tangerines, squirrels and angels

It was pointless to ask my father direct questions about anything of substance. Subtlety was required – a slow, gentle curve of a question – never approach straight on. Anything I learned about him that was at all personal came only on his terms…when he was ready, and it always came quick…like a shooting star. With a blink of the eyes, it was gone. It’s a hard way to get to know someone, but in the end, deeply meaningful, because the stories come in precious and unexpected little nuggets.

Sometimes dad would join me as I sought refuge out in the backyard of his home – the place that had embraced my entire childhood. Along the west-facing fence was a row of Liquid Amber trees that generously gave us relief from the scorching sun. The trees grew just below the power lines that crisscrossed every backyard, up and down the street. Mourning doves perched on the wires, singing their gentle chorus, gratefully calmed the sparks that often crackled between dad and I. It seemed we were “striker” and “match” for each other, although thankfully, after more than 40 years, the friction between us had finally begun to wear down. A slight, cool breeze calmed the fiery afternoon. Two dark green lawn chairs with woven, plastic webbing, that had been in the backyard as long as I could remember, provided us with familiar seating.

We sat side by side, in front of a tangerine tree that was planted to mark my birth. Currently, it was at the center of dad’s venomous war with the squirrels, over ownership of the sweet and sour, deliciously juicy fruit: a battle they waged every season. The squirrels’ method of devouring dad’s favorite fruit was, according to my father, a personal affront. They’d jump down out of the taller Liquid Ambers nearby and sit at the very top of the tangerine tree, harvesting only the best sun–ripened fruit. That would have been crime enough, but their technique was unforgivable, and brilliant. They’d gnaw a little hole in the perfectly ripe fruit and then suck the entire contents out, leaving the empty, round, skin intact. Then they’d just toss the empty fruits, which lay scattered all around the base of the tree. From a distance they looked like whole tangerines, and I’m sure that dad, with his failing eyesight, had been fooled many times.

I imagined the squirrels safely up in their roost watching dad curse as he found another empty shell of his favorite, late afternoon snack. This was their eternal feud, but dad had a plan. There was a big stack of old aluminum-framed screens discarded when the original wooden windows had been replaced. He subscribed to the belief that nothing should ever be thrown out…so they’d been stacked in the back shed behind the garage for about ten years. He had this amazing and complex scheme that involved suspending the screens above the tangerine tree so the squirrels couldn’t jump down to it from above.

I told dad that I thought he was actually training the squirrels to perform ever more sophisticated aerial feats, adding, “They’ll just climb around to the underside of the screens and carry on with their plundering.” He snorted his disagreement to me at about the same time that a squirrel with impressive agility, demonstrated my point by climbing up a large tree trunk backwards, with its head pointing down and bushy tail jabbing upward, all the while scolding dad for ever considering that he might come out the victor. Dad just muttered and waved his hand as if to dismiss both the squirrel and me.

In the midst of all this talk of tangerines and squirrels, dad suddenly veered off into an entirely different conversation, stating that my mother was an agnostic and he was an atheist. “Where did THAT come from?” I wondered. I restrained myself from turning to directly face him as he brought up such an intensely personal subject. Instead, I listened as unobtrusively as possible. It was so rare to have this kind of conversation with him – even intense listening could cause him to clam up and change the subject.

I spoke softly…“If you’re an atheist, doesn’t that mean that you’re certain there is no God? How can you be sure about it? How do you know for sure?” After a long pause, my father, born in 1914, told me that it happened when he was in his twenties – when he became aware of what was going on in Germany, then spreading throughout much of Europe, ahead of World War II. In a tone I’d never heard from him he replied, “A lot of us felt it,” – “us” being American Jews, born of Jewish immigrants who’d fled Eastern Europe during the pogroms. He told me that initially he felt betrayed by a God that would allow such slaughter, and this betrayal turned into a certainty when he learned that it was happening again: such destruction of life and property proved to him that there couldn’t possibly be a God. As he described this shift in his belief, I felt his heartbreak, his utter sense of abandonment, and his unequivocal knowing that he was completely on his own; a belief he lived by, ever after. Based on the beliefs…or maybe more accurately, non-beliefs of my parents, I was left on my own to develop any sense of religious or spiritual faith that I might yearn for. And I did…I had a deep yearning for such guidance.

