When Leah was born, my first child, I was overwhelmed. Not surprising, most first time moms are. Each time she cried, which seemed often, I would go through the possibilities: hungry? wet diaper? too cold/ too hot? needing to be cuddled? In an effort to bring some order to chaos, I kept a pad where I wrote down how long she slept, how long she nursed, and her diaper production (a nice way of saying her pooping and peeing). Writing it down seemed to help. With time it became more routine, and I relaxed as I learned about my baby.
I noticed that when Dan and Beth had their beautiful baby girl they more or less did the same thing, but they had an app for that! She is now approaching 11 months, they stopped using the app quite a while ago, as they too eased into parenthood.
Both my mother and my father-in-law, 85 and 96 respectively, have faced serious health challenges over recent weeks. My mom had an operation to have a cancerous tumor removed from her left lung (the second time she faced this, 3 years ago she had a cancerous tumor removed from her right lung). My father-in-law had pneumonia. He was hospitalized, fortunately briefly, and seems to be slowly recovering. Pretty miraculous – I don’t think many 96 year olds survive pneumonia. They are both progressing in fits and starts.
My anxiety about their recoveries reminds me of how I felt when Leah was born. A fear of doing the wrong thing, of not knowing what might be helpful, of understanding whether a symptom is serious or not, of not being attentive enough or maybe too focused. You can make yourself crazy.
So, we have come full circle – concerned about those basic bodily functions. Here’s hoping that they continue to work, and that my anxiety lessens as they do.
It is times like these that I wish I was a person of faith, but I don’t feel it. When my dad was seriously ill, and it turned out was approaching the end of his life, I had these same anxieties. Though I don’t believe in God (that’s an essay for another time), I found myself offering up a prayer to the universe: give me strength, give me the wisdom to know what to do and have mercy on my father. I silently repeated those words regularly over the course of the weeks. I don’t know if it helped. I did get through it. I offer that same prayer now. I will see this through, too.
As we drove up to Temple Emanuel in Kingston, NY, I wondered how the day might go. Linda and I were about to bring my mother and my father to see their brand new great granddaughter Evelyn (Evey, for short). Our wonderful son Daniel and his wonderful wife Beth became parents on May 31stand we had already been down to the city to see the baby (and them) twice. The first time, it was just Linda and I, and the following weekend we brought Linda’s mom, Feige, to see Evey. Those visits had gone quite well.
This visit presented some significant challenges, challenges we spent considerable time fretting over. The biggest issue was my mom’s Alzheimer’s disease. She has been living with it, meaning we as a family have also been living with it–my father most of all–for more than a decade. The disease has done what it does. It has gotten inexorably worse as her memory, and so much of what made her a brave, kind, thoughtful, bright person, have been stolen from her. The ability to manage money, to cook and clean and participate in meaningful discussion gradually disintegrated.
And it left someone behind who is at once my mother and, at the same time, certainly not her. Anyone who has a relative with this cruel disease understands what I just wrote better than my poor ability to communicate it. In her case, my mother will become incredibly fixated on things that worry her. This is perhaps a consequence of her underlying psychological makeup and, of course, her experiences during the Holocaust, in addition to the disease.
But she will ask, “where are we going?” “where are we?” “who are you?” “where is my mother?” and similar questions relentlessly. You cannot answer the question enough times; it just keeps getting repeated. She cannot retain what is said to her. I find it fascinating that she has no trouble remembering what she is worried about. Something works deep inside there, but not the ability to remember what was just said to her. Never.
Taking care of her and my father has been a team effort among my siblings, but like all teams, this one is not made up of equal players. I have done my part in terms of managing the medical side of their care. But that is, frankly the easiest part. My sisters and brother have done much more than I have in terms of managing their lives overall. My two sisters in particular, Ro and Dor, have been beyond wonderful and selfless in all they have done.
Before we left Albany to pick my parents up, Linda and I made signs to put on the back of the seat, in front of my mom, reminding her where we were going, who we were going to see, who was in the car. While it didn’t work perfectly, it actually worked quite well on the way down to the city. Given her other deficits, it is interesting that she can still read English and Hebrew.
