December 10, 2000
Dad is back in Florida I tried to keep him in Connecticut near me, but he insisted on returning to his Delray Beach condo. Who can blame him? If he can’t live with me, he wants to be back in the sun. Why subject old bones to a howling New England winter? Why give up a bathing suit for boots and gloves?
Dad is making a life for himself. He retired his golf clubs a few months ago but still likes to putt on the clubhouse green. He drives during daylight hours, ambles about haltingly without a cane, walks the water in the pool, plays bridge with the guys in the men’s lounge, and eats enthusiastically—God bless his appetite.
There are times, though, when he simply can’t function alone. He would love to go to the movies at night but, as they say, a man needs a wife to drive him. Who will manage the late-night emergencies, never mind the laundry and medication? His apartment is on the second floor, reached by a steep flight of concrete steps, the color of flamingos. How long before he slips and falls?
I contact a home-care agency and arrange for an aide to spend a few hours every afternoon with Dad, running errands, fixing him dinner, but she never shows up. Her replacement talks Dad’s ear off, so I let her go. I dismiss the next one, too, when she tries to hit him up for a loan. The fourth arranges to have her young children dropped off at Dad’s apartment after school—Dad loves life, but not that much. The fifth spends her day in Dad’s kitchen, reading the Bible. She reminds Dad that Jesus loves him, praise the Lord.
Home companion Number Six is bright and friendly but cooks an early dinner and leaves by five. I give her Mom’s recipes, but she ignores them. Dad sits in his kitchen alone, nibbling on salted cod with hot pepper, cold and soggy because he can’t operate the microwave. He’s used to cold borscht with sour cream, or brisket with steamed broccoli— tastes as foreign to his caregiver as hers are to him.
Dad is becoming more and more isolated, walled up in his apartment, wed to his new bride, the TV. When I call, I often catch him napping.
Who am I kidding? Dad needs to get a life. This one’s not working.
February 8, 2001
Maybe a compromise can be reached. Maybe Dad can stay in Florida in a supportive adult community and I can be a loving, involved daughter, managing the details from Connecticut fourteen hundred miles away. Mike and I fly south to scope out the options.
The first place we visit, an independent-living facility, is too independent for Dad. The residents are healthy and vigorous, and scurry from activity to activity—yoga, digital photography, mutual-fund investing. They discuss Philip Roth in a book club and learn how to roll a credible maki sushi in cooking class. They do their own wash. Dad couldn’t even walk from the lobby to his apartment.
Our next stop, an assisted-living facility, is too assisted. Residents shuffle breathlessly down the corridors, clutching walkers, or sit diapered on outdoor patios in wheelchairs pushed by hired hands. The level of care is much higher here, but death lurks in every corner. The director, itching for a sale, pounces on our hesitation. “Just don’t wait too long,” she admonishes us. “Children often make that mistake, then they’re hit with a crisis and there ’s no place for their parents to go. Most good facilities have a waiting list several months long.”
She smells blood, the viper.
When Mom was hospitalized, I put down a deposit on an apartment in Summerwood, an independent-living facility in West Hartford, Connecticut, that would be opening soon. Dad knows the neighborhood intimately: we lived only minutes away. Dad could drive around, find his old barber, even shop at the Crown, an incomparable kosher supermarket right up the street. He has a few old friends who still live in town, the beginnings of a social life. Michael’s sister, Sue, lives nearby. Most important, Michael and I live only an hour and fifteen minutes away.
I press Dad to try Summerwood for six months, promising not to sell his condo, perhaps just to rent it. If the cold gets to him, we’ll figure out how to get him back south. With great reluctance, he puts himself in my hands.
In bringing Dad north, my life takes on a new focus. I give it a name. I call it, fondly, Pop, the Project.
February 28, 2001
Summerwood is a compact, cedar-shingled, three-story building set comfortably back from a quiet suburban road. A circular driveway cuts through a mottled lawn landscaped with young hydrangea bushes and old trees. A few residents huddle on an open porch, kibitzing, waiting for spring.
“I’m here to check out my father’s new apartment,” I tell the receptionist.
“Does he like Frank Sinatra?” she asks with a cheerful informality.
“I’m hoping to play oldies-but-goodies on Sunday afternoons.”
On the counter in front of her is a card for residents to sign. It says: “Wishing you sweet memories of your husband.”
