what more could I ask for

Today is 30 May and today is also Memorial Day. Historically, no matter what day of the week it fell on, 30 May was always Memorial Day. It began as a way to remember and to honor those who’d given their lives…lost their lives, during their military service to this country. Currently, the date of Memorial Day is not set to a particular date, but is always celebrated on the last Monday in the month of May. This year, on this Monday…it is both. Seems special to me.

Over the last years there have been more deaths in my family and in my small circle, than I could have imagined. The word memorial has taken on a much more personal meaning. Memorial Day, for me, has come to be connected to remembering and honoring those who’ve lost their lives in all the infinite ways that we humans do lose our lives, including those who’ve lost their lives in military service. For me, Memorial Day is about remembering.

The piece that I am posting is one that I’ve been working on for a long while now. Approaching this weekend I began to feel that I needed to get it finished so I could post it. Today. And it wasn’t until just this weekend that I looked up to notice that not only was I preparing to post this essay on Memorial Day weekend…but that today is the actual, original date of Memorial Day.

Both of my parents were in the Army…it’s not too much of a surprise that my father was…but more so with my mother. Neither of them lost their lives during their military service, but over these last few years I have come more and more to connecting this day, in part, with them – who they were, how they lived their lives. As I continue to listen to the guidance that comes to me in my life…I find that it makes perfect sense that I finally make this posting about my parents, on Memorial Day. It is a remembering and an honoring of these two who I am only beginning to know. If they were still alive, neither of them would be too comfortable with my remembering or honoring them. Maybe by now, wherever they are, they can receive my grateful bow and humbled heart that I had the great good fortune to have these two courageous, rebellious, heartbroken, hard working, poetry loving, extreme opposites – that these two enormous hearted ones would walk their own incredibly different and winding paths and eventually become my parents. I honor them and I remember them.

After having left Los Angeles as soon as I could find the courage to do so, just one year after graduating from high school, and with a rather loud slamming of the door in a metaphorical kind of way, it came as quite a shock to me and most who knew me, when, some thirty years later I moved back there: down to Los Angeles to help out my parents who were both in their eighties. All of us in our family, including dad who at the time was 87, felt that he might not live much longer. As it turned out, it was my mother who was getting ready to go.

What SHE said

Slowly during this time that we had together, and ever so carefully, my mother and I began to open our hearts to each other…in person. We were entering a new realm. Our relationship did not shift because either of us thought it should; nor did either of us try to make it change. It shifted by some grace, because of course we deeply needed it to shift – it’s just that neither of us had any idea how to begin such a thing. As with so much beauty in life, it was taken out of our hands.

Mom had become ever more wobbly on her feet as neuropathy took its toll on her ability to walk. One morning she stumbled and fell, hitting the back of her head on a broken wooden drawer-pull on a piece of old furniture in the dining room. She ended up with quite a large gash. I was not there when she fell, but received a strange phone call from her at work. At that time, only a month after I’d arrived, we still subscribed to staying out of each other’s lives at all cost. Just the fact that she called me at work was alarming. She wasn’t speaking to any direct point, she was rambling a bit…this was not like her.

Finally she told me she had fallen, that dad was certain she didn’t need to go to the hospital and that he was sure the bleeding would stop on its own. The problem was, she couldn’t see the wound herself, as it was on the back of her head. Dad’s vision, by this time, was quite poor, so he couldn’t really see what was going on either. And, we found out later, he couldn’t bear to look at the wound in the first place, but couldn’t admit to that. Mom and I were both starting to notice that in subtle ways, dad was beginning to have trouble accessing good old common sense. I could hear in her voice that this was part of the problem. He wasn’t quite able to grasp the potential gravity of the situation; it was just too much for him to process. I said I would come right home and she answered with, “Please. I’m sorry.  Please come home.” This was big…she asked for help, asked me to leave work and come home. That’s not something that we did too much of – ask for help. We didn’t ask anyone and we especially didn’t ask each other – but we were learning. I had only been back home a month. Thank goodness I was there and able to help them. They were at a point in their lives where more and more of life outside of their small little world was too much for them: too fast, too complicated, incomprehensible really.

As I entered their house, I found dad in his usual spot on the couch right by the front door. He looked worried, and I could tell from his body language that he didn’t know what to do. My mother called out to me from the bathroom and as I joined her I saw blood all over the bathroom floor, and all over her. I took one look at her and said that we were going to the hospital. Something had changed in our family dynamic, at least on this one day. I was in charge; they needed and wanted me to be in charge. This new role of mine spontaneously occurred because we were in an extraordinary circumstance, and we each knew that we three could make this shift.

We needed to take mom to the hospital, and together we began a long journey. We arrived at the emergency room on a Saturday morning about 11 am. That is a bad time, probably the worst time, to go to any hospital emergency room. The whole world shows up on Saturday mornings. I’m sure it’s much worse now, but even then, ten years ago, there were so many people in southern California that could not afford any form of healthcare, emergency rooms had become the only option for medical assistance.

