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Who’s Taking Care of Whom?: Reversing the Order of Things

David Berger

Waking up to hurricane warnings in Texas, I was reminded of my childhood growing up on Long Island. Although Jones Beach formed a barrier island between the Atlantic Ocean and us, we got hit with some pretty scary and damaging hurricanes every August and September. Mostly they would knock down trees and power lines. It was a miracle that no one I knew got killed or that the big, old trees didn’t crush houses on their way down. Pretty close, but no cigar.


We kept a Coleman stove—one of those portable little stoves that run on a small gas tank, flash lights and candles just in case. And just in case came in handy more than a few times. I’ve been living in Manhattan for over 40 years, so I don’t really think about hurricanes much any more, and certainly don’t worry about them threatening my life or property. Our power lines are underground, and, outside of the parks, there aren’t many trees.


When Hurricane Sandy destroyed the Jersey and Long Island Shores and caused flooding to downtown Manhattan, my biggest inconvenience was having my son and his dog live with me for a few weeks until his downtown apartment building was rid of the water and had its electrical system restored. Although Ninja chewed through my TV cable, I actually enjoyed the time I got to spend with him and Caleb. Caleb is my son. I would never name a child Ninja. It’s a good name for a dog, though.


When I was about 10, we had a hurricane that knocked out the power for the South Shore. It happened in the afternoon. I was home with my two little brothers while my mom was in the car doing some last minute shopping. She said that she would be back in a few minutes, but hours went by. It seems that the traffic lights weren’t working (all stuck on red from the power outage), and she was afraid to go through a red light. Plus in those days, the Long Island Railroad was not elevated in our town. There was no way she could cross the tracks. What if a train came? So she waited for the police to get out on the street and direct traffic.


In the meantime, I was home with my brothers. The sky became dark, the wind was howling, and the rain was plucheting. That’s Yiddish for raining cats and dogs. I had no idea where my mother was, or if she was OK. When she finally arrived home and told me what happened, I couldn’t believe that she wouldn’t drive through a red light and opted to leave her kids home alone for hours. It’s interesting how when you are a kid, you think your parents are more powerful than they really are, and maybe even infallible.


Two cracks in my mother’s armor come to mind. Both happened when I was about 16. The first was when I went shopping with her, my younger brother Bobby, and my 3-year old baby sister at the Walt Whitman Mall in Huntington. Bobby and I went to buy records at Sam Goody’s. They had a great selection of jazz records in those days. I have no idea what my mother was shopping for, but it certainly wasn’t records.


Walt Whitman was a large enclosed mall. The four of us were walking from store to store, looking in the windows, when all of a sudden, my mom says, “Oh my God, where is Elizabeth?” I looked all around, but no Elizabeth.


Within seconds, my mom burst into tears and could not function at all. She was sure that someone had kidnapped Elizabeth, and that we’d never see her again. I had the wherewithal to find a mall security guard and tell him what happened. He got on his walkie-talkie and in about 10 or 15 minutes produced my little sister, who had wandered off into a store. Those were some pretty long minutes.  


Of course I was scared that my sister wouldn’t be found, but thinking about it afterwards, what scared me most was that I had to take care of my mother. I was supposed to be the kid, but I was suddenly in charge and consoling her.


That same year, while my father was away on business, which was most of the time, one night my mom took us out to dinner with my grandparents in Long Beach. As we ate, a dense fog rolled in—one of those pea soup fogs where you can’t see your hand in front of your face. After dinner, we walked my grandparents back to their hotel and then piled into the car—my mom, my aunt, my two little brothers, baby sister and me. My mom drove slowly trying not to hit anything. When we got up to the ramp to the parkway, we couldn’t read the sign at all. She had made this trip a hundred times before, so she turned left and got onto the parkway. After less than a minute, the headlights from every car were coming straight for us. Realizing that she had gone up the exit ramp instead of the entrance to the parkway, she pulled off onto the shoulder of the road and sat in the driver’s seat shaking. My aunt never learned how to drive, my siblings were little kids, and I was still a couple years away from driving. There was no way I could take control this time.


Suddenly there was a tap on my mom’s window. A man was standing there saying that he also couldn’t see the sign and had followed us onto the highway. He could see that my mom was paralyzed with fear, so he offered to back our car off the parkway. As Blanche DuBois so famously said, “the kindness of strangers.”


My father was always a take-charge kind of guy. I disagreed with him about many things, but I never doubted that he would take care of the family, no matter what the situation, until I got a phone call from my mom one day. When he had reached his mid-60s, he started to slow down a bit and was losing his nerve in business. He had always been a bit like the Great Santini, minus the physical abuse. One night at dinner, he announced that he would be retiring soon, and that he knew that I would step up and take over his business.


