It’s Fathers’ Day and I miss my Dad

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My Dad died weeks before his 66th birthday. According to my mom, who found him when she returned from work, he had a smile on his face. The last couple of years of his life were hard — not physically difficult, but emotionally and financially stressful. He died in mid-stride, a passing I like to believe was a gift for the life of integrity and kindness he lived.

I have few pictures of my Dad. This was was taken in 1982, a few years before he died. I don’t remember the event. I don’t think I took the picture since by that time I was living on the West Coast, and my parents were in Kentucky. I like the smiles and the warmth both seem to be feeling and conveying.

Milton & Bernice Ament 1982

A few years ago, I wrote a piece entitled “My Dad is a Mensch” (a Yiddish word meaning a good person, an upright man.) It’s rather long; it tells how I feel. Here’s a link to it. I hope you enjoy it.  My father was a mensch

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So, why can’t I pick up the phone?

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I stare at my “to-do” list, the phone number daring me to call! It has days, weeks maybe, since I added this entry. And my reluctance is still palpable in my body. It’s actually an easy call to make. It’s to someone I know, not well, but certainly not a stranger. It is not the person I am calling that causes me to pause; it is the nature of the call. I will be asking this person for money—not for me, but for an organization in which I have been very involved for years and of which I am very proud. And the person is expecting the call.

So, why am I reluctant? What is it about asking for money, asking for help that makes me, and perhaps others, look for other things to do. Oh, the house needs cleaning — do I know where the vacuum cleaner is? The kitty litter box hasn’t been emptied in at least fifteen minutes. I’d better get on it right away. Hmm, it’s pouring down rain outside; seems like a good time to go for a long walk.

I know – I will write a blog post about it. That way I can feel OK about not making the phone call, because I am doing something creative and, at the same time, crossing an item off the “to do” list. Sooner or later, however, preferably sooner, I will have to pick up the phone and make the call. I don’t know what’s stopping me. The result of the call can only be good. Nothing bad can happen as a result.

Why do we balk at asking people for help? Is the spirit of the independent American, false as that image may be, so ingrained in our being that we feel we must do everything alone, while at the same time, advocating community. I have little to no compunction about responding to a request for help. Glad to lend a hand, run an errand, assist in a project, even give a donation — although I do resent having my day interrupted by unsolicited phone calls. Yet, making those same phone calls, even when they are being half-expected (I did leave a voice message that I had called and the purpose of the contact,) generates an entire different set of feelings.
A friend told me that asking for help is offering a gift to those being asked. People want to help, and yet are reluctant to offer on their own. They want to be asked so they know their assistance is desired.

OK. I have talked myself into being ready. Here goes. Picking up the phone and dialing. . . . dang, voice mail. I get to go through all this yet again.

Some Movies Teach Us About Life

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“Still Alice”

Early onset Alzheimer’s. It is hard to think of a worse diagnosis. ALS maybe (which a beloved member of my island community was just diagnosed with having – at a relatively young age.) Cancer — not according to the main character in this movie. If one lives in one’s mind, more than in one’s body, an intellectual, a lawyer, a teacher, then to lose one’s ability to think, to reason, to speak coherently and cogently, while knowing it is also a death sentence, is a living hell. Of course, I speak from the theoretical, never having suffered anything worse than a moderate case of diverticulitis.

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I don’t know what was going through Deloris’s mind as we sat in our TV room watching Julianne Moore give an Oscar winning performance in Still Alice. Alice Nowland, a Columbia professor who, at age 50, is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimers. And if that is not enough, the nature of the disease is genetic, meaning there is a 50-50 chance she passed the gene to her children. If they have it, there is a 100% chance they will come down with the disease. In the movie, Alice has three children, the oldest of whom is a daughter, a lawyer, and pregnant with twins. Naturally, she is the only one who tests positive. Another child tests negative, and one doesn’t take the test.

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Would I want to know if I carry the gene Moore’s movie character has? While I can more easily answer that question in the abstract, a definite NO, I don’t know how I would answer in real time. It’s very contextual. How old will I be? What is my family situation? My professional situation? My health? Since there is no cure for the disease, why would I want to know? On the other hand, would I want to live without that knowledge, while my mind is also wondering if I carry the dreaded gene. How would that impact my feelings toward the “giving” parent? These are just some of the questions that surfaced while watching the scene.

