Category Archives: Aging Parents

Behavior Modification for the Debauched

My mornings are always filled with grand promises to myself: I’m going to start a healthy diet; I’m going to stop drinking; I’m going to get up earlier; I’m going to write and read more and watch TV less. Yup. It’s 10:04 as I write this, and I’m still processing my second of two routine cups of coffee, hours past my early morning wakeup goal.   My coffee ritual in the morning, that nothing can officially begin until I’ve processed those two cups, is about the only routine in my life that I’ve built and haven’t strayed from since I was sixteen. It only takes a few weeks to build a habit. I’ve built quite a few and even managed to make some of them healthy habits. But the scales tip more to side of unhealthy in my world, and my success rate at kicking is much lower than my success rate at starting. I think coffee is the only habit I haven’t tried to kick at some stage or another. I mean, why, you know? Why kick coffee? I do much worse things to my body in the course of a day.

And speaking of those other habits, I’m going to kick them now! The diet starts TODAY. The detox starts TODAY. The munchies after 11:00 pm end TODAY. Blah blah blah. Now I really sound like a middle-aged woman.

I remember, decades ago, listening to my mother talk about the exercise routine that she was going to start any-day-now. She was going to start walking and riding her bike. Yup. She’s 75, and I think she’s ridden a bike ten times in the past three decades. Her get-up-and-go got up and went before she even tried to start that habit. Am I gonna be like my mom and talk about what I need to do for the rest of my life? Or my mother-in-law, who has been talking about starting a diet since the eighties? I heard one time she actually did stick to a diet and lost like forty pounds. I think my husband might have been in middle school or something—it was that long ago. But it was a triumph she still talks about. She has plans to return to that svelte woman who looked so good in a red dress at her 40-something year-old son’s Bar Mitzvah. Ahhhhhh! I can’t do this to myself. I can’t become these women who I am so eerily resembling at the moment.

Well, then I guess I have to cultivate and maintain some good behaviors for at least three weeks, the minimum amount of time it takes for a behavior to become a habit. Let’s start today. Why not, right? Tomorrow’s not gonna hold any more promise than today for getting my life back. It’s April 14th. I must maintain my good behaviors until at least May 5. I can do that. I can do that, right?  Yeah, I can do that.



A Week in the Life

This has been a heck of a 40something week.  A friend sent me a thank-you letter for driving six hours to attend her mother’s funeral a year ago this Monday; one of my mom’s closest frenemies passed away the day my mother got back to town from her month-long visit to relatives’ houses.  Mom had her knock-off Michael Kors on her arm and the car keys in her hand when she checked her email for the hospice address and found a follow-up:  “Don’t bother.”

What else happened this week?  Well, I realized that my self-prescribed 40mg. dose of Flouxetine is a bit much in sobriety.  On 40mg. of Flu, I don’t sleep the very rewarding-because-I-gotta-get-something-out-of-this deep sleep of the non-drinker.   Instead, I wake up 100 times and stare at the ceiling fan or rearrange my arms and legs around my blankets and pillows, just like I used to do when I’d wake up at 4 in the morning with a sugar high after a long night of designer beer with high alcohol content.

(And not to be tangential, but remember when designer beer first started appearing on the shelves?  Prior to those years, I had thought that Molsen Golden was a beer as fine as a seven-and-a-half dollar glass of some local microbrew.  Now the shelves are glutted with choices, and consumers are bored, so they’re making it themselves.)

Which brings me back to my week—friends, death, sleeping, friends.  These are the worries of this 40something woman.  Oh, and then there’s the kids’ growing up and roaming aimlessly after school and not calling you to tell you where they are and then, after you finally track them down right before calling the police, having to have “that talk” about trust and responsibility.   Fuuuuuuuuck.

I didn’t sign up for that part (well, I actually did.), but it’s a hoot compared to my Mom’s stage in her life.  I sent her a sympathy card for her friend, too, because why should only the family mourn the loss of someone they care about?  Even if those friends were co-dependently bonded and sometimes hung up on the other and bitched about the other and then turned around and stepped up for each other, they were still friends.  Some of my earliest living memories include this woman’s children, who are all forty-somethings like me now.  My mother’s and this woman’s friendship has existed as long as we have.

