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The Club

Born in 1953, I have always been a member of the Baby Boomer Club.  Just recently, I have  joined another very populous club, the Baby Boomer with  Aging Parent Club.  You don’t apply for membership to this club; you are chosen by fate.  For that reason, new members like me are initially confused and somewhat noisy, clamoring about our trials and concerns like startled geese.  We tend to talk too much about the club and the details of our initiations whenever anyone will listen.  I have a friend who was inducted into a different club, the Baby Boomer with Young Child & Aging Parent Club.  She’s always too tired to talk, though.

I have two good friends whose fathers are the same age as mine, and we were surprised and delighted to find that we had all been inducted into the club at the same time.  Our fathers live in different parts of the country and don’t know each other, but they all facilitated our memberships.  The password for this club is the phrase, “And how is your dad doing?”  When someone asks you that, and you hear yourself asking them that back, you know you are in.  Just a couple of years ago, our three answers to that question would have been very different.  Now they are pretty much the same.  At first I chalked this up to just our all being in the club and adopting some catchy members’ lingo, but the larger truth has finally dawned on me: our fathers have joined a club of their own.

Last summer was a big one for our fathers.  They all broke one of their parts.  C’s father fell and broke his hip.  J’s father fell and broke something in his heart.  My father fell and broke his mind.  C and J’s father’s falls were actual, and were quite possibly caused by their parts breaking first, not the other way around.  My father’s fall was figurative, but ironically was much further, there being no hard surface to stop his descent.  C’s father’s hip was repaired and he went through rehab and is back home again.  J’s father’s heart was repaired and he went through rehab and he is back home again.  My father’s mind was not exactly repaired, but it was given a new coat of pharmaceutical paint and from the outside it is looking much better, although some cracks are still visible if you know where to look.  Although he never  physically left, he is home again, too.

It seems our fathers’ broken parts experiences, however diverse, was some sort of initiation into their secret club, because they all seem to be sporting the same badge, a virtual bandage, these days.  Since last summer, our very different fathers have begun to resemble each other more and more.  Like old couples, or people and their dogs.  Comparing notes with my friends has revealed that our far apart fathers mirror each other without trying, or even being aware of it.  We children watch this and simultaneously marvel and cringe.

Members of our fathers’ new club all adopt the same reserved body language.  They are no longer very expressive.  Our fathers seem to like the secrecy aspect of this club and don’t talk about it.  In fact, they don’t talk much at all.  Maybe they take a vow of near silence when they join up.  They must communicate instead via telepathy, with each other perhaps, and surely with the club president, the Grand Poobah,  whoever that is.  This guy must be quite charismatic, because they spend more time listening to his covert communications than to any of us.  They are so taken with this new club and it’s activities that they have all given up their previous interests, like reading, watching television, and any kind of puttering.  To us, they look profoundly inactive, but if you watch their eyes, you see that they are actually quite engrossed in secret club business.

One thing I’ve figured out that my father is doing since joining the club is going through the storage boxes of his life, tossing out old files of memories.   My father was always a pathological pack rat – he never threw anything away – so this activity, cleaning out and downsizing one’s archives, must be a club mandate.   Every now and then he will come across something of interest and will mention it in passing, but then it gets tossed out, too, never to be heard of again.  I suppose this is a good thing, that he is finally able to get rid of a lot of old stuff he’s never going to use again, but it distresses me.  Although these memories are his to do with as he pleases, I worry, in my own pack rat way, that he, or I, might need some of them some day.  He seems indifferent, however, obviously more interested in club opinions than mine.

I also think this club has a major Buddhist slant, because contemplative meditation seems very popular, if one were to judge by our three fathers.  None of our fathers would have been so taken with this formerly pooh-poohed practice unless it was prominent in the club schedule.   Prior to their joining this club, they never had time for this sort of new age silliness, much less interest.  They would have snorted at the idea of just sitting quietly for hours, and only ever puttering in the basements and garages of their consciousness.  Now they find time for little else.  It also seems they are expected to practice restraint in their bodily pursuits, especially eating and drinking.  The club clearly promotes an ascetic discipline.

We kids have a really hard time with this.  Our father’s absorption in what we can’t understand is frustrating.  We are all still hooked into an exterior life model, all running around and cramming our waking hours with what we hope is important stuff.  We still credit conversation, reading, and even television with making valuable contributions to our awareness, and we don’t understand why these things no longer fascinate our fathers.  Perhaps we are embarrassed that that’s the best we can do, while they have discovered the real deal.  The world of external information obviously has nothing to offer them anymore.  They seem to get all they need from the club newsletter which is streamed directly to them in telepathic code.  We remain outside and clueless.

