Among the things my brother and I found while cleaning out my parents’ house in Yonkers after they passed away was a cassette tape labeled, in my father’s handwriting, “Things You Should Know.” It was recorded on May 10, 1998, prior to leaving for one of the cross-country road trips my parents made. As always, my father feared he and my mother might be “decommissioned” while en route. At the time he recorded it, he was 71 years old. I heard the tape for the first time almost exactly 20 years after he made it, after both he and my mother had passed away at 90 and 91, respectively.
Hearing my father’s voice again was an unexpected treat. As tumultuous as our relationship had been during the last years of his life–a period in which we sometimes did not speak for weeks at a time–I laughed and cried as I listened to my father’s voice from 1998. During the last 5 years of my parents’ lives, when my mother had dementia, my father raged against their changed circumstances with daily declamations against an unjust God, believing he was a modern Job facing a never-ending stream of calamities. Unlike Job, however, my father would not get a reboot and a whole new wife and family. In his last few years, my father alternated between lashing out at me and telling me how great I was. Though he had never been one to go quietly, as he aged he became more undiluted, unfiltered, hyperbolic, and anxious.
Things You Should Know: Before we get any further, I want to acknowledge how important my father’s love and support was throughout my life (see In Memory of Herb). Compared with most fathers in my 1960s-70s Yonkers, New York, neighborhood, he was enlightened about raising a girl, and I benefited from his confidence in me. My parents were both there for me during hard times, and when our children were young, they were our main support for babysitting and emergencies. They drove 2 hours each way to help us, always insisting on driving home to their own house even in the wee hours. My mother did the heavy lifting with childcare but my father was a real presence for the kids, and I have never minimized or forgotten both of my parents’ unquestioning help and commitment to us when we really needed it.
The solid foundation of love and respect I received from my parents went a long way toward helping me get through the last, crazy, challenging years of their lives. But I have to acknowledge that I was fortunate to be his youngest, and female, child. I was able to fly under the radar most of my childhood, whereas my brother absorbed all the static and unpleasantness of not conforming to my father’s judgmental expectations about success, which he had modeled from his mother’s immigrant wannabe-WASP family. My brother was there for me in all the ways that counted during the crazy last years even though he lives 3000 miles away. Unfortunately, his relationship with my father never healed during my father’s life. After Herb’s death, my brother and sister-in-law did all the work at our parents’ house, giving up 2 months of their normal life in California to live in Yonkers and sift through 60 years of possessions, papers, and photographs, to ready it for sale.
Looking Through the Rearview Mirror
Now that a year has passed since my parents’ deaths, I’ve been thinking about them a lot, and the tape’s title was an irresistible starting point for me, given that it can be interpreted both as “things I should know” in case he didn’t make it back alive and I’d have to settle his affairs—which was Herb’s intention—or as things you should/should have known but didn’t. Having known my parents for 60 years, by the end of their lives I assumed I pretty much knew all there was to know about them, but I was wrong. In their last years and even after their deaths, I’ve gotten a more complete and complex picture of them as individuals and as a couple. They were both pack rats and left behind a large written and photographic record of their nearly 70 years together.
But on the tape back in 1998, my father was still in good shape, his mind was sharp, and despite the seemingly depressing nature of making a tape that was to be heard if one died while pulling a trailer with a Ford Crown Victoria station wagon west to The Four Corners, he sounds very upbeat. He was 20 years from becoming the man who, during the last several years of his life, left me scores of terrible phone messages–sometimes multiple times a day–in which he said he wanted to kill himself and my mother, or he said very hurtful things I have had a hard time forgetting.
“This is the Old Man—HPS. I’m sorry to lay this on you,” the tape begins. “It’s Sunday, May 10, late at night.” The tape is so entirely, perfectly, him–showcasing his fears, flashes of humor, and his penchant for drama and bossiness. He sprinkled the tape with what I call his Eeyore impersonation: numerous and ostentatious “apologies” for the length and boring quality of the tape. “It’s an ordeal to make this tape. It must be even worse having to listen to it,” he whines. And later: “I apologize for the lousiness of this tape. It’s probably very repetitious.”
