the hardest goodbye

It wasn’t the last goodbye…just the hardest one.

Every once and a while we tried to talk to dad about moving out of his house. Whenever we brought it up, he’d end the conversation almost before it began. He was adamant: he was going to stay in his house and he was going to be fine.

When we finally did have a conversation about it, it was too late. My brother asked dad if he’d ever consider selling his house to live somewhere smaller…a place a little easier to deal with. This time, his face brightened when my brother posed the question, which surprised me – surprised all three of us.

He agreed right away and said he had a great idea. We looked at each other sideways, trying not to make direct eye contact. This seemed a little too good to be true. Here’s what his plan consisted of: he’d sell his house and use the money to buy an apartment house. He’d live in one of the apartments, and HE, (the ninety-four-year-old with dementia,) WOULD BE THE MANAGER OF THE WHOLE PLACE. When he was in his fifties, he’d been involved in building a small apartment house as well as some condominiums. So dad knew some things about rentals and construction.

My brother, to his credit, calmly asked what dad would do if someone’s washing machine broke down. My father simply said he’d call the repairman – a perfectly logical reply. The problem being that at this point dad really couldn’t figure out how to use a phone, let alone find a phone number, or read one for that matter. The conversation quickly deteriorated. It was clear we weren’t going to have a rational conversation about dad moving anywhere. We knew we weren’t going to be able to come up with a plan and talk it over with him. Our hearts sank.

We couldn’t keep him safe any longer. Yes it was about his safety, but it had gotten to the point where we finally, clearly saw that his behavior could potentially cause serious harm to others. This had been true for some time…but one last incident finally made it clear to all of us. It would of course be a tragedy if dad was injured, but if someone else – a caregiver, or a stranger was injured because of dad’s erratic behavior? – No. That’s when I knew in my heart that even though the thought of moving him out of his home was heart wrenching, the risk of leaving him there was clearly worse. This was the first time I was faced with a problem where I could only find heartbreak – as hard as I looked there was no light in the tunnel we were approaching.

The last straw came one day when he and his caregiver were waiting at a busy intersection. By this time, his vision was all but gone, and his hearing was not much better. He began to step into the street and she tried to stop him. He refused to wait; he hated being told what to do and stepped right in front of a moving car. Miraculously, the car was able to stop, and no one was hurt. For this dedicated and loyal young woman, this was the end: she knew she couldn’t keep him safe. It was too dangerous for everyone. He’d done a lot of crazy, dangerous things before this…we all knew our luck, our time, had simply run out.

People told us not to discuss it with him…that it was too late. So we did not speak of it to him beforehand…at all. It was crushing to consider doing it this way: move him from his home of sixty years without telling him? Without notice? Just drop him off somewhere? All of the reasons they gave us made sense…intellectually: the trauma of the conversation could send him into who-knows-what kind of behavior – yes, that was true; my main concern was that he would just up and run-away. He was strong, healthy and walked a couple of miles every day. I could see him deciding to just head out to some place else and getting lost…injured…or worse.

By this time, none of us were living near him. We were left with planning this momentous, life-changing, life-shattering move…over the phone. My sister now was the closest, living just north of the Bay Area. She’d gone down to L.A. to look at some possibilities and then I flew down to look at them with her. It was staggeringly impossible to imagine him living in any of the places we looked at.

We finally chose a place, and honestly, it was only because oddly enough we’d just learned that our aunt…dad’s “baby” sister was also moving into a residential facility. We gave in, to what we knew to be false reasoning: “If they’re moving her there…maybe it will be fine for dad.” We knew it wasn’t true…but honestly we had no other feasible options. We had somehow convinced the management to actually give us an entire week ahead of the date of dad’s move-in. After being faced with 48-hour deadlines, this suddenly seemed to be a luxurious amount of time.

