Posts Tagged ‘elderly’

#1 Daughter: Longevity and Loss


Photo by Felix Adamo

#1 daughter.  Susan. That’s how I signed cards to my parents.  It was just a fun thing because I was the first-born, a way to bring some levity to the same old “Love, Susan.”  Now both my parents are dead and #1 daughter takes on a new meaning because a new word takes its place – the M word.  Matriarch.  #1 in birth order. That word has a forbidding sound.  Kind of like the name Bertha, which always intimidated me.

But let’s back up a bit.  I’m 66.  I feel I may be a tad unusual to have had both my parents so long; Mom living until 87 and Dad until 94.  The last 10 years have been a rocky journey demanding a great deal of attention from us kids as Mom and Dad navigated hospitalizations, and then increasing dementia with Mom, while continuing to live independently.  “Independently” was a misnomer but we enabled them to believe it was so because we knew there were no options: they were not going anywhere or having anyone in.  Dad knew, however.  But he was a master of self-deception, not recognizing what he knew to be true.  Yet even that isn’t true, because on a deeper level he knew what he was doing and chose to ignore it.  He was a master of levels.

Mom died just in time.  She was on the verge of major cognitive changes and neither she nor Dad would have handled them well.  But losing her broke Dad’s heart.  It broke all our hearts, but Dad’s irreparably.  He showed so much courage in tackling life and trying to move forward but the struggle was brutal.  I found myself thinking it was time for him to die and wondering how it would come to pass.

And then he planted a rose bush on the coldest day of the winter.  My sister Janine, who was visiting from Alaska, and I were on an adventure – a day trip to Boron and having a wonderful time.

Janine in Boron

Dad had his own unexpected adventure.  We got a phone call from my housekeeper Connie who had been cleaning Dad’s house too – had we seen her glasses?  She had left them at Dad’s house, we said.  And the next thing we knew Connie was at Home Depot with Dad buying a rose bush.  What?  Janine and I were ecstatic!  Maybe this would be our answer – maybe Connie could take care of Dad and that would give a spark to his life!

Before we could even get to the idea we heard that Connie was too much woman for Dad – too “take charge.”  But planting the rose bush on that very cold day almost did him in, and he told us it was time for him to move to a retirement home.  We were so excited!  We had such high hopes for him to have two or three or who knows? even more good years where he would meet people, have more to do, more to eat.  His new apartment was wonderful and he was so happy and excited.  And he only got eight days and he died.

Photo by Felix Adamo

It breaks my heart.  I was not ready.  None of us were.  It’s been a month and I’m still not ready. We wanted Dad to have more.  That’s what we wanted.  And Dad wanted it for us – he was making the very best of what he had but truly, he hadn’t had a happy day since mom died, and he was ready.  It’s not about us.  He lived a remarkable life and he died a remarkable death and that is the end of his life on earth.

My dad, Edward Reep the artist in his studio in the mid-60s

It’s hard to believe he is gone.  And after 27 years in Bakersfield, there will be no more trips out to the house on Crowningshield Drive.  I won’t be driving out two to three times a week and calling every other day or more.  When the phone rings at 7:00 a.m. I won’t be cursing the fact that I’ve been woken up and it won’t be my dad.  Just like that, the pattern breaks.

And I contemplate a new role.  Matriarch.  Does that mean anything nowadays?  My father took his role as patriarch quite seriously.  I’m not sure he actually did anything but he felt a responsibility.  We aren’t a tribal society and we don’t look to the tribal elder for advice or approval or special dispensation for anything and I am not sure I’d want to be giving it anyhow.  But I am the female head of the family and the oldest family member, male or female.  I’d like to think I acquitted myself well in the role of daughter – not perfectly, but well – and now there’s a new role to play.

What family am I head of?  My own little (or not so little) family?  My extended family – sisters, brother, nieces and nephew?  Their spouses?  Cousins? It’s probably a meaningless contemplation but interesting nonetheless as we think about the structure of family and how families are coming back together as finances shrink.  How the wagons are circling and kids are gathering around the campfire again instead of scattering to the four winds.  Or is that the wild winds and the four corners of the earth?

I guess it will sort itself out, probably by disappearing completely as anything to think about at all.  A meaningless contemplation.  I just won’t be #1 daughter any more because there won’t be any more cards to sign.  My role as a daughter is over.  Now it’s part of history.  It’s an overwhelming thought, that the role of daughter is over.  I don’t want to give it up.

Maybe we’re never ready.  We just move on.  But I’ll be all right.  And as Dad said the night before he died, “I’ll be all right.”  I love you, Dad.