As you may know, head wounds tend to bleed A LOT, so my mother’s injury looked much worse than it actually was. Luckily, miraculously, she did not seem to have a concussion, and was not really feeling much pain from the fall itself, another miracle. There were many patients with much more urgent medical needs; stabbings, gunshot wounds, automobile accidents. This meant that my 87-year-old father, my 81-year-old mother and I, sat together in an insanely crowded ER waiting room along with the rest of the sick and injured of the San Fernando Valley, for a very long time.

My father who at this point in his life had lost a great deal of his vision to macular degeneration, needed to find his way to the restroom frequently. I was not comfortable leaving mom alone and there certainly were no hospital staff available for such mundane needs. Each time he hurriedly made his way toward the desk to get directions to the restroom, I worried that he’d get lost in the inner sanctum of the hospital, never to return. I worried that if questioned he would not be able to remember our names or why he was there. So he was on his own perilous journey. This otherworldly situation brought the three of us together. It was precious. We were all looking out for each other. I looked out for both of them, my father looked out for my mother and I, which was, simply put, his lifelong duty, even though all three of us knew that there was nothing he could do about any of it, and, maybe most importantly, we all knew that we needed to take care of mom.

When we were finally taken to an exam room, our situation became even more intimate. There we were – my mother stretched out on a hospital bed with me at her side, and my father, sitting in a chair in the corner as far away from my mother as he could get. It turned out he was extremely squeamish about all the blood. We knew that he was present with her and deeply concerned…he just couldn’t handle the blood. I had never seen him like this, so tender and vulnerable with her. Nor had I ever sat with my mother in this way. She rarely got sick, never needed nursing. She kept assuring us that she felt fine, and that we didn’t need to stay with her, that I could take dad home and come back for her. There was no way we were leaving her there – we might never find her again in the writhing mass of humanity that existed both inside and outside of that hospital.

At some point I found the courage to take my mother’s hand. And she found the courage to hold on to mine. To you, this might not sound like a courageous act, but for us, it was deeply courageous, and newly intimate. We sat there, mostly in silence. Every now and then I would ask her how she was doing. Her reply was always, “Me? Oh, I’m fine.” A nurse would come in and inspect the gash on her head. My father’s complexion would shift a bit more toward the green spectrum, even though he was facing away from her and looked away with every cell of his body. Without any exaggeration I can tell you that we were in that room for many hours. I am deeply grateful for this…we could have still been out in the tiny, overcrowded waiting room where hundreds spilled out onto the sidewalk, for all those hours.

When a doctor finally came to stitch up the wound, my mother with her insatiable curiosity began asking about everything the doctor was doing. She told my mother, a little too cheerfully, that she was actually using “staples,” that for head wounds such as hers it was easier, quicker…and the scar would not show. My mother strongly encouraged her to find a different word – as “staples” was more than even my sturdy mother could handle. My father almost lost what little food he had in his belly at the mention of “staples”, and at least energetically, pressed his entire being completely into the corner of the room farthest away from mom and the stapling that was still going on.

Sometime later my mother shared with me part of what kept her calm, kept her going all those hours. I have a necklace that I wear most every day. It is a pendant made from bone, carved with a face that has a subtle and ever so peaceful smile within it. Many ask or suggest that it’s the moon. My mother told me that as she lay there on that hospital bed on her side, to avoid putting any pressure on the back of her head, the peaceful face that hung around my neck was right at eye level. Any time that her eyes were open, she was looking into that beautiful and somewhat ethereal face. She told me that it was a great comfort to her. Even this was a new and intimate exchange between us.

That was the beginning of an opening for my mother and me: an opening between our hearts, a kind of bonding that I’m not sure had existed between us until then. All of this had to occur before my mother and I could come to a place where she could tell me one of her most personal and intimate truths, directly and in person.

I made a point of taking mom out to lunch once a week, and not just to eat. We also went window-shopping…just wandering around somewhere with no particular goal in mind. She was no longer driving, and my father had absolutely no patience for wandering – especially at the very slow pace that she now wandered at.

We were sitting across from each other at her favorite coffee shop. She looked me in the eye and her expression changed. She told me the following: she told me that every health issue that she had – every syndrome, disease, chronic issue – they were all caused by lifestyle choices. She looked at me even more directly and told me that none of it was hereditary…that her illnesses were all caused by her own behaviors, choices she’d made in her life. And she pleaded with me, begged me, to not follow in her footsteps. Some of the issues that she struggled with, I do struggle with still. And I hear her voice, pleading with me. “Please don’t. You can do something about it. Please. Okay?”

For us, for our history, for how we’d behaved toward each other most of our lives, for all the fears and heartbreaks we’d had and not shared with each other – in this one brief conversation it was as if the bells of cathedrals worldwide were ringing, all in unison – and the walls between us were beginning to crumble. They did begin…and they never crumbled all the way. Maybe they did crumble all the way; it just looked different than I thought it would. We both could feel it and now we could see each other across those walls. Slowly, subtly, we allowed each other in.

I got to spend this time with my amazing and courageous mother. These are qualities that I only began to recognize in her toward the end of her life, and really didn’t name as such until after she was gone. We found our way into each others’ hearts – while she was still alive. Maybe I’ll say instead, that we finally saw ourselves residing in each others’ hearts, because truly we were already there. We’d just never looked before, like we were now. I do know that this sort of gift, healing, whatever your particular word for it is, could have also occurred after her death. We were lucky, so lucky; we got to have it while she was alive, but just barely. She was gone within two years after my arrival, and our lunchtime conversation came only three or four months before her death, the death that was a surprise to all or at least most of us.

