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.

 

 

Ready to Launch

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I am in launch mode. My oldest son is applying to college. This transition is not so fraught with anxiety for me – he will have great options and after all, it’s still months away. Rather, my immediate focus lies at the top half of my sandwich – launching my father.

Many people live far from their parents, some happily and some not so happily. I have had the good fortune of living in the same area as my parents for the past 25 years. They helped me with my children – they babysat, drove them around, and provided a lot of love and support. I helped them as my mother became ill and died last year. My parents have had an apartment in Jerusalem for the past 20 years where they went two or three times a year for six weeks at a time. But Maryland was still home base.

My father has decided to make Israel his primary home. I admire his ability to re-engage in life after losing his beloved wife of 54 years. I applaud his continued interest in living and his desire to have a full, meaningful existence. He has been drawn to Israel for as long as I can remember. He likes the people, the history, the religious life, the politics, the culture and the language. He loves living in a vibrant, active city. My mother liked it too, but not enough to livef there full-time. After she died, my father gave himself a year to regroup and form a plan. He seized this opportunity to fulfill his dream to live in Israel full-time. I say good for him. How many 78-year-old men, or women for that matter, can do that? I wrapped my mind around the fact that he was leaving and gave him my blessing. He forwarded his mail to my house, locked up his house and left.

Do I worry more for my father’s safety in Israel than I do in the United States? No. Fortunately I do not have a worrying disposition and he is not worried. I do appreciate the e-mails he sends after any attacks in Jerusalem to tell me he is fine, including the most recent heinous attack in a synagogue.

I don’t feel abandoned by my father. I am secure in our relationship, no matter how his life gets intertwined in new peoples’ lives. I feel my father’s presence and love, no matter where he lives, similar to how I feel about my mother’s spirit. As he always says, the world is much smaller than it used to be with the array of technology at our fingertips. We are never further than an e-mail or text away.

We have spent a lot of time together in the fourteen months since my mother died – it will be nice to have time to miss each other.  We knew each others’ schedules and whereabouts at all times. I’m sure he will appreciate the break from my watchful eyes. My immediate family will miss having him such a part of our daily lives, but as he says, the kids are getting older and going in their own directions. No need for him to sit around here and wait for them to throw a little attention his way. He can e-mail and text them to keep in touch too.

I am grateful that we had each other to lean on during the difficult time after my mother’s death. He’s a wonderful father. But I am thankful that he is healthy and able to pursue his passion.

It’s been two weeks since lift-off…so far, so good.

My Mother’s Hands

dr-sears-mother-hands-and-child-handsSitting in synagogue recently for the High Holidays, I thought of my mother, as I often do. This was the first round of High Holidays that I wasn’t reeling with fresh grief. Jewish holiday services are long – often lasting several hours. As my children sat briefly with me, I was reminded of all the times I sat with my own mother when I was young. Like most children, I found the services to be excruciatingly boring, so I passed the time counting the pages until the service was over or the minutes until I could be excused to roam the building with the other children. I also spent a lot of time looking through my mother’s small purse with its sparse contents for synagogue: kleenex, lipstick, a hard candy or two.

This year as I was sitting in the sanctuary, listening to the service, feeling introspective, I was struck by the memory of my mother’s hands, as I looked down at my own. I remember examining her jewelry and playing with her rings, trying them on to see what it felt like to  wear grown-up jewelry. Her hands and fingers were toys to keep me entertained and quiet. I admired her nail polish. I remember the feel of her skin as well as her sidelong glances, smiles, a warm embrace or her fingers entwined with mine.

I watched my mother’s hands change from those of a young woman into those of an older one with age spots and pronounced veins. They remained well-manicured but suffered from the cold and arthritis. As a grown woman, I continued to sit with my mother whenever possible. I still tried on her rings and was the happy recipient of a squeeze of the hand or a pat on the knee. These memories evoke feelings of security and being loved.

My daughter just discovered the game, Cat’s Cradle. She earnestly studied the book to see how to make various patterns and shapes with the colorful band of string and then asked me to play with her. My hands miraculously remembered just what to do. I was astounded by their memory, as was my daughter.

Now I’m the Mom, with middle-age hands. My daughter looks through my purse, plays with my jewelry and pleads to be released from the service. I hold her hand and try to placate her boredom.

I’m paying it forward, with my hands.

 

 

Bittersweet Sixteen

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My son with special needs turned sixteen last week. My father reminded me to say a prayer, expressing gratitude for having raised him to this point in time. I am thankful that he is happy, loved, that he walks and talks.

It is, however, bittersweet. Oddly enough, I am most sad that he is not on his way to driving a car – the highlight of turning sixteen for most teenagers in the United States. The ability to leave the house and your family and find your own way is liberating.  I still love to hop in my car and drive away sometimes. Except this time I’m running away from my children. Sweet separation. My eldest son is seventeen and he drives. His little sister once asked where her brother, the new driver, was.

“Out,” I answered.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because he can,” I told her.

I vividly recall my elation at getting my license and the incredible freedom I felt. I remember going “out” as often as I could, to that elusive place where parents can’t find you. Nowadays children can’t be as unavailable as they’d probably like, poor things, because of the homing devices that are their cell phones.

It makes me sad that my second son cannot go “out,” although he doesn’t seem to want to. He is not focused at all on the fact that he is not on the driving trajectory. In fact, he would probably be happy to stay “in” for the rest of his life. He’s happy surrounded by his family and his beloved video games. It’s tempting to let him stay in forever, to keep him safe and sound.

“Maybe he could try taking the driver’s ed course, to see if he could even pass?” I mused to my husband and other children.

They all dismissed the idea as ludicrous. He would be a danger to himself and others, they argued. His lack of attention to the world around him could have disastrous consequences. Are we selling him short? Am I crazy and deluded? Maybe a little.

It’s part of the ongoing see-saw of raising a differently-abled child. I am grateful for the things he is able to do but the grief for what he can’t do lurks in the background. His brothers are tall, strapping young men like their father. I encourage this son to consume as many calories as he can, so that maybe he can be as tall as his five-foot-four-inch mother. I cling to things I may have a touch of control over, to maintain an illusion of normalcy.

There is a popular essay which is given to many parents when they have a disabled child. It is called “Welcome to Holland.” The gist of it is that you were planning a trip to Italy and were shocked to find you arrived in Holland. Once getting over your disappointment at landing at the wrong destination, you look around and discover the beautiful things in Holland. It’s a lovely metaphor to try to make you feel better about the immense sadness and disappointment you feel when you have a less-than-perfect child.

It works for a while, perhaps getting you through the early years of crushing hardship and disbelief. I have a group of women friends who I met in a support group ten years ago, all who have disabled children. My “Special Mom” friends, I call them.

“Holland sucks,” we wholeheartedly agree.

But here we are. We strive to savor the sweet and tolerate the bittersweet.

So Happy Birthday to my young man. Who cares that driving’s not in your future? I’ll teach you how to ride the bus.