this place where we live

I got back to town as Halloween was winding down. It gets pretty riled up “downtown” for the kids, and then it’s all over by about 8 o’clock. I took a slight detour to see if my old friends were around…I heard they were moving back any day now. No lights on at their place so I headed for home, which took me right by “the store”.

Built in the 1920’s, it’s gone through several owners, and still is a hub for our town. As I rolled by, in the glow of the single light bulb that illuminates its entrance, stood just the couple I’d been searching for. There they were with their 8-month old son and their dog, Ernie. All dressed up for Halloween, their son was a Cheeseburger and Ernie was a Hot Dog. Just inside the store were two more couples, each with their young children. These three families hold a special place in my heart – what a gift to see them all at this moment.

Standing right inside the door like the Store Greeter, another one of the children, a beaming little one a few months shy of two-years-old, was wearing something like coveralls; only they were made to look like a man’s business suit with a dark blue suit, white shirt and red neck tie. Once they put the goofy outfit on her, both her parents laughed out loud and shouted, “Donald Trump!” They gave her the perfect hairdo and a “Trump for President” button and she was the showstopper. The third young one, a 2½-year-old boy with face paint that looked like it’d been through a couple of tearful moments, was wearing a wonderful black velvet cape. Standing there together, we were a part of the Village that we’re becoming.

My friends invited me to wander up the hill with them to go check out “Jack’s Pumpkins” – it’d been several years since they’d been. Jack is a beloved Halloween legend here. He lives in a small, old house that was probably built in the 1930’s. It has a nice, wide, front porch which recently had some work done on it so the porch is back to being mostly level, instead of being a crazy up-and-down “House of Mystery” front porch, which I have to admit, did add to the Halloween effect. It’s only recently that I’ve had any personal interactions with Jack, but I’ve known about “Jack’s Pumpkins” ever since I moved here in 1997.

A couple of weeks before Halloween, pumpkins start showing up on the porch railing – all shapes and sizes. First there are just a couple, but over time, the whole railing is filled with pumpkins and sometimes there are so many that even the railing on the side of the porch gets filled. When I first moved here, I overheard a local telling some visitors who were all having lunch at “the store”, about what went on at Jack’s.

“Yeah, it’s the most important Halloween stop in town: there are all these amazing carved pumpkins, Jack always gives out FULL-SIZE candy bars, shows horror movies on his TV, and, has plenty of whiskey for adults who are game for that sort of thing.” It was all true…mobs of little kids AND adults would flock to Jack’s and the pumpkins were astonishing. Jack carved some of them, and lots of the young and the old joined in to create a magical Halloween every year.

Several years ago, Jack carved one of the most memorable pumpkins, ever. It was the year that the house just up from his place was finished. The lot next door to Jack’s place used to have a couple of big, old evergreen trees that were kind of scruffy. There was one gnarled snag and some brown and withered shrubs; there might have even been a bit of a garbage pile in those trees. It wasn’t a glorious sight…but it was some open space between his house and the house on the next lot.

That sad, empty lot became a HUGE house, with the edge of it built right up to the property line it shared with Jack’s. That enormous place was RIGHT NEXT TO Jack’s little home. The following Halloween, Jack carved a big pumpkin that told the whole story: there was a giant, drooling, Monster House with big, sharp, gnashing teeth, looming over and just about to devour, a tiny and oh-so-terrified little house. Jack carved it and placed it on the side railing, turned it so it faced toward the new mega-house and lit it up with a big candle. That was Jack’s style.

One of my friends spoke with tenderness about Jack this year, saying, “Yeah, Jack’s kind’a gettin’ up there”. Jack’s getting old, just like the rest of us. I saw Jack one day, down at the store. There was a woman with him, clearly not a relative or an acquaintance. She looked pretty uncomfortable – didn’t quite know what to make of Jack, or any of the odd assortment of folks that greeted him. I knew she was some kind of a caregiver. Jack was wearing his standard outfit: a logging shirt, heavy-duty blue jeans with suspenders and well-worn old, black, work boots. Only this day, he’d gotten over-zealous when tucking his shirt into his pants, and instead, his shirt was tucked into his underwear, which were pulled up higher than the waistband of his pants.

“Oh dear,” I thought. I was familiar with this kind of confusion about getting dressed, from the years I spent with my dad toward the end of his life when seemingly simple routines could easily get all mixed up. I said hello to Jack, even though I’m kind of shy and had never really spoken to him directly. I wanted to make sure that even though his life was shifting…needing to have someone help him out…that I, we, still remembered him…still appreciated his role in this town. He lit up when I called out to him, moved toward me and with a big smile, asked how I was doing. The woman that was with him didn’t move, or look toward me – she gave Jack a little bit of privacy in this new territory he was in.

This year when my friends and I walked up the hill to Jack’s house it was pretty quiet up there. Oh, the Jack-O-Lanterns were all still lit, and they were as amazing as always. There was Elvis staring out from the side of one big pumpkin; an image of a wild horse running across the face of another with its mane flying out behind it, and there was a portrait of Jack, with his mischievous, twinkling eyes. But it was quiet now. Jack was inside and all the lights were on. He used to turn all the lights out to make the horror movies even scarier. This time, the TV was tuned to a news program and Jack was sitting right up close to the big, flat-screen TV…maybe so he could hear it, or see it. No one else was there. No candy bars around, no whiskey bottles either, just Jack and the 9 o’clock news.