So, friends… I’m still not done with the week.  My dog had a seizure for the first time ever, on a hiking trail.  That’s the first time I realized that if something happened to an 87 pound dog on my watch then I would have to be the one to carry him to the car.  I’m gonna start lifting weights for real.  Luckily, the dog recovered, and I got him to the vet.  His declining health is not the subject of the story, though, but the fact that I used his declining health as an excuse to cancel plans with a friend.

My husband and I are the lord and lady of canceling plans.  We’re building up quite a rep these days.  I know why we do it, though.  We’re NOT in our thirties anymore, and I don’t mean for that to sound like we’ve become geriatric.   We just understand the benefit-cost ratio of honoring certain plans and canceling others.  We want to be active participants in all of them, but when it comes time to accept what participating means—driving forever to someone’s place, not being able to find a parking spot, wandering the Saturday streets full of loud drunks, and then driving home—we recognize the moments ahead of us are finite and decide it isn’t worth the aggravation.  Plus, I’m not drinking, so why go to a bar?  The benefit-cost-ratio is very high in favor of staying home.

And that’s my week, my unedited, written version of my heavily-edited week.  Somehow, I suspect I’m not the only one of my peers to have weeks like this from time-to-time.

Repeating history

I realize that I don’t contribute much to this blog, my only blog, my only writing outlet, in fact. I write a lot of entries that don’t get posted because I don’t know what kind of a point I’m trying to make. I write a lot of entries that don’t get posted because they’re for-real-and-for-true too revealing to the few parties that occasionally read the blog.   I write a lot of entries that just trail off… my boredom revealed in the white spaces at the end.

I’ve decided that I will post this particular entry in whatever state that it becomes. It will address a topic that I believe applies to the theme of 40s are the new 40s—depression, addiction, divorce, adult ADD, children, aging parents, politics, wrinkles, you name it. Everything applies to us, doesn’t it? We’re adults, and as a consequence of our age and our growing cache of wisdom and experience, we can come up with something to say about anything. We’ve been there, done that. And the younger generations that follow us will feel the same way after they’ve stopped believing that they can figure everything out.

Speaking of the younger generations, I have no hostility, some envy, and a whole lot of curiosity about what’s going on there. I have spoken to few people my age who don’t have a fantasy “do-over.” My husband would have been a medical doctor. I would have been a lawyer. My cousin would have been a boat mechanic on a pier someplace where the sun always shines. This is normal to us, and we see the younger people around us as simply younger versions of ourselves—people on the verge of making that one bad decision that will alter their lives. But what if these younger people aren’t like that? What if they don’t have the time that we had in the eighties and nineties to enjoy relative national peace, prosperity, and opportunity?

We know that people decades younger than us have one distinct advantage, and that’s time on their sides, time to figure it out, time to make mistakes, and time to revel in their youth. We did that. But I don’t see them doing that. I don’t see little “mes” in the twenty-something women I interact with and work with. I see women in their teens and twenties moving quickly, being savvy, and getting on with it in ways that make me wonder if these generations are exquisitely different. Did my mother see that in me?

Just like my mother and I are alien to one another and yet familiar, young people today are both alien and familiar to me. I wish them well because “times they are a changin’.” They will confront the new. I’ll observe it. They’ll fight to secure their survival. I’ll fight to secure my old age.   And sure, I’ll fight injustice where I can, and sure, I’ll continue to grow and develop as a human being. Maybe I’ll even write that pilot that I’ve been talking about since 2004. But they have decades and decades of a future to navigate. They’re gonna see some shit that we never will, just like we saw some shit that they can’t imagine (life without an Internet connection? How did we do it?). I wish them well, and I hope—I really hope—that they let us in and ask questions and respect our perspective.

Isn’t there some famous aphorism about history? About how if you don’t know what happened before you knew it all, then you’ll just become a tool to someone else who does?

How Do You Get to Know Your Parents?

