On Friday, I ran the last errand for my father that I’ll ever do. He passed away about 16 months ago, and I think after so many years of running around, phone calls, lawyers, doctors, you name it, I’m finally done this time.
Briefly: I visited the bank and closed out the last few dollars of his estate account. In the past I’ve lacked proper court papers, or the court papers were hard to get, or I didn’t know I needed court papers. I also knew that to complete even the most mundane transaction at Bank of America requires an appointment, so I made one. I was in and out in less than 10 minutes. It was anti-climatic in a way that so few things were over the years.
So I think that’s it. Actually the only thing that could pop up now is that my dad’s “estate” (in quotes for a reason) is audited somehow. So — if you’re reading this and are from a taxing authority of any kind, you *definitely* don’t need to waste your time on this. It was all above board and believe me, there are much bigger fish to fry.
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.
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.
Well, it was bound to happen. I challenged the universe by writing a blog post about injuries you can’t see, and apparently the universe took offense. Thanks to an early morning bike-meets-pylon crash, I now have one that you can see: a separated shoulder.
I’ve been horizontal now most of the day, with some time to ponder, and mostly watch a lot of TV. Tomorrow when I have more energy and maybe less opioid medication flooding my bloodstream, I’ll think about which future posts might annoy the universe. This year especially for me, it is not messing around.
Over the summer, in the midst of the drama with my father’s failing health and faster-failing ability to censor himself, we had a true Sandwich Generation moment. My daughter Sophie, a swimmer who might be expected to experience less head trauma than her friends playing hockey or soccer, suffered a concussion. (Weather bitterness note: it was the end of July and a windy and cold morning; it’s New England, so there isn’t really a reliable season when you can guarantee a warm day.) The chilly wind was blowing the backstroke flags toward the wall, which caused Sophie to miscount her strokes at the finish. Her friend in the next lane had the same problem. However, this friend had her hair underneath her cap in a bun, which protected her when she came in a half-stroke sooner than expected and also bonked her head on the wall.
It’s the same race and pool that are in the picture actually; if I had known what was about to happen, I might have jumped in or tried to cushion the blow against the wall somehow. I know as the parent of a teenager that you are not supposed to protect them from all of life’s hardships. This one would have been an exception though.
The sound from the impact carried across the pool. When Sophie came over shortly afterward and told me that she couldn’t really remember the race, we knew what had happened.
This was a week before summer swim championships and the day we were supposed to leave for Italy. Naively we hoped that it would mild enough to clear before then. Not so. Here I am writing a blog post in the middle of October and it still with her, and with us.
Recovery from a concussion is an agonizing, slow and inconsistent process. It does not move in straight line. And it affects everything. Sophie’s in particular affects her vision and balance. It is hard to focus and hard to see perspectives shift. Concentration is a challenge. Nothing is obviously wrong with you physically; when I used to wear a cast, people knew my arm was broken. Sophie has no such physical manifestation, only a set of things she cannot do for fear of exacerbating the problem.
She is doing physical therapy to help her re-acclimate to the basics. Balance exercises standing in the pool. She lifts one leg, drops the other, first ten times with difficulty, then fifteen times with ease, then fifteen times twice, and so on. Peripheral vision exercises where looks at an object and rotates her head. Sometimes PT in the morning tires her out so much that by mid-day, she is barely hanging on.
A broken arm comes with a prescribed recovery time. A concussion comes with well-meaning guesses. You can take it easy and favor your healthy arm while the damaged one recovers. I’ve done it a few times myself and became a pretty accomplished one-handed stick shift driver, even in San Francisco which combines otherworldly hills with perpetually angry pedestrians who stare disapprovingly from the level ground of the crosswalk you are trying to reach to save your clutch.
With your brain, you cannot do it. It is one day at a time. And I know exactly how she feels.
It is perhaps unfair to compare the trauma of loss and my intense summer to the physical brain trauma from a concussion. I can stand the light, watch television, get through a TV show or a book, stare a screen long enough to bang out a blog post. From that perspective, I have it easy. On the other hand, she almost certainly will recover back to her old state and at age 14, surpass it. I know I cannot go back. The state I once occupied isn’t there anymore. I have to navigate somewhere new.
It is a slow and tortuous process, one in which the world is not slowing down to wait for me. Therapy is not a straight line. Sometimes it energizes me and I can feel progress, but most times, I leave shaking my head wondering how I am going to face the rest of my day. Sometimes I can’t but do anyway. Just like Sophie. Her positive attitude and sense of humor about the situation is an inspiration for days where I can’t find either.