We toured all the pumpkins and then went inside to say hello. He was happy to see us…but also kind of torn between talking to us and listening to whomever was shouting about something on the news. Finally, one of Jack’s long-time pumpkin carving assistants said, “Hey Jack…want us to blow out the pumpkins for ya?” A little distractedly, Jack said, “yeah, sure, that would be great.” We all said goodnight, went out on the porch and one by one, blew out each candle, loving the work of art one more time. Yep…Jack was “gettin’ up there.”

The next evening I just happened to drive by Jack’s as dusk was falling. There was my friend, the long-time, pumpkin-carving assistant, out on the porch, slowly lighting up each of the pumpkins. Just as on Halloween night, Jack’s front room was all lit up and the TV was hollering out the news. A couple of nights later, well after dark, I drove by Jack’s, and this time another neighbor who lived just a block up from his place, was out on his front porch blowing out one pumpkin and then the next.

That’s the kind of place we live in. We are learning what it means to be a Village. Jack fed us for so many years with his wondrous and scary Halloween house…now we’re lighting the candles for him, and blowing them out each night.

Goodnight Jack. Sleep well. We love you.

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.

the man we were dealing with

When I first suggested to my father that he keep a key hidden somewhere outside his house in case he locked himself out, he refused, saying that someone would discover it and rob him. Old and vulnerable, leaving a key outside was too great a risk for him. But truthfully, by the time he really needed to have a spare key stashed somewhere; he wouldn’t have remembered where it was. Yes, people told us to put a key on a cord that hung around his neck, or around his wrist, or attached to his belt or belt loop – all great suggestions, IF he’d remember to do these things. But that’s the catch…it was his memory that was part of the problem.

Not to mention that he hated to have things ON him. He’d get rid of anything like that, within minutes, and if he couldn’t unfasten it, he’d cut or rip it off. When I first saw him yank something off his wrist, I realized that he and I were not so different. I could not stand it either and smiled to myself wondering if, at his age, I would be like him. When I was a little girl I so wanted to have a nightgown with lace edging on the sleeve-hems, but when I felt the constriction from the elastic bands in the ruffled cuffs, I found a scissors and cut the elastic off – I couldn’t stand the way it felt.

That first time when I suggested to him that he keep a spare key outside, he said he didn’t need it. I asked what he’d do if he locked himself out and with no hesitation he replied with a sneer,

“I’ll bust the door down.” He was true to his word.

I noticed he did not say he’d go across the street to ask the neighbors for help. He was close to 90-years-old at this point, and busting the door down continued to remain his best, his only solution. That’s the man we were dealing with.

The first time he locked himself out, he dragged the old paint-splattered, five-foot aluminum ladder from the garage in the backyard around to the open, kitchen-window in the front of the house. He was planning to climb through that window but it was a little more complicated than he anticipated. There was a flower box on the outside of the window he’d have to climb across, the window had a screen on it and it was a double-hung window with only about an 18 x 24 inch opening so he would have had to do some pretty fancy yoga to fit through it, and finally, the window was above the kitchen sink; that’s why he needed the ladder to reach it. If he’d been successful, and been able to somehow get through the window…he would have landed right in the sink. Maybe if he was sixteen, or thirty, or even fifty-years-old he could’ve pulled it off, but NOT at age NINETY. Luckily for all of us, he didn’t have a chance to get too far.

“Ellen, YOUR FATHER IS STANDING ON A LADDER OUTSIDE THE KITCHEN WINDOW. I think he’s locked out. Barry’s gonna go help him.” That’s the phone call my sister received from Pam. She and her husband Barry lived across the street from dad. These dear neighbors had a spare key to his house, and they weren’t the only neighbors that had been willing to take a key, “just in case”. Barry somehow got dad off the ladder; an act I wish I’d been able to witness. With the distraction of Barry seemingly appearing out of nowhere, dad never even noticed that he had an extra key.

The second time he locked himself out he took a different approach. Back in the 60’s he’d been involved in remodeling the screened-in porch at the rear of our house into a den. I’m sure that he’s the one who chose a hollow-core back door…less expensive, yes, but also less sturdy than a solid door. Forty or so years later, he had that fact stored away somewhere in his mind: the back door was hollow-core and therefore a door that he could bust down…with the right equipment.

Dad went into his garage and found an iron crowbar, and somehow dragged it to the back door. He weighed 116 pounds by this time in his life, so the real miracle is, he picked up the crowbar and bashed the backdoor at a height that allowed him to reach through the hole and unlock the door. We were, of course, worried about his safety and his judgment, but I have to admit we were also quite inspired by his will. Unstoppable.

