On Turning 58

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.

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Shana tova.

Who Decides?

 

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His skin is mottled,

He is 94.

He stands erect,

He walks with assurance.

He says, I feel the same as I always feel.

 

Right now, I think.

He can’t imagine feeling different,

He doesn’t remember.

 

Months before, winter of 2016, hospitalized 5 times or more in Florida,

Weakened by persistent diarrhea and congestive heart failure.

We see his mortality as he lay in a hospital bed,

Grateful to have his ‘son the doctor’ by his side.

He felt his vulnerability – then, not now.

 

Summer of 2017, Saugerties, NY.

They have a full-time aide,

Living ten minutes from their daughters.

Close to their sons.

In an apartment, furnished with familiar things,

In a new community, in an unfamiliar place.

 

I arrive to take him to his doctor’s appointment,

We leave his wife, many years into Alzheimer’s, with the aide.

We step outside into the light so bright, he shields his eyes til they adjust.

He walks with purpose to the car.

Fall is in the air, he says.

Almost time to go back to Florida, he tells me

 

I start the car and drive,

I don’t respond to his comment about Florida.

What to say?

 

When was the last time he drove?

He would not be able to navigate the roads to the doctor’s office,

Or the paperwork,

Or explain his complex medical history.

 

He might understand the doctor’s instructions,

He is a compliant patient.

He has an iron will,

Which may explain his 94 years.

 

His long life brought him from the woods in Poland

Where he fought with the partisans against the Nazis,

To fight in the Russian army,

To survive by any means necessary.

To a displaced persons’ camp,

To immigrate to the United States,

To build a life.

To outlive friends and family, still bound to Paula, his children and his faith.

 

Should he and Paula go to Florida?

What is the right balance between their quality of life and their safety?

What is the right balance between David’s wishes and the peace of mind of his children?

Who decides?

An Imperfect Sense

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Wisteria in Ronda, Spain – Fortunately, I could see it quite well, but I could not smell it 😦

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.

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.

No Easy Answers

I was in social studies in 12th grade in 1975 and the class was discussing the nursing home scandal that was unfolding in New York City. Terrible details of elder abuse and neglect were emerging in the newspapers.

The discussion moved from the scandal to elder care as a societal value. Our teacher explained that in some cultures, for example, Native American, elders were more revered than in American society at large. In those cultures older folks stayed with the family as they aged and were cared for until they died. One of my classmates, declared, “I would never put my parents in a nursing home! How can you put them away like that?” Others chimed in with their agreement.

I raised my hand to respond, “It isn’t so simple. Sometimes older people,” and my voice unexpectedly broke. I took a deep breath and managed to say, “need more attention than you can give.” I couldn’t say more.

My grandfather, my father’s father, was staying with us at the time. Grandma had recently died. In those years he stayed with us for some extended periods – during the period of mourning, after cataract surgery and while awaiting placement at the Hebrew Home for the Aged, My brothers were away at college. When I made the comment in class I was thinking of the impact that Grandpa living with us had on the life of my parents and myself. Unfamiliar with our house, with compromised hearing and vision, it was difficult for him to manage.

While he was staying with us, when I came home from high school, I would ask him if he wanted to take a walk. He was always delighted to. He would put on his trench coat and fedora and we would set off to the shopping center. Grandpa was always careful to walk on the outside, closer to the curb. I didn’t understand why he did that, so I asked him. He explained that the man should always walk next to the street, the young lady should be closer to the buildings to be safer. Grandpa had very gentlemanly, old world ways.

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Grandma and Grandpa in happier times, on our living room couch in Canarsie. With his trademark fedora, trench coat draped over his arm. In those days you could see travelers to the gate. I believe they were off to Florida.

We would go to the stationary store where he would buy the Forward, the Yiddish language newspaper, and a cigar. We would walk back home. Grandpa didn’t feel a need to fill the silence. I’m not sure if his reserve related to his hearing deficit, or if it was just his personality, Grandma certainly ran the show when she was alive – she was smart, funny and opinionated. Maybe she just overshadowed him and he got used to it. I wish I had asked Grandpa more questions. We were surprised at how long and well he did after Grandma died.

Perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised. After all he came to this country by himself at the age of 17. He learned five languages, he ran several businesses, married and had a family. He played cards and a mean game of Scrabble. Even though English wasn’t his first language, he beat all comers.

When Grandpa had cataract surgery and was recovering at our house, I gave him his eye drops. Both Grandpa and my father had what’s called benign essential tremor, involuntary shaking of the hands, so they couldn’t do it. My mother had a thing about eyes and wasn’t comfortable giving the drops. I did the best I could.

As part of his recovery from the surgery, Grandpa was told not to smoke his beloved cigars. I think this was to minimize coughing which might impact the healing of his eye. We still took our walks and he still kept a cigar in his shirt pocket. One day at dinner, Grandpa started to cough. My father was enraged, thinking Grandpa was still smoking. Dad reached across the table and ripped the cigar from Grandpa’s shirt pocket. “You know you aren’t supposed to be smoking these,” he roared.

