My father passed away in March of 2014. He was 92.
He’d had a few rocky years after Mom died but, prior to his death, he’d been leading the high life in Las Vegas, active and independent with an elegant lady friend, a robust appetite, and enough brain power to beat at least one contestant during his nightly fix of Jeopardy. When I asked him to come live with me in northern California he fiercely declined. Why leave the familiar, incessant vigor of Sin City? And what would he do in the sleepy wine country, stomp grapes?
Then age caught up with him, and shuffling along beside it, like a B-movie monster, came the horror show of dementia, cancer, and finally death. As he struggled with declining health, I struggled with fear and confusion. That surprised me. I shouldn’t have felt fear and confusion. After all, I had the guidebooks. We all do, we Baby Boomers.
Ever since the Summer of Love, those of us born between 1946 and 1964 have been giving each other guidebooks about life. In the 1970s they were about our sexuality and politics, then about our children and careers, then retirement and cholesterol, and now the needs of our mothers and fathers. We adult children, as we now call ourselves, have only to enter “help for parents” in our Google search bars and we’re inundated with guidebooks. Government websites direct us to medical care, social services offer links to assisted living, blogs by psychotherapists help us find emotional and spiritual balance as our parent/child roles reverse. I had absorbed it all, a protective wall of information and advice. No surprises for me.
My mother passed away peacefully in her sleep at the age of 85. But with Dad there were surprises that were never mentioned in my Baby Boomer guidebooks.
Just in case recognizing them might come in handy, here are some surprises, along with, of course, my advice.
Surprise #1: Blaming Innocent People
Shortly before Dad’s 92nd birthday my cousin phoned me, concerned and ever so slightly critical. She had just spoken to my father, her beloved uncle. His apartment was being repainted, and he was forced to move his furniture himself. And I was not there to help him? I called Dad’s apartment manager, Debbie, and ranted. How could she, I cried. How could she ask a near-centenarian to take on this daunting task?
“Honey,” she said, “no one’s painting your dad’s apartment. I just told him we were power washing the façade.”
I felt that first frisson of terror zip up my spine and smacked it back down. Obviously Dad had simply misunderstood. Debbie did tend to mumble. Then we had the “stolen” mail that was on the kitchen table, and the inconsiderate bus company that kept changing a schedule that hadn’t changed in years, and I continued blaming everyone and excusing Dad until my denial broke. Dad’s financial advisor called to say that my father, a mathematician, could no longer make financial decisions and I needed to assume responsibility. He interrupted my cry of outrage. Once known for being a frugal man, lately Dad had been writing massive checks and forgetting about them. Reality flooded in and I felt … relief. I had work to do. Action felt better than metaphorically hiding under the bed with the dust bunnies, pretending to ignore that B movie monster hissing and drooling at my door.
Advice: If you address the first signs of trouble by blaming innocent people, don’t feel guilty. They’ll forgive you if they’ve been through it themselves. And if they don’t forgive you, forgive them.
Surprise #2 Amping Up The Empathy
I look back at years of murmuring empathy for my fellow Baby Boomers. Their mom has Alzheimer’s? So sorry, I’d say. Dad got lost on his usual walk, Mom forgot your name? That must be difficult, I’d say. And then I’d have a latte and wonder if my maroon scarf would go with my tan slacks. When it was my turn and I reported each troubling nuance to my friends and they voiced their concern and changed the subject – that darned garbage man left the recycle bin out in the street again – I wanted to say, but wait! It’s Dad!
I wish I could go back and revisit those friends who were suffering with their parents and go deeper. Do you have help, respite, your sense of humor? Can I make you some soup for strength and a hot fudge sundae for comfort?
Advice: Attend to your peers. Sit them down and laugh and cry together. You’ll offer each other the best of times and the worst of times. Dig in.
Surprise #3: Accepting Strange Defenses
Dad finally admitted that he needed assistance. He would stay in his apartment, he decreed, but he would accept visits from a caregiver. I found kindly Charlotte from Las Vegas Social Services and then I got a dog.
I had never had a pet, not even a goldfish, so a few weeks later when I adopted a rescued greyhound my wise friends were alarmed. If I must distract myself from obsessing over Dad, they said, let’s just play Words With Friends. Robert, my significant other who had grown up with hunting dogs, was beyond skeptical. “A hound is not a pet,” he said. “It’s a tool. This dog must work or it will become frustrated and anxious.”
As it turned out, long-legged Holly was cooperative, housebroken, floated at my side on her leash, and slept silently beside my bed. But then one day in the back yard I saw her suddenly bound into the air like a gazelle, touch down – and then she ran at breathtaking speed around the lawn with her eyes alight and her mouth open as if she were reliving her days back at the Phoenix Dog Track, surrounded by cheering spectators. I laughed for the first time in weeks. My dog provided a bridge between the world of mundane chores and the world of crisis management.
