Death: the most unlikely of happy endings or ‘Bossiest Eulogy Ever’

MomReadsPaper

Mom died on February 25th. Her funeral was in Utica, New York; yesterday was her memorial service. This is the eulogy I wrote and read yesterday.

Eulogy II

The first Tuesday after Mom’s funeral, I woke up and, because it has been part of my waking-up ritual for what seems like forever (even though it wasn’t) she was my first thought.

The picture that immediately popped into my head was her coffin newly lowered into her grave – a gorgeous, round-topped pine box the color of warm tea, black grain running through like tea leaves.

The feeling it evoked was a mixture of happiness, relief and serenity. Mom was okay. Mom was safe. She wasn’t confused, afraid or anxious. Her body wasn’t stiff and rigid because of a Parkinsonian freeze. She was beyond pain, beyond fear and I felt at peace.

This is not always how I feel about having a dead mother. The range of emotions I am experiencing on account of this loss are different than any of the others preceding it. Sadness. Relief. A little conflicted about the relief. Relaxed in a way I haven’t been in years. A little conflicted about that.

I am happy she got to see me finally marry the right guy, graduate from library school at 55, even if she slept through a good deal of the ceremony (lucky Mom, right?), share some of my life in Milwaukee and give me the most incredible gift of all – the absolute trust that I would have her back as she navigated the terrible and solitary torture of a slow, agonizing slide into helplessness and utter dependence.

For a woman who associated being dependent with being neglected, marginalized and abused – for valid reasons – this required an unprecedented leap of faith, on two fronts.

 

A little context – on two fronts

Mom’s upbringing, combined with the circumstances of my birth, had not laid the groundwork for dependence with dignity or mother/daughter compatibility.

She’d been a surprise.

Her parents were excited about another son to help with the planting, harvesting, milking and other farm chores. Instead, they got a fourth daughter. She was two weeks old when her sister Bessie suggested calling her ‘Arlene’ with an ‘I.’ (Her birth certificate reads “Baby Chernoff.”)

Mom grew up poor, Jewish, left-handed and unwanted on a farm during the Depression. A doctor told her parents, immigrants who hadn’t gone past sixth grade, that she shouldn’t be allowed to read outside of school because of her poor eyesight. The only toy she ever had was a doll her brother took apart. She once told me that when she really wanted to set her mother off, she’d walk around the house singing “Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child.”

Her incredible tenacity in surviving her first year at Syracuse University with so little preparation for college life, eventually figuring it out (in part, after the dean in whose office she was crying told her to start doing the New York Times Crossword puzzle every Sunday) and going on to graduate and build a life in New York is remarkable.

 

A brief digression

I will now break from this eulogy to present a brief episode of “Irlene Chernoff: Life in New York.”

Scene: Girl’s night out. Syracuse Alumni Lois (tall) and Irlene (not so tall) enter the Waldorf Astoria Hotel to attend a talk by Eleanor Roosevelt.

They stroll across the lobby to the elevator and press the call button. The elevator arrives. They step in. The elevator is occupied by two women, one tall and one not-so tall.

The tall one is Eleanor Roosevelt.

The not-so tall one is Dorothy Parker.

Brief Silence. Furtive staring.

Lois: “Irlene. I never realized how short you are.”

Eleanor Roosevelt: “Good things come in small packages.”

Dorothy Parker: “So does poison.”

End Scene

 

Two-front context – continued

Then, a 50’s-era miracle happened. After having all but cemented her place in the family as the cool aunt and successful old maid career woman, Mom snagged the hottest bachelor in Utica. Being “Mrs. Rabbi Waldman,” in the words of my friend Debra, was her favorite job ever.

Here’s Mom, describing Dad in a letter turning down a job offer in New York in April 1958, because she’s getting married:

“…he is everything I ever dreamed of in a man. He is warm, sensitive, human, strong and the most understanding man I ever met; in addition to being liberal, of diversified interests and professionally a rabbi …”

By the time I came along, Mom’s older siblings had all reproduced. Used to being bossed around by the four elders, none known for being shy about their opinions, she was nervous in the way of any first-time mom. Unfortunately for both of us, I was born by emergency C-section two weeks after my due date, and because of Mom’s reaction to anaesthesia, by the time she was fully awake and ready to be the Best Mother Ever, I was a week old and had bonded with Dad.

Things were different 17 months later when Debby came along, and thus, the family rectangle (Amy/Dad, Debby/Mom) was established. It worked well until 1974, when Dad died.

A seismic shift

Until about 2005, Mom and I did not have the easiest relationship. Sometimes that happens with mothers and daughters, and if the daughter is lucky – which I was – she gets to a place where anger, sadness and resentment are replaced by gratitude for (in my case) the care she does give, and for a great husband and in-laws, supportive friends and the ability to have built different relationships with my own daughters.