Over the years, as I watched my father turn down help again and again, I came to see that it was the only way for him, if he was to continue with his conviction that he had to “go it alone”. There was no one else but him: no one here, which I can imagine stemmed from the fact that at the age of eleven, and being the eldest boy at home, he became the male head of the household after his father died of tuberculosis, and, there was no God above that was going to help him either. I also slowly realized that he saw any acceptance of help, as an admission of vulnerability that he could not allow, could not bear.

Being the child most like him in this regard, I was a seasoned student of this mindset, having grown up in his household under his stern rule. As a young adult, I’d become quite skilled at the very same approach to life: the belief that I could, and moreover had to, carry whatever came my way, all on my own.

A few months after my 31st birthday, I was in a car accident so horrific that when the first Emergency Responder showed up and found me wandering around crazed and barefoot in the darkness, soaking wet from the pouring rain, he looked at me and then at my car and said, “Whoever was in that car…they didn’t make it. There’s no way anyone could live through that.” But I was the one in that car. And I did make it.

It took a lot of years for me to shed that big, old, shell of a belief I inherited from my proud father that demanded, “I gotta go it alone”. I realized that clearly, the fact that I did live through that accident meant I DID NOT GO IT ALONE. It was true what that First Responder said – there’s no way someone could live through that – but I did, somehow. I had help – and lots of it. They were there. The angels. To this day, I don’t exactly know what I mean by angels…but it’s the word that always comes. I can tell you for sure that in the midst of that one conversation, as dad and I were taunted by tangerine-marauding squirrels, it never dawned on me that I would ever wonder if angels might be looking after my father.

__

In the years following my mother’s death, my father just kept making adjustments…as he’d done his entire life. Whatever fate fell to him, he would meet it head on. And so it was with becoming a widower; figuring out how to live in his home, alone, after sharing it with his wife and three children for fifty-six years. As I watched dad navigate his way through the last years of his life, I slowly began to realize he was clearly surrounded by them – angels. He was approaching his nineties, his vision was declining rapidly, and so was his hearing. Dementia was hanging around, just on the edge of his world, showing up now and again.

Having given up driving, dad did a lot of walking. He lived just four doors down from a busy street that he used as his main thoroughfare. One day, returning from a trip to the bank, he misjudged the height of a curb and instead of climbing back up to the sidewalk after crossing the street; he tripped and fell, hitting his head on the concrete. There he was, laid out on the ground, inches from where cars were making right turns. One such driver saw my father there on the sidewalk and pulled over. As he approached, my father ever on the alert, shouted as menacingly as a skinny old man could,

“GET AWAY FROM ME!” fearing that he was about to be mugged or attacked, when he was down and seemingly helpless.

The driver leaned over to help dad up.

“I SAID GET AWAY FROM ME!” dad hurled, as blood ran down his face.

The man approached dad again, who took a swing at him, even as he lay on the ground.

Finally something let loose and he allowed the man to help him up, but then he turned again, preparing to throw a punch in case he tried to take advantage of dad. This angel offered dad a ride home, but was vigorously refused. As the adrenaline began to wear off, he felt the chill of exhaustion sink deep into his bones and softened to the man. Eventually my father agreed that he could use a little help walking home, but refused to get into the stranger’s car. Disoriented at first, dad wasn’t even sure where he lived. Luckily he was only two blocks from his home, and in the end, recognized his dear old house at 5219. He allowed the man to walk him almost to the front porch and then sent him away.

Miraculously, dad didn’t break any bones, or suffer a concussion. He did have some bruises, but all in all, how was that possible at his age? Later on he would recount the part that he was most proud of: he remembered how to roll into a fall, instead of bracing himself with his hands. He called it “the tuck and roll,” and sang it out slow like a chorus from some old favorite song. It came from his training as a fighter in his youth; both on the streets and in the gymnasiums in his rough and tumble 1920’s Detroit neighborhood. With Jews on one street, Italians on the next, Irish around the corner – fist fighting was a way of life.

There are many stories about my father in the last years of his life that are true mysteries…so many “near misses” where he could have been terribly injured or even lost his life, due to his fierce sense of independence which demanded that he do everything for himself.

Who helped dad, who helped me – that is the Great Mystery. I don’t need to understand it all, and at this point in my life, what I say is, YES: the angels come, whether or not you believe in…anything.

