A Poignant Visit

Celebrating David’s 95th birthday last month

Gary’s mom and dad, Paula and David, will fly to Florida tomorrow accompanied by their son, Steven, and their live-in aide, Inna. The plan is that they will stay for three months. The fact that this is happening is a testament to David’s will and his children’s desire to make him happy. It isn’t easy given that David is 95, has health challenges (who wouldn’t?) and Paula is debilitated by Alzheimers.

Since they are leaving tomorrow, Gary and I went to visit them on Saturday. We drove down mid-afternoon to spend some time and take them to dinner. I brought the photo album from Leah’s bat mitzvah. Paula, many years into Alzheimer’s, may not recognize the people immediately, but she still enjoys looking at photos, being reminded of the people and events pictured and talking about them. It can be difficult to engage Paula in conversation otherwise, going through photographs is an activity she still seems to enjoy. Their apartment is lined with photos of family on all of the walls, which appears to bring comfort and pleasure to both of them. On most visits Paula and I will go through each and every one of them, sometimes more than once. I brought the album to switch things up a bit. David enjoyed paging through the pictures, too. It is bittersweet, of course. Some of the people in the album are no longer with us. But, as David pointed out, “that’s part of life.”

During our last couple of visits, to vary the routine, I have read blog pieces that I thought would interest them. I read Nana’s Table and Zada’s West Point story previously. This time, keeping with the Leah theme, I thought I’d read the post about her birth. That post included a portion by Gary, too. I didn’t remember that I wrote it in a prose poem style and when I saw it, I hesitated thinking that it might not be the most accessible choice. But since I didn’t have another one in mind and otherwise we’d be sitting numbly watching a meaningless football game, Gary doing labs on his computer, I plunged ahead. We turned off the TV, and I used Gary’s computer to read the blog post. Paula and David listened attentively. By the time I was done, there was one interruption for a phone call that David shortened by explaining that he had family visiting, it was time to go to dinner. Perfect!

It was brutally cold out, so we hurried to the car as quickly as we safely could. As we were pulling out, Gary jokingly said, “I won’t ask you which piece you liked better,” referring to the two accounts of Leah’s birth I had just read. David immediately responded, “You’re better off not because you won’t like the answer!” We all had a good laugh at that. I have to admit I was surprised and pleased – given that I wasn’t sure how he’d feel about the poem.

David asked Paula to remind him to call back Leon, the person who he cut off on the phone earlier.  “David, I won’t remember,” she replied. Paula is well aware of her memory difficulties. “We’ll remind you,” I offered.

We drove to the restaurant. Paula repeatedly asked where we were going and commented that it was a long ride. It seems that whenever things are unsettled, when we are preparing to leave the house or when we are in transit, Paula gets more anxious. Fortunately, the ride was only about 15 minutes and, as long as David was by her side, she was comforted.

During the meal, Gary explained to David his most recent medical test results, which weren’t perfect, but weren’t as bad as they could have been either. It wouldn’t interfere with going to Florida. Gary explained it in a straight forward way and asked if David had any questions. He said no, he understood that he would have the time that God provides. He added, “One thing we know, I won’t die young.” I started laughing – how perfect is that!?! We all agreed it was true. Gary expressed the hope that there would be more years ahead.

Funny thing is, David is younger in heart, mind and even body than many 30 years his junior. He stands straight, he walks with purpose, he watches the news particularly concerned about Israel, but mostly he wants to know that his children and grandchildren are happy, healthy and ‘on the right track.’

When the meal was winding down, Gary asked whether David had any objection to sharing his health status with extended family – Gary’s siblings were already aware. David said, “I’m not keeping it a secret.” Paula suggested that it didn’t have to be brought up as the first thing, but if someone asks, you can tell them. “Does that make sense?” she asked. “It makes perfect sense,” Gary replied, “good advice.” Paula smiled, satisfied. I nodded in agreement. Paula reached her hand out to me across the table, I took it, and we shook on it. I know it isn’t often these days that Paula gets to feel that she made a contribution in that way. Though she likely won’t remember, I’m glad she had that moment.

