The Wreckage

Mom’s and Dad’s house is empty of the objects that made it our home.  In fact, worse — the built-ins have been torn down with the most ginormous crowbar and sit as wreckage in the living room. 

The apartment looks like sullied shambles of an ordinary place. 

But it isn’t ordinary.  It is where our young lives happened and generations argued and celebrated, laughed and cried, welcomed new life and mourned those who died. 

And it is ok that realtors fix a value to a life-battered, empty, and unrenovated space.  The price is what the market will bear.  Memories don’t add value.  How could they?  They are only priceless and unique to us who lived them.  And those memories — the love and hurts and pain and epiphanies (few) — don’t live there.  They live in the three of us — my siblings and me.

So, on Saturday, as we schlepped the last boxes of slides and books that HOSOB (husband of sister of blogger) so lovingly packed up, POB (partner of blogger) asked me if I wanted to take down the mezzuzah on the doorpost of house.

I couldn’t.  At the time, I didn’t understand my visceral “nooooooo!”

Later, I realized that removing the mezzuzah was the final, symbolic gesture that would transform my parents’ home to a vacant apartment up for sale.

But, at the time, I knew it was too much for me to bear.  And too much to do alone.  It was a moment that needed all of us kids to do.

So, I will wait for SOB (sister of blogger).  Next weekend, she and I, with our brother on the phone, will take down the mezzuzah.  We, three.  Together. 

And, we, three, together, will close a chapter. 

Memory and Meaning

Memories. 

“So beautiful and yet, what is too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget.”

Barbra Streisand is right.  She sings the definition of nostalgia — a glossy overview of the truth.

Today, I was alone in Dad’s apartment.  Mom’s and Dad’s apartment.  My siblings’ and my home.  55 years of life and memories and stuff.

Alone.  With the walls that talk. 

While I unscrewed the extra shelves in the closets and bathrooms, in preparation for the walls to be skim-coated and painted, I was bombarded by memories — some good, some great, and other not-so-much. 

Teenage years.

Being gay before Mom and Dad accepted me.

Other painful times, just because parents and children don’t always (or often) get along.

I think the physical activity of cleaning made it easier to process the memories. 

And, I was afraid of some of them, because they do not fit the vision of perfect parents of my blogs  — an assault on my revisionist memories.  My “truth” of later years.

And with all of it,

the teenage “I hate you, FOREVER” moments and

the moments of abject despair as Mom and (to a lesser extent) Dad seemingly turned their backs on me because I was gay,

it all turned out ok.  (We all figured it out.  They forgave me for being gay and I forgave them for needing to forgive me.)

Our parents loved us.  And we loved them.  And no one was perfect.  And we were safe in our homes and knew that every resource would be available for us.

Why am I nostalgic?  Because through the shit times, Mom and Dad were present and connected (not always in the way we wanted).  But, when we needed them, they were there. 

I often wonder if I will measure up to their commitment when tested.

So, I was bombarded by memories of shouting, anger, etc. today, and still I think I am incredibly lucky. 

So, to Mom and Dad, on Mother’s Day — thank you both for nurturing me and standing by me (almost always), whether or not you agreed or approved.

I love you.

The Dollars and Cents of Lives

So, my dear and long-time friend, who is experienced in estate matters, came over to Dad’s house to help me assess how to clean out everything.

As gently as she could, she told me that there was very little there of any intrinsic value.  Maybe the silver.  The rest would essentially cost money to remove.

Of course it was true.  But it was hard to hear.  My parents’ possessions are just like the detritus of any other people’s lives, and often laid bare in garage sales.

But these were not any people.  These were my parents.

And these were not just any possessions.  They cluttered a home and carry all of the appurtenant emotional value — and baggage — of more than 50 years.

And some, like PanAm playing cards from our 1969 family trip to Europe, are — to us — priceless.

Other than masterpieces of art (which themselves gain and lose value according to prevailing tastes), I guess things only have the value you give them. 

And, when you are gone, they are only as valuable as the good memories they evoke.

 

Darling, so good to hear your voice

My calls with Mom and Dad (and then just Dad) always started:

“Hi [Mom][Daddy], it’s [Blogger]”

And every time, no matter the hour and what I might be interrupting, Mom or Dad would say, in the most enthusiastic and happy way:

“Darling!!! So good to hear your voice!”

Everything else was gravy.  And now I just smile at the memory.

