|I 'm in the midst of another crisis related to the death and dying
of my parents. It is the latest in a series of crises which began with
a phone call in June 1991. My mother had been taken to the emergency room
of a Florida hospital leaving my father home alone. He has Alzheimer's
disease and was completely dependent on her. I was immersed in a school
reorganization in Teaneck, packing up 25 years of classroom accumulation
while trying to provide an instructionally meaningful and peaceful end-of-year
experience for 23 difficult first graders. It was not a good time to leave.
I was never close to my mother, and my relationship with my father was clouded by his traditional Jewish view of Jesus. He wanted me to carry on the faith of his fathers and he feared that I converted to Christianity. As his disease progressed he revealed stories of the persecutions of his childhood which I had never heard before. But he was in Florida and now his mind was going. It was too late to nurture a relationship. So it was with a heavy heart that I dropped everything and flew to Florida.
My sister left three children, her husband, and a demanding full-time job in San Francisco to meet me in Fort Lauderdale. Even though our mother was too sick to continue caring for our dad, it was shocking when she said: "Put him in a home. I never want to see him again." It was a burden no child should ever have to bear. Miraculously, within three days we placed him in an assisted living facility without the necessary medical records, tests, or money. The residence which was highly recommended to us was owned by a man who had graduated Teaneck High School with my sister. They recognized each other when he came for the intake interview. It felt like the evidence of things unseen. Dad could live there as long as he could feed himself and walk, and it was close enough for mom to visit if she changed her mind. I returned home and found my classroom packed up and ready to move. Sixty-eight huge boxes of materials had been organized, sealed, and labeled by friends, colleagues, and ! strangers. The angels had descended. It was a task I don't think I could have done myself.
Tragically, my mother had developed terminal lung cancer, having neglected herself while devoting herself completely to my father's care. She would spend the next year enduring radiation treatments, chemotherapy, and horrendous hospitalizations to no avail. She was too weak and disheartened to visit my father, but guilt-ridden at her inability to care for him at home. Frail and frightened, she accepted her fate as God's will and expected to end her life in the cold earth.
It was my constant prayer that I could share my faith with her, that she could begin to believe that "...death is only the beginning of an endless career of adventure, an everlasting life of anticipation, an eternal voyage of discovery." (p.159) I made frequent trips to Florida, rotating with my brother and sister and called her daily. She continued to take treatments that devastated her body even though she was told there was no hope for a cure. I was deeply touched by her uncomplaining bravery. She assured me she was not afraid to die. My father's condition was unbearable to her. She had had a good life and it was enough. She never admitted she believed that life goes on and I felt that I had failed her. She died on August 21, 1992. Her last words were..."Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil - for Thou art with me."
We didn't tell my dad she had died. It seemed his mind was gone. He shuffled around, babbled nonsense, and needed to be cared for like a baby. He had no consciousness of who he was, much less, who his children were. In its absence, I began to understand the significance of personality. It was horrifying to be in the presence of my dad's disadjustered, soulless body. "The body minus the volitional mind is no longer human." (p.1230) I was comforted, however, by the sense that he will choose to survive and we will meet again some day.
This week he was hospitalized with pneumonia. Tied to a bed for a week, he has forgotten how to walk and feed himself. I pray the unprayable prayer: "Father, please take him." It's a selfish prayer. I don't want to see him this way. No one should suffer such indignity. But it is not to be and we have decided to bring him back to New Jersey. Once again I've come face-to-face with the scandalous health care system. The hospital refused him the physical therapy he needed to get him walking again. The nursing homes are wait-listed and unresponsive, and air-ambulance charges $12,000.00 for the trip home. The details of arranging for this move are formidable. I am exhausted.
And then I feel the Seraphim at work and my faith is renewed. A friend of my parents appears from the past. She is a social worker on the oncology floor of a large, nearby hospital. She knows where the empty nursing home beds are. She knows where it's clean and kind. She knows the system. She loved my parents and she wants to help!
Looking back I see that help was always there, seen and unseen. My sister and brother have shared the burden and responsibility with me from the beginning. We've become the friends we never were as children. My husband and best friend, Steve, has been a constant source of strength and wisdom as I grappled with my sense of loss. Always steadfast in his search for understanding, he inspires me with his vision of enduring life. I've been touched by calls and love-filled notes and prayers from friends and acquaintances. No one escapes the vicissitudes of life, some pain and sorrow. But in reflecting back on my experiences I've realized several things. There is help available from friends and community resources. There is joy in saving and solving problems with family members, and the reservoir of spirit help is endless. Sometimes the events of life are very difficult, but the awareness of the greater realities of the universe provide comfort. And help is there if, in faith, you ask!
Post Script: Jack Goldman died peacefully in his sleep in a hospice house in Florida on May 11, 1993.