Advice: When the surprises come flying at you like projectiles from a catapult, you may want to defend yourself with distractions. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong. Sometimes we need defenses so we can go on fighting.
Surprise #4: An Oxymoron: New Old Habits
As my father’s decline became more severe, my old habits changed in ways they never mentioned in the guidebooks. I usually eat well and spend most of my time at the computer. But during those difficult months of Dad’s struggle, my appetite flagged and to burn off nervous energy Holly and I would hike for miles. All of this caused me to become more toned and get color in my cheeks. Then people exclaimed, “My, you’re looking so svelte lately, and what a healthy glow,” with that slit-eyed sideways glance, and their mouths twisted into a shape of distaste. I was irritated too. But I felt like hell and wanted everyone to notice and sympathize. Sometimes I didn’t wear makeup – on purpose.
Advice: If someone important to you changes, you may change too. Facing the unknown is as scary as a roller coaster ride, but trust that the wild ride ahead will end safely. And as you’re roaring along those peaks and valleys, look for the humor.
Surprise #5: The Stages That Never Come
Dad was finally hospitalized and his diagnoses were dire: metastasized cancer and the onset of dementia. The critical care team said he could not go home. As I approached his familiar apartment to pack his belongings, I thought I knew what was in store. I had read it in the guidebooks, The Five Stages of Grief proposed by Swiss psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in 1969. When we face our own death or the loss of someone we love we go through emotional stages. She said they are, in order: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and, finally, acceptance.
I’d done a few rounds with denial already, so I figured I was ahead of the game. I unlocked my father’s apartment door, walked in, waited, and… nothing happened. I felt none of the Stages of Grief, and wondered what was wrong with me. In fact, nothing happened until I came home and saw my dog. Her unfettered emotion as she bounded around me, filled with joy to see me, unspooled the feelings I’d been keeping tightly wound inside. I sat on the floor with my arms around her neck and cried into her soft fur. As I was to learn later, Dr. Kubler-Ross herself had cautioned us to not “stage” our grief. She had never intended her philosophy to become a rigid formula.
Advice: Don’t worry if your emotional shifts and mental fluctuations are unpredictable in spite of the guidebooks you’ve read. Whatever you’re experiencing in the moment, it’s right, as long as it doesn’t harm you or others.
Surprise #6: Acting Like A Lunatic
One month later, while the rest of the world was searching for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 my father passed away. Two days later, feeling strangely calm, I was escorted into the softly lit office at Palms Mortuary in Las Vegas to arrange the funeral. The staff was prepared with a box of tissues, a stack of documents, and a selection of tea and coffee. An assistant, Tom, with eyebrows raised in an expression of concern, pulled out a chair for me and patted my back. The funeral director was Evelyn, a middle-aged woman in subdued maquillage and tasteful attire. She asked if I needed anything.
“No, I’m ready,” I said. “Did they find that airplane from Malaysia?”
“Not yet,” Evelyn said. “I see that your father was extremely organized. All of the arrangements are in order.”
“Dad was an engineer so he was excellent with detail. Anyway, how can an airplane that big just drop off the map? It’s been two days.” I shook my head in wonder. “And just wait. Someone from California will say the airplane was abducted by aliens. I’m from California and you’d be surprised how many people out there believe in aliens.” I nodded in a deprecating way, so they wouldn’t think I was crazy, like other people from California.
When the last paper was signed, Evelyn hugged me, Tom shook my hand, and I hope I didn’t mention the airplane again.
Advice: It’s OK to act a little crazy when your parent dies. The helping professionals are familiar with the insanity of the newly bereaved. Their next client may come in wearing a bathrobe and bunny slippers and they’ll forget all about you.
Surprise #7: The Gift Of Silence
An elderly man was ahead of me in line at the store. His basket was filled with Ensure and ripe bananas. He gave the checker a stack of one dollar bills and then fished in his pockets for his change. “You have a lovely store,” he said in his wavering voice, while he sorted through his pennies and nickels on the counter. His fingers were slender and pale and his hands trembled. Everything about him was like my father at the end, even the way he hunched over and used the cart for support as he shuffled away.
I began to cry as I unloaded my groceries onto the belt, and by the time I reached the cash register my collar was soaked and my sleeves were wet from wiping my eyes. I wanted nothing more than privacy but there was no escape. If there’s anything a Baby Boomer learned in the 1980s and ‘90s, it’s to talk about our feelings. I braced myself for the cashier to ask me what was wrong, probably hug me and I’d have to tell everyone in line about Dad. But instead she asked, “Have you seen our coupons?”
