Tag Archives: death

The Slow March of Death: My Father’s Cancer and Necessary Denial of Mortality

Yesterday, I joked with my husband that it’s difficult to say “poor dad” in any scenario. My father, with his chronic narcissism, is quick to blame you with a massive guilt trip for any slight mistake, to debate your opinion to the ground telling you you’re flat out wrong, and to make thousands of careless mistakes only to get extremely angry at you if you dare to call him out on any of them. Yesterday was a day when “poor dad” would be the tinge of empathy I feel for him bubbles to the surface.

It has been nearly 10 years since the doctors told him that he has an aggressive form of late-stage prostate cancer and he had “two years” to live. He is 67, and with all his health issues – his obesity, his diabetes which he fails to keep in check, and the cancer which was supposed to take his life long ago, has surpassed the lifetime of Carrie Fisher and many others who have died too young. Still, there is never a good time to die, and despite his personality shortcomings we all want him to live as long as possible and as comfortably as possible. I had a bit of a breakdown years ago about his looming mortality, and then as time passed and the drug concoctions they put him on started to slow down the growth of his cancer we all just put the thoughts of death out of our minds. He briefly lost weight and seemed a bit happier. Then he returned his old habits – overeating, yelling horrible things at my mother, and being his typical anxious, narcissistic, grouchy self. Continue reading

Death from Afar

My grandmother is a classic narcissist. My first memory of her was when I was probably five or six years old and she was so mad at me that I wouldn’t clear my plate of blueberry blintzes despite that the plate was large and I wasn’t hungry enough to eat them all being a five year old girl. That isn’t the best example of her narcissism, but it’s my first memory of her. An old video shows her extremely annoyed by my childish antics and saying she doesn’t want to visit anymore, only half joking. My reaction at maybe all by four years old is “that’s mean.” She also thought the Obama family personally sent her a handwritten note because she’s so well respected in the world, and made me invite Bob Dole to my Bat Mitzvah since she was somehow involved in his campaign (shockingly, he declined.)

She has three children – three daughters (my mother being the oldest) who all have pieces of the same narcissism embedded in their own personalities to varying degrees. And, now that their mother is dying, no one really wants to deal with it. It’s a difficult situation because she had gambled away her life savings ($300k+) and never once thanks her daughters for anything they do to help her out – her natural state is complaining about whatever situation she is in, even if it’s her own fault she got there.

I do understand that being old sucks. Her husband died many years ago and she spent all the time after that being a gambling addict. What else was she going to do? No one wanted to be around her. At the casino the workers would listen to her stories and pretend to care. She had an audience. And she paid dearly for it. But what else was she going to do when her own daughters didn’t want to visit her?

But then a few years ago she fell and had to move into a home on the outskirts of Las Vegas. For what it is, it’s nice. But it’s also a small house in suburbia with no way out but “up.” She has her own room which was a requirement for her (and luckily something that my mother figured out she could afford barely) but she has no one to come visit to take her out to even get some fresh air. The other seniors who live in the house certainly can’t stand her (though at the same time she doesn’t get bored of talking and telling her delusional stories so she might be somewhat entertaining to them) so she’s just alone. Old and alone and her own daughters bicker about whether they should go out to see her as her condition declines. The middle sister this morning asked if she would have to go out to the funeral (the older sister doesn’t actually work or have any major commitments that would keep her from traveling.) Meanwhile the younger sister would go because she lives with the most guilt and my mother, the oldest sister, would go even though she wouldn’t want to and she wouldn’t have any emotions around the situation because she has no emotions.

My grandmother is losing her mind, as an old person does, but it’s always hard to know how much so since her mind was always lost. She fell a few months ago and they had to take her to the hospital but she refused to be treated for any of her issues so they sent her home to be on hospice care and basically to die. However, one doesn’t die overnight. Dying can be a long process in which you’re left alone to suffer through all the pains that come along with the body shutting down.

Yesterday, the manager of the home called my mother to tell her that grandma hasn’t eaten in four days. We all were a bit stunned that they decided to wait that long to call. No one at the home seemed to know exactly her state and she was asleep. Hospice care apparently only means checking in three times a week and giving her a weekly bath. I had to get on the phone with the home to ask these questions because not one of her daughters could think of how to help in the situation.

Since she hasn’t eaten for four days, my first question was – why? Is she in such a bad state that she can’t eat anymore and is very close to death – or is there another reason? The closet I came to experiencing death was watching my grandfather in his last weeks. He was at the hospital and being fed through a feeding tube and hooked up to lots of machines and you could hear the rattling in his chest. He eventually was sent to a hospice house where he died fairly quickly. I didn’t see the very end, but I did see him at the hospital, and I’m glad I did. It does provide some closure to be able to say goodbyes  – and also just to understand that it’s the body’s time to pass.

But I’m not clear my grandmother is in that state yet. When we finally got her on the phone today she couldn’t hear a thing but the woman caretaker was able to communicate with her. We found out she ate a half slice of toast today but she doesn’t want to eat because her body burns (she always has had bad acid reflux but refuses to take medicine for it.) She also has other various ailments that could be cured or helped significantly by taking some basic meds but no one can convince her of that. She’s pretty much determined to die at this point – and that’s her right. And she is dying. But I can’t help thinking of how horrible it is to be alone – no matter how awful a person’s spirit is – that doesn’t chance that they deserve to have as good as possible of an end of life experience.

At the moment her mind flutters between reality and memories and delusions – but she very clearly remembers that I’m marrying someone who isn’t Jewish and brings that up all the time. Apparently last week she had convinced herself that her youngest daughter (while on the phone with her) was the one marrying someone who isn’t Jewish and she went on and on about how the children aren’t going to be Jewish and all the problems they will have… she’s definitely in and out of reality, but that she won’t forget.