I’m reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake right now, and it’s affecting me on a very personal level. I know I should wait to find out how this plot gets resolved before I discuss the novel as a whole, but this isn’t a book review. This is more like a dialectical journal, running thoughts I’ve had since little Gogol Ganguli grew up and the point of view stopped being from his parents’ perspective. Here’s how it goes so far:

This nineteen year-old girl in Calcutta marries a fellow Bengali a week or two after their parents introduce them. Her betrothed is studying in the U.S., and so that’s where he takes her after the wedding. The novel begins with this girl, Ashima, trying to make a recipe that reminds her of home using only ingredients that she can scrounge up around their Boston neighborhood in the late ‘60s—I remember Rice Krispies and some other unlikely candidates in the mix. She is disappointed with the flavor. Something is missing. Then her water breaks.

We spend a few intimate chapters inside the relationship of this husband and wife, chronicling the birth of Gogol, their daily lives, their move from an apartment to a house, and the growth of a network of friends, all Bengalis, around the Boston area. Ashima and Ashoke can only afford biannual trips back to India, so occasionally their American lives are interrupted with a tragic phone call—the news of a grandparent’s death, then a parent’s death. The phone becomes symbolic of their alienation.

Then Gogol, their oldest child, grows up. He moves away. He does stuff that college kids do. He finds work, falls in love with girls who aren’t Indian, and he lives an American life. Consequently, he lives two lives, one in which he is Indian, one American. Sometimes, especially around his girlfriends, he’s embarrassed by his parents, ashamed of their beliefs and their habits. Lahiri spends several chapters in Gogol’s head as he compares how his girlfriend’s Manhattan family lives and entertains with how his Boston parents live and entertain. So far, he sides with a lifestyle in complete opposition to the one in which he was raised.

He’s conflicted in a way that I will never be. My parents and I were born in the same area of the U.S. We were brought up with vaguely similar belief systems, food, and cultural norms. But we do have our generational and regional divides—especially now—and they’re big enough for me, big enough that I can relate to Gogol’s (and Ashima’s) conflict. There’s stuff about his parents that he doesn’t understand, and rightly so because they don’t tell him everything. But some things just can’t get told. For instance, there’s no way that Gogol will ever tap into his mother’s emotions on that day in 1968 when she tried to replicate a familiar Indian recipe, the day her water broke. Even if Gogol cared, even if Ashima were capable of verbalizing her feelings on that day, what mother in any culture will share such intimate details with her grown son? In many ways, Gogul will never know Ashima, his mother.

What I’m waiting for as I read this novel is not for Gogol to know his parents but for Gogol to want to know his parents. I think it’s coming. I at least think he’ll want to know his father. But right now, at my stage in the reading, Gogol thinks he already knows them, and there’s the grown child’s biggest mistake.

This recent election and the ideological divides that it revealed between some parents and their children has slowed down one of my most important tasks as a grown woman to date—to find out who my parents are, or at least to find out a few key details about them as people that they wish I knew. Doesn’t have to be everything, just has to be what they want. I don’t want to assume anymore, like Gogol assumes. Assuming we know who our parents are is an arrogant luxury reserved for the arrogant twenty and thirty-somethings.

I am 45, and I want to know my parents, but I don’t know how.   How do I tap into those snapshots of my parents’ early lives—decisions they made that they might have thought at the time were temporary, ideas they had about what marriage should be and what the future looked like and what they expected of their children? I don’t know. I can only guess, and like Gogol, my assumptions are probably wrong.

The Facebook Dilemma

5df6bdfae83c2009884fea46f785bd4f“…la lala lala lala… Should I stay, or should I go now?   La lala lala lala…

If I go there will be trouble (la lala lala la), and if I stay it will be double. La lala lala lala…”

I’m talking about FACEBOOK, that social media site that’s causing intellectual cancer in the 40-and-over community. “It’s for old people,” say the five children I vacationed with over inauguration weekend. And it’s officially ruined the dignity of us old folks by revealing our thought processes. My dilemma today is figuring out which generation I belong to—do I belong to the really old one who abuses social media or to the moderately old one who wonders if she abuses social media?

