Scroll up to read chapters 1-6 or scroll down or click on “home” to read previous and subsequent chapters in history of my family – the story of where I came from.
This is chapter 7:
“That’s Your Problem”
My father lived for sixteen years after my mother passed. He lived alone in the house where I grew up in a neighborhood that was, at the same time, improving and deteriorating. Their little town had an aging population and very few, new, younger citizens. The main shift in demographic was the appearance of many Asians and Asian-Americans with some money who began to physically re-shape the town. That town became the tear-down capital of northern New Jersey. There seemed to be no municipal brake on the construction of McMansions over the ruins of the old post-war housing stock.
In my old neighborhood some of the original families hung on, the houses occupied by the children of the past owners. Some McMansions sprung up and some of the housing stock was the same and not improved with age. Just recently I drove down the block where I grew up. One our side of the street mostly all the familiar properties are gone, replaced by McMansions. The opposite side of the street, in weird contrast, looks exactly the same as it did when I was a kid.
Dad lived alone and the absence of my mother began to show immediately. She was the home-maker in every sense of the word – she kept the house together. He had no such capacity and their little brick Cape Cod began to deteriorate. He didn’t clean, he didn’t maintain the property’s landscaping. In fact, at one point the town cited him for neglect of his grounds and I had to hire a contractor to clear-cut the overgrowth which resembled a primeval jungle in the back yard.
I hired him a housekeeper at one point and he fired her soon after. He said she was telling him what to do and he didn’t need another wife nagging him. He desperately needed someone to supervise his day-to-day life but his grandiosity wouldn’t allow it.
He stopped working. He was in his 70’s and it was probably time to retire. His work was fairly physical with ladders and tools and he was not exactly feeble but not a young man. He was not living in poverty. He didn’t have a lot of expenses, no debt and he had my money as a buffer if he needed it. He had saved a good amount over the years, had Social Security and a veteran’s pension and he found government programs to assist him financially. He seemed to be very good at sniffing out help “on the dole”. I discovered one such example quite by accident. I began to do his grocery shopping for him and one day he handed me his food-stamp card so I could use it for him at the Shop Rite. I had no idea he had applied and gotten this assistance. That program would be an issue later in his life.
As I have stated, he was not my hero. As I got older and gained more emotional insight I saw him in a non-idealized light for the flawed individual he was. I also began to appreciate his effect on me. This unflattering assessment didn’t cause me to end my support for him and that was a decision I made for my benefit as much as for his. I didn’t want to look back with any guilt in the future when he was gone and reproach myself for not taking care of him as he became unable to do it for himself. I did what I considered the right thing with regard to him, an approach beyond reproach.
I was not completely, emotionally detached. He was my father, after all, warts and all. I would be a good son, even if he wasn’t the ideal parent. I had a responsibility to him but it was not going to be at my expense. It would be on my terms and I expected courtesy, at a bare minimum, from him. If this seems a bit harsh you’ll have to take my word that this was the only way to deal with my father so as not to be sucked into his narcissistic orbit – he regarded me as just another soldier sent to serve and validate him, as he had done with everyone else, all his life. It wasn’t done maliciously. It was his learned, knee-jerk way of dealing with his world.
We settled into yet another Sunday ritual of visits to him with my daughter who he continued to idolize. I’m glad she had this time with him and felt the love he obviously felt for her. The. more approval a child has growing up the better for her. As I have said, my father was more human when he was with her. She had a transformative effect on him which wiped away his grandiose defenses so a semblance of a good man could emerge. Even his physical demeanor changed around her. He was more relaxed and the tension in his face was replaced with a smile that was, un-characteristically un-cynical.
His house continued to deteriorate and he became more feeble with time. He still visited the Knights of Columbus. He sang amateur barbershop with some of his cronies, there, every Friday night for years. As he aged these nights led to a couple of late calls to me from the hospital. On one occasion St. Mary’s Hospital ER called me to tell me my father was there – he had fallen while at the Knights. Expecting the worse – broken hips, etc. – I rushed to the emergency room and introduced myself to the doctor on duty who began to giggle and informed me that my father’s blood alcohol level was quite high. Dad was alright – just some bumps and bruises. When I went to his bedside he greeted me merrily and said we should get out of there so he could drive his car home. Of course, none of that happened. I waited until the medical staff was satisfied with his condition and then drove him home and put him to bed, but not before he told me where his car was so I could pick it up the next day.