He also ripped the pocket clear off the shirt.

In that moment I thought it was possible that Dad hated his own father. After the explosion, Dad apologized and things calmed down, though it wasn’t that long after that Grandpa went to stay with Aunt Diane.

Dad told us that he remembered little of his own childhood, but he also told us that when his family moved to a new apartment on Prospect Park West there was a bedroom for his sisters and one for his parents, but not for him. He slept on a couch. He made himself scarce, going to school, working various jobs and playing ball.

Aside from feeling neglected, Dad also said that when he had the opportunity to go to Harvard or Yale Law School, his parents wouldn’t lend him the money (he didn’t believe it was simply a matter of finances). They did provide funds for his older sister to go to medical school. There was layer upon layer of resentment that was never addressed, it just smoldered in my father.

For the years that Grandpa was able to be self-sufficient, he lived in Century Village Deerfield Beach in Florida and we made our annual visits. When that was no longer an option, he moved to the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Riverdale.

So while it would be optimal if as folks aged they could be cared for in the loving arms of their family, I don’t think it always plays out that way. The needs of the older person may be too great, the capacity of the family to provide the support and the relationships may not be healthy enough to make it work. It wouldn’t have in our family.

A Bit More from the Sunshine State

We went to Florida to check on the folks. We left on a cold Spring day from Albany and arrived two hours later to a warm breeze in Fort Lauderdale. We picked up the rental car and got on the highway heading to my mom.

“Enjoy this ride,” Gary, my husband, said with a laugh, “it’s going to be the best part of the trip.” I sighed and smiled.

My mother lived in an “active retirement community,” which featured 12 tennis courts, a huge community pool and abundant palm trees. Unfortunately, age, spinal stenosis, lung cancer, and bouts of congestive heart failure took their toll and my 82-year-old mom wasn’t so active anymore. After the latest health crisis, my brothers and I prodded her into accepting the need to move into an independent living facility in New Jersey, closer to family. This was our last visit in Florida before her move – we were, in part, going to help prepare her.

We arrived at the gate to the community, pushed the buttons to ring her and she buzzed us in on the first try. We drove to her unit and found her waiting outside with a broad smile, happy to see us and proudly showing us the art gallery she set up in her garage. The walls were lined with her creations from the past 20 years. I have some of her paintings hanging in my own house. She doesn’t paint anymore; she got frustrated when she felt she wasn’t improving.

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Mom’s painting of their home in Livingston Manor which hangs on our bedroom wall. Mom and Dad’s ‘happy place.’

That day was a good one for Mom. Days were measured by pain level. Arthritis and deteriorating vertebrae are unpredictable; the pain can range from debilitating to manageable to nonexistent. My mother’s face lets us know exactly what the pain level is – it registers immediately in her coloring and in the sound effects that accompany any movement.

We visited with her for two days, ran errands and planned for her move north. We may have gotten in the swimming pool. I promised to come back down to help her pack just before the move.

Then we got back on the road and drove down to visit my in-laws in their retirement community.

Paula, Gary’s mom, has Alzheimer’s disease. The changes in her began about eight years ago. We have been fortunate in that it has been a very slow decline – long periods of time pass without further diminishment. But then there are dramatic changes. This visit we notice her eating habits changed. She craves sweets and she forgets that she has already indulged. This could be kind of funny, but it isn’t.

We ate breakfast and Paula took a Klondike bar for dessert. She enjoyed it thoroughly as she slowly savored the vanilla ice cream wrapped in a chocolate shell. She loves chocolate. We moved to the living room to sit and chat. After a couple of minutes, Paula asked, “Does anyone want an ice cream?”

“Paula, not now,” David said gently, reminding her that we were going out to lunch later.

She looked crestfallen, a small pout of her lower lip, but she acquiesced.

Gary suggested we take a walk. It took a while for Paula to prepare herself to leave the apartment. The four of us walked slowly, it is only about 100 yards to the pavilion with the pool. We found chairs in the shade and sat and chatted for a bit. Paula quickly turned restless, ready to return to the apartment.

“I think I’ll stay and read for a bit,” I said. Reading by a pool is one of my favorite things to do.

“Linda, you’ll come with us?” Paula half asked, half stated.

“Actually I think it will be all right if I stay and read for a little. I’ll be back in less than an hour, ok?” I looked to Gary to see if he was okay with this. He nodded.

“Ma, it’ll be okay,” Gary reassured Paula as he steered her back towards the apartment.

I watched them make their way through the gate. I took a deep breath and opened my book.

About 15 minutes later I heard the squeak of the gate and saw Gary and Paula heading toward me. Gary looked sheepish and said quietly, “I couldn’t distract her. She insisted on coming back to get you.”

I looked at Paula and smiled, “I’m sorry I worried you.”

“She thought the Cossacks would get you,” Gary said in my ear.

“Who would’ve thought that the Cossacks knew about the satellite pool in Pembroke Pines?”

It was a feeble attempt at humor. If you don’t laugh, you cry. Sometimes you do both.