I heard a stat recently that 50% of Facebook users get all their news from Facebook. Should I be surprised, shocked that the generation that bemoans online culture is as corrupted as our youth?

Not really, cuz here’s what I’ve learned in recent months about the older generation (including myself)—it’s the same as any other. Each generation is populated with its critical thinkers and its mouth-breathers, its diplomats and its reactionaries, its educated and its uneducated. The old farts who bloviate about the indignities of Madonna and memorize political memes simply fancy themselves to be on a higher level than the kids around them, because they’ve “lived,” because they’ve “seen” things, because they “read.” Well, I’ll tell you what—you can spend six or seven decades alive on this earth without acquiring any new wisdom if that’s how you choose to live it. I’m quite certain that many of my own family members have “lived” in this manner—unyielding, loyal to fossilized ideas and suspicious of the ideas of people standing in front of them. They make fun of me for changing up my viewpoint from time-to-time, see that as a weakness. I haven’t considered my ability to think and change to be a flaw since I first read Emerson:

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day.” 

My father makes the same comments about spending and liberals and welfare that he made in the Reagan days.  My mother refuses to acknowledge new ideas as such, and falls back on simply shutting out thought altogether. And my brother, well, we’ve discussed my brother. They all have their own Facebook communities.  What’s interesting about these three and their Facebook companions is that they claim to be the leading critics of the media that feeds them. My father will only change his mind if the idea is sanctioned by his media source (Fox). The man who lived through the Cold War is now ready to jump into bed with Putin. Maybe my mother learned about Anne Frank in school, but that doesn’t stop her from advocating that we label the Muslims living and working among us. Their media is as poisonous as they claim others to be.

So my thought right now is that I just want to leave one corrupt media source–Facebook–, to avoid the temptation to get my hands dirtier and my dignity crushed. I could leave this weeping, ranting, raging, cyber fray and learn instead to talk to my family. I have never asked the right questions, never asked my mother, for instance, why—before the Republican Party took up the pro-life platform—she once angrily ranted about “those pro-lifers,” but now she has become one. I never asked her what annoyed her then about the movement that doesn’t annoy her now.

I have plenty of friends in my exact age bracket who ignore social media, who are suspicious of it and always will remain so. I respect them. I might not know what they are doing every minute of their days, but before Facebook and MySpace, nobody knew that anyway.

So do I leave it? In doing so, I’ll lose my only contact with people I like, I’ll lose eight years of uploaded photos. I’ll lose those “hey, here’s what you were doing three years ago today” posts. But I might learn how to be a better thinker, better communicator. Should I stay or should I go?

Practicing Feelings

August, 2015

I saw my friend for the first time since her mother died in front of her and a hospice nurse. My friend cried a couple of times for the things she hadn’t said to her mother and for the things she had said to her siblings as they attempted to come together as adults and deal with an estate. I listened and occasionally threw out some advice, but not a lot of it. I don’t have much advice to give on this subject. Now.

My friend cried because she hadn’t told her mother a lot of things that she should have told her in those last few moments, basic stuff that some lucky families share every day and other families, like hers and mine, just don’t say. I tried to imagine myself in her shoes, at my mother’s or father’s deathbed, sharing feelings that I hadn’t voiced already.   I imagine taking a shot at that drama, the kind that merits an orchestral soundtrack, and I cringe at the awkwardness of the scenario.

“If you come from a family that doesn’t really do that kind of thing,” I tried to reassure her, “you’re just gonna startle people by coming out with a bunch of dramatic thoughts at the last minute.”

She laughed a little at that, which meant to me that she got it—some families just don’t do feelings. They don’t do feelings when they’re healthy, and they certainly don’t do them when they’re sick.

I breathed a secret sigh of relief that my friend had bought my logic. But I knew that in her shoes I would have cried just as much. Some things need to be said, sure, but how do you say a lifetime of everything when you haven’t even started with the first few words?

For months, I’ve been wondering how to share my feelings without creating awkwardness all around. I’ve been wondering, even, what my feelings are. I’ve alienated so many people over the years, and my people, like my friend’s, just don’t do feelings.

