Life Goes On

Healing: the process of making or becoming sound or healthy again

I’ve taken a break from writing here while I sat shiva, the period after a family member’s burial that’s meant to provide spiritual and emotional healing. Shiva translates as seven; Jewish families traditionally sat shiva for a week, though in recent years that time frame is often shortened to several days. My father died last Thursday and as I sit here I have the shiva candle beside me, which I lit on Friday upon my return home.

His funeral was a moving affair, with family and friends in person and virtually.  I’m touched at the relatives who make long journeys to join us: my cousins fly in from Chicago, other cousins drive from Vermont, and the DC area. Most come from various parts of NJ and PA.  Old family friends that I haven’t seen in ages show up. I appreciate their presence more than they can know.

I also appreciate the Jewish traditions: for a week the immediate family members wear a small black cloth over their heart that has been torn by the rabbi; at the cemetery everyone who chooses to participate shovels dirt into the grave; the shiva candle is lit; we hold a Zoom shiva where we remember my father and hear wonderful remembrances and poems that highlight his attributes. For all the Zoom burnout I feel, it’s a wonderful way to have people who live all over the country gather together in a meaningful way. It’s so healing that part of me wished it had gone on longer, like an Irish wake going into the night. I savor every story and yearn for more of them. But there will be plenty of time to hear those tales, they will be meted out in doses, like medicine for the sick.  

My relationship to death has changed so much as I’ve gotten older. Where I used to long for the solace of certainty, envying friends who believed in an afterlife or rebirth, I now embrace the mystery of life.  We don’t know how we dissolve into the universe but we do know that we are remembered by those we leave behind.

I think of my father at every turn as life goes on this week.  A few days ago T and I went for consecutive appointments at Rutgers Dental Clinic. We need so much work we had considered dental tourism (yes, that is a thing), going to Costa Rico or Mexico where you can get excellent dental care for a fraction of the cost. But Newark is much closer than Guadalajara, and going to the clinic will save us many thousands of dollars without worrying about getting on a plane for follow-up appointments. 

I wait ninety minutes just to get an X-ray from a nervous student. I feel for him, but this is my mouth, a precious commodity. It makes me a little anxious. Yet the dentist who we finally see is reassuring; yes, there’s a lot of dental work ahead but it will be taken care of, fortunately by other experienced dentists and not students, who will be there to watch and learn. I don’t mind having others in the room, it won’t be as intrusive as it was at B’s birth, as a doctor unexpectedly brought in a large group of medical students to watch as the midwife gently helped in the delivery after 20 hours of labor.  

Among the qualities not mentioned amid all the attributes of my father was the fact that he was terribly squeamish, especially at the dentist. I remember my mother getting calls after his appointments: “Mr. H got lightheaded and is resting now.” One time he even passed out!  As someone who has very bad teeth, my dad would shudder at the mere mention of my latest dental procedure. 

I likely would have told him about this appointment but not the details, how I need three more implants and a bone graft and T needs four or five implants.  It is not how I had planned to spend the winter, or our savings, but that’s life. A time to be sick and time to get well. 

I dread all that work but it will be good to have it done with. There are so many things I have put on hold through these last months. It’s not that I didn’t have free time yet I felt on hold, anxious and not at ease.

Next week I’ll go with B, now a healthy handsome 24 year old none the worse for the crowded spectacle of his birth,  back down to my father’s apartment, where we will bring back items that we have claimed.  I am a very sentimental person, which is reflected in what I am taking: framed photo montages from both sides of my family; a photo taken by my aunt of a Block Island wave crashing on a rock; the much-used Scrabble set (Oh that I had my father’s recall of two letter words: ); the containers from which he poured his mixture of cereals each morning. That last item seems like a bit much but as my brother-in-law says, it will bring me a bit of joy each morning. 

It was hard to be in the empty apartment, to see the familiar furniture and the things my brother and sister purchased in the last year to help him out as his senses diminished: a good reading lamp, the recorder that played books on tape, an Echo which played soothing music on demand – not having one I liked the power I felt saying “Alexa, play Bach”.

People have been asking me how I feel and all I can say for now is sad, lucky, worn out, hopeful. Life will move on with a swirl of memories, a cascade of pictures that I can touch and others I can only imagine. Like millions of people before me I have lost both parents, wonderful people who nurtured me throughout my life. Like them, it will take time and love to heal. My teeth will be fixed and my heart will mend. Life goes on, one blessed moment after another.

Gratitude and Grief

Grief:  deep and poignant distress caused by or as if by bereavement

A ride on Amtrak is a lovely way to end an emotional few day visit to my father, who is dying. I have no outpouring of tears yet although my grief is palpable. I long for that catharsis that crying brings but for now I’m in a holding pattern, wondering how many days he has left. Whether it’s one day or a week, it’s imminent. Sitting in a seat with no one next to me on the train is the ultimate way to have privacy in the public square, a winning combo. I have a New Yorker containing some of my favorite writers but I cannot concentrate. Which is where windows come in. I can gaze at the landscape going by at a steady clip and let my grief and gratitude wash over me. I’m sad. I’m blessed.I cherish this segue into my ordinary life with T and V picking me up at the station.

