Have prayer book, will travel . . .
Among the effects of having one’s children early is that when you’re old and would like your kids to take care of you, they’ll be old, too. Granted, they won’t be as old as you are, but old nevertheless. As in you’ll be able to go out to eat together and both of you will get the senior discount. Both of you will be getting Social Security checks in the mail. I mean, think about it. When you’re 85, they’ll be 65.
I visited my parents three times during the month of September. That’s a total of 18 hours of driving. The first time was a birthday party for my wife’s little niece. Then came Rosh Hashannah. And finally, Yom Kippur.
My parents are 83 years old and they don’t go to synagogue anymore. My father never went to synagogue to begin with (being somewhere on the agnostic/atheist spectrum) and my mother has had some type of falling out with the synagogue she had been attending. There are three synagogues in her area, and she finds them all to be money-grubbing. I am inclined to agree. I appreciate the need of a synagogue to pay the light bill and the expenses of keeping up the building, not to mention the cost of running its programs, but the strong-arm tactics that they use to squeeze money out of attendees are a bit much. These days, many synagogues have financial directors who want to see your tax returns to determine how much you earn and to calculate how much you should be paying toward support of the congregation. It has become fairly standard in the United States for synagogues to charge non-members hefty fees for attending High Holy Day services. And even organizations like Chabad that claim never to require payment of participants hold an endless round of dinners and speakers before or after services, requesting that attendees pay hefty fees for attendance. Disclosure: I do support one of our local Chabad congregations and, frankly, I’m getting sick of their constant emails begging for money.
In my mother’s case, the discomfort engendered by this situation is exacerbated by the fact that she drags my reluctant father with her every time she attends synagogue. This is mostly because my mother doesn’t drive anymore (she’s perfectly capable, but has chosen to have my car-loving father do all the driving for the past 20 years or so), but also because she won’t go anywhere alone. She says it makes her feel like a widow. (In some respects, she is. My father won’t admit that he’s lost a large part of his hearing, which has already resulted in some dangerous situations in which he could not hear my mother calling him. Also, they sit in separate rooms and do their own things most of the time.)
At age 83, my parents seem to feel that they are at the stage of life when they can pretty much say whatever they want without consequences. This has borne some interesting results. It has caused a number of ugly moments between Mom and my wife, for example. And when it comes to synagogue, my father, a nonbeliever, feels compelled to comment on the rabbi’s teachings or even challenge them outright. The rabbi’s young son doesn’t help the situation by running out of the sanctuary to loudly announce to his mother “He’s at it again!”
On the patio at Mom and Dad’s. Notice the hummingbird at the feeder.
My mother says she’s tired of “getting it from both ends” (the rabbi and my father). Under the circumstances, I don’t blame her for passing on synagogue attendance. For both Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur, I made the trip down to the Central Valley, mahzor (prayer book) in hand and held my own little service for Mom’s benefit. On Rosh Hashannah, we did this at the kitchen table (with my uninterested father sitting out on the patio), and on Yom Kippur, outdoors. The weather was fine (unlike the freezing cold temperatures that we remember from High Holidays of yore on the east coast) and we got to watch the hummingbirds at the feeder and the sheep next door while we atoned for our sins and prayed for forgiveness. It was a kick to get my cantorial singing voice on and, all told, it was a rather moving experience to spend this time with Mom. I can’t help but wonder how many more opportunities I will have to do this.
Mom had a large container full of salad that was past its prime, so I got to feed the sheep next door. There were only three rams and the entire flock of ewes was pregnant. Baaaa!
The weekend after Rosh Hashannah, still hanging out at my parents’ house, Mom decided to lay a heavy on me by providing instructions for her burial. This is not as simple as it sounds. She wants to be laid to rest with her parents at the family plot in New York City. My wife and I visited the graves of my grandparents there both this year and last during two trips to the eastern seaboard. Two plots occupied, six more vacant. It was hard not to think of a time when two more plots will be occupied. I now know that my mother wishes to be buried directly in front of her mother. I also know which funeral home to use, as well as a little about what must be done to fly a body from Fresno to LaGuardia. Uh, um, I guess I wasn’t really ready for this. But guess what, it looks like the time has arrived for me to grow up and face the facts. My parents aren’t going to be around forever.
