Thursday, December 31, 2009

Days of Auld Lange Syne: Saying Goodbye to 2009 While I'm Stuck on an LA Freeway

Robin is spending NY's in Los Angeles, stuck on various freeways, but we'll get to that in a minute ...

One thing nice I'll say for the year '09: I don't think I've heard a peep out of that former U.S. President who has a red nose like Rudolph's. When Prez Obama appointed Rudolph's wife as Secretary of State, do you think they took Mr. Hillary to an Undisclosed Location? Good show ...

Speaking of the new administration--I wonder if one of the president's advisors could get him to stop speaking in that monotone, with a drop in tone at the end of every sentence? A little variety in his cadence would be a big help, especially for those of us conservatives in the audience who fondly recall the voice of the Gipper ...

And another whacko Muslim tried to blow up an American plane! I'm amazed by this because every time I try to get on an airplane these days, my bilateral hip replacements set off a couple of dozen airport alarms and I, a native-born-American-Lutheran-Practically-a-Senior-Citizen-with-only-one-traffic-ticket-in-twenty-years (and no record of explosive use, except a little explosive language against old boyfriends) am practically strip-searched by the TSA at every airport. They even took away a jar of jam my friend Leslie gave me on one of my most recent trips. Dangerous stuff, jam. And yet, this knucklehead from Nigeria, whose own father turned him in to the CIA, just waltzes onto a plane headed for Detroit with plastic explosives strapped to his pants. "Going to the U.S.? Carrying any explosives? (Sound of visa being stamped.) Next!" I think we should put the Israelis in charge of our airport security, and that would be the end of the problem ...

LA freeways: always a barrel of laughs.

I'm spending NY's Eve in Los Angeles with friends and I find the LA freeway situation so bad it is almost funny if it didn't control the lives of everyone here. "Can't meet you. I don't travel the 405 this time of day ..." is an oft heard refrain.

It has, admittedly, been more than three decades since I lived here while getting my Masters Degree at UCLA, and I just looked up the population statistics: from that time to this the population of the LA region has gone from about three million to more than nine million. No wonder the freeways are gridlocked: same freeways, with three times the number of people using them. When I lived here the freeways were busy except during rush hour and accidents when they were impassable. Now the freeways are impassable, except during rush hour and accidents, when they are impassable, only more so.

Aliens "Serving Man" in an old Twilight Zone episode.

It reminds me of the old Twilight Zone episode called "To Serve Man" about these aliens who come and befriend Earthlings and have this book with them, the title of which Earth people finally translate as To Serve Man. Hey that's great! It is only later, when Earth people translate the rest of the book that they realize it is a cookbook. Ooops. Thus it is with LA's freeways: at first designed to be at the service of Angelinos, the freeways have now cooked LA's goose ...

In 2009, as you know, I lost my mother. It happened shortly after my sister and I had to put our father in skilled nursing care. We had worried so long about how our father would fare when he was separated from our mother, that we hadn't even thought about how she would do without him. He went up to skilled nursing--with numerous terminal diseases--and she stayed in their home. And though he thrived in nursing care, she, living alone for the first time in 65 years, fell apart almost immediately and died. That was the shock we didn't see coming ...

I understand now why people believe in ghosts. My sister and I have spent time cleaning the family home where our folks lived for half a century--though like Hercules cleaning out the Augean stables, we have only begun to shovel. And though our mother has been gone now for three weeks, we still except to see her around every corner ... yelling at us for moving her furniture ...

Another thing that happens with the death of a loved one--something I learned in 2009--is that with their passing, so passes the bitterness. My mother's last decades were not happy ones and her unhappiness had many sad consequences, though the reasons for this none of us will ever truly know. But we are now free to remember and cherish the happy years, when she was charismatic and full of fun, and celebrate her beauty and her laughter ...