My sister and I went through the garage after the “break-in”. We poked around through the layers of discards on the shelves and removed all the tools, and everything else we could imagine him using as a tool. Garages tend to be a kind of modern-day archaeological site and ours was no different. There were tools from when dad did the remodel in the 60’s, and I’m guessing that’s the category the crowbar fit into, there were wedding gifts from my mother’s parents circa 1947, that dad never liked but tolerated when my mother was alive, like a horribly tarnished, silver-plated champagne bucket which is about as unlike my parents’ life-style as you could ever imagine. There were a series of broken microwave ovens although the most recent one wasn’t actually broken…my sister just told dad she broke it so she could get it out before he burned the house down. He’d mistakenly used an aluminum pie-plate to heat food in and then entered the cooking time in hours instead of minutes. That was another very close call that also involved a phone call from Pam.

There was an old shed out behind the garage that I knew he didn’t go into any longer – at least that’s what he told me. He’d asked me to get something out of it recently, saying that the brick path was too uneven, now that the gnarled tree roots were as much above ground as below – said his eyesight just wasn’t good enough. Now that I think about it, maybe that was just a ploy to get us to put all the tools in one spot. Well, we put all the tools and would-be tools back there, way in the back behind a bunch of old window screens, thinking that now he would be safe.

As his judgment became more convoluted, as his behavior became more risky, we continued to increase the hours that the caregivers spent with him, which was no easy task. He fired them almost every day and told them to “Get out! Go home!” and worse, I’m sure. Those two young women were amazing with him – they really understood his nature; we learned a lot about dad from them. They’d get their things, leave by the front door, and then circle around to the backyard. They’d wait whatever amount of time they thought it would take for dad to forget that he’d fired them…and then just enter through the back door like nothing had happened.

When I heard they were doing this, of course I was impressed, and so grateful for their dedication and resilience – but I was also concerned for their safety. I reminded them just who they were dealing with: a proud, fierce, and rowdy old man who was bound to have who-knows-what hidden around the house to protect himself against potential intruders. At various times I’d found a baseball bat and a golf iron between the wall and his nightstand. I warned them that they had to make sure he knew they were in the house once they returned from their banishment. His hearing and eyesight were failing and it’d be dangerous for everyone, if he were surprised by their presence.

After this “break-in”, we knew we were running out of time. My father was a force of nature – he would not be controlled. But we kept trying. We began to look around at possible housing options and at the same time couldn’t imagine him living anywhere but his own home: it’s where he’d lived for a good chunk of his life…sixty years. But there were other reasons. Yes he was old and weak, but he was still quite healthy, physically. He walked a one-mile round trip back and forth to the donut shop once or twice a day, or three times if he forgot he’d already been. And he’s the guy that broke through a door with a crow bar at age ninety.

I didn’t realize how much of a problem his good health, physical strength, and shall we say, creative problem solving skills, were, until we started visiting various residences. First of all, the ratio of women to men in this population is skewed – women outlive men by a huge factor, so they’re primarily set up for dealing with women. As a general rule, women of his generation were not thinking about busting down doors or climbing through windows. Dad grew up in a destitute neighborhood in Detroit during the Depression, and literally had to fight to survive; he’d learned to try anything and everything to accomplish his goals. Those instincts were alive and well in his psyche.

He was also used to walking a lot, every day. Many of the residents were wheelchair bound, some bedridden. It was hard to imagine how they could handle dad. One of the most disappointing and frustrating parts of all of this was that not one residence ever said that they could not handle him. We were VERY honest with them about his behavior. They always told us they were capable of taking care of him, and keeping him safe. There’s no way they could accomplish this and I know now that the system is simply not able to handle someone like dad. We would have had to hire a caregiver to be with him all the time, on top of paying the fees that everyone else paid. We didn’t have that kind of money…but they never even suggested it. We began to see the chasm between what dad needed and what any of them could offer.

And then there was television. He and my mom had given up on TV years ago, and by now, his eyesight was so poor he really couldn’t see what was going on, anyway. Every once and a while I’d say, “Dad, the Dodgers are on tonight, wanna watch the game with me?” First he’d just say, “Are you kidding? The Dodgers stink!” which they did at the time. But finally he admitted that he couldn’t make out anything on the screen. Dementia made television even more bizarre, and sometimes he would describe to me what it looked like to him…and we’d have a good laugh, but it had not been a part of his routine for many years. He just wasn’t the sort of old man who would settle for sitting around watching TV all day. His younger brother at age 88, still loved watching his favorite shows, and he’d come over mid-day and turn them on as soon as he arrived; right away dad would holler, “Turn that crap off!”

Most of the housing situations we looked at assumed that people liked TV and they used it just as some parents use it – as a babysitter. There was no way that would work with dad. Each time my siblings and I would go on an excursion looking for some place to move him, we’d come back utterly discouraged…he just wasn’t at all like the kind of people they were aiming for. In statistical terms, dad was an “outlier”…he was way outside their “norm”. We loved that about dad…loved that he was his own person, and boy was he. But now, that was revealing itself to be a major problem.

Sitting in the backyard with his eyes closed, dad would feel the sun on his face and listen to the sweet song of the Mourning doves – it was his oasis – and a respite from the increasing confusion that he faced whenever he went out into the world. Both his brothers spent the last years of their lives in apartments. He could never imagine that. Dad loved his home; he loved everything about it. It was his old friend, and now that mom was gone, it had become his closest old friend.

We knew this.

