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.

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.

 

 

Spring Forward

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Spring makes me think of my late mother more than any other season. Everything is in bloom, the world is lush, full of promise and rebirth. She loved nature and beautiful things – spring is the perfect combination of these elements. The pain of grief subsides with time but spring brings my own grief to the forefront. It doesn’t help that this spring we are going through the remainder of my mother’s possessions as my father prepares to sell the house.

When my mother died in 2013, I clung to anything that belonged to her, thinking that if I had her things close by than she would remain close by too. I wrapped myself in her coats and carried her purses. I had a closet full of her clothes that I thought I would wear, which I quickly learned had her smell when I opened the closet door. It was my own, private mini-shrine in a seldom used closet in my home. On the rare occasion when I got out the iron, I could inhale and feel my mother’s presence.

Mother’s Day happens to fall in spring, but that day isn’t harder for me than every other day I miss my mother. Since we went to the cemetery last year, the first Mother’s Day without my mother, my daughter assumed we were going again this year. So we did. My husband, children and I actually had a nice visit with “Bubbe.” We cleaned off her headstone, pulled some crabgrass and told her what was going on in our lives. I shed a few tears.

Now it’s the small things that make me feel happy and think of my mother. Her key-chain, flower pots from her deck, knickknacks. a recipe in her handwriting, a pair of earrings. In her art studio I found her credit card from Garfinkel’s, a now defunct department store that was the height of elegance in its day. My mom was so sad when the store closed – she wasn’t a big shopper but she appreciated fine quality. The credit card was propped on a little metal stand, her tribute to times gone by. Now it makes me smile to think of her whimsy in keeping it.

I recently made a new recipe – a sushi salad. My husband describes it as a “deconstructed California roll.” I feel like my grief has changed into deconstructing Rita. My mother wasn’t a puzzle that needs taking apart, but as we break up her house I remember and experience her many parts and layers, which only further reveals her beautiful essence.

The clocks spring forward and so do I.

 

A Glimmer of Hope

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Something unexpected happened while we were in Israel recently. We were having a Passover Seder in a banquet hall with several other families from our Jewish day school. There was a lull in the evening as people were eating and going back and forth to the buffet. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed my sixteen-year-old son with special needs sitting on a sofa talking to someone. Not just a family member or a family friend, but a girl, and a teenage girl at that. A lovely younger sister of my older son’s classmates, with health challenges and issues of her own. What struck me was that they actually seemed to be engaged in conversation – something that is generally difficult for my son to sustain.

It was so adorable – it almost made me weep.

“What’d you talk about?” his siblings and I grilled him afterwards.

“We actually had a lot in common,” he said matter of factly. “We talked about tv and movies.” Ah, that made sense as these are some of his favorite things to discuss.

Still, I was touched at the sweetness of the interaction which allowed me to see my son in a different light – as a young man with the possibility of courtship. I felt as if I was channeling my mother and grandmother when I described what, to me, was a momentous event to my friends…”It was just darling,” I gushed.

The evening passed and the moment faded into a warm memory. Until I received an email from the young lady’s mother saying that her daughter wanted to go see a movie with my son. Be still my heart! I was elated. His life is rich with family, family friends, friendly professionals, and lovely volunteers. But it is rare that he gets invited to do something socially with a good old-fashioned friend.

“I want to go,” he eagerly stated.

“Do you know how to behave like a gentleman?” I joked with him.

He assured me that yes, he did. I was giddy with anticipation of the big “date,” although my son did not like to be teased about it and of course viewed it for what it was – going to the movies with a friend, who happens to be a girl. I showed restraint around him, spilling over with excitement to my sister, father and girlfriends.

It turned out to be a lovely, uneventful outing. After their dads helped buy the tickets, the two friends sat and watched a movie while happily munching on popcorn. Truth be told, my son hogged the popcorn, his companion reported when we picked them up.

“It was just so delicious,” he sheepishly admitted.

So much for his gentlemanly behavior. He acted like a typical teenager – rather than being thoroughly annoyed by this fact, I was overjoyed. Next time we’ll spring for the jumbo tub of popcorn. I can’t wait.

 

 

 

 

Being Prepared

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My husband came home from a meeting the other night and with a smirk told me one of the attendees had been the executive director of a local cemetery. The smirk was for my benefit because I’ve been gently nagging him for quite a while to buy us cemetery plots. He thinks I am morbid and resists. He’s hoping someone will come up with a cure for death before he has to cope with it’s consequences. Maybe this meeting was divine intervention.

I, on the other hand, wish to live to a ripe old age but am not expecting a death cure, or the Messiah’s arrival for that matter, before I die. When I was growing up, my parents had cemetery plots that they had purchased with my grandparents. I always knew where they would end up. Sure, it’s weird to go visit my late mother in Virginia as we always lived across the Potomac River in Maryland but there was a comfort that when one of them died there was one less decision to be made during a very sad and emotional time.

It’s odd, because I’m not necessarily a planner and don’t worry too much about the future. I do know however, that like all living things, my life will end. It just seems like the responsible, adult thing to do. My parents did it – shouldn’t I?

Truth be told, I’m also a little cuckoo about where I’d like my plot to be so I want to have a say in the matter. I have a thing about traffic noise – I don’t really like it. For instance, when we shopped for houses I would always stand outside and listen carefully for highway noises. This would be the kiss of death for a house. My husband thought I was a little crazy but, hey, we all have our quirks.

So my final resting place must be in a serene environment where traffic noise is negligible. I’ve been at a few funerals where the noise is a distraction to my thoughts. I know, I know – I won’t actually hear the noise since I’ll be dead but my survivors would, and that would bug me (although I’m sure it would make them chuckle.) It’s all about location, right? I have no control over when my life will end but I do have control over where I will rest eternally.

“How about buying me plots for my next birthday?” I joked with my husband.

I’m not joking. One could say I’m dead serious.