My father wrote poetry most of his life. As his cognitive abilities declined, he didn’t give up poetry writing. Instead, he wrote haiku, a short form of Japanese verse. When he was placed in an assisted living facility, I found sheaves of haikus scattered all over his study. They were numbered, and he’d written one hundred of them. I thought Dad’s ability to adapt to his limitation without giving up a pastime he loved was inventive and admirable. It’s so easy to be upset and angry when our bodies fail us. I’d rather be like Dad and try to find creative solutions to those limitations.
I’m always on the alert for adaptive solutions people employ to meet their needs. Several have stood out over the years.
When my father began experiencing dementia, unable to remember directions, he could no longer take the bike rides he’d enjoyed for decades. Instead of giving up on exercise, he began taking yoga classes several times a week. I once asked Dad what he liked about yoga. He explained that he felt a sense of accomplishment when he mastered a pose. This mastery enhanced his sense of self-worth, in and out of the yoga studio, as he slowly lost his cognitive abilities. Dad replaced an exercise regimen he loved with another that made him feel good about himself. I thought this was one of the smartest things I’d ever heard. As my body changes, I will remember how Dad coped, try to be mindful of what I’m still able to accomplish, and focus on that.
My father died in January 2018. I still miss him badly and keenly feel his absence. I’ve never mourned anyone as much as Dad, and I’m learning things about the grief process that I previously didn’t fully understand.
Last Christmas a friend and I went to see Mary Poppins Returns. As the opening credits rolled, I began to cry. My parents separated in early 1966. That summer, on a scorching, humid New York City day, Dad took me to see the original Mary Poppins. I’d already seen it four times, no doubt at least a couple of times with him. But we had to get out of the one-hundred-five-degree heat, and there were few affordable places to take a sweaty six-year-old.
I always thought of my father sitting through that movie for the umpteenth time as a valiant act of fatherhood. So when the credits for Mary Poppins Returns began and the music swelled, all I could think of was Dad and that day. It moved me to tears. I have countless happy memories of my father, and they make me mourn his passing, knowing my memories are all I have left. Despite my sadness, I’m always grateful that this warm, funny, loving man was my father.
My wonderful father died suddenly, leaving me bereft. His memorial was postponed for several months until my family could gather from all over the US and Europe. As a result, I wasn’t able to engage in customary mourning rituals. I was in shock for the first several days after his passing. I purposely kept myself busy and in the company of kind, caring people. By day six, I returned to work, but in the evenings I only wanted to rest on my couch and watch television. I didn’t want to talk to anyone or be productive. I simply desired to sit with my cats and miss my father. For two weeks, I gave myself permission to mourn in this manner, after which I felt ready to return to my usual life and its demands.
No matter how prepared we believe we are, the death of a loved one is often a shock. I still feel that the world is a duller, poorer place without my father, but I’m glad I allowed myself those two weeks to fully experience my loss before returning to a normal routine
This blog is dedicated to the memory of my father, Stephen Charnas.
During my childhood, members of my family periodically observed my father laughing quietly to himself. My stepmother would usually comment, “You’re thinking of something funny, aren’t you?” And sure enough, Dad had been mulling over a humorous idea and made himself laugh. I always admired Dad’s ability to create solitary, unrestrained enjoyment.
I don’t share Dad’s gift for laugh-out-loud self-amusement, but I am able to entertain myself by playing with language. I savor using familiar words in new ways. Recently the word confederates has been on my mind and occasionally popping out of my mouth. Everyone knows what the word means in relationship to the Civil War. They were the guys in gray from the South who lost. But I’ve been using another meaning of the word—allies or partners. Confederates is such a rich, warm word. I’m grateful for my love of English. I spend much of my free time reading or watching TV. My ability to entertain myself with language makes the down time easier.
It’s taken a few days for reality to sink in: My beautiful, funny, brilliant, loving father, Stephen Charnas, died shortly after midnight on Wednesday, January 31. I and the rest of my family are deeply saddened, as well as profoundly grateful to have had him in our lives. Today it seems as though the earth should stop rotating for just a moment to aknowledge his departure. Everything is the same but nothing feels the same. He was a great father.