Perhaps the most intriguing factor in this little drama is the uncertainty involved. Will Dad go first? He keeps pointing out that, statistically, the husband usually dies before the wife. My mind fills with pictures of supporting a grief-stricken Mom on a cross-country flight, preceded by taking a screamer down the 99 in the middle of the night when we get the news. How fast can we throw a week’s worth of clothes in a suitcase? Yikes. And then, what would become of Mom? She doesn’t want to live all alone in that big house way out where the cattle graze on the rangeland. There is no room for her to live with us in our rented tiny house, where my wife and I are barely able to keep from tripping over one another. She could always go live with one of my sisters (either the one in the Bay Area or the one in Boston), which I know would not be a particularly pleasant experience for her. She wants me to retire so my wife and I can come live in her house and take care of her. Let’s just say that this is unlikely. There are too many reasons to count.
But what if Mom went first and Dad were left all alone? He is a loner by nature and probably wouldn’t mind being in that house by himself. But he doesn’t cook and, despite everything, I suspect that he’d be horribly lonely. My wife and I were discussing this recently and we agreed that he probably wouldn’t live long if Mom went first.
Let us not forget that there is, at least from my perspective, a third scenario. As I started off this post my mentioning, when you have children early, they get old right along with you. I am no spring chicken myself. Nor am I in the best of health. What if I shuffle off this mortal coil before my parents do? My wife knows that I am adamant about being buried here in California rather than having my dead body dragged across the country to a final resting place in (ick) Queens. (My sisters don’t want to be buried there either, with the likely result that the remaining four plots will remain unoccupied for the next hundred years or so.) But what of my parents then? My father, who has long since informed me that if I die he will never forgive me (?), might not last long due to grief. Perhaps the same is true of Mom. I certainly hope not, but there it is. I suppose my sisters will be particularly angry with me for dying when they realize that they now have to deal with Mom and Dad. I giggle thinking of this.
Sigh. The whole situation brings on a feeling not unlike that of an impending train wreck that cannot be avoided. We are clearly heading down that track and all I can do is close my eyes and hold on tight. I keep telling my parents that, considering their relatively good health, there is no reason that they should not live to 100. I seriously hope they do. I figure that things will eventually fall into place, one way or another.
In the meantime, my parents solicited my assistance in planning a celebration in honor of their 65th wedding anniversary. Sixty-five years of fussin’ and fightin’. Sixty-five years of bickering and cussin’. (Mom is bewildered that Dad goes around muttering “Shit!” and “Pain in the ass!” under his breath all day, failing to realize that he is referring to, um, her.) Their anniversary date is Christmas Eve, just 78 days from this evening. My sister and her husband are expected to be in California for other reasons around that time, so we’re hoping to arrange for all of us to be together. We are planning to split the festivities into two parts. One part will be with my sisters and some of the grandkids near my parents’ home in the Central Valley. The other part will be with my wife’s family near our home in Sacramento (most of them live 40 to 80 miles north of here). They are thinking of having a dinner at a Golden Corral, a family buffet place just down the street from us. They want streamers and balloons. And invitations. Thoughts of printing costs and hand calligraphy flashed through my pea brain before I broke the news to Mom about a little thing called Facebook Events. She knows we do most things electronically these days, but doesn’t want to know about it. Fine, whatever works, she says.
By the way, I have been trying to convince my parents to purchase iPhones. They have pre-paid cell phones, although they don’t know how to use most of the features (neither do I). I think I made my best pitch yet when we were discussing the anniversary party. Mom says she doesn’t know when it will be held exactly, as she doesn’t know when the school at which my sister teaches will be on vacation. It’s a Jewish school, so she thought that Sis might be off during Hanukkah rather than around Christmas. My sister recently moved from Dallas to Boston, so I am not aware of her current employer. “What school is that?” I asked Mom. She didn’t know either. So I whipped out my phone, Googled Jewish day schools in Boston, and checked out a couple of links before Sis’ pic popped up on her school’s website. Then it was just a matter of clicking around a bit to find the school calendar. You’re in luck, Mom, she’s off between Christmas and New Year’s Day.
My parents were appropriately impressed by what can be done with a smart phone — at least enough to allow me to show them the simple icons and the ease of accessing features. “We’d never use most of that stuff,” my mother protested.
Guess what you’re getting for your anniversary, Mom and Dad!