Moving Mom

 

Another guest blog tonight from my friend Jackie–I can certainly relate and I know many of you can too!

 

My Mother turns 90 next month. She is selling her house of 28 years and moving in with us. It’s official: I am a grown-up.

Time is a funny thing. I remember I couldn’t wait to grow older when I was young. It seemed forever to reach that 16th milestone; then 21, then 30 and OMG I was 40. Officially OLD. My eldest son is 35 and honestly and I can actually remember being 35 and yet here I am at 61 taking on the role of care-giver and life-manager for my mother. I raised 4 kids with an alcoholic husband, got through a miserable divorce, survived the deaths of my father and sister, but I never felt like a grown-up until now. It’s a little scary.

In conversations with my peers I discovered we are all going through this challenge together; what to do when your parents are not capable of living independently but don’t want to go to “one of those places”. I researched a lovely retirement community near us a few years ago and told my mother all about it. She was quiet, and refused to come visit us for almost a year, fearful we would surprise her by leaving her there and abandoning her. Of course this was never our intention; we thought that living in a high rise condo community with chef-prepared meals everyday, an on site beauty shop and library, shuttle service for shopping ~and even a town car chauffeur on duty daily~ would be lovely! I wanted to go live there myself! But she shut down any conversations about this idea and insisted she was fine in her big two story home – alone – and lonely.

In a tough conversation three years ago I explained to her that I had given up on trying to re-locate her nearer to us. Although we are only a three hour drive away, that is a long stretch in an emergency. She agreed “in principle” that living so far away wasn’t a good thing, but she just couldn’t bring herself to part with her home and all her things. I explained to her that I wanted to help move her closer but without some cooperation on her part it was just too hard. She promised to try and at least start sorting through her house and throwing things away in preparation for the “someday move that she didn’t want to make”. I asked her to begin with the magazines. There were 500 magazines from 25 years of saving neatly stacked in piles in her family room cabinet. The next time I visited I checked and the magazines were still there. We had a long way to go.

Last year as we grieved the loss of my sister, her perspective shifted. She was ready to be closer to us; her being alone was becoming more difficult and she realized I couldn’t hop into a car and drive long distance just to help her to a doctor’s appointment. Oh – and she was still driving. Last year when she turned 89 her Driver’s License needed renewal. “AHA” I thought – when we go to the Department of Public Safety office they will surely make her take a test or maybe do a refresher driving exam. And then she couldn’t live alone and she would have to move. Nope. She filled out the one page form and checked “no” to all the pertinent boxes – she had not had a stroke, or was disabled, or had a chronic illness that made her unable to perform driving tasks. When I saw the box “Are you Hearing impaired?” I jumped up and asked the clerk if being deaf in one ear was an issue. Her response “Can she hear a officer if he stopped her vehicle and spoke to her?” Mom answered “Oh yes last year when I forgot my new Vehicle registration sticker a nice officer pulled me over to tell me and I heard every word.” She paid her $7 and got a new photo taken and we were finished. I asked the clerk when this license would expire and she answered “When she is 96.” I asked if there would be any tests or refresher driving exams and she nodded, sadly, “no”. Fast forward to now and we have all agreed that it’s time to turn in the keys. Whew.

The choices had become more complicated since a few years back when I thought the condo life was the answer; she was no longer a candidate for an active retirement community and certainly not ready for an assisted living situation. She still enjoys puttering outside in her garden and managing her meals and laundry – so what was the solution? As I thought about it I reflected back to 1986 when my parents built their dream home and included a suite so my then-90 year old grandmother could permanently live with them. I guess the cycle has come full circle as my husband and I are now planning our dream house but with one significant addition – a small cottage on the property so that she may live near us and with us as she needs and I will be close to help out when that time comes. She’ll have a bright and shiny new place to live just steps away from us, and if she needs care, there is an extra bedroom.

