Our Two Dads

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Smack in the middle of the sandwich generation, I find myself motherless and with not one but two fathers. No, nobody’s come out recently. I am talking about two widowed men who found themselves rudder-less after the loss of their wives. My mother died three years ago and my mother-in-law died last June so my husband and I now each have a father as our primary parent.

Neither father lives near us but fortunately they are both independent and of sound mind for now, at 80 and 83 years old. Their bodies are slowing down but after 40, whose isn’t? My father has a little asthma and peripheral neuropathy so he is occasionally short of breath and his feet feel sluggish, making walking more difficult. My father-in-law has arthritis and very poor hearing.

We are grateful for the people who live near our dads. For my father, it is his new wife of six months. They live in Israel, half a world away from me. Besides him being happy, the added benefit is having a keen observer of my father’s level of wellness who will notice if he wakes up each morning.

My father-in-law being more newly widowed is still somewhat adrift and finding his way after 62 years of marriage. My husband’s siblings live near their dad in Chicago and are very devoted to his well-being.

We admire both of our dads for their ability to engage in life after the loss of their wives. Many people cannot find the energy to navigate life, do the tasks their spouses did for so many years, and even learn new things at a somewhat advanced age. Both of our fathers are affable people. My father is interested in politics and the stock market while my father-in-law is an artist, history buff and sports fan. They both still want to travel and see new places. They each do their best to remember family birthdays and anniversaries, like their wives did.

Our guest room feels like a designated “Dad’s Room” lately as they are our most frequent visitors. My father recently came home by himself to take care of some business and visit with his family. Flying from Israel is a tough flight if you are at the top of your physical game. When you’re 80 with physical maladies, it can be even tougher. My father seems to feel betrayed by his body as his mind still feels young and engaged. He talks about his ailments a lot, trying to figure out the cause of things and what he can do to make them better. He is diligent about going to doctors in search of an answer.

I loved spending time with my dad, even when he ruminated about his health. Since I am sliding into middle age at 53, I have some aches and pains of my own. When I mentioned the tendonitis in my foot that was giving me trouble the conversation shifted right back to my dad’s ailments.

“You think you have foot problems? Let me tell you about my foot problems….” he joked, as if it were a competition.

Obviously it’s not and I am sorry that he “wins,” as he is older and his issues are more debilitating than mine. I have come to accept that the period of my life where I get active attention and parenting from my surviving parent is over. It only seems fair that the tables have turned, as my dad (and my late mother) spent much of their life doting on me and my siblings. Every bit of minutiae felt important to me and therefore they listened and offered help. I remember during the years when I was having babies thinking that nobody but my mother cared about how the nights were with my crying infants. Who else would listen to my minute-to-minute reports? Now my husband, sister and friends are the lucky recipients of my kvetching.

It seems unrealistic to expect a surviving parent to carry the load of two full-time parents who had a division of duties carefully honed over a lifetime. Relationships that were so clearly defined while raising children and young adults become fluid, changing with time, age, and necessity. The one constant is love and affection, if you’re lucky. My father can hear, but active listening is not his greatest strength. His love, humor, wisdom and generosity more than make up for what he lacks in listening ability. My father-in-law, on the other hand, can’t hear well but listens as best he can. His kindness, good nature, and love of his family compensate for what he lacks in hearing.

It is illuminating to see our dads cast in a new light. Never strangers to our fathers while our mothers were alive, the loss of our mothers brought with it the opportunity to know our fathers in a different way. They can no longer just chat with us briefly before handing the phone to our mothers when we call. The buffer is gone so we delve into new conversations and become acquainted in a different way.

After the death of our mothers, life felt off-kilter, but eventually we have found a new equilibrium as our relationships with our fathers re-calibrate. While we miss our mothers we our thankful to still have our two dads.

 

 

 

Navigating with Grace

If you’re tired of reading my essays, take a listen to this interview I did with Jana Panarites on her podcast, Agewyz, where she gives voice to the struggles of caregivers. After all, we all are, have been or will be caregivers at some point in our lives. I hope you’ll take the time to listen and share with others. Maybe you would like to share your story with Jana too? Click HERE to listen.

A Fine Line

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My father was in town recently for a family occasion. He is pushing 80 and while he is very independent, I see that he slowing down a bit. He lives in Israel now, so I get only the occasional peek into how he is faring. Most of the time I have to rely on his reports by phone and email. Even when he is out of sight, he is always on my mind.

I received some great wisdom on this subject from my family’s oncologist. He is a thoughtful person who I see routinely for follow up of the breast cancer I had diagnosed and treated in 2010. This doctor had also been treating my mother for metastatic melanoma since 2002, which had recurred shortly after I finished my cancer treatment. My mother had significant pain, caused by disease pressing on nerves in her spine and neck. While my father was a loving and devoted caregiver, I was anticipating how to go about helping them as her cancer slowly destroyed her body.

“You want to navigate them with grace,” he said.

What a lovely way to frame this difficult time in life.

As a middle-age person with a young-ish family, I had been going about the business of raising my children, tending to my marriage, and bustling about in my community. My parents had been healthy and active. They were an important part of my family life, helping me out when needed, and just being involved, loving grandparents.

