Saturday, February 6, 2016

Those shoes

"For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils."

Looking back to see what I'd written when my father died, I was actually surprised to be reminded that I started this blog in May 2012.

My father died in November 2010, 3 weeks shy of his 90th birthday and 18 months shy of the time when I would have posted about it.

I think that time is way overdue.

But the reason that time comes to mind right now is what happened in the aftermath. My mother, 87 years old, tried to take her own life.

They had been married more than 61 years. Here they are, a bit younger.

At the time of my dad's death, my mom was in the early stages of dementia. I'd say very early, but I hadn't seen her since the preceding April. We postponed an October visit in favor of a family celebration in Florida on December 21, when my dad would have turned 90.

On our vist in April, I noticed that my mom seemed oddly forgetful, especially in the short term. She'd ask a question, I'd answer, she'd ask the same question later and have no recollection of the answer, which is not unusual, but of having asked the question already. We've all done that thing where we ask something again and when we hear the answer, we say, oh that's right, you told me, sorry.

For my mom there was no sorry because she had erased the entire memory. But when I asked (confronted? challenged?) her about it, she denied any impairment. She still played duplicate bridge. She still paid bills and balanced her checkbook.

We did a couple of online tests about dementia. She knew what number came after 937. She was as sociable as ever. She didn't get lost in familiar places. She could do simple math and name 10 animals in a minute. She knew the month, the year, and the name of the President. She still enjoyed the things she had always enjoyed, swimming, seeing friends, enjoying early bird specials. She still cooked and baked. She didn't become inappropriately angry or irrational.

But I still had the feeling that something wasn't right and argued that she should at least consult a specialist. She took this as though I was accusing her of petty theft or public intoxication. As if memory loss was something with a stigma attached, some personal moral failing. I'm not sure why she was so resistant to the thought. Her brother, who was three years older, had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Years earlier her mother, my grandmother, in her late 80s had suffered from what was then labeled senility.

She finally turned to my dad and said, do you think I have Alzheimer's?

And my dad, the consumate conflict-avoider, the path-of-least-resistance devotee, the don't-rock-the-boat specialist, said, I think you forget things that you should remember.

We also pointed out that even if her mind was just fine, there still was no downside to having an expert corroborate that. So she agreed to schedule an evaluation, and that was the best outcome I could have expected.

I went home after the visit and didn't give it much further thought. My mom still called me every Sunday, as she had since I was a college freshman, and although I vaguely noticed that our long conversations had devolved into brief chats where it seemed that my mom just wanted to know that all was well and get the hell off the phone. If I wasn't home she'd send me an email asking me to let her know everything was fine.

Only in retrospect did this sink in as having any significance. Mostly I was happy to keep our chats short. We'd had some very long talks while my first marriage was going downhill and at other times when my life was a mess. In some ways I felt like we'd talked ourselves out.

So I didn't know until after my dad died, that she had indeed consulted a memory loss expert, who had diagnosed her with a 15 percent cognitive impairment. In other words, she was 85 percent fine cognitively sppeaking. And at the age of 87, you can't feel too badly about that. She was in fact, quite proud of herself when she told us later. So there, take that.

But she failed to mentuon that the expert looked at her family history and recommended she take the drug Aricept, a medication used in the treatment of Alzheimer's to improve cognition. It does not cure or slow the progress of the condition, but it's believed to be most effective when used in the early stages.

My mom flat out refused to take the drug. My father reverted to standard conflict-avoidance mode and bowed to her wishes. He was 89 and tired I think. Mistakes were made.

I found all this out after his death six months later, after my mom tried to overdose on Unisom and Tylenol pm. That is when I started making phone calls and talking to her doctors myself. Her refusal to medicate wasn't all that surprizing. My mom was a fatalist. She did not have pap tests or mammograms. She never had a colonscopy, not even after nursing my dad through his colon cancer surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, and seeing the profound toll it took on him, how it reduced the quality of the last 15 years of his life. She deferred to fate in all things. Until that day when she tried to take fate into her own hands.

My dad's death was sudden, if death can be sudden in your 90th year. His health on the whole was good, but the residual effects of his cancer left him with digestive miseries, so he often didn't feel very well, though he was not a complainer. He took life more and more quietly. He said that the less he ate, the better he felt, but he was very thin. I would not call him frail though. He was just my dad. His mind was as sharp as his hearing was muted. He stopped walking for exercise, he sat and read more. He gave up driving at night - and probably should have given it up altogether.

This isn't the best photo but I have so few. When did I stop taking pictures of my parents? This one was taken on one of his last trips, in February 2008 I think, when my parents came to see my new house.