Luckily, I don’t have to worry about these things in real life. All I have to deal with is a wife who remains in recovery mode from a stroke. Deloris suffers only from moderate cognitive deficiencies as a result of her stroke. Unlike Julianne Moore’s character, and other Alzheimer patients, Deloris’s condition is not progressive. There is no reason to believe her mental abilities, or physical capabilities, will worsen, except through the normal ravages of age.

And while I get frustrated from time to time with her inability to remember things, with her lack of energy, with her sedentary lifestyle, I feel incredibly blessed we can carry on conversations, she enjoys people and her life (at least for the most part,) is intellectually engaged, mobile and somewhat independent. Sure our life has been irreparably changed. Some activities are permanently off the table. I feel like I spend a great deal of time (real and psychic) alone. At the same time, I feel blessed that in the spectrum of what could have been, we are nearer the “no problem” than at the other end. And I have learned so much about myself, as well as the depth of our connection to each other from this experience. In so many ways it has been a blessing. And not the least of that ways, is that neither Deloris nor I are suffering from Alzheimer’s. At least not yet. Hopefully we never will.

SEE THIS MOVIE. You will laugh (well, at least titter,) you may cry; you will become engaged with all the characters, and mostly positively. It is real. And it is what film-making should be — entertaining, and at the same time educational and artistic. And it makes you think!

It’s Derby Day — and a major anniversary!

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Today is Derby Day, an important date for any Kentuckian, like myself. More importantly, at least in my personal history, it is the day I met Deloris, my wife and the love of my life. Some years ago, I wrote a piece, entitled “Tiptoe Through the Juleps,” describing our initial meeting. While it is a bit long, it’s also kinda a fun story. I have copied it here.

Tiptoe Through the Juleps

        The first Saturday in May generates an almost religious feeling for those of us who grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. It’s Derby Day! I am a proud son of the Bluegrass, and a member of the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels. While I seldom go to the track, I always read all about the horses in the paper and was aware of the excitement and public attention Louisville received the week before the Run for the Roses.

As young boys, my friends and I would sit on the sidewalk, feet dangling in the gutter, counting cars with out of state licenses. There sure were a lot. When I was a teenager, we moved to the suburbs, outside the flow of racetrack traffic, but near the small, non-commercial airport. The arrival of numerous private planes heralded the beginning of the horse-race-centered social season. The only poem I can ever remember writing was an ode to the Derby. Unfortunately, or perhaps not, that poem no longer exists.

I only went to the Derby only. When I was in law school, my roommates and I, with our girlfriends, drove down from Chicago and camped out at my parents’ for the weekend. Early Saturday morning, we loaded the car with food, blankets, and coolers of beverages, mostly of the adult persuasion, and headed cross-town to Churchill Downs, to spend a hot, sunny day in the infield with tens of thousands of others. We were more what would be termed hard-core partiers than racing fans. That there were actually horses running around an oval track, on which one could bet, was a side-attraction. It was the atmosphere, and the sense of being present at an event that was the important thing. And, of course, the mint juleps!

So, it came as no real surprise to me that my life was changed by an encounter years later at a party on the other side of the country in a location where the First Saturday in May had a totally different significance. In Seattle, the first Saturday in May is celebrated as the opening day of boating season. The event is marked by a long parade of decorated pleasure boats, many crewed by people for whom a Saturday on the water means imbibing quantities of their favorite adult beverage. For my friends who lived in a house along the parade route, this event required hosting a bunch of non-boating friends who were equally intent on celebrating. This, then, was the setting for my major life- transforming experience.

I had been invited to Ben and Fredericka’s party, although I had accepted an invitation to escort a good friend to another gathering at some friends of hers who lived down the beach. In early afternoon, I decided to wander up to Ben and Fredericka’s and say “hi” to my friends at their party. As I entered their yard, I was greeted by their little dog, who mistook my bare ankles for party food. Or perhaps, she just didn’t like lawyers; the dog and I were never the best of friends. Shooing her off, my ankle sore but not bleeding, I entered the house, greeting people on my way to the upstairs den where I knew the horse race would be on TV. I was dressed in shorts, sandals and a bright red shirt, with pinball machines being the central design feature, and wrinkles the secondary one. This was not quite my white linen suit, string bow tie, Southern gentleman fantasy dress, but it was much more comfortable. The small room was filled with about ten people.

“Anybody want a mint   lep?” I asked.    Heads swiveled in my direction and hands began to be raised. I took a count and headed downstairs, where I had dropped off my bag of fixins. Derby Day calls for mint juleps, a beverage my New York-bred, Scotch- drinking daddy likened to bad cough syrup. Yet, it is the traditional drink for the day, and in the South, tradition is of central importance. So, juleps it was, and juleps were what I had now been drinking for several hours. The first batch for this party completed, I returned upstairs and distributed the drinks to everyone in the room, except one woman who seemed surprised by my return and my actions.

