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Riding the Elder Care Rollercoaster with My Father
By Jamie Legon
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2013 Jamie Legon
All rights reserved.
"Your mother's had a stroke. Come right away." It was a Sunday afternoon in March when Ellie, my then ninety-year-old father, called to tell me that my mother, Gladys, eighty-five, was in critical condition and in the intensive care ward at Desert Hospital in Palm Springs, California. My wife, Julie, our two and a half-year-old son, Michael, and I jumped into our car and raced the two hours to the hospital from our home in Los Angeles. While Julie parked the car, Michael and I hurried in, just in time to catch the last wave of my mother's hand to her grandson and me, her youngest child. My mother's eyes focused on us for a few seconds before she lapsed into unconsciousness and, within a few weeks, her death. I knew that she had waited for us and only wondered whether she was telling us hello on our way in or waving good-bye on her way out. But, unknown to me at the time, her death and its aftermath would rule my life for the next six years.
Even though my parents had been married for more than sixty-one years, my father's grief was amazingly short-lived. He was completely over it in a couple of days. When I said I missed her, he'd respond with a detached "Well, she was your mother." When Julie commented on how well liked my mother was, he replied, "Well, she kissed everybody, didn't she?" It was definitely strange, but I felt that, since he'd never been alone before, his survival mechanism might be kicking in. Still, I had flashbacks of meeting them for lunch not long before and noticing that they were holding hands.
At the time that my mother died, my own family was in the process of a major job change and relocation from LA to San Francisco. I felt bad about leaving my father alone, and wanting to take care of him in the short time I had left before leaving Southern California, my wife, son, and I moved in with him, sleeping on a huge air mattress in the middle of his living room. It was a very difficult time for us—job stress plus relocation stress was now compounded by the death of my mother. Julie and I were constantly on edge, arguing frequently, and our attempt to save money by sleeping on the floor of my father's small apartment suddenly seemed utterly ludicrous.
About a week after we arrived, Julie and I were woken up in the middle of the night to see my father, dressed only in his underwear, pacing back and forth between the kitchen and his bedroom. He repeatedly swore, "Fucking whore!" and "That no-good dirty son of a bitch!"
I didn't know what was going on, but then I suddenly realized that—oh my God—he was talking about my mother! He cursed her and every member of her family—past, present, and future. Julie and I were frozen in place. We finally turned to look at each other, but we were both too stunned to say, or do, anything.
Ellie had no idea we were awake because, in his mind, he was whispering. My father was severely hearing impaired for much of his life, and his whisper constituted anybody else's scream. He kept repeating, "Fucking whore," and, "Let them all drop dead!" for over an hour, until he finally went back to bed. I stared at the ceiling, glad that Michael was still asleep, and debated whether or not I should have confronted my father. But I wondered whether, in the end, it was any of my business.
When he continued his angry diatribe into the next day, I had no choice. I thought, Maybe he's in shock and is angry about being left alone. But I was in mourning, trying to process my mother's death, and I couldn't take his unending negativity. He was watching a baseball game in the den and mumbling endless profanities about my mother, her sister, and even my grandmother when I confronted him: "Think whatever you want to think, old man, but don't ever say it out loud again."
He began to mount a feeble protest but then stopped and paused for a long moment. Still staring at the television, he said, "All right ... I don't know ... maybe I was just a flop in bed!"
I was too shocked and embarrassed to say anything.
My mother was a great beauty with natural white-blonde hair and blue eyes and possessed of an affectionate nature, while my father, though not handsome, had money and style. They were huge fans of Hollywood movies and movie stars and lived as if they were a real Hollywood couple—expensive clothes, the best restaurants, and a house in one of the toniest areas of Long Island. Once, when my brother and I were little boys, we were on vacation in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and gathering in the lobby of our hotel for a formal dinner.
A woman and her husband approached my mother and said, "We're so sorry to bother you, Miss Turner, but ... may we have your autograph?"
They actually thought that my mother was glamorous Hollywood star Lana Turner! Before my totally surprised mother could answer, my father took her arm, led her away, and said to the couple, "Miss Turner doesn't sign autographs."
Ellie wasn't a tolerant or patient person. During the cultural revolution of the '60s, our house was a major battleground—my older brother, Gary, and rock and roll on one side and my parents very firmly planted on the other.
One day in the late '50s, my then teenaged brother repeatedly played the '45 recording of Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti" for an entire afternoon. After a few unheeded warnings to stop, Ellie went into his room, picked up the record, and smashed it to pieces over the edge of the desk, saying, "Get that nigger music outta here!"