Dear Dad

Dear Dad:

I am writing but I don’t know what will spill out or whether it will make any sense.  I am not going to edit it afterwards.  I am just going to write.

Friends from high school (and Facebook) lost their dad a day ago.  It seems we are at that age.

And, a young girl whom we know from Benny’s school died from an anaphalactic reaction to medication when traveling in Asia on a school trip. 

So, I feel so lucky that you lived a long and happy life.  Even when I resented the pressure, and frankly the fear, of how to make it all work financially.

I think you died exactly when you knew it was going to be more than I could handle emotionally or figure out financially.  You never wanted to be a burden.

I am going to the apartment this weekend.  I am scared.  Right after you died, I cleaned out some rooms.  I think I was channeling energy into something that seemed constructive.  SOB (sister of blogger) and BOB (brother of blogger) have taken some stuff that they wanted.  I haven’t been back in more than two weeks.  Because the place will not look the same.  

We all talked about what would happen to Mom’s portrait.  But I didn’t think about what would happen to our portraits.  The ones that hung over your bed for literally 50 years.

BOB took his.  SOB took hers. 

Mine is left.  I will take it this weekend.

And, with that, the deconstruction of our home.  A small place.  Way too small for all of us.  I know we had the country house but we were crammed into the apartment growing up.  I know Mom and you wanted to give us the best of everything, and some things had to give.  I get that now.  I used to be embarrassed, but now I get it. 

And now I want to emulate you both as models of parental love and sacrifice.

And this weekend, I will take my portrait down from its place since 1967 and I will take more boxes of pictures.

And I will try to absorb all the memories dancing in the ether.

And I will relish the years in this house and regret the toll of my adolescent years and my embarrassment in front of my rich friends.

I will learn again that I am so lucky.  That I didn’t bury a sibling or child.  That I can take care of my family.  That I have wonderful memories of the old days and the knowledge that Mom and you enjoyed your lives.

But I will still be a child in the deafening quiet of an emptying house, taking down my portrait.  One of the three that hung above your bed for 50 years. 

50 years.

50 years.

And a generation of the family, and my childhood, comes to an end.

I love you forever, Dad,

Blogger

P.S.: I imagine that being with Mom again is the same as it was.  She is deep in conversation with a stranger and you are worried that you are going to be late to meet people to go to a museum.  I bet the show is “Earth on Heaven: The Horror, the Horror.”  If Mom doesn’t know about Trump, don’t tell her.

TRUTH SQUAD

Dad’s death is hard for me to process, although I know he lived a long, good and rich life.

TRUTH SQUAD:

Sometimes, I resented Dad’s dementia and, therefore, him.  I could have done things differently.  I could have spent less time with Dad. But those were my choices.  He did not set rules.  But, while it was painful to see him decline, who else in the world could be as unabashedly thrilled to see his children? 

He was a man who instinctively squared off his shoulders when we called him, “Dad”.

TRUTH SQUAD: 

Sometimes, I groused.  Sometimes, I had no patience (especially, when he wanted pancakes at the diner — my sister will have to guest-blog about that). 

I am grateful for the weekend lunches.  Even for having to run over to his apartment to reassure him when he was having an episode. For time just holding his hand. 

TRUTH SQUAD:

I still cannot handle even the memories of the times trying to make sense of what he said.  That pained me and shook the foundations of my world.

I am now mostly overwhelmed — when looking back — by the extraordinary nature of the ostensibly ordinary man who was my father.  The man who would stand between Mom and us kids and any perceived harm. He always provided first for Mom and us, then for charity, then for the larger family, if necessary, and then, finally for him. 

TRUTH SQUAD: 

He yelled a lot when we were kids and misbehaved.   (And, on occasion, he smacked us.)  

Some years, I was not so sad that he had synagogue meetings at night, because Mom was day-to-day mush-ball.  (Dad was the overarching mush-ball, as we found out in later years.)

And, sometimes, when we wanted something conspicuously consumptive, he raged because it pushed his emotional buttons.  He came from nothing and we expected everything.  (Now, I understand his point of view. . . .)

If any of us kids faced a serious problem, he would speak in a calm voice. He might give us a talking-to, or even worse with my brother (I think it is a father-son thing), afterward, but in the moment, Dad was right next to us, helping solve the problem. 

 

TRUTH SQUAD: 

When the “problem” was my being gay, it took him time to evolve (less time than for Mom).  But Dad never wavered in his love, although the early years were painful.