My mother was trying to figure out whether she should go out there. Actually, all the sisters are trying to figure out when they should visit. My mother has a wedding to go to this weekend (and then my wedding coming up in a few weeks but this is actually a good time for her to go otherwise.) Her middle sister doesn’t care to see her mother at all before or after she dies. Her youngest sister wants to go but she is still working and has a lot going on in her life, but she’d make the time for it. The younger two are more bitter at their mother for how she has treated them through the years and my mother has not an angry of bitter bone in her body to use. She also has no caring bone. She just manages logistics. She has no heart.

When I heard my grandma wasn’t eating, I immediately thought we should try to get her the one meal that she loves — lamp chops with mint jelly — from the casino she would gamble all her money away at in her early senior years. I understand she wouldn’t want to eat any of the crappy food at the home that they serve but if she could get lamp chops, maybe she’d want to eat that. Maybe she wouldn’t, but at least then we’d see if she was capable of eating. I called the restaurant and tried to coordinate a delivery of the lamp chops but it turns out they’re no longer on the menu and the manager promised to call me back after he spoke with the chef today to see if they could make them still. If I could get them made I would be able to get an Uber driver to deliver them. She’d never appreciate someone doing that for her – surely she’d find something to complain about. Our family doesn’t know how to say thanks or to appreciate when other people do things for them. I’m guilty of this too, for sure, but at least I’m aware of it.

What I’ve realized this week too is how much I care… care about other people’s happiness… and how much I enjoy caring. Well, I knew this already, but I’ve come back to it. As I falter again and again in business where I’m not allowed to have a heart, I find myself still most comfortable caring about other people. And I do care – I care about my grandma being left alone in a room to die in a pile of her own shit. I know her daughter’s either hate her or don’t want to intervene with her wishes to just die in peace. So maybe doing nothing is the right thing to do. We asked her on the phone today if she wants my mother to visit and her answer was no – she’s too sick and not in a state to see people. She always wants to put on her makeup and look “perfect” for any guests. But how do you explain to an old crazy narcissistic lady that she won’t ever see her daughters again if she waits until she’s ready to wear makeup and pull herself together? And would she even care?

Her First Grey Hair… and Turning 31

“You have one,” my boyfriend exclaimed in a taunting manner. “I have one what,” I asked, half paying attention. “You have a grey hair,” he said, giggling, knowing that he was pushing my buttons just a few days before turning 31 (to be fair I’ve teased him re: his own grey strands for years now.) “WHAT,” I exclaimed, suddenly feeling the blood rush away from my face, breath stop, and the panic of time punch me smack in the stomach for the nth time this week. If turning 31 wasn’t enough god though to start the decolorization process of my hair as a gift for surviving another year.

Now that I’m about 31 and topped off with one silver grey hair (or, apparently, the start of one in about an inch of root) it’s very clear that in order to accomplish anything in the life of mine I must make haste. It’s so easy to get lost daydreaming about the meaning of all this and coming to yet another lapse of solid conclusion. I think back to the days when I felt excitement for the future, for moments, for all the ups and downs of life… and I try to swallow the memory of those days when there was true unfiltered anticipation and trepidation… today I’ve completely lost that part of myself. I look forward to absolutely nothing.

Maybe that is being my bipolar self yet again, perhaps I’m in a depressed phase. Or maybe this is just the way a rational person approaches life. What will the next thing that I look forward to be? A year ago I took a trip to southeast Asia with a friend and I was somewhat excited about that – it seems travel to new places is the only thing that really excites me anymore, yet I don’t like traveling on my own and I don’t actually have time to travel with work. Instead, I just am trying to be heads down, really focused on my job. I know I’m in such a fortunate place where I have a great position in a company where I actually am interested in the subject matter and I like the people I work with and I’m getting paid well. Everything is going so great. I should be extremely elated right now. But happiness is not what I feel. I feel the rush of saving money each month. The rush of knowing that I’m increasing my networth so one day I can be free – but even if I could actually accomplish financial freedom what would that actually buy me? I spent two months without a job and I was miserable and ready to go back to work by the end of the first week.

I am convinced that the next thing I’d be actually excited about is having children and seeing them grow up and go through their own phases of over excitement in discovering their new world. Yet I don’t see a life as a mother and life as a startup executive jiving together. I don’t think I can do both. Sure, some women can, but I’m barely able to handle such a high-pressure job without the kid(s) nagging for my attention and time. I’m pretty sure I’d fall completely apart trying to do both at once, even with the support of a future-husband who would be more than thrilled to stay at home.

And, of course, I shouldn’t rely on children to resolve this emptiness in my life, the hollowness in my heart. I don’t have time for hobbies but I’m sure if I had the motivation I’d figure out a way to make time. I don’t do well in a life without structure yet I’m terrible at making structure for myself. The days and months and years just tick tick tick on and on. Soon more grey hairs will pierce through my scalp, swallowing the vibrant strands which tease as the remnants of youth. Meanwhile I’m watching my always angry father fade away from his cancer and my mother continue to nag as she nags and all of life just slip past as I beg of it to stop so I can embrace it as fully as I once did, back when every moment meant more than it should have, instead of near nothing, a fractured fragment of its absolute worth.

There’s a New Star in the Night Sky

The large crowd filled the funeral home, spilling into the overflow room which was opened to the right of the casket as many friends and family and friends of family and family of friends showed up to pay their final respects to the man who – was – my grandfather. At 8:30am the casket was open for those who wished to see my grandfather one last time, which was customary due to his Catholic upbringing. In fact, despite his wife and many members of our family being Jewish, the funeral itself was a Christian service led by a Priest.

