Recently I was talking to a friend whose mother now lives alone and relies on her car to get her around. She does not want to give her independence, and her independence is tied up in owning and operating a car. I remember those days well. Then I think of the day that my father, a man who made his living driving a station wagon loaded with engineering equipment up and down the interstate highway system, announced to me that he wanted to give up his car.
Two things convinced him. First, he had a finely-honed survival instinct. One reason that he made it to 93 years of age was his keen ability to assess the odds in life or death situations and make the right decision. Driving had become dangerous and he knew it. The second was that we had talked about the price per ride of having his car.
One Sunday together, we sat at his desk and collaborated on the math. As he aged, he had limited his nighttime driving, then driving in bad weather, then his driving to unfamiliar places, and by the end, most driving other than to my place. By the end, he was down to 20 miles every other week tops, which at $3/gallon and 20 miles per gallon was not much, about $100 per year. “It’s not that much” was his logic.
Then I started in with the green-eyeshade techniques. His insurance cost him about $1,000 year. His car was still depreciating. Although his car was a middle-aged Chevy Impala with some signs of “gentle use”, it was probably another $1,000 per year. Registration, fees, inspection, taxes, you name it – call that $250. I’m not even adding repairs, which (a) middle-aged Chevys need and (b) middle-aged sons need to help organize for their elderly fathers. So they were expensive all around.
The arithmetic added up to almost $2,400 year for about 1000 miles of driving, or $2.40 per mile. Or, we could call his favorite Framingham outfit Tommy’s Taxi and they would drive him anywhere he wanted, anytime he wanted, for less than $1. A trip to my house would be $30 round trip – he could do that 80 times before he came close to being behind.
Was appealing to my father’s Depression-era cheapness kind of a dirty trick? Maybe. But I just wanted him to have all the facts.
This was in the era before Uber really became mainstream in the suburbs. Now it might be even easier to describe this to your parent who doesn’t want to hand over their keys. My father got to keep his independence and feel like he had outsmarted everyone: his 2 favorite things.
Today is 9 years since my mother passed away. I remember that day like it was yesterday, and still miss her like it was yesterday.
This year is a little different because of the virus. If she were alive, who knows where she’d be living (at age 85) or what kind of health she’d be in. I do know that I’d be worrying about her. She’s a Holocaust survivor so in many ways she was pretty resilient. Her cousin who is still alive and living in New York City is hunkered down and you can see the razor sharp survival instincts kicking in. In other ways though, she could be brittle. You never knew which version of her you were going to get.
I admit though that I am happy she is not here to see what is happening right now. Not just in America, where we have botched this thing so badly so far that she barely would recognize the country that once put a man on the moon. Her native Hungary is even worse. The prime minister there just used the pandemic to make himself a dictator, which since he leads a brazenly anti-Semitic party, is not going to end well. She was glad to be out of there and never felt the love or allegiance to it that my father seemed to have. I sort of feel the same way.
This is always a hard day for me. I re-live it hour by hour, mile by mile from Wellesley down the Merritt Parkway and NJ Turnpike to my parents’ house in Lawrenceville, to the hospital where she had already passed away many hours before, back home again, back up the Turnpike to Newark Airport to get my brother who flew in from California, and back home again where I finally could lay down for the first of what would be weeks of sleepless nights. I miss her. This might be the first time that I am a little bit grateful, for her sake, that she did not have to see this day.
About a month ago, Ollie came into our lives. He’s a mini golden doodle puppy and like other dogs his breed, he is a nonstop source of love. I flew to Orlando to pick him up from Country Mini Doodle Farms, which is actually located in Summerfield, about 90 minutes north of the airport. It is hard-core Trump country in the middle of which is a giant 55+ retirement community called The Villages. One mobile home tract after another suddenly gives way to new construction multi-story buildings and every retail chain and casual dining restaurant you can imagine. I stopped in at Longhorn Steakhouse at about 3:30 (2 Miller Lites for $4 all afternoon) and the place was jammed; I was the youngest person in there by about 10 years.
Back to Ollie though.
As I mentioned, Ollie is a great dog who just wants to love everyone. He is also cute – come on, he’s a puppy, the little guy has no choice – and endlessly good natured. He’ll scamper around a lot but tire quickly and just sit there quietly, sometimes falling asleep and occasionally snoring. It’s the best. His favorite game right now is chasing ice cubes around.