What He said

My father developed dementia in his last years, which accelerated after mom’s death. As this occurred, it became harder and harder for him to keep track of a conversation…he just couldn’t follow it, keep all the parts in his head. It became even more difficult for him after I moved back up north to my home in Washington State, because then we only had phone conversations. Those are harder for so many reasons, even without dementia. Add that into the mix – well, he just couldn’t do it.

Because he’d had a small business as a younger man, and I now worked in a small business, he’d always begin by asking, “So how’s business?” Often, I was stressed out about one thing or another, and would instantly begin to ramble on about it, since he’d asked. Quickly though, I’d remember that he couldn’t follow where I was going, but not before he’d cut me off and ask his real question, which would crack my heart open a little more each time he asked it:

“But are you happy?”

The first time I heard these words I could not believe my ears. I can never recall my father even speaking to the idea of happiness. I have no memory of such a question ever coming from him. He was definitely not the kind of man who would ask about being happy. My cousin wondered, when I mentioned this to him, if maybe it was because for many in dad’s generation, especially the men of that era, happiness was not something that anyone ever really expected. I do know now, that so much of what he said or did when I was younger, really was pointing to that question – but for me, in the midst of our very strained relationship – I had no idea that he was wondering, let alone hoping, that I was happy. Now I know that most definitely he was.

“But are you happy?”

That’s what he asked me, and quite quickly, every time I spoke with him on the phone those last few years. And he asked it so sincerely and with such a deep concern and unabashed yearning for me to say that I was, that I could not disappoint him. But I also couldn’t lie to him. I wanted to be able to answer yes to his question because I heard in his voice, in the way that he asked the question, that he knew some larger truth, and I wanted to know it for myself. I heard that he was really asking me to dig deeper, to get to what was really important in life and see that there, in that place, in that deep and peaceful place I would always be able to say, “Yes, I am happy.” It became a question that I would hear him asking me at different points in my day. In a way, his question became a monitoring device. So I began to know that I was happy…not pretend syrupy-sweet happy, but truly, deeply happy. I learned this from my father, a man of very few words.

That I have these two beautiful kernels held carefully in my cupped hands, given to me by my parents; that I traveled on a long, winding road with them to a place where the fierce winds of life stopped just long enough for the jeweled gifts to be placed in my hands, and that we looked into each other’s eyes and hearts as the jewels were given by them and received by me; what more could I ask for?

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not bad

We all knew this would probably be the last Thanksgiving at Dad’s house. Growing up, our cousins fondly called it, “Aunt Rose and Uncle Ted’s house”. My parents, that house; they were always there. I remember when one of my cousins visited them after being out of town for years. Gleefully and with a broad smile across his face, he announced, “Your dad’s still sitting in the same position, on the same couch.” I laughed along with him and also rolled my eyes a bit. But it was true…no matter how crazy the world was, we could return to Beeman Avenue to that safe, solid, and yes, maddening consistency, if even just for one evening.

The years rolled on, we cherished the house and all the memories it held for our family. For the last five or ten years that my folks, and then my widowed father, lived in that house, it fell to our family to host the Thanksgiving feast. For all the years that it was her responsibility, this assignment was mom’s nemesis, her unraveling. She was a mother, and a wife who, like most women of her time, cooked all the meals for her family. She’d try some new recipe now and then, but cooking did not make her heart sing…never had, and my father was…well, he was how he was. A man of few words, a man who never, ever, tasted food before dousing it with salt, he was also not one to praise unnecessarily, which from my perspective meant…there was no praise.

So it was no surprise each year as Thanksgiving loomed near – mom’s dread increased. My sister and I in our various ways inherited some of her dread or resistance or insecurity or whatever it was, so sadly we were not the triumphant daughters who would come home and just take over the task.
We helped out for sure and we made a great team. We created the beauty that Thanksgiving at 5219 Beeman Avenue became known for: we ironed all the vintage table linens inherited from mom’s folks, we polished every piece of beautiful silverware and serving pieces that sat hidden the rest of the year in the deep drawers of the breakfront that came out of grandma and grandpa’s living room. We set the tables with the lavish, gold filigree-edged dinner plates that had graced my grandparents’ Sabbath meals as my mother was growing up.

To my astonishment, in those last years, dad found his own tenderhearted way of contributing to the beauty of our evening. Using a tray, which in earlier days would have been piled with his “famous” hamburgers, cooked every weekend on his old-fashioned barbeque, and with a pair of scissors that mom had forbidden anyone else to use, and dad of course broke her rule every time, he’d disappear out into his beloved backyard and cut mountains of bougainvillea flowers bursting with life. What a sight he was…close to ninety-years-old, skinny as a rail, carrying his collage of tangerine, magenta, and scarlet hued flowers into our home.