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         “You were serious?” she said, surprise mixed with disappointment in her words. “What do I have to do now to get a julep?”

Through somewhat alcohol-hazed eyes, I looked at this woman, whose reddish-blond hair, falling in page-boy bangs, framed an attractive face with clear, intelligent eyes. I did not know her, but felt an immediate desire to do so. “You have to be very, very nice to me,” I replied.

“OK,” she said, getting out of her chair to follow me downstairs. We had about fifteen minutes before the race began, plenty of time to do another batch of juleps.

The Cuisinart whirred to a stop, the ice clearly crushed. I removed the top and reached my right hand into the bowl to scoop up the crushed ice, forgetting about the sharp stainless steel blade lying below the surface. Bright red blood spurted from my thumb, coloring the ice. My fingers were so cold, there was no pain. I was, however, more than a bit surprised.

Ben, who was talking to someone on the other side of the room, rushed over when he heard my yelp of surprise, concern etched on his face. “Oh my god. What happened? What did you do?”

“I was crushing ice to make some mint juleps. I forgot about the blade. Those things are damned sharp! I don’t have such fancy appliances in my apartment, where I usually just use a hammer.”

Relief, mixed with amusement, replaced concern on Ben’s face. “Let me put a bandage on. First Fuji bit you, and now this. I don’t want to get sued. You damned lawyers.” This banter was part of our normal interchange. A research scientist, Ben was a non-practicing MD. Within minutes, he had encased my thumb in a bandage only slightly smaller than a dinner roll. If my finger was going to continue to bleed, there was no chance of any of it escaping this mummy-wrap. My right thumb was all but useless, which required me to finish my bartending obligations as best I could with my left hand.

I handed a plastic cup (not the traditional julep container) to the woman. “Here ya’ go,” I said. “Enjoy. By the way, my name is Allan,” using the beverage exchange as an excuse to introduce myself.

“Thanks. I’m Deloris. I’m an old friend of Fredericka’s,” she said.

“Me, too,” I replied. “Nice to meet you. We’d better get back upstairs if we want to see the race, and then I had better get back to the other party and my date.”

I don’t remember who won the Derby that year; I don’t even remember watching the race. I do remember seeing a friend who was a nurse as I was making my way out of the party. She took a look at my thumb and, after hearing the story, said, “Ben did that. Right?” It really wasn’t a question. Laughing, she took me back into the house where she unwrapped the yards of gauze and bandage, replaced the wad of wrapping with a small band-aid, and sent me on my way. It’s another example of why we want RN’s, not doctors, dispensing care at bedside.

About a month later, I was walking down the street several blocks from my office. It was First Thursday, the time when the art galleries in the Pioneer Square neighborhood of Seattle sponsor an “Art Walk” to attract people for art show openings and receptions. I was on my way to meet a couple of friends at a gallery when I ran into Fredericka and Deloris going the other direction. We stopped and talked for a few minutes.

“Why don’t you ever return phone calls?” Deloris asked with an edge to her voice.

“I always do,” I replied. “Especially when they are from women that I do not know well.”

“I left several messages and never got a return call,” she accused.

“I don’t know what happened. You probably need to try again.” I don’t know why I responded in such a flippant way, as I do not think it was really in character. It was as if the response had been voiced on its own, unbidden. However, to this day, I do not remember ever receiving her phone messages; I don’t even know how she got my phone number.

As there seemed little more to say after my response, we said goodbye and went off in opposite directions. Much to my surprise about a week later, Deloris called and invited me to meet her for a drink after work. For reasons neither one of us remember, we met at a Pizza Hut and shared a pineapple and Canadian bacon pizza; I do not recommend the combination. This meeting went much better than the earlier one on the street. Shortly before the pizza was finished, she invited me to her house for a drink and to watch the sunset.

Several days later, I arrived at her house, a quaint, old, artistically converted beach house overlooking Lake Washington and the Cascade Mountains. The view was spectacular, even though it was to the East, opposite the sunset. Nevertheless, the setting sun’s colors reflecting off the mountains and illuminating the sailboats racing along the lake below us made up for the absence of a direct sunset view. Deloris had invited a friend to join us, either as a “chaperone” or, as she later explained, someone she thought might be interested in meeting me. She was surprised when her friend Elayne and I greeted each other with hugs and squeals of delight. Luckily, when Elayne and I had stopped seeing each other after a few dates, it was with no hard feelings on either side. Seattle is a socially small town.