My father's volatile personality and corporal punishment methods inspired far more fear than love. Ellie was volcanic and hot-tempered and, at his middle-aged peak, was built like a bull—about five foot eight and over two hundred and ten pounds. When he was mad, he'd hit us in the body with an open backhand, correctly thinking that if he hit us in the face, he'd probably kill us. He'd say, "You're lucky! My father would've murdered me."
Although he'd brag to other people about his sons and their accomplishments, he rarely expressed affection directly to my brother or me. To him, the congratulations of today weren't nearly as important as his expectations of us for tomorrow.
Notifying friends and family of my mother's passing was a strange walk down memory lane. Even the smell of their crumbling address book was a sense memory of my mother's mothballs and cedar blocks. The pages contained the names and numbers for everything from veterinarians for pets long dead to family and friends from yesteryear. Some recalled fond memories of great characters and good times, while others reminded me of my parent's stories of insults, hurt feelings, and misunderstandings. It contained the names of long-forgotten people from my own past—old girlfriends where, in the prehistoric days before cell phones, I might be reached. I saw the names of so many people I'd forgotten about whom, at the time, I'd cared so much about.
At one point, I reached an old couple in Connecticut that had been my parents' friends for many years. When the lady asked me how my father was doing, I said that he was doing surprisingly well and was already intent on getting on with his own life. "Well, that doesn't surprise me," she said. "You know, I don't think they ever really loved each other. I'm sure you understand, given all the things that had happened between them."
I had no idea what she was talking about, and for one millisecond, my curiosity threatened to overwhelm me. But I didn't want to take the bait and replied, "I just called to let you know that my mother is gone. Take care and good luck."
I hung up and recalled my father's profane late-night rant. But the bottom line was that I was older now, and I knew how the game was played. I didn't feel the need to know the gory details because, for me, our family history had already been written a long time ago.
Ellie wasn't a very sensitive guy. My mother put up with a lot, and it wasn't hard for me to feel sympathy for her, someone who might have had to look for love and pleasure elsewhere. I grew up in a swank but small house on Long Island, and I was a reluctant witness to the fact that their lovemaking lasted for no more than a minute or two.
I once saw my father hit my mother. I was about three years old or so when I went to check what all the screaming was about. I saw his raised arm come down on her, but I was a little too young to fully comprehend what was going on.
The next day, I asked my mother how she got "those black and blue marks" on her arm, and she bitterly replied, "Your father ... who else?"
Even though I was very young, I could immediately tell that she was sorry that she had said it. She tried to cover up her slip, but it was too late.
Money was my father's currency of affection. He was Big Daddy the Family Banker, and he let it roll. He was, for sure, a big spender—top hotels, expensive restaurants, the whole nine yards. Though my mother never had to work, she also never learned how to drive and was wholly dependent on my father. From my perspective, Ellie wanted us to fear him, just as he had feared his own father, an old-school Russian who took no prisoners.
My father was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1911, the son of horse thieves and hustlers who arrived here from Russia by way of South Africa. During a horse-and-buggy ride from Long Island back to Brooklyn in about 1918 or so, my father and grandfather stopped near a field of grazing horses. My grandfather took a long look, pointed to a horse, and said, "That horse is blind." My father, already experienced with horses, looked the horse over and said, "He's not blind, Pop. He looks fine." To prove his point, my grandfather approached the rancher who was standing nearby and asked, "Is that horse for sale?" He didn't want the horse; he just wanted to see what the rancher would say. "Oh, you wouldn't want that one," the rancher said. "He's blind in one eye." When they got back in the buggy, my grandfather looked at my incredulous father and said, "How do you think I knew which horses to steal?"
Ellie's Brooklyn home was, by today's tight urban standards, a small farm. Built in 1915 by my grandfather at a cost of about eight thousand dollars, a pretty penny in those days, it was a giant brick Victorian on a corner lot and set on almost half an acre. Ellie, the youngest of four brothers and one sister, grew up in a yard filled with ducks, chickens, geese, goats, and even the occasional cow or two. He was last in the pecking order of an Old World family, where you spoke only when spoken to and the punishment for stepping out of line was swift and severe.
My grandfather was a successful salesman who, like my father, made and spent a lot of money. All his children had cars, clothes, and cash when that was only for the very rich. When my father met my mother through mutual friends, he was twenty-nine and my mother was twenty-four. According to my father, it was my maternal grandmother who strongly encouraged them to get married. Though I saw some affection between my mother and father, I never got the sense that this was any kind of fairy-tale love. For whatever reasons, he harbored lifelong and oft-stated resentments of my mother and her family.
