Air Travel: No Better Than a Bus Trip

Regular readers of my blog know that my relationship with Florida is fraught. I love the beach and sunshine, but I have been traveling there since I was 11 years old to visit elderly relatives. Those trips didn’t feel like vacations, they felt stressful. I connect Florida with aging, the state serves as a reminder of our mortality, not to mention its ridiculous politics, and even though I know my grandparents and parents loved their lives there, it is a negative association. Others with the same history feel positively and have warm memories of their visits. I can’t explain why I feel the way I do, but I can’t seem to shake it.

I have also had difficult travel experiences, from an Amtrak trip that took 24 hours longer than it should have, to last year’s nightmare landing in Orlando in turbulent weather, then sitting on the tarmac for more than two hours before taking off for our final destination, Fort Lauderdale; it rarely goes smoothly.

All of that said, we looked forward to our trip this year. We planned it as a long weekend getaway back in December. We would meet close friends near Port St. Lucie and see NY Met spring training games. We would also visit Gary’s mother and other family. I was determined to approach this year’s trip with an open mind.

We got off to an uncertain start when, not long after I made the flight reservations, I received an email from JetBlue advising us that the departure time for the outbound trip was changed. If I wanted to reschedule, the email said, it could be done simply by clicking on the link provided. I wanted to adjust our flights, so I did just that and was directed to their website but was unable to make any changes. After repeatedly getting the same error message, I called the airline. I was told by the automated system that my wait time would be over 120 minutes! It gave me the option to communicate with them by text instead. I took that opportunity. They would text me when a person became available. I went about my business that day, keeping the phone close so I wouldn’t miss their message. Seven hours later, as I was driving on the Thruway, I heard the familiar ding of an incoming text. I briefly looked at my phone. It was indeed JetBlue. Perfect timing! I would have to try again later.

The next day, I called and this time after the maze of menus, I chose the option of having them call me back. They said the wait time would be about an hour and I did receive a call in that time frame. Things were looking up! I explained the adjustment I wanted to make to the JetBlue representative. It seemed simple enough. After the call was completed, I received an email confirmation, but the heading of the email said, ‘Your itinerary has been cancelled.’ Uh-oh. I opened the email, the body of which provided a new confirmation code. I went online and put that code in, and it looked like we still had our reservations. Okaaaay. I was cautiously optimistic.

I know this is a lot more detail than anyone wants to read, but there is a point to all of this. The point is that with all the efforts to automate and streamline operations and allow passengers to ‘manage’ their travel plans, my experiences suggest that it is all a clusterfuck. I don’t like to use coarse language generally, but I need to call it like I see it.

I should have known at that point that this trip, at least the travel part of it, was destined to be aggravating. It got worse. I thought, based on finding our travel plans intact, despite the heading of that email, that we had what we needed. I was wrong. As the date of our travel neared, and I had not received anything from JetBlue, usually they bombard us with emails, I thought I better check. Good thing I did. Turns out my trip was cancelled, though Gary’s was not. How that happened, given that we had the same confirmation code, I will never know.

This required another series of calls and call backs. Finally, I reached a human being. It took 90 minutes on the phone to re-book my flight. I had already tried to do it myself online, the system would not let me. It gave me the message that this was a duplicate reservation!  You gotta love these systems.

Eventually, I was successful – we no longer had the same confirmation code, but Gary and I were on the same flights. Phew! Now the only disappointment was that it became increasingly clear that there would be no baseball. Oh well, we and our friends decided we would keep our plans. We were staying on the beach on Hutchinson Island, and we knew it was lovely there. After a long winter, shut in by Covid, I was especially excited to get away.

Gary and I got to the Albany airport, bringing only carry-on bags, and boarded the plane. We learned that not only was the entertainment system not working, but the wi-fi was out as well. They offered no complementary future service and no rebate or credit. Fortunately, I had lots of reading material. Gary tried to sleep. Other than the ambient tension around mask-wearing, the poor flight attendants had to admonish passengers multiple times, it all went smoothly. I don’t understand why folks make a big deal about the mask, especially when the airlines make the rules crystal clear. And you’re allowed to take it off to eat and drink! I don’t get why it is such a hardship. Gary and I made it to Fort Lauderdale, got the rental car and were relieved to check into our hotel.

