Long ago, in my childhood home while sitting across from me at the same desk he now has in the apartment I need to empty, my father told me the story of the start of his consulting business. He started confident. While employed in the mid 1960’s at Jerrold, engineers at many of the companies with whom he interacted would ask him if he’d be willing to consult for them. Jerrold was a top manufacturer of antenna equipment and my father a well-regarded engineer. In time, he grew to believe that these sincere offers proved that launching his one-man show would prompt an avalanche of business.
Once he left Jerrold – involuntarily – he decided to start out on his own. He named the company Biro Associates, dutifully printed up business cards and stationery, and phoned many of these people back to announce that he was ready to work with them. Suddenly the fast offers evaporated.
This is where he learned, the hard way, about the difference between the role and the man. That is, that people were talking to the engineer employed at Jerrold, and not actually to Steve Biro. He was merely the person occupying the job. Once he was on his own, things were different.
I know the feeling.
For a little while longer, I am still a little bit Sandwiched Man. Among the tasks related to my father that I still own is clearing out is his apartment. I am traveling, however, back with my family in Italy after flying back to Boston last week for the funeral after having been in Europe for only about 48 hours. What I need now is some actual help from one of the many people who said “if there’s anything you need, just ask.”
I am biased in this regard as the father of twins. When Sophie and Lily were infants, we fed them every 3 hours. 10am, 1pm, 4pm, 7pm, 10pm, 1am, 4am. Needless to say, we were perpetually exhausted and in a haze. But they were our only children, so we didn’t know any better.
We also didn’t know any better than to politely decline offers to help. We accepted all of them. Definitely don’t ask if there is “anything” they need. Because I can tell you: they need the laundry done. And they will ask, and mean it.
Fast forward to last week and an offer from a social worker if there was anything we needed, and in particular to help move things out of my father’s apartment while we were gone. It felt too good to be true, so Rob and I decided to test the proposition. We left her very detailed instructions via email on what should go where. The desk, the scooter and the power recliner to my home in Wellesley. The cable box back to Comcast if she had time, otherwise back to my house. Everything else to Goodwill. We sent photos, garage codes, and anything else she might need.
As the hours ticked by, we knew how this would end. Sure enough, an email from her appeared. My apologies, she said. I didn’t mean I would actually help you myself. I meant more that I could give you a contact with movers we know if you wanted. Would you still like that?
The moral of the story for caregivers and parents is this: although you will find many people who can help, you are responsible. Even if Nova and I had spent small fortune to hire night nurses for our kids for the 10pm, 1am and 4am’s, we would have had to manage them and handle emergencies anyway. For my father, I made difficult decisions many times that no one was going to make for me. It was lonely. And now that I am not in a position to steer caregiver dollars toward my father, I cannot help but notice that while offers of help are still abundant, actual help is more scarce.
That makes sense though. In the eyes of those I’ve worked with for some time now, I’m no longer caregiver-with-a-budget Peter Biro. I’m simply Peter Biro. A different person altogether.
Again, this doesn’t particularly surprise or disappoint me. I sort of expected it. I never forgot that lesson sitting at my dad’s desk from all of those years ago. My father got a lot wrong, but on this one, he knew.
I wanted to post something that my daughter Sophie wrote for my dad. Being a Sandwich Generation father and son has meant that my kids got to know my father, and he got to know them. That was a gift, especially on days when I couldn’t take it anymore and they could step in and take over. See below for an example of a situation I am talking about.
Editor’s Note: Sophie is 14, and full of life, wry offbeat humor and positive energy. She built a pretty special bond with him and visited him with me often.
I was extremely fortunate to spend 14 years with my grandfather (or “Apu”, as I called him), and there were two moments in my time with him that I will cherish forever.
This past November, I visited him in rehab. He had broken his hip (I would say more, but I’m sure you all already know the story). I remembered my dad talk about the constant arguments that Apu had with the nurses. He was refusing to start physical therapy, and only wanted to stay in bed and watch T.V. while nurses came and gave him his meals (which, without the broken hip, sounded like a pretty good life to me!!!). I told him that I wanted to see him get in his wheelchair and eat in the dining room. As soon as I said this, without any hesitation, he called the nurses in, was lifted into his wheelchair with a cool electric powered thing, and sat down with me at a table as he ate his dinner.
