19 September, 2010

Things that still were

Last night I flew to Geneva, non-stop out of Newark. The flight departed at six o'clock pm and was due into Geneva at 0730 this morning. I always struggle on flights like that because I simply cannot make my body go to sleep at the hour it thinks it should be watching "Jeopardy." 

Add to this the fact that Continental Airlines offered only "family-friendly entertainment" and it made for a long night. 

And, final nail in the coffin was my much-lamented and much-tormented admission that the new Jonathan Franzen book, which started out with such promise, is silly and I don't give a toss about the characters.

So, while my seat mate slept, I sat in the darkness, leaned back those two to three inches that coach class allows, and cleared my mind. I concentrated on one breath at a time. I worked at pushing away the day-to-day monkey chatter that fills my head. And I waited for a deeper thought to come my way. Something to ponder at this end of Yom Kippur.

After a while I realized why this scene felt so familiar. I used to travel back and forth to London for eight years, and every time I would leave my family there would be some new, difficult change to process. And that got me to thinking about something much deeper, something much more painful and important than the e-mail I need to send when I land. 

Here's an unedited, stream-of-consciousness exploration of what I considered last night from the vantage point of 37,000 feet above the Atlantic. 

This is about things that still were. 

When I left for London in January 1998, I had two parents. My father was dying, but he was alive. Very much so, in fact. His body was failing him but his mind was intact. Sharp. My mother was healthy, and she was in charge of my father's care. That seems incredible to me now, these twelve years on. My mother changed the bags of peritoneal solution; each one weighed 10 pounds. She bathed my father. She cooked all of his meals. She watched the Yankees play and talked strategy with my father. 

My father still read The New York Times everyday. He played bridge. By the time I moved, he had stopped driving, but he would still go out to lunch with his buddies. A hot pastrami sandwich, corned beef, whatever. By that point, his kidneys were so far gone that his doctors told him to go ahead and eat whatever he wanted. "I'm a goner. I've been cleared to eat Starbucks ice cream," he told me. And there was joy in that simple act. And there was still something of a life being lived.

My parents still lived in our old house on King Philip Drive. They ate dinner in the den and watched TV, and my mother invited guests to dinner on a fairly regular basis. She still cooked great meals; she hadn't yet forgotten how to make her famous apple pie or her noodle kugel. 

My bulldog Melvin was still alive in those days. When I left for London, Melvin Selwyn went to live with my parents. My father thought he'd hit the lottery. Another bulldog! Melvin was a wonderful companion to my parents. 

In those days, I would fly home from London, craving the old world I'd known. Wanting to sleep in my old twin bed that felt too small and strangely crooked. Wanting my father to grill me on current affairs and my knowledge of the world. Each time, the fantasy of what it would be like would be slightly more tarnished; small changes, some bigger changes. And I felt is was all so unfair. Why couldn't everything just stay the way it was, at least until I was done with my London life and was ready to come home and deal with all of this?

During my visit in May (1998), my mother asked me to "babysit" for my father so she could run some errands. I remember being shocked by this idea. I had imagined that we would sit and watch a movie together on the VCR, as we'd always done. Or maybe go to the club for lunch. But by then my father's dialysis schedule had changed and he needed an extra treatment in the morning and an extra in the late afternoon, as well as all night on the machine. 

That day, while my mother was getting groceries and running to the post office, my father was hooked up to his machine and had an accident -- in his pants and all over his chair. He was mortified. Beyond mortified. I cleaned him up, and the only thing I said to him was, "Dad, this really sucks for you." Later, my mother thanked me for having the courage to be honest with him. He wasn't the kind of person who wanted to hear how these things happen and it would all be alright. It wasn't. I was wiping my father's ass and cleaning him up. And this is not the natural order of things, at least until illness or old age or both set in.

My father died that December. I had been gone just about one year. Melvin died the following spring. His death hit me like an oncoming train. I struggled with the guilt of knowing I'd deserted my beloved Mel and with the pain of knowing that with his death an entire part of my life was now gone forever. Melvin's death was like losing my father all over again. Pain, pain. 

After my father's death, my mother lived alone for the first time in her life. She was 73 years old. She had married at 21, leaving her parents' house for a life with my father. Two years later, my mother started showing the early signs of Alzheimer's. Although she wasn't officially diagnosed until 2004, when she was unable to draw a clock and really had no idea what year it was or who was in the Oval Office, although she had of course voted Democrat. One year later, in 2005, we moved my mother into an assisted living community. She resisted it for one day and then, after vomiting all morning, she literally gave up; she succumbed to the inevitable and let her body -- and her mind -- go free. 

My mother died in May. Nearly five months ago.

Has it really only been 12 years since everything started coming undone? It feels like so much more time has passed since I had what I had back then: parents, a family house, a place to go and people to be with on the holidays, a sense of being part of something so essential that I never considered that a time would come when I would be without it. 

And then, as I felt the tears well up, I realized something else on that flight last night. I realized that I am still here. That despite all of it -- all that pain of all that loss -- I am alive. I am a witness to lives lived, and I am alive in my own life. I am still working out some issues with my parents and my childhood; that work goes on, as does loving them and honoring them. I can visit West Hartford and see my old house without falling to pieces. Instead, I look at it and think, Wow. That's where I grew tall. That's where I learned and came to believe much of what I hold true, even today -- and even in spite of questioning and rejecting, too. 

I arrived in Geneva feeling connected to myself. I am not simply spinning through this life, bouncing from experience to experience. I am part of what came before me and part of what I was when I had parents and was someone's daughter. Knowing, feeling, that I am more than a dot in the universe; I am part of a line that twists and turns, from Jewish Sepharad and the diaspora, from the shtetls of the Tsar's Russia where my father's family lived, to Hartford, Connecticut and then outward into a world and a path of my own choosing. 

Last night that path took me over an ocean and next Saturday it will bring me back. My path is one that criss-crosses and wanders. But, I know in my bones that my path has roots and it will always lead me home, wherever that is at any given point in time. 

I am no less than I ever was. I am just a solo traveler, remembering and honoring what I once had, what I miss and what I know I will never really lose.


  1. You are definitely a part of my world! When you describe such universal truths, I feel thanks that my friend can so eloquently state my similar thoughts. It is soothing. Gracias!!

  2. Thank you, Kate. That is so generous of you!

  3. So - I am alive. The foto of you is so pretty. It is Susanne by the way - Ramirez de Arellano. APTN - London? Remember? Did you ever publish the book. I am in Washington, D.C., working for the International Women's Media Foundation after four years as News Director for Univision in Puerto Rico. Grew hair on my chest. E-mail me susanneramirezdearellano@hotmail.com I would love to hear from u. So sorry about your Mum. Love, Me.

  4. OMG. I cannot BELIEVE it. I have been looking for you, querida. (Si, si, estudio espanol!). I will e-mail you. I don't have many women friends with hairy chests and I think I need one. xx

  5. Amy -- thank you for this. i am gripped by your writing and the way you put your memories together with who you are today. brava nancy

  6. Well - not really hair on my chest but a good pair of "cojones" with which to face life, love and the supposed pursuit of happiness. Please do write - I would also love to see you. Cristina is turning 21 this month and she is in her last year of school - so what does the old fart do now? All I know is being a single mum and working like a bloodhound - so is it time to sell those coconuts on the beach?