Advertisements

BE HERE NOW

I was back down in LA, visiting dad – he was 92. We decided that we should go out to dinner…to celebrate my arrival. Tonight, dad and I were going to the only place he could remember now. Even if I recounted to him other reliable “old standbys”, this is the place he’d choose. He’d always think very deliberately about it like he was really weighing out all the pros and cons…this place always won out. ALWAYS.

It was the same every time: we’d walk in and dad would say, “Oh, that’s rough. There’s no one here.” He’d owned a small business for much of his adult life, so he empathized with “the guy”…the owner. Actually, there were plenty of people in the restaurant, it was just that dad couldn’t see them, or hear them. So then I would start telling dad where all the people were seated. Years ago, this could have pissed him off…he would’ve taken my comments as trying to prove him wrong. But now…his genuine concern for the owner trumped any of those feelings. He’d been there so many times that he could picture each table, as I described to him where it was and how many people were there. It took a great load off his mind knowing “he’s actually got a good business tonight”.

There were so many people there, in fact, that we ended up in a part of the restaurant that we’d never sat in before. I didn’t know how this was going to go…familiar routines had become fairly important these days. I knew that things might go astray…but I was up for a little adventure. Usually we were seated at a “table for four”; and, one that was situated out in the middle of the dining area, with no one close by. Not tonight. Tonight we were seated at a small “table for two”. The seating on one side was an upholstered bench that extended the whole length of the restaurant, and the other side had a chair pulled up to it. I took the bench and dad took the chair.

Soon enough, the owner seated a woman at THE VERY NEXT TABLE. She was literally two feet away from me; she also sat on the bench side. You might be thinking, “Why didn’t you ask to be moved?” if I had concerns about having someone so close. You know how it is, when you have to weigh out the consequences of several situations all piling up on each other? Well, my father abhorred people “making a fuss”…about anything …including/ESPECIALLY asking for special treatment at a restaurant, and, he had dementia: he was unstable. I had to choose my battles. This meant that it was going to be absolutely out of the question for me to suggest that maybe we move to a different table. I knew that things were going to get a little crazy at dinner, and, that this woman, who already had her laptop open and was tap, tap, tapping away, was going to hear EVERY SINGLE WORD that dad said.

Her body language suggested that she had already, in her mind, built tall, one-inch thick plexi-glass walls all the way around her to protect herself from “them”…meaning “us”. She knew there was something a little crazy about us. She just knew it. This is a necessary coping skill when you live in Los Angeles.

The waiter brings the menu, which is quite long…many pages. EVERY TIME we come here dad needs to know what’s on the entire menu, except that he can’t see well enough to read it himself, so I need to read it out loud to him. So I do. I read all the pages to him. The woman next door has begun to reinforce her wall. Then dad says, in the same way he says it EVERY TIME, “I think I’ll have the turkey and cheese omelet. Wha’ d’ya think of that?” Sometimes I try to suggest something else…mostly for my own amusement, but tonight, things are already out of order enough that I don’t even consider this. “That sounds really good, dad.” “Maybe you should get one, too?” he generously offers. “No…I’m going to get a burrito.” “What’s that?” I describe it to him and he makes a very bad face with a few sound effects to go with it. Our neighbor next door begins adding a roof to her mental cubicle.

As soon as the waiter takes our order, dad asks me a question he’s never asked me before. Since I moved back home to Washington I’ve become Operations Manager of a tiny business. Really. Tiny. And, we’re not in a “building”; we’re in a yurt, or as we like to say, a “fancy tent”. But dad doesn’t know about that part. He just knows about the Operations Manager part. He’s very impressed that I have that sort of job, after all the odd “day jobs” I’ve had. I’m an artist and a writer and what he’s said to me for a long, long time is… “Keep your day job.” He likes this “day job” because I actually have a job title that fits into his idea of a real job. Of course everything about this business, beginning at the “fancy tent” is completely out of his realm, but I’m forever grateful that I get to tell him I’m an Operations Manager.

“So, how many employees do you have working for you now?” he asks. I crack up inside, because our company is so small and so alternative that even that simple question does not really apply. But I don’t say any of this to him.

“Well…let’s see. There’s Val in the office, and Jayme in the lab and then we have three part-time people…so I guess that makes five. I have five employees.”