That we, as chatty club members ourselves, want our fathers to now share information about this secret club of theirs is hysterical.  When did they ever do the “sharing” thing?  Looking back, we now see that they obviously started the club’s strenuous and covert initiation process a long time ago.  The major falls they all took last summer were precipitated by similar minor ones occurring over the course of preceding years.  Some of those stumbles we knew about, but brushed off to the various vertigos of old age.  Many more they never told us about, hiding the evidence and always pretending they were up to nothing in particular.  This is required in the by-laws of the club, of course, it being a clandestine order and all.

This would seem like a severely austere club but for two things.  One, members are encouraged to eat lots and lots of ice cream.  Two, they are instructed to crack wry one-liners when you absolutely least expect them.  We think they are trying to amuse us and we are charmed, but really this is their subtle way of making fun of us and our constant bugging them with feeble intervention attempts.  Our three fathers are all very intelligent men, so we should trust their judgment about this club and leave them alone.  At least we can take comfort that they all joined a club with a sweet tooth and a sense of humor.

So how are our fathers doing?  Despite how we, the progeny, want them to be doing, we have to allow them to be how they think they are; just fine.   They look quite content as they listen past us to catch some communiqué from the Grand Poobah, or look past us to peruse the most recent newsletter.  Often, their hands are moving slightly and mysteriously, as if they are all but fingering invisible decoder rings.  They are obviously only putting up with us and our fussing around anymore, but the club is big on good manners and so our fathers are gracious in their tolerance.  We struggle painfully with all this; they don’t.  Perhaps we are just resentful, feeling left out and dismissed,  because despite having our own club, none of us has been invited to join theirs.  Yet.

An Awkard Stage

My sister recently sent me some old family photographs she had come across.  There was one of me, taken when I was twelve or thirteen.  It is a horrible picture.  I look like an adolescent alien trying to emerge from inside an angular bursting-at-the-seams child, with bulging elbows and knees and nose and teeth.  I had new heavy-hardware braces then, and a criminally bad haircut with short bangs.  I have never looked good in bangs.  It was one of those captured-in-time photographs that you can’t burn fast enough.  My sister had stuck a note on it which jokingly read, “an awkward stage!”, which should win her a prize for the understatement of the century.

The pictures of my awkward stages in life greatly outnumber pictures of me where I look fairly put together.  I always liked to think i just wasn’t photogenic, but now that I think about it, my life has been a steady stream of awkward stages.

Once when I was complaining about having to have my picture taken for a magazine article and knowing˙ it would be unflattering, a friend told me how to fix that.  He said to look straight into the camera and think “I am really good at what I do”, and the picture would turn out great.  Damned if it didn’t work.   That made it clear that what had been photographed all along was not my face, but my deep seated insecurities about, oh, everything.  If I think back through the rogues gallery of my most unflattering images, I recognize that unfortunate look in each one of them.  The most flattering images I recall I realize were taken when I was relaxed and happy and feeling like I was really good at whatever I was doing.  So now when someone points a camera at me, I try to hold the same thought – I am really good at what I do.  Sometimes it works, but it’s not easy to quickly rodeo all my features under that umbrella, and so, often as not, another awkward stage goes on record.

The silly thing is, I am good at much of what I do.  I have a successful career as an artist, I have a happy and fun marriage of almost 30 years, I have good health, I keep (with some help) a passably clean and organized home, I am a good public speaker, I am practical, punctual, economical, and reliable.  You would think I would be able to take a good picture any old time, but insecure waters run deep.

When I shared this reflection with my sister of the unasked for old photographs, she said, “Oh, you’re just insecure about taking another bad picture!”  Maybe she’s right, because that would certainly be enough.

My husband never took good pictures of anyone or anything until digital cameras came along.  Now that he can see what’s in the frame before he shoots, heads are no longer lopped off and things are aligned as nature intended them.  This is a good thing, except for the fact that he is smitten with his success and is constantly either pointing his camera or his phone at me and anyone else within range. For a while all his pictures of me captured a witheringly annoyed and thus highly unflattering look, so I continued to fulfill my own prophecy.

The camera always took great pictures of my father.  One, he is very handsome, and two, he never doubted that he was excellent at whatever he was doing.  That meant he was always right about everything, which has often been awkward for the rest of us, but never for him.

My father is going through an awkward stage now.   For a decorated WWII fighter pilot with two engineering degrees and three successful careers, dementia is about as awkward as it gets.  Sometimes that awkwardness shows in photos of him now, but not always; for the most part he still thinks he is good at what he is doing.  He knows, however, that he is not doing so well at growing older, and the insecurity that that fosters shows.  He makes choices which don’t serve his best interests, but he can’t see that, so when the results are not good, he is confused and hurt.  In his mind, he is still always right.  I try to keep him believing that, because having lost so much of his former self, the worst thing he can lose right now is his self confidence.  It is all he has left to sustain him through this awkward stage.