Then slowly, without fanfare, things shifted. My independent parents seemed to become lost in the mire of medical care, with the medical equivalent of “too-many-cooks-in-the kitchen.” There was the internist, the endocrinologist, pain team, and oncologist to name a few. This, plus their generational inclination to be compliant patients without asking too many questions, not asking questions they didn’t want to know the answer to, or challenging doctors, made for an often chaotic and sometimes ineffective care plan despite the caring and good intentions of the health care professionals.

Fortunately I lived near my parents so I would sometimes take my mother to doctor’s appointments to give my father a break. It also gave me the opportunity to ask questions and take notes. They drifted along in this vein for a while. Their world began to shrink as my mother felt worse. She slept a lot from the pain medicine. Most of their outings were to see doctors.

I finally intervened when my mother’s pain was not controlled adequately. The outpatient model of medical care was no longer working: the patient/family calls the doctor’s office and waits for the nurse to call back, and then has to wait for the nurse to talk to the doctor and call back again with a pain plan. Then the prescription needs to be called in to the pharmacy, which meant my father had to go pick it up. And in the midst of all this waiting, my mother suffered and my father felt helpless.

I knew a lot about home hospice care from when I worked as a social worker in a cancer center at a major university hospital, so I knew it was what my parents needed. I explained the concept to my dad – nurses come to you, assess the situation, speak to the doctors and provide whatever you need. He was on board. My mother took a little convincing, as the word “hospice” felt so scary to her. She wasn’t ready to give up hope.

“Mom, I want you to live as long as you can. But I can’t watch you live in pain. This is no way to live,” I told her.

She reluctantly agreed. My mother lived three more weeks and died comfortably in her home, at the age of 74. It was heart-wrenching and awful but we navigated my parents with grace, the same way they navigated our childhoods.

It is not always obvious when it is time to intervene with aging parents. After a lifetime of being independent, they will not always ask for help. And after a lifetime of being their child, it is difficult to insert yourself into the caregiver role for, doesn’t mother always know best? It is a fine balance of respecting their autonomy and independence while gently giving support and assistance, whether they ask for it or not. Sometimes it takes an event to occur, like a fall or a hospitalization, to present the opportunity for intervention.

I watched my devoted mother care for her mother who had dementia the last 15 years of her life until she died at age 99, just four years before my mother. I learned about quietly and lovingly honoring your parent by caring for them in their old age.

After all, there but for the grace of God go I.

Home Base

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It was so gradual, I wasn’t even aware it was happening.

My sister’s lived out of state for years. My mom died two years ago. My dad moved to Israel. His house just sold, so he came back to close the deal and empty out the final contents of the house. For the first time, he stayed with me instead of his house, which was basically empty. I realized that I had become my family’s home away from home.

I first became aware of the shift over the summer. My kids were away and my sister wanted to come home. Really, I thought? I’ve got no kids home and wasn’t looking for company. She hadn’t been home for awhile and wanted to visit the cemetery where our mother is buried. I couldn’t tell her not to come. Alas, in the new reality, I am “home” for her so I wrapped my mind around this idea, bought her beloved Diet Coke,  and told her to come. We had a great time as usual.

Now it’s my dad’s turn to stay at our house. It’s nice to have him with us – three generations living together for a month. He enjoys my children and we all enjoy having him around. He and I have lunch together most days. My husband and Dad chat over the occasional scotch. Such domestic bliss, you can’t imagine. My father looks the other way when I yell at my kids. We smile sweetly when he repeats himself. We’re practically a scene straight out of the tv show “Modern Family” – my dad being the cantankerous patriarch. I dare say he has even developed a moderate affinity for our dog.

All good things can benefit from a break though, so my Dad went to visit my sister and her family in Indianapolis, taking an early morning flight. My sister called me a few hours after he arrived. Our dad was sacked out on her couch – after all, he had been awake since four a.m.

“From my couch to yours,” I chuckled.

“How long does he usually sleep?” she asked with concern.

I felt like we were discussing a toddler instead of our paterfamilias. Fortunately he’s an active and healthy 79-year-old. It’s emotionally and physically exhausting cleaning out a house you’ve lived in for almost 40 years. He was tired.

I thought I was over the emotional part of saying goodbye to his house but apparently I wasn’t completely. The family homestead was the headquarters for our family for close to forty years. It’s a sad feeling to close that chapter of my life and a weird feeling to have the tables turned and for me to be home base. It’s a subtle shift, but a change none-the-less.

My father will leave the U.S. to return to his life in Israel next week. It’s strange for him to have given up his U.S. residence, but it’s worth it for him to be unburdened by the contents of a large home. He can visit his favorite possessions and my mother’s artwork in any of his children’s homes when he’s feeling nostalgic.

Yup, it’s a new rhythm for our family but one we are all adjusting to. There’s no place like home, wherever it may be.

 

 

Independence Day

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I am about to embark on another 8-day women’s trip to Israel. The purpose is to empower women to change the world through Jewish values that transform ourselves, our families, and our communities. Sounds great, right? No matter where you live, if you are a Jewish woman (or man – they offer men’s trips too) or are raising your children Jewish there may be a trip that you too can take – check out the website at http://www.jwrp.org and see for yourself.