Not often does your teenage daughter tell you something and you really, really get it. Sometimes we play cards together, and after a few games she has to stop because her brain hurts. Sometimes while we play I flash back to playing with my mother at our kitchen table and the cups of coffee we would share early in the morning. It is a reaction not so different from hers. So this time I think I do.
I hope she gets back to where she’s going, and I’m sure she will. I also hope she gets back there before I do. That feeling is part of being a parent, an element dearer to me now that I am no longer a son.
If you’ve been to Whole Foods, you know the virtuous-looking probably-made-from-recycled-material trays for the hot food bar. They come in two sizes: normal, of which there aren’t many, and giant, which is the size most of them are. If you fill them with items from the buffet — although Whole Foods is too snooty to call it that — you would pay about $12 or $18 respectively. They are brown and feel like corrugated paper, and they stick together.
I was fueling up at lunch today when I saw an old man with a cane trying to pull a tray from the “giant” stack. These things are thick and heavy and packed together tightly, so he was struggling. I put down my lunch and went over to help him out. Just a small thing that one does when one sees someone having trouble. Took me 10 seconds. He was grateful, and then I went to stand in line to check out.
Then I almost started to cry.
I used to do 100 things like that a day for my father on the weekends and after a while, I took them for granted. Aside from task lists that I’ve mentioned before, I would perform small acts that were nothing for me and probably saved him so much time and many reminders of his failing abilities. Picking something up off the floor he had just dropped, opening a soda bottle, adjusting the thermostat that I’m sure he couldn’t read anymore. The feeling at Whole Foods brought me back instantly to standing in his old apartment again, as if I’d never left. As if he’d never left.
Recently I have been feeling more myself, but the thing about losing someone is that you really don’t know when something is going to creep up on you like that. Over time, it happens less and less. I guess I am still a long way off.
Recovering is a strange process. You don’t really ever get back to the place you were, and for wherever it is you are going, it is not a straight line. It is hard to know how you’re doing too. I suppose it’s when small things like helping someone out at Whole Foods make you remember, and most of the time, you smile.
In dealing with my father’s things, I’ve found that he has 2 left of value. First is his power recliner, which can get its occupant to a standing position with the touch of a button. The second is his electric scooter. That item was particularly expensive and not hassle-free; when my dad broke his hip in October and spent nearly 2 months away from home, its batteries discharged. Figuring out that was the issue, procuring new batteries and then recycling the old ones was one of those caregivers tasks that (a) doesn’t seem it should take a lot of time, but does, (b) doesn’t feel like caregiving but has to be done anyway and (c) is out of my comfort zone because I am not mechanically inclined. I have a decent sense for when to sell Apple stock, but not that.
I originally had tried to sell these items. It turns out to be harder that you would expect to sell working items in good condition to senior citizens. Maybe this is because Medicare is the competition? Anyway, I don’t really understand it. So I had to shift my mindset and instead decided that I should give these away. And once I decided on that, I hoped that I would find a good home.
I think I did.
The man who will be taking my father’s scooter and chair, the ones that brought him so much happiness, came to me via Jewish Family and Children’s Services. I had listed these items for sale on my Temple’s email list, and that made its way to one of the geriatric care managers who had helped me before. Karen is the one who guided me when my father was incontinent and too stubborn to admit it, which then meant he was about six inches from being evicted from his apartment community. This was two years ago and I had wiped that unpleasant incident from my memory. That’s a blessing in its own way.
His name is Eric (not actually, but let’s call him that). Eric is much younger than my father and had a stroke about two years ago, which left him paralyzed on one side and with many physical and emotional challenges. When people see him now, I’m sure this what they see. It’s like when my father used to be admitted to the hospital and become elderly-male-who-fell-and-probably-has-dementia-and-so-many-other-problems; he was a whole person too and it took special caregivers to see it.
But Eric is a whole person. His wife is amazing. His family loves him. And he is an entrepreneur like my father. He started a business that he worked in for decades. Even now he loves to get around his neighborhood despite the difficulties. Once upon a time he enjoyed a cold beer on occasion. My kind of guy. He works tirelessly in PT and OT to regain and maintain whatever strengths and abilities he can. He does not quit. My father’s kind of guy.
So, I am happy that these items which gave my father so much joy and a perception of increased independence are making their way to a fellow entrepreneur. He would have wanted another human being to have a chance to become more than the sum of his ailments. My father had many flaws, heaven knows — but appreciating what this chair and the scooter did for him was not among them. I suspect Eric, a fellow entrepreneur, is in the same boat.
Before diving into this blog post, I wanted to step outside the blog, so to speak, and write about writing it. Very meta, I know.