The fact is the ride is too short; I’d welcome more time to process these complicated feelings and yet are they? We love each other so much, which is as simple as it gets. My siblings and I are all weathering this storm in our own way.

The end of life though fortunately free of physical pain for my father is painful nonetheless.  The end of life with round the clock care. The end of life with moments of lucidity, hours of reading to him, short conversations. He seems to absorb a lot yet it’s hard to know. Bedbound, weak, practically blind, limited hearing – no, growing old isn’t for sissies. 

I say my goodbyes and I love you – I can’t say that enough – and in a barely audible rasp he says it back.

I wrote that last week and here I am after the long weekend home and another soothing train ride back to Philadelphia where my brother picks me up and we continue on to see my dad with my sister, who has been here for over a week, spending days and nights with my dad, tending to his needs and coordinating his help. It’s a lot and she does it with competence and caring. My brother has been amazing too, so devoted and helpful; as the one who lives closest he does the most for my father. He does it with a generous spirit and utter devotion. I am staying with my brother and sister-in-law who are always the perfect hosts, which helps to assuage the sorrow in my heart, the grief of watching someone so beloved fade away.

I remind myself that this ending is a stage in a long happy life, that for 94 of 95 years he was sharp and wise and funny and kind, that he only retired a year ago! How amazing is that? Still a long full life does not prevent the heavy feelings that come with loss. We will miss him. I miss him already.

Last Thursday the hospice nurse said it was a matter of days so I hopped on a train that same afternoon.  Today she came back and said timing was unknown, that dad was an anomaly.

So it’s all a mystery, we’ll have to wait and see. What we know for sure is the end is near and I’m so appreciative for all he’s given to me and the rest of the world. In all his modesty he is a great man and for that I’m grateful. And full of grief that is the sign of lasting love.

Breaks and Hope

The holiday break ended at last, V went back to school on Tuesday. As is always the case with long holidays off from school it is a challenge to have so many days without the structure with which he thrives. So it was good to have four days of mini camp in the middle of the break, something to occupy him with art and music and cooking and peers and familiar adults. Still, it was a long stretch from December 23rd to January 2nd, lots of hours and days to fill. The best I can say is that we got though it, as we always do.

Wednesday I went into the city – I really needed a break from the break and a change of scenery. I met a friend near Union Square and we sat outside eating lunch on an unseasonably warm afternoon. It was great to have that city energy, walking down to meet her, the Greenmarket in full bloom despite it being the middle of winter, sitting outside and watching people go by, feeling completely removed from my normal daily life. It was good to see a friend who was understanding that I was too depleted for any witty repartee, that all I wanted to do was sit and eat my lunch and watch the world go by and forget. My reverie is broken by an email – yes I took a break from my unplugged pleasure and checked my messages – just in case. It’s from from V’s case manager M, who expresses concern that before and since the break he has been somewhat anxious and restless. Can’t I get a break? Is my first response. I’m sitting in a comfortingly familiar neighborhood dissolving myself into the lives of others as goes that Auden line that haunts me so often. Then I let it go; it’s the end of the school day and it can wait until tomorrow to discuss.

Thursday I speak to M, who explains that V had a few rough days before the break – his teacher and M think it might have been from all the holiday parties and festivities. I didn’t know about these things, although I shouldn’t be surprised, as our school staff is very creative and love coming up with all sorts of activities to celebrate holidays. Yet for a sensory-sensitive person like V – there are plenty at the school, since it’s for kids with learning challenges – the parties and games can be too much. I have no explanation why he’s still exhibiting these behaviors after the break, when he’s so glad to be back at school. As is often the case, the school comes up with a pat reason for behaviors when I think there are so many factors that come into play, that it’s often a mystery as to why he acts a certain way. Still M reassures us that all in all he is doing well.

Back to Benji’s on Thursday night where we discover that they have excellent french fries that V devours much as I wish he would eat his guacamole or share our burrito bowls. Instead I choose to accentuate the positive, how at ease he is in a restaurant with all sorts of strangers around as well as the friendly waitress he may or may not remember. He seems fine today, none of that anxiety or restlessness I need to be on the lookout for. I hate the constant monitoring and measuring that is expected of parents of kids with special needs. I appreciate any time that feels relaxed, like in the Mexican restaurant where V eats American food. 

Friday finally comes, the day I have been fearing and worrying about, a scheduled Meet and Greet at the agency where V had respite several times last year, where they have a spot in a new group home that will open in the spring. We pick V up at school to take him there. His teacher comes running up to let me know that V had a great day. She thought I’d like to know that before the weekend, that it would be reassuring and she’s right. It’s such a relief to hear good news and I appreciate her taking the effort to share that with me. 

It’s also good to hear on the way to our meeting, where V will be observed while we have our conversation about the group home. We get to ask all sorts of questions and I feel reassured that it could be a good place for him. Still, there are a lot of unknowns. Who will the other residents be and will they get along? Will the agency provide transportation to the day program we want V to attend? (The agency has its own day program that they provide transportation to but we are less interested in it than the one affiliated with his current school.)