The evening was enjoyable. Comfortable with each other, we drank wine, talked, shared stories, enjoyed the view. When Deloris heard that I had been involved in making a short film, she wanted to see it. Elayne did as well. We decided the best place to see the movie would be at an outdoor party, and the only people with an appropriate outdoor location were Ben and Fredericka.

“But they’re out of the country,” Deloris informed us. “How can we find out if they are willing to host the party?”

“Why don’t we just send Fredericka an invitation,” I suggested, knowing that she had seen the film and would likely be OK hosting a showing.

The plot was hatched. Elayne, an artist, designed the single invitation, which was mailed to Fredericka. When she opened her mail, Fredericka called Deloris, furious at what she had just received.

“I just got an invitation to a party — at my house. I can’t imagine who would have such nerve!” she fumed.

“I sent it,” Deloris responded, matter-of-factly.

“Oh. Well, in that case, OK.” Fredericka said, relieved at not being taken advantage of by a stranger. When she heard about the party’s planning and purpose, she was all for it. The party was held, the film shown, and, shortly thereafter, Deloris and I became an item, as they say.

Each year, on the first Saturday in May, I continue to make mint juleps. Rather than putting them into plastic cups, I now serve them in silver julep cups, embossed with the seal of the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels. Deloris and I watch the race, remembering that fateful Saturday almost 25 years ago, when the drink and a televised horse race changed our lives, by bringing us together. Like I said, I don’t know who won the Derby that year; all I know is that I won the race!

I am a Caregiver

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I am a caregiver. This is the hat I wear today with both pride and humility. And while it is not a hat, a role, I planned or one I imagined would give me the gratification and learning it does, I embrace the joys and heartaches that come with this important work. I also wear other hats now — non-profit volunteer, community member, author, to name a few — and in the past — criminal defense attorney, massage therapist, small business owner, higher education administrator, adult educator. I have found them all satisfying in many respects, and still do. At the same time, being a spousal caregiver has, in many ways, been the most rewarding.

(As an important aside, speaking of hats, my favorite hat is now, and always has been, a panama straw.)

This is the kinda hat I like to wear.

This is the kinda hat I like to wear.

My wife Deloris had a stroke in August 2005 and while she has recovered from this debilitation to a great degree, I still am on call 24/7. We live on Whidbey Island, about 40 miles north of Seattle, Washington. Our family members are spread out from Salt Lake City to Rhode Island, so they are not available for daily care. Household responsibilities — cooking, shopping, laundry, driving, scheduling, as little house and yard work as I can get away with – as well as monitoring Deloris’s medications, diet, exercise, and other daily routines are my responsibility.

Deloris a couple of years ago. Looking good after the stroke.

Deloris a couple of years ago, post stroke.

While I discharge these responsibilities with varying degrees of positivity, depending on the day, I attempt to maintain some semblance of a personal life for myself, knowing the first rule of caregiving is taking care of oneself in order to be able to care for others. And I strive to remember that the woman who needs my help, who is incapable of full independence, is not some invalid but rather is my wife, a highly intelligent, mature, and loving woman. She is my life partner, my soul mate, and not some recalcitrant three year old—regardless of how I think she is acting in any given moment. This is a hard balance to maintain, and one I am not ashamed to say I have not always capable of doing. Throughout this journey, in fact almost in any given week, I have experienced the entire gamut of emotions, a fact I of which I am not necessarily proud. As much as I want to think of myself as always being compassionate and understanding, accepting whatever is presented with patience, grace, and love, there have been times when my “Evil Twin” has taken possession of my body. I can’t believe how he treats my wife at those times! Where does he come from? Who raised him! Luckily, as I write this, he seems to have left. I can only hope he stays away. I know Deloris does.

I know my experiences are not that different from other family caregivers, some of whom are working with loved ones with much more serious debilities than Deloris’s. We are all on our separate journeys, even as we face many of the same issues and concerns. All I know is my experience, which I share in this blog, for whatever help it might be to others.

May the Light be with you.

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It’s Christmas Eve. Santa has changed the frequency on his GPS from monitoring the lives of everyone to calculate his route as he travels around sneaking into people’s houses, scarfing down milk and cookies, leaving some toys that will be broken before he gets back to the North Pole, and replacing the batteries on all the spy equipment he installed last year. How else does he know who to put on which list?