Linda picked up sandwiches which we brought in the car and gave them to eat on the way down to the city. They were both dressed up for Saturday morning services, something they attend weekly. In Florida, they attend synagogue three days each week since the daily minyan is no longer available. While in Saugerties, the pickings are slimmer and they just go Saturday mornings, but they both still enjoy services. In Florida, my dad serves as gabbai (the person who calls people up to the Torah) and often davens (sings/chants) the prayer service, something he is quite good at. Up here in New York, they are just congregants and that seems to be plenty good by them too.
As we drove down, there was pleasant conversation with my father and my mom seemed reasonably satisfied, responding well to cues to read the information on the seat in front of her as needed. We were particularly concerned about the effects of being away from her familiar environment but she really did quite well on that ride. The weather was glorious and there was no traffic to speak of.
Eventually we made it to New York City and to Dan and Beth’s apartment in Harlem. Their building is lovely and their one bedroom apartment is as spacious as a NYC one bedroom apartment gets. They have room for Evey’s crib and a chair to hold and feed her in the bedroom. And their cat, Hamilton–a three legged cat–seems to have behaved reasonably well with the presence of a new lifeforce in his space.
In the apartment, Great Grandpa was in his glory. He was holding Evey and speaking to her and explaining that she knows that he is her friend and she seemed quite pleased as well. This was the reason for all of the effort. For David, getting to see a generation three removed from his own, his own progeny, getting to hold and speak to and be with that great granddaughter, was nothing less than a miracle, the fulfillment of some sort of cosmic justice.
The fact is, he never should have been alive to witness this amazing moment. He was supposed to have been killed long ago in northeastern Poland. The nazis had more than enough resources devoted to making sure he died. There were ss everywhere, there was a ghetto and plenty of anti-Semitic Poles ready to turn Jews in to the Germans. The statistics are startling. 80% of Jews in Poland before World War II did not survive to the end of the war. 98% of Jewish children were killed. The nazis did not want anyone young enough to reproduce to survive and special attention was paid to youth.
David, my dad, lost his mother, his sister and his brother. His father died shortly after the war, while in a displaced persons camp, just before they were scheduled to leave to America. All of the cousins and friends and neighbors he knew were in the same boat. Of the approximately 4,500 Jews in and around Ewier (his hometown in Poland) in 1939, between 50 and 100 lived to see 1945. David had done amazing things and overcome incredible odds to reach America and build a new life.
Although, she is no longer aware of much of her own history, Paula, my mom, went through similar difficulties. I am less certain of the numbers in Sarnik, but there have been mass graves uncovered there and the numbers are similarly grim. Her mother, Lea Silberfarb, was beyond bright and brave and I am so proud that my daughter wears that name so well. Lea rescued her three children against all odds, unable to even get word to her husband who was killed by the Germans.
So now, 73 years after the end of World War II, having overcome all of that and having built a new life in a new land, learning a new language, having experienced all of the illnesses he has accumulated, here was my dad, 95 years old, holding the next generation. Those who came with an army to kill him are gone. He remains. And his legacy lives on in a new baby’s bright eyes.
He was glorying in her, loving her and loving the experience. We have had our challenging moments and Linda has been kind enough to provide this forum for me to discuss them before.
This was a very different moment. This was the reason to endure all of those other moments. He understood that. Linda understood that. Dan and Beth understood that. And all wanted him to have that moment. It was a form of pure joy that is hard to put into words.
After that visit, Dan showed Bobe and Grandpa the view from the patio of his building and we said our farewells. We stopped at our apartment and they got to see it and to use the facilities before we headed back upstate. We were to meet my brother Steve along with his family for dinner, his wife Shari and their amazing children, Laura and Jordan. The prior evening, we had seen them at Shari’s retirement party and I was so impressed with her, Steve and their children as they each spoke so eloquently about Shari’s remarkable career managing a large part of OPWDD, the state office tasked with caring for people with developmental disabilities.
We did not have as easy a time driving up. My mom was tired and did not respond as well to the sign on the seat. She was not as easily comforted and the relentless questions were rapid fire. Linda worked hard to keep her engaged, comforted and oriented, but it wasn’t easy.
We arrived at the Harriman exit and made it to the restaurant where we were meeting my brother’s family. They came out to the car as we pulled up and grabbed my parents, giving Linda and I a breather.