The Story of my Father and the Bird: Carving the Turkey


It’s almost Thanksgiving again.  Which means, if you are going to have a turkey, that it must be carved.  My dad, who is 92, is already reflecting on the art of carving a turkey.  The older he gets, the more like a bulldog he is.  He gets a hold of an idea and hangs on to it, shaking it back and forth, up and down, while the idea gets bigger and bigger.  Usually, the idea holds imperfections of some sort which are magnified.

The turkey-carving idea started years ago.  My husband carves the turkey, or his nephew Kent, or maybe our son-in-law Matt.  In my dad’s mind, they are all one person and the carving job they do gets worse with each telling.  During today’s visit we (he, really) talked about it again.

The conversation was precipitated by my sister asking Dad if he’d carve the turkey at her house this year.  Bless her heart.  Something he takes great pride in.  But Cris, if you are reading this – do NOT let anyone take anything from the platter until Dad is completely finished and the platter has made it to the table in the grand old tradition of the Thanksgivings no one had.  Because last year, someone started eating before the dark meat had been properly arranged.

The Thanksgiving no one had

Seriously, look at Grandma in that picture.  She’s just placing that turkey in front of Gramp so he can do the manly job of carving, but who’s got the real strength? Grandma isn’t even breaking a sweat as she lightly places that 30-pounder in front of gramps.

George Bush had it right when he served turkey to the troops in Iraq.

Is it real, or is it Memorex?

That’s right, this was not a real turkey – it’s a cardboard picture of a turkey platter with a convincing curve in the middle.  Because, really, who can stand there holding a turkey like that?  It’s hard enough getting it out of the oven.

Because my father is an artist, carving a turkey is an art.  Everything must be aesthetically pleasing.  The white meat should be sliced in big, but thin, slices and fanned around the outside of the platter, which should be oval for the best impression.  In a smaller inner circle, slices of dark meat taken from the thigh should be fanned out.  I think a drumstick may go somewhere in this presentation, but I was not told and I did not ask.  Perhaps I did not listen. But the platter must be just so, even if no one special is there to view it.  It might look like this.  Something similar anyhow.

To tell the truth, I’m a little tired of hearing about slicing a turkey.  Carving a turkey.  We’ve all been hearing about it for several years but it seems to have taken on the ferver of a crusade.  Today, Mark/Kent/Matt – this person that has morphed together –  got ripped to shreds for their turkey-carving skills.  Their past efforts have been magnified to the point that they are larger-than-life.  I don’t think the word “skills” figured into it because they don’t carve a turkey – they rip it to shreds.  The description my dad was giving, and the ferver with which he told it, belonged in a horror movie.  You got the impression of chunks of turkey being flung about the room as they were pulled from the carcass by some monster of devastation.  My mind saw fangs shredding this meat as it landed on the platter.  The dark meat never stood a chance. It’s a wonder the turkey wasn’t raw, such was the description of  the melee that ensued when this morphed monster approached with the knife.

It may have ended up something like this.

Somehow, we survived this doomsday turkey carving and found the bird tasty and yummy.  I don’t believe a one of us was lamenting the presentation of the meat.  Take it back – there was one.

So today I listened – and believe me – I am not exaggerating.  I AM wondering, trying to parse out this whole thing as if it were parts of a sentence that could be ordered.  How to make order of an aging mind? Why are certain things rising to the surface over and over again, seemingly meaningless things like carving a turkey?  What does it really mean? I don’t think that near the end of life, carving a turkey could be a big concern.  What could it symbolize? Maybe being the best could be a concern.  Had you been the best?  Would others realize you had been the best? Have you appreciated the finer points in life?  Fulfilled your duties as a family man adequately?  Or better than adequately?  Who the heck knows what carving the dang turkey really means.  Dad probably doesn’t know.

But we listen.  Again and again. Telling ourselves that we will be equally insufferable at times should we made it to 92.  That our kids will go home saying, “I can’t believe she talked about that again.  Why can’t she just let go of it? It’s not important anyhow.”  And then they may contemplate the symbolism of a seemingly trivial matter.

Because we would really like carving the turkey, or whatever it is we are going to talk about over and over, to be symbolic of some deeper meaning and larger idea, not just the complaints of an old used-up person.  Sometimes it’s better to live the fantasy than know the truth.  Because a turkey, after all, is probably only a turkey.

The story of the curtains with holes in them


A couple of days ago I went over to my parent’s house and I understood something about old people.  We sat in the bedroom because that’s where they were when I got there, and I noticed that the curtains on both windows had small holes in them. And then my eye fell on my dad’s bedside radio – it’s old.  Really old.  It belonged to my husband’s father.  It’s really big, much bigger than a breadbox (and you won’t get that unless you are of a certain age) and brown, and has a giant black knob that you use to turn it on with a very definite click.  And a giant black knob to change stations.  There are certainly no buttons to push.  When this radio was built, I’m sure the wonder of the push button phone hadn’t even been invented yet.