One by-product of Parkinson’s disease was that – to paraphrase Mom – she stopped seeing everything she didn’t like about herself in me and started seeing me. Our subsequent relationship was deeper and more satisfying for its having happened long after I’d had enough therapy and done enough interior work to understand that parent-offspring compatibility is an add-on, rather than part of the standard package.

Nothing compares with what it feels like – after almost 50 years – to suddenly have a mother who goes out of her way to tell you you’re terrific and you feel it it so much that you could spend the rest of your life lying on your back and rolling around in it.

Even if that had never happened, and I was standing here, I’d still be grateful for everything Mom gave me, because once you know that nothing you do will please someone, it gives you the freedom to not worry about displeasing them.

Which, like the love you can roll around in, is also a gift.

And as the daughter who ended up being Mom’s Primary Person on her Grand Exit Tour of Planet Earth, it was my job to make sure she faced some unpleasant stuff in the service of making sure that her Grand Exit went the way she wanted.

Son of seismic shift –  the nursing home version

It would not be an overstatement to say that Mom’s Exit Plan did not involve a slow agonizing slide into helplessness in a Milwaukee nursing home. She had ordered up a serving of being “carried out of here feet-first,’ “here” being the condo she’d bought on Cape Cod in 1982.

I have vivid memories of visiting nursing homes with 50-something Mom. We’d walk into a facility and the smell – a melange of stale, damp and vague decay – would hit us. Near-comatose people with wispy hair and rheumy eyes sat in wheelchairs in the halls or rows in common rooms in front of a TV, some aware of us, some staring at nothing. On our walk back to the car, Mom would utter a variation on the same theme.

“If I’m ever like that, shoot me or give me pills.”

I didn’t shoot Mom, and I didn’t give her pills. But there were so many times, especially over the past two years, when I wondered why she was still alive. I went from being angry all the time to “she’s warm and I can hug her.”

And I came to rely on a group of people I had already grown to love and respect – the holy women (and occasional man) who cared for Mom and the rest of the people in the Helen Bader Unit with relentless devotion.

They helped Mom through these past brutal years, but they also helped Debby and me. It was a team effort in a game that ended with Mom’s death. And now that it’s over, I’m gonna tell you two things. First, we won. Second, we were able to because of three other things.

The most important – Thing One, if you will – was Mom. It was her decision to move into the nursing home. I’m not saying it was easy, and I’m not saying it was pretty. Debby was freaked out about her spending $10,000 a month on 24-hour care on top of rent for her assisted living apartment. I was slightly less freaked out but knew it wasn’t sustainable. That four months, though, gave Mom the time she needed to wrap her head around what she realized needed to happen. It was her idea to tour the Home; she chose Bader.

I have seen – and continue to see – new people coming in who didn’t choose. Some are angry, and what’s hard is made harder, both for them and for the staff who care for them. It is a stark contrast and a constant reminder of the remarkable courage my mother displayed in making her own decision to move to a memory care unit.

I also know that part of the reason she was able to make that courageous choice was because she knew – Thing Two – she could count on me. By then, we were far enough down the road that, given the choice to stay and help or have me do it, she jetted off to California to hang with her sisters, allowing me to set her room up in a way that it could serve multiple functions (seating and dining facilities for six) and favorite pieces from every room of her former home(s).

The “as happy as possible under the circumstances” ending

Bragging about your childrens’ achivements – the albums, the concerts, the book deals, the degrees, the awards, the jobs – that’s easy.

Entrusting your own well-being to their care is a whole different level of affirmation.

I did it as right as I could, and I think, for the most part, I got it pretty right. But I got it right because she helped me get it right. I got it right because she was honest enough and courageous enough to face her own death, and when she wasn’t, she borrowed my courage and my love for her and we got through it together. And when I wasn’t courageous enough to face her decline, I had spent enough time at the nursing home to be on a first-name basis with the people who were caring for Mom, and they helped me. That’s Thing Three.

If your mother lives in a nursing home, it’s a nursing home. But your mother lives there, so it’s also your mother’s house. When you come around more, your mother might not get more attention and more care than the people whose families don’t come around, but I know this – she gets better care. Because as good as those caregivers are, no one has time to rummage through your mom’s drawers and discover the several-sizes-too-small bra that belongs to the lady across the hall. Also, they are going to have your mom’s back like nobody’s business if you show up, because you’re going to see what they do and how to make your mom’s life and their lives as easy as possible, given the circumstances.

So this isn’t really as much a eulogy as it is a message, and kind of a directive from us. Mom’s death was beautful, and it was beautiful because I never stopped telling her, right up to the end, that this was her old age and eventual death and that she was in charge. And I never stopped believing it.

In truth, I started pushing her to talk about what she wanted and what we should do long before she was ready.

But because of – or maybe in spite of it – Mom and I were able to have all the hard conversations, and even find some light moments in the midst of them. We planned her funeral and this memorial service together, and the comfort of knowing what she wanted and being able to make it happen has brought me the kind of comfort that only a supportive mom can give.

