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.

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.

A prayer for my son on his Bar Mitzvah

The rabbi told me we needed to bless my son on his becoming a Bar Mitzvah, so, my voice trembled as I gave him this blessing:

My dearest child:

You are a young man now.

Where does the time go?

And you have your own mind about things. I remember when you were 6 years old and you said, “I have to disagree with you, Emom”. And I said, “no, no, I don’t think that ever needs to happen.”

Well, you are a young man now.

NOW, you can disagree with me, but you will still be WRONG.

I admire so much in the person you are already and three things in particular that I think will form the person you will become:

Your insatiable curiosity and quest for learning about people and the world – near and far, existing and ancient. From the Mughals of Middle Age India to today’s German Muslims learning about the Holocaust.

From every fact I never knew to every one I have already forgotten.

Your boundless imagination – it is a place where the impossible is routine and miracles happen.   You are able to see the world in ways unconstrained by the so-called common wisdom and societal strictures.

You see unending possibilities where others see insurmountable road blocks.

Your gentle heart – this is truly the treasure of you.

It is what makes you, you.

Yes, you will have your own mind about the world, and it will be guided by your curiosity, imagination and heart.

May they guide you on a meaningful life journey filled with joy, with wonder, with hope, with laughter and with peace.

I love you more than you can ever know.

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.

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.

Memory

Study after study shows that eyewitness testimony is basically unreliable.  Why? Because a witness to a crime, let’s say, has seen a perpetrator for seconds at the time of the incident.  In a highly stressful and scary moment.  The witness then picks the person in a line up or photo array who looks as much like the person he or she saw in those few seconds.  Then at trial, that person identifies the defendant as the perpetrator.

Does the eyewitness remember the person from the crime or the line up/photo array?  Or is it a conflation of the two?  And if the witness were to testify, he or she has to convince him or herself that the memory is correct.  So, is it conflation coupled with rationalization?

This scenario happens all the time.  With eyewitnesses who are conscientious and well-meaning.

My college friends and I joke that whether or not we were at a particular event, it becomes a part of our collective memory and, in short order, we will remember it as if we were there.  And it is true.  When we were all in Cancun two years ago for a reunion, I remember distinctly that the concierge called us, “my lovely ladies.”  Except I wasn’t there; I was home in New York with the flu.

So, memory isn’t a moment in time burned into our brains — it is an evolving yarn that morphs over the years.  And it is our narrative of how we want to tell others about our past.

And we all like to remember ourselves as better than we were, or more courageous, or kinder, or more heroic when in great personal peril.

Mostly, it is our best version of the truth.

What happened to Brian Williams happens to all of us (except those exceptional people with the crazily accurate memories).  Especially as we get older and further away from the events.

Today, when I called Dad around dinner time, he told me about the wonderfully active day he had.

Except he didn’t.  Not today.  Three years ago, maybe.

Brian Williams apologized for a very human exaggeration.  I know he is a reporter and held to a higher standard of truthiness (to use an apt word coined for the G. W. Bush administration), but he probably really remembered it the way he recounted until someone proved to him otherwise.  Even if, originally, his account was accurate.  (Just listen to the subtle and not-so-subtle changes in Ronald Reagan’s stories over time.)

Because memory isn’t a moment in time burned into our brains — it is an evolving yarn that morphs over the years. 

But don’t quote me on this.

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.

New Year’s Day in the Coffee Shop of the Undead

Ah, life in the Coffee Shop of the Undead is, well, hanging by a string.

Back story: http://40andoverblog.com/?p=5641; http://40andoverblog.com/?p=4858; http://40andoverblog.com/?p=5701; http://40andoverblog.com/?p=4435

Maybe not life, as much as sanity.  Ok, not sanity so much as functional insanity.  Life in the Coffee Shop of the Undead is measured by the functionality of those with dementia and other neurological disorders.

I guess it is also measured by physical compromise.  If you aren’t crazy, then you are most likely so enfeebled that, if you make it to the place from your house, you (actually, your home health aide) should do a victory lap around the (tiny) place.

So where else would Dad go to see his friends?  Regardless of Dad’s daily level of crazy, which hit the nuclear contamination levels today, he tips his hat to the elders already seated.  For over 50 years, some of them were just passersby on the street, but now that they are the surviving remnant, they acknowledge each other.  Others, like Marty and Joan (the kids of the group at mid-to-late 70s) get a real greeting.  Dad reserves the warmest greeting for Sam, his old friend.

But Sam wasn’t at lunch today. Always a worrisome sign.  Sam has Alzheimer’s and some other dementia diagnoses, but like any disease, he can function some days and not others.

After we left the coffee shop, we bumped into Sam just outside.  (I am grateful that Dad and he have known each other for so long that, even with his mental disease, he recognizes Dad (and us)).

We greet Sam.

Sam says, “I have some very bad news.  I was going to call.”

SOB and I hold our breaths.  Is it his companion, Norma?  Is it his ex-wife? His daughter? His granddaughter?

Sam continues.  “My brain is not working so well.  I have issues now.”

SOB and I exhale at the same time.  THIS IS NOT NEWS. EVEN TO SAM.  HE JUST CAN’T REMEMBER THAT IT ISN’T NEWS.

Dad — even with his nuclear-level dementia today — didn’t miss a beat, “if you would like company, we will come over or, food, we can bring it over.”

SOB and I marvel at the way Dad can summon the man he was for a friend in need. 

The man he was.  The totally addled man he is.  They live side-by-side in the same body.

That is why it is so hard to handle the bad days.

Because there will be good moments to give a child hope.

And then, a moment later, the child wonders where her daddy has gone.