We had a nice meal, I had a cold beer, Linda enjoyed two glasses of sangria. After dinner, we drove the remainder of the way to Saugerties where we dropped off the parents to the care of their aide. With all of the things that could have gone wrong, there were no unfortunate events.
We had a successful visit and my dad has subsequently spoken joyfully of that day.
It is not every day that you can give your parent that kind of gift. Of course, Dan and Beth were quite essential to that. They are incredible people, kind and loyal and already clearly outstanding parents.
It was a wonderful Father’s Day gift and a rewarding day. The following day, actual Father’s Day, Linda and I didn’t go anywhere. I did some yard work, also known as my therapy, we grilled and relaxed.
Note: Gary’s Dad was hospitalized last Thursday morning with difficulty breathing. Gary flew down to Florida to be with him and oversee his care. He wrote this on the flight down and gave me permission to share it.
It is a trip I have taken before. It is filled with dread and anxiety. It is filled with a sense of obligation and duty and a sense of purpose. Once again, my father is at a crisis point. He is hospitalized and in some significant danger. Each time, it is a bit worse than the previous episode. Each time, yet another illness has been added to the list of threats to his survival.
I travel there as his son. I am not his doctor but yet I am. Every major medical decision is really made by me at this point in time. I know too much. He has multiple diagnoses each of which carry a very limited life expectancy, starting with him being 95 years old.
Add to that lung cancer, kidney disease, about 7 decades of hypertension, atrial fibrillation that used to be paroxysmal (coming and going) but now is chronic, diabetes, a monoclonal protein that could at any time turn into myeloma or other blood cancer, nodules on his kidneys, a large nodule on his prostate. And now congestive heart failure.
I guess you could say the most surprising thing is that he is still alive. He is, if nothing else, a remarkably determined man. He is still, all these years along the road, inspiring to me. He is not the man he used to be. Time and illness have taken away much of his incredible vigor. He is physically and mentally slower than he was. But he still finds a way to love life and even to enjoy it.
He is not like me. I am probably better in math and science than he is, but in the most important ways he is stronger and more resilient than I could ever imagine being. He enjoys people. He tends not to be overly possessive. He doesn’t like to wait; patience is not his strongpoint. He is beyond courageous. He will not let terrible things make him unhappy; his will is immeasurably immense.
He trusts me and I feel like he has always trusted me. At least for as long as I can remember going back to my childhood when I got to drive his car in the parking lot when he went to check out the refrigerated warehouse that held the cold cuts he was responsible for distributing to supermarkets. He trusted me to drive the forklift at too young an age. Both of those experiences were thrilling for a youngster and I was not going to crash and betray his trust.
I will not betray that trust today either.
In a sense, the flight that I am on, this trip to Cleveland Clinic Florida hospital, is symbolic of the larger, sad journey we have been on for some time now. He will die at the end of it. If we do everything right, he will die. There will be pain and loss and sorrow. If we don’t do everything right, there will be guilt as well. There will not be guilt.
This journey is one variation of the journey most children ultimately take with their parents. It is the journey Linda took with her father. It is the way things are supposed to go. The children bury the parents. That is what happens when it goes the right way. And if you are very lucky, you get 95 years, perhaps even a bit more, of meaningful life. Of life that is by and large happy. Even when your parent, your hero is less than he was. Even when the limits of life are more and more closing in on him, when his wife, your mother, is no longer the person she had been in almost every way.
It is really the best you can hope for. It therefore ought to be good enough. It doesn’t feel like it is.
I am grateful for so many things. For the tremendous efforts my siblings have made to arrange essentially everything in my parents lives so that they could go on and live out what remains in dignity and with as much independence as possible. I am grateful for Linda’s eternal support and wisdom. And for the endless good wishes and support from my children and my lovely daughter in law.
I have friends who are kind and a work environment that is flexible and understanding. Nobody says anything more than good luck when I have to cancel patients at the last minute to take one of these emergency trips down to Florida.
But, despite this, I am still filled with the same dread.
Postscript: David was released from the hospital late Saturday afternoon. His breathing greatly improved. Hopefully with an adjustment in his medication, he will be stable and able to continue to enjoy his time in Florida. If all goes according to plan, Gary and I will visit Paula and David to share Passover with them. We are keeping our fingers crossed that there are no medical crises between now and then (during or after, for that matter).
