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.

Beyond Queer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But some new vocabulary would help.

Being Lunch Meat in the Sandwich Generation

I never thought of myself as liverwurst before, but it does connect and bind the two pieces of bread into a sandwich.  Or maybe vegemite.  Peanut butter is an aspirational concept.

I am a member of the sandwich generation.  The child that needs to provide for her parent(s) and her child(ren). I, and so many like me, are the spread between the pieces of bread.  We keep it all together.

Last week, Dad called, saying he was locked in his art studio and that he needed me to call the police.  He had his coat on and was cold.  I told him I would call him right back on his home line and if he answered that meant he was really at home and just momentarily confused.  He agreed.  But he didn’t actually hang up the phone so I couldn’t get through.  I called the home health aide and we agreed that I should come over and calm everything down.  We are only called in when the episodes lasts long enough to be totally freaky.

I came over, and Dad agreed to take off his coat, since I was doing the same.  Now, how to convince a scared man that he is really in his home?

“Dad, if this were your home, would you know where you keep the scotch?”

Of course,” he said as if I had impugned his very core.  [Ok, I guess that is good.]

Dad went right for it.  Score 1 for the older generation.

“Dad, if this were your home, where would your underwear drawer be?”

Dad found that, too.  Score 2.  While we were standing in front of his bureau, I asked:

“Dad, do you recognize some of the people in the pictures?”

He did.  Not all but most. Score 2.5.

“So, Dad, if this is not your home, then it is doing a good job of making you comfortable.”

“But you see all of the paintings . . . ” He was referring to the paintings and sculpture in the living room and dining room.

A-ha.  He doesn’t recognize that those are his and Mom’s.  This is a huge downward trajectory for Dad.  “Daddy, those are your and Mom’s paintings and sculptures.”

He seemed to start to understand.  But not yet.

“Dad, if this is not your home, then this is a great art studio.  I am going to have some wine while you have dinner in your dining room.  Join me?”

Dad ate a little and had a little wine (less alcohol than scotch).  We talked.  Mostly non-sense (as in I had no idea what he was talking about) but slowly he was calming down and returning to earth.  Finally he said:

“It is good to be home.  And so lovely to have you over for dinner.”

“Yes, Dad, it is a treat to see you midweek.  Now I am going home.”

We kissed good night.  I hugged his home health aide knowing that she allows me to have a life separate from Dad’s because she only calls in the cavalry when she cannot snap him out of it within a reasonable time and he is a flight risk.

I get home and hug and kiss my son.  We talk about the day and the weekend ahead, during which we will all attend a Bat Mitzvah.

“E-mom, remember, don’t hang around me during the Bat Mitzvah.  It will be embarrassing.”

“No problem, buddy.” What I wanted to say was, “I don’t want to watch you and tweenage friends behaving in a way that will make me skin crawl.  Besides, I am going to hang with the adults and behave in a way that will make you cringe from afar.”

But instead, I took my victory from the top bread and didn’t squeeze too hard on the bottom bread.

Maybe we could be a panini.

Shirley Hirsch z”l (1925-2014)

Shirley could have been in the New York Times year-end edition of the Lives They Lived.  As a tale of lost and found.

She was born into a poor immigrant family and was, as they used to say, “not quite right”.  After her father died (her mother died in childbirth with her younger sister), she was put into a public-assisted halfway house system.  She was thereafter “dead” as far as the family — her surviving siblings — was concerned.  Ultimately, she ended up in a public assistance psychiatric nursing home.

One of her nephews discovered her existence 60 or more years later and began, with his wife, visiting her.  Through their interest and kindness, she spoke for the first time in decades.  And she kept talking, but not like a made-for-TV movie — it was intelligible, although often guttural.

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We buried Shirley today.  Forgive the non-adherence to the Jewish 24-hour burial rule, but her nephew only found out two years ago that he was Jewish (for another blog) and is trying to integrate that knowledge into his otherwise Christian life.

In most other respects, we followed Jewish tradition.

The usual litany of readings and meditations didn’t fit this particular situation.  I talked with my cousins about what we would say about Shirley during the graveside service.