This morning after a relatively good night’s rest following a bittersweet couple of hours attempting to write and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite a short speech for the funeral to represent his grandchildren, I rolled out of bed and threw on the black dress I ran to the store to pick up yesterday so I wouldn’t wear a brightly colored outfit, which seemed to be the only options I brought with me on this trip. While I considered walking up to the casket — which was later covered in an American flag to honor his Navy service as a teenager — being as this was the first funeral I attended ever and I also had the opportunity to see my grandfather alive yet in a state of near-death – I didn’t want my last memory of him to be a lifeless body. Later my father said I should have gone up, but I stand by my decision. Dad said he looked at peace. I know they buried him in a full Yankees getup, just as he would have liked.

It was so surreal to see my large family there – well, almost all of us – so somber yet glad to see each other on this unfortunate occasion. I sat in a corner for a few minutes cleaning up my speech some more and then worried I wouldn’t be able to make out my chicken scratch. I mostly just felt more comfortable staring at a piece of paper than interacting with the living. I’m much more in touch with my emotions than my sister (the daughters of a mother with no empathy, we’ve each turned out a bit emotionally disabled, and don’t know how to handle such situations) and as such I felt like a child when third cousins twice removed that hadn’t seen me since I was six or so hugged me as if we were the closest of family and said that they were sorry for my loss. I hugged them back and said thank you, of course, but after a few minutes of that I realized standing right by the entryway waiting for the service to spot was putting myself in the line of fire, so I moved further back and started to edit.

At the service a few family members brought framed pictures of my grandfather throughout his life and put them on the front table. Being as I’ve never been to a funeral before I didn’t realize this was customary. I managed to make out a few hellos to people who I knew and those who maybe I knew once a long time ago before the service started. I was glad when it did. My cousins – the ten of us who were able to attend the service – sat together in the front row of the overflow area where we had a good few of not only the casket, which held my deceased grandfather but also the majority of attendees. My grandmother attempted to hold herself together but it was clear that composure wouldn’t last for long. She sat between her youngest son and her oldest son (my father) who comforted her as much they could while trying to also comfort themselves.

When sitting there waiting for the service to start, the emotions hit me like a brick. I had been crying on and off for the past few days, angry at myself for not being sad enough, or being sad for the wrong reasons. In these moments it’s human to feel completely at a loss. Yet I live in a household where my mother – never malicious yet always juvenile and self absorbed – doesn’t know how to care about other people. She just doesn’t have it in her. My father, for all his faults, at least has feelings and understands some level of basic human decency in such situations. I just hoped – maybe even prayed – to god that she wouldn’t do anything too irksome to set my father off today.

As tears started to paint my cheeks, I thought back to something an old high school friend had said to me this week. My good friend from high school happened to be visiting the area and we picked up another more distant friend to go to yet another friend’s house to say hello. It was all quite surreal. The friend who we picked up, I’ll call him Mike, was always a bit out there in his personality, and I didn’t get to know him well in the past. Mike is this blonde hippie type with an Eastern European accent and a thousand pounds of passion in his heart.

What I didn’t know was that Mike had made a career as a massage therapist. He didn’t go into this profession just because he needed the money, he went into it because he loves to help and heal people through touch. He loves it so much that the other night he gave me and my friend both these amazing massages as we sat in the kitchen of our other old friend’s apartment and looked through a mid century issue of Life magazine. And they weren’t just any old massage – he had this sort of magical way of using his hands to find points of pain and knead away the stress.  I think he said it was Jin Shin Do massage, an ancient Chinese form of healing, but it clearly came out of him in such a love for healing, his hands soft yet firm at the same time, and while I felt uncomfortable accepting such touch from a friend I had not seen in years and had never been close to, I felt so content to have connected through this kind of touch.

“Mike” brought up that touch is what drives him and is how he expresses his care for other people, noting that there are five or so different types of things that can drive you as a person, and then posed the question what drove me the most. It was an interesting question to ponder given that I’ve never been a touchy-feely type, yet even just sharing a moment of non-sexual touch in the form of a back massage reminded me that I am actually a very touchy-feely person. I grew up in a household that never expressed through touch with the exception of the burning snap of my father’s belt finding its way onto my flesh again and again. Past the age I was certifiably cute I don’t recall hugs or kisses or any sort of warmth physically.

And today as I sat watching my grandfather’s funeral, I felt my arms cross my chest, hugging myself, my hand on my knee, subconsciously squeezing it, longing to understand how to connect through touch. As my grandmother sitting there collapsed into tears, I wanted nothing more to reach out and comfort her, to hug her, to put my hands gently on her shoulders, or to give my dad, also caught up in his own tears, a hug that meant what other loving family’s hugs means. Instead, I hugged myself tighter and hoped no one would notice.

The priest began his sermon (is that what they call it at a funeral?) and discussed how my grandfather, while not being a very religious man all his life, had come back to the church in his final years. He read sections from both the old and new testament, and gave quite a moving infomercial about not waiting until the end of life to return to God despite that God is going to accept us even if we do end up waiting. As a marketer, I found his pitch needed some work.

After the priest finished his section, the grandchildren were called up to say a few words. I was told we were going to go after the direct children of grandpa, so I wasn’t quite ready to speak. I had just recovered from a fit of my own tears sparked my one of my grandmother’s, and I was worried I wouldn’t get through my short speech. Thanks to the review by quite a number of family members I changed my original talk entirely, shifting the focus to say the same thing but from another perspective. It actually worked out perfectly. My speech was an overview of what it means to be in our family and how this is largely due to my grandfather’s strong will, belief in standing up for what’s right and perseverance in the most difficult of times. I noted how he taught us that being in this family meant simultaneously ruling with an iron fist and a heart of gold. I think my father liked that bit. While I removed a few jokes that were maybe better suited for a roast then a funeral, I kept a good one in about how he taught us that family always came first. Well, maybe the Yankee game came first. Family a very close second.