This Blog was first published on the HuffPost Blog on June 20, 2017
Love and hate often go together. I both love and hate writing to my father every week. When my stepmother placed him in an assisted living facility in 2014, I asked her if I could do anything for him in his new home. She suggested I send him cards. So for the last three years, every week I’ve mailed him a greeting card.
My parents divorced when I was six years old. For the first four years after their divorce, my entire family lived in New York City, and my brother and I visited our father, and later our stepmother, every other weekend. He never called us, but we felt connected to him through regular visitations.
After four years, my father and step-mother moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, two thousand miles away, and our visits went from every couple of weeks to three times a year during school vacations. Both our father and stepmother wrote regularly. Their correspondence became our sole form of communication between season-long gaps in personal contact. After Dad and Suzy moved away, I spent every Sunday afternoon at my paternal grandmother’s home, where I wrote letters to Albuquerque. I’m a terrible speller, and I felt hugely proud of myself when I learned to spell Albuquerque correctly. This enabled me to address the envelopes to my father and stepmother without my grandmother’s assistance.
Less than a year after my father and stepmother moved to New Mexico, my mother, brother, and I also made a cross-country move to California. The letters between me and my family in Albuquerque continued. My grandmother had helped me establish my writing habit. During the last eight years of my childhood, I don’t recall receiving even one phone call from my father, but by the time I left for college, I had a huge stack of handwritten letters from Dad and Suzy.
Our letters evolved into phone calls when I moved to college, probably because I was then in charge of my own phone bills and could pay for the calls out of my college budget. My father and stepmother had established, and were largely funding, this budget.
When I was in my early thirties, a friend living in another state became acutely sick. I bought and sent a year’s worth of greeting cards to cheer her up. After the year ended, I replaced the cards with letters. I took pride in sending those weekly letters, and I hoped she enjoyed receiving them. This correspondence was entirely one sided, with no expectation of reciprocity. Our friendship was reciprocity enough. I ended this correspondence about fifteen years later when I became so sick, I missed two months of work. I simply couldn’t muster the stamina the letters required. After my health rebounded, I realized I’d burned out, and I stopped writing them. My friend didn’t seem to notice or care, but I hoped the fifteen years of cards and letters from me had brought her a small amount of pleasure.
I’ve also carried on a correspondence since 1979 with a childhood friend I reunited with in college. My friend and I rarely see each other or speak on the phone, but the correspondence is so intimate, I feel as if we’ve been having a thirty-eight-year conversation. Our letters are the bedrock of our friendship.
When Dad was first institutionalized, I tucked photos I’d taken in with the cards. I’d ask interesting looking strangers if I could photograph them, explaining my purpose. Two especially memorable photos depicted a baby in a straw fedora and a woman with rainbow-colored hair. I called it the Alzheimer’s Project, and no one ever refused my request. But over time, I realized Dad’s cognitive abilities had declined so significantly, he might not be able to understand the reason for the photos or the brief comments accompanying them. I expressed these concerns to my stepmother, who agreed that a simple message would now be all Dad could understand.
My greetings on the colorful cards I mail him weekly have simplified into two true sentiments: I hope you are enjoying your day and I’m thinking about you. Occasionally I check with my stepmother to ensure that the cards are still welcome. She assures me that Dad continues to enjoy them, and he shows them to her when she visits.
I hate sending the cards to Dad because they remind me of all that my family has lost—a brilliant, caring, and funny man who is now a remnant of his former self. But I love sending them because the cards allow me to care for Dad and connect with him through this small gesture, even if he no longer remembers who I am.
Dad established my life-long role as a letter writer, unintentionally setting the stage for our current one-way correspondence. I’ve been writing and publishing professionally since 2015. I’ve learned writing lessons too numerous to list here. But one of the most important things I’ve learned is to do my best and let go of the outcome. I’ll continue to write to Dad every week without any expectation of how my cards are received. This is a small part of the on-going process of letting go of my beloved father.