In 1998 his mother Dorothy was still alive, so he wanted us to know about her finances. “Her goal in life is never to touch the principal,” he said, with a familiar tone of sarcasm that was never far from the surface when he spoke of, or to, his very difficult mother. Yet when it was his turn to be closer to the end of his life, he did exactly the same thing: he refused to “touch the principal” despite the need to spend money on his, and my mother’s, well-being.
Things You Should Know: Although he was upbeat on the tape, my father’s anxieties were front and center. The anxiety that drove him to build a basement fallout shelter in the early 1960s, so we would survive a potential Cold War showdown if a bomb landed in nearby New York City, propelled him throughout his life. My father was always in a state of preparedness for all potential dangers that could befall him or his family. It was only in the last decade of his life that I really began to more deeply understand the negative effect his anxiety has had on me—and, sadly, on his and my mother’s lives, especially the ends of their lives.
Anxiety was his inheritance, as it is mine: anxiety and fear, handed down from my ancestors over the ages and burned into my DNA. After all, I am only here today because all of my great-grandparents got the hell out of Dodge (Ukraine, Poland, Eastern Europe) when the going was good. Being in a state of preparedness to flee or hide was key, and maintaining a high level of anxiety, trying to be a step ahead of all possible dangers, is why I exist. I always knew that was true on my father’s side but I recently discovered that my mother’s paternal side was the same: my grandfather’s siblings who remained in Odessa didn’t live to tell anyone they were wrong to believe the Germans weren’t as bad as people said. I want to buck that trend, but it’s an uphill climb. I too default to that same baked-in anxiety. I hate to use the tired phrase, “I’m working on that,” but I am, because I don’t want to continue to inflict this inheritance on my children more than I already have.
Monetary security was one of my father’s core concerns. It was the background music to my childhood even though he had a decent job in New York City and my mother was a tenured second-grade teacher in a nearby public school. We had only one hand-me-down family car, but we seemed to be financially better off than our neighbors, who had large families and only one parent working outside the home. But my father had never gotten over growing up during the Great Depression, and my mother constantly attributed his anxieties to it. “Your father was very damaged by the Depression,” she would say, over and over, when I complained about being fined a nickel every time I left a light on in the house.
On the tape, my father directed us to the blue 3-ring binder that contained all his financial information, in pages of handwritten lists of my parents’ numerous CD accounts. Each page was carefully tucked into a plastic sleeve in reverse chronological order. “I’m sorry this is going to be so complicated,” he said. “I try to keep this stuff up to the minute. But it is something that you just have to sit down and study,” he intoned. “We live on a little less than what we make. I guess my mother’s philosophy of never attacking the principal is in my veins.”
He apologized in advance that, if he died, closing so many CD accounts would “never really end” because the accounts would keep coming due for many years into the future, and were opened at many different banks. “We had no choice but to do things this way,” he insisted several times. “There was no way around it.” But of course that wasn’t true.
He concocted this DIY system of ever-rolling-over CDs because he never discussed his finances with a professional, even after he was forced to retire at 62. His system kept him busily following dates of CD expiration and rollovers, driving around to banks all over Westchester County to renew the accounts, which earned next to nothing in interest.
So when the shit started to hit the fan, I asked myself the same question over and over: how could a man who was as anxious as my father was about money, and as fanatical about always being prepared for every possible negative outcome, never have planned for the possibility that one or both of them could end up with a disabling disease in their later years and need their money to be available to pay for home-care assistance? After all, remaining to the end in his home with my mother was always one of my father’s biggest worries. “We’re going out of this house feet first, together!” he’d said a million times. He made me promise that I’d do all in my power to ensure that, and for years we talked about how we could use the empty apartment on the second floor for live-in help.
I was not prepared when my father, who prided himself on being logical and decisive, was no longer able to be either. When my mother was diagnosed with dementia in her late 80s, the only one who did not believe where it would all end up was my father. The same man who managed everything down to the last, sometimes ridiculous, detail–from telling me on the tape that “Now is a good time to flip the tape over,” to labeling the top of a box of staples—would not listen to our entreaties to prepare for the time my mother’s condition would worsen significantly.