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.
Tomorrow is my birthday. I have ambivalent feelings about birthdays. A legacy of my Nana and Zada is my belief that one should celebrate whenever possible, since there is plenty of heartache in this world. I also believe that even though showing appreciation for the people you love should be a regular thing, and not dictated by the calendar, birthdays, holidays and Mother’s Day, etc., are good reminders. I don’t think there are that many of us walking around feeling over-appreciated.
On the other hand, in my family we didn’t make a big deal out of birthdays – only milestones, like 13 for my brothers and 16 for me. There is an amusing anecdote about my brother Mark’s 11th birthday. As noted in previous posts, my grandfather was a baker and he would bring home surplus goods from the commercial bakery where he worked. One year there was a birthday cake that hadn’t been picked up and it was fortuitous because it was also Mark’s birthday. Zada brought home the large, day old cake with white icing. So what if it said, in pastel blue letters, ‘Happy Birthday Manny’ on it? And, so what if it was a little stale? It would have been a shame to let the cake go to waste. We lit the candles and sung a very off key version of the birthday song and had a good laugh about it.
There was a small part of me that wished we observed birthdays like other kids’ families. Some even stayed home from school for the day! That was out of the question in our family.
My birthday often falls on or near the Jewish high holy days. The story I heard was that my mother thought she was having indigestion from Rosh Hoshana dinner, when in fact, she was in labor. Apparently, her labor with me was fast and furious and I arrived before they had a chance to administer the anesthesia. In those days, they knocked women out when delivering babies. I emerged, all 9 pounds 15 ounces of me (!), without the benefit of her being unconscious. Poor Mom!
For the most part, I like the fact that my birthday falls during the Jewish New Year celebration – as long as it doesn’t fall on the actual day of Yom Kippur (our day of fasting). The high holy days ask us to reflect on the year we finished, make amends for our sins and consider how we will do better in the year to come. As someone who is introspective to begin with, it is a good fit with my birthday.
The problem, though, with birthdays and the high holy days, is the other reminder they provide: time marches on and, as we get older, it seems to march faster and faster. Sometimes I get overwhelmed by our total inability to control it. The number 58 doesn’t mean anything really, I am the same person. On the other hand, I’m freakin’ old!
I look at my mom, who is still young at heart. There are real issues, limitations, imposed by aging, but if we are lucky enough to have a sound mind (or relatively sound :)), there is no reason we can’t be engaged and interested in the world. There is always more to learn. My parents were/are great role models in their continuous quest for knowledge and insight.
Having observed Yom Kippur this past weekend, I approach my birthday with gratitude. We were fortunate to have Leah, Daniel and Beth with us for the holiday – the first time in many years that we have been able to be together. Unfortunately, I also had an ear and sinus infection, but I reveled in our time together. As residue of the holiday, tomorrow I will still be thinking about how I can make myself a better person, a better family member, friend and citizen of this troubled world. And hopefully take a moment to celebrate, too.
Driving from Brooklyn to Champaign-Urbana, I was always the first in my family to know that a farm was nearby. I picked up the scent of cow manure miles away. Cow manure was in wide use as we drove Interstate 70 through the farmland of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. To some, who perhaps grew up on a farm, that pungent aroma may have evoked warm feelings, reminders of Spring, the earth and beloved animals. For me, with my city sensibilities, it reminded me of the elephant enclosure at the Central Park zoo. I held my nose until I thought we passed it, or until I absolutely had to take a breath.
When I was early in my pregnancy with Leah, it was autumn. The smell of moldering leaves followed me around, I think the odor took up residence in my olfactory system. Years later, whenever I caught a whiff of rotting leaves, it reminded me of my pregnancy – a strange, perhaps unfortunate, association.
I enjoyed pleasant aromas, too. Freesia was a favorite flower. I loved Jovan Musk, the perfume, when I was in college. Baking chocolate chip cookies or roasting chicken were wonderful kitchen scents. Many childhood memories are infused with scents: suntan lotion at Belle Harbor Beach, mothballs in a cabin in Harriman State Park, the mountainous landfill next to my Canarsie home.