The next four days flew by – we visited with friends and family, sat on the beach, tried pickle ball for the first time and ate good meals. Before we knew it, it was time to return home.

On our final night at the hotel, I used the lobby computer to check in for our flight. Since we had picked up a few items to bring back to New York, we had too much to carry on, so I paid $35 to check a bag. As I went through the process of the online check-in, I found Gary had an assigned seat, I did not. I would have to take care of that when I got to the gate. I printed out the boarding passes and went back to the room. Again, this is way more detail than anyone wants, but I share it because it illustrates how complicated travel has become.

We successfully returned the rental car and took the shuttle to the terminal. We already had our boarding passes, but we needed to check the bag. We looked for signage to tell us what to do. We went to one of the many kiosks. I tried to initiate a transaction with my passport – the system kept freezing, nothing happened. We tried another station. Eventually we had success and were able to print out a baggage claim tag. I fumbled with it, trying to figure out how to affix it – not rocket science, but not clear either. We got on a long line to check the bag. There were three JetBlue employees seemingly set up to receive luggage. One was doing something on their phone (perhaps it was work related). Another one needed assistance from the third one so no progress was being made. Only one employee seemed to know what they were doing.

The whole process was stressful. So many steps, so many glitches…and we weren’t through security yet.

Gary and I paid for TSA-Pre to expedite the security process. We approach the security line. The person checks our documents, we walk a little further and another stops us. “Will your bag fit?” she asks Gary.

“Yes, I put it in the overhead compartment on the flight down.”

“Let me measure it.”

“I don’t think that is necessary.”

“Yes, let me check.”

She takes the bag, and it doesn’t fit into their compartment.

Gary and I object. “I’ve taken this bag more times than I can count onto planes. It always fits.” “I’m sorry, we can’t allow you to go ahead. You have to check it.”

“Who is your supervisor?”

She points vaguely behind her.

We make our case to the guy we think she pointed to.

He says, “You have to go to the ticketing area.” We realize we are getting nowhere.

Fortunately, we left enough time for this nonsense. We walk back from whence we came and looked for the correct line to get on – someone tells us we need to use the kiosk. We don’t want to do that – we want to deal with a person. We are directed to another line.

We finally get to the counter and plead our case. Getting nowhere, we give up – we’ll check Gary’s bag. Another $35, but at least we can get through security and go to the gate. Gary watches to make sure they attach the baggage tag and put it on the conveyor belt. We leave, both of us beyond frustrated. We get through security without further incident.

I still need to get my seat assignment. No one is staffing the gate desk. I stand there waiting. Now it is only 30 minutes until the flight. When someone finally comes, they tell me to go sit down – I point out that there are no seats in the gate area (it is crowded – Gary has gone to sit at another as yet unused gate). The employee shrugs and tells me he needs to meet a plane and will be back. I go find Gary at the other gate where there are seats. I sit for ten minutes, stewing. I fire off a few angry tweets, decrying JetBlue’s service. Then I go back to our gate where there are now three JetBlue employees behind the desk, though no one looks up to acknowledge me. I approach and explain that I need a seat assignment and am hoping they can place me near my husband. They tell me they aren’t ready yet. One says, “It will take about ten minutes for the system to boot.” I back up. There are other passengers waiting to be helped.

I wait. Eventually another passenger approaches the podium, and they are helped. I figure now it must be my turn. The agent hands me a boarding pass. I am five rows behind Gary. Whatever, at least I have a seat.

We board. The woman sitting next to Gary is willing to switch with me. It isn’t essential that I sit next to Gary, we have flown by ourselves and separated by the aisle or rows apart, but it is more pleasant to be next to each other. The flight proceeds, this time with working wi-fi.