The tables were rich, sumptuous and oddly out of place, pasted on top of the plain interior of our home. It was a little fairy tale that we all traveled into, together. The den that held our feast began as a large, 1950’s era screened-in porch complete with sloping concrete floor. Dad helped remodel the room in the ‘60’s, keeping the original floor, tiling it with linoleum. This was a great feature if you needed to hose down an outside porch, or if you were a kid rolling toy trains across the floor, but bizarre and unsettling for a bunch of octogenarians, some who were losing their eyesight or hearing, and some gaining dementia in exchange. Dementia was definitely beginning to move into dad’s life in inconsistent but obvious ways. Tinged with bittersweet, we all knew, without speaking of it, this might be the last time.

Neither my sister nor I were up to the task of taking on the actual preparation of the turkey. In mom’s absence we marveled that she had done it for so many years. No matter what several of our well-meaning friends told us about how easy it was to roast a turkey – we knew we could not manage both dad’s increasing unpredictability and our grand lack of confidence around cooking a meal for so many relatives…several of whom had also slipped into the realm of “unpredictable”.
Enter the Angel of Thanksgiving. My sister’s childhood friend happened to be coming down to L.A. for the holiday and she came from a family of fabulous cooks…she loved to cook. After hearing my sister’s description of our dilemma, SHE VOLUNTEERED TO COOK OUR ENTIRE FEAST. Our anxiety-ridden circumstance appeared on her horizon and she was happy to get the opportunity to cook an elegant meal, and to offer a treasured gift to our family.

We, and our home, had never seen such a feast. Yes, we had green beans, but for the first time ever, we had FRESH, delicately cooked green beans, with FRESH herbs. The deliciousness went on and on throughout every detail of the meal. The menu equaled the elegance of the crisp linens, sparkling silver and riotous flowers. It was magnificent.

The air was thick – collectively we were in a food stupor. I sat next to my father and watched him go through the motions he’d made every single night of his married life to signal that he was indeed, finished with his meal. He pushed himself away from the table slightly, took his grand, sage-green, linen napkin, which any other night would have been a small, white paper napkin, and with both hands, gently wadded it up and placed it in the center of his plate.

“How was your dinner, dad?” I asked, truly expecting at least some small amount of praise even though praise was not his style.

After a long silence and looking straight ahead, he responded.

“Not bad.”

I burst out laughing at the absurdity of his reply. How far I’d come, that my unscripted response was pure laughter where years before it would have been anger or resentment or rage. All I could do was laugh.

“Not bad?!” I thought to myself.

“Not Bad?” I flung at him, inside my head.

“NOT BAD?!?!?” I said out loud, incredulous.

I began to describe the subtle and exquisite flavors that Paula had included in this feast that defied any inkling of anything we’d ever eaten as a family. I was on a roll, flinging words right and left. Finally I noticed that dad’s body language had changed ever so slightly. He was still facing straight ahead, but his arms were now crossed, resting at his belt (he had no belly to rest them on) and his shoulders were shaking ever so slightly. That subtle smirk formed across his lips.

“That meal, to quote mom, was ‘INCREDIBLE’,” I informed him.

He nodded his head slightly, saying,

“That’s what I said.”

Time stopped. The earth stopped its rotation. I stopped breathing. Everything stopped.

“THAT’S what NOT BAD means?”

He nodded again, showing a little more movement in his shoulders now, doing his level best to hold back his laughter.

In a complete state of shock, and in the brief space between one sentence and the next, my whole world had been thrown on its head. I had spent a great deal of my childhood and a good chunk of my adult life consciously or unconsciously seeking approval from my father. What I was hearing from him right now was pointing to the very real possibility that much of my quest for approval stemmed from a problem with translation.

Not bad = Incredible

I honestly will never know if my father was only shaking with held back laughter at my reaction to his response about dinner, or if he had a glimpse of our life-long struggles and this issue of mistranslation.

Thankfully, by the time this extremely disorienting discovery arrived, I was able, rather gracefully actually, to take it in stride. TAKE IT IN STRIDE? Well…pretty much.

a giant in the bedroom

There’s no breeze to move the curtains, only a heat that sits heavy and still. The curtains were my first sewing project in junior high: highly polished white cotton with gold, ball-fringe along the bottom edge. Because I ignored my mother when she said I had to pre-shrink the fabric – after all, “What did she know?” – they hang about two inches short of the windowsill. At dawn, as the sun rises above the houses across the street, a blinding light comes blasting into the bedroom, squeezing between the curtains and the sill, and burns a blazing strip across the opposite wall.

I can’t believe I’m sleeping here again, in the “front bedroom”, with all the same furniture, even the bed. I don’t just mean the same bed frame; I mean the exact same mattress and box springs that I slept on throughout my entire childhood. The bed is draped with a bedspread originally from my parents’ bed; gold with large white flowers outlined in rough brush strokes of black. Now that dementia is beginning to creep slowly into my father’s life, and with my mother gone, he doesn’t have the patience or, at 116 pounds, the strength to fuss with a bedspread.

Awakening to the tender, hauntingly familiar song of the mourning doves, at age 50 I am overflowing out the windows; windows which I have to leave open at night even though it is Los Angeles – a place that does its best to instill fear in its residents. Most everyone shuts and locks their windows at night even when it’s still in the 90’s. I cannot. I can’t breathe because I’m a giant now; an adult who’s trying to cram herself back into a tiny little room that once contained her in childhood. I’m too big. It’s too hot.