What a treat to travel for 8 days on my own. Actually I will be with 11 other fabulous women from my local Jewish Community Center and we will be part of a larger group of 200 women from around the country and the world. I look forward to being able to think and act independently, without being someone’s wife, mother or daughter. I only have to follow the planned itinerary. I don’t have to worry about what my kids will or will not eat, if they’re tired or cranky. It’s a way to rediscover my own person-hood through a Jewish lens – what a novelty!

It’s a great time for me to go because two of my children are away at camp and two will be home in day camp. What a great way for my family to exercise their own independence, without big Mama running the show. Papa Bear will be in charge, in whom I have complete confidence. He will drive, shop for food, make the lunches, deal with the medication, go to the end-of-camp dance performance all while being way more fun than cranky old Mom.

One of the biggest gifts of leaving the kids with my husband, besides the obvious awesome trip experience, is that other than leaving one page of phone numbers and reminders, I do not have to leave detailed instructions. My hubby is engaged in all parts of our life so I don’t need to school him on what goes on around here while he’s at work. Okay, I do feel a teensy need to tell him that I will organize things to make it as easy for him as possible – after all, he will be working in between driving to and from camp.

“Really?” he said, “Do we have to do this dance where you try to convince me that it’s all going to be great fun? It is what it is. It will be fine. Go, lead your group, and have fun.”

Lesson learned. I will shut up and plan the best I can. He will deal with whatever comes up. He can help my daughter shop for whatever costumes she may need for her dance recital. He will rise each morning at 4:30 am to medicate our son with special needs, through his feeding tube, while he sleeps. He will write the children who are away at camp.

Let’s not forget the children’s independence here. When I tell some people my children will be at sleep-away camp all summer, I occasionally get a look of pity or horror – surely I must be an awful mother to send my children away. They love camp because they get to be their own person, independent of their parents. There is no one to nag them about how to act or what to wear. Sure, they have counselors but they care much less about the minutiae of life than a mother does.

Take for instance my fourteen-year-old son who left a week ago. I am loathe to look at the camp website to catch a glimpse of my precious child, but I briefly succumbed to peer pressure to take a peek. As expected, my son looked adorable and happy. It’s his fourth year and he asked to go for the whole summer – of course he’s happy. But does he have to wear that dorky camouflage hat that he pilfered from his brother? To make it worse, in my next email to him I felt the need to suggest that he not wear it all the time as it doesn’t really match any of his clothes and he looks super cute without it. I can’t believe I’m even admitting that I did that. Shame on me…leave the child to wear whatever he damn well pleases without me spying on him.

I told the children who will be home with their Dad that I care about three things, and in this order: the people in the house, the dog, and my potted outdoor plants. I trust them to help each other, feed the dog, and water the plants. Mostly they just need to take care of themselves. Yet another life lesson I’m imparting in my joyful absence.

So here’s to a happy independence day to all of you – in between barbecues and pool hopping, try and let a little personal freedom ring. I promise you’ll see fireworks.

On My Watch

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I was so excited for my eldest to return from his three-month Israel adventure, that I had not anticipated how life would change upon his return. While away, he turned eighteen, so there went the provisional driver’s license with it’s midnight curfew.  I didn’t think about the mild unease with which I would fall asleep the nights that he is out. Who knew that the sweetest sound in the world is the garage door opening, announcing that he has returned home? I don’t even care that the dog barks – it’s as if he too rejoices that the teenager is home safe and sound.

My boy left as a single fellow and returned with a girlfriend. How delightful, yet odd to see him with a significant other and to hear him use the royal “we” when talking about  he and his gal-pal.

Last week I accompanied him, probably for the last time, to the pediatrician for the annual check-up. Before I left the room for their private exam and discussion, the doctor was talking about routine shots and upcoming immunizations. I was aware that he was talking to my son, not me; his gaze had been averted to the other adult – his patient – in the room. I was just a bystander. Appropriate, yes, but I felt a little adrift as I was gently cast aside.

Then there is the other single, yet attached, man in my life – my father. I go to sleep worrying about my young man and wake up thinking about my older man. While he is in the country and nearby, I make sure to call him each morning. Living in a house full of people, I take for granted that people will know whether I have woken up or not. When he is in Israel, I am grateful for his lady friend to watch out for him.

As my father empties his house and prepares to leave his life in the U.S., all of his mail and packages are delivered to my house.

“I feel like I’m Dad’s front desk,” I told my sister.

He regularly calls to tell me which things are going to be delivered, when to expect them, and then calls to see if they came. It’s charming and amusing. He’s on my watch, and I’m happy to keep him happy.

I have to admit that sometimes I feel acutely aware of my sense of responsibility and the loss of even the illusion of control. Piled on top of taking care of the other people and things in my life, I am wound a little tighter. This month my father will return to Israel and my son will go work at a sleep away camp. I will breathe a small sigh of relief and wish them both a wonderful time as I look forward to a good night’s sleep – at least for a little while.