Always a good provider, Ellie sold things on the black market—I have no idea what—during WWII before becoming a successful lingerie salesman. He never liked his name, which was unusual for a man. In school, they called him Eli or Elias, which he hated, so he tried on names like people change their underwear. At various times while growing up, I'd see mail for Allan Legon, Eli Legomsky (our Russian family name), Elias Legon, Allan Legion, and a few others I can't remember. His given name was Elias, though in his Yiddish-speaking household it was always Elya (pronounced EL-YAH), and he spoke Brooklynese, Yiddish, and Profanity with great fluency.
My brother, Gary, got to California from his home in the south of France a couple of days after my mother had her stroke. When he arrived at the hospital, I jumped up from my mother's bedside to give him a big hug. But we actually hadn't spoken to each other in over ten years. A lifetime's worth of residual bitterness, anger, and resentment had, for both of us, built itself into an insurmountable barrier. Whether real or imagined, bad timing and long-simmering undercurrents had created a miasma of hurt feelings.
A decade before my mother had her stroke, we'd had a major blowout, during which I'd said, "Screw you," to him, and he'd said, "Screw you," to me. That was the bottom line, and our estrangement had continued right up until that moment.
My relationship with my brother was, is, and always will be complicated.
Gary had already been king of the castle for seven years by the time I was born, and I think I might have been an unwanted interloper. I was far too young to be the friend and ally that he needed in his quest for 1960s-style teen independence, so his solution was to try and make me into a good soldier. Unfortunately, I wasn't very good at being a soldier and was too young and immature to appreciate his major good points—an already sizable intellect and a mature taste in clothes, food, art, and music.
He was, and still is, willful and strong-minded, and when I was young, he absolutely scared the pants off me. By the time I was only four or five, he was already beginning his "war" with my parents. After my father broke "Tutti Frutti" in half, Gary gave me a look that asked, Whose side are you on? and said, "Just remember—I am cool; they are not."
Even though ten years had gone by, we picked up right where we left off with the kind of shorthand only siblings know. In the sitcom of my mind, I see myself as the eight-year-old of yesteryear, while he's still the fifteen-year-old boy known around our house as The General—only, in my mind, dressed something like George C. Scott in Patton.
The past was at least temporarily forgotten as Gary, forever logical and dispassionate, tried to rally the sad-sack troops he found. "She might come out of it," he'd say, though we both knew that probably wouldn't be the case.
My parents never made plans for anything. They were so superstitious about their passing that they thought, if they ever made out a will, they'd just keel over and die on the spot. They never discussed with Gary and I how one of them might live as a surviving spouse, and quite honestly, neither of us ever thought that my father would survive my mother anyway. She was easy, pleasant, and much more relaxed, so why worry? He'd never outlive her ... right?
Only a few days after her stroke, the hospital called and told us that my mother had to be moved to a full-care facility. I was surprised—why so quickly? I met with the doctor, and he let me have it with a sledgehammer; she had to go because her stroke was massive, and they could do absolutely nothing further for her. His words sounded like a death sentence to me. I felt like I was in a Fellini movie—everyone's mouths kept moving, but I couldn't hear any sounds coming out.
I had no family to help me with Ellie. Gary was leaving for France within the next few weeks, and he made it absolutely clear that there was no chance he was going to put any time or energy into our father. In truth, over the years, they'd almost never seen eye to eye on anything.
Once, when Gary was home from college, my parents hosted a Passover dinner. In attendance were my mother's sister, Evelyn, and her husband, Harry; my maternal grandmother, Betty; and her third husband (very risqué in those days), Jack. During a discussion over dinner about the popular culture of the day (a hot-button topic in 1964), eighty-year-old Jack said that the Beatles were "crap."
My brother replied, "You don't know what you're talking about."
My father stepped in and said, "Apologize to your grandfather!"
Gary replied, "He's not my grandfather."
Ellie jumped to his feet and bellowed, "Apologize, I say!"
As my brother stood up to walk away from the table, my father took a swing at him. Gary fended it off and started backpedaling with my father in full pursuit.
"Stop!" screamed my mother, chasing after them.
"Ellie, you'll kill him!" yelled my aunt Evelyn, who was running behind my mother.
Gary continued backpedaling through the house and fending off the blows.
During this insanity, while they were backpedaling, I stepped in and tried to stop them (I was about twelve), but my father pushed me down on the couch. "Get out of the way," he growled; he was busy going after bigger game.
When things settled down a short time later, my mother and I visited Gary in his room. As he sat there staring blankly at the wall he said, "I'm never coming back as long as he's here."
Excerpted from FEET FIRST by Jamie Legon. Copyright © 2013 by Jamie Legon. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc..
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