Looking back at the flights and our experience at the airport, I wonder why I got so easily riled up, why was I so frustrated? The process of changing the reservations was absurd, but the other stuff wasn’t that big of a deal. The additional fees were annoying, the extra steps irritating, but it shouldn’t have gotten me so agitated. I need to get back to meditating! There is something about air travel, and it precedes Covid, that ramps up the stress. There are so many delays, so much ‘nickel and diming’ us, the online systems are not user friendly, and the airports are woefully inadequate for the crowds of travelers, that I start to wonder if the trip is worth it. But I want to go places! I have sites to see! I don’t want to get to a point where I am dissuaded from exploring the world. Maybe I need to adjust my attitude, accept that it will feel like a giant cattle call, no more luxurious than bus travel, and allow that more often than not there will be a delay, and make peace with that. Or, is there some magic to planning air travel to improve the experience that I am unaware of? Suggestions, please!

The beach at Hutchinson Island – worth the hassle?

Living Her Best Life

As I continue to go through Aunt Clair’s collection of papers, I find interesting items. Among them a xerox copy of a letter written by Grandma to her oldest daughter, Diane (who was called Dinya by the family). I was initially puzzled that a xeroxed letter, not addressed to her, was included in Aunt Clair’s collection. After reading it I understood why Aunt Diane would have shared it and Clair kept it.

The first page of the letter, with the date, is missing so I don’t know exactly when it was written but based on the subject (and reference to their wedding anniversary) it appears to be early in my grandparents’ retirement to Florida, either the winter of 1970 or 1971:

In the almost 43 years of our marriage this is the first time Daddy went with me for clothes. He’s a panic. He wants me to buy everything I try on. Dinya, I think he is really seeing me for the first time in many years. Daddy could be walking with me, suddenly he stops and tells me I look good, is enough to drive me crazy. Daddy is completely relaxed and thank ‘God,’ he feels good. Remember the wise words from your mudder. Nothing like a love affair at 65 and 67. When we walk into a store and I try a dress on and walk over to Daddy to ask if he likes it etc etc, he tells me it is very nice, shakes his head up and down and tells me I look very good. When I walk back to the dressing room with the saleswoman, she asks if I’m ‘going with him,’ if I’m going to marry him. She thinks he’s my Romeo and I’m taking him shopping. Dinya, I fall apart. Dinya, you, Paul and children have a very Healthy Happy New Year. We miss you all very much. Heaps of love from Daddy and me.

                                                                                    Mom

How adorable is that? It gives me hope as a spring chicken of 62 and married for only 38 years that romance can be alive and well in the years ahead. I am quite fortunate in that, even with the natural ebb and flow of relationships, the love has never gone out of my marriage. It is nice to know that the flame can burn brightly again.

I also appreciate Grandma’s word choices. She writes, “He’s a panic.” I can hear her saying that – she used that a lot as I recall, and it shows up in any number of the letters in Aunt Clair’s collection. It meant the person, or their behavior, made her laugh. I don’t think we use the word panic that way anymore, do we? She also refers to herself as ‘your mudder,’ spelling it as she would say it. But it wasn’t that she had an accent and thought it was spelled that way, she was perfectly capable of saying and spelling mother properly, she was being humorous. The letters are filled with her amusing touches.

In another way, it feels odd to read this. These are my grandparents! And she is writing to her daughter! There is nothing off color or even too personal in it, it’s lovely, but still not what one expects in communication between a mother and daughter – especially of that generation. But, maybe I’m wrong and if I could survey letters of that era I would find intimacies shared. I wonder if I wrote something along those lines to my daughter how she would react.

More interesting to me is that it was my impression that though they cared for each other, I didn’t perceive much of a spark between Grandma and Grandpa. After all, they slept in separate twin beds like Lucy and Desi on television. Most of what I heard and saw of their interactions revolved around their respective health. Grandma regulated Grandpa’s diet rigidly and often spoke on his behalf. I thought he was the quintessential henpecked Jewish husband. Maybe he was.

Grandpa, with his gentlemanly, reserved ways, was considerate in a formal way, but I don’t recall romantic gestures. It was a different time, though. Emotions were more closely held. I certainly didn’t know them in their youth. Plus, they had been through so much.