A little flow from the stream of consciousness, with music

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Usually I slam out a blog post in a Word file and then transfer it over here to the wordpress template and tinker. Then, after I publish it I find more typos and things to tweak.

This morning, though, I am going to slam down something spontaneous as John Gorka sings “St. Caffeine” and drink coffee in a world where Roy Moore will not be the US Senator from Alabama.

I think in music and songs a lot. I haven’t written very many of my own – as a teenager I played a song I wrote for someone who’d made a few records, and she tore my song a new one and I never tried to write one again. But I know and appreciate a lot of other peoples’ songs, so the rest of this post is going to be the songs I thought of this morning – and one I found for the first time.

His victory does feel kind of like a Hanukkah miracle.

Anyway, along with this one, for all the sex offenders (see definition in prior post) who are going down, here are a couple of songs inspired by Roy Moore and the Alabama Senate election, with some bonus songs thrown in:

  1. “I’m a loser” – You can have this live recording of the Beatles, especially with the screaming girls in the background. Or, if you’re more of the geek type, (like me), there’s this in-studio take which is a little more down-tempo, and which John quits on shortly before the song ends. I also like the instrumental break and the the way it’s mixed. there’s this one.
  2. “Thank you, World” – Karl Wallinger’s band World Party is one of many influenced by the above-mentioned band. Also, it makes terrific music. So it seemed appropriate to express my gratitude to Alabama’s voters (particularly the black women who turned out to help hoist Jones over the finish line). It’s one of my “happy songs,” and I am happy that one less guy who thinks having a Jewish lawyer makes him multicultural is going to be making laws in Washington.
  3. In the Department of “Not so Fast” there’s Roy Moore himself, who is not conceding. I imagine him and Kayla slow-dancing to Jason Aldean’s “I Ain’t Ready to Quit.”
  4. One of my Facebook friends made a comment about God being female, and that made me think of the amazing and way too underknown John Gorka, who wrote “Mean Streak,”  one of the songs that kept me sane during my split from Ex 1. But the one FB pal conjured was “Zuly,” about the Second Coming. This time, Jesus shows up as a baby girl. I’ll let you discover what comes after that.
  5. Finally, two songs for Hanukkah.
    1. This one, by Gorka, is one to think about. It’s called “Ignorance and Privilege,” and I’m just gonna leave it here with space…………………
    2. The last, by my cousin Debbie (z”l) whose mother misses her every day and who I miss almost as much and think about a lot, is a Hanukkah classic. I’ve never played one on TV, but I’ve played “I’m a Latke” on my guitar! Happy Hanukkah to everyone who celebrates, and Merry Upcoming Christmas, Joyous Kwanzaa or just plain Happy Winter!

Shit-pile theory of life explains mysterious difference between Democratic and Republican *sex offenders

Al Franken announced his resignation from the Senate Thursday in the wake of a bunch of disclosures from women that he was handy and not in a good way.

That was shortly after the Republican party publicly endorsed Roy Moore, the Senate candidate who was reportedly banned from the Gadsen Mall for creeping on (to use a term I first heard out of the mouth of Ex One’s best friend Tommy) “Tenderonis.”

Since then, there has been a lot of handwringing on social media about why it is that Republican sex offenders* are, for the most part, circling the wagons while Democratic sex offenders* are, for the most part, resigning from office.

I, too, was struggling with this. Well, I was. Then I filtered it through the Shit-Pile Theory of Life, at which point it made perfect sense.

The “Shit-pile Theory of Life”  

I don’t remember when I came up with the Shit-pile Theory of Life (Shpitol). It was at some point during a decade running a Displaced Homemaker program at a Large Midwest Technical College. I wanted to encourage my participants to keep moving forward, even when what was in front of them looked scary and insurmountable.

Here’s how I explained it in those one-on-ones with my participants. For starters, I substituted “Manure” or “poop-pile,” given that shitpile is NSFW.

Every single person – regardless of how rich, successful or powerful – is born with a pile of shit. Here’s the person {insert hand gesture indicating person on left} and here {insert similar hand gesture indicating shitpile on right} is that person’s pile of shit.

Here are four different ways people deal with their piles of shit:

  1. Some say ‘Omigod, Omigod!!! It’s a pile of shit!!!” And they freak out and run around like headless chickens because they’ve got a pile of shit. This, it goes without saying, is not a healthy or effective way of dealing with their shitpiles.
  2. Some say “Oh yeah? A pile of shit? Not here!” These people address their pile of shit by throwing it at other people. Not a good idea, because shit gets thrown back at them and they end up engaged in a constant metaphorical shitwar in which everyone gets dirty.
  3. Some say “Pile of shit? What pile of shit? I don’t smell anything. You must be hallucinating.” These people end up in deep doo-doo, because ignoring your shit does not make it go away.
  4. Some say, “I’m going to turn this shit into fertilizer if it’s the last thing I ever do.” Those are the ones who, if they don’t give up, eventually end up with a garden.