Once again he’d locked himself out. This time Pam’s voice on the other end of the line was frantic. She said she “just happened” to look out their kitchen window to see my father reaching his hand THROUGH a BROKEN WINDOW to let himself in at the front door. Her angel of a husband ran over and by the time he’d arrived, dad had already opened the front door. There was not a scratch on him. The hammer that he used to break the window lay eerily on the porch at the edge of the door, below the jagged window. Broken glass was strewn about, and inside, shards glittered all across his beloved couch. Barry carefully removed all the glass and taped up the window. We were running out of time. All three of us kids knew it. His caregivers knew it. Our neighbors knew it. Did dad know?

He must have been alone…where was his caregiver, we wondered? On this particular day, dad had already fired her several times by the early afternoon. Los Angeles was having a horrible heat wave and she couldn’t bear the thought of going around to the backyard again, which was in full sun that time of day. She instead walked around the corner to the drugstore where it was air conditioned, and got something cold to drink. She was not gone long – but long enough. She’d left him unsupervised…but what could she do? He’d already kicked her out too many times and it was over 100 degrees outside. Our homemade eldercare-system was unraveling.

When we heard the whole story, we knew that once again, one of dad’s angels had been looking out for him. He could have been injured, he could have slit his wrist and bled to death. We got the message LOUD AND CLEAR. Maybe you’re thinking this is the message we got: we had to move him out of his house – but that was still inconceivable to us. Instead, we concluded that we had to come up with a system that insured that his caregivers were present 24 hours a day. With hindsight I can’t believe that we didn’t see this as the last straw, but moving him out of his house continued to be a haunting image that seemed impossible.

We were able to cobble together a 24-hour presence of caregivers. It was a daunting job for those dedicated young women and for my sister who at that point was in charge. After my four-year stint in Los Angeles I distanced myself from the day-to-day activities that filled dad’s life. I became an on-call consultant for my siblings while they sorted out how to make sure he was safe and living as good a life as he could. My sister did an amazing job, and, did it while she lived out of town. Even though she had a full-time job she was on the phone day and night, she became an expert at texting when it was still a somewhat new form of communication and we spent many hours on the phone, trouble-shooting problems as they erupted. And that’s just what it was like – we were trying to control an active volcano.

One day it did become clear. Finally. Dad had just turned 94 and was on one of his daily walks. He never allowed any of us to walk with him: not the caregivers, not his kids. He’d bark at us, curse at us to GET THE HELL AWAY. At this point in his life, the only time he was by himself, the only time he retained any sense of his independence was when he went for a walk, and the walks were even more important to him now that the caregivers were there day and night. I completely understood – he wanted some privacy…some alone time. But he wasn’t safe by himself – so the caregivers followed him. Because his hearing was pretty bad and his eyesight was worse, they just followed right behind him. There was enough traffic noise added in, and it took so much of his concentration to focus on where he was going, he never did catch them at it.

He was crossing a busy street, caught his toe on the curb as he was stepping back up onto the sidewalk, and fell. And oh he was lucky, we were lucky: no broken bones, fairly minimal bruising and a scrape to his forehead which bled profusely as head wounds are known to do, but no concussion. His caregiver was at her wit’s end. She knew how close they’d come to a tragedy, and she said she just couldn’t do it any longer. It was too much of a risk: for dad, for her…for everyone.

This was the turning point for me: the place that finally enabled me to see that even though I knew it would absolutely crush dad to move him out of his home, the possibility that catering to his needs…desires…dreams, might cause injury or even death to someone else, be it his caregiver, or a pedestrian or driver trying to avoid hitting him…I couldn’t reconcile that possibility. We knew it was time and it was a sickening feeling for us, his three children. Any of the choices left to us were at best, heart wrenching. All the solutions were going to have bad outcomes. I knew this. It’s the first time in my life that I could not see any light…

This was it. We had to move him. He wasn’t safe there. He was dangerous to himself and to others. And we knew we’d been lucky…we had a good run. And we knew our luck could run out at any minute.

Years before, as it came to me that I had to move to Los Angeles to help my parents out…I had grand and noble intentions. I’d been assisting elders in many different ways for years up north where I lived. During a serious illness, probably in somewhat of a state of delirium, I just knew it was time for me to be with my parents. Intellectually this was a completely insane idea: I had a semi-estranged relationship with my father and a somewhat distant one with my mother. It was not my intellect that was standing in front of me pointing a long and firm finger to the south: it was my heart. What a mess. My intellect had plenty to say about this; “are you OUT OF YOUR MIND?????” “Los Angeles?” “Your father?”

I wanted to believe that our culture would/could somehow come together to make soft, safe landing places for our elders. That somehow I could be their village. If I had been able to think clearly about it I would have known that wasn’t possible, but a grand debate was raging at full volume in my head which took up so much space in my consciousness; I didn’t have room for clear thinking. I just went. It’s a good thing I did. It remains the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life and being my father’s daughter, I’ve done a lot of hard things. It was also a miraculous time in my life; my mother and I bonded in a most beautiful and tender way and – my father and I came to a state of grace that I absolutely could never have imagined possible, while he was still alive. A miracle.

it’s too much

We sat on the couch next to each other, the couch that had been his home-base every evening when he came home from work, and now at age 94 and after sixty years, it was where my father spent most all of his waking hours. The couch had been his couch…mom and we three kids had to make due with the loveseat and whatever other seating was available, so it was with some sense of honor and a bit of trepidation that I found myself there with him.