I’ve chosen a one-bedroom unit on the top floor, just off the elevator, an easy walk for Dad. The laundry room is only steps away. Who knows? He may learn to wash his shirts and socks someday.
Sunshine floods the apartment: a bright, empty space waiting to be filled. The walls are soft cream, the color of Dad’s temperament—calm, unimposing. The bathroom has an oversize door for a wheelchair and a huge open shower. A single bed is all he needs now. Propped up on pillows, he can peer out the window at the tops of trees and enjoy the changing seasons. He can also look down at the parking lot and see me coming to visit him, bearing turkey pastrami and half-sour pickles.
Summerwood opened only a month ago but is already three-quarters full: about sixty residents have moved in, mostly women, and mostly Jewish, though not necessarily religious, ranging from their midseventies to nearly a hundred.
A few share space with an ailing partner, but most live alone, their partners dead or living out their final days in nursing homes nearby.
Summerwood seems too good to be true. Except for the Sabbath, there are activities every day of the week: ceramics, painting, aerobics, bridge. The University of Hartford is right down the street, hosting concerts and cultural events, free to the elderly. Only minutes away is the Jewish Community Center with its exercise room and men’s club. Not that Dad is going to play racquetball, but with help he could walk the shallow end of the indoor pool.
Dad gets transportation to medical appointments and access to a daytime nurse. Aides are available for hourly hire to bathe him and dispense medications. If he pushes the emergency button on his necklace, someone will come running. If he doesn’t show up for meals, someone will find out why.
Summerwood serves two kosher meals a day, breakfast and dinner. Dad is far from kosher, but at least he’ll recognize the food, and he can order a tuna fish on rye for lunch in the second-floor café if he’s willing to fork over five bucks.
On the carpet by the window I place a hearty, two-foot Kentia palm plant. This will give the apartment some life. It will also give Dad something to care for and occupy his mind other than his aches and pains. We’ll see whether he remembers to water it.
All things considered, the apartment looks great—cozy, familiar, manageable, fresh. I’ll do my best to make it his home. I feel an optimism, a sense of control I haven’t felt since Mom got sick. Maybe it’s going to work out. Maybe there’s a chance it will be okay.
The Hardware Store
March 1, 2001
I’m off to the local hardware store to buy a paper-towel dispenser. “It’s for my elderly father’s new apartment,” I explain to the salesclerk.
“Will it go into drywall, wood, or plasterboard?” he asks.
“You’re kidding,” I respond, rolling my eyes. Who has time for this? Dad is coming north in ten days.
He catches my impatience: “After all the time your father has given you, you don’t have five minutes to get this right?”
I can’t figure out if this guy is an insensitive bastard or just a bit gruff. Maybe he has an aging relative of his own. Or maybe he’s trying to help me and I’m too sensitive.
I decide to trust his motives and open myself to him. “My mother died, and I’m moving my dad into an independent living home.”
His face softens. “That’s hard,” he says. “Really hard.”
He doesn’t ask, “Why isn’t your father moving in with you?” but I imagine that’s what he’s thinking. That’s what I’m thinking.
I pick up a few lightbulbs, a wastebasket, some plastic liners. This is the easy part. Checking things off lists, managing details.
“Just remember,” he calls out as I walk toward the door.
“What will help your father most is if you visit him once in a while.”
His wisdom shakes me. I should give him my job as a clinical psychologist, as a grieving, guilt-ridden daughter.
Guilt and Sorrow
“My mother is a sick, old woman who doesn’t have much to live for,” Sally tells me in an e-mail. “She drags herself around with emphysema, sucking in the air. I manage her care—she’s in an assisted-living facility—but I constantly feel I’m not doing enough. I’m an expert in guilt, but sometimes I wonder if I’m masking other feelings—like grief.”
“Yes,” I write back, assuming my most professional voice, “for someone like you, the dedicated child, guilt is the easier emotion, the stronger suit. You know it all too well. It’s a welcome distraction from grief, which is less familiar, less comfortable. With guilt, you’re the hammer, in control, competently pounding away at your perceived deficiencies. With grief, you’re the anvil, helpless to fend off the blows of time.”
“I wouldn’t mind a good cry,” Sally admits. “It would feel good.”
“You’ve been so busy nursing your mother, maybe you haven’t had the time or strength to grieve. You may worry that if you open the floodgates, you’ll drown. But if you can’t know sadness, you can’t know love.”