonable shape on Wednesday.  TLP is over the moon.  We are all relieved as well because it is good to get away.  Still, we have tomorrow.

Using some of my martyr points, I have cleared a Blogger mental health and physical wellness morning tomorrow, which means I get to run and look at the river for a while before we all have lunch.  Then, on to preparations for the delayed vacation.

I am thinking of showing TLP pictures of the damage caused by the hurricane and some pictures from Tripoli so he understands that life is not always a vacation.  I just don’t know when is the right time to introduce reality into a happy (and privileged) childhood.  I don’t want to scar him, but I want him to be grateful that we and none of our family was irreparably harmed in a natural disaster that claimed lives and livelihoods of so many.  I want him to have empathy, but I don’t want him to be afraid of what life throws in our path.  I want him to learn to “roll with it”.  I want him to understand his good fortune.  Maybe these are not 9 year-old thoughts and ideas.  Maybe that is too much to put on someone so young.

Parents out there:  HELP!!!