Young adulthood, which for Grandma and Grandpa was during the early 1930s when the country was suffering, is a time of striving – to find your place, to establish yourself. Grandpa had the spirit of an entrepreneur. He came to America to seek his fortune; he was willing to take risks. He came by himself, leaving his parents, sister and extended family in Poland in 1921. He was 17. Grandma, American-born, was much more cautious by nature. The Great Depression heightened her fears. This difference caused friction. Aunt Clair told me that Grandpa felt stifled by Grandma. Then in 1945 Grandpa learned that what remained of his family had been killed by the Nazis. I can only imagine what that did to his spirit. It is a lot of strain for a marriage. Growing up in the stress, trauma, and sadness colored the childhoods of Diane, Dad and Clair and shaped their perception of their parents.

Both Grandma and Grandpa worked hard; they put in long hours at the stores they owned. Over the years they had a dry goods store, a luncheonette and then a laundromat. Some of their businesses were more successful than others. Their financial situation was a mystery, even to my father. They moved to a nicer apartment on Prospect Park West when Dad was in high school and it didn’t include a bedroom for him, though there was one for his sisters. Was that about money? Though they said they would contribute to his wedding, they gave less than they committed to, leaving Mom and Dad to use their gift money to cover the difference.

I knew Dad harbored many resentments about the way he was treated by his parents. He was determined to do it differently with his own children and he did. Recently my mother told me that when Grandma was dying, she and Dad talked it out. Tears were shed and apologies were made. I’m glad to know that, though I wish I knew it years ago when Dad was still alive.

Marriages go through phases, it seems, and children absorb the ripple effects. The beginning can be tough as the couple figures out if they are on the same page in how they approach life. Children can strengthen the bond but also create other tensions. Throw in a natural disaster (like the New England Hurricane of 1938 that upended Nana and Zada’s life) or economic calamities (like the Depression) or violence (the Holocaust) and a marriage may be stretched to the breaking point. If the marriage survives all that retirement can come as a balm, or a couple may find themselves strangers to each other.

Grandpa was able to relax and enjoy himself in his retirement. Not all men are able to do that. I know my father-in-law struggled with the transition, perhaps because retirement wasn’t on his terms. But it was likely more than that. Many men are defined by their work, their identities are wrapped up in their profession, and the loss of that can unmoor them. I imagine women can have that issue too, but I think it is less common for a woman to be so invested in their career that she can’t adjust when it is over. Having hobbies and other interests helps too.  

Most of the letters Aunt Clair saved were written by Grandma when they first became snowbirds (1970-75), after their retirement. The letters reveal that the last five years of Grandma’s life were very happy ones. Though it was abruptly cut short by cancer, she took great pleasure in those final years, even more so because she enjoyed the renewed attentions of her husband. I’m glad Aunt Clair saved those letters so I could know that.

Living their best lives

Karma

To say it has been a stressful week is an understatement. But in keeping with my effort to reframe things, I’ll start with what I am grateful for:

  1. I can replace my destroyed laptop without enduring financial hardship. I know that many are not in that position. It would simply not fit in the budget. Laptops are expensive, but Gary and I can absorb the cost.
  2. Thanks to my daughter, my laptop was backed up to an external hard drive. A couple of months ago, Leah encouraged me to create a more professional office set up by helping me purchase and then connect the hard drive. I can’t begin to imagine how crazed I’d be if my writing had been lost.
  3. My husband didn’t so much as raise an eyebrow in judgment when I told him where I found the mutilated laptop. He didn’t add to my frustration, anger or disappointment. In fact, he was kind (not a surprise to anyone who knows him).

So where did I find the crushed piece of technology? In the middle of the righthand lane of Route 155, not far from where we exited the Albany International Airport an hour earlier. How did it get there? A reasonable question.

We were loading the car with our luggage upon our return from Florida when I put the laptop on the roof of the car. I got distracted by the various things I was arranging and left my precious laptop where I had only intended to rest it briefly. We pulled out of the parking spot, made several turns to emerge from the garage, went through the ticket booth, exited the airport and turned left on to Route 155, a four-lane divided highway. The laptop, in its purple polystyrene case, tenaciously hung on the roof through all of that – hoping I would notice its absence before the laws of physics became too powerful to resist. I didn’t notice. We picked up speed and drove home.