I made the decision to move back home in the midst of an illness. Something a friend said sparked a heart-breaking-open kind of heartbreak. I heard more than thought that I must go home. A conflict raged, like the wildfires that marked every summer of my youth. My mind shouted at the top of its lungs, “Are you crazy? Move BACK to Los Angeles? You barely escaped the first time. NO! No way! You’ll be crushed.” No matter how loudly my mind raged, my heart simply stood by quietly, calmly, pointing the way: the way home.

Well, I did go. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. EVER. And I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I’d been helping out folks who were the age of my parents for years; maybe it was time to help out my own parents. It sounded like a great idea, except – I didn’t tell my parents. Oh I told them I was moving back down to L.A, and they were thrilled; I just didn’t say anything about helping them.

When I finally arrived, they made it clear with my first helping gesture that at 81 and 87 they were just fine; they didn’t need any help from me. Translation: “Butt out!” Some force, larger than all three of our stubborn, afraid-of-intimacy selves, quickly took over.

One month into our experiment of living close by to each other, my father had a minor stroke. When he had to have an MRI, it was decided between the three of us, in our unspoken way, that I, not mom, would take dad and stand by as he surrendered all his ferocious invincibility to a giant gleaming beast. I watched him slide slowly into the gaping maw of an enormous and deafening machine, only to emerge on the other side as a frightened old man. I was there to help him find his way…out of the office, into the elevator, through the dark parking garage, into the car that he no longer was able to drive, to the safety of his home. Inside the glare of that machine, somehow a part of him was defeated in a way that would never be reclaimed.

A few months later my mother fell, ending up with a large gash on her head. Miraculously she didn’t break any bones…but after a seven-hour marathon at an unbelievably overcrowded and understaffed local hospital, we three arrived at a profound and deeply vulnerable new dynamic, a place we could never have imagined, let alone approached, ever before: from time to time, it would be me, their middle child, and from my father’s perspective, not even a son, but a daughter…who would now make some of their most crucial decisions.

Who could have known what would become of my move back home? What did occur was grander than my wildest dreams. My mother and I tenderly broke through a barrier of intimacy that had been sterile for so long, it had almost dried up and completely blown away. While she lay on her side on a hospital bed, waiting for her head to be stitched up after she fell, I shyly slid my hand over to hers and she shyly took hold of it. We held each other’s hand – for a very long time. Whatever had caused us to be so afraid of reaching out for each other for what seemed like forever, was dissolving.

On the evening before I drove away from Los Angeles, away from my father who by now had been widowed for a year and a half, he and I shared one last dinner at his favorite restaurant. A rare autumn mist had moved in while we ate this last meal together. Afterwards, we sat in the car, staring straight ahead through the windshield, as droplets formed and rolled down the glass. We were both heartbroken – I was leaving. We knew it was time for me to go. My father took my hand. Tears rolled down my face. I can’t say for sure, but maybe even his old, nearly blind eyes filled to overflowing with some of the same salty water. Out of a dense silence, he said tenderly, “Thank you.”

If you appreciated this essay, you might also enjoy reading what more could I ask for a longer treatment.

no stopping him

My dad was the first resident in ten years to escape from the “secure” assisted living complex that we’d moved him to a month or so after his 94th birthday. My sister and I had taken a preliminary tour of the place and then my brother joined us for a more detailed inspection before meeting with the Director. Aside from standard requirements about staffing, livability, etc., we were looking for places where dad could make an escape; because we knew him, we knew that he’d try.

He was a fighter…here’s what he used to say about death, although he’d never use that word: “I’m gonna fight it to the end” he’d snarl. And he did. Underneath this story of the man who broke the ten-year record, is woven the tattered fabric of our collective heartbreak: a glimpse of what life is like for millions of our elders…many of whom can’t or won’t attempt an escape like my father…they’ll just quietly waste away, right before our eyes.

Dad was just plain tough: he was the eldest of the four children still at home, who lost their father to tuberculosis when dad was eleven. They lived in dire poverty in Detroit during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. At age ninety-four, my father was strong and relatively healthy despite the fact that he had dementia, incontinence, was mostly blind from macular degeneration, and fairly deaf, although he didn’t think he was. With all these seeming infirmities, his daily routine right up to the day before we moved him from his home of sixty-one years, included walking one-mile, round trip, to the donut shop once or twice a day, or three times when he’d forget he’d already been there earlier. He was stubborn, cantankerous and basically unstoppable. It had gotten to the point where we could no longer find a way for him to remain in his home and be assured of his safety. That’s before we realized that no one could really give that kind of assurance, even when they said they could.

After our reconnaissance of the assisted-care facility, we met with the Director of the complex and told him we’d found two places that we thought were weak, as far as security went. Already he was eyeing us with a particular kind of look. We described a place in the backyard where the hilly landscaping was so close to the concrete-block fence, we knew dad would drag a metal patio chair to the fence and climb right over it. You should have seen the Director’s face when we told him of the problem. He assured us that no one had escaped in ten years, that they had a “state of the art” alarm system, and that dad would be safe. Next we told him that we’d found a gate that didn’t have a lock on it and dad would jiggle it until he figured out how to open it. Again the director made his assurances. He still wasn’t getting the picture, so we gave him examples of dad’s problem-solving technique, knowing that dad’s new problem to solve would be how to get out of there.