Another good friend broke me out of the rut. One day, she concluded a phone call with “I love you.” Just like that. I responded in kind, “I love you, too.” And I thought, I do. I do love this friend. She’s been patient, supportive, entertaining, intellectually and professionally stimulating… a fun shopping partner. What is there not to love?

I guess it starts small, by concluding a phone call with a simple declaration of caring. Or it starts even smaller, by just thinking about concluding a phone call with that simple declaration. I have a mental list of all the people who need to hear it—my brothers and sisters-in-law, cousins, aunts and uncles, and all my friends are on that list. I’m almost certain some have heard it from me, and I’m certain others haven’t.

I’m starting small, but I’m starting. I love you I love you I love you. With practice, this will become natural, and then we won’t need to worry so much about “squaring up” our feelings at the last possible minute. Literally.

Such is the Irony of Life, I Suppose

This past Fourth of July holiday was probably the weirdest one I’ve ever experienced. Shortly before that weekend of obligatory celebration, my father had a back operation. Minutes before my father had a back operation, my mother fell into his gurney outside of pre-op and broke her knee, requiring her to check in for a knee replacement. So I spent the week prior to the Fourth of July weekend in and around a hospital in Philadelphia.

This hospital, being the oldest in the U.S.A., was situated in the heart of Old Philadelphia, just blocks from early Americana like the Liberty Bell and the American Philosophical Society. In the other direction were the pleasantries of your typical well-moneyed urban neighborhood–a Whole Foods, a juice bar, cute couples on foot, and a ton of charming architecture.   When I wasn’t tending to my parents’ post-op struggles, I spent a lot of time just drinking in the environment around me.

I should add that neither I or my parents actually live in or around Philadelphia.  The city attracts patients from unfortunate towns all over the state, places where waiting room stays last for hours, choices for medical services are few, and doctors routinely misdiagnose patients, causing infections to worsen or sickness to death (I am convinced that these dying industrial towns are the new third world, but that’s another subject entirely). My elderly parents live in one of these bankrupt places, routinely driving two hours to the nearest big city for their medical services.

That’s how I ended up spending a week in the nation’s first capital, in a hotel at its old Navy Yards, occupying a room that my mother had intended to stay in during my father’s recovery from back surgery. My father had been stationed at those Navy Yards in the fifties. I wandered miles of the now industrial complex after visiting hours ended at the hospital, studying dormant officers’ houses, barracks-turned-art studios, abandoned docks, and gigantic retired war vessels.

During my days I wandered in and around Pennsylvania Hospital. While my parents napped, I walked through a street fair where I saw a pogo competition. At the American Philosophical Society I saw a page from Lewis and Clark’s journals and a bust of Thomas Jefferson. At the hospital I saw a lot of the first-floor cafeteria and my mother’s nakedness (I hate hospital gowns). On Broad Street I saw an old furrier—not sure if it’s still in business—with faded bluish glossy pics of women in fur coats on otherwise empty walls behind dirty windows. I saw an old restaurant and lounge—definitely no longer in business—with a florescent tube light sign boasting air conditioning. I saw a strange little BMW, met a crazy lady with bright red lipstick. I tried a new Cliff bar. I took the stairs at the hospital, seven marble flights. I remained occupied.

That is what you do when you have nothing else to do but wait and watch.

I’d been in that position before, in a hospital, cringing at the sight of my parents’ bodily fluids and frailty. But this time around I was a better hospital, in a better place, which was in a holiday spirit. I was able to cope with the mess and the sad fact that my Mom and Dad are falling apart. Every night, from my hotel window, I could see brilliant fireworks displays. I took pictures of them and of everything else I described above and showed them to my parents in their matching hospital beds as they came in and out of post-op pain.

Such is the irony of life, I suppose.


Mom fell today.

I had been dreading an incident like that.  She’s hearing-impaired, easily distracted, and clumsy.  I spent the first twenty years of my life hearing a “thump” and then “Owwww!” and then “Shit, shit, SHIT!” (Mom never said anything worse than “shit.”)  She was always walking into doorways or falling up stairs or bumping her toes on the furniture.  So I just knew that one of these days, on my watch, she was gonna fall flat on her face in public.