And so the clean-out of her home began. I started with ( guess what) those magazines. Mom kept trying to save them back – I kept throwing them in sacks. We finally agreed if we took them to the Library they could be enjoyed by many people and we didn’t have to move them. Over the past months several more trips to her home for clean out sessions followed and before long the house was show-ready. It sold in 8 days after 4 different offers. The sale will be final in early May and the serious packing has begun. Mom told me recently that she really can’t believe she is going to be 90 soon. She still feels in her mind that she is younger; where have the decades gone? Perhaps it’s a myth that you are supposed to feel your “real” age. Whatever the case, I am embracing this challenge and look forward to having Mom closer. I know it will not always be easy but that’s okay. It will be a privilege to make her final years happy and safe. On those really hard days I will remember what my daughter said to me recently “Ya know Mom, when you are old we will be taking care of you”. So perhaps the bigger lesson here is that family is family, and sometimes that’s all that matters. I can do this. And after all, I AM a grown-up now.

All I Want For Christmas Is You

Today, along with millions of other Americans, I made a last minute dash to the mall.  Since Hanukah fell most improbably on Thanksgiving this year, and since I was too busy burning the turkey and side dishes to burn candles, we decided to celebrate Christmas instead.  It will be a small celebration—my daughter is on call during her internship in Boston, and my older son works for the State Department in Washington, DC.  Apparently world crises do not stop for Christmas, or any other holidays for that matter. So it will be a small crowd around the table—just my youngest son, my 88 year old father, and my husband and me.  Who was it that said, “As we grow older, our Christmas list gets smaller as we realize the things we really want can’t be bought”?

I had already taken care of gifts for the rest of the family, but the motivation that drove me to the mall today was the question of what to get for Dad.  He’s been very generous with me lately, helping shoulder the bill for the massive relandscaping project, and helping my daughter pay off her medical school loans.  What does one give a (mostly) retired plastic surgeon who has already traveled to the far corners of the earth, who has driven fast cars (and instilled a love of them in me, his daughter), and who has spent the last year trying to pare DOWN his earthly possessions from the contents of two residences in Snowmass, CO and Houston, TX.   What he wants, I can’t give him—the ability to play tennis and golf and to ski again, the ability to live at altitude without oxygen, the ability to regain his hearing, lost after a car accident, and a loving companion to keep him company as the years wear on.  Unfortunately magic is not in my repertoire.

In the end, I spent a rather aimless two hours wandering through the maze of stores, rejecting fancy cufflinks, smelly colognes, silk ties, comfy slippers and expensive watches.  I hesitated at Brookstone—there was a mini projector and a tripod which would enable PowerPoint presentations and the exhibition of literally thousands of slides, now converted to digital, of patients whose physical imperfections had been corrected long ago but whose emotional scars might linger on. In the end, I rejected the set up as too complicated—another technology to learn and forget.  I bought a few small things, and got back in the car.  As I neared home, I stopped in the local liquor store and bought him a nice bottle of Tanqueray and a perfect lime—his favorites.  What do we all really want for Christmas? We want the health and happiness of our loved ones, and also, for me, my patients.

All I really want for Christmas is you—all of you.  I hope you all have a wonderful day.

I Had a Brother

Sometimes it’s the little things that trigger the memories.  A few weeks ago, when those young women who had been abducted in Cleveland were found, almost by accident, my father said to me, “I don’t believe this story.  It’s impossible that these women could be locked up for all those years and no one ever heard them, or saw them.”  I lashed out in anger, “Dad, there are BAD people in this world, whether you want to believe it or not!”  I went on, “Don’t you remember when Joel and I were little and you and Mom would be getting ready to go out on a Saturday night, and you sent us across the grocery store parking lot to the drugstore soda fountain to get dinner?”  My father was a plastic surgery resident then, and we lived, the five of us, in a two bedroom apartment in a complex next door to the A & P.  I was seven and Joel was five and I had a job–no, a DUTY to make sure that the server did not put mayonnaise on his hamburger.  He wanted it PLAIN and that was that.  I said, “Something TERRIBLE could have happened to us and you and Mom didn’t care.  You just wanted us out of the way so you could get ready.”  My father had no recollection of this whatsoever, and it occurred to me that perhaps he wasn’t even there.  Perhaps he was still at work, sewing up lacerations and dog bites and victims of car accidents.  There were no actual memories of him, only of my mother, sitting in front of her vanity, applying her make-up.  She was beautiful, my mother. While she put on her make-up, my little brother stole candy from the drugstore.