That one got a laugh. Because it was true.

When I concluded my speech three of my cousins read their own. My youngest cousin on that side, now a senior in high school, read an essay she had just written about grandpa for her college applications. She talked about how grandpa was the Cribbage king – and while she always wanted to one day beat him she never could. Her brother then read a moving speech about how in the last few years he got to know grandpa quite well, living so close and being there to help out when help was needed. He shared how he got grandpa’s Indian chief necklace charm tattooed on his back. It was a great speech. Then another cousin got up without a prepared speech and shared a short story of a memory he had with grandpa – which was really representative of my memories the older cousins had with him – like getting yelled at for doing something like changing the channel during a Yankee game. I surely had my fair share of run ins with grandpa and learned to not get in his way.

It actually worked out nicely that the cousins gave their speeches first. Of my grandparent’s six children, three of them decided to talk — first the youngest brother, then one in the middle, and finally, my father. The first brother got up and struggled through his speech, with his wife standing firmly at his side to help him through it by holding his hand. He talked about how his father had three rules — do not disobey him, do not wake him up, and do not disobey his mother. He went through each of his siblings and a time they had gotten in trouble. While he didn’t go into much detail of the discipline, it has been said my grandfather was known to throw his kids through walls. Everyone knew he had quite the temper. When he went through the list and got to my father he said he couldn’t remember a time when he got in trouble, he must have been the perfect kid (later my father noted that he did get in trouble for things like being lazy and not cleaning up – sounds familiar – but not for anything too crazy like some of the things his brothers did. My dad was the quiet nerd, so it was the next born, a firecracker, who started all the trouble.)

But in this speech my dad’s youngest brother also shared something very significant about the character of my grandfather. One day he and his friend were walking around a movie theatre – think it was a drive in – not causing any trouble, but just being where they weren’t supposed to be. They got caught and the cops or security guard called up his parents and his friend’s parents. When his friend’s dad showed up the dad gave his friend a smack across the face. My uncle thought to himself oh no, I’m in so much trouble now. But when his grandfather showed up instead of beating the living daylights out of him, he instead asked the man who called him what his son had done wrong. When he found out that his son hadn’t disturbed anyone and instead was just walking around this place, his father told off the cop and said it was ridiculous that he had gotten in trouble in the first place. He definitely had a strong sense of right and wrong, albeit a black and white one, but if he didn’t think you were wrong he’d stand behind you and fight for you as hard as anyone would.

Next another brother gave a very moving speech with his wife clutching his arm, standing strongly by his side. His speech was generally about his time apprenticing with his father. My grandfather, I was reminded, had served in the Navy from age 16 to 19, returning at 19 to then meet my grandmother who was then 16 and to soon get married and take on a job as a toolmaker. My grandmother, it turns out, was kicked out of high school for getting married, because that’s the sort of thing they did back then. (Crazy.) And, being as my grandmother has been with my grandfather so long, I can see how she really can’t recall life without him. I’m sure that makes losing him all the more hard. My uncles story went on to talk about how his grandfather taught him  how to love making machinery and gave him the passion that lead to him becoming a mechanical engineer. My grandfather was a strict and hot-tempered man, but he was also a very hard worker. While the family did not have a lot growing up, he worked long hours to make their lives comfortable.

Last my father walked up to the podium, wobbling under his weight as he does with his thin cane. My mother, being the child she is, gave me a look as if asking my permission to go up with him. While the other couples were seated together my mother sat behind my father who was in the front. I wondered if my dad would have her come up with him since the other brothers had done the same with their wives, but figured he wouldn’t. He was caught up in his own world. Not that I blame him today – it was a tough day for him, losing his father – but he didn’t even think to ask her to come up there with him, which looked a little strange as she was right there behind him. Later he said he didn’t know where she was. He clearly didn’t look. His speech was hard to watch because it’s always a struggle to see my dad, always such a strong man, break down. But I’m glad he talked and in his own way asked for peace and forgiveness for not being able to say a proper goodbye. He noted that his dad was a very honest man, sometimes brutally so, highlighting how in the last week at the hospital, barely able to communicate with the outside world, he managed to get out “there’s a problem here that no one wants to talk about” before getting lost in himself again. My dad is broken up over not being there in the moments when his father was more aware in the final week, and I wanted to be able to comfort him but that wouldn’t be possible in my family – my dad can have feelings and strong ones but he doesn’t want to be comforted. My mother wouldn’t want to or know how to comfort a person so I guess on some level they work perfectly together.

After the service they carried the casket out to the hearse and we drove in a funeral procession about 30 minutes to the cemetery. We were reminded before leaving to obey all driving laws as just because we have our emergency lights flashing we still do not have right of way. I was just commenting how dangerous it was to drive in a funeral procession (especially given that when one’s emergency lights are on use of the blinker to signal turns or lane changes is moot — after my mother put on her blinker to move over when getting left behind at a stop light, thinking she was signalling to the car behind her that she was shifting lanes but instead actually just getting lucky she didn’t ram into him) when two cars in the procession that had made the light rammed into each other. It turned out to be my cousin’s car in front and my uncle in back. Luckily the car was ok but he had him them pretty hard – my cousin mentioned a little back pain later. I think someone needs to rethink this funeral procession situation because it’s just straight up dangerous. There’s enough death in the day to not accidentally conspire to any more.

In the car I asked my mother if I could perhaps have a piece of her granola bar since I failed to eat breakfast that morning and was feeling lightheaded. My mother who was driving and who had eaten breakfast told me that I could have half of it, though she did so in a way which made me feel bad for asking, so I just decided to hold out until lunch.

