Random thoughts and observations about relationships……
I’ve been thinking about how we know the people in our lives. And, I’m wondering: do we really know them?
Often our connections are circumstantial. School, work or our children’s activities may throw us together. Is that enough to sustain a relationship? Sometimes it is. And, how well do we get to know the person when we only interact in a certain context.
Years ago, when I was in college, I read an article in a magazine that explored friendship. I don’t remember the adjectives the author used to label the different types, but one of the ideas was that some friendships develop because of a shared experience and when that is over, so is the friendship. I think the article mentioned college friends as an example. I don’t know if that fits for me. One of the things that was true in college was that I had a lot of time to devote to those friendships. We spent hours talking and sharing insights, our histories. I share a bond with those women. As an adult, busy with work, family and the mess and responsibilities of everyday life, I don’t have the luxury of spending time in that way.
It is true, though, that some relationships don’t continue beyond the circumstances. Sometimes it could be because you move on and don’t see the person any more. Though these days with technology being what it is, that may not be a legitimate excuse. Other times it can be because the friendship isn’t that deep. If you take a class with someone and bond during it, the connection may not be strong enough to sustain it beyond that. You may try to extend the relationship, socialize beyond the classroom, and find that you just don’t have enough in common. As you get to know the person, you may find that you like them less!
It is a rare and wonderful thing when you peel back the layers of a person and find out that you like them even more.
I’ve also wondered, how many friendships can a person sustain? It takes energy to keep up. I think I may be unusual in the amount of alone time I need, to contemplate, to reflect.
And, what about family? We need to tend to those relationships, too.
With some people, you can be out of touch for months and then pick right up as if no time had passed at all.
And, then, there is the situation where you thought you knew someone and they surprise you – and not in a good way.
Sometimes I wish I didn’t think so much! Relationships, and my interior life, would be so much simpler.
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).
Class ended. Mercifully, after two and a half hours of policy analysis and evaluation, it was time for lunch. A group of six of us, all full time graduate students at Columbia, had a habit of going to the diner a couple of blocks down Amsterdam Avenue after class.
I gathered up my stuff and started walking with the others to the elevator when Dan nudged me to get my attention. Dan, who wore crisp oxford shirts and chinos to class and spoke with authority, asked “Why do you always apologize before you ask a question? I don’t get it.” I looked at him blankly, “Huh?”
He continued, “You always start your question, in class, by apologizing for it. Like, ‘Sorry, but I was wondering…’ Why do you do that?” There was more than a trace of annoyance in his tone.
I felt defensive. I thought for a moment, as we continued walking, trying to come up with an answer. Fortunately, the others in the group were chatting amongst themselves.
“Well,” I began, “I can’t say I consciously knew that I did that….” I was thinking quickly, reviewing what had happened in class that may have triggered Dan’s observation, trying to come up with some kind of reasonable response.
“There’s no reason for it, you shouldn’t do that.” he said, emphatically. “Sorry if it annoys you,” I responded, and I sped up to join the others. I probably annoyed him again by apologizing again.
This happened over 35 years ago. I thought about it then, and I still reflect on it now. Asking questions, in class or in conversation, isn’t that simple. At least not to me.
As I thought about it, many things came into play. First, was self-consciousness and insecurity. Maybe I HAD missed something the professor said. I knew some students, as a result of those doubts, didn’t ask questions. I had enough confidence to ask, but not enough to not preface it by hedging or softening it. I realized, as Dan pointed out, that I likely did start with something like, “Sorry, maybe I missed this, but can you explain….” I wondered whether there was anything so wrong with that.
I don’t think it occurred to me at the time, but it did years later, that it also probably related to being female. I knew that as a woman there was a line to walk, of not coming across too aggressively, but not fading into the woodwork, either. I had a hard time with that. I wanted to ask questions, I wanted to express opinions, but I wanted to be feminine, too. I think I felt that asking a question could be threatening and that was the last thing I wanted to communicate.
Other things probably played into it, too. When I was in college, Merle, my roommate, and I volunteered to work at the campus hotline, called High Hopes. It was a resource for students to call if they had questions. The question could range from the ordinary, like where to get birth control, to the very serious, like what to do about feeling depressed. We went through fairly extensive training – we weren’t supposed to be counselors providing therapy, but the hotline was a first line of getting someone help if they needed it. Some of the training involved attending lectures, getting information about drugs, sexuality and other common issues of concern to college students. We also learned about non-judgmental ways of listening to people and we did role plays.