My brother spent his life between drug rehab facilities and prison, with brief moments of hopeful sobriety in between.  We stopped speaking for a very long time after he cashed in the ticket my parents sent him so that he could be best man at my wedding.  He spent the weekend in Las Vegas gambling.  He didn’t bother to call.  When our grandmother died a few years later, we met in Chicago at her tiny apartment just before her funeral.  When my father asked if there was anything of hers that we wanted, he replied, “I checked the silver.  It’s under the bed.  It’s plate.”  My brother survived car accidents, a bad marriage and the AIDS epidemic.  He was handsome, smart and charming.  You just wanted to believe him when he said that things were better, that he was getting along  fine.  His eyes were cornflower blue, and my favorite picture of him was taken when he was eighteen.  He was sitting on a ferry boat on the way to Anacortes, wearing a blue shirt.  In the picture, the sky is gray, and he looks young, and sad.

In 2003 my brother died of an accidental heroin overdose in a flop house hotel in Portland, Oregon.  Apparently, he had been shooting up with a friend, who was recently released from prison and was on probation.  The story I got was that the friend knew that my brother had overdosed, but fled rather than call 911 and risk going back to prison himself.  It was a few days before they found my brother’s body. I don’t remember much about the funeral, except that it was late fall, and turning bitter cold.  I still miss him.

The other day I was rifling through drawers in my office, trying to find an article I had saved about melanoma.  I had to pull out some old framed family pictures that were taken off my desk top during some construction in the office, and put in the drawer for safe keeping.  I showed the medical student the pictures of my kids and we had chatted about my sister and he asked, “Do you have other siblings?”  I replied, “I had a brother.”

This Be The Verse

 “Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.”   Oscar Wilde

 

I buried my mother on January tenth.  After a long struggle with dementia, she passed away in her sleep.  In the end, my father was too ill to attend a funeral service, so my sister and I had a small graveside ceremony in Aspen, Colorado where they have lived, loved, laughed and played for the last twenty five years.  She was buried according to the Orthodox Jewish tradition in which she grew up– wrapped in a burial shroud in a plain pine box.  This is the way that it is done—there are no fancy garments, no treasured jewelry, no viewing of the body and no silk lined coffin reinforced with steel.  Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, according to the Old Testament.   There is no headstone placed at the time of the funeral; that comes a year later, after God has had plenty of time to judge the deceased, to decide which way they should go.  Sadly, I had passed judgment long ago.  And yet, the sight of my mother’s tiny coffin (always a tiny woman, no more than ninety pounds when she died) being lowered into the grave next to my dead brother was almost more than I could bear.

I don’t do funerals well and I never will.  Despite the fact that I am very good at writing eulogies, I cannot and do not deliver them.  I told my younger sister this ahead of time:  “I don’t do funerals. You will have to speak.”  She asked me why.  I explained to the best of my ability that it has to do with the work I do in my everyday life as a radiation oncologist.  Most of the time, I am able to submerge those feelings of grief and sadness at what my patients and their families are going through and my rage at the unfairness of it all.  I shove it right under, bury it deep, don’t think about it and don’t dwell on it.  But going to a funeral, and generally speaking, I do not attend patients’ funerals for this reason, all of the emotions like oxygen starved divers push their way right to the surface, gasp for air, take a deep breath and come pouring out in an uncontrollable torrent.  The ghosts of every patient that I ever cared for and cared about surround me—they grasp for my hands and my legs, they perch on my shoulders and they whisper in my ear, “Let it go.  Let it all out.”  And I do.

I never got along with my mother.  I can say it now.  As an adult, I began to understand who she was, and why she was the way she was, and that in her own way, she loved me and I of course loved her.  I can even laugh about it, in my better moments—in the last lucid phone message she left me, she threatened to disown me and write me and my three children out of her will.  Actually, it was only two of my three children—there was one who was spared her wrath.  I saved that message on my cell phone for two years, and sometimes I would replay it just to hear her voice again, after she had become mute. Then one day I accidentally erased the message.  It’s just as well.  There are better memories of better days.

As my mother was lowered into her grave, I whispered, “I forgive you.” Rest in peace, Mom.