My father had refused to leave a house key hidden somewhere outside his home because he was afraid of an intruder finding the key and getting into his house, and truthfully he wouldn’t have remembered the key when he needed it, anyway. When I asked dad what he’d do if he locked himself out, he said with a bit of a growl, “I’ll just kick the door in”: this from a man in his nineties.

The day finally came when he did lock himself out. The back door was a lightweight, inexpensive hollow-core door and at first he tried to kick it in, but weighing only about 115 pounds fully dressed including his shoes…he just couldn’t bust the door down. That didn’t stop him: he wandered around in his garage and found a crowbar, somehow dragged it to the back door and smashed a hole in it. Then he reached his hand through and unlocked it.

The next time he locked himself out, my sister got a call from the neighbor across the street saying that she had just happened to look out their window to witness dad standing on a 5-foot aluminum ladder just about to climb in through his kitchen window. Luckily her husband was able to interrupt dad’s attempt, which if successful would have landed him right in the kitchen sink.

His third “problem-solving technique” was the proverbial last straw. After the crowbar and ladder incidents we scoured the garage and removed all the tools that we could find, along with anything else that seemed like something dad might hurt himself with. The next time he locked himself out, even after our precautions, somewhere he found a hammer and used it to break the window next to the front door, reached through the broken window and again, let himself in. The same neighbor just happened to see dad reaching his hand through the window and called us. Miraculously, he was not injured.

We knew, as soon as we heard about this last episode, that we had to move him out of his house. We’d been walking a fine line for months by then, trying to find a safe way that he could stay in his home, and with the help of some loving, dedicated caregivers, we had come up with many creative solutions for taking care of this rowdy old man. Even in our frustration and concern for his safety, we all loved that dad simply would not give up.

After hearing our stories, the Director realized that maybe it wasn’t just that we were overly protective children, but it seemed like he still thought we were exaggerating, and maybe nuts. One more time, he repeated his line that no one had escaped in ten years and that they’d take good care of him.

Dad wasted no time and began casing the joint the very next day after his arrival. He took the easiest route – forget climbing the fence. Here’s how he worked it: on the morning after he arrived, the first thing he did was simply try to get out the front door, over and over. Every time he pushed on the door, the alarm would go off. The employees got to know him quickly, knew they needed to keep an eye on him, but they weren’t prepared for quite such a rascal. He spent most of his time that first day, in the lobby, and noticed that sometimes the front door was locked but other times it was unlocked, to allow guests to come and go.

Although he did not completely understand how it all worked, the next day, he made a point to stand around and schmooze with the receptionist, while keeping an eye on that front door traffic. Subtly, he edged toward the door until an opportune moment arrived when there were four or five guests coming and going and dad simply blended himself into that little crowd and walked out with them. Luckily the receptionist realized what had happened right away, and dad only made it about 20 feet from the front door before one of the staff escorted him back inside. So, just two days after we moved him in, my sister got a call saying that he had escaped. Luckily he didn’t get far…he just got out. When my sister phoned with the news, she and I both responded in kind: we cheered. He did it! He broke their blasted ten-year record! But the elation was short lived…we knew he was not safe out on the streets and we knew he would keep trying.

Of course we were pissed off at Mr. Director for not believing us in the first place. We were also secretly quite proud of dad for being, well, for being that fighter that made it so hard for all three of us kids to get along with him, but in this case: “Way to go, dad.”

The next day when we went to visit him, he was right there in the lobby, scoping everything out again, no doubt looking for his next escape opportunity. We walked in, and I could tell that he recognized us, but he didn’t make any effort at a greeting. He was leaning on the reception counter with one elbow, looking intently down one of the long hallways. I went over to him and said, “Dad, aren’t ya gonna say hello to us?” “Shhh!” he whispered loudly, and nodded down the hall, not wanting to draw any attention by pointing with his long, thin finger. “See that guy rolling that cart? Shhh! Don’t let him know we’re looking at him. He cleans up around here. I know him. He’s a pretty good guy. See that garbage can on his cart? He must roll that cart outside to dump it somewhere, don’t ya think? I’m thinkin’ I can just climb into that garbage can and hide in it, and then when he rolls it out, I’ll just jump out and take off! Wha’ d’ya think?”

Even as I was concerned for dad’s safety, I loved that he was still not giving up. It was so much who he was. My brother, sister and I later on that day joked that clearly dad had watched the movie, The Great Escape, too many times. He wasn’t giving in. Not just yet anyway.

What we learned was that Assisted Care facilities are not really set up for patients like dad. Much later I learned that he would be classified as “ambulatory with goal-directed wandering”. I laughed out loud when I first heard that term: “goal-directed wandering”. “Goal-directed”…that was dad, for sure. Most residents were unstable on their feet at best, or, used a walker, were in a wheel chair or bedridden: translation – easy to control. And, truthfully, the great majority of the residents were women, who, in a gross generalization, were from a generation of women not inclined to plan out escapes.

