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.

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. 

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. 

What Did Grandpa Know and When Did He Know It

Dad’s world is closing in.  He can understand some things.  But, he no longer tries to understand the intricacies of his care, his insurance, etc.  He refers any material matters to his children.  I think that is freeing for him, even as it is an admission — a resignation — that he can’t navigate the bigger world anymore.  We are here to catch him before he falls.

But at my son’s Bar Mitzvah, when he slowly came to the Bimah and — relying decades’ old some-kind-of-muscle memory — chanted the prayers before my son read Torah, I imagined that Dad understood that his grandson was being called to Torah as a Bar Mitzvah.  Linking the past with the present.  From generation to generation.

My son did a magnificent job, by all accounts (including mine).

Dad was in and out of reality during the day. He enjoyed dancing at the reception, as always, cutting up the floor.

But did he understand what happened?  Did he understand that his grandson accepted his birthright to become a Bar Mitzvah? To hold the Torah and read from it?

In my mind, I said, “Of course, Dad knew!”

But I had no idea.

Then my son said to me, days later, “Grandpa didn’t understand what happened at my Bar Mitzvah, did he?”

“Dude, I think he did, in moments, but I am not sure that he always understood.”

Silence. Resolution. Generational connection lost.  I could feel it in my son’s look and posture.  I felt a desperation to keep the connection alive.

Today, I asked his health aide (who was with him at the Bar Mitzvah), “Tell me for real, FOR REAL, did Dad understand what was happening at the Bar Mitzvah?”

“Well, this week, he told the visiting nurse how his grandson read from Torah so beautifully!!  Some days the light is on and others he is a little in the dark.  But he knew it then and sometimes he knows it now.”

And that is all I need.  I hope it is enough for my son.

True North On the Road to Siberia

I have been generally quiet these past few months about Dad.  Out of respect for him and his privacy.

But, let’s be honest: a mouth as loud as mine can only be still for just so long.

Today’s events are par for the course for so many of us.  We try to preserve our parents’ dignity, by putting cash and credit cards in their pockets and remotely monitoring the financial doings, ready to step in at any sign of trouble.  We also hire lovely, underpaid people to handle our parents so that we don’t have to give up our lives to care for them.  One such lovely person left Dad alone for 10 minutes while she changed over the laundry.  He didn’t leave the apartment (thank G-d) but when she came back, he was on the phone giving his credit card number to someone.

REALLY, Dad?  Really, Heather?  Heather, can you just take him with you to the laundry room?  Dad, could you just speed dial your children instead of handing over personal information to anyone who calls?

Ok, Heather invokes the Blogger family data breach protocol, which means she calls the daughter least likely to curse, but also least likely to know what to do.  And that sends the cell towers buzzing.

Ring, ring, ring, on my cell.  “Hey, [SOB — sister of blogger]!” trying to sound cheery even though I know that a call during the day at the office cannot be good.

Ok.  So, Heather calls my sister who calls me.  I decide not to call my brother, BOB, because, while creating a national frenzy has some appeal (he lives pretty far away), I have the information to handle the data breach.  And why give another person indigestion?  [BOB, sorry you are reading this on my blog, but if I told you, in real time, you would have (rightfully) invoked Blogger family LOCKDOWN protocol, and that would have really sucked.  Besides, I am redecorating the bunker.]

First credit card:  only an endless loop of robotic voices.  But I got it cancelled in less than 20 minutes.

I know what you are thinking, Blogger is a rock star.  She is making this elder care seem like a walk in the park.  And I am so feeling the need to put on my sunglasses on a cloudy day in New York.

Second credit card:  Same company.  This time a real person.  Whoa.  This will be a cake walk.  I need darker shades because my light is so bright.

“I am sorry, but your information appears nowhere on this account.”

“I have power of attorney.  I have had it for years.”

“I am sorry but we need your father on the line.”

After much back and forth about the information on the customer service computer screen and the facts of life, I conference in Dad.

It was the crazy ordeal you would expect.  Heather got on the phone to make sure it was ok that Dad was talking on the phone about his credit card.  [SOB, she redeemed herself.]  Dad did what he needed to do and then hung up.

“Ok, we can cancel this card and issue a new card, but I will have to ask you a few questions.”

I am soooo ready for this. Sunglasses on. Check.

“What are the first three letters of your father’s mother’s maiden name?”

“ITZ”

Silence.  It had to be right because I used it to cancel the card with robot customer service.

“That is not correct.”

What is this?  F#$%ing JEOPARDY?

“Itzik or Itsik.  It is my grandmother for Goodness sakes!! Itzik  Itzik  ITZIK

Itzikkkkkkkkkkkk. Or it could be spelled with an “s” I suppose,” said I meekly.

Silence.

And it worked for the efficient robotic customer service that canceled my other [Bank name] card in a snap.

Yep, I threw it down.  Hard.  I can be (sort of) charming and then, presto, like a light switch, not so much.