His every day started with an optimistic lift in his step. When I was in elementary school, he would walk me to school.  On the way, he would hold my hand and our arms would swing. And, he would talk about the great things to come that day, the rest of the week or the upcoming weekend.  The great things were the perfectly ordinary things in our lives — family dinner, going to our house in the country, or having a Blogger clan event.

TRUTH SQUAD:

Going to our house in the Berkshires only sounds good in retrospect.  We were freezing until Sunday morning when the house finally warmed up.  And then it was time to start packing up!! (My parents got smarter a few years into owning the house and paid someone to turn on the heat on Thursday night.)

In later years, Dad was a sculptor.  He called it his second profession. Shortly after Mom died, our son was 6 months old.  Dad’s next sculpture was of two women and a child. He wanted his art to reflect everyone in his family.

TRUTH SQUAD: 

It was not a great piece.  It looks like two women with three breasts, but my father wanted to express his love in his chosen medium.

TRUTH SQUAD ROUND UP:

The Truth-O-Meter says:

1. Hey, Blogger, you had a normal father-daughter relationship.

2. Hey, Blogger, stop being a cry baby.  And P.S., if you were roses, you had out-sized thorns.  

3. Your Dad was an ordinary man with an extraordinary capacity to love. 

4. Hey, Blogger, you can’t go wrong if you try to be like your father.

5. Hey, Blogger, you are tough to handle. And your son will only appreciate you when you are too old to enjoy it. Welcome to life.

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 enormity of it wash over you.  

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.

A little tradition, a little Seinfeld and a lot of love.

Dad’s funeral service was really beautiful. 

(At a later time, I would like to share some of the eulogies with the permissions of the speakers.)

We headed out to the cemetery, located along the Long Island Expressway, where New York Jews have bought burial plots for generations. 

SIDEBAR:  The near universality of this practice has come in handy over the years.  I remember when both Mom and Dad were much younger, we had two funerals — one in each of their families. 

As we were rushing from one graveside service in order to be fashionably late to another, I heard my mother say under her breath, “a shtetl in life; shtetl in death.  Thank G-d!”

My father was a veteran and the last of his brothers to die.  We requested a honor guard because we thought it an important tribute not just to Dad, but to the whole generation, and to the ideals for which they fought and to the resulting scars that would never truly heal.

We arrived at the family plot.  The two cadets were waiting there in full uniform and at attention. 

When we were ready, we nodded and one cadet started playing Taps.  As he played, everyone had their hands over their hearts.  Even those at nearby graves.  When a veteran is being buried, respect must be paid.  I know that when I see someone in uniform, I quietly pray that they will go home to their families, safe and sound and in one piece.

I looked at my father’s coffin, draped with the American flag.  His generation went to war.  And they fought so that their children would not ever have to do so again (or so that was the hope). 

Our family has demonstrated our love of country through these five brothers and their children and children’s children.  In every generation, a Shapiro has served in the armed forces.

The sun was shining, and the wind was whipping, and the two cadets folded the flag with such precision that I felt as though our family was about to be given something truly priceless.

The more senior cadet walked to my sister and presented her with the flag, saying:

“On behalf of the President of the United States, ——

SCREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEECH!! STOP THE MUSIC.  CUT!! STOP TAPE!!!!!

WHAAAAAAT? We all stopped.  The spell and majesty of the moment were SHATTERED. 

Then a cousin saved the moment by muttering under his breath (but at the top of his lungs, as is our custom):  “He meant Obama!!!!!”

Ok, we could continue ———

——————— the United States Air Force, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one’s honorable and faithful service.”

Even with the snafu, the flag is indeed priceless.

And, in that moment, the sad and the beautiful, the creepy, the orange and the inspiring, the funny and the mundane all existed and were inextricably connected, as they are in every moment. 

The rest of the burial went according to tradition.  We shoveled dirt on the grave as a sign of respect in Jewish tradition.  I think we all wanted to shovel more — because of tradition — but at the same time, we didn’t want to bury Dad because we didn’t want him to go.  I think about that conundrum and it haunts me still. 

And I was sad to leave Dad there in the cold but I rationalized that it would be ok because he was next to Mom. 

And he was draped in the flag, although not in the actual grave.  And yet, in life and in death, he was always cradled in the bosom of his family and his country. 

I hope the same end for everyone in this country and, most especially, the members of our armed services who keep the rest of us safe.

 

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.