The other day I thought about how much I wished I’d had him when my father was alive. For me: he would have been great to come home to on difficult days. For my kids: he would have been a great distraction. More than that, taking care of him now has opened their eyes, a little, to what it’s like to care for someone who is totally dependent on you. For my nieces: they would have loved him when they were younger and visited us from California.
For my dad though, he would have been the highlight of our visits. My parents had a chocolate lab when my younger brother was finishing high school and then when he went off to college. My father loved that dog. He would have loved this one. He would have sat in my dad’s apartment and just kind of looked around. We could have had him chase ice. Ollie would have loved him too. Of course he would – he loves everyone! That’s what he does! He would not have cared that my dad sometimes had questionable hygiene, or ate “weird” food, or dressed like someone for whom putting on clothes was an hour-long ordeal. He would have looked at him with that loving face just the same.
It is challenging to get unconditional love at any age, maybe impossible, and especially so when you are old.
Ollie would have been great for all of us and for him.
I got back this past weekend from my 20th business school reunion in California. I miss California so much… but that’s a whole other blog.
Anyway, I had a number of people approach me and tell me that they used to read, and really appreciate this blog. It’s been a year since I wrote and 2 years since I really wrote often, so that was surprising. I also noticed that this reunion was more “real” than, say, our 5th or 10th. Back then many of us were posturing about how great we were doing professionally or flexing (my daughter Lily’s favorite word this week) how little we had aged. This time though, it felt different, and I think it’s in part because most of us have had life punch us in the face over the past 5 or 10 years. In particular, many people lost parents, or had parents who were sick, or parents who were in the homes that they’d lived in for 40 years and “I know I should move them out, but I don’t know how to go about it…” It sounded very familiar and I knew I could help by sharing some of my experiences.
Part of this reunion was about ways of giving back and doing things you really like to do. This blog is definitely the latter and it seems like it might be a little bit the former as well. So, I’m going to pick this back up again. Rather than guess what direction it will go, I’ll just write and see what happens and for how long.
I just got back from a trip to Israel where I did a cross-country bike ride – sounds impressive until you realize that Israel is 65 miles across where we traversed it. We also went down to the southernmost point, which added about 300 more miles.
Before we left Jerusalem, I realized that I was out of toothpaste, so I hit a local drugstore on Ben Yehuda street. I barged in like I was on a mission, like I owned the place, while of course I don’t speak the language and didn’t know where I was going. Needless to say, toothpaste was way up in a corner on the second floor. It makes sense actually; I had to pass by a lot of other items I might otherwise buy, similar to how milk is always placed in the back of a supermarket.
One of these was plug-in air freshener cartridges.
Once upon a time, I used to have these on auto-order for my father’s apartment. I hoped that they would cover the certain smell that had permeated the rug, the furniture, his clothes, everything. It didn’t really work. What did work, eventually, was a thorough scrubbing of the place, new pants, and a number of temper tantrums by yours truly. Sometimes as a caregiver, only a strategically timed tantrum will do to get your way. Over time, he tried harder to be “clean”, in his words, when I came over. He could see that it was important to me, and what was important to me gradually became less unimportant to him.
As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, I no longer see things like this and seize up with emotion. Most times now, I smile and remember. Still, the details come flooding back. I am guessing that my standing in front of an Israeli drugstore shelf and smiling to myself made me look even less of a local than I already did. Which is fine. I gladly traded that for some of the memories of the better times that we had, and the day that I could stop buying air fresheners.
There’s an old cliché that a picture is worth a thousand words. Often, clichés become that because they are true.
My brother texted me a picture from 2 years ago (it’s the one that’s part of this post). To anyone else, it would look like a pretty standard picture of a smiling grandfather with his granddaughter. That’s because it is. And yet –
I remember finding that apartment for my father, way back in 2013, and being happy that his community abutted a park. That’s the park they are riding in.
I remember what it took to keep him going when he got sick before that so that he would fight to stay alive and live to reach that moment at all.
I remember buying that scooter for him. I don’t love that memory; truth be told, it was kind of a nightmare. Not just because the process of selecting, ordering, assembling, re-assembling and then figuring out how to make the battery work was grueling. To say that I am not mechanically inclined is the understatement of the century. The other difficulty was that I resisted buying that thing, and then it turned out to be a great purchase for him. It bought him a year of mobility and happiness. He was right, I was wrong, and I didn’t like it.
I remember buying that blue, button-down, collared shirt for him at Target, along with other clothes he had requested. He insisted on Target; actually, that’s a lie. He insisted on Wal-Mart and I’m enough of a snob that I went to Target to instead.
