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.
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.
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.