We arrived at the cemetery shortly after most of the group did since we had gotten a bit of a ways back and missed the turn off. A slightly smaller group than those at the funeral parlor service stood under a green tent that I could see in the distance when we pulled up with two sailors in their white uniforms standing and waiting for the burial service to begin. I didn’t realize that sailors were going to be there so I first noted that we were going to the wrong spot, but then was informed that they were giving him an official U.S. Navy send off. I thought that was nice. My mother took out the granola bar (because she doesn’t realize how rude it is to eat a granola bar at a funeral service) and when I wasn’t paying much attention handed me a small piece of it. I didn’t fully comprehend that she was handing me the granola bar there with everyone around waiting to start the service since we were already a bit late, and thought I waved it away to signal that I didn’t want it then and to keep it but instead she just dropped it on to the floor and scolded me for wasting it by saying my name with the tone which means just that.

I tried not to be bother by this and focus on the moment. My phone had been accidentally left at home which was good so I could for once just be present. It was the right thing to do. I looked around and saw that the beautiful wooden casket had been taken out of the hearse and rested over an open space in the ground waiting to be put in. In front of it sat flowers, a multi-photo picture frame with pictures of my grandfather as a young man, many of him in his Navy uniform, and a small sailor figurine. My grandmother – who seemed about to crack open in her fragility – sat in the front row and burst into tears every few minutes. The two sailors took the American Flag which was previously on top of the casket and very carefully and ceremoniously folded it from one end in these very neat, sharp triangle folds as another played the trumpet for the formal Military Funeral Honors.

At this time, I heard this “crunch, crunch, crunch” behind me and I was upset that my mother was chewing this granola bar during this very serious moment in the service. I gave her one of those looks that a mother is supposed to give her children, not the other way around. That was a bad idea. She whispered – loudly – to me “you can hear me?” and I couldn’t help myself but turn to her and say “shhhhhhhh!” I tried to return my focus to the sailors who were nearly done folding the flag. My mother bit into another piece of the granola bar to finish it off. “Crunch, crunch, crunch.” I tried to ignore it. My boyfriend has given me quite the complex for chewing noises since he is so sensitive to them and in this situation eating at all was just not appropriate. I took a deep breath and returned my focus to the ceremony. The older sailor took the perfectly folded triangle of blue with white stars and presented it to my grandmother, thanking her for my grandfather’s service to the country. I’m pretty sure I lost it at that point, completely forgetting that I was upset with my mom seconds before, just bursting into tears. I wasn’t the only one sobbing. With no one to hug I just found myself wrapping my arm around the tent pole, feeling its cold steel against my flesh, comforting me in its stability but by no means its warmth.

Once my grandfather was presented the flag the very short cemetery service was over. It was very short. The cemetery workers came over to lower the casket in the ground. I found out that they are burying him vertically and will one day put my grandmother in the spot next to him. They lowered him for quite some time. I stood and stared at the open hole in the ground, not sure how to feel or what to feel. I walked up and looked closer at the pictures of him as a young man, with all that life in him, long before I was even born. A family friend suggested that we wind up the figurine to play music for him, and we did. It was a beautiful moment, the soft ringing of Anchors Away which only those of us closest to the grave site and decorative display could hear, most of the notes lost just a few feet away in the wind.

They said those of us who wanted to could help put in the first dirt — apparently a tradition to symbolize that it is not stranger’s burying you but loved ones (even if strangers ultimately finish the job, it takes professionals to cover a hole that deep and do so safely.) While I didn’t put dirt in (I couldn’t bring myself to do that) I took two of the white flowers from the bouquet in front, kissed them, and threw them down into the hole where he would stay. I happened to be standing by my grandmother who, as the casket was lowered into the ground, broke down in the biggest fit of tears yet, and she said goodbye and I’ll be there soon with you. Luckily another person said what I was thinking to her “not too soon.” I briefly thought about how my father’s funeral will be – what my mother will say – how she will not cry, because she doesn’t cry,  and how she’d never have the desire to jump into the ground after her husband even after all these years. I won’t put that all on her – he’s been quite awful to her through the years – but it hurts to know my parents aren’t capable of that kind of selfless love. I’m not sure if my grandfather was, but my grandmother sure had the conviction.

I told her later that while I can’t at all know what she is going through right now I can understand how painful it must be after all these years to lose your one true love. I admit I thought of how in many, many years, hopefully after a long, healthy and fruitful life I would be forced to experience the same with the man I love, or he with me if I happen to go first, and I know the harder you love the harder it is to lose, but even with that I renewed my commitment to making the choice to love and love as hard as I possibly can for as long as I possibly can.

After the service we drove to a lunch at this delicious Italian restaurant and sat around comforting each other and talking about our lives as we would at any other family occasion. I ate too much food and drank too much wine though paced myself because I didn’t want to be the funeral drunk. I had just enough to deal but not enough to drown.

Following the lunch we went back to my aunt’s house for more bonding time and dessert (which I shouldn’t have eaten but I cannot resist apple pie.) I spent some time with my grandmother never knowing what to say, trying to see how I could put my hand  on her shoulder in an organic way to express how I feel without words because words just weren’t cutting it. I am so sad for her, and for what she faces now. Her entire life has been lived as a caretaker – first for six kids and then for her husband – and now while she has a large extended family she finally has the time to take for herself. This can be a good thing, but for a woman who is an expert at caring for others, this is also a terrifying opportunity. In many ways it’s good for her – not to be alone – but to be free of these painful years of trying to take care of a man with dementia, trapping her in her own house day after day. I hope she can find it in her to live life for the moment and not dwell on the past, but I know it will take a lot of time. It’s wonderful that of her six children many of them live close and others visit often, so she will rarely be alone unless she wants to be. It made me think of how so many people in this world do end up in old age alone – whether they didn’t have kids or the aren’t on speaking terms with their children or they lost them due to some horrible tragedy. But it also made me, in a weird way, look forward to the next chunk of my life – which hopefully includes getting married, having a small handful of children (two can be a handful and three would be nice if I can manage it) and so grateful for having found at the very least the man I want to marry and have those children with. And it made me want to be closer to my family, not right away, but when I do raise those children… because my family, despite its crazies, is one pretty remarkable, loyal, and tight-knit bunch.