Both friends expressed the same lament: “There’s just so much stuff.” Friend X was seven months pregnant with her first child. Friend Y, visiting from New York City, introduced me to her four-month-old son. X lives in a three-bedroom house but worried that she didn’t have sufficient space for the massive amount of baby equipment needed to raise an infant. She stated that she has a beautiful antique changing table but might not be able to use it because it doesn’t accommodate the electrical cord for a “wipey warmer.”
The what?” I inquired. I’d never heard of a wipey warmer. Friend X explained, in great detail, that infants lose up to one degree of body heat during diaper changing. This loss of heat was presented as dire for babies, but it could be successfully avoided by warming the baby wipes used to clean their tiny bottoms.
To be fair, I don’t have children and cannot draw from personal experience. I might not fully appreciate the demands of parenthood. My friends began to have children in the 1990s when I lived in Boston. Each winter the temperature dipped below zero, and news warnings were issued to avoid being outdoors for more than ten minutes—otherwise citizens risked frostbite. None of my friends in New England used wipey warmers. Nevertheless, their offspring appeared to thrive. I couldn’t understand why a lovely antique changing table might be jettisoned to protect a baby from the cold in southern California. But Friend X insisted—baby required a wipey warmer to safeguard her health.
Friend Y represented a more laid-back version of motherhood. She lives in a small apartment and reported that loved ones overwhelmed her with baby equipment, half of which she and her spouse gave away. She announced without apology, “We’re minimalists.” I shared my incredulity about the wipey warmer with Y, and she agreed that it might not be necessary.
Modern American society is designed for people to constantly need newer, better, stuff. And more of it. I have a great Mac computer, which I purchased in 2008. Usually I don’t care about electronics, but I love this computer. However, when I call Apple Support for technical assistance, the support staff must pass me on to a supervisor, because my Mac is now considered “vintage” and is beyond the ability of the front-line staff to assist. This expensive component of my home office was designed to be obsolete in roughly five years. Similarly, I kept my Android phone for four years until it was unable to support the apps I needed. My new iPhone, which retails at over eight hundred dollars, will be outdated within three years.
Amazon offers over a dozen varieties of “wipe warmers,” currently ranging in price from $19.76 to $35.89. The warmers have baby friendly names, like Munchkin Warm Glow Wipe Warmer and Lil’ Jumbl Wipe Warmer Dispenser. My office mate, with whom I discussed the products, commented that “Lil’ Jumbl” sounded like a rapper name. Product descriptions of the warmers state they decrease the discomfort of cold (non-warmed) wipes, resulting in happier, less fussy babies. Safeguards against the dangers of exposure were not mentioned.
I kept a television I purchased in 1987 until it no longer functioned in 2014. I don’t need newer, bigger equipment in my life. With few exceptions, most notably shoes, I constantly downsize. The less stuff the better. So I’m completely flabbergasted that in the course of one generation, the wipey warmer has now become an essential piece of baby equipment. It’s possible that my instincts are misguided, and wipey warmers are a modern breakthrough, saving twenty-first-century infants from the discomfort and hazards of temperature instability.
If wipey warmers had been available when I considered having children, I’m certain I wouldn’t have listed one on my baby registry. Instead my infant would have lived without the soothing effects of an electrically warmed baby wipe. I don’t want new or better. I crave simplicity. I hope Friend X keeps her antique changing table. It would be a shame to park it in the garage because of incompatibility with a wipey warmer.
Lila, the nine-year-old daughter of my oldest friend, said to her father, Dad, your morning breath is like a defense mechanism.
No matter how sick you are, try not to let the little things slide unless you have no choice. It only makes you feel worse and alienates you from others. Comb your hair, brush you teeth, and put on clean clothes. You’ll feel better when you do, and spirited, smart-mouthed children won’t make fun of you.