The Ones I’ve Been Searching For

I am something of a rebel with a dash of wildness about me, like the kind of dog that always seems to have a few random blackberry brambles in its coat; the kind of dog that seems to roam around on its own, taking itself for a walk without its owner. I have the instinct, like many of these animals, to attempt to bolt almost instantly once I’ve discovered I’m fenced in, an instinct often activated long before the fence posts are set in the ground. It turns out that I come by these ways honestly.

For most of my life, I didn’t realize that these traits came directly from both my mother and my father. Maybe that would seem obvious to you; it wasn’t to me, not until somewhat recently, years after passing into my fifth decade. Talk about role models: I spent so much of my life looking way out at the edge of the horizon for the ones that would teach me about how to be this sort of person…this sort of wild and rebellious person that I knew I was…all the while galloping right past the truth of who both my mother and father were. SURPRISE! It turns out that they were my role models all along…I just didn’t know it.

After all my declarations and determinations that my parents had no clue what it meant to be someone like me, I have to say that in so many ways, they are the ones I was searching for. I hope you can hear this mom, dad. I know you can. “Thank you” is just the quiet beginning of my expression of gratitude to honor the glistening gems that you actually placed in my opened, aching hands and heart. What a blessing that I now know, even though it seems like it took me so very long; thanks be, that I finally do know it.

As a child, my father’s voice and actions were the loud and obvious ones. My mother’s nature, that is to say, her true nature, was much more carefully hidden. I suppose this was so, in some ways, with my father’s true nature as well, but he was a bit more apt to let things slip. Like his stories to us kids about his adventures riding the rails in an empty boxcar across the country from Detroit to Los Angeles after he left high school in the early 1930’s; like when my folks came to visit me when I was in my 20’s and living in western Oregon in an old farm house on a big chunk of land that snuggled right up against the coast range foothills. Dad and I went for a walk up into those hills and he told me, in the midst of the crazy riot of forest underbrush, like some kind of holy confession; he told me he always wanted to live out in the country. What? My born-and-bred-in-the-city father? What? Is that why, from the age of a young child, as the story goes, I told my parents I wanted to live on a farm, even though I’d never seen one, nor had they, except for a few brief visits that my mother endured while in the Army – but she is not the one who whispered to me of a yearning to live out in the country.

Then there was my mother’s tale that she signed up to be a radio operator when she enlisted in the Army, (she was a member of the WAC – Women’s Army Corps) because she wanted to go overseas…somewhere in Europe…anywhere in Europe…anywhere away from her childhood home, and in a way, did end up in a foreign country, but not the one she had hoped for. She was stationed in Kansas City, Missouri for the entire two years of her service, and every time she went out on “leave”, this daughter of New York City, would stay with one of her friends out on a farm.

I learned persistence from these two rebels disguised as mild-mannered 1950’s parents. My father’s persistence was right out in the open, and oh did I learn about it from him. My father believed in it almost as a form of religion. Like how he decided to teach himself to play the guitar…not so well…but he just kept at it. Or much later in life when he decided, in his 80’s, that he was going to learn how to draw. Whatever the task was, he’d pretty much always say the same thing: “How hard could it be? You just have to practice every day.” And he did. He took drawing at the local Senior Center – took it for so long, and worked at it so diligently that finally the instructor encouraged him to take a more challenging class, so he began taking classes at the nearby community college. Picture it: a class full of 18 to 20 year-olds, many of whom were there only because they thought they could get an easy ‘A’ from an art class, and there in their midst, my 80-something father, who worked so hard at every single assignment. What would it be like to share a drawing class with him?

Underneath it all, what I really began to learn from him was that it was possible to change. Dad gave the impression that he was quite rigid, and in many things he was. But he decided to learn to draw at age 80 and in so doing, he changed his worldview; opened his awareness to both a brave and a new world. His specialty was charcoal portraits, and early on he shared with me that young people’s faces were not nearly as interesting as those of the elderly, whose wrinkles and creases illustrated their incredible life stories. This was a way that my father was able to begin to appreciate his own value as an elder in our culture – something that was not easy for him to accept. This was a subtle but beautiful shift as we witnessed the way that he spent time working on the dramatically aged and expressive faces that he drew.

And my mother…I have had a sense of her for a very long time, as possessing the kind of persistence that is exhibited by the flow of a river that wears down a rock gradually, imperceptibly – yet the power and force is unmistakable. She attended a school in New York City that is still in full swing: Fieldston School, run by the Ethical Culture Society. She attended Kindergarten through 12th grade there and over the years I have come to know how profoundly that education shaped her life philosophy. In this school, ALL students, both boys and girls, in the midst of all their many and varied academic classes, also took sewing, cooking, drafting, and shop – think of it – my mother was born in 1920 and that’s the kind of education, the kind of view she had of how things should be.

