home on either side

The two of us were silent as we got into my car on a wet, gloomy October evening in Los Angeles. This was our last night.

My father was 90 years old. I had moved home four years earlier to help my folks out, thinking he was getting ready to Cross Over. In an ironic twist my mother ended up going first, leaving my father and I to try and sort out the mess that our relationship had become.

I never dreamed it would be so hard to drive away from him. I had planned on leaving earlier in the day, but couldn’t face it. Instead, I took so long finishing the last bit of packing that it got too late. I called him close to dusk to see if he wanted to have dinner one more time.

We had gone through a lot – we who had continued to eye each other like two wildcats, never wanting to expose even the slightest bit of vulnerability; pacing, staying low, ready to pounce if need be. We had each come to our own personal breaking point in the presence of the other. Slowly, imperceptibly, we began to see each other, see that most of the reason for our clashes was because we were actually so…..much…..alike. We had come to a miraculous place, a place I’d never dreamed possible while he was still alive.

We sat in my car and once the doors were shut, were surrounded by silence: car becomes sanctuary. Rain lightly tapped on the roof and windshield. Drops coalesced on the glass until they broke loose and slowly rolled down out of sight. The whole world was weeping for us, in case we lapsed into stubbornness, not wanting to cry. But I couldn’t hold back and tears began to slide out of the corners of my eyes, rolling down my face. I had no idea this is how it would feel to leave him.

Always in the past I had left, slamming some door in my heart, all tied up in knots, never sticking around long enough to let either of us soften up. It took four years and two deaths – two in one year, to wear us down: my mother, then months later his brother. We went through this together. My brother and sister did too, but they came in from out of town for these deaths. Dad and I, we somehow found ourselves on the same side of a line – a surprise to both of us.

Staring straight ahead, sitting in the dark shattered by the city’s brilliant bedtime nightlights, sheltered within the walls of car-turned-sacred house, he spoke quietly, giving up only two precious words: “Thank you.” I could not recall a time that he had ever thanked me for anything out loud, and so they were shocking words to hear. “Thank you.” As I glanced at him, he slid his hand toward mine and for a brief but endless moment we held hands. I believe that when I looked into his eyes they filled and maybe even overflowed.

Still it took me most of the next day to leave. I called to say I was on my way. He was standing on the front porch as I rolled up in my overstuffed compact car. We both knew this would have to be quick – we’d already begun to unravel. I met him on the walk and we hugged each other, something else we just did not do. One last glance, heartbroken smiles, then I climbed into the car that would carry me away from the place I had run from so many times. Now I could barely leave. Rolling down my window I waved and from the rearview mirror watched him walk all the way out to the sidewalk, waving, waving, even as I turned the corner.

I sobbed as my dear, humble little car carried me away.

Hundreds of miles and the moon began to rise. Amidst the wide open swath of land we rumbled through, She, that sometimes shy old woman, appeared over the horizon, enormous and deeply colored in her brilliant wash of light. So gigantic was she when we cleared the first bend in the road that gave her to us, I exclaimed out loud. We were headed, my car and I, away and toward. For the first time in my life I had been able to soften enough to allow my heart to gently unfold, and there in that unfolding I felt the tension, the bittersweet tension, of home on either side of me: leaving home to go home.

what HAPPENED to your pants

I really wanted to know what the world looked like through dad’s eyes as his vision continued to worsen. At the donut shop one day we sat at a small table facing each other and I asked him, “Dad, tell me what you can see when you look at me.” He told me that most of what he saw was a silhouette…he really couldn’t see the features of my face any longer. I paused to ponder a world without all the spectacular details that it held for us…but somehow he had made peace with this. Whatever life tossed at him, he found a way to deal with it – he just kept on going.

Once when we were driving, he sneered from the passenger seat, “Don’t try it you son of a gun”, to a driver about to pull out of his driveway into our lane. “How could you see that guy,” I asked. He said he could still see out of the corner of his eye quite well, and he could – he’d caution me about bike riders or pedestrians. His eye doctor had told us it would go this way…even when he couldn’t see straight on, he’d still have his peripheral vision. When he first started back seat driving from the passenger seat, I’d bristle, falling into adolescent thoughts of, “Daaaaad, I KNOW how to drive”.