Reprieve! “Coupons, I have seen them!” I cried. “Next week I will use those coupons for haagen dasz ice cream! I love their double chocolate!” I was babbling with relief. When I got home I allowed myself a long span of weeping about the old man and old men and getting old, and I did it all in blessed privacy.
Advice: If you don’t want to talk about it, you don’t have to. That’s not to say hiding from grief is healthy, but the days are gone when it seemed mandatory to air our deepest emotions on command.
Surprise #8: Enjoying The Turning Point
Dad had maintained his antiquated dial-up connection with Juno for over a decade. Now I wanted them to stop billing his credit card but their operator seemed unwilling to believe that my father could no longer use his computer. She offered him a special deal. For only $11 a year he could keep his email address with Juno and not lose those important messages. We went around and around. I explained why the account should be closed, while the operator reassured me that my father wouldn’t want to miss his important emails. Then the sun broke through my weeks-long depression. Dad and I shared an affection for British comedy, especially the sketch comedy of “Monte Python’s Flying Circus.” In one famous episode dear to the Britcom aficionado, a customer in a pet store attempts to convince a clerk that he has been sold a dead parrot. The clerk obtusely insists that the bird is alive despite its condition, feet-up and motionless on the floor of its cage. In frustration, the customer launches into a string of metaphors for the parrot’s death. (“He’s gone to meet his maker, he’s kicked the bucket, he is no more….) I did that now. “Juno, the account holder is dead. He has expired. He is deceased. He has ceased to be….” I imagined Dad joining me in glee. It felt so wonderful, I forgot to be depressed. When I had run out of metaphors, the Juno operator was silent. Then she said she’d take care of it. I was mildly disappointed the next day when I saw that she had. I had rummaged through my Roget’s Thesaurus, Edgar Allen Poe and other literature that might have provided me with more fun material to use on Juno.
Advice: Allow yourself those tender, generous moments of laughter. They are as important a part of the healing as are your tears.
Surprise #9: Temporary Insanity Is Temporary
I was no longer plagued with visual images of my father in a hospital bed. I wasn’t weeping in the store. And I realized it had been too long since I’d heard from Dad’s friend Alfred. He was a local raconteur who enjoyed driving us around when I visited. On our rides, with me in the front seat, and Dad and sometimes my boyfriend, Robert, in back, Alfred would regale us with anecdotes about life in Las Vegas and flying fighter planes during World War II. I enjoyed his tales although I was mildly concerned about having him in the driver’s seat. If he had served in World War II he couldn’t have been much younger than Dad, another Air Force veteran from that era. Now and then after Dad was gone I’d email Alfred and he’d respond, but it had been months. Robert, a history buff, humorously suggested Alfred had run out of wild stories and had taken a vow of silence. When he would accompany me to Dad’s, he’d gently quiz Alfred about his air force history in the 1940s, and then sit silently listening with his eyes squinted and his brow furrowed.
After yet another unanswered email I Googled Alfred’s name. And sure enough. There was the obituary. I read at first with sorrow and then, after I did the math, hilarity. According to his birth date, Alfred had been a child of nine when World War II ended. He was no more a fighter pilot back then than I was. I told Robert the news.
“I knew it,” he crowed. “What a story-teller! He almost had me convinced!”
“Dad is just going to have a cow,” I cried happily. “I can’t wait to tell him.” I was nearly standing, in that position where your back is parallel to the floor but you haven’t yet straightened your spine. I slowly sat back down.
“I was going to call my father,” I whispered.
“It’s OK, it’s OK,” Robert said, sounding panicky. “We all go through it, you’ll be all right, it just takes time, don’t get upset.”
It was only his terror of seeing a woman cry that kept me dry-eyed. I don’t know what I would have done if I’d been alone at that moment. Maybe I would have called Dad.
Advice: You may briefly revisit the madness of bereavement, but that doesn’t mean you must scale the wall of grief all over again. The moments of lunacy are just signposts and reminders of the healing you’ve done.
Surprise #10: Straw Into Gold
When I told my Boomer friends about my surprises, there was yet another surprise. Almost everyone had a similar list and at least one surprise had offered some revelation or epiphany – sometimes not for months or even years, but they were there. My gay friend Marlene learned that her conservative brother had always loved her. Barton at the age of 74 discovered that his mother, who died at 99, had saved each of his report cards. (And never told anyone that he got a D in “deportment” in the third grade.) And Robert, my gruff boyfriend with the hunting dogs, had unearthed a yellowed photograph among his mother’s belongings and read on the back, in his mother’s flowery handwriting, “Robert’s pet, Oscar.” Until then he would have indignantly denied ever having had a pet chicken.
Advice: Cherish your surprises. They may not be pleasant in the moment. Surprises seldom are, even the birthday kind after a certain age. But like a glint amid chaos and rubble, some of them might be gold.
STORY IMAGE COURTESY MARSH ROSE.