When we pulled into the driveway and unloaded the car, I immediately realized something important was missing. I thoroughly searched the trunk, as well as the front and back seats. I had a feeling I might have left it on the roof as I replayed my actions in my mind, but I wasn’t sure. Sadly, this was not the first time I had left something on the roof of the car. A large cup of Starbucks mocha splattered the back and side windows from one such oversight. In another case, which cost a lot more money than the mocha (though that coffee was expensive), I left my cell phone up top, only to have it smashed to smithereens by an oncoming truck. I seem to be leaving larger and larger items on the roof of the car. What could be possibly be next?

Though I had my suspicions as to the fate of my laptop, I returned to the airport to see if it was in the lost and found. Maybe it slid off in the garage and a good Samaritan turned it in? I retraced my steps, surveyed the parking garage, reported the loss to the airline and then got back in my car to go home in defeat. I exited the airport again and was driving in the right lane when I saw it sitting on the roadway. I maneuvered the car so it wouldn’t run over it and looked for a safe place to stop. There was no shoulder so I made a u-turn and parked in the cellphone lot. I waited for a break in the traffic and dashed across the highway. The case looked strangely swollen, not a good sign. I picked it up – saw black tire marks, heard and felt the crunch of broken glass as I lifted it. I didn’t even try to open the zipper – there was no point. I stood in the grass by the side of the road, silently cursing my idiocy. I waited again for a pause in the traffic and ran back across the road. I sat in the car contemplating what to do next. No solution presented itself. I drove home.

Though it felt like a Sunday, it was, in fact, Monday. When I came in and told Gary I found it and it was irretrievably broken, he asked, “Should we go to the Apple store?”

I realized that it probably was open, but….

“I’ll take care of it tomorrow. I can’t deal with it right now.”

I just needed to regroup.

Trips to Florida seem cursed. Though I have no one to blame but myself, I think it is karma. The Sunshine State is getting back at me for not appreciating it. Our visits to Florida, especially over the last 15 years, have almost always involved looking in on our aging parents who faced one health crisis after another. Though we wanted to visit them, and we would try to make time to catch some rays and enjoy the ocean breeze, I associate Florida with aging and as Zada, my maternal grandfather, said many years ago, “Getting old is not for sissies.” I am coming to understand the truth of his words more and more with each passing day.

It is now Wednesday afternoon. I had my appointment at the Apple Store. In the age of Covid you can’t just show up and shop. I bought a new MacBook Pro, successfully loaded my files from the external hard drive and I am back in business. Though our wallet took a big hit, I am lucky. The laptop is replaceable. People are not.

Three morals from this story: (1) back up any important files to an external hard drive, (2) don’t rest things on the roof of your car (especially if you are prone to distraction like I am), and (3) remember what is important.

The Joy of Flying

Yesterday began at 4:40 a.m. in a Residence Inn in Miramar, Florida. Gary awoke with a start because the alarm on his phone was supposed to go off at 4:30, but in his exhaustion the night before, he set it for 4:30 p.m. Fortunately he opened his eyes only ten minutes later than the alarm. Our flight was at 6:45 a.m. out of Fort Lauderdale. We were off to the races!

Making things more complicated for me was that I had either a bad cold (with clogged ears, a cough and very full sinuses) or maybe it was an actual infection that needed antibiotics. Either way, with a morning of flying ahead of me, I slugged some Robitussin, took a Sudafed and ran around the room gathering the last of my things. Fortunately, I had packed the night before.

Traveling is stressful enough without adding the anxiety of being late. But the roads were nearly empty at that early hour on Easter Sunday. There were plenty of people at the airport, though. But, we had our boarding passes, we weren’t checking luggage and we had TSA-Pre, which has turned out to be a good investment. It cost $85 (for five years) and while sometimes it doesn’t make a difference, in some airports there either isn’t a separate line or it doesn’t operate at all hours, it has saved us a lot of time in many cases. Yesterday morning it was a huge help. One less line to stand in.

We got on the plane, stowed our luggage and settled in. I had all my supplies – tissues, napkins for when the tissues ran out, cough drops, a bottle of water, more cough medicine and decongestant. I was assigned a middle seat on a full flight. Gary had the middle seat across the aisle. This was less than optimal. No one likes sitting next to someone sneezing, coughing and blowing their nose. I was going to be ‘that person,’ on this flight. I sat, determined to keep all secretions to myself. My nose and throat had other plans.