How does this apply to the current situation with, globally speaking, the Republicans, aka “elephants” and the Democrats, aka “donkeys”?

At first, everyone was running around like headless chickens. Since moving on from there, the elephants are now throwing and ignoring their shit. The donkeys are trying to turn theirs into fertilizer.

 

Turning shit into fertilizer is hard work. It takes time, thought and deliberation; the end result is growth.

Far easier, in the moment, to throw or ignore it. But as a long-term strategey, it rarely works. Shit has a funny way of sticking around. When you throw it at other people, they tend to throw more back. Ignoring it is even more dangerous, because not only it does it not go away, your pile actually gets bigger and will eventually bury you.

It’s anybody’s guess what will happen tomorrow when Alabama voters head to the polls to pull the lever for Roy Moore, Doug Jones or write-in candidate Lee Busby.

One thing I do know? Ignore that steaming pile at your own peril.

*Sex offender: a person who has offended another person or persons by invoking sexual acts/behavior using words or actions

 

Real Apologies Matter: A brief stroll through Sexual Predator Apology Land

It’s been busy around here. Thanksgiving is in the rear-view mirror. Before that though, my faithful seven-year-old computer went kerflooey. Never mind that I had writing deadlines. Thankfully, I have an understanding editor. And over at the library, we are moving to reduced-service status for the next year or so while we get a new building. So I’ve been weeding like crazy.

And every day, the news features a “Creep du Jour” and it’s either some dude old enough to be your father (I’m looking at you, Charlie Rose) or your little brother (that would be you, Lewis C-K) or the guy who was a complete asshole to your now deceased former husband when said former husband committed the terrible offense (upon finding himself the other occupant of the elevator on which said Creep was riding) of telling the Creep much he enjoyed his work on Saturday Night Live (Al Franken, C’mon down!).

Regarding C-K, his apology engendered this response from one of my more opinionated offspring when I observed that at least he’d apologized. It took place on a mutual friend’s Facebook page.

Opinionated Offspring: “NO COOKIES FOR DOING THE LEAST!! I don’t give him any respect. He’s a predator and he got called on it, it’s not like he voluntarily mea culpa’d out of the goodness of his heart. We should all be absolutely finished with giving men cookies for just doing the right thing— ESPECIALLY when the ‘right’ thing is admitting he’s a sexual predator.”

CNYFTY_Pic
A photo taken early in my career as a sex siren, between Incidents #3 & #4 on the list below. I mean, look at me. Am I irresistible or what?

My response was to post the following list:

  1. Bruce P. I was 13. Our teacher sent us to the auditorium to check on something for that night’s performance of “The Wizard of Oz,” our eighth grade play. He decided, with all the other boys standing there, to find out for sure whether or not I stuffed my bra. He never apologized.
  2. Symeon of Symeon’s Greek Restaurant. I was 15. He was married with three children. Mom said “The food is good.” She kept taking us there. He never apologized.
  3. I don’t remember his name. I was 16. He was a 48-year-old divorced classmate of my father’s. He never apologized.
  4. Lewis K. (not c-k) I was 19. He wouldn’t let me leave his dorm room. I talked myself out of there, but made sure to never again be alone with him. He never apologized.
  5. My great-uncle Sam. I was 19. He had a daughter my age. But that didn’t stop him from trying to slip me the tongue. He never apologized.
  6. I don’t remember his name either. I was 20. He was at least 50, lived in Abu Ghosh and worked at Ma’ale HaChamisha. Cornered me in an isolated part of the kitchen to cop a feel. He never apologized.
  7. Mike M. I was 33, divorced, newly-disengaged, never had had a full-time job but was doing all kinds of freelance writing and looking for a full-time writing/reporting job in Milwaukee. He offered me a job but sexual favors were a condition of employment. His response to my reluctance was “If you won’t help me, I won’t help you.” I took a job 200 miles away. He never apologized.
  8. Jeff J. He was a practitioner of what (thank you, Charlie Rose) is now called “The Crusty Paw,” aka “unsolicited shoulder rubs.” We were both at work in an otherwise unoccupied part of the building when he came up behind me and began the pawing, which didn’t faze me until he upped the ante by dropping a kiss on my neck. I said “That was your one freebie and if you ever do it again, I promise you’ll regret it.” He apologized.
  9. Walter B. I was at a neighborhood party in my new neighborhood and he groped me. One night, on a walk with a male neighbor, I told him what happened. “He groped me too,” said the man. Upon further investigation, it turned out that getting groped by Walter at a party was some sort of perverse neighborhood rite of passage. Needless to say, he never apologized to anyone.