Overall it is a positive Meet and Greet – V is generally calm, although he gets restless near the end of the meeting – it’s a long time to sit and listen to a bunch of adults gathered around a table talking, even if it is his future we are discussing. I don’t know if it will work out but it is a distinct possibility and that feels good. How much we yearn for a loving stable home for our grown child with so many challenges, as well as strengths we hope will be acknowledged. Perhaps this is the place where V can be happy and live a fulfilling life.  That is all that really matters. If it were to happen it would change our lives drastically. I think V is ready for the change, I know that I am. 

In the meantime we’re back in a routine, with some structure and the same daily struggles and small achievements, the ups and downs of life with so much that’s unpredictable. Yet good things are possible. We’ll just have to wait and see, doing our best to live in the moment

new year, new languages

This past week I went to dinner and a show, a treat with and from my sister and brother-in-law. We saw a fabulous Yiddish production of Fiddler on the Roof. I have seen the play and movie before, many years ago, but having it in Yiddish was brilliant, as most Jews from the era and place (seemingly the Ukraine) when the play occurred spoke it, and the original Sholom Aleichem story on which it is based was written in Yiddish. It’s a language that has been dismissed as dead and yet it is very much alive, both in young people who have sparked a resurgence, the remaining elderly who grew up speaking it, Orthodox Jews, and audience members like the one that I was in who seemed as enthralled as I was though they may know little of the language.

Yiddish was my mother’s first language; her parents were Russian immigrants who spoke it at home. Years later my parents and a group of their friends started a secular Jewish school which my siblings and I attended, a shul where we learned history, culture and Yiddish. My Jewish friends from school all went to temple and Hebrew school. I didn’t mind being different, in fact I appreciated my upbringing and even as a young girl I valued this other language that was part of my background.

I still can read a little and understand some basic terms and words but I couldn’t decipher much while watching Fiddler given that there was so much wonderful music and choreography to follow, and there were supertitles in English and Russian for the vast majority of the audience who didn’t speak Yiddish. 

I left the theater deciding as I do every time I encounter Yiddish culture, that I should study it again. (I also regularly vow to start running every time I watch the New York City marathon. ) I don’t know how much I’d use it – it’s not as practical as improving my rusty Spanish – and yet it’s such a rich and robust language, with many words that have become part of the English vernacular: chutzpah, klutz, shtick, schlep, kvetch, nosh, schmooze…

And so I came home motivated and the next day signed up for Duolingo, a free mobile app that teaches a wide range of languages, in both Yiddish and Spanish.  There was a time not too long ago when those two languages co-mingled in a wonderful way, back in pre-gentrified neighborhoods like Williamsburg and the Lower East Side or in the Jewish part of Buenos Aires.

Learning another language is almost a cliche of new year’s resolutions, all those things we will do to exercise our brains and bodies more or learn something new. I think resolutions can be inspiring though as long as they are framed in a positive way: not lose 10 pounds but eat more nourishing food. And so I commit to improve my grasp of two languages I love. It will be good for my brain as well as my soul.

 I don’t know how often I will speak Yiddish to anyone but it’s nice to be refreshed and I find in the initial test that I do in fact remember more than I think I do. It comes back to me, the letters and pronunciation of Yiddish, the words and distinct grammar of Spanish. The old world ways may have vanished but I can be my own intersection of Jewish and Latino culture. 

I don’t know how long I’ll last – although Duolingo lessons are only about ten minutes, so it’s easy to maintain a practice – but I do feel every day that both languages are coming back to me. 

Eventually I’d like to read again the great literature I was familiar with when I was young, Sholem Aleichem being my favorite but others like I.B Singer. If I keep at it someday I will once again be able to read and understand this beautiful language. Of course I have a long way to go before I’ll be able to read anything more than a beginner’s children’s book.

And if I keep up with my Spanish I’ll be able to converse more with my neighbors in the largely Latino immigrant neighborhood adjacent to ours. And I’ll be able to talk to those around me when I retire to Mexico or Costa Rica as I fantasize about. As with Yiddish I have a long way to go before I am chatting with my neighbors or reading Borges in the original Spanish.

I had a cousin who lived in Los Angeles in a Jewish neighborhood that became increasingly Latino in the decades he lived there. His family wanted him to move to another area, but instead in his seventies he went back to school to learn Spanish. I always liked that story, one of embracing difference rather than evading it. Learning a language as a way to make and keep connections. If I was better at languages I would add even more. But for now, being realistic with my time and brain cells, buenos dias and a gutn tog. May it be a year of learning new things.


Almost the end of the year, a time of joy and struggle depending on the day. This past week I had my most social and most isolating days. First a party. Ladies who Latkes is something I came up with a few years ago, an excuse to have some women friends and neighbors over for potato pancakes during Chanukah. I hosted it for a few years and delighted in the camaraderie. And then came the pandemic hiatus, and then this year I decided to try again.