Back up north at my home, I paced back and forth with thoughts churning 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 just drop him off with no explanation?” The thought of it made me sick to my stomach. I knew what that house meant to him; knew what his independence meant to him. Over time, we’d already slowly but surely gotten him to allow caregivers first to visit every day, and eventually he allowed them to stay with him around the clock. Between the incredible creativity of two dedicated young women, and with help from each of us 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 back down to Los Angeles, I took to talking it all out with dad – in my mind. It wasn’t even a conscious decision; it was just all I could do. I told him everything…why we’d finally come to the decision, where he’d be living, what it was like, the good, the bad…I just kept talking to him. Over and over that week as I wrestled with it all, I begged whoever might be listening, to somehow help this stubborn old man know that we were plain out of options.

I arrived on a Saturday, joining my brother and sister at dad’s house. We planned to move him on Monday. 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 ever showed up at the same time.

What we were up to was that we had come to move him: out of his home and into Assisted Living, but not any Assisted Living. We had to move him into a place that was termed “Secure”, meaning a place where basically, he’d be a prisoner. He would be locked in: he wouldn’t be able to get out without assistance from the staff or someone in his family.

It was Sunday now. Dad and I sat on the couch next to each other, the couch that had been his domain every evening when he came home from work, and now at age 94 and after sixty years, it was where my father spent most of his waking hours. The couch had always 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 also a bit of trepidation that I found myself sitting next to 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 together. We sat there and for some reason, we were silent.

Someone walked by the house talking on their cell phone, loudly of course, 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?”

The question jarred me out of our solitude.

“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 leave their business cards all the time – people want to move into this neighborhood – 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 $500,000…isn’t that insane?”

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

“That’s a lot of money. What are you gonna 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 whispered, “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 partly deaf – although he thought he could hear 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, as the man of the house, he 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 porch light. Then the swish of the curtains closing, next he’d pull the shades down. Moving into the kitchen he’d turn off the light, cut across the dining room then head down two steps into the den that he helped build onto the back of the house in the ‘60’s. He’d lock the back door, check that all the windows were closed and locked and then 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, after all. It seemed that he’d been able to hear the truth that I’d been speaking to him from my cabin far away. He knew it was time. And even though by the next day, the day we were to move him, he would have forgotten all of what we’d just spoken, I knew that somewhere in his heart he’d heard that truth, and, that he was ready. I also knew that he forgave me, forgave us. Still, I knew that tomorrow was going to be the most excruciating day of my life, of all our lives.

I was right – about everything.

Our “story” was that we needed to move him out temporarily in order to do the repairs on the house. Recently there’d been a leak in the bathroom that had overflowed into the hallway. Water on the old hardwood floors beneath the wall-to-wall carpeting had caused those extremely dry pieces of oak flooring to buckle. It was just one more possibility for dad or someone else to get hurt. It was our “story”…and we loved that there was actually some truth to it. In the end, it didn’t change anything about how it all went…but somehow that little bit of truth made the bitter pill of the rest of the untruths a little easier to swallow.

My job on our moving team was coming up with a floor plan. How could we fit his favorite furniture…his old friends…into his room in a way that would yield him comfort, familiarity, and also be open enough so that he would not trip and fall? In his own home, he knew the layout of his furniture like the back of his hand. A new place would be one big “tripping hazard”. I measured the furniture we chose and drew it out on graph paper. It was a wonderful mental distraction.

Our plan was that my sister and I would take dad out to lunch, and the new restaurant we’d “found” was actually the dining room of the Assisted Living residence. While we were eating, and taking our sweet time of it, our brother was directing a moving company to pick up the appointed furniture from dad’s house and place it in his new room according to my floor plan. And then, my brother was going to join us for the rest of our meal. It sounds insane now as I write it – it also sounded insane as we planned it. How does the saying go? “Desperate times call for desperate measures.” We tried to make the best out of our act of complete tyranny. But we all knew that whatever our best was – it was going to be heart crushing.

It was getting to be late in the afternoon. Dad had impeccable sensitivity to the sun’s movement toward the ending of daylight and was getting antsy. He wanted to leave and go home. That’s when my brother broke the news to him.