All this to say: Apologies, if they are heartfelt, sincere and a first step toward permanent change, matter. Or, to put it in the parlance of another current social movement: “Real Apologies Matter.”

C-K’s apology had me from his opening line.

“These stories are true.” No equivocating. No accusing anyone of lying, or misconstruing, or misunderstanding.

To be clear, I also pointed out to Opinionated Offspring and anyone else reading the thread that C-K’s apology does not in any way minimize his (hard-earned? {ducks}) predator status. It cracks open a door he may or may not be able to actually step through at some point. (Which is a lot more than can be said for Roy Moore or the Groper-in-Chief.)

I am not smart enough or sophisticated enough to know what a person who preys on others this way needs to do to fix himself (or herself if the gender shoe fits).

I can’t speak for anyone other than myself in speculating about how someone in this position begins to rebuild that blown trust and credibility with the people they’ve wronged.

But for me, admission of responsibility and an apology would constitute an excellent start.

I’ve seen Bruce P. at several high school reunions, and every time it makes my flesh crawl. I want to stand on a table and scream “How dare you show up here!” at the same time I’m cowering underneath it. But it’s as if I’m somehow paralyzed, so I just try to pretend that whatever corner of the room he’s in doesn’t exist. Meanwhile, he’s Mr. Oblivious, laughing, happy and and holding court with groups of laughing female classmates I can’t approach because I’m busy avoiding that corner of the room.

At our most recent reunion, I buttonholed the female classmate in that cluster who I trusted most (which I am realizing as I write this was kind of an awkward, eighth-grade-level attempt to get her to be my wingwoman in some sort of possible meeting in which I could possibly get some resolution, given that he is obviously not going to stop coming to reunions and I am not going to let him stop me from showing up). I was not heartened by her response.

“I’m sure he doesn’t even remember! He was probably drunk!”

Me ( in my mind): “We were 13! Are you on crack?”

Me (aloud): “Whatever.” {Changes subject}

So, where does any of this leave all of us #metoo types?

Over on Facebook, a few people reacted to my posted list with horror, kindness and empathy.

My response was to reassure those good people that I am, and remain, fine.

“I don’t live in all this, or even relive it. But it’s important to not bury it. People need to understand how common the behavior is and how uncommon the apologies are. There really needs to be ‘Truth & Reconciliation’ type activities around all this, and for the people who have committed this type of action to know what they’ve done and say it aloud is an important step.”

Recent reading adventures: A “Some-ary”

 Before I was a librarian (by which I mean from the time I was about 3), I read a lot.  As a baby journalist in the early 1990s, I started reviewing books and discovered the fun and wonder of sometimes getting paid to read. Which didn’t stop me from continuing to do it for free.

Since becoming a librarian, I have discovered that what I read has now taken on the weird addition of having some sort of Mystical Librarian Stamp of Approval.

I have noticed this both in and outside the library.

Confession: I like it.

So, without further ado, I thought I’d share some of what I’ve been reading lately.

“The Wonderling” by Mira Bartok

thewonderling
I just finished this and wish I hadn’t, because I didn’t want it to end. I’m probably going to read it again. Soon. Evidently there’s a movie deal in the works, and it’s easy to see why. Bartok’s imagination pantry is a well-stocked place, and she’s a great cook.

Because we tend to like our comparisons,  I’m just going to say that this book is what you might get if you tossed Frances Hodgson Burnett, Charles Dickens, Phillip Pullman, Garth Nix, JK Rowling,  Charles deLint and an afternoon soap opera into a blender. Perfect for the tween set and anyone who loves getting lost in a good yarn. (My nephew is totally getting this for Christmas.)

“What this story needs is a Vroom and a Zoom” (A Pig in a Wig book) by Emma J. Virjan

VroomZoom

The Grandkid (aka my favorite small person) was over last night and I read this aloud to him. That was after reading it aloud to Sweetheart. Grandkid was riveted, which is pretty impressive given that he’s 19 months old. Not so surprising, though, because the story is about a race and like Sweetheart, he’s a big motorized things fan. Good for car enthusiasts. Also wee people and the people who love reading to them.

“Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots” by Deborah Feldman

Unorthodox

This one is a library weed my sister told me to read years ago. (There are plenty of copies available in other branches). Feldman describes growing up curious in a religious sect that frowns on imagination and constrains its adherents to the narrowest of options. I have a particular bias for these types of books, partly because I’m in the process of work on a book-like object in a similar genre and partly because someone in our own family a generation back made a similar break, although from a far less (though still plenty) restrictive sect.

Being raised by her grandparents after her mother broke away when she was small, leaving her behind, and a father who was part of the community but incapable of caring for her meant she was slightly different and suspect from the start. Growing up, she knew to hide her love of reading and keep trips to the public library secret. As an adult, watching the community protect ideals over exploited and injured community members pushed Halpern to pick a side. In the war between her love for the grandparents who raised her and the chance for her child to grow up whole, she chose her son.