We were trained, in a basic way, to use Carl Roger’s technique of reflection, which meant listening to the caller and repeating back what you heard them say. This method was intended to help the person clarify what they felt. Sometimes a person didn’t know exactly what they felt, so by reflecting back what you hear, he or she can evaluate whether it is accurate.
In addition, in reflecting, we were trying to refrain from judgment. Sometimes just asking a person ‘why’ can insinuate judgment. If we needed to ask the caller for more information, we weren’t supposed to ask, “Why do you feel hurt (or substitute any other emotion, angry, sad)?” It was better to say, “It sounds like you feel hurt. Can you tell me more?”
This made so much sense to me. I had a number of opportunities to use that approach on my shifts at High Hopes and, generally, it worked quite well. It turned out to be useful in parenting, too.
Leah was quite an emotional child. Supporting her through the roller coaster of adolescence was a parenting challenge. I was most effective when I remembered to use reflection (full disclosure: I didn’t always remember). It validated her feelings, helped her clarify them and often led to insights. I recommend it!
While that technique doesn’t exactly apply to asking questions in a classroom, which is what my classmate Dan was calling me out on, in one respect it does. As a result of my High Hopes experience, I became conscious of not implying judgment in a broader sense – I didn’t want a professor to think I was questioning their expertise, or suggesting they were a lousy teacher. It seemed like a reasonable strategy to start by acknowledging that I could be wrong or uninformed.
Before Dan’s comment, I hadn’t thought about it consciously, much less considered that there could be a downside to doing it. But I was learning that there was. If Dan was any example, it could be annoying. It also diminished whatever came after the apology, I was devaluing my own contribution. I didn’t want to go around apologizing for my existence. As I’ve gotten older, I think I’ve done it less.
This issue is relevant in another setting. As a school board member, and as a trainer of school board members, this aspect of communication comes up often. Frequently at board meetings a staff person makes a presentation and the board is given the opportunity to ask questions. This can be a minefield. A board member can, premeditatedly or thoughtlessly, embarrass the presenter by asking a pointed question. So much transpires in this communication. There can be history or baggage – is there goodwill as a baseline between the board and the staff? A particular presenter can be overly sensitive to questions. Some people are comfortable with public presentations and thinking on their feet and welcome engagement in the form of questions; others don’t. Even educators, who spend their day teaching, get nervous when speaking in front of the school board. We spend time at our workshops talking about modes of communication in order to raise awareness of potential pitfalls. I imagine this dynamic comes into play in many office settings. Who knew asking questions could be so fraught?
So, I’m still thinking about this issue. How do you ask a question?
Mom’s painting of the house in Livingston Manor. It hangs on my bedroom wall.
The house in 2018. Gary and I drove by when we were in the area. My parents sold it in 2005
Changes were afoot in 1982. It was a big year for the Brody family. Joshua, the first grandchild, born to my brother and sister-in-law, Mark and Pam, arrived February 1st. In April Uncle Terry and Aunt Barbara moved from the upstairs apartment in Canarsie to a large suburban house in Morganville, New Jersey. My parents had their first non-family tenants take their place. I began my job search, as I was in the last semester of my master’s program at Columbia. Gary was waiting to hear about medical school admissions, he was wait-listed at Pittsburgh and Downstate (in Brooklyn). It was a time of excitement and anxiety.
In the midst of this, and maybe because of it, my parents started looking for a second home. I think my father thought that, since they would truly be empty nesters for the first time, my mom needed a distraction. Financially things were more comfortable than ever before. All three of us kids would be out of the house (two were married), they would have a market-rent-paying tenant, and their own salaries had crept up over the many years of teaching. They could afford to consider getting a country home. Their close friends, Cliff and Muriel, were in a similar position and together they went on weekend jaunts exploring places where they could consider buying.
Cliff was my Dad’s closest friend. He was principal of an elementary school in Brooklyn. Muriel was a home economics teacher. As couples and individuals they shared many interests: travel, food, wine, books, and, for the men, tennis. Cliff and Muriel shared a unique quality: each had a very distinctive voice. Cliff’s was a gravelly bass rumble. Muriel spoke loud Brooklynese with a shrillness that could be hard on the ears. Fortunately, she was funny and interesting, her voice grew on you as you got to know her.