Gifts and Presents

When I started taking care of my elderly father with dementia, the word “gift” started showing up a lot.   I would hear someone else refer to their similar situation as “a gift”.  When people asked me how it was going with my father and I would be truthful, it sounded like complaining, so I, too, started saying, “But it’s a real gift to be able to do this.”  So maybe it is a gift, but it is certainly no present.

I was eleven the only time I remember my father giving me a present.  Normally, my mother took care of shopping for and delivering presents, but I wanted an iguana, and my mother wasn’t fond of reptiles.  My father loved reptiles, and so this present, Gus the iguana, was solely from him.  I choose to distinguish here between gifts and presents; a gift can be inadvertent but a present is presented, offered, deliberately passed from one set of hands to another.  A present is deep giving.  My father gave me an iguana as a present.  And it wasn’t my birthday or anything.

After my mother died when I was fifteen, I was well cared for, but there were no presents.   I was provided with necessities by my father because I needed and asked for them, but those don’t count.  Even asking him for things was uncomfortable, so at some point I just stopped.  I baby-sat to make my own money so I wouldn’t have to ask.  I had been accepted to and was supposed to go to a New York art school after high school, but when the paperwork came from the admissions office the summer after I graduated, I found I couldn’t ask my father for the money to register.  I should have considered going to college a right, a necessity, but it was such a big ask, it seemed more like requesting a frivolous present.  The admissions paperwork sat on the dining room table all summer until its various deadlines expired, and so I never left.  There was never a discussion.  I’ve often wondered why he never asked me about going off to art school, something that had been planned for years.  My wiser sister recently pointed out that it was simply because he didn’t want me to leave.  She is two years younger than me, and that summer, she was a rebellious teenager.  She and my father were often not speaking to each other.  As a third party mediator, I filled in the gap for them, I suppose.  Or maybe after my mother’s death just two years earlier, my father couldn’t bear the thought of one more person leaving.  He never said anything about the thick, five hundred pound elephant of a college envelope that sat conspicuously in front of him all summer.  Eventually I threw it away.  I don’t know what he thought about the whole issue.  I’lI never know, because I never asked.  What should have been an major life present to me, a chance to go to art school,  turned instead into another inadvertent gift.  I had to make my own way as an artist.   I had to work harder, take more chances, and put myself and my work out there with no support system.   I had to educate myself.  As a result, I have a wonderful career as a visual artist on my own terms.   My work is unique to me, maybe even odd, but at least it is not the predictable product of an MFA program.  I still regret not receiving the present I expected, but the gift has worked out really well for me.

So, in over forty years of birthdays and Christmases, my father has given me no presents.  He has always said he doesn’t believe in those events, so he doesn’t do presents.  I have accepted this arrangement completely.  I still give him presents, but I never look for anything in return.

In spite of this arrangement, or perhaps because of it, I must acknowledge many gifts from my father, all inadvertent.  I inherited his robust health, a smidgeon of his good looks, his independence, his creativity, his great legs, his love of nature and animals, his dislike for coffee and raw onions.  I also got his agnosticism, his too-fine prematurely gray hair, his control issues, his parsimony, his paranoid intolerance, and his thin skin, both literal and figurative.  Notice how I also got his self-righteous judgementalism.  He has acknowledged most of these inadvertent gifts and he takes great pride in them.  He considers them to be the most desirable gifts one could receive, because they come from him.  That’s one thing I didn’t get from him;  his un-deflatable, self-confident, larger-than-life ego.  It’s something I’ve long lamented.

I still get no presents, but as I am taking care of my father, he gives me gifts he will never even know about.  There are so many they are piling up around me, some as yet unopened and unexamined.  Many are things I did not want and would never have asked for, but these are gifts, after all, not presents.  My father doesn’t do presents.  Gifts just land on you; like bird droppings, you get to decide if they are auspicious or not.  Some of the gifts have proved very useful, and others, though they made no sense to me at first, have become cherished favorites.  Some will never fit me just right, will always chafe and make me uncomfortable, but there’s nowhere to return them.  I have outgrown some of them, but they are always replaced by others.  Who knew that in his old age, my father could bear so many gifts?  Maybe he had them stored up all along, and now that dementia has knocked his guard is down, they are spilling out of their own accord.  Some of these gifts will only be opened after my father is gone, because I know it is only then that I will be able to undo the complicated emotional knots that tie them.

Even if my father had given me wonderful presents my whole life, it’s probable that I would remember very few of them now.  Except for the iguana.  His recent gifts, however, are going to be pretty hard to forget.

Give and Take

Single words are delicious morsels of information.  They are rich with history and meaning.  Despite differences of perspective or language, a word can communicate across vast spaces of time and culture.  We know a lot about things because of the words that make up the intricate embroidery of their descriptions.  There is plenty to be known outside of language, of course, but if we experience or learn something non-verbally, chances are the first thing we do is put that experience into words so we can turn right around and tell someone else about it.  And how we do just that!  It is no accident that humans are the only creatures associated with the verb to blather.

