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. 

Dear Mom

 


Dear Mom:

SOB (sister of blogger) and I had to have a little time today.  She went to Dad’s and your apartment alone and looked through pictures. What was she thinking?

The house is still filled with happy memories, even with your and Dad’s deaths there.  For each of you, the months before your deaths were the most honest, hilarious, screwball-comedic and emotionally devastating episodes of our lives. 

If you read my blog, you know that we made sure Dad had everything, including his cocktail hour — his sacred time with all of us.  Even if we had to use an eye-dropper to share wine with him.  And I know you would have laughed at all of this, because you loved that your kids were crazy when it came to you and Dad.  And you loved that, when we took over, it was gently and lovingly.  You raised us right — with love and humor.

You died before your peers.  They were there to mourn you and comfort us.  Luckily, there were many to mourn Dad.  He staked out a place in people’s hearts after you were gone.  Hard to believe but true.

He never forgot you.  We tried to get him interested in others.  But he was married to you and that was the beginning and end of the story. So, we took special care of him because he, like us, live every day with you in our hearts.

SOB and I are having a hard time on the weekends, because they centered on visits with Dad.  I think I drink a little too much wine on Friday nights so I can’t get up on Saturdays for the usual routine. 

But, the hole needs to stay for a while because, to fill it, would erase Dad.  And we cannot figure out how to fill our weekend and keep Dad’s spirit with us.  Yet.  Maybe soon.  But it is a process.

I don’t think we ever thought that both of you would be gone and we would relinquish our home with all of the memories that soaked right into the walls, shoring up the very building’s foundations. 

The other painful part is memory.  We can’t figure some of the faces in the pictures.  That is too scary for us, because maybe in two generations, no one will pick out you or Dad in the pictures.  And that is more painful that you know. 

Life is a journey.  And death is a legacy and that legacy is a gift to the generations that follow.  If only we make sure they remember.

I love you, Mom.

~ Blogger

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.

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.

Looking Around

One hard part of Dad’s death is that, now, there is no human barrier protecting us kids from the Universe. 

There is no one — even in theory — who can hold us, protect us or offer the wisdom of the ages.

We are the older generation.  Ostensibly, the wise ones. 

We were incredibly lucky, our grandparents died and then our parents and their generation.  In order. 

As we learned, in our extended family, too many people have to bury a child or a loved one gone too early.

Even when Dad was declining, he still held our emotional, mythical line between us kids and mortality.

Months and months ago, I had to get Dad on the phone with customer service at a credit card company.  I asked him, “Dad, can you tell the lady on the phone how you are?”

“Dad,” he answered.

Because, no matter where his mind took him and no matter how confused he could become, he was instinctively our Dad.

He always came back to us, almost magically, if he heard one of his children say,

“Dad?”

“Yes, darling?” was his answer.  Always.

Since he is gone, there is no one to whom we can call out, “Mom?” “Dad?” and get a response — at least in this dimension.

And still, sometimes, I sigh, “oh, Daddy . . . . ” 

And wait for a response.

And I know that, for us, any death that lies ahead is unbearable. 

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.

 

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.