A co-worker of mine, originally from New York City herself, curious about my mother’s childhood, helped me to tease apart my mother’s formative years: progressive schooling in the 1920’s, her first attempt at escaping her family’s wealthy and repressive lifestyle by going away to college, then upon graduation, enlisting in the army. After she returned home from her military service she flat out told her parents that she was moving to California. My friend generously shared with me her unbiased perspective, which enabled me to see the truth of my mother and her unquenchable thirst for freedom and adventure, something that from my vantage point, I simply could not see. She held a mirror up for me to see that I was much more like my mother than I had ever imagined – and I was proud to be like my mother. This was a monumental shift for me.

Mom had deep and abiding beliefs relating to language: she believed that all English speakers, of all ages, had a right to literacy in their language, and she worked toward this end especially for adults who had somehow missed out on this opportunity in school. She also believed that all children, all people, who lived in this country, no matter what their ethnicity or economic station, had a right to a well-rounded education. To that end, my mother worked early on as a volunteer librarian wherever she could. Later she became certified as a Spanish translator working for the Los Angeles School District, at a time when Spanish-speaking children began flooding into the school system. Much later on in her life, she continued her love of language and shared that with others as an ESL instructor (English as a Second Language) working with each wave of immigrants who landed in Los Angeles; first Spanish speaking immigrants from many different parts of the world, then immigrants from eastern Europe, then Asia; the list only continued to grow. My mother did not travel herself, but she came to know, in very personal ways, the joys and sorrows of the world, in spite of her shyness, through her deep and lasting connections with her internationally based students. What a profound gift we received at my mother’s funeral when several of her ESL students shared the enormous impact that my mother’s persistence with their teaching gave to them.

So my father believed that anyone could teach oneself to do anything, and my mother believed that everyone in this country had a right to an education. I suppose there were parts of their beliefs that did overlap, but my father had deeply drawn lines about who…what “kind” of people…should be given these gifts. My mother on the other hand, believed that these were for all the peoples of the world. To this end, for much of their voting lives, my father was proud to declare that he cancelled out most every vote my mother had the opportunity to cast. This ferocity about his voting record changed, when, from his perspective at age 90, the moral character of the Conservatives that he had stood so proudly behind began to crumble. I will never forget the feeling of heartbreak that I sensed in my father when he declared, two years after my mother’s death, as I sat next to him during George W. Bush’s State of the Union address in 2005, “Don’t believe a word he says…he’s a liar.” For a man of my father’s generation and belief system, what a blow it must have been to come to the conclusion that the President of the United States was a liar, and what an act of nobility to speak of his disillusionment to me, his daughter who had so fiercely battled with him over politics for most of my adult life.

In regards to the part about not being fenced in: my mother demonstrated her resistance to fences in many of her decisions as she left her family home…but I wasn’t there to see her in her rebellion. It was something that I directly witnessed with my father, I saw it with my own eyes and it was eerie to behold. As his body began to wear down…as he approached his nineties…his hearing and vision began to diminish, and dementia began to move in. He loved to walk to the donut shop every day: once a day, twice a day, even three times when he forgot he’d already gone. Over time, it wasn’t about the donuts anymore, or the bagels, or sometimes even the most important part, the coffee. It was about getting out, about being free to go where and when he wanted to go. Of course he would want that; we all would, we all do. But my dad really wanted it and he wanted to go BY HIMSELF…did not need or want anyone to go with him. REALLY. When his hearing and vision were bad enough that it became a safety issue, he still refused company, and I mean REFUSED. Loving caregivers instead simply followed him, allowing him his deeply loved freedom. His hearing was poor enough, coupled with the noise of a busy street, such that they could follow right behind him. It took all of his concentration to get to his destination and he didn’t notice that he had chaperones. He wanted to do things his way. Sure sounds familiar to me.

When we finally, after years of an extremely creative regimen of caregiving, found that we just had to move dad out of his home of sixty-some years, he spent most of his time at the “secure” assisted living facility finding a way to escape – which he did, after only two days. When I watched how he was always looking for a way out, how he just kept trying, I really saw how much I was like my father. And gratefully, luckily, blessedly, he and I came to know that about each other, face to face, in a most gentle and subtle way…while he was still alive.