Dad let’s out a slow whistle and says, “Five employees…that’s great.” Our neighbor has set about to make herself a little smaller, so as to get a little more distance from me…us. I take a drink of water and as I swallow, dad says,

“So, how many employees do you have working for you now?” This is a first. Up to this point, I have never had dad repeat something back to me exactly the way he said it before, as soon as he finished saying it the first time. I can’t believe this is happening…in the presence of our neighbor. She is in for a ride.

I realize it’s very possible that dad is going to ask me this same question over and over and over – until our food comes. And they’re busy tonight…so there’s going to be time for this question to be repeated many, many times. I make a challenge to myself: “Lauren, how ‘bout seeing if you can take a breath and answer the question like dad’s never, ever asked it of you before? Try counting everyone in a different order, try adding a little information about what each of the five employees do…this might go on for a while.”

“Well let’s see. There are some people that work in the lab: one person is full-time…that’s Jayme. Then there are two part-time people that work in the lab…Elizabeth and Mackall, so that makes three, right? Then we have one person that comes to wash the dishes…Fred, so that makes four. And then Val takes orders in the office. So, that’s five. I have five employees.”

Dad let’s out a slow whistle and says, “Five employees…that’s great.”

He really did that. And then,

“So, how many employees do you have working for you now?”

We did this MANY more times before our food came. MANY, MANY more times. And, miraculously, by the grace of whomever was “coaching” me that night, I realized that my father was giving me this grand opportunity to BE HERE NOW: My father, of all people.

“So, how many employees do you have working for you now?”

She just kept typing away on her laptop. No, she did not have earbuds in…this was before earbuds. There was no music to distract her. The only body language that let me know that she was, in fact, hearing this looping conversation was that she was subtly becoming more and more stiff in her sitting posture – looking straight ahead.

The waiter brings the food.

By this time in his life, dad’s eyesight has diminished to the point where he cannot see what is on his plate…at all. There are some elders in this position who are willing to be fed, and maybe some that actually enjoy being fed. MY FATHER IS NOT ONE OF THOSE PEOPLE. If I ever tried feeding him, even though theoretically he couldn’t see the fork, somehow he’d instantly put an end to that.

I knew what was coming next.

Dad would find his fork and slide it around on his plate until he found some resistance. Then with his other hand he’d reach out and feel the food, so he could make a plan for how to get it into his mouth. Sometimes he’d decide to try getting the food onto his fork; sometimes he’d just grab some food with his fingers and eat with his hands. But this wasn’t any kind of finger food. This was a turkey and cheese omelet with lots of thick, gooey, melted cheese. He managed to cut off a piece of his omelet with his fork and was trying to use his fork to pick it up. Failing that, he’d squeeze around the plate with his fingers, find the big gooey chunk and pick it up. The cheese would stay connected to the omelet and make a big long, loopy strand all the way to his mouth.

Sometimes I feel like he knew what was going on, and was really enjoying his mental image of it, other times he seemed oblivious to the long, rubbery cheese threads that were streaming up from his plate to his mouth, to his shirt. It was hard to resist “cleaning him up”, but dad had the same reaction to that as he did to being fed. NO WAY. I certainly learned a lot about keeping a straight face under absurd circumstances. He finally felt the cheese hanging off his face and began to attempt wiping himself up. So there was a little pause in the omelet circus.

“So, how many employees do you have working for you now?” he says to me, with strands of cheese still hanging off of his face. I glanced at our neighbor through the corner of my eye. She did not budge. Nothing changed. Why didn’t she move away? Maybe she was practicing her BE HERE NOW. Maybe dad was her guru too.

just one dance

One of the unexpected blessings that bubbled up to the surface during the last few years of my father’s life, as dementia began to move into our world, was his propensity for outbreaks of shear silliness and joy. The hard times between my father and I began when I was in early adolescence and those explosions and heartbreaks overshadowed and sometimes completely eclipsed many years of our relationship. I spent a lot of my adult life bracing for what might be the next confrontation with him – so this turn toward lightheartedness was an incredible relief.

On this particular evening, we’d taken him out to dinner and at this point in his life, it was common that he’d get wound up from the excitement of it all, in the same way that young children do. We always wanted to take him to some place new, but quickly learned that what he really wanted…what really pleased him was to just go to the same restaurant where he’d order the same thing. The whole excursion was incredibly surreal because it would go exactly the same way EVERY TIME.