A bit of compassion began to develop in my heart after being wary of this man for much of my life. I remembered that he’d been driving since he was 10 or 11 years old. He’d told stories of “borrowing” his older brother’s car before he could even reach the pedals. He’d drive it around the block without permission when his brother was at work, sometimes leaving it in a slightly different position when he brought it back. He was young enough that he couldn’t figure out how his big brother knew he’d driven it. My father, almost 80 years later, had given up driving on his own accord, and what an enormous thing to give up, so he was still trying to contribute, to have some say, some purpose – it wasn’t at all about my driving, it was about his “not” driving and trying to find some use for himself. With the crazy behavior of LA drivers, it was good having another set of eyes, even if they could only see part of the story.

I walked into the kitchen one morning as he was organizing the refrigerator, carefully positioning each item after he determined its contents. He slid the milk away from the wall of the refrigerator, moved a bowl of leftover salad – which to my father had always meant a few pieces of iceberg lettuce without dressing – so it was not too close to a jar of mayonnaise. Watching him, I realized why he refused to keep much food in the refrigerator. With enough space around each object, he could “see” the silhouette and feel pretty confident that when he grabbed something he’d get what he thought he saw.

I’d taken to writing him notes because he’d begun to forget what I told him more often than he’d remember it. Where I’d gone or when I’d be home were crucial bits of information, and not knowing these caused him great anxiety. He was too proud to tell me that he couldn’t read my notes…but soon enough it became obvious. As I began to better understand the way that the world looked to him, I learned how to write notes that he could actually read. If I wrote large, thick black letters with a Sharpie marker, and with plenty of space around each letter, he could read a written note. Early on, it embarrassed him to have to read notes written with those big, huge letters, but eventually it was more important to be able to read the note than to worry about the fact that it looked like a page out of an elementary school printing lesson.

By the time that we had our last Thanksgiving meal at his home, the refrigerator was covered with these kinds of notes: one with emergency phone numbers, a list of doctors with a word or two describing what they helped him with, the numbers of his caregivers, the numbers for each of his three children. The ENTIRE refrigerator door was covered with these notes, each one using one or more 8-1/2 x 11 inch sheets of paper and I have to say, it did look insane. Being that dad and his siblings were neither shy, nor quiet, it was inevitable that one of our dinner guests was going to make a comment about the crazy refrigerator door as soon as they entered the kitchen. His younger sister walked in and the first thing out of her mouth was, “What the hell’s wrong with you? What are all those notes on the refrigerator?” My sister and I shrank to hear her speak to him that way…but we were both smart enough to stay out of the middle of their family drama.

My father’s increasingly limited vision, coupled with the dementia that was now becoming a more and more constant companion, caused changes in his eating habits. A few months after Thanksgiving, we had a smaller family gathering at dad’s house for his 93rd birthday. One of his caregivers made him a beautiful feast – an entire traditional Philippino birthday meal, including barbequed chicken and several noodle and vegetable dishes.

The problem was, he couldn’t see what was on his plate; the chicken had a nondescript shape and the rest was just piles of food to him. He’d had no luck with randomly jabbing at things with his fork. I watched him put it down and then he just dragged his fingers around the plate until they ran into something, he’d grab it, give it a little squeeze to try and figure out what it was, then into his mouth it went. This was the first time I saw him pick up his food with his fingers. I completely understood that this was the best, most practical solution that he could come up with – and he was a very practical man – but I knew this was not going to go over well with his brother and sister, aged 91 and 86. Unfortunately my aunt, who was his baby sister, was sitting right next to dad, and she reacted to him like he was a toddler. Before she could stop herself she slapped his hand and chided, “Don’t eat with your hands! Use a fork!” There had to be some kind of grace present with us at that meal, because luckily dad didn’t haul off and slap her back, instead he just laughed at her, and at himself, and kept using his fingers. “Wow”, I thought, “We are definitely in some new territory here.”

