Monday, April 7, 2014

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Adult-onset anxiety

Parents are supposed to protect their children from all pain at all costs, and God knows I’ve tried. But recently I got a thrill from my daughter’s mental anguish. She told me that the last time she housesat for us, it rained one night, and she was unable to sleep worrying about whether the outside drain was clogged with debris. It just made my day!

Friday, March 28, 2014

Adding it up

With the recent deaths of my sister-in-law, mother-in-law and father, I’ve learned that the most basic financial records—checkbook registers and credit-card statements—constitute a kind of bullet-point biography. What, I wonder, would a biographer be able to deduce from a year’s worth of my own documents?

* I am ill: Not. My health is robust despite co-pays for breast-cancer follow-ups, dermatology surgery, physical therapy, and gastrointestinal tests.

* I am a fashion plate: Not. I bought a pile of clothing, but only on sale—and eBay. My favorite purchase is an $8 pair of mom jeans from Ross.

* I own my apartment: Yes, I pay a modest maintenance for a loft bought for a song when my neighborhood was a drug-addled slum. There was a trucking garage across the street in the front and a parking lot in the rear whose cars were used by prostitutes to turn tricks. Now it’s the gold coast.

* I am a finger-twitching tech rat: I spent way too much on cable, landline, wifi and cell-phone service, the latter for myself, Other, and my son and daughter, the last two in pathetic hopes they would repay my generosity by responding to my painstaking texts. It could still happen.

*I live on easy street: True—for a year. I collected a pension and severance as well as freelance paychecks.

* I am a philanthropist in the grand tradition: Yes, but. I donated a staggering sum to an educational nonprofit and less impressive amounts to arts and disease-affinity groups, but the staggering sum was the runoff from my intestate sister-in-law’s estate, which was not intended for Other and me, so Other gave away half, and gave me the other half to give away, and the unimpressive amounts were unimpressive.

* I am too lazy to do my own housework: It was necessary to hire a cleaning woman to silence the bickering between Other or me over who did a worse job of dusting. Now we’re in agreement; the cleaning lady misses spots.

* I have begun the long slide into restorative dentistry: Yes, and my cremains will consist of a tiny mound of ash and a great mountain of gleaming ceramic replacement parts.

* I am health-conscious and extremely flexible: Sort of. I took a lot of yoga classes, but afterwards I ate cookies.

* I’ve done a major renovation: Yes! We have a new deck that is the nicest room in (or out of) the house. The planking is like a dance floor, and the fence was done twice, the second time to achieve a perfect rhythm in the variation in grain from board to board. Our contractor had OCD—in a good way.

* I am a writer: One writing class was not enough.

* I have a love of travel or a lover in the West: The week in Paris was a week in Paris, but the ridiculous number of trips to California were to care for my elderly parents. And I was a failure—one died. 

* I am a drug addict: Yes, I withdrew a lot of cash—and therein lies a whiff of a secret life, but just a whiff and no substance (abuse).

Thursday, March 27, 2014

A life in checks and balances

I'm bored by math, can't balance my checkbook without a full-time handholder, and struggle even to write checks (so many steps!). Yet it has been revealed to me through the deaths of various relatives that one of the most interesting ways to get to know people or to learn their secrets is to have your nose rubbed in their financial affairs.

In the wake of my father's death, my brother and sister-in-law have taken responsibility for writing paper checks for my mother’s bills. I’ve been tasked with monitoring my mother’s bank account and paying the two "V" bills online: the Visa card and the Vista condo monthly dues. But here's the thing: even with this minimal involvement in my parents' financial life, I am learning and being reminded of interesting details about my father:

In addition to being hospitalized four times in the last month of his life, which I knew about, my father required three visits from the fire department to get him back on his feet after he’d fallen. My father was a big man: 6 ft. 4 in. He was slender at the end, but too difficult for the tiny home aide to maneuver. The touching thing is that he never told me about these falls and apparently forbid anyone else to do so, even though I called every day or two and visited frequently, so there was ample opportunity. He didn’t want to worry me. I feel guilt now, a form of retroactive worry I suppose.

My brother was finally able to cancel my parents’ paid AOL account yesterday. I had often suggested it, but my father insisted that it provided “security” and refused to let it go, even though it cost him $29.99 a month in return for absolutely nothing. My mother’s verbal skills declined after her stroke, and my father was deeply paranoid about electronic media. He was convinced the CIA was collecting information about him for his anti-war work in the ‘70s and his trips to Egypt in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Could be true.

My parents put their money where their beliefs were. Every month there were donations to the Unitarian church, Amnesty USA, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Mendocino Music Festival, the ACLU, Compassion & Choice, Doctors Without Borders, Viet Veterans of California, and the Multiple Sclerosis society. The last was in honor of his dear friend Wally, who died of pulmonary fibrosis, a diagnosis that somehow got transmuted into m.s. in my father’s mind; when I pointed out the real diagnosis to him, he insisted they were the same thing, and anyway, Wally would have liked having money donated to m.s. too.