As soon as we walked in, dad would say with great concern, “There’s no one here. That’s rough on business.” Often, the place would have plenty of customers, it’s just that dad couldn’t see them or hear them, and since he had owned a small business himself, he felt deep compassion for the owner. Sometimes my sister and I would offer to count the customers for him so he’d know that the guy was going to be alright, at least for one more night. We’d count out loud, stating where they were sitting, and how many people were at each table. He’d been there so many times; he could picture it in his mind from when he still was able to see the place. It would put him a little more at ease if we did this…so we did.

We always sat in the same spot; we had to sit at the table with the best lighting because dad’s eyesight was so bad, but not near a window because he’d get a chill from the draft. We’d go through the whole menu and he’d think about it for a time, and then say, “How ‘bout a turkey and cheese omelet,” like it was a grand, adventurous choice…which I guess it was, since he couldn’t remember ever having it before.

Every now and then we’d try to get him to agree to something else, partly just for us, just for the novelty of it. For some reason this one item was fixed in his mind – he just loved that omelet. It came with LOTS of melted cheese and this was the crux of the problem. Miraculously, somehow dad would get a bite of the omelet on his fork even though he couldn’t see what was on his plate, but then the melted cheese would string out in one continuous rubbery strand, from the omelet to the fork to his mouth and everywhere in between. It always happened, it was always a mess and Dad hated when we’d try and clean up after him while he was eating. The worst part was that my sister and I would have to avoid eye contact with each other because it was such a ridiculous scene and if we caught each other’s eye…we’d start laughing uncontrollably. And that REALLY annoyed dad.

We’d just arrived home from one of these outings. Dad was wound up from the excitement of it all, and also overly exhausted. He’d had a great excursion out with his two daughters, had an opportunity to talk a little about the plight of small business owners and now we were home. We knew the best thing would be to get him to go to bed. That’s what he needed to do. But. He wanted to hang out with us some more.

Dad was a tough nut to crack – he didn’t take well to offers of help or change, even positive change, especially from his children. My sister, who’s a musician, was great at finding some of dad’s favorite music and figuring out ways to incorporate it into his daily life. She was as stubborn as he was and wouldn’t give up. She’d found some radio stations that played music from the time when he was a young adult, which would have been during the ‘30’s. Even while resisting, if the music was right he couldn’t resist it for long – he loved it so.

We turned the radio on and a great old song poured out into the living room. I just happened to be standing right next to dad. He put out his arms as if to start dancing…and then as if a marionette artist had pulled on some strings lightly, I put out my arms, and in yet another miracle, dad and I were dancing… TOGETHER.

My teenage years were in the 1960’s, so I never learned to partner dance…the few times I’d tried it with people from my own age group, it was a frustrating and sometimes embarrassing experience – so I steered clear of it. The problem was that I didn’t know how to lead, or to follow. Well, all of sudden I found myself dancing with my father, who I’d heard was just as good a dancer as his younger brother who was a fabulous dancer, but I’d never seen my father dance.

And here’s the thing: my father knew how to lead – even me, his headstrong, chip-on-her-shoulder, eldest-daughter. I could feel, ever so subtly, which way we were going to move, just before we changed direction. It was an amazing feeling. I, who loved to dance, had never come across a partner who had enough grace or rhythm or confidence in their own dance skills that I would be willing to surrender to the experience of dancing with someone else. AND HERE I WAS DANCING WITH MY FATHER – MY ARCH ENEMY – MY NEMESIS. As we were dancing, as I was feeling this incredible amazement, I heard in some part of my consciousness, “Of course you and your father dance so well together…you’re so much alike.”

As quickly as this time-out-of-time moment had begun, it ended. The song was over and we looked at each other.

I looked my father square in the eye, saying, “Wow, dad, you’re a great dancer.”

He looked right back at me and said almost sternly and with a tad bit of surprise, “So are you.”

Then he smirked a little, let go of my hands, melted onto his dear old friend, the couch, and throwing his hands up into the air said, “Phew! I’m beat!”

The mystery blended back into our everyday world. My sister and I somehow got him to go to bed. But the magic of those few moments of dancing with instead of bracing against that amazing old man is something I will never forget.