Dad and I were learning our way around each other. I joined him in the living room after returning from my morning walk, wearing a pair of pants that I loved. I thought they were beautiful and they were so comfortable. Sewn out of a rayon batik fabric, they were loose and flowing, with large flowers scattered all over. Dad was sitting on the couch with his arms crossed, facing me. He took one look at me and shouted, “What HAPPENED to your pants?” I didn’t know what he was talking about at first but I knew there was an insult in there somewhere. I looked at him and his whole body was quaking because he was trying so hard not to laugh. “I THOUGHT YOU COULD ONLY SEE SILHOUETTES?” I threw back at him. “Oh I can see THOSE pants just fine…WHAT HAPPENED to them?” There he sat with his characteristic tight-lipped smirk, shoulders bouncing up and down as he tried to hold back his laughter. We had arrived at a good place. Instead of taking it personally I could laugh with him as I imagined how they appeared with his vision; big, baggy pants with very large, dark blotches. By this time he’d had more than a few bathroom emergencies where he’d gotten there just a little too late…he was probably relieved to think that he wasn’t the only one. So what else would he say?

are you going to the game

The three of us sit in a lonely row on a long wooden bench. The cushions are lean as if to make sure we will not stay long, and no one will. My sister sits on one side, me on the other. We bookend him in this way to comfort him and ourselves, but we also sit on either side to keep tabs on him a bit, in case he gets out of control. Although it’s not really possible to control him, we always try.

“Where are we?” he asks in the kind of whisper that is louder than regular speech. His brother and sister-in-law turn and give him The Look. “Haven’t I been here before?” he whispers with more volume. Now his younger sister, who sits in the bench at the front of this small, family section, turns with a horrified look – a heartbroken, heart-wrenching look. “What’s WRONG with him?” she begs, whispering even louder.

Yes. Yes he’d been here before. We’d all been here before. Two years ago we’d been here twice: once to bury our mother…my father’s wife of 56 years, and then four months later we buried dad’s youngest brother. And here we are at the cemetery again. My sister and I, we sit with our ninety-one-year old father, possibly in the exact same spot on this long, lonely, bench. Back then my father was not whispering the way young children do, causing everyone close by to stare with their eyes or their entire bodies. Back then, he was so utterly crushed with his wife’s unexpected death, he sat between us, silent. His brother’s death followed so quickly, he was mostly just numb.

We each held one of his baby-soft hands, just like today, but only for comfort, not control. Before mom Crossed Over, there had been a few times when dad had completely forgotten something important he’d said, or we’d said to him – like a slice of time had been thoroughly removed with a small sharp knife. But since Mark’s death, something seems to have snapped.

He’s whispering again, louder than before, “What are they talking about? Where are we?” How do you tell someone who’s brain has already completely refused the information, how do you tell them again, whispering, in the midst of a funeral? It would be hard enough if he was a two-year-old boy, which sometimes is the best model for working with my father these days. We are not working with a two-year-old, but with an old man who often has the attention span and sense of time of that of a young child. We are working with someone whose tired mind simply cannot receive this information; that his strapping young nephew once a top high school swimmer, prize winning triathlete, City of Los Angeles Harbor firefighter, has dropped dead of a heart attack, not on the job, but simply at home.

How can we whisper to dad while Mark’s sister is giving his eulogy, that this generous-hearted man who always kept the wiffle-ball baseball game going at our annual Mother’s Day picnic, even if he had to play all the outfield positions, so that the next generation of little kids could have a game, how can we whisper to dad that we are about to bury this man?

My sister calls to say that dad is acting strange. He keeps asking her if she is going to “the game”. At first she starts all over again, and tells dad that no, we aren’t going to a baseball game; we’re going to Mark’s funeral. Each time she tells him, he hears it as if it was the first time.

Finally we tell him yes; tomorrow we three will go to the game together. And when it’s time, my father somehow knows that he needs to put his good suit on, and tries to remember how to tie his tie, wide with broad but subtle diagonals, and that he has to put his wingtips on; men’s dress shoes with laces, purchased from a younger brother’s shoe store some fifty years ago, black leather with small, delicate perforations in curved designs at the toe and heel. Shoes with real leather soles that weigh so much dad has trouble picking them up, being just 116 pounds fully dressed, including his shoes. Somehow he knows that today he has to wear his dress suit to “the game”.

“Are you going to the game with us?” he asks hopefully, when I come into the living room, dressed in black. “Yes, we’re all going to the game.”

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?

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.