“Miriam’s Secret” by Debby Waldman

MiriamsSecret

Yeah, she’s my sister and yeah, the book is set in on a fictional farm that draws heavily from our family’s farm.  But this Depression-era story of a kid from New York City who spends a few months with her grandparents provides a kids-eye view of life in tough times without a bunch of moralizing and commentary. Same goes for Jewish ritual and practice. It’s all very matter-of-fact and organically woven in to the story, mostly told through the relationships between Miriam, her grandparents and the hired men who help run the farm. Also, anyone who is my cousins will laugh themselves silly at the grandmother in this story. To say ours was never that tender is a major understatement.

“Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson

JustMercy

I’m only on page 23, which is okay because Book Group isn’t until next week. But already I’m looking forward to bedtime so I can read more of this story by a lawyer who has made addressing inequities around mass incarceration and the death penalty his life’s work. And I’m very grateful to Sally for choosing it for us to read. It’s been on my list for awhile, and this is the push I needed to get off my tush and read it.

“Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun” by Sarah Ladipo Manyika

Mule

It’s very short, only 118 pages, but so very good. Another book club pick, this one thanks to Cynthia, who hosted last month. I’ve never met a protagonist like Morayo, maybe because most of the fictional 75-year-olds are supporting characters who are usually supported. By a cane or a wheelchair or some other old-person marker. Morayo is  single, childless, a retired academic who drives a Porsche and is and living the good life in San Francisco. Well, that is, until she falls and breaks her hip. Maybe it’s because I have a mom in a nursing home. Maybe because I’m getting older and have a slew of friends who are single and childless. But this book really resonated. Also, anyone who arranges their books by how well their characters would get along, as Morayo does – real or not – is my kind of person.

 

Facebook Posts

I should probably spend less time reading these, but there is this one group to which I belong that is feeding my brain-growing side a lot. I can’t talk about it, because it’s a secret group. But it’s very good for my soul. And it’s good for my soul to keep up with the people I value in 3D, given our sometimes way-too-busy lives.

 

My Twitter Feed

Not as much here, but it’s interesting to see what people think and to get information on breaking news stories – bearing in mind, of course that it’s always best to verify.

Twitter is also a good place to remember how little you matter if you are not a brand or a celebrity. Most of my posts are met with radio silence. I might as well be posting on my bathroom wall. But it’s okay. In 100 years, no one will care anymore about most of what’s happening now anyway, and so in at least one sense, my tweets are on the leading edge of a curve!

 

Road Signs

Because I drive. And sometimes ride my bike.

 

“Jonah” by Some old Middle Eastern Storytellers (Translation by the Jewish Publication Society)

Yesterday, in Mom’s room. As part of my alternative Yom Kippur observance.

 

 

“Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death and Jazz Chickens” by Eddie Izzard

BelieveMe

See above about “Unorthodox” and book-like objects. I am a big Eddie Izzard fan, so when I saw this on our “New” shelf, I was all over it. I read it at work and wrote a review for a future issue of the library newsletter. It’s pretty humble stuff for a celebrity memoir, mostly him describing what it was like before and after his mom died when he was six, his decision to live as openly transgender in 1985 and the process that led him to be able to carry that to his onstage persona, which, for years he stuck to what he describes as “boy mode,” and generally his operating philosophy, which is to act as if you’re capable of more than you are. It’s actually a very Jewish concept (not that Eddie said that) – the “engage in action and intent and belief will follow.”

Sweetheart and I have tickets to see him here this coming weekend, and I’m looking forward to it.

“Liner Notes: On Parents & Children, Exes & Excess, Death & Decay & A Few of My Other Favorite Things”  by Loudon Wainwright III

LinerNotes

I just started this one, too, at work. What I said about “Unorthodox” and “Believe Me.” It’s interesting to read in narrative form about some of what he’s written and sung. You get a bigger picture and context, and it’s fun to be a fly on the wall for his encounters with Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Judd Apatow and other household name-type people. Because I’m also a big fan of the work of his singing family members and friends (Lucy, Martha, Rufus, Sloan, Chaim Tannenbaum, Suzzy Roche and the McGarrigle Sisters), reading about them is kind of like getting to hang out with people you know but not so well and learning more about them.
On a separate but related note, I will always have a tender spot for LWIII, who gave me what remains one of the nicest compliments anyone ever has about my writing. I profiled him 12 years ago for a piece in our local alternative paper. When he showed up for the gig, I asked him to sign the story. He said “I read it over dinner, and it didn’t even give me indigestion.” When I told this story to Suzzy & Lucy a couple of years ago, Lucy’s comment was “That sounds like him.”

“Toad on the Road: A Cautionary Tale” by Stephen Shashkan

Toad-on-the-Road

What I most like about this picture book is that you can sing it as your own improvised blues tune.  It probably works in other genres, too – punk, jazz, plainsong, recitative, rockabilly. It’s adorable, funny, charming and features a female tow-truck driving working mother. Which is pretty much everything.