The weather was uncharacteristically gentle; soft early-afternoon light came through the three windows just above my father’s small world, there on that sofa. It was warm enough that the front door was open and cool enough that there was no need for air conditioning. A quiet breeze inhaled and exhaled through the screen door. My brother and sister were off running errands, so we had this time to ourselves. We sat there and for some reason, we were silent.

I had arrived in Los Angeles the day before, joining my brother and sister at dad’s house. He was no fool – even if he did have dementia – he knew we were up to something. It was rare that the three of us showed up at the same time, and the truth is we just weren’t very good liars. Each of us in our own way was so heartbroken about the truth of why we were there; we probably didn’t do a very good job of hiding our grief.

What we were up to was that we had come to move dad out of his home and into assisted living, but not any assisted living. We had to move him into a place that was “secure”, meaning a place where basically, he’d be a prisoner. He was no longer able to make decisions that didn’t put him or others at risk. Many who’d walked this way before had told us that because of his dementia, it was a bad idea to tell him ahead of time. The time for that conversation was long past, and we had tried to have it with him. Whenever we brought it up, he’d slip out of the whole thing effortlessly, like an Aikido master getting out of a wrist-hold before anyone knew what had happened. He was adamant: he was going to stay in his house and he was going to be fine and he didn’t need any help, especially not from his children: end of conversation. Well, the time had arrived. It was time for him to move, he was not able to stay in his home and be safe and it wasn’t only his safety that we were talking about. He was a strong, healthy, stubborn and wily old man and his problem solving skills were getting more and more dangerous.

The week before I arrived in Los Angeles I was pacing back and forth, around and around in my mind – how could we NOT tell him? How could I not tell him? How could I show up at his house with this plan all ready to go, and not be honest with him? The thought of it made me sick to my stomach. I knew what that house meant to him, I knew what his independence meant to him, even though we’d already slowly but surely gotten him to allow caregivers first to visit every day and finally more recently actually stay with him around the clock. Between the incredible creativity of two dedicated young women, and with help from each of his kids, we’d been able to extend the time he was in his home – but that time was over. We all knew it.

As I prepared to make the heartbreaking journey I took to talking it all out with him, in my mind. It wasn’t even a conscious decision; it was just all I could do. I told him everything…why, where he would be living, what it was like, the good, the bad…everything. Over and over that week I begged anyone who was listening to somehow help this stubborn old man know that we were plain out of options.

Someone walked by the house talking, loudly of course, on their cell phone, and interrupted our reverie there on the couch. Out of that immense silence came this from my father,

“So how much are you getting for the house?”

He’d been a realtor thirty years before. “We’re not selling it dad. It’s your house.”

We sat for a few moments and then,

“How much do you think you could get for it?”

“Realtors do drop off their business cards all the time, but it’s your house. Do you want to sell it?”

“How much do you think we could get for it?”

“We haven’t talked to anyone, but I think the last assessment was about $600,000…isn’t that insane?”

He let out one of his long, slow whistles. He and mom bought it in 1947 for $14,000.

“That’s a lot of money. What are you going to do with it?”

“It’s your house, dad. If you sold it, what would you do with the money?”

“If we sold it, would I still live here?”

“No……if we sold it, you’d have to live somewhere else.”

“Where would I live?”

I could not believe we were having this conversation. I had to keep telling myself, “Just follow his lead.”

“Well…we’d find a good place for you to live.”

He shook his head slowly. His whole body shifted. It was a small, subtle movement, but he had just slumped.

Again he shook his head and said, “It’s too much.”

“The house?”

“It’s too much.”

In that moment I saw that my father, now almost blind from macular degeneration and with poor hearing although he thought it was just fine, surveyed his home, his kingdom, in the same way that bats see in the dark. Somehow he used a kind of echolocation to monitor the comings and goings and now, even though he didn’t have to actually get up and walk around to do it – it was still too much. As a young man he’d developed a whole routine that he went through every single night before he went to bed. He’d start with latching the chain on the front door, and then he’d turn off the front-porch light. Then came the swish of the curtains closing, next he’d pull the shades down. Moving into the kitchen he’d turn off the light, then head down two steps into the den that he’d had a hand in remodeling in the ‘60’s. He’d lock the back door, check that all the windows were closed and pull the curtains. Turning off the living room lights as he passed them, he made his way to his bedroom. Every night for most of his adult life he’d made sure we were all safe, and now, even thinking about it…it was “too much”.

“It’s a lot to take care of isn’t it?” He nodded slowly in agreement.

Somehow it had happened. I’d been able to tell him the truth. He knew it was time. I knew he did. And even though by the next day, well, honestly in 15 minutes, he would forget all of what we’d said, I knew that somewhere in his heart he’d heard that truth, and, he was ready. I also knew that he forgave me, forgave us, and still, I knew that next day was going to be the most excruciating day of my life, of all our lives. I was right. About everything.

french fries

I got a call from my sister. She was worried, frustrated, crying. Dad wouldn’t let her in the house; she was locked out. Dusk was rapidly falling, she was in Los Angeles with nowhere to go, nowhere to spend the night.