And so she did, at a busy intersection in front of a bus stop.  Fifteen seconds earlier she’d decided she wanted to walk the six blocks back to my car rather than sit on a bench and wait in a nearby park.  She’s stubborn like that.  Then, right in the middle of a conversation about what a great day we’d had shopping…  Blam!  Her bags fell out of her hands as she tried to catch herself, and I threw mine in a half-assed attempt to catch her.  Our stuff rolled all over the sidewalk. A guy in full Navy sailor regalia picked up her canister of silver cupcake topping and stuffed it back into the wrong bag and handed it to me.  Two ladies gave us their packet of tissues and stared for a second before shuffling off.  Another man ran into a nearby restaurant and grabbed a bunch of napkins for her bleeding nose, which turned out to be her bleeding lip.  Someone even offered to call 911, but there was nothing anyone could really do.  I knew by her reaction that she looked worse than she felt. Nothing was broken, or she would have been screaming, “Owwww!  Shit, shit, SHIT!”  She wasn’t broken, just embarrassed.

Later she said she felt bad for me.  But I wasn’t embarrassed.  I don’t give three shits how I looked on that sidewalk, cradling a seventy-something’s head in my lap .  The moment was all hers.  And apparently it made a lot of bad memories surface because she had never told me before that her own mother had caused her anxiety by doing the same things–by falling or getting sick or just losing her life-long poise.  It must suck to get old.

And that brings me to my purpose:  I’m not there yet.  I’m 43, and I’m not young, but I’m not old.  I’m not old old.  I’m in that place where my memories of the first twenty years of my life are a bunch of blurred images of random events; and my memories thereafter are just the highs and lows of adulthood, the boring stuff.  I’ve been “lucky” enough to have taken a bit longer to mature than your average adult and consequently burned through a marriage and lived a sort of renaissance for awhile–which added to the color and texture of my adult memories–but ultimately my adult memories consist of a few highs and lows and a whole lot of static.  Ask me to recall the most exciting moment at my job of twelve years, and it might take me a moment or two to scrape up an insincere answer.

I’m at some new stage in life that I know I didn’t experience in my thirties.  In my thirties, I was busy contemplating why I’d dated most of the men I had.  And in my thirties, I was looking for better.  In my thirties, I started looking at myself through a different lense.  In my forties, I just sit around and wonder random things like what it would be like to sit in my childroom bedroom, or to hang out with my parents when they were young.  I get a chill just thinking about what a conversation with my mother would be like if she could actually hear what was being said to her.  I think about the frailty of human life, and I think about death.  You know.  Stuff.

I appear to be a little younger than I actually am–some of that comes from my aforementioned late-blooming maturity, and some of that comes from decades of moisturizer and sun screen, and good genes–but at the end of the day today, I’m still 43. My mother falls on her face.  My father carries a cane around with him everywhere he goes that expands into a seat.  I’m facing retirement, cancer, kids making bad choices; and a  workout and some revitalizing face cream isn’t gonna wipe that away.

I call my forties the “new forties” because they’re new to me, just as they’re new to any woman who just spent her day in roll-reversal, sitting in a plastic chair in a doctor’s examination room while Mom sits on the table looking uncomfortable.  This kind of stuff didn’t happen in my thirties, or my twenties, or ever before now.  These are the forties, and women’s magazines and the beauty industry might help us to look younger, to act younger; the economy might force us to recreate ourselves again and again, to compete with younger, to think younger; our freedom to make choices for ourselves might allow us live a lifestyle that our mothers’ generation and every one before that couldn’t have imagined. But we’re not  younger.  We’re women in our forties, pragmatically staring at age and death.

Before this decade came along, I thought I really could live in whatever age I managed to sustain.  My thirties were the new twenties, with a few revisions.  But this decade, the forties, it’ll never be the new thirties.  I’m getting old. My knee hurts, I chipped a tooth, and my mom has started falling.  These are the new 40s.