My cousin showed me the poem he wrote.  There were no better words.  Rest in peace, dear Shirley.  We will remember you.

For Shirley:

She a little left
a little different
and we a little right
perhaps indifferent
but was it right
to let a loved one
cling fast
to family long past?
we forgot that past
while she forgot this present

Finally we unlocked the door
and dove right in
to days left behind
all day into the night
hiding in plain sight
We found each other
Surely we were ignorant
but we were not
we ran away from each other
and surely that was not right

Reunited, we clung fast
she managed soft whispers
of that past long gone
we hung on every word
as we held onto her hand
soaking in precious moments
making up that lost time
when we went left
and she went right
a family come full circle

and surely this is right.

Amen.

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.

And the band just played on.

Many Yahrzeits tonight for close family.  I am too tired of death.  I couldn’t get it together to buy Yahrzeit candles.  But there are leftover Chanukah candles!!!

Two candles making one flame.  They are Aunt Betty and Uncle Billy.  Intertwined in death as in life.

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One candle for Aunt Roz. [I am now dealing with the actual death of her recently undead sister — more about that in prior blogs.]

One candle for all who have no one to remember them.  IMG_1492No one to remember them.  No one.  It doesn’t need to be family.  It just needs to be someone who says, “I will remember you for all that you were (and weren’t).”

It is important to remember more than just the righteous among us.  Because if that were the test, then I, for one, would become one of the nameless souls who came into and out of this world in the blink of an eye.

AND THEN ALL OF THE CANDLES BLEND AS ONE.

Ritual

SOB (sister of blogger) and I set out for the cemetery to unveil the gravestones of ULOB (Uncle L of blogger) and AROB (Aunt R of blogger).  This ceremony is not formal tradition. It is not required by Torah or rabbinical teachings. In fact, because of that, this commemoration more befits AROB and ULOB than any set ritual.

BACKSTORY:  It is a long-standing Jewish custom to place a marker on a gravesite. The marker is made of stone or metal, a permanent substance that represents that the person lives on, although the body does not. The treatment of the body itself could not be more different. It is shrouded in linen and the coffin is made of unvarnished wood with no metal hinges. The body is supposed to return to the earth (dust to dust) as quickly as possible. But the memory lives on. And the gravestone is our communal memory.

In truth, we could have blown it off and no one alive would have known or remembered.  No one, that is, except us.

It was this growing internal call to take hold of the mantle of keeping our family traditions, just as our mother did for her generation and our grandmother for her generation.  We have completed the generational shift and assumed the roles of the keepers of the memories and the traditions.

Actually, SOB and I dreaded the day to some degree.  We asked AROB’s nephew and wife to come, as well as POULOB (paramour of ULOB) about whom we learned around the time that AROB died.  Having a joint unveiling would have been hard on POULOB.  Dancing around the complexities detracted from the purpose of the unveiling and would have been hard on us.

BACKSTORY: For the crazy backstory, you need to read http://40andoverblog.com/?p=4980; http://40andoverblog.com/?p=5014; http://40andoverblog.com/?p=5029; there are some others, too.

As fate would have it, only SOB and I were able to make it.  And so we were able to pay tribute in our way, to the giants of our childhood, even though we have long since reconciled the differences between who they were and our childhood memories of them.

ULOB and AROB lived their lives, making up the rules as they went along. What they didn’t like, they banished. What they loved, they gave it their whole hearts. The same with those they loved.  There were the students they taught and neighbors they helped.  Yet, they loved in their way. They accepted love in their way. They let you know you were entering a minefield when you probed a subject that was off-limits. And they guarded their independence even when they needed help the most.

They lived according to the ancient principal of our people, “love me, love my meshugas [craziness]”.

And the great moments remain in our memories. For SOB, BOB (brother of blogger) and me, growing up with them was magical — they captivated us; they spoiled us; and they opened us up to the arts.

And today, there we were, at their graves. And, looking back on their lives (and all we now know since their deaths), we remember them, with love. Always with love.  As imperfect as they were. As imperfect as we all are.

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