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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Trumpet in the Time of Migraine

I heard he played a good song . . . .

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

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

Torturing me screeeeeeechingly, but please kill me quickly.

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

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

Then stick a sock in it.

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

 

Dear Dad,

These days, I keep thinking of the old times.  How you were so playful when we were toddlers, too strict when we were teenagers, my rock during the turmoil of my twenties, and, along with Mom, your kids’ greatest cheerleader.

Sometimes I think that I see the glimmer of the old you.  Beneath the bizarre outfits and the confused talk.

Our weekend of celebrating your big birthday was wonderful.  (After 90, they are ALL big.)  Sometimes you didn’t really understand what was going on, but you were happy that your family was around you.

10630568_10202625072736212_3324593164443517949_o(And you knew to wear the appropriate outfit your aide set out for you.)

And I know you didn’t need the luncheon to be in such a fancy place.  I know if we said, “Dad, we are coming over and we are eating cardboard for dinner [fiber-rich],” you would say, “how wonderful! I can’t wait to see you.”

But you might worry about whether you would get an evening cocktail.

And so I know you have not lost your mind completely.

In the light of day, you know you get confused at night and, appreciating the humor, refer to the nighttime aides as your guards.

Your kids prefer the term, body guards.  So, let’s use that term, shall we?

Today, you were mostly discombobulated and, yet, and yet, you were ready to go to the aid of an old friend whom we didn’t see in the diner today, and whom the waiters hadn’t seen since last week.  You called him to pay a visit and bring food.  In a clutch moment, the old you comes shining through.  (P.S.:  Sam is ok.)

This is a hard road, Dad, for all of us, and, most of all, for you.

And yet.

And yet, even in the waning days of your life and the continuing diminishing of your faculties, the essential you shines through.

You won’t ever read this.  But I had to write it.

I love you, Dad.

~Blogger

P.S.:  See you tomorrow, Dad.  Same time.  Lunch.  But let’s change it up a little; let’s order something different.  Because I cannot watch you try to put jam in your coffee or on the tomato slices that comes with your usual order of scrambled eggs.

 

 

 

Hello! Yes, it has been a while. Part 1

I hope everyone had a good summer.

Time for Fall.  Time for the Jewish High Holy Days.  Time to sit in sack cloth and ashes and mourn the long sunny days and the sultry nights of summer.  And that my summer was not anything like the summers I remember when I was younger.

I have learned many things this summer, some profound and some not so.  All important.

Dad continues a slow downward trajectory but never loses the essential elements (and annoyances) of the man he is.  Dad called me one morning.

SIDEBAR:  how DOES he call on my cell phone and office phone simultaneously???

He was quite fussed about the bank calling him about credit and debit cards, etc.  He couldn’t understand what the caller was saying.

Dad, I will call Chase and find out.  Did you give the caller any information?

No.  Nothing, but the caller seemed to know all my card numbers.

That’s a good sign, Dad.  There is no odd activity on your accounts [I have them linked to mine and pulled them up while we were talking].  I will call and find out and call you back.”

Thank you, darling.  I feel so much better.  You will call me right back?

I have a colleague in my office and a deadline, but this is my dad.  “As soon as I get some answers.  Don’t worry I am ON it.

I call.  Chase is being cautious with recent security breaches, and is sending my father all new cards.  I asked about any odd activity because what I see on the computer looks to be in real time but there may have been odd charges rejected.

I am sorry, M’am.  I will need your father on the line to answer these questions.

I have power of attorney.  His accounts are linked to mine.  Why do we have to involve my Dad?

This has to do with his profile.

I have no idea what this means.  The most important aspect was that for all of the planning, for all of the day-to-day handling of my father’s affairs, there are some places I cannot go without his express permission on tape.

I LEARNED THAT WE NEED TO MAKE BANKS ISSUE “FORMS OF POWER OVER EVERYTHING, INCLUDING, WITHOUT LIMITATION, WHATEVER” so that we can sign these and be finished with the chaos.  Because there is the law and there is banking law.

I call Dad back on a three-way conference.

Dad, I have you on the phone with Chase, so that I can talk to customer service about our inquiry.

Don’t you already have that authority?

SIDEBAR:  I love that Dad can still identify stupidity, even in dementia.  Which really makes a person wonder about banking in general.  (Sorry, Mighty.)

The woman talked, doing her level best to ascertain that my father was who he was, etc., but he was too stressed and needed a familiar voice to prompt him.

Dad, Stacy needs your name. Dad, would you tell her your name?

Dad“.

SIDEBAR:  I love that Dad thinks that being dad is who he is.

Daddy, that is great.  Can you give your full name now??

So, he pretty much got the information right.

Dad, that last question was do you give me, [Blogger], permission to talk to Stacy about your affairs.

Of course; I thought we did that already.”

Ok, Dad, you can hang up now and I will call you back shortly.”

Ok, darling.  I love you.

I love you, Daddy.  Thanks.  I will call you back soon.

All was ok.  I resolved the matter and recapped with Dad.

I am a lucky man, to have the kids I have.

We are lucky.  These things are complicated and we can do this for you.  And we want to do this for you.

With nothing to worry about, I might live past 120!!

Don’t worry, Dad, we have that covered, too, but your children will be on social security, so we will have to pool resources. . . .

Another day, another problem resolved.

WHAT I LEARNED (AGAIN):

  • Little kids, little problems.
  • Big kids, big problems.
  • Aging parent, a combination of both and . . .

And I can only hope that, from day-to-day, there are mostly little problems until the day that it is THE BIG PROBLEM.