Monday, January 26, 2009

Memory Lane

I have a lot of memories of my dad that need an outlet, so my posts will likely be more frequent for a while.

Today's date--Jan 26--kept sticking in my mind. It's Republic Day in India, but that wasn't what was flagging my memory. Then I remembered that it is two years ago today that Dad returned to the U.S. after his time with us there.

Afterwards, the apartment felt very empty for a long time, not only because he had left, but Ganesh, his nurse and friend, was gone as well. Though my sister-in-law was there until spring--and that softened the blow a lot-- it was still much lonelier at the dinner table, bereft of Dad's unique sense of humor and cheerful spirit. Sometimes I would go into his room--his clothes no longer there but books on the shelf awaiting my own move back to the U.S. at the end of that year--and feel as if someone had died. In reality, I think this was what psychologists call "anticipatory grieving"--a kind of precursor of death when a person you are close to is in a slow and inevitable decline. Of course, at the time I had no idea how long it would be--despite his dementia, Dad was still relatively healthy. But the feelings now remind me of what I experienced then.

Probably the hardest thing for me these past several days since his death has been not going to the nursing home. It was just something I did this past year--it was always at the back of my mind as a daily "to-do"-and on busy days I even wrote it in my planner. I varied the time of my visits, but the period between 3-6 in the afternoon tended to be the most usual for me. That time is now also the most difficult to get through. Sometimes I have caught myself thinking that I need to stop by--only to be taken up short by the reality of Dad's death, and experience that awful, sinking feeling that is so characteristic of a fresh grief.

Despite these feelings, I am much luckier than many who lose a parent. It is hard to begrudge death to someone who has lived a long and full life, and whose final years have seen steady decline in mental and physical function. Rather, grief is mixed with something almost akin to joy--although no longer seen, the person is recovered, and gone to a better place. My grief is also relatively simple, without the complication of tangled emotions, anger, disappointment, or having lost a parent without warning or at a young age. But I have realized that it is also less complicated because I find myself relatively free of regret--a terrible emotion to combine with feelings of loss. And I think that I have my dad to thank for this, albeit in a strange way. Without intending it, he taught me a great deal about the nature of grief.

Dad was only nine when his mother died suddenly after a short illness, and though he spoke of her--more than 70 years after her death, he said that he could still vividly see her face in his mind's eye---it was with a kind of philosophical distance. But his father--my grandfather--lived a very long life, dying a month short of his 96th birthday, and they were extremely close. My grandfather was a gentle and tender-hearted soul and after the death of my grandmother, my dad's stepmother, he lived with my parents for nearly ten years before his own death. When he passed away, my dad--then only a few years older than I am now-- was filled with remorse. No one who knew Dad would have doubted his love or dedication to my grandfather especially during his final years. But despite being told this by many people, including my mother and me, he was quite inconsolable.

People who knew my father only in his later years, his personality softened by dementia, saw a man very much like my memories of my granddad--sweet and gentle, and full of kindness. But in his prime, Dad could be short tempered and impatient, and he had a decidedly directive--some might say controlling--nature. I think it pained him immensely to see my grandfather losing his physical and mental abilities, and his and my mother's lives were also constrained by their duties as caregivers especially in my grandfather's last years. These pressures sometimes caused Dad to be sharp and overbearing, and when my grandfather passed away, he deeply regretted those occasions. "I was too hard on Pa," he would say to me; "he couldn't help what was happening. I should have been more patient with him." I know that this remorse added considerably to his grief.

I can't say that I thought of this consciously when Dad grew older and became less able to look after himself, but I think now that it must have worked on me in some invisible way. My grandfather never approached Dad's degree of dementia--two years before his death he was still using words like "loquacious" and "supple" in conversation--but both body and mind were in decline and the sad part was that he was both aware of it and cognizant of the stress he was causing my father. "Joe barks at me," he would say, "but I know he doesn't mean it." There was only one time that I can recall that I lost patience with Dad --he had messed up something in the kitchen a year or so before we went to India---and I felt terrible afterwards that I had "barked" at him in the same way he had done with his father so many years before. At that point I did recall his remorse after my grandfather passed, and resolved to try not to give myself the same punishment. Part of my determination to take him to India was my belief--shared by Marty-- that being with us, whatever the risks, would far outweigh any "danger" he might be in living in a developing country. As it turned out, he got better care than we could have hoped for even in the United States, and we had the pleasure of being with him and seeing him make new friends. My main regret after he left was that he might have stayed there a bit longer. But then Marty reminds me of the difficult journey back on the plane, and I know that we were close to the right time.