I hate to admit how neurotic I am when it comes to hosting a gathering, how much as I have the purest intentions: to be a welcoming and generous host – I easily get sidetracked. First there’s the house which I’ve already written about ad nauseum, but we have done our best to clear things up and make it look presentable. (T is a big help.)  Then I have the anxiety that A. No one will come. B. Everyone will come and I’ll never get enough latkes made for the crowd. C. People won’t have a nice time although that’s never been the case in the past. Who doesn’t like fried potatoes and good company? Much of this is wasted energy, the what if’s I can create for any scenario. 

The reality: people show up. Some bring their kids. Many bring wine. They seem to be having a good time. I make a lot of latkes right before people arrive and put them in a low temperature oven to stay warm so that I can socialize and not be tethered to the stove, as has happened in years past. The many minor faux pas: I forgot to get napkins and have to tear up some paper towels. I don’t open the wine because I am so focused on food and hoping people are enjoying themselves. The last latkes served may be dried out from all that time in the oven. Still, I am having a party! My socially isolated days are broken up by this brightness in the calendar. It seems to be going well. I am able to enjoy myself and appreciate the gathering, to overcome my worries about not being the perfect host and let it be good enough.

It is the perfect closure to the end of the year, at least for V who had his last day of school on Thursday. And then the long break begins on Friday as the weather grows frigid and we are stuck inside with no help. Cold weather and no structure for V is my least favorite combination, so the holiday season is truly dreaded. I talk to a few of my friends at the party who are also moms of grown kids with special challenges. They completely get it, which is really what a party is about – not having a knockout buffet of food or a stunning home but rather connecting with others. Appreciating those connections even more because they are followed by some very isolating days.

It happens every year and every year we survive it. V has a few days of Friendship Circle camp starting on Tuesday but before then are four very long days. I know I am not alone in feeling lonely this time of year. Yet with major storms and travel nightmares throughout large swaths of the country I am grateful for power and heat and food and water. Boredom is a drag but it’s not a catastrophe. Neither is loneliness although it may ache.

And yet these days are always tough, especially this year on a bitter cold Christmas morning when I hope everyone will sleep in, V gets up at 530 am! 14 hours to go until evening medicine will help him relax enough to sleep. That may not be the most gracious sounding way to talk about someone I love but being a bored and restless young man stuck inside is hard for all of us. I let T sleep in and hang out with V for a few hours. Then when T wakes up I go upstairs to sit and do a guided meditation which ends with “breathe into the goodness that you are.” It’s a nice sentiment and helps the resentment and frustration to dissipate. I’m not a bad person, I just want some time to myself and with people other than the beloved ones who live under this roof. I feel like such a Scrooge bemoaning what is such an important holiday to so many. And yet whether Jewish, Muslim, atheist or any other religion or reason for many it is just another day.

And because of the early hour with which it begins, this Christmas day is especially long. No structure, and nothing open except for some Chinese restaurants. We order an assortment of food from our favorite Taiwanese spot (which also has a location in Rockville, MD for anyone who lives that way) and go to pick it up for lunch. We come home to eat although V doesn’t touch anything. We cannot figure out why he’s become so finicky. There’s a lot we can’t figure out but we make it through another long cold day. Dumplings and soup and It’s a Wonderful Life, which is showing all day long.

Monday is the light at the end of the tunnel. The temperature is slightly warmer. I remind myself that since the winter solstice on December 21 the days are growing ever so incrementally longer; more daylight will greet us every day from now till June, which feels so far off. Things are dark and cold and we are going stir crazy but it won’t last. I feel isolated but I am not alone. I talk to people on the phone and get a number of texts with holiday greetings which I appreciate. It could be worse.

Someone at my party – quite a few were having their first latkes – asked if I celebrate the calendar new year as well as the Jewish one. Yes! I reply although I don’t celebrate as much as use these markers as an opportunity to reflect and set intentions for the year ahead. For 2023: More socializing and deeper connections. More work on a writing project. Travel at least once. Cultivate acceptance, generosity, kindness and contentment. And then I send those wishes out to others, to find joy and peace wherever you can even in the most unlikely circumstances. To remember that every day brings more light.

love letters

My father, while still mentally sharp, is in a declining state of health; it’s not surprising for a man of 95. He needs a walker or wheelchair to get around. His vision is failing and he can no longer read, which is a big loss for anyone but especially for someone as well-read as he. His hearing is not so good anymore either. He naps a lot and is often tired. Still, his spirit is strong and his attitude amazingly positive given the circumstances. I am in awe of him, I must admit.

My sister had the great idea to send out an email to all our cousins to give an update on my dad as noted above, and to ask for something very specific: a letter with family news, thoughts on the world, a reminiscence.  My brother offered to print out the letters or emails so that the aides who now help him out throughout the day could read them to him.  In this way he can still be connected to family, which means a lot to him.