There’s a couple of things going on here, and to explain I have to digress a bit.  Because growing up, I lived in a visual household.  Appearance was everything.  Both my parents are artists and boy, did they notice every detail of EVERYTHING – people, places, and us kids (one of us was too short, one weighed too much, one would look so much better when the braces were finally off, and so on).  So I noticed too.

But as I got older (meaning – grown up and in my own household) I realized that the commentary on appearances trended toward the negative.  I didn’t really care if a person had an ugly figurine on a shelf – it was theirs to like or dislike, not mine. I didn’t want to hear about their good or bad taste.

For example, let’s talk about a building.  If you head west on the 405 in Los Angeles and take the Santa Monica Blvd. exit, you’ll see a building on the northwest corner.  It’s just a building and I never thought anything about it.  But a number of years ago, when my dad was going to be a guest on the Charlie Rose show, he needed some new clothes for the trip to New York so I volunteered to go to Los Angeles with my parents to shop. (Which, when I think about it, was a ridiculous thing to do because I know about as much about fashion and men’s clothing as a turnip.)  As we made the turn off the freeway, this is approximately how the discussion went:

“Look at that building.  Is that one of the ugliest buildings you’ve ever seen?”

“Who would want to work in a building that looks like that and right next to the freeway, too.”

“The architect was not very creative, and the color is ugly too. I mean, just look at that…”

Get the idea? That innocuous building became the building forever marked as the Ugly Building.  Because of my husband’s carcinoid we go down to Cedars Sinai frequently, and when we get off  the 405 at Santa Monica  I ALWAYS see that building and I want to say to it, it’s ok, you’re just a serviceable building.  Not everything is a masterpiece,  and something has to be built on this land.  The good part about being near the freeway is that your workers can get there more easily.  Don’t worry, building.

Lots of other things got criticized too:  So-and-so sure was a bad housekeeper.  Did you see the grime on that lampshade? Why did she ever wear something that color? That woman should never wear short sleeves.  These people need to replace their carpet.  And on and on.

As the years went by, I realized I was still harboring remnants of that critical streak.  Sometimes my husband and I would go to a large, lovely old person’s home for a fundraiser or something, and I’d look at the carpet and how shabby it was and wonder why the heck those people didn’t replace it.  Obviously, they could afford it.

So here I was, sitting in my parent’s bedroom looking at the holes in the curtains.  (The carpet’s a bit shabby too.) They hadn’t noticed the holes and I sure as heck wasn’t going to point them out.  I realized they couldn’t even see them (they were small holes, but still).  I told my sister, who said even if they knew they were there, they wouldn’t replace them because it would cost money – and right now my father’s primary goal is to leave as much money as possible to us kids. That’s probably just about how the old people with the shabby carpet were feeling, too.  The carpet was just old.  It still worked.  Like the people.

And I was sitting in my parent’s bedroom looking at that old, clunky radio, thinking, Wow, if anything could be called ugly in terms of today’s sleek designs, it’s amazing that Dad has that in here…and I realized why my husband’s dad’s home office was always such a junk pile.  Because all that stuff was still serviceable.  Why get rid of a decrepit chair you can still sit in? Just put a cushion on it.  At some point, my dad had made the transition from “That’s so ugly I don’t want it in my house” to “it works.”  Those old people were at the forefront of the “reuse and recycle” movement before we even knew it was something good to do.

Then I came home and was sitting in my bedroom looking at my curtain.  It isn’t even a curtain.  In the morning the heat from that particular window would wake me up, so I took a piece of fabric left over from the big curtain, and a piece of blackout material that was left, and clipped it onto slats on the blind.  And as I contemplated this all, I realized that I had no motivation whatsoever to turn it into a real curtain – because it worked. I’m 63, but I bet that when I’m 73 that cloth will still be clipped to the blind. It works and I have other things to do.

I noticed the big curtain over the sliding glass door that my daughter had to lengthen because these doors are so much taller than the ones in the old house.  And I see the line when she sewed it, and it doesn’t look great, and she tells me to get a ribbon or something and put it along that seam and the curtain will look so much better.  But then I’d have to go buy some sort of ribbon and affix it to the curtain, and that would be traumatic because it would be crooked and ultimately look like a cheesy ribbon stuck on a curtain.  If it ever gets done, it’ll be my daughter who does it because she’ll do it right and it’ll look good.  But it works just fine the way it is.