Of course, if I had these years to do over, I would surely have spent more time with him, talked to him more, and been less distracted, especially in India. On one level I know that his dementia became so advanced that he probably wouldn't have known the difference. But I would have. Still, I am thankful that I learned to anticipate the grief that I now feel--and somehow understood in time that it is hard enough without adding the sharp sting of remorse.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Dad's Final Journey

As the country prepared for the long-awaited transition from the Bush years to the Obama years, I was experiencing a transition of a very different kind: my father's passage from this world to the next. Dad died peacefully and in no evident pain a week ago today.

Years ago when I read Little Women, the description of Beth's wish for her then imminent death stuck with me--she simply hoped that the tide would go out easily. So it was with Dad. Just before his 91st birthday last month, he told first the head nurse, and then me, that he was dying. "I can't put anything in my body anymore, " he replied, when the nurse asked him gently why he thought so. He lost even more weight after that, and in the last few days no longer sat up--clearly conserving all of his energy just to stay alive. The nursing home staff, who see this all the time, told me then that he probably had less than a couple of weeks to live. As it turned out, it was under a week.

Though he went quickly in the end and I did not quite reach the nursing home in time for his final breath, I spent a lot of time with him those last few days and nights. I tried to be a faithful visitor this past year, often biking the three mile distance to the nursing home in summer--as he would have done himself, for he never took the car when he could bike or walk somewhere-- and going almost every day I was in town. I confess that there were many times when I could not stay long--I found it too difficult to watch him struggling to eat, or he would be asleep, or just out of it. But during the year there were also longer visits, when we had time to share his favorite music, the poems of Emily Dickinson, or conversations where he would enthusiastically try to explain something to me--though often struggling to find the words. The miracle was that as advanced as his dementia had become, he always knew us, and never lost the ability to say "I love you"---many times with tears in his eyes. There were other things that got through to him--a few days after I had broken the news to him of his older sister's death, he was able to recall it, and thereafter sometimes called me by her name instead of my own.

At the funeral, I heard many wonderful stories about my dad, and the tributes paid to him were truly heartwarming. One of his only remaining high school classmates showed up--there are now only two left in the Class of '35-- and told of knowing my dad as a boy. A neighbor recalled my dad tutoring him in math. And a fellow Mason told me a wonderful and very funny story of my dad's early days working in the family dry goods store.

My ritual of visiting the nursing home now shifts to the ritual of saying Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, for the next 11 months. At 91, Dad lived a long and full life, and it was a special joy to have him with us after my mother died and in India. I am grateful we had him for so long.

Exultation is the going
Of an inland soul to sea-
Past the Houses-
Past the Headlands-
Into deep Eternity.
Bred as we, among the mountains,
Can the sailor understand
The divine intoxication
Of the first league out from Land?
---Emily Dickinson

Thursday, January 1, 2009

RIng out the old, bring on the new....

Happy New Year! It's the beginning of a new year, and I realize I haven't written for over a month. Perhaps because there hasn't been much to write about, although I'm sure I could have found something: icestorms escaped (we were in Michigan when the one hit in New Hampshire, and vice versa), travels to New York and Las Vegas (where I attended a fantastic conference on executive coaching), looking for a job, etc.

Bottom line, as the year ends and a new one begins, I'm still feeling like I'm "in transition." Looking back, it's been a pretty strange year.

  • Other than a little consulting here and there, I haven't worked for the first time since I was 15 years old. Initially, I enjoyed the time off, but now I'm eager to get back and do something meaningful.

  • I haven't forgotten as much Japanese as I thought (as I studied intensively for a proficiency exam in December).

  • At times I still miss India. I may go back this winter since my sister-in-law will be teaching there.

  • Despite having more time to work out (which I did), I gained 12 pounds. Feel a bit like Oprah in that respect: how did this happen? Definitely want to reverse that and then some in 2009.

  • I attended Vipassana in the spring and discovered that meditation is a big key to my equilibrium. I will likely do this in one form or another the rest of my life.

  • Ditto yoga. Although I've been spotty at going to the yoga studio the last few months, I faithfully do several poses every morning, courtesy of the Wii Fit. Gets my circulation going and clears my mind for the day.

  • I'm no longer a vegetarian. I don't go wild over meat, but I do enjoy it a few times a week. (hope this isn't related to #4 above.....)

  • Have spent a lot more time at our place in Keene. Really love it here. Many times when we return to Detroit I feel a drain on my energy--no surprise given the dismal environment.

  • As the year begins, there is a lot to be grateful for: family, health, my dad still being with us, the bright future of a new and dynamic president.....I'm looking forward to 2009.