The second story takes place a few months ago. He asked me what I wanted for my birthday, and I told him that I was going to get a new saxophone (I know, what a “band nerd”). He always loved music. He, without a thought, offered to pay for every penny. I could see how excited he was about this – which is saying a lot, because it was always hard to figure out what he was feeling. I still remember playing for him, a few weeks before he passed, watching as he smiled at me. Two weeks ago, I got my new saxophone, and I sent him a picture through email (of course) and he told me that he was very proud of everything I was doing with music. I’ve starred that email forever.
What really stands out to me, in both of these stories, is that you can see that he really cared, that he really loved his family and would do anything for them. I saw this in every chocolate box he gave me, every time he said “Sophie” and raised his arms for a hug as he saw me, in every photo he showed me, in every gift he gave, etc. I could go on and on. I wish I could of had more time to make more memories with Apu, but I know that I will never forget the ones I do have.
On Monday afternoon I was in Rome, crossing a bridge near the Piazza Cavour with Sophie to get lunch, and my phone rang. When I saw that it was Metrowest Hospital calling at about the time rounds start, I ignored the call. I wanted to hear from my brother instead that my father had passed away.
Even though we knew this moment would come, it still surprised me. Death came for my father many times and each time he turned it away. Of his forced labor battalion of 200 men from 1944, he was the last one left. He survived fleeing Hungary in 1956. In his 70’s, he beat colon cancer. Then 4 years ago, he fought off a deadly C-Diff infection. It was the first of a few times I would summon Robbie to board a plane, right now. My father was feverish, weak, on a collision course with major stomach surgery and 50/50 odds of surviving.
But there was no surgery. He beat that too. A week later he was cleared to eat again. I spread strawberry jam on toast, and fed it to him before they discharged him. I took a bite too. It was the best toast I had ever had. I smuggled in some Diet Coke for him to help wash it down. Always the Diet Coke.
The gift this gave me was 4 years of having him close by, and a second chance to know my father.
He taught me a lot when I was young. To love travel, any travel. We would drive the station wagon to no-frills vacations in destinations stapled onto one of his consulting projects in far-flung small towns: Gadsden, Alabama, Utica, New York, Houma, Louisiana. He taught me to play tennis by hitting balls with me in the street in front of our house. How to play ping-pong. I could never beat him until I finally developed a forehand down the line. It’s still my best shot. How to play chess. How to curse like a Hungarian with my idioms frozen in 1956. How to frame and take good pictures. How to ride a bike. How to drive. Just last week I backed out of a friend’s treacherous driveway flawlessly using his “only use the mirrors” technique. He taught me how to tip. This is because in the Early 1980’s Low-End Family Dining Hall of Fame, he is enshrined as Worst Tipper. I swore I would never do that.
I saw him weep every year at Yom Kippur when he thought of his father. And I knew his history. But I didn’t really know him. He didn’t tell me much about himself.
Let me say this: he was difficult. His head was filled with the ideas from his medium-sized town in Hungary in the 1930’s. He was stubborn. Sometimes he and I would have yelling matches about hygiene where I swore I could hear echoes of my mother calling him “primitive”. To him, everyone else – everyone — was stupid. I think the word he used most in his life was “idiot”.
He could be very selfish. I cared for him in his decline, where he relied on me so much and knew it. I can imagine how forceful and demanding he must have been for my mother when he was in his prime. I think I understand her a lot better now too.
Over our years together though, he softened. A short while after he moved to Massachusetts, we settled into a routine where I would come over on Sundays, handle a few things, and then sit with him at his desk, his big ugly awful 1960’s desk, and talk.
He loved talking to me. He told me so. Most of my life, I was certain that I had been a disappointment – an idiot – and suddenly all he really wanted was to sit with me, and talk.