My dad passed away about 4 weeks ago. Only now is it really starting to hit me. This makes sense if I step back, which is hard to do when you don’t really feel the ground beneath your feet in the first place. First of all, denial is one of the stages of grief, and true to the cliche, I have been in denial about my father passing away and the impact it’s going to have on me. I’ve also been somewhat in denial about the impact of having been a caregiver, and especially the intensity of last couple of months. There were days that the phone rang 20 times. In a way, you sort of have to be.
Second, truth be told, there is a part of me that wants to stop writing. Just be done grieving and processing and reach the end state, whatever that is going to be. It has to be better than this. As if declaring that I was done would make it so. I am a check the box person and sometimes I like to check the box even if something isn’t 100% complete. However, with processing trauma, it doesn’t work that way. Plus, I still have a few stories left to tell. If anything, they mean more now and I realize that I need to get them out.
Right now, I am in the phase of grieving called “dealing with the stuff”. It is different than when my mom died more than 6 years ago. Back then, my brother and I had to deal with both clearing out the clutter from her life and setting my father up to live his. I don’t have that problem this time. What I do have is all of my father’s things left in the world now in my garage. There is no distance. Every time the garage door opens, there is his scooter, his power lift chair, his desk, his walkers, his dining room table and chairs. Even our outdoor fridge has some of the beer that I used to keep in his old apartment.
But what really grabbed me recently was his robe. That stupid robe that he’s had since well before he moved to Massachusetts in 2013. One of the first things of his that I unpacked was his ugly purple suitcase; my father only had cheap luggage that came courtesy of casinos who in the 1990s gave cheap Made-in-China gifts to him and my mother in their roles as perpetually unlucky medium rollers. I had packed it for him when he checked into the rehab center. I stuffed in multiple pairs of pajamas, pants, shirts, handkerchiefs, his slippers, iPad and case, hearing aids and batteries, his headphones, reading and distance glasses, power supplies, and the framed letter he had received from the Commander of the US Navy Pacific fleet (a whole other blog post). And his robe.
So when I unpacked the robe, I flashed back instantly to how much it had said to me over the years. As a caregiver, you learn to look for signals. When he first arrived, he wore the robe constantly, even to his community’s dinners, which of course you are not supposed to do. I had to save him from that, and insist that he would wear clothes. Then he tried to wear the robe when I visited to prove his independence to me – so I would leave. I think I felt guilty at first and eventually learned not to. My father was a man with whom you had to set strict boundaries.
Over time, he stopped doing this. I would arrive on Sunday afternoons and he would be dressed, and showered, and shaved, and drowning in cologne to cover the smell that he knew his incontinence would create. After a while, I came to appreciate this gesture. For him, putting on a button-down shirt was torture, but he did it anyway. He would ask me if he looked all right. Those were the good days.
Then there would be days when I would arrive and he’d be wearing the robe, and immediately I would know that he wasn’t feeling well. I just knew. If you have cared for an elderly parent before, you know the importance of non-verbal tells, and you know not to give them away.
There were the days that he would wear clothes, and the robe, because it was cold in his apartment. So I’d quietly re-adjust the thermostat.
There were the days that because he wasn’t wearing the robe, I could tell that he’d worn it most of the week by the smell it gave off. My dad would have draped it over the chairs around the kitchen table because hanging it up was too difficult for him. Then I would put it in the laundry when he wasn’t looking and hope he wouldn’t pull it back out.
There was the day in late June, somehow only two months, when I checked him into the hospital. That was the day when everything changed, or at least where the change became obvious to me. I arrived to his apartment to find him in his desk chair wearing that robe and pajamas, with two caregivers on either side of him. They were at their wits’ end. He had refused showers and bathing for days. He had been wearing the same soiled briefs for 3 days. My father was unrecognizable, unshaven, with a dazed look and a barely coherent understanding of where he was and what was happening. His robe told that story too.
There were the final days in his assisted living apartment, which just never worked. I would put him to bed in that robe at 10am because my 9am visits would be over by then – he was just too tired. Then I would cover him with the new cover sheets that fit his new single hospital bed. That never really worked either.
I extracted these memories from just pulling the robe out of that awful purple suitcase. All of this flashed through my mind in about a half second. Maybe less as time loses meaning when one in this state. Like I said, I still have a lot of grieving and work to do.
Back to the meta — I also have a lot of stories left to write. Mostly I am writing that for me. Also I am continuing to write for the many people – which in my world, is like 20 – I’ve spoken to over the past month who have been caregivers, or are caregivers, or know they will be someday. So as with the robe, I am going to keep writing about being a sandwich generation father and son for a while. I hope there are still a few readers left who will follow along.