The two couples took weekend trips to the Catskills and the Poconos. They were looking for modest lakefront homes where they could escape from the stresses and strains of Brooklyn living and working. After checking out a number of areas, they came upon Edgewood Lakes Inn, a rustic hotel outside of Livingston Manor in the Catskills. Private homes were being developed on property adjacent to the hotel. Owners would have access to hotel amenities and to a lake. The two couples took the plunge and put down a deposit. Arrangements were made with a local builder.
Given that my parents were life-long Brooklynites, they entered this project with some trepidation. They had no history of being outdoorsy. I don’t recall them ever hiking or fishing or skiing. They had an appreciation for nature – but at a distance. When we drove through a national park, like Yellowstone, we pulled over at scenic overlooks. There were no hiking boots or backpacks involved. If we came across a mouse in our house, we all freaked out. My mother was afraid of all animals. Buying property in the woods, and building a house there, was a bold choice.
Those plans were proceeding while I moved toward graduation. I found a job with the Mayor’s Office of Operations in New York City. Gary continued working at a lab at Columbia Presbyterian, still waiting to hear about medical school.
At the end of June, I started my new job. I was assigned a cubicle in a row of interior cubicles. I was given a standard issue desk, chair and telephone. I called home and gave Mom my number so they could reach me if necessary (this was long before cell phones). I went through some orientation activities in the morning. I was setting up my desk in the afternoon when the phone on my desk rang. I was quite surprised. I thought, who could possibly be calling? I was even more surprised when I heard Gary’s voice. I hadn’t even given him the number yet. He shared great news; he was accepted at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine! He was very excited and I was, too. But, it was also complicated.
Through my final semester in graduate school we wanted to coordinate our plans. We hoped the timing would work out, that I would know where he was going to be for medical school and I could search for a job there. But it didn’t play out that way. Time was passing, I had to make a choice, so I took the job in the city. On my very first day of work, on June 21, 1982, we learned that Gary would be moving to Pittsburgh at the end of August.
That night Gary picked me up after work and we went to a bar in Sheepshead Bay for a celebratory drink. We sat at a table and raised a glass to toast his good fortune. Then, Gary asked me to marry him. Though Gary and I were planning our future together, we had not formalized it. There had been no proposal. For reasons I couldn’t really understand, Gary needed to know he was accepted to medical school before he would propose. It didn’t matter to me. I knew I wanted to be with him if he was a science teacher, lab tech or doctor. But, he didn’t see it that way. Now that he had the certainty of admission to Pitt, he popped the question. I said yes. He didn’t have a ring yet, he wanted me to shop with him so he would know what I liked.
We had decisions to make – and not just about the ring. I couldn’t see leaving the job I just started. We agreed that it was probably good for Gary to start medical school on his own so he could concentrate fully on his classes and get adjusted to the workload without worrying about me. Our preliminary plan was for me to stay at my job for a year, get married and then join him in Pittsburgh.
We shared all of this with our parents. Years later I learned from my father that they considered backing out of purchasing the house at Livingston Manor because of the looming cost of the wedding. They had not anticipated that we would be getting married that soon. After considering their options, they decided not to change course. Though it would be tight, they thought they could manage it.
The summer of ’82 passed. We planned the wedding. At the end of August, I accompanied Gary on the drive to Pittsburgh. His father rented a small van and we nervously drove it the length of the curvy, foggy Pennsylvania Turnpike. I helped get him settled, then I flew back home.
I came home to an empty house. In New York City the school year, my parent’s work year, didn’t start until after Labor Day which fell on September 6 that year. They were squeezing the last bit of pleasure out of the summer by spending the days leading up to Labor Day at Edgewood Lakes Inn.
My parents called me from there late one afternoon. That day, September 1, Cliff had a massive heart attack and died. As if that wasn’t bad enough, it happened while he was on the tennis court with my father. It was shocking. Cliff was 52, my Dad was 49. I was devastated for my father, actually for everyone. It was hard to take it all in.
Again, my parents faced a decision about going forward with the house. It was starting to feel like it wasn’t meant to be. While I wasn’t privy to all the details, they decided to move forward and Muriel did, too.
When I look back at 1982, it was such a roller coaster for my family. The birth of Josh. The traumatic death of Cliff. Dad went for a thorough physical afterwards and found out that he had a bundle branch blockage, meaning that two of the three electrical pathways that regulated his heartbeat were blocked. He was told that eventually he might need a pacemaker. He also found out that his cholesterol was very high. Dad made a number of lifestyle changes as a result. It took him some time to get back on the tennis court, but he did.