We took off and that wasn’t too bad. But then the tickle in my throat started. “I will not cough,” I told myself. To no avail. I coughed. I used my elbow, I used napkins, I took cough drops, I chewed gum, I drank copious amounts of water. The people next to me carefully avoided eye contact. The woman to my left, next to the window, apparently came prepared – she had her hoodie covering her face and some kind of blanket that she draped over her entire self. I never actually saw her face – which was fine with me.

About half way through the flight to Atlanta things calmed down. I stopped coughing. Of course, then there was the descent. I didn’t start coughing again, but I felt like I was underwater. All sounds traveled from a great distance and were muffled. But, I could still hear, so that was good.

We landed in Atlanta with a tight turnaround for the second leg to Albany. We took the in-airport-train to concourse C and got to the gate just as they were beginning boarding. Gary ran into a little market conveniently located just next to the gate and picked up yogurt and banana for each of us and another bottle of water for me. Did I mention it was Passover? Gary observes the dietary restrictions carefully, I observe them generally. In this case, I would have gone for the bagel, justifying it as an emergency and God would understand. Gary didn’t cut himself that much slack. A yogurt and banana would do just fine.

We got on the next flight and, miracle of miracles, we were seated next to each other. And, the flight wasn’t full, so the third seat in our aisle was empty! I could cough with impunity! No, I couldn’t, I knew better, but at least I wouldn’t feel quite as self-conscious about it.

As it turned out, I didn’t have any coughing fits. I did go through every tissue and napkin I could find, and I had to hold my ears while we descended (somehow that made it less painful), but we arrived in Albany earlier than scheduled.

I told Gary I couldn’t wait to get home and take a hot shower, I felt like a giant germ. He told me I was a very cute germ. Though his voice had to swim through the congestion in my head, I still could hear him – so that was a positive.

Oh, and did I mention I lost my phone? I love going to Florida!

Full disclosure: This was not the blog piece I planned for today, but I thought I’d share my wonderful travel experience with you (and you didn’t even have to be exposed to my germs!). Also, I actually lost the phone in Boston, not Florida. But, I really like Boston, so I’ll take literary license and add it to my list of grievances against the sunshine state.

 

Flight 5 EWR to FLL

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.

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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).

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?

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.

Florida – The Sunshine State

I went on my first trip to Florida with Nana and Zada when I was in fifth grade. I’m not sure why I was chosen to go to Miami Beach with them – I was the fourth of the five grandchildren. It was my first time on a plane. I survived the flight without incident. I was proud of myself so I took the unused airsick bag as a souvenir and pasted it in my scrapbook.

It was dark when we emerged from the airport terminal in Miami and the three of us got into a checker cab to go to the hotel. The air outside was surprisingly soft. I had never seen a real palm tree before, but there they were: tall, narrow trunks lining the highway median, dark fronds etched against the violet sky. As I looked out the window of the cab, I could hear the music to the opening of the Jackie Gleason Show playing in my head and I wondered where the June Taylor dancers lived.

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We stayed at the Sands Hotel. I shared a bed with Nana, while Zada had the other double bed. I was excited to go to the hotel pool and show them my swimming and diving skills. Unfortunately my shoulders got sun burned that first day and it was hard to swim after that. My skin was super sensitive and the tropical sun was a new and ferocious challenge.

We spent some time visiting family that I didn’t know and friends of Nana and Zada’s who were also on vacation in Miami Beach. Nana and Zada tried to make me comfortable, but I got terribly homesick. I was embarrassed that I was teary-eyed while we visited with Red Rose (Nana’s friends had colorful names – Goldie, Sugar and multiple Roses).

It got better when Uncle Terry and Barbara, his girlfriend (a year later she became his wife), joined us. Though it was off-season, we went to Hialeah Race Track. Zada, who loved the horses, regaled us with stories about Citation as we looked at the statue of that beautiful animal.

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Uncle Terry, Nana, me and Zada in front of Citation (thank you Barbara for taking the picture; thank you Uncle Terry for sharing it with me!)