It is always important not to confuse the word with the thing it represents.  A word doesn’t ultimately define that to which it is attached, and so names of things are conveniences, not truths.  Still, words are very important.  Not only for how they sound, but also for how they let us sound off.  Equally important is how words make us feel, above and beyond what they might actually mean.

So, several words have come under my scrutiny lately.  They have been coming up a lot in my life, and they are making me feel things which I want to tell someone about.  Please indulge me as I blather.

The words are give, take, and care.  As words and as verbs,  give and care have a lot in common.  They both imply things like altruism, empathy, and sympathy.  Whichever order you put them in, give care or care give,  they sound nice.  To take seems like the odd man out here, almost connoting the opposite of the other two.  However, when you combine give and take, you get the benevolent idea of parity, of sharing.  When you combine care and take, you get an action that is kindly in an especially deliberate way.  When you switch the order to take care, you get a blessing.

Because of my father’s dementia, I am now officially what the health care industry calls a caregiver. It’s a good enough word; it means good things.  I don’t like it for me, though.  I prefer caretaker.  I know that makes me sound more like a janitor or gardener, but I do all that for my father anyway, so it’s not an incorrect description.  Both titles mean the same thing in this context, so this sounds nitpicky, I know.   Probably no one else cares about this little taxonomical issue except me.  Lord knows my father doesn’t care.  But I do, and if I am going to be burdened with a title on top of everything else, I want it to be right.

Care-giving sounds a little impersonal to me.  Like an obligation.   Like one can be somehow detached from the care itself.  It doesn’t have to be part of you, and won’t be part of you once it is given.  We give things away.  That’s what we say when we want to detach ourselves from our cares – we give them away, toss them, release them.  We give things up for good.  Or we give them a whirl.  We give a shit.  Something gives us the creeps.  The concept of giving can seem so superficial.  Want to give? Just write a check.  We give up.

Care-taking sounds like complete absorption to me.  When you take care, it’s personal.  There is no space between you and your care.  It is a choice, not an obligation, to take care.  You take part in the caring.  You take a stand.  You take your place.  You can take a hike.  When you take action, you do it on purpose and you mean something by it.  If you take ill, it’s serious.  Ditto if you take a fall.  If you are taken by something, it has all of your attention.   If you take a pill, you ingest it into your being.  If you take an object, you take on responsibility for it.  If you take a chance, your whole life can hang in the balance.   A second take can change everything.  I’d rather take someone by the hand than just give them a hand.  Taking is active, involved, personal.  Take a number, and when it’s your turn, you are taken care of.

When I picture a caregiver, I picture someone in a white uniform and thick squeaky shoes. Someone who smells medicine-y.  Someone with an education  certificate and a reasonable car.  Someone who was interviewed and hired.  Someone who was given a job.

When I picture a caretaker, I see someone in practical work clothes with a little grime under their fingernails.  Someone with a set of important keys.  Someone who smells of physical labor, either rigorous or plodding.   Someone who can fix things.  Someone who evolved into the job through hard work and determination.  Someone who takes on challenges.

I’ll concede that caregiver implies an animate recipient of the care being given, like my father, while caretaker connotes care directed towards an inanimate object, like his house.  I think this is just a trick.  Caregiver is a professional term only recently applied to nonprofessionals like me, but caretaker has always represented folks who just rolled up their sleeves and got the job done, no matter who or whatever was on the receiving end.

One cannot define the care giver-taker-doer-provider by way of the recipient, anyway.  As in my father’s case, the animate recipient is just the tiny visible tip of the iceberg that you crash into when you take on this job.  The real treacheries are inanimate and deeply submerged; a lifetime of assumptions (and thus many misconceptions) you have to rodeo and deal with, a minefield of not-very-good choices you have to finesse, and the awkwardness of being stuck in a small lifeboat with someone you thought you knew but who now turns out to be a total stranger.  You become hopelessly entangled in what you thought was a lifeline you were tossing, but which, as often as not, morphs into an anchor chain instead.  Ultimately, the most critical thing the caretaker cares for is not the point person, the parent or whomever, that everyone is focused on.  The real job is to expose and care for all the murky submerged stuff that has buoyed that person up their whole life.  In other words, to best care for the person, you identify and care for all that which constitutes them; their  history and their relationship to it, not yours, thank you very much.  You care for, take care of, that which they care about, the depth and breadth of who they are in their world, however they experience it.  You take care of them, for them.  It’s hard work, but on a good day, you might be tempted to call it a blessing.

I know it’s only semantics, but to me, this is not a job about giving.  It is all about taking.  Taking care, of course, but also taking it on the chin; taking your medicine, the bull by the horns, the last train to Clarksville – or  whatever it takes.