When I began my search for who might be role models in my life, I kept coming back to the feeling that the most profound role models are the ones whose lives we know the most thoroughly as that is how we discover how people’s beliefs impact their ordinary lives…for most of us, that’s what we have to work with: our ordinary lives. And that’s how I came to realize that these two seemingly unassuming folks who brought me into this world are the ones I bow to most deeply. Even as I write these words, I can see my mother really working hard to brush off all that I’ve said and I see just the smallest hint of a smile emerge on my father’s otherwise stern face.

No Stopping Him

My dad was the first resident in ten years to escape from the “secure” assisted living complex that we’d moved him to a month or so after his 94th birthday. My sister and I had taken a preliminary tour of the place and then my brother joined us for a more detailed inspection before meeting with the Director. Aside from standard requirements about staffing, livability, etc., we were looking for places where dad could make an escape; because we knew him, we knew that he’d try.

He was a fighter…here’s what he used to say about death, although he’d never use that word: “I’m gonna fight it to the end” he’d snarl. And he did. Underneath this story of the man who broke the ten-year record, is woven the tattered fabric of our collective heartbreak: a glimpse of what life is like for millions of our elders…many of whom can’t or won’t attempt an escape like my father…they’ll just quietly waste away, right before our eyes.

Dad was just plain tough: he was the eldest of the four children still at home, who lost their father to tuberculosis when dad was eleven. They lived in dire poverty in Detroit during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. At age ninety-four, my father was strong and relatively healthy despite the fact that he had dementia, incontinence, was mostly blind from macular degeneration, and fairly deaf, although he didn’t think he was. With all these seeming infirmities, his daily routine right up to the day before we moved him from his home of sixty-one years, included walking one-mile, round trip, to the donut shop once or twice a day, or three times when he’d forget he’d already been there earlier. He was stubborn, cantankerous and basically unstoppable. It had gotten to the point where we could no longer find a way for him to remain in his home and be assured of his safety. That’s before we realized that no one could really give that kind of assurance, even when they said they could.

After our reconnaissance of the assisted-care facility, we met with the Director of the complex and told him we’d found two places that we thought were weak, as far as security went. Already he was eyeing us with a particular kind of look. We described a place in the backyard where the hilly landscaping was so close to the concrete-block fence, we knew dad would drag a metal patio chair to the fence and climb right over it. You should have seen the Director’s face when we told him of the problem. He assured us that no one had escaped in ten years, that they had a “state of the art” alarm system, and that dad would be safe. Next we told him that we’d found a gate that didn’t have a lock on it and dad would jiggle it until he figured out how to open it. Again the director made his assurances. He still wasn’t getting the picture, so we gave him examples of dad’s problem-solving technique, knowing that dad’s new problem to solve would be how to get out of there.

My father had refused to leave a house key hidden somewhere outside his home because he was afraid of an intruder finding the key and getting into his house, and truthfully he wouldn’t have remembered the key when he needed it, anyway. When I asked dad what he’d do if he locked himself out, he said with a bit of a growl, “I’ll just kick the door in”: this from a man in his nineties.

The day finally came when he did lock himself out. The back door was a lightweight, inexpensive hollow-core door and at first he tried to kick it in, but weighing only about 115 pounds fully dressed including his shoes…he just couldn’t bust the door down. That didn’t stop him: he wandered around in his garage and found a crowbar, somehow dragged it to the back door and smashed a hole in it. Then he reached his hand through and unlocked it.

The next time he locked himself out, my sister got a call from the neighbor across the street saying that she had just happened to look out their window to witness dad standing on a 5-foot aluminum ladder just about to climb in through his kitchen window. Luckily her husband was able to interrupt dad’s attempt, which if successful would have landed him right in the kitchen sink.

His third “problem-solving technique” was the proverbial last straw. After the crowbar and ladder incidents we scoured the garage and removed all the tools that we could find, along with anything else that seemed like something dad might hurt himself with. The next time he locked himself out, even after our precautions, somewhere he found a hammer and used it to break the window next to the front door, reached through the broken window and again, let himself in. The same neighbor just happened to see dad reaching his hand through the window and called us. Miraculously, he was not injured.

We knew, as soon as we heard about this last episode, that we had to move him out of his house. We’d been walking a fine line for months by then, trying to find a safe way that he could stay in his home, and with the help of some loving, dedicated caregivers, we had come up with many creative solutions for taking care of this rowdy old man. Even in our frustration and concern for his safety, we all loved that dad simply would not give up.

After hearing our stories, the Director realized that maybe it wasn’t just that we were overly protective children, but it seemed like he still thought we were exaggerating, and maybe nuts. One more time, he repeated his line that no one had escaped in ten years and that they’d take good care of him.