He had a Chevy station wagon which, by this time, was about 16 years old. He didn’t need a new one – he never went anywhere and when he did he never went above 10 miles an hour. Of course, this hunk of junk was always failing through sheer age and I, of course, was in charge of getting it inspected and fixed. I once drove it all the way to the inspection station only to have it start sputtering and smoking just as I was at the head of the line. It eventually became just a place for him to sit outside. He’d pull it up sideways on his front lawn so he could just teeter down the front steps of the house and sit in the driver’s seat and read, write poems, listen to the radio and, mostly, fall asleep. This went on until the town cited him for “littering”, in other words, “don’t park your car on your front lawn.”
I began to be in charge of more and more of his life. I paid his bills, balanced his checkbook, did his grocery shopping, administered his Medicare and supplemental health insurance, cooked meals to bring to him, brought him to the doctor and gave him the pleasure of my daughter’s company. I intervened when a neighbor lady who did some small chores for him started taking advantage of him by conning him into giving her some things from his house. She and her knuckle-dragger of a husband got the message that I was watching them and that put an end to that series of scams. I also cleaned up a few of his financial messes. Remember his food stamps? The issuing authority in Bergen County did some research and determined he was not, after all, eligible for food stamps and accused him of falsifying his application after they had paid out almost $5,000 to him. They were quite upset and making legal threats. I worked out a small monthly repayment plan with them instead. After he died they wanted the balance from his estate and I told them if they could find any money they were welcome to it. I never heard from them again. I will say again that I regarded this responsibility as the right thing to do. I didn’t relish the duty but I didn’t hate it either. Besides, what was the alternative? Abandon him? Neither of us could afford live-in care even if he would have consented to it – which he would not. I was the archetype of the “sandwich” generation – taking care of my father and my daughter.
I am not applying for sainthood by the telling of this part of my relationship with him. I am not portraying myself as the selfless, loving caregiver. I felt more an obligation to myself than to my father. I did not enjoy the responsibilities my duty to my father mandated. I endured them more for selfish reasons than out of concern for him. With every action taken on his behalf, another potential, future self-accusation of guilt was avoided.
I sorted through his mail and acted on the issues it contained. One day I read a letter from the Veteran’s Administration telling him his VA life insurance policy had lapsed from non-payment and had been cancelled. He had been paying a small amount each month into this policy since his Army discharge in 1946. He was, obviously, heavily invested in this plan and had now abandoned it and all the money he had sunk into it. When I confronted him he said he just got tired of paying every month and, as far as burying him was concerned, he told me, quote, “That’s your problem.” This statement had another transformative effect on me, just as when he appropriated my mother’s $6,000. Again, I let it go. I saw no need to be acrimonious over something that couldn’t be undone. But I resolved, then and there, that, if his funeral was my problem it was going to be done my way – as a no-frills affair, worthy of the miserly, uncaring attitude it deserved.
Then, the final chapter began. I visited him, without my daughter, one day to find him on the floor in his bedroom of the darkened house. He said he had fallen while getting into bed and that he had been on the floor for 3 days. I had seen him sooner than that but I wasn’t doing the math – I was calling 911. The paramedics managed to get him, stiffly, onto a stretcher and into the ambulance and on his way to the hospital.
He was in the ICU for quite a while. He was suffering dehydration, pressure wounds from laying on the floor for an extended period and from being just banged up, but, again, miraculously, had no broken bones or concussions. During one of my daily visits he said he didn’t want to go home again. He was obviously afraid and had, finally, accepted his age and inability to care for himself.
I spoke to the hospital’s social worker and she gave me some names of nursing homes which I visited. I picked one in Bloomfield, close to my office, a smallish facility with 50 beds and a good attitude.
Thus began the process of hiring an elder law/estate attorney, procuring his general power of attorney, his health care power of attorney, selling his house and establishing him in the nursing facility. Once that was all accomplished I felt like I had arrived, exhausted, at a finish line – but, no.
The second day he was in the facility they called me and said I should come over, that my father was very upset. When I asked him what was wrong he said, “They took my picture!” They had then made the mistake of showing it to him. He wailed, “I’m an old fart!” It took a little doing but I talked him down from his shock and told him that if he was going to be an old fart this nursing home was the best place to do it in. It was full of old farts. He seemed mollified by this thought. The emergency subsided.