I had grown up seeing my father’s take-control, competent side. When I worked during the summers at the lower Manhattan die cutting business where he was a partner, we commuted into and out of the city together by commuter train and subway for several hours each day and ate lunch together and with his co-workers. I saw him in his element–at work—where he was liked and admired. In fact, his official job title was “Expediter,” the guy who got the job done and put out the constant fires that were endemic in a family-owned business owned by crazy Jewish guys. One of my tasks was to relieve the switchboard operator during her lunch break, and I was astounded to find that the callers sometimes wanted to speak only to my father. “Don’t connect me to any of those ASSHOLES!” one irate customer said. “Just give me Herb!” Herb was not afraid to be decisive when he needed to be. I once witnessed him on the Number 1 train stride over to a guy hanging on a strap who was apparently leering down at a young woman passenger seated below, and literally prevent the man from following the woman off at a stop by tripping him just before the doors closed. This was the other side of Herb that I can never forget.
But in the last years of my father’s life, he ignored all of our advice. My mother spent her last years inadequately cared for. If fate had switched my mother and father’s places, things would have been very different. She would have accepted help, taken advice, and would have done what was best for both of them. Unfortunately, my mother had spent decades enabling my father’s single-minded vision, and in the end it was she who bore the brunt of that. She so deserved a better end. But truth be told, I was also angry at her for allowing my father to be this way for nearly 70 years. By the end of her life, I thought my parents were locked in a symbiotic/parasitic relationship, or maybe my mother had Stockholm syndrome. In any event, any solution that helped my mother was rejected by my father, and anything that worked for my father sold my mother short. There were many very ugly phone calls during that period. I knew my father’s cruel remarks arose from deep depression and desperation, and I did feel sorry for him. Ten minutes after calling my mother his jailer, he’d say she was the only reason he needed to keep on living and that she was the great love of his life. Both were simultaneously true.
Although he really needed help and complained bitterly about the toll it was taking on him to care for my mother, he stubbornly refused additional help. Maddeningly, he only sought advice from random people he encountered in his daily life–the electrician or plumber, for example. When someone like his doctor, whom he respected, gave him advice, he pretended whatever he heard was a great idea and said that he was going to definitely do it. An hour later, he was back to the usual. Many of these well-meaning people called me after talking to him and reassured me that Herb was now on board with sensible solutions to the problem.
In reality, even the simplest suggestions were nonstarters. A geriatric social worker visited their house and recommended we buy a few things to help make it easier for my parents to perform their daily activities–such as a toilet seat riser or bedrail. My father returned everything I ordered or bought. He accused me of trying to take control of his life, and behind my back, he referred to me as “the Boss.” As a humorous antidote to my father’s calls, I regularly watched a video compilation of Grandpa Simpson outtakes that included my new meme, “Don’t tell ME what to do!”
Herb could not accept that my mother’s behavior was no longer under her control, much less his, even though he claimed to read online Alzheimer’s disease newsletters that he cherry-picked advice from. He even devised written “contracts” that he had her agree to. Everything boiled down to his control, or the loss of it, and wanting to assert his agency in a world where it was becoming less and less possible.
Lawyers, Guns, & Money
Even my father’s minimally acceptable home-care arrangement for my mother became financially draining to someone living on Medicare and my mother’s pension and earning zero interest on his savings. Four days per week one of three women arrived at the house around noon and took my mother in their cars for a few hours—even in the dead of winter—to lunch, along on errands or to pick up their kids from school. My father was panicking that he had to “hit the principal.” He finally agreed to talk to a lawyer specializing in elder care and asked me to join him for the visit. “I’m having trouble with ‘if, then,‘” he told me. “I’m not what I used to be.”
During that meeting, the lawyer asked my father what kind of in-home care was currently in place for my mother. My father explained the dysfunctional system he had concocted. The lawyer listened and remarked, “In 20-plus years of practice, I’ve never seen anyone with a home-care system like yours for someone with dementia.”
My father said: “Well, it works for me.”
The attorney advised him to close the multiple CD accounts and consolidate them so his money could be invested better and earn more interest to pay for additional help. If my mother did at some point need to go into a nursing home, we were concerned that the “good” private ones close enough for Herb to make frequent visits ran well over $100K per year. If my father had to pay that much, he would not be able to remain in his house. The lawyer began to explain what an irrevocable trust was and what it could potentially accomplish if my mother could avoid a nursing home by having good home help for 5 years. Home care would cost way less and was more humane.