We finished the meal. Gary went to get the car warmed up. We took our time getting our coats on and walking to the car. We drove back to the apartment, walked them back in, gathered our things and said our good-byes. “We’ll see you in Florida – either later in February or maybe early March,” Gary reassured them. Extended hugs all around, and then we went back to the cold car.

We agreed it was a good visit.


Inanimate Objects

Do inanimate objects speak to you? Some of mine do. My bicycle, which sits dusty, tires flat, leaning against the garage wall, has been known to ask: Why don’t you ride me?  I spent a lot of money on that bicycle. I went through a phase where I rode it almost daily, but that was several years ago. I have every intention of riding it again. Not today when it is below zero and windy, but when the weather permits, I intend to hop on (key word: intend) and enjoy the view. For the time being, it sits silent. But, come Spring, it will start talking to me again. And I will feel guilty.

Then there is the treadmill sitting in the basement. Whenever I pass it, I hear it saying: do SOMETHING with me! The treadmill doesn’t work properly. We bought it years ago and it worked well for a while, but then it would just stop while you were in mid jog – which was less than optimal and maybe even dangerous. I had a service person come three times – replacing various parts –we even had an electrician put it on its own circuit. It still doesn’t work. I started the process of appealing to the manufacturer, but gave up. I didn’t have the wherewithal to force them to replace it. So, there it sits. A reminder of another thing I haven’t taken care of, left unresolved.

You might sense a theme here, but it isn’t just exercise equipment that speaks to me. The loose photos strewn about the study ask to be organized. My refrigerator screams that it needs a thorough cleaning, which reminds me of a story.

Photo credit: Today’s Little Ditty (blog)

Gary and I were living in Pittsburgh. He had just finished his second year of med school and he finally had a break. I was working full time for the City of Pittsburgh Finance Department. Since he had some time off from school, we had some visitors. First came Gary’s friend, Larry. They hung out for a couple of days, toured the city a bit and I joined them for dinner. Larry left on a Friday morning. Gary’s parents were scheduled to arrive later that same day. I left for work that morning telling Gary, “Please, just make sure you pick up the bedding in the living room before you leave.” Larry had been sleeping on one of our fold out chairs in the living room.

Our apartment was a nice size one bedroom, one bathroom unit, with high ceilings and big windows. It had a large living room that we divided with bookcases to create a spacious dining area. There was a small dining room off the kitchen that we used as a study. When our parents visited, we gave them our bedroom and we slept in the living room on the fold out chairs.

I left for work that morning with Gary asleep in our bed and Larry sleeping in the living room. I hoped Gary would leave enough time to straighten up before going to the airport to meet his parents.

In an unfortunate bit of timing, I came down with a heavy cold later that morning, it came on suddenly.  I was so congested my teeth hurt. I was nervous enough about Gary’s parents visiting, we were married less than a year at this point and they had not been to our apartment yet, without also having to deal with a horrendous cold. I left work early, thinking I could take some decongestant and maybe rest a bit before Paula and David arrived.

I opened the apartment door and took a quick look around. I saw the bedding still on the living room floor and our unmade bed. It looked like a mess.

To say I was in a rage is an understatement. One thing about fury, I forgot about my cold symptoms! I ran around the apartment like a lunatic. I put away the bedding and cleaned up the living room. I changed the linens on our bed and straightened up our room. I did the few dishes in the sink, wondering what the heck had Gary done all morning! It was good that Gary wasn’t home to hear me muttering epithets at him.

I heard the key in the lock and put a smile on my face to greet my in-laws. We gave them the grand tour of the apartment, which didn’t take long. While showing them the kitchen, Gary proudly opened the refrigerator. I have to admit, it was spotless. So that was how he spent his morning! It was true, the refrigerator was cleaner than when we first moved in, but it wasn’t that bad when I left in the morning!  That would not have been my first priority. Later, when I asked him about it, he explained that he spent the entire time cleaning the inside of the refrigerator – it took him hours. He didn’t understand why I was so frustrated with him.

