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 initial wave wash over you.  And you know that, in the months to come, the waves will wash you up to shore with a mouth of sand while you are struggling to breathe.

Yep, there is pain.  But Dad had a good and long life.  There is no tragedy here.  There is no anger.  There is, in fact, guilty joy for being able to celebrate a long life well-lived.  An embarrassment of riches.

Ok, because I need to bring it back to humorous. 

Here are things I learned:

  • BOTH BOB and I snore.
  • Do not want to get between SOB and any patient.  Every now again I let my head get in the way of her arm reaching to feel Dad’s pulse.  A painful mistake.
  • BOB thinks I pick wine based on the freakiest or stupidest name.  He may be half-right.  My real goal was to make sure when Dad was drinking his last “cocktail”, we were giving him a good send off home to Mom.

And now I have to get all emotional. 

The greatest lessons I learned are:

(i) we siblings need our own bedrooms,

(ii) we have the craziest memories of childhood and they are all different,

(iii) we siblings are in sync in a crisis, and

(iv) SOB and BOB are the finest people anyone could ever hope to meet.

Yes, SOB and BOB are the finest people anyone could ever hope to meet

I am the luckiest person ever.

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, one cadet started playing Taps.  As he played, everyone had their hands over their hearts.  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 (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.

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. 

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

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.

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.

**************************************************************************************************************

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.

IMG_1490

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.