“Let us show you your new room, dad. This is where you’re gonna stay while they do the repairs on your house.”

“What the hell are you talking about? Come on,” he cursed at us, “Let’s go home.”

This was a plea for help. We were his last hope and, we were his jailers. Somewhere he knew this.

“No dad, it’s really nice. It’ll be much nicer here. They’ll be running saws and hammering at your house. It’s gonna be a mess over there. Let’s go see where you’ll be staying.”

Dad’s face was tight; his eyes narrowed. He looked at me, and then my sister.

“Quit fooling around. It’s time to go,” he said in his gruff “quit the bullshit” manner.

We were running out of time…out of daylight. His macular degeneration meant that when he looked out on the world it was always kind of dim. Now, with the sun preparing to set, in his world it was close to dark. He also experienced what’s called “Sundowner’s Syndrome” which causes people to become quite anxious and fearful as nightfall approaches. With the combination of his failing vision and Sundowner’s, on top of his wanting to JUST GO HOME, he was beginning to look and behave like a trapped wild animal.

He got up to leave the table, but he didn’t know where to go. He couldn’t see how to get out. My brother again attempted to reason with him. They moved out into the courtyard. He was trying to show dad what a nice “backyard” they had. There were tables and chairs and my brother motioned for dad to sit with him at one of the tables so they could talk.

“WHAT THE HELL’S GOING ON? TAKE ME HOME.”

My brother had been raised by this man; a man who lived by the rule of Reason. But Reason didn’t work any more. Now a line of Reason just bounced right off dad. There was no reasoning with him – there was no Reason in the land of his father. It was excruciating.

I left them going at it and my sister followed me. We were both weeping. This was more brutal than I ever could have imagined; could’ve let myself imagine. I heard dad raise his voice, and then my brother, too. I was afraid dad might take a swing at him. Daylight was fading fast.

Again I heard,

“DAMN IT! TAKE ME HOME. WHAT IS THIS SHIT? JUST TAKE ME HOME!”

He was chilled and completely exhausted – beyond exhaustion. At home, he would have been heading to bed by now. My sister and I wandered off again to give them some space, and when we returned to the patio they were gone. We found the two of them in dad’s room.

Dad was sitting on the couch, on “his” couch. His only son, his oldest child, his pride and joy, sat at the other end. Dad’s head was down. His body was slumped. His eyes were closed. He was completely broken. All the fight had gone out of him. The feisty old man was no more. Soft light shining out from the two lamps we’d brought from his living room would’ve been comforting in another situation. For dad, it was dark; he couldn’t see us…physically, but worse, it was dark because his children had betrayed him. He’d been trapped, tricked. Every once and a while he’d lift his head and look toward one of us and say longingly,

“Come on. Let’s go home.”

By now, all of us were completely drained. My brother, just like us, was heartbroken, but he was much less comfortable being anywhere else but in the land of Reason. He was tired and he didn’t know what else to say. Now when dad would repeat his only request, my brother began to lose patience, still couldn’t quite face the depth of the truth that there was no reasoning with this man who had taught him the skill in the first place.

We had to leave him – he needed to go to bed. The rest of his life had to begin and it couldn’t while we were still there. I stood before him and he, a broken twig of an old man, looked up at me. His eyes were dull, unseeing, and unable to bear the possibility that we actually might be leaving him there. I reached out toward him and he slid his hands into mine. They were cold and lifeless.

I bent toward him. “I love you dad. It’s time for us to go. You need to go to sleep now.”

One of the gifts of dementia is that even traumatic experiences sometimes, in the presence of great grace, can quickly melt into the Great Forgetting. Here’s a story about the first couple of days in dad’s new life:  no stopping him 

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BE HERE NOW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He really did that. And then,

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

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

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

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

The waiter brings the food.

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

I knew what was coming next.

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

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

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

just one dance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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?

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?