We decided to cut my trip short and I went home with Terry and Barbara while Nana and Zada continued their vacation. I came home sun burnt and disappointed with myself. Miami Beach felt to me like another borough of New York City, just sun bleached and hot.

I went to Florida with my parents every couple of years after that to visit the elders. Zada moved to Century Village in West Palm Beach in 1973. My father’s parents moved to Century Village in Deerfield Beach in 1974. One year we took a miserable ride on Amtrak (we arrived 24 hours late!), another year we drove. Those trips, usually during our April break from school, didn’t feel like vacations. They felt obligatory. They could also be fraught.

Zada met and married Laura not long after he moved into Century Village. Laura was no match for our memories of Nana. Even if you took that comparison out of the equation, I failed to see (m)any redeeming qualities. It was later speculated that Zada didn’t want to be a burden on his family, he didn’t have much money, and Laura did, so he did what he thought he had to and married her.

Laura hailed from Massachusetts and prided herself on her fine manners. I think she was of the ‘children should be seen and not heard’ philosophy. During our first visit with her, Mark and I were sitting by the pool playing some kind of board game while our parents were chatting nearby with Zada and Laura. We could easily overhear Laura grumbling about how crowded the pool got when all the grandchildren descended from the north like locusts during these vacation breaks. My mother responded icily, “Don’t worry, these grandchildren won’t be here again!” This was not the only time that my Dad had to calm Mom’s rage at Laura.

Despite that threat, we did go back down to Florida in the years that followed. Although I think it came as a surprise to my parents, they ended up becoming snowbirds themselves about 15 years later when they retired from teaching. They bought a place in Boynton Beach in 1988, not far from West Palm where Zada still lived (he outlived Laura by a number of years).

As an adult, with my own children, we would make the pilgrimage to visit the elders, too. Gary’s parents also wintered in Florida. After renting in various places in the Fort Lauderdale area, they settled in Century Village in Pembroke Pines.

We wanted our children to see their grandparents so we visited at least once each winter. Both sets of grandparents did their best to make it enjoyable – and it was. Except for one thing. I couldn’t escape the feeling that retirement communities were depressing. My parents were as active as people could be: Mom participated in no less than two book clubs, the cinema club, she learned to paint, she made jewelry and ceramics and more. She said she felt like it was the summer camp she never got to go to growing up. My Dad played tennis twice a day, worked out, played cards and continued to read voraciously. They went out to dinner several times a week. They couldn’t have been happier.

Gary’s parents were also quite active. David sang in the choir, performed with the Yiddish theater group, and served on the Board of the synagogue. Paula and David went to shul, socialized with a group of fellow Holocaust survivors and played cards several nights a week. They went to the shows at the clubhouse, and they would use the treadmills in the fitness center. Occasionally they went out to dinner, more often Paula cooked or they ate at the cafe on the premises. They too enjoyed their life in Florida tremendously.

Yet, it depressed me – even before their health started to fail. We would drive into sun-drenched Century Village, the buildings clustered like barracks, the tennis courts empty, the golf course sparsely peopled, the man-made lake with no discernible use just a decorative fountain in the middle, and I would feel the sadness descend. The same thing would happen when we drove into Banyan Springs where my parents lived, though it was less cookie-cutter and usually there were people on the tennis courts. It still felt artificial.

It felt disconnected from the regular rhythm of life. I had experienced that feeling before. When I moved into Cayuga Hall in College in the Woods at SUNY-Binghamton as a freshman I struggled. College and dorm life were supposed to be the best time of my life. Instead I felt disconnected, as though real life was going on somewhere else. I enjoyed college much more once I moved off campus.

While some of the melancholy I felt when we visited our parents’ communities stemmed from the constant reminder of our mortality that is a fact of life there, I think it was really that I never did much like summer camp (or dorm life). Too much forced camaraderie, too much pressure to join activities, too much judging of and by others. Maybe we aren’t meant to live only among our own age group at any stage of life – or at least I’m not. Taken all together, memories, associations and my temperament, I’m thinking, when the time comes, retiring to New York City sounds about right.