We ended up moving dad, trying two other facilities…each time smaller. Over and over we’d tell them how dad was. Each time they’d give us that look, the one that said we were just over-protective children, and that we shouldn’t worry – they’d take good care of him. But they couldn’t. He was too much of a handful for any of them. He needed constant attention because he was strong and healthy – and he was always on the move, when he wasn’t asleep. They couldn’t keep a close enough eye on him – they weren’t used to having to keep track of a man who actually moved around on his own, and they didn’t have the staff to handle someone so active. We couldn’t afford to hire a private caregiver that would be solely responsible for him and sadly, there was even less of a chance that he was going to consistently take directions from any of his children. I could see the writing on the wall.

As there is an ending to each of our lives, his life ended according to his own particular style. In his uncanny way of sensing when there was a possibility of escape, he got up and wandered to a door during a few moments when someone in the third, and much smaller residence that we’d placed him in, had forgotten to reset the door alarm. He wandered outside, enjoying the freedom and fresh air that he so loved…and fell. He broke his hip and when they x-rayed it, the doctor said that the joint had completely shattered…he would never walk again.

He left his mark on the hospital in those first days. While heavily sedated with pain medication, he was approached by what appeared to him to be strangers who were about to mess with him and he kicked not one, but two nurses in a row, with his good leg: a fighter to the end. Less than two weeks from the day of his fall, when on some level, he knew that it was finally, truly time to go, he went so quickly that the caregiver that was sitting with him didn’t even have time to call for medical help. Even with death, in the same way we’d known him to be in every situation, when dad made his mind up to do something; there was no stopping him.

The Queen of the Flowers

I met Teodore Thorvendal, a tall, lanky, ninety-five-year-old Swedish man with a sometimes explosive temper, while living in Seattle in the early 1990’s.

Soon after his wife Crossed Over he lost all of his short-term memory. Every morning when his nephew Stefan, a new friend of mine, came out of his bedroom, Teodore would lunge at him, thinking he was a burglar. Somehow Stefan would convince his uncle again, who he was and why he was living with him. This happened every single day until after a year; Stefan couldn’t take it any more. He was going back home to Sweden and on this particular day, I would be driving Stefan to the airport.

I knocked on the front door and I was relieved that Stefan answered. I was afraid of the old man…the one other time I had come to the door of the house, he pulled the curtain aside an inch or two, peered out at me through the window, wild-eyed, and cursed at me to get off his property. So yes, I was anxious when Stefan invited me to come inside on that last morning. They were just finishing breakfast and he motioned for me to join them in the kitchen. Timidly I followed him in and there was the crazy old man glaring at me. I sat there while they both finished eating; metal spoons scraping up the last of their cereal the only sounds that broke their silent meal. Before I could stop him, Stefan jumped up and said he’d go out and load his luggage into the back of my borrowed truck.

That left me alone with Teodore. He put his spoon down on the table, pointed his long, crooked finger at me and said, “Please. Come with me.” I was afraid – afraid to go with him and afraid to disobey him. Against my better judgment, I followed him through the dark living room and out onto the front deck; the same deck I’d stood on when he cursed at me and told me to get off his property.

“She planted them every summer,” he said, speaking to me softly, shaking his head. “Look at them now – they’re all dead.” At first I didn’t know what he was talking about – I was nervous being so close to this man that could become so agitated without warning. I followed his gaze and realized that the entire deck was lined with planter boxes that were filled with dead bedding plants – flower heads in tact, but stone dead. “Please,” he begged me, “please plant them.”

How did he know? How did this man that I had never spoken with, this man whom I was still not sure was safe to be around at all – how did he know that my most favorite thing in the world was to plant flowers and tend them? We stood there silently, then Stefan found us and he and I were off to the airport – Teodore’s request went unanswered.

Back home from the airport, I replayed the conversation with Teodore in my head. Did he really ask me, a total stranger, to plant his flower boxes for him? It seemed that he had, and I decided to do a good deed. The next day I rode my bicycle to the nursery near my house and loaded up my saddlebags with potting soil and bedding plants. It was an unusually hot summer day and by the time I rode my bike back up north to Teodore’s house I was sweaty and tired. And, I have to say, quite proud of myself. I was helping this “poor old man” with his dream to somehow bring back part of his wife’s memory by replanting her garden.

I leaned my overloaded bicycle up against the edge of the deck with a bit of a thud. The front door flew open and there he was; the crazy, wild-eyed man screaming profanities at me, demanding that I get off his property. I was mad now. Hadn’t I just spent my own money, not to mention my sweat equity, to get all these supplies? Isn’t this what he had asked me do? Yes, I was afraid of him, but now I was pissed off. He wasn’t going to beg me to do something and then threaten me when I did it. It was too late – I’d had it with him. I flew around in a rage and told him it was none of his business, that I’d bought the plants after he’d asked me to, and now, like it or not, I was going to plant them. I glared at him hard. We stood there for a few moments, both of us stubborn and fierce. He wheeled around, went back inside and slammed the door.

I have to tell you that this was a first for me. I had never challenged someone, anyone, like this before. There was something about him, or about the combination of the two of us that gave me the courage or the strength or the foolishness, to stand up to him…or maybe it was fueled by my big, fat, bruised ego.