For the last few years when I’ve told this story, I blamed dad’s behavior on something called “Sundowner’s”…common to people with certain forms of dementia. As daylight decreases, but well before darkness falls, every cell in their body shouts, “Darkness is coming, and with darkness comes danger! Lock the doors, turn off the lights, go to bed.” Dad definitely demonstrated “Sundowners” by this time. Recently I spent some time in Los Angeles with my sister, and in the midst of our sisterly storytelling, which often includes stories about all the shenanigans we went through with dad, I brought up this story, linking his behavior to Sundowner’s.

My sister said, “NO…that’s not why he locked me out. Don’t you remember?” Immediately, she began to laugh – a particular kind of laugh I recognized as precursor to a doozy of a “dad story”. Well, I didn’t remember, and it turns out this is one of those instances where the truth is much stranger than fiction.

At the time this happened, I was back up north living in my own home and my sister was down visiting dad in LA. We had come to a crossroads with his in-home care. We’d been able to gradually increase the number of hours that caregivers were there, even though he continued to resist having caregivers at all. Somehow between the three of us kids with all our different ways of communicating with him, we’d been able to expand the daytime contact hours.

Now it was clear to all of us, with increasing pressure from his caregivers; it was time to have someone stay with him during the night. We all agreed…all, save dad. One of his reasons for refusal was that it would be improper for a woman to stay in his home overnight. Ellen got the inspiration to see if we could find a male caregiver for the night shift. I thought this was a great idea, and also had one serious hesitation; dad was still, at age 93, dead set on being the “head of the house” in any situation. With dementia, that meant that he might very possibly challenge any man, known or unknown, found in his home in the middle of the night, with physical aggression. After all, he grew up in an era, and in a neighborhood where fistfights settled most disagreements, or, he might grab one of his hidden weapons – a golf iron or a baseball bat.

We decided to begin interviewing some male caregivers and see if we could find the right person. That’s why Ellen was in L.A…to find our man. An applicant came over one afternoon and Ellen was able to interview him out on the front porch first, while dad was finishing up his lunch – there they sat in a couple of scruffy, white plastic, outdoor chairs. The timing of these sorts of things was tricky; dad’s schedule had its own brand of randomness, so it seemed like the gods were with us. After their brief introduction Ellen came inside to ask dad if he’d like to meet this person who “might be doing some work for you”. And here’s where the story turned classically dad-crazy.

First, dad went out on the porch and without any conversation waved the guy off, as in “get the hell off my property”. Next, dad turned to Ellen and said in a genuinely apologetic tone with a completely straight face, “I’m really sorry, but I just can’t let you stay here.” As my sister re-told this story to me, she said it was like he so wished he could let her stay, but because of whatever she’d done, “Lord knows what that was”, he absolutely could not let her back inside his house. Ellen, at first just mildly baffled, said, “What?” At that point dad had lost his patience; before dementia he had very little patience, and after dementia, pretty much none. “You heard me, leave. You can’t come in. Go on,” and waved her off the same way he’d waved off the guy. With that, dad walked through the open front door, shut it and locked it. He not only locked the doorknob, but also locked it with the chain lock…a security feature on all the homes in this 60-year-old neighborhood. Instead of a deadbolt or a little peephole, there was a shiny brass chain that enabled you to open the door maybe an inch, so you could safely see who was at the door without exposing yourself to potential danger. Well, that’s what dad used on my sister, his youngest daughter, on this sunny afternoon. He usually didn’t do the chain lockup until he went to bed…but this was a dangerous situation and required serious action.

She could not comprehend AT ALL what had just happened. She tried the door and yes it definitely was double-locked. “Go on now!” was all dad said, in a much darker tone. At this point he was beginning to feel under siege by whoever Ellen had now become in his hard-to-make-sense-of-things mind. Somehow, amazingly, she was able to figure out what misinterpretation dad had just made. In that moment, he knew she was somehow a relative…and maybe he still knew she was his daughter, but most importantly what he “knew” was that Ellen had just had a very improper interaction with a strange man on his front porch. The interaction was, in his mind, so grievous that he could not allow such a “shamed woman” to enter his home. So he locked her out. This all occurred in the middle of a bright, sunny afternoon…there was no “Sundowner’s Syndrome” going on, like I’d remembered it. This had become “The Case of the Improper Woman” and Ellen was stranded in the midst of her childhood neighborhood.

Accepting defeat, she walked off dad’s porch and as the reality of her situation began to weigh on her…the tears began to flow. Her father had just banished her and, she was stranded in North Hollywood…a moderately safe place by day…but anywhere in Los Angeles could become a little sketchy at night. She was low on cash, so staying at a motel was not possible, and besides, any motel that she could afford in that area would be really sketchy…not just a little.

Finally she decided to seek temporary shelter with a dear elderly neighbor across the street. She knew my parents and since dad had become widowed, she kind of kept an eye on dad. We always visited with her when we came to visit him and she would give us updates on what she witnessed from her vantage point across the street. His daily walks were pretty much like clockwork, so she could tell if something was out of order, if she didn’t see him in the morning.