I learned some Important lessons from that experience: Gary is a perfectionist, and his priorities frequently don’t match mine. This continues to happen today, with Gary digging a hole for a new garden when we already have a garden that seems perfectly adequate to me. In addition, if he takes on a project, it will take way longer than one would expect. It will be done very well, I will give him that.

As I was writing this, and given that my refrigerator was calling to be cleaned and I was tired of listening to it, I put down my pen (actually closed my laptop) and did it. I didn’t spend hours and it is not as spotless as if Gary had done it, but it will suffice. And now when I sit at the counter in the kitchen, I only hear the low hum of its motor.



Government by the People

If a politician runs on a platform that ridicules government, what can we expect of them if they are elected and take office? The first time I thought about that question, I was a state worker and George Pataki was running for governor of New York. His rhetoric at the time went beyond a belief in small government. I understood the notion that some thought that ‘government that governs least, governs best.’ I may not have agreed with the sentiment, but I understood it. And, as I saw it, that philosophy grew out of the streak in America’s history that idealized ‘rugged individualism,’ a belief in the primacy of individual effort and achievement. Pataki’s argument, though, struck me as qualitatively different. The statements he made demeaned state employees and made it sound like government was inevitably incompetent, that by its nature it was bad.

I felt personally insulted. While there were state employees who were lazy and inefficient, most that I knew were in it to do good things for people. I wondered what the impact of the rhetoric would be on people seeking to work for the state. Who wants to work for a CEO who seemingly doesn’t believe in the mission, or doesn’t have confidence in the workforce? It was demoralizing.

Pataki ran for governor for the first time in 1994 and he won. Since that time that rhetoric has become much more common, it has become ubiquitous and it has been amplified by social media. We elected a president who espouses those beliefs in the extreme. Trump has appointed personnel who are systematically dismantling their agencies. This raises a fundamental question: do Americans believe in government by the people, for the people? Or do Americans believe and trust in corporations?

I know what I believe. I don’t think either government or corporations are inherently good or inherently bad – both are made of people and people are people. There needs to be a healthy balance of public and private enterprise.

It used to be that we could argue about the size of government or the scope of the government’s role in regulating different areas of our lives (for example, health, housing, the environment); but not the basic premise that government could and should provide some services and oversee our safety. The differences between Democrats and Republicans, when I was growing up, centered on how active the government should be in regulating markets and in providing a social safety net. The pendulum swung back and forth a bit depending on who was in power.

Some elements of the culture wars of today were present then, too. There were differences in attitudes about reproductive rights and views of law enforcement, but it didn’t reach to the point of invalidating a role for government. Sometimes it feels to me as if the legitimacy of our government is at stake.

The incivility of the rhetoric is also markedly different. Personally, I am less concerned about that than I am about the beliefs that may underlie the incivility. Given the 24/7 news cycle and social media, people may need to be more outrageous to be heard. What is more concerning is this: do people really believe the things that they are saying/tweeting/posting?

Gary, my husband, has been talking about the damage Fox news has done to our country – he’s been pointing to that as a problem for years now. Former President Obama recently commented on the danger of living in different realities based on the media we listen to. It isn’t clear to me whether this is the source of the problem or a symptom of the problem. Are we listening to different sources of information because they conform to our ideas, or do those sources create our ideas? Either way, how do we change it?

Also, who will be willing to work for a government so disrespected, so disempowered? Who is going to get a degree in public administration if things continue in this vein? I believe we need professional, educated people to work for our government.

I have to believe that the tide will turn. I have to believe that Americans will not be willing to continue to cede power to Donald Trump, Steve Bannon and those who think like them. We can continue to debate the proper balance of public and private, of regulation and unfettered markets. We can argue about social issues, too. Those debates are healthy. I hope 2018 proves to be a turning point. I intend to do my best to make it one. We must move away from the rhetoric that is undermining the very foundation of our union.