 

 

 

Life and Death and Everything in Between

When my mother was talking to my father on the phone this evening, I could read through the spoken lines what had occurred. My grandfather has passed. While I saw him in his rapidly deteriorating condition earlier this week and knew the time would come soon, I did not know exactly when it would or how I would handle that moment.

I wasn’t particularly close with my grandfather on an emotional level, but he is certainly the first person in my life to pass away who I was close to at all. My mother’s father and his brother died when I was younger, but I grew up far from them. My dad’s father, on the other hand, was a mainstay at our holiday gatherings with his sharp, hot-tempered, yet somehow charming personality. Ever since I can remember my grandfather was there, bickering with someone over something that probably didn’t matter at all, and taking our holiday pictures with our large extended family, making sure to fit everyone in the shot he’d set up and the run into at the last minute.

The death of an elderly grandparent is not unexpected or uncommon – in fact, it’s inevitable – yet I still am having trouble processing. While my first sentiment was that of relief, for I could only imagine how it must feel to be trapped inside your body unable to communicate with the outside world, unable to move at all, and losing all sense of self as you drift into this alter universe between life and death. My greatest fear and sense of emotion was that he was suffering silently and would be for a long time. I felt a sense of relief knowing that if he was suffering he would no longer know of it.

But then there is my father who is a highly emotional person yet unable to ever handle his own feelings. I expected him to be upset as he should be but the tears come in through waves. I feel bad for my father – who both was at my grandmother’s house when my grandfather who was supposed to be asleep went out for a walk to pick up the paper and fell, causing his rapid mental decline – and him spending many nights in the hospital with his father over the past week but not being there during the day when his father did respond to some people in the room and say a few words (I was there when he did this, so I just assumed my father had also seen this.) I told my dad that I’m sure his father knew that he had visited, but I’m sure that is something that will haunt him going forward. Of course, my father could have stayed one of the days instead of just at night, but in his avoidance of reality he stuck to the schedule versus admitting to himself the seriousness of the situation.

Yet just seven years ago we were all sure his father was going to outlive him – a late-stage cancer patient who was told he had maybe two years to live.  Here we are today – my father still alive, thank god, and my grandfather’s funeral set for Monday. I look at this whole situation and acknowledge that I will be facing the same with my father in the coming years, only I won’t be in my 60s saying goodbye. I’ll be in my 30s, likely before having children or a young mother juggling a billion other things as I try to make peace with his looming passing. And while somehow my mind can process my grandfather sitting in the hospital unable to talk, slowly fading to the end of his life, I take no comfort in my father, as crazy as he is, facing such a decline and losing his ability to be his angsty, hot-headed, bulldog, borderline self. As I see my father cry and go through his own grief, I don’t know what to say, only the words I keep quiet around knowing that we will be facing this moment again and I will be equally as saddened and pained – but that’s not exactly the right thing to say to someone mourning his father’s passing and trying to avoid his own pending mortality.

With this mentality he also failed to call my mother and myself earlier today when my grandfather passed though other relatives were notified and came over to my grandmother’s house. I will see her this weekend and am trying to decide whether it’s in bad taste to attend a baby shower tomorrow with my mother for a close family friend versus focus on my own family. Being as I live on the other coast yet grew up so close to the family on this one, I see how close those who remain here still are and I feel a sense of sadness and envy, and distance in trying to feel part of that now when family is needed most. But my father didn’t even call me to come over earlier, he waited until night to tell us what had happened.

If I still had my former job I would not be out here this Monday, but it turns out my life has enabled me to decide to stay out an extra Monday and fly back on Tuesday. I just felt like I had to be here this Monday versus heading back earlier. So it happens that my grandfather’s funeral is on Monday and I will be here for it. I don’t know if I would have been able to fly out for this if I was currently employed full time. And I start my new job very soon so I can stop thinking about that and instead focus on what matters right now – family. In the end, that’s the only thing that really matters anyway, isn’t it?

 

What is the Cost of Dying?

Despite being nearly 31 years old, I’ve managed to live my life avoiding the confrontation of death. There have been people in my life who have died — my grandfather on my mother’s side as well as his brother — women who performed in community theatre with me only to have passed months later due to some recurring illness such as a fast metastasizing cancer — and, of course, celebrities who seem quite immortal yet who turn out to be very mortal humans just like the rest of us. But I never faced death head on. I never have attended a funeral. Death, despite being one of the topics that frequently preoccupies my mind, has always been this abstract concept third person twice removed.

But as those around me age escaping death becomes impossible and confronting it head on inevitable. My grandfather, long losing control of his limbs due to Parkinson’s, recently fell, broke his shoulder, and ended up in the hospital in much worse health than he was leading up to the fall. It just happened that I am visiting the area, unrelatedly, this week, so I’m able to visit him in the hospital. I went last night and then again late this afternoon. His six children – my father being the oldest – all flew or drove out to my grandmother’s house to discuss plans for their father. They work as a team, despite being a hot-headed, highly-opinionated bunch. Yet facts of this painful process that is the life one lives before death, and the cost of it, were lost in a mix of semi-truths and confusion.

The thing is dying is quite the expensive hobby unless you manage to do it quickly and without much pomp and circumstance. Meanwhile few people like to think or talk about the cost of death until it’s too late. I haven’t gotten my head wrapped around the fiscal world of long-term care and the ability to pay for a certain standard of living in one’s final years, but it certainly seems complicated to understand. While today the government does provide coverage if you make too little money and have not enough in savings, being just a hair over the line can take one out of the running for such coverage while they are still unable to afford reasonable care. Then what happens?

