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.

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

Cookies

 

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My parents were married for fifty-four years until my mother’s death in 2013. It was a strong partnership and a loving marriage. I’m told that people who have good marriages are more likely to marry again as they’ve had such a positive experience with the institution.

So it’s not surprising that my father has a lady friend, and a very nice one at that. We recently had the pleasure of making her acquaintance. She too was married for a long time and was widowed around the same time as my father. I am pleased that my father has a companion, is not lonely, and continues to have an active, full life.

Intellectually, I am all in. Emotionally, however, it took me a little longer to get there.

A couple of months ago I was with friends who inquired after my father. They wondered if I had seen a picture of his lady friend and were surprised when I said I hadn’t, nor did I particularly want to. “Why not?” they wondered.

“If I see a picture, that means three things,” I answered.

a) this person actually exists

b) my mother is dead, and

c) my father has a girlfriend

“So, no, I don’t really need to see a picture. I’m good.”  My logic was sound and my denial fully intact. What was the harm in believing my parents were away on vacation?

Lo and behold, what happened a few days later? My father sent my siblings and I a picture of his friend. Funny how the universe works. God must have been gently nudging my emotions to catch up with my intellect, which of course they did. I’m fifty-one years old, not ten. While it’s weird to see my father with someone other than my mother, it’s good-weird. My sister called me after receiving the picture via email too.

“Did you see the picture?” she asked.

“Yeah, I saw it,” I said.

We agreed that this woman looked like a normal, nice person. My sister told me she got up from the computer, walked into her kitchen, and made a beeline to the counter where a plate of cookies sat that she had specifically not been eating all day. You know where this is going…she proceeded to eat the whole plate.

Emotional Eating 101 – your mom dies and your dad moves on with his life. How could cookies not make you feel a little better?

I have been hearing many stories from other people who have lost a parent and had similar experiences with a parent in a new relationship. One woman told me, “I’ll make you feel better – my father married my mother-in-law.” Wow, she wins the gold medal in the unusual second marriage category. Most everyone tells me how glad they are that their surviving parent has someone to share their life with. Those whose parents were never in another relationship lament that fact. I am thankful for my dad’s run of the mill widow-meets-widower story.

I am no longer in denial. I realize my father isn’t trying to find me another mom; he has simply found a companion for himself. Hard to believe, but it’s actually not about me. It’s a good life lesson – one that goes down easier with a big plate of cookies.

 

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.

Me and My Dad

My Dad is one of a kind.  He is a generous, opinionated, smart, and loving man.  He expresses his feelings easily and freely.

Throughout my life he periodically asks, “Have I told you I love you today?”

Pretty great, I know.

And now he stands alone, after losing my mother to cancer six months ago.  Fortunately he is a healthy and independent seventy-seven year old.  But he is alone.  He no longer has my mother to schedule their social calendar, cook meals, beam with pride over their grandchildren.  Now when I call his house he can no longer chat with me briefly and hand the phone to my mother.  He and I are in a new place, bound together by our grief as we forge ahead without his wife and my mom.

We are lucky that we had a relationship independent of my mother so that we are not strangers.  It’s the same as before, but closer.  We check in with each other frequently.  We help each other – he does some of the driving of my kids and I frequently make dinner for him.  While he can shop and feed himself, cooking is not an interest of his.  It makes me sad to think his house will never be filled with the joyous, life-affirming smells of the kitchen. My husband and I provide a home-cooked meal, a glass of wine, and a sounding board as my dad moves forward to figure out his new reality.

He has been retired for several years.  How will he fill his time without my mother? Will he stay in the house that he and my mother built and love so much?  Will he date? Remarry? Where will he live?  These are questions he grapples with and I can only stand by and watch.  In a weird way, it’s how I feel about my 17  year-old son.  Of course they are on two different ends of the life cycle, but they both have to define who they are and figure out their own life.

I admire my father’s resilience and strength.  He is grateful for the wonderful marriage he had. And he is cognizant of the fact that he is still living, and should continue to do so as fully as possible. For now, I’m enjoying this time of having my father to myself.  If and when he is in another relationship, things will change.

My sister and I have taken to referring to him as “paterfamilias,” which he doesn’t care for but it amuses us.  “Pater” for short.  He takes seriously his role as head of the family.  He is a caring father, grandfather, uncle, brother-in-law, and cousin.  My mother’s way of doing things are ingrained in him, as they are in me.  He knows just what to take to someone’s house as a hostess gift.  He is thoughtful and caring, but even more so as he channels my mother’s special brand of kindness and thoughtfulness.  He remembers birthdays and goes out of his way to write meaningful cards.  He is very aware that he is the last parent standing and wants to ensure that his legacy is as rich as my mother’s.  He wants to make sure he too will have a lasting impact on his family.

I think of my Dad all the time and feel responsible for his well-being.

“Is it a burden?” a friend asked.

Not at all. I am grateful that we live near each other and can share the joys and sorrows of daily life with one another. It would be much harder to think of him alone if I did not live nearby. We have good boundaries and separate lives, though they often overlap.  I recently invited him over one Saturday evening but he declined, saying he wanted to be with adults.  Gee, I thought 50 year old me was an adult…but I knew what he meant.  He wants to hang around with peers, not people my age all the time.  He enriches my life, and the life of my family.

So who will my father become, after being Rita’s husband for 54 years?  Someone equally as wonderful.  Just a little different.