He didn’t adjust well, however, early on. How could so grand a man reconcile himself easily to being in a population of very old, feeble and, sometimes, semi-conscious people? I consulted with the staff social worker, physician and psychologist and we embarked on a regimen of talk therapy, social integration and some pharmaceuticals just to take the edge off his anxiety. He had a roommate, Mickey, a cheerful old pug and they began to bond over baseball on tv and by giving the nurses a hard time. We all felt a private room would have only amplified his isolation. There was a visiting clergy-woman and Dad entertained himself by challenging her ideas of faith. She was a lovely woman and seemed to genuinely enjoy the give and take. My father was not an incoherent, illiterate raver, either. His challenges were actually quite erudite and she appeared to relished the provocation.
He went to what seemed like an army of specialists, all off-site, which necessitated private ambulance rides to and from. He was walking with a walker by then and needed the professional care the ambulance service could provide. We visited urologists, dermatologists, orthopedic practitioners, skin cancer surgeons and there was a smattering of hospital admissions for one thing or another. The smallest ailment can be magnified and threatening to someone pushing 90. He hated the ambulances and complained bitterly. I hated the cost of these rides which weren’t covered by any insurance. He hated sitting in waiting rooms and got very mad if I spoke to the doctors without him feeling he was being consulted as well.
I had gotten very good at bullying physicians who are not used to being ordered around. I insisted, for example, that my father no longer be admitted to a certain hospital in Newark which I considered sub standard. Once when he was admitted there I discovered him dazed and dehydrated with a tray of food at his bedside which no one had bothered to help him eat or even check to see if he had eaten at all. After that I told the nursing home physician to use his privileges at Clara Maas Hospital in Belleville only. It’s a modern and well run facility. The doctor resisted being told what hospital to use. He told me, “I’m accustomed to making those kind of decisions.” My response was, “Not any more.” There also was an orthopedic surgeon who examined my father’s pressure wounds and determined they would not heal because of an underlying bone infection. He suggested a hip replacement. I may have actually said, “Are you kidding?” My father was 91 and the bone infection wouldn’t kill him but the operation might have. I brought Dad to an internist who treated the infection non-invasively. When the company that supplied the drugs to the nursing home sent me a bill for about $3,000 I pointed out that Dad was enrolled in a pharmaceutical assistance program in New Jersey where no medication was more than $2. They replied that this didn’t apply to them because they were out-of-state. I told them they could kiss my you-know-what for their exorbitant charges. I never heard from them again.
Back in the nursing facility after the ambulance rides and the hospital admissions, nestled back into his routine he was pleasant enough during my visits, for the most part. Every now and then, though, he would revert to his generalissimo routine and be quite rude to me. This was not a symptom of neurological deterioration – he had no hint of Alzheimer’s Disease – this was merely his personality disorder – he grew impatient easily and his temper got the best of him. I warned him that, the next time this occurred, I would put on my hat and coat and leave and come back when I damn well felt like it. This would calm him down until, one day, he did it again and I got up and left and didn’t return for a few days. When I did come back the nurses and Mickey told me Dad had been very upset. He apologized. I told him I wasn’t fooling – I would not be treated that way. It never happened again.
He gradually accepted his residency at the facility and integrated himself more and more into its social world. He lived there for 2 years and was something of a favorite among the nurses. After all, he was sharp, still a charmer and conscious as opposed to a lot of their charges who were not. Eventually he even seemed happy there and had actually made friends. When the money from the sale of his house ran out I couldn’t bring myself to transfer him to a Medicaid certified facility – his nursing home didn’t accept Medicaid. I felt the transfer, just when he seemed to be adjusting, would have crushed him. Instead, I footed the bill myself until the end. Mercifully for me, it was not a long time coming. I continued to consult with the specialists on staff and we tweaked his emotional therapy from time to time. I also continually engaged with the staff physician who warned me that people of that age are like ticking health bombs. The smallest thing can have disastrous consequences. I was about to find out just how right he was.
Just after Easter in 2006 Dad fell ill. Just a cold or a virus. It didn’t seem serious. The staff monitored him but didn’t seem overly concerned. I noticed, over the course of a couple of visits that he was getting less responsive and I told the staff physician to admit him to the hospital. Dad was admitted to Clara Maas and, all of a sudden, was sinking fast. He didn’t recognize me at one point. When my daughter visited him early in this particular hospital stay he wasn’t that far gone yet and they had a sweet but final visit. The next time she saw him he was completely unresponsive. I’ll talk more about my daughter in the next chapter but, that day, watching her saying goodbye to her somnolent grandfather, I realized, once again, how special she is.
I went to visit him one day at 6:45 pm. The hospital nurses had my cell number and would actually text me from time to time with updates. As I was getting off the elevator on his floor I got a text that I should come right away. Approaching the nurses’ station I could tell by their faces that I was too late.