My mother’s mother lives in Las Vegas and not so surprisingly has gambled away $300,000 of savings. Her children don’t want her to suffer but also are not jumping to help cover her expensive care. She apparently receives $2900 a month in social security which is $800 above the limit for medicare or medicaid (again, I’m still unclear what’s what here, but basically if she made $800 less a month the government would cover all her medical costs but because she makes $800 more in social security she can’t afford them.) Meanwhile my grandfather and grandmother are doing what many individuals do and legally trying to spend down their money (because they don’t have a lot of it) so they can get the care that they need, especially for my grandfather right now. My grandmother has been trying to take care of him and has been for a long time now and she is not in the best health herself, there is no way she can take care of him now in the state he is in.

Seeing my grandfather in the hospital so fragile and unable to talk outside of a few mumbles of pain, I didn’t know what to feel, say or do. Could he understand me? Was being there bothersome to him (was he ashamed? Did he want to be alone?) Did he remember who I was? Today he opened his eyes and looked at me, but I don’t know if he recognized me. He did know his son who was in the room — his six children had been taking turns every night at the hospital to stay with him and his wife and their wives switching out during the day shift. Seeing him there in pain and mumbling to himself, his chest rattling with pneumonia with every breath, I thought how horrible it is for so many elders who are left alone – their only company a nurse checking in every few hours with no time to stop and try to understand the partial sentences moaned in between shivers of pain.

My grandfather is not going to get better, but it isn’t clear if he’s going to get worse either, at least not right away. He had at one point in his pain asked someone watching over him to let him die, but of course no one can let someone die if nature doesn’t take its course. He has gained a little more strength and I’m told that in a few days if his kidney holds up (he’s experiencing kidney failure and heart disease at the moment, not to mention a broken shoulder that he’s too weak to ever have operated on to fix properly) he may be released to rehab or a nursing home – one which medicare (caid?) would pay for and one which would not be covered, or something. It is all ridiculously confusing and complicated and not something people want to have to think about at such a difficult time. Meanwhile my grandmother, his wife, is still relatively young, hopefully with many more years of decent enough health to live, but any money that could have been available for her remaining years is eaten by the cost of a life lived in pain and extended as long as possible with very little hope of any major improvement.

I’m not saying that I want my grandfather or anyone to die, it saddens me terribly at the state he is in, but stepping back and looking at how much the cost to keep someone suffering alive for more suffering is, I just can’t help but think perhaps we’re handling death all wrong – but we’re all too scared and sad to deal with it properly so it just is what it is.

Meanwhile, with my father – aged 63 – suffering from terminal cancer among other health issues – I know that my own time to sit in a hospital room with his own body breaking down is only a short time away. My mother is so far removed from her feelings or ability to care about other people that she is always surprised when I say things like I would want to fly out to be there for him when he is in the hospital. To be fair to her he has been a horrible abusive husband. To be fair to him she isn’t exactly the most giving person in the world. Yet even today after an incident where my father got very angry at me because I failed to look up an address I had asked him to drop me off at after breakfast before we needed to get on our way (my fault entirely, but every single thing that doesn’t please him must be this giant blow up disaster, obviously some plan to ruin his life and disrespect him) I still feel like I’d want to be there for him, as he will be in the same state, sooner than later, given his cancer will at some point spread again, and it’s not like far, far off in the future, but probably a few years away…

This is what happens when we get old – new life is formed and old life is faded, both miracles in their own terrifying ways. We spend tens of thousands of dollars per month to support the dying, to extend their lives by months or years, because that is what we do. That is the only thing we know how to do. Death is inevitable and yet we must, no matter what, fight against it at all costs. If we do not stare death in the eye and attack it from all sides despite its undefeated curse, what are we? In all this life we flood ourselves with all this bullshit of meaning when in the end we’re just this faded ghost of who we once were, our veins dark blue lining our pale flesh, our eyes drifting in and out of sight, unable to function yet still somehow considered alive, alive enough to not be dead, yet still we fade, until each and every one of us, in our own time, is no more.

 

 

The Flavor of Fall: To Death and New Beginnings

Not long ago I visited a state where marijuana was legalized and decided to take an edible for a spin. Not a regular user of drugs, a little bit threw my  mind and body intensely. I recall life feeling like it was this movie on top of a movie on top of a movie — layered where everything I said one second just poof disappeared the next and I was in a new frame, a different movie, constantly confirming with others around me that indeed I had just said what I thought I said, if I even remembered. Everything in life a quickly flashing animation in a Zoetrope with nothing real at all. That feeling of all these simultaneously occurring instances that may or may not have been real was not only overwhelming, but it also took on its own allegorical reflection of life, its own moments flipping through as memories with no sense of solid time or place or even assured reality.

I feel old. I know I’m only turning 31 but the world around me isn’t getting any younger. My grandfather is severely ill right now and likely only has days or weeks to live. It just so happens I’m on the east coast this week so I have the luxury of seeing him alive at least one last time but this retched cold is preventing my admittance to the hospital nonetheless. My father who fell on himself this week and managed not to break any bones but to bruise himself severely seems to have picked up on his typical frustration vented at my mother anytime she so much as asks a question. I long to be there for my dad as I know he is not only facing his own imminent death due to cancer but now watching his father go through the final turns at the wheel. It seems the most unfortunate to see anyone in your family go through the strokes of death and yet that is something all of us share in common, our mortality, and our immortal moments as others fall forever while we get to live on, at least for now.