Gary finished his first semester of medical school very successfully. We decided six months at my new job was enough, rather than a full year, and I moved to Pittsburgh in January of 1983, we got married in July. The house at Livingston Manor was built and was a happy home for my parents for over 20 years. They hiked, they went cross-country skiing, they hosted family and friends, they picked blueberries from the bushes in the woods nearby, they dealt with an invasion of bats. They mourned Cliff’s loss. Life went on in all its bittersweet glory.
Book clubs have a long history in my family. Growing up, I recall my parents, who were both teachers, periodically hosting their book club at our house. This involved cocktails, hors d’oeuvres and dinner. I would help my mother with the preparations and once the guests arrived, I said my hellos and retreated to my bedroom. Since my room was just off the dining room, I could hear the laughter and arguments that went very late into the night. All of the men and most of the women were teachers, as well. They enjoyed a spirited discussion.
Over the years I’ve participated in a number of book clubs, too, but none like the one I’m part of now. In 2014, my daughter Leah floated the idea of a family book club. She explained that Google had a free app, Hangouts, that would allow up to ten participants in a video conference call. Since we had family all over the country, she was living in Seattle at the time, it would be a good way to connect. I thought it was a brilliant idea. Leah sent out an email to her grandma, aunts, uncles and cousins – she cast a very wide net – to gauge interest. Since we do have family clustered in certain locations, we could have more than 10 participants if people gathered at one computer. Our family-video-book-club was born.
When we began my mother was living in Florida. She gamely tried to manage the technology – sometimes successfully, sometimes not. When she didn’t, I called her on the phone and I held it next to my computer speaker so she could hear and when she wanted to comment, held the phone to the microphone or I passed on her remarks. It wasn’t perfect, but it worked well enough. Now she is in New Jersey and more often than not my brother Steve is able to join her. So, we have my 84-year-old mother, her two granddaughters, two of her cousins, her three children, her nephew (occasionally another nephew joins us) and her daughter-in-law’s sister (got that?). We are a multi-generational group with very different ways of looking at the world. I found it amusing that, when we read Life by Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, my mother was the most accepting of his excesses (and his excesses are well documented in his book – it is amazing that he is still alive). Most of us younger folks judged him more harshly.
We gather once every 6 weeks or so. People have moved around a bit over the years, currently we gather from Albany (NY), Freehold (NJ), Maynard (MA), Maclean (VA), Palo Alto (CA), Boston (MA) and Buffalo (NY). I have participated from various locations – all I need is a wi-fi connection and my I-pad. We have read 34 books together. Leah set up a rotation and each person gets a turn to choose the book. The ‘chooser’ moderates the discussion. We chat for an hour, usually on a Saturday morning.
It has been so enriching on many levels. First, I have to say, my family is pretty damn smart! I always learn from the conversation. My understanding of the book is always deepened, even when I haven’t particularly enjoyed the book. Actually, the conversation is most useful when I haven’t enjoyed the book because hearing what others, who did like it, have to say helps broaden my perspective.
Also, I have gotten to know everybody in a different way. I think, by virtue of being structured the way it is, we can only have one speaker at a time and we take turns, means that all voices are heard. That would never happen if we were physically all in the same room! So, those of us who are quieter in social settings, it is true most of us aren’t the shy, retiring type, we get to hear their thoughts. Plus, we actually talk about the book! Something about sitting at a computer screen at an appointed hour, with only our cups of coffee to distract us, and we don’t drift too far off topic. There are no side conversations.
The technology has failed us occasionally and that can be frustrating. Leah is persistent, though, and everybody is pretty patient while we sort that all out.
When we started, now almost four years ago (unbelievable!), I think everyone was nervous about choosing the book. No one wants to choose something that everybody hates. I was the first ‘chooser’ and I selected E.L. Doctorow’s Book of Daniel. I remembered loving that book as a young adult. He is a great American author with a long list of acclaimed novels (I have read many of them over the years). I didn’t recall how dense and demanding this particular book was. It is safe to say not everyone loved it (not even me on my second reading), but we had a great discussion. I think it may have broken the ice, in a way, since everyone was very kind. They didn’t throw me out of the club for picking something so difficult.
We have read in just about every genre – fiction, non-fiction, fantasy, sci-fi, historical novels, and autobiographies. We’ve read classics and current best sellers. I have read books I would never have chosen on my own.
While this book club is nothing like my parents’ more social, boisterous gathering, thank you Leah for organizing it and thank you to all who participate. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
I wonder sometimes how much of what I remember is real. This is especially true of my friendship with Susan.