Since she sent the email out (signed from the three of us, my brother, sister and me) we’ve received a heartwarming collection of letters. Many provided updates on family members, positively kvelling [bursting with pride] as they shared impressive accomplishments and events, from babies born to books birthed.They shared all sorts of interesting stories, like one cousin who provided details of a wonderful cross-country road trip that ended with a long term house rental near their daughter and her family.

I appreciate all the news and updates yet it is the personal memories of my dad that bring me close to tears, more of joy than sorrow as they’re a celebration of all my dad’s best qualities: his kindness and intellect and humor and quiet dignity, the way he could make up a children’s story or tell a joke.

These reminiscences give me solace, as the Jewish faith doesn’t have a belief in heaven or rebirth or any of that reassuring stuff I used to wish we had since learning about other religions long ago. Instead what matters and has meaning is how we touch each other: how we make lasting memories that are forever imprinted on those we love, we pass down traditions or stories, like my cousin who learned from my father how to make a soap bubble in the tub, taught it to his kids, and now is passing that along to his grandchildren.

Another cousin writes of his first baseball game being with my dad, describing the very moment when he saw his first baseball field and the lifelong love of the game that was born that day with my brother and my dad in Philadelphia. We share experiences that turn into lasting memories, and it is reassuring that even those events my father has long forgotten have already made their lasting impression.  And through these letters, those memories come back to him.

There are also sweet tales of my mom and dad, a cousin remembering her college days near my parents and how they invited her over for meals. Another cousin who went to graduate school in Philadelphia reminisced about dinners with my parents and how my dad would participate in father-daughter events with her two young girls (now grown women with kids of their own). 

It is good to share these recollections while my father can still hear them and take in all the love evinced in these simple memories, so wise to share them now while he is still here to appreciate them. To celebrate a life while it is still being lived, really doesn’t that make complete sense?

My family is spread throughout the country and yet there is this connective tissue of deep abiding love and concern that unites us.  And there’s a respect and admiration of our elders I can only hope will continue as we all age. For now my 95 year old father is embraced with loving stories that celebrate his wonderful life. 

December: in person

It’s December! How did we get to the last page of the calendar? Did it go too fast or too slow? We each have our own answer to that but hopefully some can say it felt just right: it didn’t race by and it didn’t lag for what felt like endless days. I had a bit of both but I’m trying to stay focused on this page with 31 days to fill, not all the ones that have passed.

For this month I’ve decided to revive the annual Chanukah party I had given for a few years pre-pandemic, Ladies who Latkes, a gathering of some women friends and neighbors who stopped by for good homemade latkes with all the sides. Last year out of caution I had just one family of neighbors over and then brought latkes to my other neighbors; the year before that just some take-out; this year finally it will happen again. I so crave time with friends, to break bread/potatoes together, to feel that bond of sisterhood if I may be so earnest.

Yes, in December for once I will be the host. Rather than a grateful guest I’ll be the one welcoming people into my home, the one that has wonderful smells coming from the kitchen, with enough food and drink for 8 to 10 people who can all fit around our table once we put the other board in it.  

I should do this more often/I should never attempt to host in this old house are two warring thoughts.  I don’t socialize much beyond an occasional breakfast or lunch with a friend; I rarely have people over. The fact is that the only regular visitors we have are V’s home therapy team. I make sure that the house is presentable for them – sweeping the floors and wiping down the counters and table; as for clutter and disrepair that we have grown accustomed to, well, they see that too. They see the results/remnants of what happened during that long pandemic stretch of being inside together with a young man who had far too much time and energy as could be contained in such tight quarters. Much of that deconstruction and disrepair remains because while needed routines have returned to our lives thankfully (school and home therapy), V is still our deconstructivist, and so remain drawers taken out of the dining room and bathroom furniture, the photos taken down before they were destroyed once he figured out how to take apart frames, the pictures not hung back up on walls; added to that the collection of V’s leisure activities – a few games he will marginally play. Everything is out and about from all that we do with him, and all that he has done with the space downstairs.  

So there’s a friction between wanting to host a small party and some issues with the venue.  Our clutter issue is compounded by living in a small house built in 1907 when people had so much less stuff, particularly clothes as is apparent by original closets that hold 10 items at best. Yes, the initial charm of living in an old house has long since paled. I still understand their appeal, it’s just that it is a bit much in terms of maintenance for our already high-maintenance family.  

Alas I am the one living in the old house and if I can’t achieve a robust makeover I can do my best to make the space a haven: for good food and conversation and connection. I’m hoping camaraderie overshadows any structural defects and others share my gratitude for in person time. I felt it on Thanksgiving and I look forward to feeling it again over the course of the month. (In addition to my get together I’ll be going to a larger Chanukah celebration with cousins, a cherished annual tradition) 

Much of the bond I have with friends and family is over the span of many miles, from Maine to PA and places in between and all the way to the West Coast. This blog helps me to keep connected with them. I cherish these connections and appreciate every online visitor, and yet I long for more face to face time. So socializing with people I like and don’t see very often is something to look forward to as we fill the cold days of December, a challenge as V has been very restless yet doesn’t last long in frigid weather given his refusal to zip up.