The National Pen Company made hundreds, perhaps thousands, of dollars from my father, who ordered hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pens and flashlights imprinted with “Valley of the Kings Research,” an organization that has not existed for several years. My father gave out these trinkets by the dozen to friends and visitors. There are hundreds of them still secreted away throughout the apartment. We put out a basket of them at his memorial service, but takers—and there were many—barely made a dent in the supply.

If my father liked a book, he bought 10 or 20 copies to give away. I ordered them for him on Amazon, so I have a list of recent favorites: “Being Wrong,” by Kathryn Shultz; “I Am Malala,” by Malala Yousafzai; “Miramar,” by Naguib Mahfouz; “Shahhat,” by Richard Critchfield; and “To Forgive Design: Understanding Failure,” by Henry Petroski. 

My parents’ living expenses were modest—except for their 24-hour-home-care bill of $400 a day, $600 on holidays. They had paid off their condominium and no longer traveled. Their biggest expense outside of their home aides was food: hefty portions of meat at every meal for my farm-boy father, bushels of nuts for snacking, as well as carbs aplenty in the form of pies, cakes, cookies, crackers, cupcakes, bagels and muffins. As for the home care, it was necessary for survival. My parents had eschewed any form of institution as too confining. In the end they were imprisoned in their beautiful hilltop condo, the steep incline preventing them from setting foot outside. The isolation and tedium drove them both a bit crazy.

So there in a check register is the story of a life, or a part of one.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Remnants of Things Repast


Yesterday in a yoga class at Iyengar, another student asked me whether I was a dancer. “No,” I said, “but I’m flattered you asked.” Then I realized she was looking at my feet and it was not a compliment.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Dying days

It’s probably always a jolt when a parent dies, but I can’t claim I wasn’t warned about my father’s death. He was 90, and he’d been talking to me for the past year about dying. 

He and I spent days poring over questions like “If I am unconscious, in a coma or in a persistent vegetative state and there is little or no chance of recovery ... I would [want/not want] to have life-sustaining treatments.” That one was easy for both of us. 

But other questions were more perplexing: Would he want to have regular life-sustaining treatments like, say, dialysis if he were mentally competent but unable to communicate? It would depend. Many of the questions remained in the limbo of “it would depend.”

He was excited about dying. He talked about it constantly. He formally enlisted an old friend to be his “advance-care agent” and put her on his list of emergency contacts. In the end, though, he didn’t need her services. 

He was hospitalized four times in his last month of his life. His lungs kept filling with fluid, making it hard for him to breathe. He wasn’t expected to survive the third hospitalization, so I flew out to have a chance to see him before he died. When I arrived, at midnight, he was awake and pleased to see me. “I pulled my plug!” he announced excitedly, holding up his arm, with its new DNR wristband, in an air punch of victory. But after he had signed the DNR, he allowed doctors to remove fluid from his chest once again—which revived him. 

I spent five days at his bedside, during which time he told me that he had had a wonderful marriage, and a wonderful life. This seemed like good news, since he had been depressed during much of the past year. 

One day he greeted me by telling me cheerfully, “I’m wearing women’s pants!” (They weren’t really women’s pants, but sweatpants with an elastic waistband, a style he identified with my mother.) 

When his nurse asked him how he was, he told her, “I’m a loser. I’m an engineer, and my whole career I’ve been fighting the natural forces that eventually destroy all things: wind, fire, water, air, heat, cold. And now I’m fighting disease, and I’m losing.” 

When Other called him and asked him how he was, my father said delightedly, “I’m wearing diapers!” 

Everything about the process of leaving the living world fascinated him—and made him seem more alive than ever. It was as though he had been bored by the tedium and stress of a life that had devolved into paying bills and preparing his taxes. But dying—now that was interesting!

Shortly after he was discharged and I left him to fly home, he was hospitalized again. This time he was resolute. He demanded to be sent home. “I can’t live like this,” he told me on the phone. By the time my brother and sister-in-law arrived, he had yanked out his chest drain. They took him home to the apartment he shared with my mother and their home aide, and within 24 hours he was gone. 

Before he died, he underwent a process called “terminal agitation,” thrashing and trying to throw himself out of the hospital bed that the hospice service had set up in the living room. It took all my brother’s strength to subdue him. At one point, my brother and sister-in-law called me and asked me to try to talk to him on the phone to see if I could calm him down. “Dad,” I said. “Everything is o.k. You don’t need to worry about anything. The bills are paid, and we’ll take care of Mom.” Those were the last words I spoke to him.

They tell me that he seemed calmer after that. He continued to mutter unintelligibly, occasionally breaking into coherence. He told my sister-in-law, “You have given me a great gift” (apparently alluding to her help in arranging for him to die at home rather than in the hospital). He shouted out at one point: “I’m going … to Death!” And at 8 in the morning, he uttered his old familiar catchphrase, “Take care, and have fun!”

I struggle to remember anything from my childhood about my father. But images of his old age and dying are vivid—and infinitely touching.