When Bea opened her door and saw Ellen’s distraught look, she reached out to her with a precious motherly hug and Ellen really began to cry. She just didn’t know what to do and her heart was broken. That’s when she called me. I was no help. Knowing dad I knew he wasn’t going to let her in. In other circumstances I would have said that he’d forget about it in a while and then she could just start over, but he was feeling attacked and most likely was pretty agitated. I knew from experience with him in that state, that it took more than a little while for him to get over it. If she knocked on his door again, who knows what he’d do and besides, now it was getting dark so “Sundowner’s” would be part of the problem.

I agreed that sadly, her best option was to spend the night with Bea. I was sure glad it wasn’t me down there, locked out. Before Ellen packed it in at Bea’s, she decided to go out to get something she’d forgotten to bring with her. She was driving along Ventura Blvd, a long and meandering street on the south side of the San Fernando Valley, past a myriad of shops. Every kind of retail store and food establishment offering items you know about, plenty that you’ve never heard of, and many that you don’t want to know exist – it’s all there. She was driving along not thinking about anything in particular when she saw a fast-food place.

“FRENCH FRIES!” This thought screamed out to her. “GET DAD SOME FRENCH FRIES. You can BRIBE him with FRENCH FRIES!”

In this moment, she remembered his caregivers telling her that sometimes when dad would fire them, and tell them to GO HOME, when he wouldn’t forget about the whole interaction after a few minutes so they could just carry on with looking after him, they’d leave and go get him some fresh, hot French Fries. They told Ellen that it worked every time. She pulled into the next fast-food place she passed and ordered some piping hot French Fries.

Back at dad’s house she gingerly knocked on his door again. By now it was dark and dad was quite agitated. “WHO IS IT?” he yelled with bravado and fear in his voice.

“Dad, it’s me. I brought you FRENCH FRIES!”

There was silence. Then she heard his hand on the chain lock, and the door swung open. She almost handed them over to him, but at the last minute she saw a very real possibility that he would simply grab the fries and slam the door. Ellen was thinking on her feet.

“Hi dad, I brought you some French fries! Let’s go sit at the table and eat them together,” all the while holding them just beyond his grasp. They sat down at the dining room table and ate the deliciously hot, fried, salty bits together in silence. As soon as they finished, she got up from the table and disappeared into her bedroom. She turned off her light and got into bed, being as “quiet as a mouse”. She didn’t want to risk any kind of disruption. Who knows what he would do.

French Fries are the best bribe in the world. Of course they are.

When Ellen was first locked out, she called me – and she also called our older brother. He wasn’t too sympathetic or understanding of the enormity of the situation. He lived back east so her call came in the midst of his own family heading off to bed. By this time he’d had plenty of his own frustrations with our father. All this to say – he wasn’t much help.

“Just tell him who you are and tell him to let you in.”

Dad was not someone that responded well to his children telling him what to do, way before dementia had ever raised its unpredictable head.

Some months later…IT HAPPENED TO PAUL! Dad locked him out. And because of dad’s issues with needing to be the alpha-male, he was even more aggressive sounding toward my brother, feeling extremely threatened by some big, male stranger trying to enter his home. Paul COULD NOT believe it. He was really ticked off. He called Ellen, and to her credit, instead of goading him…talking to him the way he’d talked to her, she simply said, “Paul, go get some FRENCH FRIES.”

He did. It worked. I’m telling you, “French Fries”: it works every time.

gifts to be opened later

I have pursued many forms of creative expression in my lifetime. Maybe it is incorrect for me to say that I have pursued them at all; maybe they have pursued me. Ten years ago, when I made a decision to travel south and see if there was a way that I could assist my elderly parents, I packed up my world along with a series of beadwork projects in midstream. All of it landed in baskets and boxes that were trundled down to Los Angeles in a 1979 Volvo station wagon named Blossom. There, my little world remained hidden, quiet, and mostly patient.

My bewilderment, grief and shock over how I could possibly be back in Los Angeles after feeling that I had barely escaped it when I first left in 1972 was enormous. I begged for inspiration that would slake my creative thirst and heal the wound that was reopened with my return, but there were a few restrictions: it had to be very portable, as I was not exactly living in my own home, and it had to require little or no cash outlay. After a time, my almost unconscious murmurings were answered: a freshly broken Eucalyptus branch invited me into its life. The branch had broken out of a large, gnarled and stately tree which I walked beneath every morning at the onset of my sunrise circumambulation of a nearby but little known wildlife reserve. The very next morning after it fell to the ground, I easily peeled its bark, and then began to sand and sand and sand the gently arching beast. As I sanded, a presence appeared. Over time, one end of the branch began to emerge as the head of a bird. I was not the only one to see it in this way. Most who witnessed the journey that this stick and I were taking together, quickly commented about the bird. I had no urge to carve anything…I was simply compelled to sand.

I carried the stick with me wherever I went. After the initial peeling of the bark with a Swiss Army knife that my brother had given to me some twenty years before, sheets of various grits of sandpaper became my only tools and a manila folder containing them, my toolbox. I sanded while sitting in the park where the branch had first called out to me. I would sand while sitting in the patio outside Starbucks (which my friends and I called one of my “offices”), surrounded by cigar-smoking Entertainment industry attorneys and screenplay writers working on their laptops. Later on in the day, in this reclaimed desert of southern California, I would sit out in the backyard of my childhood home.