All the meanwhile I’m attempting to make sense of these two job offers and looking at my own very fragile mental state, leaning back and forth towards each depending on the intensity and angle on the sun, so it seems. That said the second offer hasn’t come in officially yet but I’ve been told I’m one of two to candidates and they seem to be expediting my offer since I told them I received another one. All of the stress has led me to boiling numbers in my head into the wee hours of the night and unable to sleep, getting myself sicker and sicker. I ought to be frolicking in the fields or something right now. I genuinely see this time as the end of my youth. I know – 30 isn’t exactly youth but today there is something about our 20s – inclusive of 30 – which are time to find ourselves and explore. And then there is 31. What is 31? It’s not much different than 30 and yet it is. It is when you’re IN your 30s. Your next major milestone is 40 and 40 is perhaps half your life is you’re lucky and less if you’re not. 40 is (probably) too late to have kids of your own and so your life path is set (unless you adopt of course) and you’re really at 40 preparing for the end of it all while working your ass off and trying to retain whatever piece of yourself you can in moments you can sing along loudly to a song from your actual youth while driving too and from work or to pick up the kids.

And in this crisp fall air I taste this seasonal transition of my life. I am, the heavens know, no longer any remnant of a child. I am a could-be mother, a would-be carer, a want-to-be producer of life. I am a woman caught up in a thousand vines staring down the rest of my time on earth, the rest of my time on earth with my loved ones and trying to grasp at preparations for the loss of others before my own end. If anything tells me that I’m now an adult and not a child is that I’ve started to fear the deaths of others more than my own. Every night I close my eyes and accept if this is it then it is, but being awake and aware of the passing of any once vibrant life is jarring to any human soul, no matter how much tragedy it has witnessed through its life. I, for one, have never even been to a funeral yet. At 31.

The taste of sick permeates my tongue down to my throat and into my salty, swollen lungs which breathe heavily and slow. I see the tree leaves unaware of their fate soon coming, the changing of the colors, their rotting out and falling to the ground in piles little unassuming children will bunch and jump into with no awareness of their own mortality or the death of life to birth yet another winter, only that of crunchy caress of motley-hued leaves.

I am having a lot of trouble processing everything. Yet for once I think I have a handle on the trouble itself. Maybe that’s a start.

It All Fades Away in the End

This blog isn’t just about money, it’s about how money is so tied into the life we lead, our morals, our contentment, our journeys. I write a lot about investing and income here, but also, I like to write about the meaning of life. Perhaps that’s because my grandfather was a Rabbi, and it’s hard for me to isolate talk of earning from my own philosophizing. Nothing ties the two together more than art, an expensive hobby as both participant and viewer.

A good work of art moves you once, a great work of art continues to move you long after you’ve parted ways with its formal presence. Musicals are unique in that while the storyline might not stick with you, a great score in its own right can slither into your thoughts for a long time to come.

Too many musicals these days are designed to purely entertain and not get you to that cathartic state that art is all about. But, as I wrote the other day, my recent entanglement with Bridges of Madison County (which closed today, WTF is wrong with people) left me reflecting on numerous themes posed throughout the piece and how they related to my life. Because I’m so vain. Or, that’s how art is supposed to work.

Continue reading

How Often Do You See Your Family?

I made a choice 12 years ago to leave the state I was raised in and haven’t looked back since. I’ve lived in three different cities across the country and settled clear across the country.

If you’ve read my blog in the past you know my parents are a bit on the nutty side (dad has serious anger management issues with inability to accept that he’s wrong in any situation and my mother acts like a ten year old most of the time, throwing temper tantrums and demanding to be the center of attention when she’s not bragging about her children’s latest “accomplishments.”) So I got the heck out of dodge, spent many-a-year (and paycheck) in therapy, and have finally started to accept that what my parents thought was right for me isn’t at all what is right for me. Continue reading

Facing Reality of Cancer as Autumn Leaves Burn to Umber

As I’ve written about previously, my father has cancer. He was diagnosed three years ago with advanced stage prostate cancer. If you’ve been reading my blog, you know I have an interesting relationship with my dad. I wouldn’t say we’re the closet father-daughter pairing in the world, but regardless he’s still my father and I’ve always imagined watching him grow old and having him around as the grandfather to my future children — he was always good with really little kids. I wanted him to meet my kids, and for them to have him as a grandfather. I’ve always known he’d be a much better grandfather then father.

But everyday that goes by, I know this is more and more unlikely of how life will pan out. With cancer, you can be fine one day and the next your conditions can deteriorate rapidly. Living far away, I try to visit often, but in between there is little conversation. He doesn’t like talking about his emotions or what he is going through, though lately he’s admit to being depressed. He won’t admit to being depressed about dying, per say, more so that the drugs they have given him have removed his testosterone and have “feminized” him. Really, though, I know he’s equally, if not more depressed because he’s terminally ill. But I don’t know how to deal with that. He doesn’t want to talk about it. I want to be a support for him, but I don’t know if I can handle it, even if he was willing to talk.

The day today on the east coast is cool and crisp, with a heavy grey sky, and bright yellow leaves on the trees falling off in the wind to dry and die on the ground. Another year has come and gone — and things are slowly changing. Everything is aging, myself included. I don’t like change, but I’m not resistant to it. I’m more in denial about it. That will all change the day my father’s condition gets worse — which is any day now. That will all change when I need to decide how important it is for me to be out here with him through his final days, however long they may be, or to maintain my life across the country, far from his inevitable deathbed. I don’t like to think about it, but it’s getting to a point where I’m going to have to. I don’t know if he would want me here, he hates being seen as weak. But I’d want to be here. It’s strange knowing that in the next year or two, this is something I will have to face. It’s part of life, but he’s still young at 60, and I’m not ready for him to go. I keep hoping that someone will discover a cure for prostate cancer, and everyday there’s a new treatment available, but never a cure.