So Sophie bounds downstairs one morning last week, ponytail bouncing, and carrying a pair of underwear. She stops at the entrance to the kitchen and looks down at her hands as if in disbelief. Then she scrunches her face, and says “These aren’t socks. I meant to bring socks.” She turns around and heads back upstairs.
And in my mind I think: senior moment.
It was gratifying to seeing it happen to someone so young. Increasingly I find myself heading for the freezer and midway having to stop and remember what for. My father suffers from this almost less than I do; he has eliminated most clutter from his brain space so while (like the rest of us, let’s be honest) he repeats stories, usually he doesn’t find himself mid-stride without quite recalling why. And he remembers elements of his own childhood, and mine, with precision that’s almost startling. A few weeks ago I mentioned a childhood trip to the Outer Banks and he replied, “That was either 1973 or 1977.” He recounts details of his escape from Hungary almost 60 years ago like it just happened.
A while ago I wrote about feeling most times in this Sandwich Generation father experience that the glass half full. It’s true. The glass is half full any day when your 12 year-old daughter appears a little more forgetful than your 91 year-old father. Even more so when you make it to freezer without stopping to wonder why.
Because it’s mid-Yom Kippur and I am in the part of the Sandwich Generation with only one parent, I am thinking about my mother today. Last night at services I looked to my right at my children and flashed briefly to just how much they’ve grown in the 4 years since she passed away. If she could observe them, she’d be proud of them. Maybe she would be a little proud of how I’ve done as a father with, let’s face it, no formal training whatsoever.
Over the choir’s chanting, I flashed to a recurring dream I’ve had over the past couple of years. I am a recurring anxiety dream kind of person. My usual standards are (a) I’m trying to make a plane but every step just seems to take a lot longer than usual, like I’m running in molasses, (b) I somehow didn’t study all semester and the test is in 24 hours or, another variation on this topic, (c) I’m back in business school and skipped most of last semester, so this semester I am really in trouble if I want to graduate. Oddly, I recently conquered (c); somehow mid-dream I’ve been remembering that Stanford was a zillion years ago and that this can’t be reality.
In this particular dream, I’m standing in the a dream-altered version of the kitchen of my childhood home. It is smaller, more cluttered (which you would not think possible if you ever visited my mom’s kitchen), the light a little more slanted and muted. My mother is alive. Her death turns out to have been a big medical mistake and she’s back. In the dream this is reality, not realization; as I walk into the house, I accept that this new version is just how things have been for some time now.
“Reality” also means that my father has moved back in with her into my childhood home and they have fallen back into the pattern where as a unit, she is caring for him.
I think I flashed to this because having pondered how proud my mother would be of her grandchildren, I know she would be amazed at my father. It’s hard to remember the days before he became a widower and in his late 80’s managed not only to survive but to carve out a life. But in the dream and last night in the synagogue, I realize that if she were still alive and could see it, it of course wouldn’t have happened. By observing it, she would change it. It’s the human application of the Heisenberg principle from physics: observing momentum at the atomic level alters it.
In the case of my parents, this maxim holds. My father told me a story a few weeks ago about a planned Alaskan cruise that they canceled abruptly the morning of their flight to Seattle because she suddenly didn’t feel well. Around and observing her constantly he didn’t divine what I surmised not long after she passed away: she spent the last several years of life struggling with illnesses, with anxiety, suffering in near silence. It was just like her to make you worry more about her more by telling you not to worry about her. Now, with distance, he recognizes that she must have spent weeks fearing having to let on to him that she wasn’t well enough to make that trip. Which then altered what happened.
As a caregiver, observation frequently leads to corrective action. It has to. As a parent, there is a balance is between observing our children’s reality and stepping in, no matter how good the intentions, to change it. Knowing when to do which is something for which, as previously mentioned, I did not receive formal training. I must have skipped that semester at Sandwich Generation dad class. Now as in my dream, I suppose I am in some trouble now as my daughters edge closer to adolesence. At least now I know to watch out for doing both at the same time.
My brother and family visited from California last weekend. Traveling is challenging for them with a 6 year-old, a 3 year-old, a 6 hour flight and 3 time zones. But because my father lives here and is no longer mobile enough to travel, they make at least one journey east every year. This year the calendar page for September 13th said “Rosh Hashanah”, and thanks to a lucky series of sports scheduling and well-played tennis by Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, it also marked the US Open men’s final.
When I was growing up, my father, brother and I would watch Wimbledon and the US Open religiously. My father would yell at the TV and criticize the players for all of the “stupid” things they were doing. It was a variation on a common theme in my house. Anyway, if I close my eyes I can imagine Borg and McEnroe when I was 10, or Steffi Graf and Martina Navratilova when I was 18, or 1996 Graf-Vicario final we watched in Atlanta while visiting my brother. And I remember watching the French Open with the 2 of them when my father was in the hospital in Princeton beating back post-colonoscopy complications when he beat colon cancer.