I didn’t have many friends on my block. Somehow East 91st Street had an inordinate number of bullies and I was a target of their ridicule. Here are just a few examples: I was riding my bike when a couple of kids chased me thrusting a stick at my spokes hoping to knock me off, I was spat on as I walked home from synagogue on Rosh Hashana and my cat was mistreated (I wrote about that here). This was all at the hands of the Italian kids who lived at one end of our block. My brothers were occasionally called into service to scare them off. I knew enough not to generalize, after all, each of my brother’s best friends were Italian. But given all that I experienced, my friendship with Susan, who was also Italian but lived at the other end of the street, came as a surprise.
Susan was popular on the block and in my class. She was blonde and blue-eyed, with an up turned nose. She was rail thin. She was everything I was not. She could do a round-off, cartwheels and handstands. I will allow that I was athletic, but in a different way. I felt rooted to the ground by my thick bones and muscular frame. I could run and throw a ball, and my balance was good, so I didn’t feel clumsy, but I was unwilling to hurl myself into space to do any kind of gymnastics move. I didn’t have Susan’s grace or fearlessness, which is why this next part is so surprising.
Susan and I spent long hours teaching ourselves tricks on our bicycles. The street next to her house which abutted the weeds had very little traffic, so we would ride up and back endlessly, perfecting our moves. Starting simply by riding with no hands, ultimately, we were able to stand on our seats in an arabesque, one leg extended behind, our arms outstretched. I felt like I was flying. When we thought we were good enough, we invited our parents to watch our circus act. My mother was aghast. I think back and wonder, did I really do that? It seems so out of character. But, I did.
Susan loved horses and would draw them again and again. I came to share her enthusiasm, learning to draw them and reading horse-themed stories like Black Beauty and Misty of Chincoteague. She and I would gallop around her side lawn, her corner house had enough property to be considered a lawn, unlike the postage stamp we shared with our neighbors.
Susan and I were in the same class at PS 272. In 4th grade there was something called a ‘slam book’ that was all the rage. It was book made up of looseleaf pages fastened together, each page contained a list of favorites. Favorite TV star, favorite football team, but it also ranked the cutest girls in the class, smartest boys, etc. It was a measure of popularity and caused me great anxiety. The book made its way up and down the rows of the class while our teacher, Mrs. Feinberg, faced the chalkboard. For a while this was a daily occurrence. Kids ranked things and wrote comments anonymously. I was always afraid what I’d find when the book arrived at my desk. I think once I made it to fifth cutest in the class. Susan was always in the top three. In choosing to be my friend, I felt anointed, touched by her popularity.
Everything was so different about Susan’s family. Her mother, Maria, reminded me of June Cleaver. In my mind’s eye, I see her wearing a dress, with an apron, kitten heels and pearls. Her hair styled, lipstick applied. My mom and my Nana wore housedresses and slippers.
I remember one time Susan and I had a plan to practice our bicycle tricks. I rang her doorbell and was invited into the kitchen where her parents were each enjoying a bottle of beer. I don’t think I ever saw beer at my house. I can’t recall a single time. I knew what it was, I saw enough commercials during baseball games, but I didn’t know anyone who drank it. Susan was begging her father to let her have a taste. He relented. She took two quick swigs and we went out to our bicycles. Susan joked that after drinking the beer she wouldn’t feel it if she fell on her head. She giggled. I was shocked.
Susan’s Dad, Tony, was the executive chef at the Carlysle Hotel on the Upper East Side in Manhattan. The same swanky hotel where Presidents, Prime Ministers and celebrities stayed when they came to New York. Which raised the question: why did Susan’s family live in Canarsie? I don’t know the answer to that, but, not surprisingly, they didn’t stay long.
At the end of 4th grade, Susan’s family moved to Wycoff, New Jersey. It might as well have been another country. We did see each other one more time. My parents dropped me off at their suburban house where Susan’s mom served, among other things, sliced homegrown tomatoes and fresh mozzarella cheese, dressed with basil, olive oil and salt and pepper. I had no idea tomatoes could taste that good. It was a revelation. At the end of the weekend, they drove me into the city to meet my parents at the Carlyle. We were given a tour of the kitchen. I was too young to appreciate what I was seeing. I know my parents were impressed. That was the last time I remember seeing Susan. We lost touch. She went on with her suburban life, not just drawing horses, but riding them. I went back to Canarsie, read the rest of the Chincoteague stories, and tried to find a place to fit in.
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.