I remember that he had wanted to lose weight. You can see that his face is pretty found for a 92 year old man. But by that age, it’s more important to put weight on; you never know when you are going to need those extra 15 pounds to stave off the effects of laying for a month in a hospital bed that you didn’t expect. His weakness for unhealthy food kept him alive many times, it turns out.
I remember that 2 years ago, my brother and family came out for the Jewish holidays. Normally, they come for Thanksgiving, but that is an expensive and grueling proposition. So in 2016, they came for Rosh Hashanah instead. It was in early October, which is late for “the Rosh”. I sat with my brother one night and drank bourbon by the firepit in my backyard. It was a great moment. Everyone should have a brother – seriously, I highly recommend it.
I remember that about 10 days later, on Yom Kippur, my father fell and broke his hip. We still had good moments after that, but that was the beginning of the end. He recovered from the broken hip. He was determined that it wasn’t going to kill him, and my brother and I were determined not to let it. The true harbinger was the stroke that had caused him to temporarily lose consciousness and fall, the one that had set the end in motion, the one that preceded all the others that would come that we didn’t know about. They were small and he was strong. Eventually they were stronger than he was. Whatever the “they”, they always are.
Mostly, what I remember, what this picture brings up for me, and for my brother, is that we worked really hard to make him happy, and succeeded. There have many times since he passed away that I have thought that I worked too hard at this. He was conditioned to demand this kind of attention, and I was conditioned to give it. I suppose that because he raised me, this is only natural. I can observe it more dispassionately now than back when at times I felt it was destiny to help him make a life, to put him in a position to zip around on his scooter in the park on a lovely early fall day near his apartment with his granddaughter. It was, and it wasn’t. I am still trying to figure that part out.
By the way – I wasn’t quite right. A picture sometimes is worth exactly 695 words.
Over the summer, I took a lot of long bike rides. One feature of going 20mph — OK, it was more like 17 — instead of 50 is that you notice things that you’d otherwise miss. You also notice which roads are smooth vs. perenially under construction or have so many potholes that you’re guaranteed to get a pinch flat. After so many miles of trailing, I could write a blog on this topic alone.
One thing I noticed, for the second time, was the sheer number of facilities for seniors in the area.
The first time was while my father was alive. He lived here for 4 years in a community that during his tenure had 3 different owners. It went from simply being called Farm Pond, to Emeritus Senior Living, to Brookdale Cushing Park. This is a community with a feature euphemistically called “Aging in Place”, which I know now is a highbrow way of saying that they provide both independent living and assisting living apartments. It’s a benefit when you have to move suddenly as we did – but assisted living is a totally different experience from its independent living counterpart.
Farm-Pond-Emeritus-Brookdale, however, did not have a “skilled nursing” section. This is something less than a hospital room, but not by much. I saw enough of those during his hospital recovery stints in various rehab centers. The rooms are spartan and full of medical gear. It smells like disinfectant. The lighting is industrial. There often are a lot of people shouting because ownership typically keeps nurse to patient staff ratios high to manage labor expenses, so the residents do what they can to get more attention. That is: they yell.
I would pass by places that offered skilled nursing and hope never to walk in the lobby with his belongings. Not long before he passed away, I took him to a rehab center (skilled nursing plus exercise facilities) as part of what we hoped would be a path back to this independent living apartment. It’s close to the gym where I now belong, and although it’s been over a year, passing by the Salmon Health and Rehabilitation Center still takes me back to that final week.
Passing by a community like my dad’s, I would wonder about their fee structure, whether or not they had a waiting list, whether they had vacancies, and if so, why. Quickly cycling turning this thought sequence became second-nature to me, even zipping past at 50mph or more, and nearly anywhere I went in America.
There also is an Alzheimer’s center not far from my house that I would pass several times a week, and die a little each time. I knew there was almost no chance we would end up there. Didn’t matter.
Not every place is like that. Near the Natick “Collection” (I think when you add a Nordstrom’s, you can’t call it a mall anymore) is a orthopedic office where we had a check-up after my father broke his hip. It was healing so well that the doctor didn’t quite believe it. It was a nice surprise during a process that has fewer and fewer as time goes on.
Now that a year has passed, seeing facilities no longer fills me with dread or racing thoughts. Mark Twain is noted for having said that “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” Most of mine never happened either. My dad lived in one facility for almost all of his time here, and he was happy there. And yet – I still notice them anyway.
I had an unexpected night to myself for dinner the other night, so I hit Legal’s.