The first time I lost my sense of smell and taste was in 1989. Dan was 7 months old and Leah was just shy of two and a half. I took a leave from my doctoral program, first to give birth to Dan, and then extended it to go back to work full-time. Gary was in the third year of his internal medicine residency with two years of an endocrine fellowship still to come. He was paid for his efforts, but it was a paltry sum – certainly not enough for our family of four to live on. I had a graduate assistantship to attend the PhD program, but it wasn’t enough to cover our expenses.
A professor of mine, who knew I was looking for work, informed me about a job opportunity with the New York State Legislature. I applied and got the job; I started in late September of 1989. I reported for my first day of work with a heavy cold.
I was assigned my own cubicle, which made me slightly less self-conscious about the constant nose-blowing and hacking. I had been to the doctor and was already on an antibiotic. After another week or two with no improvement in the symptoms, I went back to the doctor. She prescribed a different antibiotic.
One afternoon I was sitting at my desk at work and I took some M&M’s as a snack. I put a couple in my mouth and realized I couldn’t taste it. I could feel them dissolving on my tongue, but I didn’t taste any sweetness or chocolately-goodness. I took a few more, just to be sure. Nothing! How disappointing! I didn’t think that much about it, though, attributing it to the severity of my congestion.
That night, as I was reading to Leah before bed, I noticed I was a little breathless. I couldn’t read aloud as fluidly as I usually did, needing to pause every few words to catch my breath. I pointed it out to Gary, who put his stethoscope to my lungs and heard me wheezing. I had never wheezed in my life. I went back to the doctor the next morning.
The doctor sent me for a chest x-ray and then I went back to work. A couple of hours later I got a phone call telling me I had pneumonia in both lungs. I asked the doctor if I needed to go home. The doctor said, “Yes! And, let’s schedule you to come back in tomorrow.”
When I visited the doctor the next day, she looked at me and suggested that I go to the hospital. “You clearly can’t get the rest you need at home. And, we should try IV (intravenous) antibiotics for a day or two.” I agreed. My family rallied to help take care of Leah and Daniel.
Between the bed rest, IV antibiotic and, an inhaler, I turned the corner. Over time, my tastebuds came back and so did my sense of smell. Both senses may have been dulled a bit, but not that noticeably.
When the kids were young it felt like I was constantly battling ear infections, sinusitis and/or bronchitis, though I never had pneumonia again. I had another episode of losing my sense of taste, but after a course of steroids, it came back. Over the years, I don’t know if it was related to the recurrent respiratory issues or not, my sense of smell diminished. Fortunately, once Leah and Dan were done with elementary school, I stopped getting those infections, but my sense of smell got left behind.
Today, I no longer perceive skunk! The odor must be unbelievably pungent for me to get even a whiff of it. Not a huge loss, it’s true. But, I can’t appreciate the scent of flowers either. Even sticking my nose into a rose, I only get a hint of the fragrance. It is so ironic, having been born with such a sensitive nose.
Smell is such an important part of forming memories, such an important part of experiencing the world. It is funny how there are some things I can still smell, the sense isn’t entirely gone. I still know when the litter box needs to be changed, thankfully (or not)! The pungency of slicing an onion still brings tears to my eyes.
Earlier this Spring, walking in the woods with Gary, I sensed the freshness in the air, but not the sweetness. “Can you smell that?” he asked, as we hiked. “These white blossoms are really sweet.” I shrugged, “Nope.” We walked on. I appreciated the rich green carpet of ferns, the sun dappled leaves, the sound of the wind in the trees, the coolness of the shade. But, it felt a bit incomplete.
Yesterday Gary and I took a break from our car ride from New Jersey to Albany to check out the Walkway over the Hudson River. The walkway is a pedestrian bridge that links Highland and Poughkeepsie.
Gary a few steps ahead of me
It was still warm, though the sun was setting. The air had cleared after a morning of heavy, hazy humidity. We enjoyed great views of the Hudson north and south. Heading back, with a neighborhood of Poughkeepsie beneath us, my nose registered something! “I smell barbecue! Smells good!” I said. “You can smell that?” Gary asked happily. We found the source, a family cooking out in their backyard.
My visual and olfactory systems may be flawed, but I’ll enjoy what I have for as long as I have them. I’m sure others struggle with compromised senses. Smell isn’t often mentioned; I think it deserves some attention.