The ‘Gray Rhino’ moves into a nursing home; great experiences ensue

Me&MicahRhinoOptimized
Me and a friend, both wearing our rhino-chasing faces….and, me, of course, the T-shirt.

When The New York Times recently ran a front page story about China’s effort to combat “gray rhinos” –large and obvious problems that are often ignored until they become crisis– I was beyond excited to see one of my dearest friends getting some well-deserved props.

Then I looked for the citation – because, after all, “The Gray Rhino: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore” is where the term comes from, and its author, Michele Wucker, is (full disclosure) my closest girlfriend.

The closest the reporter got was this phrase, “an eponymous business book that has become somewhat popular this year in China,” 11 words of a 22-word sentence.

Subsequent stories further twisted the meaning into something that restricted the term to a specific kind of Chinese company.  Every time I read one, I wanted to hurl herds of foam rhinos at my monitor, which was problematic because I don’t own any foam rhinos. (On the upside, CNN MoneyBloombergSouth China Morning Post mentioned the book and even spelled her first name – one “l,” not two – right.)

I remember when Michele first started talking about the book, and I remember when she was writing it. I forget a lot of stuff, but I’m pretty sure would have remembered Chinese banking crises if they’d been in mix for inclusion.  Greek defaults and the Argentinian financial debacle were. China, not so much. (It would have qualified, but it hadn’t happened yet.)

So, a brief review:

So what’s a gray rhino? In disaster avoidance parlance, to paraphrase the book’s subtitle, a gray rhino is an impending and avoidable threat to which you can respond. They do not have to be big international banking crises. A gray rhino can as simple as walking through your kitchen and noticing that the sugar canister is down to less than a tablespoon.

I was dealing with one when Michele was working on her book.

‘Woman with with weird resume seeking soft landing’

Ten years ago, something happened at my grant-funded job that made it pretty clear its days were numbered. Ironically, a large component of my job involved helping other people address the fallout from their up-ended lives. I helped them figure out what their best next moves were, then did what I could to see them through those moves. Given that, it would have been pretty hypocritical to pretend I didn’t need to start casting about for my own best chance at a soft landing, which turned out to be enrolling in a library and information science graduate program.

I got laid off the year after I walked across a stage to pick up my master’s degree, spent the following 11 months of non-day-job work applying for day jobs, editing dissertations, writing freelance newspaper and web-based stories and indexing a book. Then, one of those applications panned out and, to my great delight, I landed a job as a public librarian.

Michele loves that story. She keeps asking me to blog about it. But I want to blog about a different gray rhino.

My mom.

Mom has been in a nursing home for almost four years. Before she actually ended up in one, ending up in one was her biggest fear.

Rhino avoided….for awhile

I have vivid memories of nursing home visits to elderly relatives with 50-something Mom. That woman was vibrant. She ran from morning ‘til night. She worked, volunteered, played bridge, was active in her synagogue, a regular at book group and still found time to travel the world with her sisters and host friends at her house on Cape Cod.

We’d walk into a facility and the smell – a melange of stale, damp and vague decay – would hit us. Then, there’d be the sights en route to our destination, usually someone’s room. Near-comatose old people with wispy hair and rheumy eyes sitting in wheelchairs in the halls, or arranged in rows in common rooms in front of a TV. Some would stare at nothing, some were aware of us. Some babbled weird things that were unintelligible or if intelligible, more closely resembled random word strings than coherent thoughts.

We’d find our person and have our visit. On our walk back to the car, Mom would utter a variation of the same declaration.

“If I’m ever like that, shoot me or give me pills.”

I’m pretty sure that 50-year-old Mom would shoot 89-year-old Mom.

Eighty-nine-year-old Mom, however, is not nearly as upset about her current situation.

There are, I think, several reasons for this, many of which involve a veritable herd of Michele-style Gray Rhinos. If Parkinson’s disease had not derailed her well-laid out plans, she’d be living quite contentedly on Cape Cod, using her yearly required withdrawal from her 401K to travel. She’d still be living off her pension and social security checks for daily expenses. Parkinson’s disease was the gray rhino that led us, ultimately, to what Mom – and the rest of us – didn’t think existed.

A good nursing home experience.

After nearly four years, it dawned on me recently that my family is having one. In a very real sense, we were damned lucky to bumble into it. But we also did – and have continued to do – things to maximize the “good” ness of our situation.

How to have a ‘good’ nursing home experience

I could write for days about this, but no one wants to read that much for that long. So I’ll do my best to keep it simple. Here are four tips, two of which I have never seen in any book about nursing homes.