“Well, I have a question for you,” my father said to the lawyer, his voice rising, “and I don’t think you’re going to guess what it is.” The lawyer, sure of himself, smiled and said, “Oh, I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’m sure I can guess.” From the back of the conference table, I muttered, “I don’t think so.” The lawyer looked at me quizzically.
“What happens if I shoot myself?” my father thundered. “Will the money still be distributed from that thing if I shoot myself?” He simply could not say the word, “trust,” then or for the next 4 years of its existence. The lawyer had a frozen smile on his face, and after some hesitation said, “It’s not like a will, if that’s what you’re worried about. The money in the trust is outside the will. It doesn’t matter how you …er….pass away”–ie, there’s no suicide disallowance.
The lawyer probably assumed that “shoot myself” was just an expression, but my father had two guns, one of which New York State had approved a license for when he was in his eighties.
After the trust was put into place, I, and it, became targets of my father’s wrath. “That thing, that thing, what do you call it,” my father would say to me on the phone. “The trust,” I’d sigh. “Yes, the trust,” my father would hiss. “Are you going to DOLE OUT my money to me??”
“I Have One of Those”
In early 2017 we asked a psychiatrist to make a home visit to my mother to see if any medication could improve her ability to sleep through the night, as it was an incredibly disruptive problem for her and my father. My father hogged the appointment, taking over the first 10-15 minutes to talk about himself and how my mother’s condition affected him. Finally, the doctor asked him to leave the room so that he could have time alone with my mother. I heard her respond to the doctor’s questions, some of which she could answer (the year), and some of which she couldn’t (who was President–a blessing). I was stunned to hear her spell “world” and then spell it backwards flawlessly. She could also count backwards from 100, subtracting 7, until the doctor told her it was ok to stop. She loved being a good student. It broke my heart.
After the visit, the psychiatrist asked to meet me outside the house. He immediately asked, “Do you have any help, anyone to talk to? A support group?” I told him that I was ok. He looked away as he said, “Your father…” he began. He looked back at me. “I have one of those. There’s a reason my sibling lives 6000 miles away.” He told me that my mother had more functionality than he had expected, and recommended more social and mental stimulation–maybe through adult memory/day care several days per week. Unfortunately, there was nothing he could prescribe for her to help with the sleeping problems, because they would increase her already high risk of falling.
Needless to say, my father refused to allow a caretaker to arrive at the house early enough in the morning to bathe and dress my mother in time to bring her to a nearby 10 a.m. adult day program, because he did not want to have to be dressed and ready to receive them. So it didn’t happen because it didn’t work for him.
I had sympathy for my father because the situation was beyond horrible, and at 88, 89, 90 years old, he had no ability to change his way of meeting this new world he found himself in. He was broken and sad. “I feel like I’m driving a car with no steering wheel,” he cried. My parents had had a great love and devotion to each other for more than 70 years. They left behind scores of love notes to each other.
Recently, my brother sent me several pictures my father took of my mother that clearly show his intense, enduring desire for her. One of them is a shot of my mother’s nude back. “TMI!” I told him. But it forces me to realize they had a life together apart from my existence as their child. There are many photos that show my father’s camera/eye obviously ogling my mother as she gardens or goes swimming, and it is a reminder of something they had that is quite rare and easily forgotten when your last extended contacts with your parents occurred when they were 90 years old.
During those last years, I thought my father simply did not want to spend money on more help, but it was more complicated than that. I slowly came to realize that he didn’t want other people spending a lot of time in the house with him, seeing how he lived and witnessing his rapidly dwindling control and competence. He did not want to be judged as he fell apart. In reality, the home-care system for my mom was designed for my father’s benefit: to have the house to himself for a few hours, more than it was set up for my mother’s comfort.
After my mother’s death, my father’s health went south in a meteoric decline. Late one night in February he called me from the emergency room, saying his blood test earlier that day had alarmed his doctor. He first called me around 9 pm; by the time he was seen it was after 10, and he said the tests were not conclusive and they were releasing him. I was packing to drive up there, but he refused to wait for me to pick him up. “I’m being put in a wheelchair right now and brought to the garage where the car is,” he assured me. Fortunately, the nurse allowed me to speak with her. I told her that he was going to drive home by himself this late on a frigid night because he refused to wait for me, and that he was a potential menace on the roads if he got dizzy again. I begged her to admit him at least overnight, and though at first she said they were going to release him, she soon called me back to say another test showed possible blood clots in his legs and they were admitting him.