I remember he commented that there was no safety bar in the shower so he couldn't lean over to wash his ankles. Begging the question who washes their ankles, Neil offered to put in a safety bar before his next visit. But there was no next visit.

We had airline tickets and reservations at his favorite Italian restaurant to celebrate his Decmeber 21 birthday, but on November 30, 2010, on my way home from work, I got a call from my brother that Dad was in the hospital. A nurse told my brother to get on a plane double quick if he wanted to see him again. That didn't happen. By the time I got home there was a message from my mom on my answering machine. My father had died, she was sitting with him, please call her.

My father was dead. Myocardial infarction is what the death certificate would say. A heart attack.

My brother flew from New Jersey to Florida that night. Neil and I caught an early flight the next morning.

The next days were a blur of making preparations to put him to rest. I can't say bury him. I can't even say funeral. In the Jewish religion the dead are laid to rest as soon as possible. My parents weren't particularly observant, but they celebrated the high holidays and loosely followed Jewish tradition, if not the letter of Jewish law. Cremation is against Jewish tradition, so my parents had elected to be interred in an aboveground vault. They made all the arrangements, purchased their caskets and selected their space in the vault, on the highest level of the seven-story vault on the end. We joked that it was an "end unit."

My parents' condo was an end unit, on the top floor of their four-story building. They chose it because no one had to walk past their kitchen window to get home. The kitchen itself was larger since the walkway ended at my parents' front door, and they had windows on three sides, not just the front and back.

We met with the funeral home staff to do paperwork. My brother asked if he could see our dad, and an employee who was both ridiculously insensitive and ill-trained said it wasn't possible because our father was "under refrigeration." She redeemed herself somewhat by making arrangements for a military color guard to carry the American flag and play taps at the interment site. My dad, a World War II veteran, would have loved that.

My parents did not belong to a temple or have a Rabbi, so after kicking it around a bit, my brother and I decided to lead a little service ourselves for the gathering of friends and relatives at the funeral home the following day. We got to see my dad laid out in his casket, before it was closed for the service. He looked very tan, but he was so cold.

My mom greeted her guests with her usual warmth, poise and graciousness. My brother spoke about my dad, the honorable man who did the right thing always. I'm a reluctant public speaker so I briefly talked about how my dad had instilled in me a love of music and poetry, and then recited one of my dad's favorite poems, Wordsworth's Daffodils.

After my dad was hoisted on a mechanical lift to his final resting place, and wrestled into the space (feet first within the coffin, leaving room for my mom to be installed later, head first), my mom invited everyone to lunch at the restaurant at the retirement community. She didn't weep. She barely shed a public tear. Although when it was just us, she kept repeating, I just want to go to sleep and never wake up. It was eerie. We'd already decided that we'd come back to Florida for my dad's birthday as planned, but she said it so many times, that once I said sharply, I can't bring the kids here in three weeks if you are going to say that.

I never once thought she'd act on it.

She did seem a bit lost, but this was a huge loss. It was going to be a massive life adjustment for her, but I assumed she'd grieve and then adjust. In the meantime, she admitted that my dad had taken over the bill paying and checkbook balancing because she just somehow didn't feel like doing it any more. Said with a little shrug.

So my brother got on her computer and set up online access to her bank accounts and bills so he could handle all that for her long distance. My brother loves to do that stuff. I was willing too, but happy to have him take it on. My mom never learned to drive a car, but she had a list of fellow residents who would drive you to doctors' appointments or the supermarket or the airport for fun money. The community had a bus that went to Publix three times a week, and a jitney to get you to the bus stop if you didn't feel like walking.

My mom still had lots of friends, many widowed and in the same boat, and she wouldn't have lacked for companionship. All my life people had fallen over themselves and each other trying to befriend her. I would say she had charisma, but she probably honestly earned all that love and loyalty. She was a good listener and she cared and remembered what people shared, and followed up and asked after them, and if that's not a shortcut to lifelong friends, I don't know what is.

Having said all this, I realize that I'm only just leading in to the story that I wanted to tell, the story of how my mom handled my dad's death, which is to say that she didn't. Because Neil has been away for a week, and being alone, even just temporarily, makes me think about my mom in the days after my dad died, makes me consider my life in those shoes and wonder how I'd handle it.

Grist for my next post. I bet I'll soon have you wishing I was back to whining about bead sales and Facebook and my frustrations with life as an artist. Wishing I'd tell you how I have two customers who haven't paid their bead bills, and how I'm still tidying up the mess with the missing mail, and how I'm tired of making beads but still obsessed with making them, and how I'm delighted with some of my new ones but still not selling many, and disgusted with some of my new ones that are just plain gruesome.

Or not.

I'm just trying to do the write thing.

Like my dad. Sort of.

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

(William Wordsworth)

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