He told me how much he missed my mother. One time he confessed that he would die just for one more chance to lay in bed and see her next to him. How he regretted being hard on her. How beautiful she looked on their wedding day. I had scanned all of his old pictures and slides, so he showed me and narrated many of them, including their honeymoon in Rome, and Lugano, and Venice.
He told me about his years living in Stockholm, and Cleveland, and Princeton, and how he came home after being fired for the zillionth time and announced that he was starting his own business. He taught me about entrepreneurship and hard work too.
2 years ago, I had told him I had been fired from a job I had been proud to get. He smiled, and responded that it was in the finest Biro family tradition.
He told me to send him pictures anytime I went away. I took a picture in Rome on Tuesday thinking about his honeymoon there, and how proud he would have been of how I had framed the shot.
He told me how much he looked forward to seeing Jodie and Megan every day on Skype, and how much he loved them. He would send me iPad screen shots of their calls, and tell me how proud he was of how they were growing up.
Sometimes I’d bring Five Guys for him for lunch – a single burger with just mustard – and he made sure to tell me every time how much he liked it.
He told me that much to his initial surprise, he was happy in his new home. He had made a life for himself and it was simple and it was good. He pioneered the Classical Music hour and used his iPad to email me articles he’d read from newspapers around the world.
He loosened up on money. He ordered room service every day, because the $6 delivery charge bought him the freedom to eat whenever he wanted. He procured a powered recliner from which he watched Megyn Kelly and too much Fox News on the big screen TV he also let himself buy. He treated my family to dinners at Legal Seafood.
In January, we watched Federer and Nadal in the Australian Open Final, just like we had watched Borg and McEnroe when I was a boy. I sat on his couch and had a beer – he insisted that I stock the fridge for myself because he wanted me to enjoy coming over. I sat with my father and it was simple and it was good.
He had a never-ending source of chocolate for Lily and Sophie. He always wanted to know what they were doing and watched every swim, dance, and home video I sent him.
He finally let me sign his credit card slips at Legal’s because he figured out that he didn’t know how to tip.
And he gave frequent presents to everyone who helped him. I know because it was my job to get the cash and the chocolate. Everything was my job. Now that he is gone, I will have to learn to visit CVS without buying extra Diet Coke, and to re-program my Sundays, and not to look for his political emails, and figure out where to put that big awful desk.
The great project of my life for the last 4 years has been being a Sandwich Generation father and son, and working with my brother and our families and an army of compassionate caregivers to give my father the illusion that he was truly independent. It was an amazing magic trick. And it worked.
He survived to see my daughters become B’Not Mitzvah last June. He wasn’t strong enough anymore to walk to the Torah so we brought the Torah to him. My brother and I held him up standing while he recited the blessings.
He survived hip replacement surgery last October. Of course he did. Then while recovering he determined that everyone at the rehab center was stupid. Of course he did.
He really only lost his independence about 6 weeks ago. These 6 weeks were very difficult for him. He was sick, and finally his body gave out. Plus, as he told me in one of our last real conversations, Megyn Kelly had left Fox News and her new show on NBC was terrible.
On Monday afternoon when Rob called to let me know that my Apu had died, I with was Sophie in a sandwich shop in Rome. I cried, hard. Then I pulled myself together and bought a Diet Coke. He would have appreciated that moment. He loved his children and grandchildren, and he loved Rome, and he loved his Diet Coke. And sitting with me at his desk on a Sunday afternoon, he would have told me.
Yesterday I juggled a thousand things at work, made dinner, stayed up very late working on something for a client, dealt with huge commute delays thanks to Mass Pike construction in Boston that somehow is affecting every road in the area, dealt with a subscription problem, ran one of my kids back from swim practice, and dodged about 6 telemarketer calls on my cellphone.
In other words, a normal day. It was wonderful.
A long time ago I wrote a post called Invite the Cow In. The short version is that if you think your house is too small, let the cow live there for a while. When she leaves, your house will seem spacious again. I suspect every faith has a version of this story.
In my house, the cow is definitely in right now.
Yesterday was the kind of day that in the past would have caused me to fall onto my pillow, exhausted. Maybe it will again in the future. But I must say, having a normal Monday was pretty spectacular.