When I got to the hospital the next morning, the doctor said there were no clots, but they wanted to keep him there to adjust his medications to address fluid retention. Later that day, a surgeon called to tell me the staff had discovered a gangrenous toe caused by a bone infection, which I knew nothing about. He had hidden it from me and everyone else. It was only at this point that my father told me the toe had been like that for many weeks and that a podiatrist who cut his nails had told him to see his doctor about it (!). I called the surgeon back and told him what I knew. “Thank you,” he said. “Your father lied to me twice today.”
“Really?” I said. “You’re kidding me. He lied?”
“Ah,” the doctor said. “I have one of those.” I said, “A crazy old Jewish father?” “Something like that,” he laughed. And he told me that my father had to have surgery to remove the toe as it was basically incurable and the infection would spread.
Scheherazade and Her Prince
During his postoperative stay in a rehabilitation center my father told everyone who crossed his path, even the guy who brought his lunch tray, that he was profoundly depressed and wanted to die. A psychiatrist was sent in to see him. I happened to be visiting him when she came by. “I’ll leave now,” I said, but my father asked that I stay.
He told the psychiatrist at some length about my mother’s illness and death, and how terribly sad and depressed he was. Then he told her that he and I had been at odds for several years. “I think it’s just because we are very different people. She’s impatient; I’m very deliberating,” he said. I told the psychiatrist that the reality was that my brother’s and my disagreements with my father all revolved around his refusal to get our mother the help she deserved, and that he blocked every reasonable option available to him. We were angry because he had the money to pay a group of willing caretakers, who had all agreed to sign on for more hours, 7 days per week.
“What is your response to that?” the psychiatrist asked my father. “Why do you refuse help? You’re paying people to help and they are willing to do their jobs.”
“I’m a selfish man,” my father told her. “I don’t like people to help me because then I have to help them. I don’t like being beholden to them and having to return the favor.”
All the air went out of the room. I got into my car and called my brother as I drove back to New Jersey. It was such a sad, startling admission, but I felt grateful that I’d been around to hear him say it. Oddly enough, earlier that same afternoon he had asked me if I thought he had been a good father. I said yes, he had been a good father, because he had been a good father to me. “What about your brother?” he asked. “Does he think so?” I looked at him, old, sad, sitting up in bed in a strange room in a depressing institution, badly needing to hear something good, and I just went ahead and said, “Yes, I think that he has come to a place where he feels that is true.” He nodded, seeming satisfied to hear that.
Less than 10 days later–a few days after he got back home–he died in his bed, the way he had always wanted to, but without my mother next to him.
Back in 1998, on the tape, he cheerfully discussed their burial plots. “It seems we have 4 graves. I’m not sure why; maybe they had a sale going on 10 years ago,” he mused. “Don’t be shocked to find we are surrounded by Chinese graves. Sometime in the last 10 years a Chinese burial society bought up most of the land around our site. You might have to look pretty hard to find us. It doesn’t bother me at all. It’s rather amusing,” he said.
Ironically, when my father died, we had to hold the funeral sooner than we’d wanted to, because the Chinese burial society had an upcoming 3-weekend-long event that would draw hundreds of people to visit the graves, and the cemetery was closed to burials during that period because of the huge crowds.
The tape even included exact instructions for what to put on the headstones on their graves. I could hear my mother’s voice in the background remind Herb what she wanted. “Ruthie wants her stone to say ‘Scheherazade,’ and my stone to say, ‘Her Prince.’ Isn’t that nice?” We did as they asked, even though by the time my father died, my brother and I felt that he had not been very princely when she needed it. But since my mother always saw him as her Prince, right to the end, it was not my place to deny her wishes.
“Here’s something I haven’t said yet: We love you guys. There’s no way to express it. It’s been very nice knowing you. I hope you feel the same. Take good care of yourselves. We did our best. You do your best, and that will be sufficient. Adios, amigos. Goodbye.”
That’s what I’m trying to do.