I will do my best to declutter and make things more organized in the coming weeks. And then I’ll just hope that the spirit of generosity with which I host overshadows the defects in our home, the place where we talk and eat and watch TV and read and listen to music and clean up messes that happen when people congregate in a small space.  The place where we do it all again and again, with as much love and kindness and patience as we can.  It leaves much to be desired but still it’s home, and I look forward to welcoming more people into it later this month.

gratitude and mysteries

Just wrapping up from the long weekend, getting a chance to exhale.  In planning for Thanksgiving I always vacillate between first and foremost, my gratitude and joy in getting to see my family. Especially since the pandemic I am even more grateful for time in person with those I love. Just being in the same room, breaking bread as best we can, delighting in each others’ company. I feel excitement to see four generations together under one roof, that of my brother and sister-in-law, from my 95 year old father to my 2 year old great-nephew.  

And second, always in the background the unspoken concern, How will V do? Always a lurking unknown that we have to wait and see. I have a vast range of experiences from years past: most recently, he was so mellow at Rosh Hashanah, and I let myself hope that maybe we’ll have a repeat performance, if we’re lucky,  And then I flash back to that year when V had a total meltdown en route and we had to pull off the road and stop the car in a beautiful placid neighborhood on Thanksgiving morning as he is inconsolably in his own world of some unspoken distress, something he cannot explain and we are left to conjecture. Somehow with a combination of the right food and music and love in our doing the best that we can way, he calms down enough to make the rest of the trip. That was rough.

How he will do is softened by the hospitality my brother and sister-in-law always show, affirming how we are family and share experience for the hours we are together, our separate circumstances intertwined. This year’s questions include: Will the toddler nap? Will the nonagenarian nap?  Will V ever settle down? The answer to that last one is no, he remains on the move the entire time we are there. Fortunately T and I work well as a team, we go into trading on/off mode of V duty, where one of us keeps track of him, or takes him for a walk and the other gets to sit and eat and try to have a conversation. My family is very understanding. Still it is stressful. Year in and out, one event after another I have no way of predicting how he will be, so much is a mystery,

Hours earlier I start the day as calmly as I can, getting up at 630 to meditate on loving kindness and presence because I know I can get caught up in daily stresses and lose sight of what really matters. So I shower and dress – informal my brother says, as if there were any other way to dress these days. No, I’m informal to a fault. For me getting out of sweatpants and putting on a scarf heralds a step up from home attire (a nice term for frumpy), something that was once a mainstay of my appearance,that I inherited from my aunts, bright scarves that perked up my mostly black wardrobe of years back.

From that era I get out of the Audrey Hepburn t-shirt (Breakfast at Tiffany’s) that is falling apart but I can’t bear to part with. It’s so soft and comfy, perfect with sweats and crocs for baking pies. Pumpkin and cheesecake in a pie tin so technically I can say I’m bringing two pies. I read both recipes closely, make a general game plan and then get into a groove: first I’ll prep the pie dough and get it refrigerated and then a graham cracker crust that will also need to chill so have to make more room in the fridge and so on through things that have to be room temperature (I’ve remembered to take out the cream cheese bars as soon as I woke up to soften them up). I’ve done the trick to gently heat canned pumpkin in a pan so that it will taste more like homemade and of course freezing butter and then using a grater when recipes call for pea size pieces of butter in a dough, and so on. Following instructions from recipes and the community of fellow bakers who offer up helpful tips.

But despite following a recipe to a t my pie crust is an epic fail. Ice cold butter and water, flour measured carefully yet it refuses to congeal even after being well chilled.  I make several valiant efforts to resuscitate, to turn it into a pliable dough but alas it’s futile. I take out the pre-made shell that was the plan b I thought I wouldn’t need and begrudgingly unroll it onto the pan and then crimp the edges. How did this happen? I feel dejected, but chalk it up to the mysteries of life. Sometime I’ll have a crust making lesson with someone and get my confidence back.  For now here is a photo of a baking disaster.

Fortunately I know how to make a good graham cracker crust and the fillings turn out fine so the pies are a nice ending to a fabulous meal. Everything was delicious and our wonderful hosts even had fish for me since I don’t eat turkey anymore. Alas V is restless and on the move the entire time so eating talking walking eating talking walking is the order of the day. I am thankful to have T to share V duty all these years.  If only he sat nicely at the table part of the time it would be easier to socialize with family, to sit with my Dad or to play with my sweet and adorable great nephew, to chat with my nephews and niece in law.  He doesn’t eat a thing, doesn’t even touch the pie at the end of the meal.

Still I am so grateful to be with family; it’s especially dear to be celebrating with my father what was my mother’s favorite holiday. There is no traffic either way. There are no meltdowns either. I have containers full of leftovers that will make a delicious meal or two. (I love leftovers!) We find some good radio and V sits still for the first time since we arrive as we make our way home, safe and satiated from time with those we love.

keeping warm

And just like that after an unseasonably warm start to November it feels like winter.
Time to finally start wearing the heavy outerwear I brought down from the attic. And to work with V’s home therapists and school staff to get him to wear his jacket over his hoodie. He is very resistant – saying NO! And hanging it back on the hook in the morning. I send it in on the bus and write an email to his teacher. “Once again as the weather changes we have this challenge…” This is nothing new. V has the same issues year after year, he doesn’t outgrow them because they are sensory-based and hard wired into his system.