I was in my late 30s at this point and had a meaningful career in music. I didn’t make the kind of money he did, but money was not in the equation for me. I told him that I had to decline. He didn’t feel comfortable trusting the business to my siblings, so he decided to sell it.


That’s where my mom’s phone call came in. She said that he was having trouble closing the deal and was going crazy. She’d never seen him like this, and it scared her. I told her not to worry. I’d take care of it. I contacted the father of a friend of mine who was a topnotch lawyer who handled this kind of negotiation. The three of us met. Steve told my father to stop worrying and leave it to him. A couple of weeks later, I got a call from my mother thanking me.


Apparently, Steve ironed out the deal to everyone’s satisfaction, and now my parents could retire and move to Florida. When I spoke to my father, I asked him if he was happy with the outcome. He never thanked me. When I pressed him, he said that Steve did a great job, but he charged so much money. I was glad that I could help him in his hour of need. I didn’t do it for the thanks. After much thought, I realized that it was hard for him to accept help from anyone, especially from one of his kids.


My dad spent the last five years of his life in a dementia-induced purgatory. It killed me to see this once proud man reduced to infancy. My mom took care of him and refused to put him in an institution. He couldn’t speak and didn’t recognize anyone except my mom. I don’t think he knew who she was, but he was very affectionate with her, so she couldn’t let him go. They had been together for 55 years. In their own crazy way, they were still in love.


Finally, he got pneumonia and died. I know that those five years were really hard on her. She told me one day that she never signed on to change his diapers. This from the woman who wasn’t so crazy about changing her own kids’ diapers. So, I guess that caring for him was her penance, which she did in yeoman’s fashion. When he died, she was 76, but didn’t look or act a day over 60. She had all kinds of energy. She swam laps in the pool outside her condo every morning. She taught herself the computer and edited a newspaper for the Alzheimer’s survivors group she belonged to. She was very social. She kept her old friends from when I was growing up. Some of them were my childhood friends’ parents. Honestly, everyone who knew her loved her. After five years of heartbreak caring for my father, she was able to have a life again.


For 20 years, she and I used to speak on the phone for an hour or two every Sunday morning. Whatever issues we had in my childhood and young adult life were long ago resolved. She had grown from an insecure over-stressed mother-of-four to a caring, wise sounding board and pillar of strength.


When my father died, I became depressed. She, on the other hand seemed quite calm and accepting. She told me that she couldn’t understand why I was so upset, since I hadn’t spoken to him in years. I couldn’t explain it. Two years after his death she developed a nagging cough. When she was still coughing during the next phone call, I encouraged her to see a doctor. She thought I was being overly cautious, but she went anyway.


The diagnosis was lung cancer that had spread to a brain tumor. She started invasive treatment and quickly lost her strength. After a month, she stopped the treatment and told us that she was ready to die—she didn’t want to be a burden on her children. My sister, who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, drove down to Florida, picked her up and put her in a hospice near her, so she wouldn’t be alone. At this point, Thanksgiving was a week away. I spoke to her doctor, and asked him if she would last until Tuesday, or should I change my plane reservations. He assured me that she would last another week or two. Well, she didn’t. I never got to say goodbye. Her body was shipped back to New York to be buried next to her parents, grandparents, my dad and his sister.


I’m not saying that I wasn’t sad when she died. On the contrary, I was profoundly sad and felt awful about not being able to say goodbye. She at least deserved that. But, unlike when my dad died, I didn’t fall into a depression. It’s taken me a long time to understand this. I met a woman a couple of months ago, and in the course of conversation told her this story. She said that it sounds like my relationship with my mom was resolved, and so I could move on. My relationship with my dad was unresolved. It’s true. Who was he? I’ll never get those answers from him. I think about him and his life a lot. He remains a mystery to me.   My mom, not so much.

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  • Ruth Pollack - Pappas on

    So enjoyed this piece. According to one Hebrew prayer,

    certain relationships have bonds so strong, nothing

    can tear them apart. I believe this is true. No matter

    what kind of day to day relationship, one had.

    When my Mom passed, I was in her bedroom, I read a

    prayer, asking for forgiveness, and a passage from The

    Power of Now" by Eckhart Tolle, on conscious dying.

    My mom couldn’t see or hear me, but with the first word

    from the Tolle book, her breathing changed. She lost that

    grasping sound, and I knew she’d be all right. I suddenly

    felt very tired, and laid down at the foot of her large King

    size bed, knowing it would be the last chance

    for me to do so. I was in the room, and not in the room!

    I know – in that twenty minute period – as I slept, she passed.

    I was very blessed. And she, was the kindest person I’ve

    ever known. Many thanks.

  • Nancy Valentine on

    Thank you for sharing a very meaningful part of your life.

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