I haven’t been there much in the past year; for one, the average age at the location in Framingham is about 65, and that’s including the young families who somehow think that it’s a good idea to bring their squirmy 2 year-olds to an upscale casual seafood restaurant (pro tip: it’s not). My 5 Guys business partner loves to go to Ken’s, which is a steakhouse not far from Legal’s that I think he used to frequent because they would serve him and his underage friends. That was 40 years ago now and I don’t think they have gained any new customers in 40 years. The place is terrible. But I digress.
Legal’s was my father’s favorite restaurant when he lived here. We went there for his birthdays, for my kids’ birthdays, for my birthday, for Washington’s birthday. You name it. I used it as a motivator when he was doing physical therapy in New Jersey after his near-death experience with C-Diff and he wanted to quit. So many times my brother and I convinced him not to quit. We sat and ate chowder when he finally made it up here, weakened and still sick, but alive. It was our place and for many months, it hurt too much to consider eating there again.
Recently, I have been thinking of him a lot. It’s been about a year since he passed away, which I’m told is a milestone. I have an unusually good memory for dates, and this summer I relived the sequence last summer where things really fell apart. This was the Tuesday that I took him to the doctor who hospitalized. This was the triathlon I did last year while he was in the assisted living apartment for the first time begging me to let him go back to his old place. This is where I was standing when I got the call from the hospital that he was back, and barely responsive. This was the time of day when I said the last thing to him I ever would, which is asking him if he was thirsty. He was. He didn’t suffer much until the end and it was hard to watch. This is the time last year that I was in Rome and my brother had called to tell me he was gone.
Now though, I can feel that the memories are there, but the debilitating impact doesn’t accompany them. It’s like they exist on their own, and I can choose how I want to pay attention to them. I am starting to come to terms with what all the years as a caregiver meant. Sophie, who suffered a bad concussion about a week before he died, is finally healing. She is a brave and amazing kid, and her positive attitude has been inspirational, but all the same, it hurts to watch your child suffer. We didn’t know then how hard her year would be, and ours with it. It was a hard year. It is finally passing.
A few times in the past few weeks, I have caught myself recently feeling strangely at peace. I like it. It says something that this sensation unfamiliar enough that I noticed it.
So although I drive past Legal’s regularly on Route 9 (just before passing Ken’s on my right), it felt different recently. To celebrate that, I decided to treat myself to dinner there next time I had the chance.
In case you’re wondering, I had a Jack’s Abby Hoponius Union with my cioppino; this is one of the beers with which I would stock my father’s fridge in the days that he insisted that I keep beer there. As for the cioppino, I can report this: it tastes good again.
Hello remaining Sandwiched Man readers! I’m actually no longer a member of the sandwich generation, but despite that, I have a few more entries saved up that I’m going to try to extract. It’s been almost a year since my father passed away and more than a few times, something small will happen (a “small moment”, as my kids learned in elementary school), and I’ll think to myself that it would have made a great blog post. Then on more and more occasions recently, I’ve wondered why it should matter, that a good story is a good story, and that I might as well it.
I’ve had on my list of “things I’d like to do for myself” for some time now to restart writing. I usually wrote as an outlet or if something particularly struck me as unusual and interesting. So, since today would have been my dad’s 94th birthday, I figure it’s as good a day as any to revive this.
It is a strange day. For one, Google and Facebook are working overtime to remind me that it’s his birthday today. Why did we sign him up for Facebook again? I’m sure it seemed like a good idea at the time, and like a lot of those things we started on his behalf, maybe it wasn’t.
I’m also reminded of the dinners we had on his birthday, the cakes I bought, the cards my kids used to make, usually in a mad scramble before we shlepped over to Framingham to visit him. This picture is from his birthday lunch last year at Legal Seafoods. He told a rambling and inappropriate story and it was obvious already that he was changing for the worse. He had about 60 days to go.
By now, I’ve gotten used to not getting his strange political emails; today though, I thought about those more than usual. Whatever you think of Trump, reading about him certainly would have kept my father busy. At least he didn’t have to live to see what became (or didn’t) of Megyn Kelly.
More later – mostly I wanted to get something down in writing, and just start. Sometimes the hardest thing in any endeavor is to do that: start. Or restart. My father always liked doing exactly that. So, it seems like a fitting birthday tribute to do it myself.
I was going through more of my father’s belongings today in my garage. It took me a while to build up the strength to do it but I figured I had dawdled long enough.
I’m not going to lie – after I was done, I needed a little bourbon to calm my nerves. Widow Jane, the good stuff.