There are certain things we take for granted, like breathing. Much of basic meditation practice is focused on the breath, and cultivating awareness of how the air flows in and out as we breathe. That is the most obvious example; there are so many other things we take for granted. When it is cold out we put on a coat. If it is really cold we add hats and boots and warmer socks. Sure, there are the John Fettermans of the world, mostly guys, who can live in shorts and hoodies year round. But most of us want added protection from the elements.

With V, so many of the basics of daily life cannot be taken for granted. There is a gift in that for sure, and yet it’s also the source of a lot of tsuris [a great Yiddish word that means trouble or aggravation]. Because despite global warming it does in fact get cold enough that we have to deal with jackets. Refusing to put it on when he goes out or when he does wear it, not taking it off when he comes inside. It’s the winter chapter of life that will last through March. Oy. Yet I try not to get ahead of myself. It’s still just November.

This week is Fabulous Friday again, the breakfast for school staff that I’m in charge of. Today’s menu: pumpkin bread with chocolate chip streusel, cornbread, and blueberry muffins that V bakes with J, his home therapist. Then I pick up croissants and oranges and a few other things at the store and drop them off at school, with B’s help. The other co-coordinator brings in her share of food early Friday morning. It’s a lot of work but as with last month I aim to do it all with love and appreciation. That’s the point of the event.

Love and appreciation. I remind myself of that as I get out my ingredients and turn the radio on although I dread the top story. He who will remain unnamed is running for President again.

And then there is a segment on global warming. And the Republicans capturing control of the House. It’s all bad news but delivered in an even-handed comprehensive way that I appreciate. Public radio always reminds me of my mother, who used to listen to All Things Considered when she came home from work and got dinner ready. The radio and the oven stay on all morning as I bake and listen as best I can, as I’m concentrating on tripling my recipes. I forget how cold it is outside as the kitchen warms up.

Later in the afternoon when V is home we get him to help out using a muffin mix.  J has the magic touch with him, getting him to do things I never could on my own. As the muffins are baking J has me practice getting V to wear a hat. Over and over we go through the same routine. He is resistant yet finally puts it on. And yet not surprisingly when it is time to get on the bus in the morning – when it’s bitter cold out – he refuses to wear it and shuns his jacket too. One step forward three steps back. 

At the store we also get our free turkey which they give out every year if you spend a certain amount of money during the preceding months.  This year we are donating it to a food drive at the school. It feels good to give to others, to be community-minded and charitable. (Although if I was truly enlightened I wouldn’t even mention it : ) Still, it helps me to put my own problems in perspective. A roof over our head and enough to eat and drinkable water and heat.  Next week is Thanksgiving and I’ll be making pies and seeing family. There is so much to be thankful for.

I have my own challenges in winter but I have a way to deal with them. I start my bright light therapy, which involves sitting in front of a light therapy box for a half hour every morning after I wake up. This is used to help with seasonal affective disorder which lots of people, especially women, get this time of year. A good therapy lamp should mimic natural morning sunlight. I’m not sure if mine does but I like the feeling of the bright light when I first get up. That and a strong cup of coffee help get me going.  Then I try to get out for a walk around noon when the sun is strongest and the temperature has climbed a bit from early morning. Unlike V I have no problem putting on lots of layers to stay warm, and taking them off as soon as I get inside.  Something so simple that I always took for granted.  

The past few weeks we’ve switched from Mexican sit down to Chinese take out on Thursdays. With J’s help V gets to practice setting the table, using a fork and knife (he rarely uses knives on his own), and cleaning up after himself. It’s stuff we should be doing every day but I get lazy and I do it, if at all, halfheartedly. It’s really hard work to teach someone all those things most of us take for granted. Still, when I watch V get his utensils and plate and sit attentively cutting his chicken, something so simple is inspiring. The food is just a notch above decent but my fortune is spot on.

We will continue working with V to put on his jacket and hat and then to take them off when he comes inside. It is a process. I have learned to cultivate patience and humor, and to admit when I feel at a loss. If it was up to me we’d skip right from November to April, when spring temperatures usually make their first appearance. But since I don’t have a choice, we’ll all have to do our best to deal with the seasonal change, doing what we can to keep warm.