Since I don’t think Santa visits grown up Jewish men (or if he does, he hasn’t found me in more than a few decades,) I don’t have to worry about his lists. The government lists are a different story, but at my age, if I don’t have an FBI file by now, my life has been a complete failure.

Today was one of those glorious Pacific Northwest days – beautiful blue skies, warm enough to be comfortable in a lightweight jacket. No concerns about snow, rain storms, or power outages. Good visibility for the reindeer. Have you ever stopped to think about reindeer pulling a flying sled? What a strange image. Appropriate for the far north, but elsewhere in the world? And what about the tropics? What iconic deliverymen do they have in their mythology? Heavy coats, sleds, even reindeer are not ubiquitous in the hot climes.

I have been thinking about the crass commercialism of this holiday season. Toys, clothes, household appliances, perfume, and expensive cars are some of the items being incessantly hawked on television these days. Buy! Buy! Buy! That seems to be the message of the season. And it fits with the American religious (spiritual beliefs of consumerism and capitalism.

However, what I want to talk about is light and love. That’s the real spirit of the season, the message of the holidays. In the Northern Hemisphere, this is a time of darkness; the solstice was four days ago and so each day brings minutes more of light. Yet, we need to manufacture light to guide us, to illuminate our lives, to keep away the dangers we perceive lurk in the night. And so, we have holidays of light – Hanukkah with its historical story of the resurrection of the Temple and the day’s worth of sanctified oil that miraculously burned for eight days. We have the lights of Christmas, on trees, the Yule log, house decorations. Kwanzaa uses seven candles to illuminate the night and commemorate its traditions. During the holiday of Diwali, Hindus Diwali, along with some Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains, celebrate Rama’s victorious return home by lighting candles. And of course, the winter solstice, however, it is celebrated, marks a scientific turn toward the light, as days begin to grow in length as we move toward Spring and Summer.

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I gathered with members of my Circle of Caring on Monday, the day after the Solstice, to participate in our annual ritual. Poems were read, songs sung, candles lit, intentions spoken aloud following moments of silent meditation. We honored the darkness and welcomed the gradual return of light, safe and secure among trusted and loved friends. That, to me, is the true meaning of the season.

So, whatever you are celebrating this December, in whatever way you choose to do so, I wish you great joy. May the Season and the New Year bring you and yours a time of health and happiness, peace and love, the actualization of fantasies and the realization of dreams.

Happy Birthday to . . . ME!

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Today is my birthday; I am 72. I’m not sure what that means, except its a golfing goal I’ll probably never achieve. I have already outlived my father by about six years and am only months younger than my mother when she died. I don’t know how or if these facts have any bearing on my age or my life expectancy; they do give me pause, however.

Maybe I should feel old. Certainly, I think of some people in their 70’s as old. So, why don’t I have a similar self-image? Perhaps because many of the people I associate with are similar in age? Maybe because I think I am “younger” than I am. When I think of how I lead my life and how I imagine they do, I am probably “older” than I am willing to admit. Certainly, Deloris’s physical condition and my resultant caregiving have made me less physically active and narrowed my focus so I engage only in activities that accommodate my commitment to Deloris.

I’m in pretty good health, I think. My lab tests are good; like most Americans (and me almost all my life) I could stand to lose weight; I have the beginning of arthritis in my hips and tendonosis in my left Achilles tendon. Neither require medical intervention. All in all, I feel good.

I am blessed with friends, am involved in my community, and have just published my first book. My spiritual life, such as it is, grounds me. While not rich by any American standard, Deloris and I have sufficient funds to support our lifestyle for the foreseeable future. We are both thankful for the physical beauty and supportive lifestyle in which we live.

So, what’s next, besides marketing my book. Is there any need for me to do anything more to justify my life? Or can I just relax and have fun? And, what does having fun look like? How does an old Hippie age? My creative abilities, such as they are, manifest in my writing. I play at golf, but do not consider it to be a lifestyle. I don’t fish, sail, tinker, renovate cars, houses, or anything else. I am not a collector; I have no passion to accumulate things, including knowledge. In many ways, I guess I am an intellectual dilettante, which is not a bad way to be.

As I get ready to prepare the house for the gathering of my Circle of Caring this evening, I offer up blessings to my parents for my existence and giving me the foundation to make myself into the person I am. A person I am comfortable to live with, and in. I greet this day, my birthday, with a sense of wonder and a curiosity of what this next circle around the sun will bring in my life. Whatever it is, I hope to be able to accept it with equanimity and appreciation. If I am able to do so, then perhaps I have learned some valuable lessons in my first 72 years.