RITA SILVER SPIRA, September 11, 1931–January 7, 2013

Road Tripping

ROAD TRIPPING

Road trippin’ with my two favorite allies
Fully loaded we got snacks and supplies
It’s time to leave this town
It’s time to steal away
Let’s go get lost
Anywhere in the U.S.A.
Let’s go get lost
Let’s go get lost
Blue you sit so pretty
West of the one
Sparkles light with yellow icing
Just a mirror for the sun
Just a mirror for the sun

 

It’s been awhile since I hit the road with my two current favorite allies, the Q’s—Queen and Quicksilver.  Now that I’ve figured out how to solve the carsickness problem which had me out of the driver’s seat, into the back of the van on my hands and knees with my Lysol, paper towels and those green plastic bags, usually within 20 minutes of starting out, I’m eager to go again. Two years of that and all it took was a little bit of Bonine—who knew?  My last big road trip with the girls was to Oregon eighteen months ago, for the Scottish Deerhound National Specialty.  Time was short, and we did not get to take the scenic route up the coast.

I’ve loved cars and driving for as long as I can remember.  Growing up in the flatlands of coastal Texas, having a car was an essential rather than a luxury.  During my early teenage years the driving age in Texas was 14, and I felt stunned and cheated when the legislature changed the legal driving age to 16, four months before my late December fourteenth birthday, and well after most of my classmates had earned their freedom.  My own liberation came soon enough, in the form of a 1963 white Chevy Impala, owned by my late grandfather, who literally only drove it to the corner grocery store and back. When I inherited that big engined beauty, with its turquoise Naugahide upholstery and plastic steering wheel with the little depressions for my fingers, the year was 1969 and the car had 7,000 miles on it.  I was in heaven.

By the time I graduated from medical school my love of the V8 surrounded by lots of “heavy metal” was fixed and for the last twenty years my vehicle of choice has been a Chevy Suburban, three in succession with the last one, Big Red, now 12 years old and about to roll over 200,000 miles.  I am somewhat pathologically attached to that car—I say that it’s because two years after I bought it in 2001, Chevy had the bad idea to turn it into a “soccer mom” car by pulling out the standard second bench seat and replacing it with two “captain’s chairs”, thus effectively removing 18 inches of rear cargo space, just enough to ensure that I could no longer get two 700 size giant breed airline crates in the back.  In the early years I spent hours on hold with Chevy’s customer service reps, likely somewhere in India, waiting to explain what a bad idea those captains seats were, not to mention the hydraulic lift that replaced the rear “barn” doors.  Imagine having 400 pounds of dog trying to exit the vehicle all at the same time.  But the real reason that I am hanging on to Big Red is the memories of many wonderful, and some not so wonderful road trips with kids and dogs.

The one my kids will likely never let me forget is the trip to Palm Springs when they were eleven, eight and five respectively and in a fit of sheer stubbornness (my husband was working in Rhode Island but there was no way THAT was going to stop me), I hauled the three of them along with three deerhounds to the dog show in January.  By the time we had come down the mountain into the valley, all six of them had thrown up. After the unloading at the hotel and the clean-up, we were back in the car where they commenced a fistfight over what kind of food and where we were going to eat for dinner.  I mistakenly turned down a blind alley and in one of the worst “Mommy moments” ever, briefly accelerated towards the adobe brick wall at the end.  Finally, there was silence in the car.

The ones I will always remember are the road trips taken separately with each child.  With my daughter, the ritual was always the same—peanut M and M’s, Cheetos, and Cokes for snacks, and turkey sandwiches with potato salad and dill pickles for dinner on the road.  With my older son, it was my turn for music education—he always made a CD of “his” music so he wouldn’t have to listen to mine. The content never failed to raise eyebrows the next time I would forget to turn off the player while ferrying a colleague around.  I took the longest trips with my youngest boy.  In 2007, when he was sixteen, we drove through southern Utah on our way to Colorado.  As he looked out the window, he exclaimed, “I never realized how beautiful this country was until we went on this trip.  Now I understand why people want to fight for it.”  Definitely worth every penny of the price of gas.

I’ve been feeling the wanderlust again lately—I dream of no agenda, no AAA prerouted trip, no reservations, no timetables, and no deadlines—just the open road, and of course, a couple of my favorite allies.  Want to come?