My 93-year-old father emerged as a different person when my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s five years ago. He became independent, assertive, interested and engaging. When my mother died in October, he even became a bit spiritual. He’s certainly not the exhausted father with whom I grew up, who often didn’t know what to say to me. As a teenager and young adult, I never thought we would have much of a relationship. But now, as I approach 60 and he nears 94, the engagement between us has blossomed, as it has with my brother and all our children. The relationship he now has with my wife has become his most significant. She handles his money.
At 93, my father takes almost no medication. He doesn’t use a cane or a walker. And his mind rarely skips a beat. Until he was 88, my mother made just about every decision for them. All the family’s relationships with him were tracked through her. I realize now we had almost no idea who he really was.
Last year, when the Steven Spielberg/Tom Hanks miniseries about the World War II battles in the Pacific was being shown on TV, my father came forward with stories we had never heard. During the segment on Guadalcanal, he excitedly said to us, “That’s my regiment. Boy, they got that perfect. That’s exactly what it was like.” Then he recalled his fears hearing the Japanese soldiers talking above his head while he was hiding in a fox hole, seeing his friends’ body parts being blown off and suffering more than 10 bouts of malaria. When the segment aired about the regiment being taken on furlough to Australia, he told us about the women greeting the soldiers at the boat and their nights out on the town after unrelenting months in the jungle.
When I watched the young soldiers each week, I tried to see my father as one of them, and through it I saw a whole different person. It is painful to accept that his entire generation is almost gone, including my father’s four siblings, all his friends and his unit. He used to see his Army buddies at reunions, but that ended about seven years ago. He tells me often, “Everybody is dead.”
One of the most difficult realizations is that there is no one alive who was a witness to his life before my generation. He no longer has anyone to gibe with, sharing the particular Yiddish expressions that he, his brothers, sisters and cousins grew up with, contorting into their own vernacular, and mimicking specific uncles’ intonations that came from the Lithuanian shtetl. “Ahh, ich hawb a hejhek — I could give a sh__” and “Zhesh tu? —Take a look at that … you get it?”
True to his generation of Chicago soldiers, one of his favorite foods is still fried shrimp. I sometimes take him to Malibu Seafood, where I order salmon and he loads up on all the treif I stopped eating years ago. Once he said to me, “I’m going to take the leftovers back to the place, so they can heat them up in the microwave.” The place is the Jewish Home in Reseda.
I said to him, “Dad, they’re not going to heat up shrimp in a microwave at the Jewish Home.”
“Sure they will, if I ask them to.”
“No, Dad, they won’t.” And I threw the bag away.
Food has become one of his obsessions. He misses my mother’s cooking terribly. Recently, my son opened a restaurant on La Cienega Boulevard. The style is shared, small plates, where many dishes make up a night’s experience. After my father’s first visit, he called the next day: “Listen, don’t they serve a full meal at Micah’s restaurant? How’s he going to make any money?” And then he added, “I sure wish your mother had been alive to see this.” On his next visit, Micah had put on his contemporary Middle Eastern menu an appetizer of “challah and Gramma’s chopped liver.” My father lit up with a huge smile … and ate it all.
He now often asks me about my work. I travel for business. Each time I tell him that I am leaving, he begins to rant and rave: “Again, you’re going? Jesus … how many times can you get on a plane? You need to stay home once in a while.” I realize he misses me. It’s a strange feeling. When I was growing up, I think I could have disappeared for months and he would have never noticed.
Recently I began a blog, called 60DaysTil60, about the 60 days leading up to my 60th birthday. One of the posts was about my mother. Somehow, someone with a computer at the Jewish Home must have been forwarded what I wrote, and they mentioned it to my father. He called and asked where it was published. I attempted to explain a blog to him. That opened up a whole conversation about technology, the Internet, Twitter and Facebook. In the end he said to me, “But if it’s not in a newspaper or a magazine, how can someone read it?” Try explaining that to a person turning 94.
The next time I saw him, he said something that really shook me. I told him I had a dream about my mother and that she was shuffling business cards when she said to me, “Gary, I just can’t seem to reach anybody.”
My father, always very rational, responded, “She’s not really gone.”
I took a deep breath. “Tell me.”
“The other night, I was lying here on the bed. I heard her call out to me, ‘Herbie?’ It was just the way she always did. She was in this room.”
I believe him.
My father doesn’t ever like to be the center of attention. When I told him I was asked to write this article, he responded, “About me? What’s there to say about me?” Everyone at the Jewish Home reads The Jewish Journal. As he said to me, “No one in this place ever stops talking. There are no secrets.”
I hope he comes out of his room.
Happy Father’s Day, Dad. I know you’re reading this.