  1. PR Rollout
  2. Show up!
  3. Their casa is your casa
  4. Plan ahead

Before I elaborate, though, a disclaimer.  A lot of what went down in the decade or so preceding Mom’s decision (and it was her decision) to move to a nursing home had reassured her that as far as my sister and I were concerned, she was still in charge. Losing mobility and stamina did not mean losing the right to have her wishes honored while she was still intact enough to make those decisions herself. That still stands now that I am in charge of making decisions on her behalf.

FuneralCostsGrayRhino2015
Words to live by. And so benign-seeming when surrounded by painted gingerbread people.

So, without further ado, this, based on our experience, is how to have a great nursing home experience.

Create buzz

If possible, try to build some buzz around your person’s arrival. Think “PR rollout.”  We didn’t plan or intend that, but it turned out to be a lucky and very happy accident.

Mom, having made the decision that the nursing home was where she needed to be, opted to blow town and visit her sisters, leaving me to divest of what wouldn’t fit in her new room and choose what would and should. She flew off to California to spend three weeks with her older sisters.  (My daughter was headed out there for a conference, so she stopped and picked up Granny on the way; my sister flew from Canada to California, then brought Mom home to her new room.)

I spent the next three weeks cleaning out her apartment, the latter two of them moving things over to her new place, which was in an adjoining building. In the process I got to know the people on her unit. I found out that many of the CNAs had been there for years, a very good sign. They exclaimed over her artwork and listened to my stories about Mom. There was something exotic about her being in California, and the idea that she’d be arriving on a night in the future, like some movie star on tour.

I hadn’t intended the three weeks she was gone to be a buzz-building campaign, but that’s how it worked out. By the time she arrived, everyone was really excited to meet her. Note: I also decorated her room somewhat strategically, placing her United Way ‘Self Above Service’ award and other recognitions she’d received over the course of her life for teaching and synagogue involvement in view of the entrance to her room.

Be present!

I had the luxury of working a mile-and-a-half from Mom for the first two years she was at the Home. But if you can’t be the person who pops in between four and five times weekly (more often even), try to get someone else to do it for you. These don’t have to be extended visits. Sometimes the trip there and back took more time than the quick hello, hug and kiss for Mom and a ‘Hi!’ to other residents and staff people.

Now that I work on the other side of town at a much less flexible job, I’m only there a couple of times a week. But everyone knows why. My sister arranged for her to have a companion two nights a week, so even though I’m not there as often, Mom still gets outside attention.

One of my proudest moments some two years into Mom’s being there occurred when she, more lucid then, reported that on a bathroom run in the middle of the night, the attendants were talking past her (which happens, sadly). One said to the other, “We have to take care of her right away, otherwise she’ll call her daughter.” If you can’t win ‘em over with kindness, making them afraid of you is the next best thing.

By the way, about the staff people: Learn their names. And if you are that kind of person, learn their stories. My sister and I have both worked as reporters. Reporters are curious people who are genuinely interested in other people and their stories. If you’re not built that way, find other ways to be kind to the CNAs and caregivers. Figure out what’s in your comfort zone and show them you appreciate what they’re doing for your person.

Debby and I have ended up making some lovely friends. We also have gotten unofficial calls from staff who’ve let us know when Mom has needed something specific and/or something has happened of which they think we should be aware. To say that we’re grateful doesn’t begin to express our feelings of appreciation and respect for these amazing people.

Don’t treat it like an institution.

You may have to sign in and out and your house probably didn’t have elevators, CNAs and nurses (unless the latter two were your parents and/or siblings) but don’t be shy about treating the place like home. There was the time a new nurse-practitioner was looking for ice and asked a busy staffer. I knew where it was and got it for him.  My attitude? Yeah, it’s a nursing home. But my mother lives here. So it’s my mom’s house. That goes whether I’m rummaging in the kitchen for cups, straws and tops during an ice water run, fetching a towel or a wheelchair from the storage closets or helping out when dinner’s being served.

Look ahead.

Even though I thought I knew this, I didn’t. I do now because of something I said earlier: “Get to know the staff people.”

I have promised Mom a beautiful, easy death. Which is why, last month, I signed papers with hospice care. Mom gets to stay where she is, and a bunch of new people now come in to see her (social worker, nurse, personal care workers, music therapist).

She’s not at the point where anyone needs to swoop in as what my dear friend Julie (who spent a month in hospice before heading off to the Great Mysterious Beyond Place) referred to as “the pharmaceutical death factory.” But when it does, the hospice people are going to be right there to catch her.

What I didn’t know was that if those papers and that plan isn’t in place and your loved one in a nursing home takes a sudden turn for the worse, the lag time between contacting doctors and pharmacies might well mean that your loved one suffers and dies in pain.

That’s what happened recently to someone on Mom’s unit. The family hadn’t made any arrangements; their loved one did not have the easy death that would otherwise have happened. It tore at the hearts of the staff to watch someone they had come to love and care for suffer when that didn’t have to be the case.