Home

Home. 

Just the word evokes a sigh of relief. 

It has a different meaning — perhaps more than one — to each of us and, even that meaning may change over the course of time and our life experience.

Lately, I have been thinking about what home means to me.  And I know it is affected by the passing of Dad and, with him, the last of our elders.

Home is physical and emotional.  Two physical places — an apartment on the east side, where I was raised, and an apartment on the west side, where we raise our son.  Together, they are where I feel safe and where memories of the generations dance in the ether.  They are my past and present, and they indicate my future. 

And home is the place where Mom’s portrait hangs, as it has for literally 50 years in the home of my youth.  [One of Dad’s sculptures is in the foreground.]

I am unsettled that this will be the first time we kids don’t have a common place.  A place where the three of us belong and that belongs to us.

I think we need to figure out a place for Mom’s picture, in one of our homes. Because that is where the memories of Mom and Dad, our aunts, uncles and grandparents, will dance in the ether, and where we can feel safe and loved.

Because, without that, home is incomplete.

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 Learned Oddly Applied

Growing up, Mom and Dad made sure every visitor felt welcome in our home with a (proverbial or actual) warm and welcoming embrace. 

And our cultural, religious and family traditions had to follow suit.  My parents never cared much for tradition that didn’t honor everyone, engender both joy and remembrance and welcome the stranger.

I remember, at one Passover years and years ago, a relatively new friend of Mom (she made friends every day, even in the elevator or on a City bus) came over for her first Passover seder and brought something that she had made and  . . .  

WAIT FOR IT, WAIT . . .

there were noodles in it.  [NOT kosher for Passover.]

It was a shock to all of us that someone would make something homemade (especially to my mother) because, after all, we lived in New York City.

SIDEBAR:  No one “cooked” except for Mrs. Travers (of blessed memory) who made the same cherry Jello mold with fruit since the early 1960s.  Don’t laugh because it became so “groovy retro” in the 1990s.

So my mother was charmed and mortified all at once. Still, what to do about the noodles?

Without missing a beat, my mother put the noodle dish on the Passover table.  As everyone sat down, she thanked her friend for bringing it and advised those observing the Passover dietary restrictions that this was not a dish for them.

Just as it is written that, each of us was liberated from the land of Egypt and we eat the Hillel sandwich of the matzah and maror signifying the bitterness  of slavery and other symbolic foods, the Blogger family ate the matzah, maror and some pasta and veggies, in observance of our tradition and our parents’ rules about joy and welcoming the stranger in our house.

Fast forward twenty or more years to Dad’s Shiva.

Ok, “Shiva” was only one night, so it doesn’t even meet the requirements of the name, Shiva. And, a female rabbi who looked about 11 years old led the service. 

And THEN . . . .

My brother beckons me to the kitchen. 

SIDEBAR: It has taken many years but I think that my brother and I are in a good place.  I know we love each other.  And, I have a deep admiration and respect for him.  And, he is just so adorable and handsome and funny.

“Hey, E . . . . ” he says with his Texas drawl.  “SOB’s [Sister of blogger’s] birthday is in two days and we are going back to Dallas. We brought this birthday cake with these crazy striped pastries on top.  Like the ones Grandma and Grandpa used to bring from the bakery in Brooklyn.”

The following things ran through my head:

BIRTHDAY CAKE. 

SHIVA. 

A HOUSE PARTIALLY FILLED WITH MEN WEARING KIPAS,

A 12-YEAR OLD FEMALE RABBI LEADING MINYAN.

TRUMP THANKING MY FATHER FOR HIS SERVICE TO OUR COUNTRY [see earlier post].

MOM.  DAD.  PASSOVER SO MANY YEARS AGO.

THE LOVE OF A BROTHER WHO DIDN’T WANT HIS SISTER’S BIRTHDAY TO GET LOST IN REMEMBRANCE OF DAD’S LIFE WELL-LIVED.

“BOB [Brother of blogger], great idea!!  Let’s wait until the Shiva minyan is over and those who would be totally offended have left, OK?”

So, when we thought “the coast was clear” and some of SOB’s friends were still around, out came the birthday cake, with candles and everything.

Also? It was GREAT cake. (Just sayin’.)

And, courtesy of BOB and his family, there was joy for us three kids amid the sadness.  And we bent the traditions so far back that they almost broke in two — but not quite.

And Mom and Dad smiled down.  They were proud. 

And the three of us?  We would not have done a thing differently.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Changes

Let’s be honest: hot flashes in the winter do not suck.  Except they rarely come when you are walking in frigid temperatures with howling winds that chill your bones.

No, they usually come at night in your already over-heated dwelling.

Or during a meeting where someone mistakes your sweat for fear.  Hell no, I don’t fear you.

In fact, I don’t fear anything when I am having a hot flash. I don’t have time.

Because I am too consumed by this and other indignities of aging that I wonder who are those damn happy retirees in the TV commercials?

And then I remember that the commercials are about erectile dysfunction, high blood pressure, sleeplessness, heart disease, having “to go” too frequently, not frequently enough, and dry-mouth. Ah, paradise.  Oooooh, dream weaver ad men, how you read my fantasies.  Right down to sitting in a random antique bathtub on the beach. [What is that in the Cialis commercial?]

SO, if commercials are to be believed [work with me here], then, in short order, I will be a diaper-clad, pill-popping, but, otherwise, extraordinarily healthy and vibrant looking, older woman who could wear a bikini if the hot flashes are really too much. No war on gravity; no arms that do the Hadassah-jiggle if I don’t work on my triceps for a few days. And I am driving my sports car.  Now that is the part of this advertisement debacle that doesn’t suck.

And you wonder why I am not responding to you.

Interrupt me at your peril.