Dad wasted no time and began casing the joint the very next day after his arrival. He took the easiest route – forget climbing the fence. Here’s how he worked it: on the morning after he arrived, the first thing he did was simply try to get out the front door, over and over. Every time he pushed on the door, the alarm would go off. The employees got to know him quickly, knew they needed to keep an eye on him, but they weren’t prepared for quite such a rascal. He spent most of his time that first day, in the lobby, and noticed that sometimes the front door was locked but other times it was unlocked, to allow guests to come and go.

Although he did not completely understand how it all worked, the next day, he made a point to stand around and schmooze with the receptionist, while keeping an eye on that front door traffic. Subtly, he edged toward the door until an opportune moment arrived when there were four or five guests coming and going and dad simply blended himself into that little crowd and walked out with them. Luckily the receptionist realized what had happened right away, and dad only made it about 20 feet from the front door before one of the staff escorted him back inside. So, just two days after we moved him in, my sister got a call saying that he had escaped. Luckily he didn’t get far…he just got out. When my sister phoned with the news, she and I both responded in kind: we cheered. He did it! He broke their blasted ten-year record! But the elation was short lived…we knew he was not safe out on the streets and we knew he would keep trying.

Of course we were pissed off at Mr. Director for not believing us in the first place. We were also secretly quite proud of dad for being, well, for being that fighter that made it so hard for all three of us kids to get along with him, but in this case: “Way to go, dad.”

The next day when we went to visit him, he was right there in the lobby, scoping everything out again, no doubt looking for his next escape opportunity. We walked in, and I could tell that he recognized us, but he didn’t make any effort at a greeting. He was leaning on the reception counter with one elbow, looking intently down one of the long hallways. I went over to him and said, “Dad, aren’t ya gonna say hello to us?” “Shhh!” he whispered loudly, and nodded down the hall, not wanting to draw any attention by pointing with his long, thin finger. “See that guy rolling that cart? Shhh! Don’t let him know we’re looking at him. He cleans up around here. I know him. He’s a pretty good guy. See that garbage can on his cart? He must roll that cart outside to dump it somewhere, don’t ya think? I’m thinkin’ I can just climb into that garbage can and hide in it, and then when he rolls it out, I’ll just jump out and take off! Wha’ d’ya think?”

Even as I was concerned for dad’s safety, I loved that he was still not giving up. It was so much who he was. My brother, sister and I later on that day joked that clearly dad had watched the movie, The Great Escape, too many times. He wasn’t giving in. Not just yet anyway.

What we learned was that Assisted Care facilities are not really set up for patients like dad. Much later I learned that he would be classified as “ambulatory with goal-directed wandering”. I laughed out loud when I first heard that term: “goal-directed wandering”. “Goal-directed”…that was dad, for sure. Most residents were unstable on their feet at best, or, used a walker, were in a wheel chair or bedridden: translation – easy to control. And, truthfully, the great majority of the residents were women, who, in a gross generalization, were from a generation of women not inclined to plan out escapes.

We ended up moving dad, trying two other facilities…each time smaller. Over and over we’d tell them how dad was. Each time they’d give us that look, the one that said we were just over-protective children, and that we shouldn’t worry – they’d take good care of him. But they couldn’t. He was too much of a handful for any of them. He needed constant attention because he was strong and healthy – and he was always on the move, when he wasn’t asleep. They couldn’t keep a close enough eye on him – they weren’t used to having to keep track of a man who actually moved around on his own, and they didn’t have the staff to handle someone so active. We couldn’t afford to hire a private caregiver that would be solely responsible for him and sadly, there was even less of a chance that he was going to consistently take directions from any of his children. I could see the writing on the wall.

As there is an ending to each of our lives, his life ended according to his own particular style. In his uncanny way of sensing when there was a possibility of escape, he got up and wandered to a door during a few moments when someone in the third, and much smaller residence that we’d placed him in, had forgotten to reset the door alarm. He wandered outside, enjoying the freedom and fresh air that he so loved…and fell. He broke his hip and when they x-rayed it, the doctor said that the joint had completely shattered…he would never walk again.

He left his mark on the hospital in those first days. While heavily sedated with pain medication, he was approached by what appeared to him to be strangers who were about to mess with him and he kicked not one, but two nurses in a row, with his good leg: a fighter to the end. Less than two weeks from the day of his fall, when on some level, he knew that it was finally, truly time to go, he went so quickly that the caregiver that was sitting with him didn’t even have time to call for medical help. Even with death, in the same way we’d known him to be in every situation, when dad made his mind up to do something; there was no stopping him.