So in August this year, when I noticed how the calendars lined up, I started rooting for a #1 vs. #2 matchup at the US Open. And then the players in the rest of the draw acceded to my wish and it happened. It was as though destiny had one more epic tennis-watching session in store for the 3 of us. My kids, who I have indoctrinated into becoming Federer fans, were ready as well. My Sandwich Generation dad moment in front of the Flushing Meadow court.
Except that a rain delay pushed the match back from 4pm to almost 8pm, late enough that my father couldn’t watch with us, we had to serve dinner instead, and my kids were occupied with my nieces. It was a moment that was not to be.
I mention this because my kids have moved into pre-teen mode and I can hear the clock ticking down their last few days as willing inhabitants of our home. My father likely doesn’t have many US Open finals left in him. The moments I have together with them take on a fierce urgency, each opportunity feeling more precious than the ones before it. This is the benefit of mortality, I suppose. It forces you to appreciate and savor the glimmers you get.
This is one reason that, unlike my brother, I am not a frequent videographer. Maybe this is a mistake. My philosophy is that I would rather be in the moment than observing it, and I have learned about myself that I don’t do both well.
Most moments I have with my father now aren’t scripted calendar-aided events. Yes, my kids have their B’Not Mitzvah celebration coming up and with any luck he’ll be there. But I am thinking of the pauses amongst the list of chores I perform at his place when he stops, thinks, and begins a sentence with “You know, I never told you….” It’s not the notes that make the moments. It’s the empty spaces between them. The same goes for my kids. It’s the small remarks, the impromptu dances they choreograph, the stories they offhandedly tell us when we’re playing cards and everyone has their guard down. Those are the moments I already miss.
I checked with Google and learned that Rosh Hashanah 2016 is in early October, so there’s no US Open final during the holiday. Maybe it’s just as well. The 3 of us missed watching a pretty compelling final, but we’ll always have the 4th set tiebreak of the 1980 Wimbledon final. A great moment that, at the time, we didn’t see coming.
When Bobbi Carducci of The Imperfect Caregiver asked me to contribute a post to her blog (where this entry also appears), I settled early on a topic that has been much on my mind recently. Then, suspecting it might send some readers running for the exits, I decided to check my instinct by asking my Facebook friends about particularly unappealing cocktail party discussion topics. Their list included pap smears, what sub-department of finance someone works in, minutiae-filled marathon training and post-run recovery rituals, CrossFit (described as the Amway coffee chat of the 21st century – by the way, Amway was on there too), someone’s latest airline travel delay nightmare, detailed hole-by-hole recounting of a round of golf, and fibromyalgia.
Included on this list, indirectly, was incontinence. Unfortunately, this is actually what I am writing about. But hang in there with me anyway.
My father is about as physically bulletproof as a 91 year-old can be. He is independent, sharp, strong, and mostly mobile. However, what he is not is able to do is control his bladder. It controls him. Back in 2002 when he weighed 50 pounds more than he does now, he had congestive heart failure, for which he was prescribed Lasix. If you don’t know what Furosemide (that’s the generic name) does, it’s a so-called loop diuretic, meaning it tricks your body into squeezing more water out of you. Kimberly-Clark, the company that makes the adult diapers Depends, should send their manufacturer royalty checks. Then he’s on Flomax (aka Tamsulosin), which relaxes enlarged prostates. In other words, it also eases the flow of urine.
Maybe Depends should be sending royalty checks to these guys as well.
Compounding the problem is that he is now only mostly mobile. So, reaching the bathroom when the urge strikes sometimes just takes too long. Who among us has not reached the bathroom with mere seconds to spare? He loses those seconds to slow movement. When you live in a community like he does, this causes complaints from other residents, which is a big headache.
His physically slowing down also affects the often-recommended solution of using Depends: he physically has trouble putting them on and taking them off. That assumes my brother and I could convince him to wear them, which we can’t. And honestly, I almost don’t want to succeed.
I’m oversharing about my father’s incontinence because I have to deal with it and at times, it dominates my discussions with him. With time to reflect, I realize how insane this is. He is a whole human being, a man in full, and this is an imperfection. This is a man who remembers stories about family members, friends and me, a history that will die when he does, and this is what I’m spending our time together talking about? How much to cut back his Lasix by? Whether or not to try out Oxytrol (a female hyperactive bladder medication) as a solution?
As caregivers, however, we frequently focus on the imperfections. They are the urgent we tend to rather than the important. It’s a peculiar byproduct of being in a caregiving position. Put another way: I have a good friend my age who has related issues, and I promise you, we have never discussed Oxytrol.
We also tend to obsess on the imperfections in how we provide care, whatever form that takes. As a Sandwich Generation father, I find often myself evaluating and second-guessing how I provide for, communicate with, and otherwise help raise my children. I even write an entire blog about it.
In the end, however, what matters is not the imperfections but the thing in full.
As I mentioned, I want to thank Bobbi for the chance to guest-write on her blog, the title of which I have a new appreciation for. Sometimes writing about imperfections in others and in ourselves, helps put them in the right perspective. I know it has for me.