This portion of the time I was to live in Los Angeles, came after my mother had Crossed Over. Her death left my father and I to sort things out between us – not a small project. We had all thought it was my father who was preparing to leave this world and that is what precipitated my journey far away from my adult home and back to the place of my childhood. He and I had become fierce opponents without really knowing what the precise source of our disagreement was, long ago, beginning with my entry into adolescence. We each yelped in our respective ways, as raw nerve endings were disturbed easily by our clumsy exchanges with each other. The shock of mom’s death, coupled with the difficult nature of dad’s and my relationship was excruciating. By the time we found ourselves as housemates alone together, we had been having our often-fiery misunderstandings for a long, long time.

When I first began to go out into the backyard, my father would stand at the door, harping at me through the screen. What the heck was I doing out there anyway? In the beginning, I would invite him to join me. He always refused. After a while I stopped inviting him. He had little left of his eyesight, and not that much of his hearing. Dementia was taking up residence in him as a rather pushy, uninvited guest. We were finding our way through grief, through heartbreak, he and I. Our approaches were unrecognizable to one another. I would sit out in the backyard sanding and sanding. Mourning doves would sing the late afternoon into evening. Finally a breath of coolness would tinge the air.

Often he would holler at me, when was I coming back inside? I felt like a caged animal in that house. Having lived in several small but somehow spacious cabins in the woods of the northwest for years now, residence inside the modest, late 1940’s-era house chopped up into small interior spaces, in the midst of the San Fernando Valley was closer to a prison for me. This backyard served once again as my refuge. The same refuge I had sought as a child who would one day become a woman who loved to live in the woods.

One afternoon dad finally ventured out into the cooling dusk. I was sitting outside beneath the tangerine tree that he had planted when I was just a toddler. He sat in a lawn chair next to me and again began his heckling. What could I possibly be doing out here with a stick, he demanded. I was slowly beginning to learn how to translate my father’s language…his choice of words. I understood now, that really what he was saying was that he was lonely and wanted to connect with me. I said nothing, and handed him the four-foot long stick. He was shocked when he grasped it, as his failing eyesight had enabled him only to see the bare outlines of what I worked on. He let out a long, slow whistle. He held it in his baby-soft hands…hands that had not been used for any kind of manual labor for many, many years now that he was in his nineties.

He whistled again as he felt the entire length of the branch, carefully exploring every nuance of the wood. Finally, he moved his hands back to one particular spot where a twig had once jutted out from the main branch. True to his long and well-earned reputation as a man of few words, he handed it back to me saying, “Here”. My father had found a way to work with me on this project. He became my inspector. I would sand and sand, and then hand it over to him. He used his heightened sense of touch, which he’d come to depend on increasingly as his sight faded into the background of his awareness, to direct me to the next phase of sanding. We both sat this way, connected by this branch-becoming-bird, quiet for long stretches of time, serenaded by the songs that called out to the approaching dusk. Slowly, by way of our two sets of hands caressing in turn this that was once simply a broken branch, we were beginning to meet each other soul to soul.

Darkness would fall for my father earlier than for me. At best, he lived in near dusk even at the brightest times of the day, as macular degeneration continued to commandeer his vision. He would head back into the house…getting restless about nightfall coming on. It made him nervous when I stayed out back. He could not find a way for his sense of the evening to coexist with mine – could not imagine that dusk still reigned in my world if darkness had come to his. Finally I would give in to his reckonings about the hidden dangers lurking in the nighttime that was upon us. His agitation would only increase until I either went to bed, or every once in a long while, just got in my car and left the house. Either tactic worked.

Most nights I would simply head to bed early, on his schedule, and then arise before dawn to visit the only wildness I could find: the wildlife refuge that was, ironically, perched in the armpit of the busiest freeway in southern California. Most of the inhabitants of the San Fernando Valley did not know of the hundreds of acres slowly inhaling and exhaling just below the freeway…few people that I met had ever heard of its existence. Interestingly, my father was the one who introduced me to this place long ago. It was contained in an even larger tract of land, used as a flood control basin, to contain the wild waters of the flash floods that southern Californians call “rain”. Within the boundaries of this area are two golf courses, “my” wildlife refuge, a larger, more civilized and widely used city park and then off to one edge, of all things, rows upon rows upon rows of cultivated corn, soaking up the hot desert sun.

When I was a young girl, sometimes just dad and I would go to what was for me, quite an exotic place. We would go to the produce stand on the edge of the glistening cornfields, and buy FRESH corn on the cob for dinner. Dad grew up in the Midwest, in Detroit, and he knew what real corn on the cob tasted like. He would carefully and precisely pull ears of freshly picked corn out of mountainous piles and place them in the paper bag that I proudly held out for him. All those long years ago it was my father who introduced me to this place. Most people did not know of it even then, but he did. In his way, he gave it to me as a gift that would sit, mostly still wrapped up, to be opened by me when I, and really both of us, most needed it.

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.