Dad had died minutes before. He succumbed to sepsis, when the body initiates a powerful immune response against an infection, which may not have been fatal to a younger man. The nursing home doctor had warned me that old age brings added risk to, otherwise, recoverable ailments.
I stood by his lifeless bedside and the first thing I heard myself saying out loud to him was that he didn’t have to be afraid anymore. He had spent so much time and effort defending himself from the world and now he didn’t have to.
I went back to the nursing home, one last time, to collect his few, small mementos. His roommate and the nurses were very upset by the news of his death – even more upset than I was feeling. Their reaction confirmed to me that I had picked the right facility.
Very soon after he died I received a package from the U.S. Department of Defense. It contained a plaque expressing condolences from the military and the nation’s gratitude for his service, signed by the President. I was very moved, not just from my loss but from the sense of fraternity, the long memory and quick response, that this gesture represented. In the weeks to come I received the re-issue of his World War II medals I have mentioned in another chapter. Again, I was struck by the care and feeling that had survived the 60 years since his discharge. The military really does not leave anyone behind.
Once again, I had to call a funeral home and arrange all the other details of a death. When I visited the undertaker I outlined my wishes for an inexpensive burial with no wake or visitation or Mass – only a ceremony at the burial mausoleum. I was solving what I had been told was my problem. Funeral parlors are businesses like any other and their objective, like all businesses, is profit. I had to be quite firm with the undertaker who did try to lay a little guilt trip on me for my frugality. After years of being my father’s advocate with all the battles that entailed, this had no effect on me whatsoever and the event unfolded according to my wishes.
I won’t attempt to justify my position on my father’s final arrangements. It could seem spiteful or heartless but the decision has to be viewed in the context of an entire life. To have a lavish funeral in the face of my father’s uncaring attitude would have been an empty gesture devoid of feeling from me. He obviously hadn’t cared about this. If he did he would have planned for it. And if he did care about his last hurrah he shouldn’t have left it to me to decide by way of an uncaring gesture that completely ignored my feelings. I’ve never bought in to all the rigmarole around death events, anyway. They are for the benefit of the living, not the deceased. I did not need to be coddled and I, frankly, didn’t care if any of his remaining family needed this process. I did not feel the devastation I had experienced when my mother died. Being older helped but, more than that, I was more in control of my own life when my father passed and, heaven knows, I was completely in control of his life to the end. And, finally, I was paying for this event out of my own pocket – his estate was empty – and I did it without blinking. So, you see, in the end it really was my problem, just as Dad had predicted. Even toned down, the funeral was not that cheap.
There was nothing to feel cheap about, as it turned out, as the funeral events unfolded. There was a brief viewing for only me, my daughter and Dad’s surviving sister at the funeral home before the burial. The mausoleum has a lovely chapel and I hired that same clergy-woman who had visited my father in the nursing home to officiate at the ceremony in the chapel before the entombment. She, at least, knew my father and liked him. She constructed a wonderful, caring, gracious event which was very well received by everyone. A number of his siblings’ children, my cousins, attended. A couple of the old folks from his family came. His sister was there (his other siblings were long gone). Some people from my office attended as well as some of his friends from the Knights and the neighborhood. I had a chance to offer some last words, as did my daughter and a few other people. Then it was over. No one complained that it was too little. I think most people were moved. I was as well. For all the travail that my father’s life entailed, for all of his crippled parenting, he was still my father. In my eulogy I said he had never stopped trying. That’s true enough. His efforts may have been misguided on many fronts, even damaging and skewed by his world view but he never gave up.
I had sold his house well before, so that was not an option for a funeral luncheon. Instead we all went to Angelo’s Restaurant just down the road from the cemetery. The old world Italian family who owned the restaurant took very good care of us and the event was in stark contrast to my mother’s funeral luncheon with its controversies and outbursts. Did I mention none of my mother’s family showed up at Dad’s funeral? I probably didn’t call any of them (which, given their paper-thin skin, I’m sure offended them) but I’m sure they knew – it was in all the Hudson County newspapers and I knew they were still in touch with some of my father’s Hudson County cronies and his ancient Jersey City relatives who I did contact. I’m not complaining. It was much more civil without them and I was glad not to have to feed them lunch.
The luncheon was a fond goodbye with some reminiscing. When it was over I thanked everyone for their good wishes and then I went back to work that afternoon. I didn’t see any reason not to. I didn’t have the same feeling of inertia I had experienced after Mom died. I was an orphan now – and quite relieved to be.
Next time: Chapter 8: “Collateral Damage”