I began working on the flower boxes, and as always, I found the peaceful rhythm of hands-into-dirt, plants-into-soil. I calmed down. I forgot all the craziness. Out of the corner of my eye I saw that he was peering at me through the window. Again he’d pulled the curtain back and was following my progress. When he saw me looking at him he threw the curtain shut again. Sometime later I heard the door open. I paid no attention. Finally he said quietly, “No, not there. Don’t put them there, they should go over in that one,” pointing his long gnarled finger across the deck. Glaring, I told him it was my garden and I’d plant them where I wanted. He slammed the door again and watched me from the curtained window.

After dragging a hose around from the backyard and thoroughly watering these new, young plants, I stood back to view the garden. The door opened and he spoke. His demeanor had changed – back to the imploring voice he’d used on me when he first asked for this garden. How was he going to take care of it? He was an old man; a weak old man and he couldn’t drag the hose over, or lift a full watering can…the flowers would just die. He was wringing his hands. Still suffering from a rather large and bruised ego I stared him in the eye and said coldly, “It’s my garden. I’ll take care of it.” I walked down the steps, climbed onto my bicycle and rode away without looking back.

Seattle was having a true heat wave and I was concerned about the newly planted garden. Two days later I rode back up to Teodore’s house. What would I encounter with the old man? Was I in real danger? My love for the young plants propelled me to return in spite of my fear of him. They needed water. This time I snuck quietly up onto the deck. Maybe I could water the plants without him knowing. But wait – not only had they been thoroughly watered, they had all – every single planter box – been carefully tended to. As I surveyed the garden, I heard the front door open. For some reason he didn’t yell at me, he just watched. I ignored him. He remained at the door, watching me through the screen. When I was satisfied that the plants were going to live for a few more days I turned to leave. Changing my mind I faced him. He tensed. Fear, then rage, flooded his face. I tensed too. Slowly I approached him. Part of me was screaming, “Are you insane? RUN! Get away from him, he’ll hurt you!” Then his face gentled and a smile formed in the most miraculous way. “Well, if it isn’t the Queen of the Flowers,” he murmured in a beautiful, deep, Swedish lilt. “The Queen of the Flowers.”

For the rest of that summer I visited Teodore most every week. He cared for the flowers – never have I seen such a well-tended garden. The moment any impudent weed had the nerve to appear, Teodore’s long fingers plucked it out. Somehow he found the strength and balance to carry watering can after watering can to quench his beloved garden’s thirst. My visits became social calls, not garden interventions. We would sit in his dark, cool, living room, he in his circa 1960’s plaid, upholstered, rocking chair. With eyes closed he would recount story after story of his childhood in the countryside of northern Sweden: the log over the creek that he and his friends would run across, the adventures they would have. Eventually he shared with me that each night before he fell asleep he’d pray that he’d awaken in the morning so that he could care for the garden. He told me he knew that’s why he was still alive, and that he was happy to be alive. In all other endeavors he continued to have absolutely no short-term memory. How could he remember me? What, or who, did he see when he looked into my eyes?

Each visit began with me approaching the front door. He’d draw the curtain back peering out, fearfully. The curtain would drop, the door would open an inch, and before he spoke, something would happen. I’d look into his eyes, he’d look into mine and after a moment he’d sing out, “Well, if it isn’t the Queen of the Flowers.”

It’s been over twenty years now since I met this remarkable old man. The experience has woven itself deeply into my bones…into my psyche. It’s about aging, about how our minds forget and also what they can remember; it’s about what’s beneath fear. And when I moved back home far from my current life, to help out my aging father, who coincidentally (?) was named Ted (Theodore) and lived to be ninety-four, my time with Teodore was patiently waiting there to guide me toward finding a way to connect with my father who had begun his own long journey into forgetting.

To listen to a radio interview I gave on The Story, about The Queen of the Flowers, click HERE.

grace AND dementia in the same sentence

Maybe you cannot imagine these two words linked in the same sentence: grace and dementia. The more time I spend with people who are going through a shift in the way they perceive their world, the more grace I discover.

Please. Dip your toes into the remarkable stories of the ones I have come to know. Many of these stories are about my father. He was and still is, the one who is teaching me the most about the landscape of dementia, even though he’s been gone now for years. There are others as well…other grand old ones with great gifts for me – treasures squirreled away in their twinkling or terrified eyes, in their enormous hearts, whole or broken-open…always they come bearing gifts.

The Queen of the Flowers, is the tale of me as an unknowing wanderer who ends up at the doorstep of a man with absolutely NO short-term memory, and how he and I found our way deep into each other’s hearts. This man, Teodore, gave me a crash course in dementia before I’d ever heard the word, before I knew there was such a thing as short-term memory loss. Our time together was a graduate degree in dementia crammed into the span of one hot summer. And to him I make a broad and low bow for the gifts that he bestowed upon me; his unknowing, then eager, student.

I hope that you will dive into this world that continues to bless me. I hope that sparkling tears will well up in your eyes and maybe roll down your cheeks. I hope that you laugh out loud too. All of this and more wait for you inside this world that our culture has turned away from, for far too long.

Welcome. Welcome Home.