Savoring: city days

Things are bustling at B & H Dairy at noon on a weekday, the staff behind the tiny counter working to keep up with the steady stream of customers all wanting overstuffed sandwiches and soup. “With bread?” the waitress says each time, as if she has to ask. In fact the Latino sandwich makers/soup servers/all around everything staff wear shirts that say “Challah por favor.” I order a bowl of borscht and savor the heat and flavor. The jack of all trades behind the counter gives me a little attitude when I ask for sour cream while he’s in the throes of other multi-tasking, in the brusque but ultimately kind and decent way of many New Yorkers. I feel completely consumed by the clamor: the constant orders, the deft handling of challah bread to make sandwiches, the steady ladling of soup to full yet never overflowing. Just right. I feel so pleased to be part of this perfect urban scene. Since 1938 this little place in the East Village has served vegetarian food at modest prices. Egalitarian and delicious. Just right for a post-election day lunch. I pay, say thank you and continue walking and eating my way through New York.

This week I’ve had a special treat of staying in the city at a vacation club, gifted by my sister-in- law C. She had hotel points that expire this month and I was happy to oblige her generous offer to let me/us use them.  It’s such a wonderful break from my usual suburban caregiving life. I’m in a sweet little room in Midtown with a view of the  Empire State building.  It is so nice to be away although I’m not far. So refreshing to wake up and not have to deal with the morning routine of rousing V from a deep sleep, getting him bathed and dressed and downstairs where he is often half awake and not interested in breakfast, yet likes school enough that he runs eagerly onto the bus that comes at 8:25. I’m so grateful to C for this wonderful opportunity to be in the city.  And T for handling V’s needs so I get a break for a few days.

Self-care can involve peaceful space alone and quiet contemplation but it also can be a break from enervating routines, so being in the thick of the city is self-care in its own unique way, giving a life-affirming energy. I thought of going to museums and making plans with a couple of people but opt to be untethered to any schedules or meetings during these few days alone, to simply have hours of walking through familiar yet changed streets (where did that favorite restaurant/store/cafe go?), which has been so rejuvenating.  

I walk for miles each day, taking in a few touristy sights as well as old familiar neighborhoods. And I visit the former homes of my great aunts and grandmother, the family I used to visit most weekends when I lived in Manhattan. I walk the High Line, a public park built on a freight rail line elevated above the streets on Manhattan’s West side. Saved from demolition by neighborhood residents, it’s a public space with wonderful landscaping, lots of art and hoards of tourists. On a weekday morning there are so many people if we weren’t out in the open I would have felt claustrophobic. I get off in the West Village and walk down to the building where my Aunt Annie lived for decades, a building that became filled with a few celebrities along with all those lucky enough to win the real estate sweepstakes and have a lovely one bedroom with a river view like Annie had. She would have loved the High Line, so near to her home, one more fabulous feature in her wonderful neighborhood. So much has changed in the West Village, once a Bohemian haven now financially out of reach for all but the richest few. Still, it’s physically beautiful and I savor every moment of my time there. Then I walk back hugging the river and checking out the new parks and island and grow wistful for all those years when I used to hang out on the dilapidated piers back when none of this was here.

On Wednesday I head down to the Greenmarket at Union Square near my old apartment, a place I used to visit every week. I buy an apple to eat as I marvel at all the produce and flowers and baked goods. There is no kitchen in my hotel room so I stop myself from buying the stunning greens on display. I walk down to the Strand bookstore and browse for a while. So grateful for these landmarks that remain in the cityscape, that not every wonderful thing I love about New York has been demolished. Then I head down for that bowl of soup and continue walking, down to the former DeRoberti’s, the Italian bakery and cafe I used to love that is now a bagel shop. I walk in just to see the space, how some of the booths where the old Italian men used to gather over espressos have been preserved. Still, it’s not the same and I continue my journey to Stuyvesant Town where my grandmother lived and then head west to the apartment where my Aunt Dina lived near Gramercy Park. My family would like that I visited them like I used to do, that I acknowledge what an imprint they made on my life. They would like that I am still a city girl at heart, and the part they played in nurturing that.

Each day after walking for hours I go back to my room and rest for a while. It is so great to be unencumbered, to be free of my usual duties and able to enjoy this mini-vacation so close to home yet so far from daily life. Then I head back out for more walking and eating. Miso soup. A slab of pistachio halvah, things that I no longer eat but can’t resist for reliving old memories, like Greek spinach pie, and a semolina fennel currant roll from Amy’s Bread. So much to eat, so little time. It’s great to see the city at dusk when the lights go on. My trips to New York all happen during the day when V is at school so it’s a special treat to be out and see the town all lit up, to come back to my room to see the Empire State Building flooded with colors for Election Day.

On Wednesday night T takes V to the respite group home, where he stays for two nights so that T gets a break and gets to come in and join me. It is V’s third visit since August and T says he seems completely at ease there, which is such a godsend. Then T comes in on Thursday for the final night in the city. We take the subway to Brooklyn to visit friends and go out to eat at our favorite Japanese restaurant we haven’t been to in years. It’s a wonderful final evening though by the ride home gazing at the Brooklyn Bridge from my seat on the Q train I have that bittersweet feeling when a vacation is ending all too soon. Friday we have our last walk, down to the river again and back to the hotel. Goodbye Empire State. Goodbye city outside my door. It was a great vacation and I leave with gratitude and the good type of tired, worn out yet renewed from all the walking and people and food and sights, savoring the memories of my city time.