What am I, an idiot? [DO NOT answer.]

“You will have to answer the following [trick] questions so we can verify that your father’s authorization was really to his daughter and you are in fact his daughter and he is in fact the card holder [and totally mess you up and enjoy doing so].”

“I am not charging anything.  I am trying to cancel something. But, ok, ask.”  I shouldn’t have added that verbal swagger at the end.

What am I, a schmuck? [DO NOT ANSWER.]

“I am sorry but you answered one or more questions WRONG.  I will need to conference in a security adviser.”

Brief hold with bad music.

“M’am, I have another person whose job it is to make your day miserable.  She will need to speak to your father again to authorize this next level of security.”

Are ya kidding me?

“It would be too confusing for him.  Aren’t there super-secret decoder ring-type questions you can ask me?”

“No, m’am.  We need to speak to your father.”

“No, you will not.”  And hung up.

What am I, the stupidest person ever? [DO NOT ANSWER. ZIP IT.  ZIP IT.]

It was too much.  I could not say why I needed to cancel the card.  I was trying to gloss over my dad’s infirmities.  I was trying to protect him.  And me.

So, what did I do?  I threw my phone against the wall and cursed in frustration.

DO NOT SAY IT. BUT, YES, YES, I AM.

Life Cycle

sc0003369c - Version 2This is a picture of my parents at Jamie’s Bar Mitzvah.  Jamie is my second cousin once removed.  I have seen him three times in my life.  But he and his father, my mother’s first cousin, had special relationships with Mom.  I get that. That Bar Mitzvah was probably a little over 30 years ago.  Don’t Mom and Dad look great?

My son will be called to Torah as a Bar Mitzvah in June.  My mother won’t be there in body.  My dad will be there mostly in body only.

The only child of our Mom’s and Dad’s grandchildren to be called to Torah. And they should be kvelling (filled with pride), standing next to him, making the blessings before he reads from Torah.

I robbed my mother of this moment by having him so late in my life.  Fate robbed me by taking Mom to her grave too early and by taking Dad’s mind from him.

My son’s Bar Mitzvah will be a joyous day but it will be incomplete. Because Mom and Dad will not be there — in the ways I imagined they would be — and I will miss what I imagine as their inevitable tears of joy and pride.

But I know that Dad will labor up the steps to the Bimah, with help.  And he will say the blessings, from memory instilled long ago.  And he will be present, infused by Mom’s spirit hovering over him, as he stands next to his grandson as his grandson reads from Torah.

And, in my mind’s eye, I will see Mom and Dad as they are in the picture.  Vibrant and proud.

And I will cry tears of joy and loss.

When the future loss seems real right now

I have chronicled Dad’s decline, and his surprising cameos in reality.

Something has changed.  I couldn’t articulate it until I bumped into SOB (sister of blogger) in the gym locker room.  Because why not discuss our deeply personal business when naked women are blow-drying their hair, I said:

“Something is different with Dad”

“He is winding down.  It is sad.”

“It isn’t just his heart failure —

SIDEBAR: everyone over a certain age is in heart failure.

— have you noticed that he doesn’t annoy us so much anymore?”

We both had a think about that.

Dad was once a maestro at making us nuts.  When Mom was dying, we knew that we would move in and disrupt our lives to care for her.  Dad was different; he was too damn annoying.

Now, we are talking about taking turns staying over (along with his 24/7 care) if necessary.

What is different? 

Dad is now a lovely old, nutty man who has — maximum — two or three habits that make SOB and me nuts.  That’s it.

Wait. 

Whaaaaat?

WHERE IS THE MAN WHO, WITHOUT EXERTING A MUSCLE, COULD MAKE ME NUTS BY TALKING ABOUT THE PRICE OF BANANAS OR COMMENTING LOUDLY ON OVERWEIGHT PEOPLE ON THE BUS? OR COULD BE PASSIVE-AGGRESSIVE WHEN A CAB DRIVER WAS TALKING ON THE PHONE INSTEAD OF ASKING HIM TO END HIS CALL?

Yes, the change.  Dad being Dad as he is now doesn’t make me nuts.  (Dad’s dementia, however, makes me sad, mad and crazy.)

I wished that my father would stop torturing me all these years.  Now I understand the maxim: “careful what you wish for” because the quid pro quo in my case is too heartbreaking.

Thankfully, dementia is not linear.  The old Dad shines through sometimes.  Just this weekend, in advance of Thanksgiving, where we serve brisket instead of turkey, he asked:

“Did you remember to get the lean cut of brisket and did you find someone who knows how to carve it?”

Oh, Dad, the miracle of your annoying ways made my eyes well up when I responded:

“Daddy, I am good at a lot of things, but not carving brisket.  You may have to deal with the usual thick slices, ok?”

Pause.  Silence.  Resignation.  “Of course, darling.”

Ah, the gifts that can light up an evening sky.