Perhaps the greatest joy of 2009, for me, was the chance to be there when both of my parents finally needed me. The last day I spent with my mother was full of sorrow, but I was better able to deal with it when I could bathe her face as the end came, and not just worry at a distance. Fewer regrets, that's for sure ...

And my reunion with my father--that has been joyful too. He has spent most of his life as a stoic man and quiet: he served his country and his family without complaint. Did his duty. Expected little in return. Affectionate and warm to my sister and me when we were children, he withdrew from us as we entered the mysterious world of womanhood. This year, as his dementia broke down the barriers, he and I became beloved father and daughter again. "I love you Robin," he said to me the other day. "I hope its not too late." But of course it is never too late when there is life and breath ...

Robin dressed in Dad's work clothes, hoping he'll notice how much I love him.

He does think I'm considerably younger than I am--maybe college age or thereabouts--a lovely side benefit of his dementia. "You are a very pretty girl," he said to me one night as I helped him with his dinner. "Any dating prospects?" (That's so fatherly, isn't it?) It cracked me up, so I smiled and shook my head no, making a pretend sad face, and he said, "Well, you must not be trying." Aside from the love and kindness in his statement, I realized he was probably right. I probably haven't been trying. Note to self: something to work on in 2010 ...

So many challenges in this year past and so many joys. And, though I hate to leave it behind, it must be done. On to the New Year ...

P.S. I'm being kidnapped and taken to the Rose Bowl on NY's Day. If I survive this giant tailgate party (honestly, they have rented an RV!!! They have a satellite dish and a barbeque!!! They're packing enough food and liquor to feed our troops in Afghanistan!! I'd rather be shopping at Hermes!!!), I'll be sure and report on my safari into this strange land. Perhaps it will be comparable to my last trip up the Limpopo ...

Click Here to Learn about the Twilight Zone "To Serve Man" Episode

Click Here For the Real Time Traffic Info Angelinos Live By

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Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Eve's Magic

Christmas Eve started out so well for my father. I had bought him a new cashmere sweater, I had found a new plaid shirt in his closet at the house, and I gave him a brand new pair of trousers. He looked so handsome, not at all like a man who is dying of about five different diseases.

We had breakfast together with a special caregiver I've hired for him and he was chipper and ate well. But at about 11:00 a.m., she called to say he had thrown up. An indication, perhaps, that his pancreatic cancer is beginning to impact his stomach. Not to mention the impact it had on his new cashmere sweater and shirt.

When the family arrived to be with him for Christmas Eve dinner, he was angry and paranoid and the nursing assistant was panicked about what to do to get him out of bed and into his wheelchair. He wouldn't budge and looked like he might be violent.

It occurred to me, that in losing his breakfast, he had also lost his anti-psychotic medicine. So I asked the nurse to give him his emergency pill and gradually, he calmed down and allowed us to take him in to dinner.

The medicine is strong and he gradually grew quiet as we fed him. It was Christmas Eve and we all felt a little down because Dad still can't understand why our mother isn't there, though he often forgets to ask about it--a blessing of his dementia.

And then, as he finished up his dessert, my sister suggested we sing a little--something Dad liked to do during the last year he was at home. Songs are stored in some special area of a person's brain. Dementia patients often remember them when they've forgotten everything else. So I wrote the words "Silent Night" on his pad, and he looked at it and quietly began to sing. We joined in. Five voices in our own choir.

The dining room grew quiet around us as we finished "Silent Night" and launched into "O Little Town of Bethlehem." These old carols are fixed in Dad's fading memory, like signposts from his childhood. They are fixed in all our memories and bring to mind darkened chapels, burning candles, sparkling trees, and families going home together on this special night.

My sister's eyes teared up as we sang, remembering perhaps, all the many Christmases we've spent as a family, the many we've spent not as a family, and the many Christmas Eve's we've marked.

We finished up and began to wheel Dad in his chair out into the hall. An older man stood and spoke to us. "That was so lovely," he said. "It sounded like carolers had come to visit us. I always love to hear those songs."

For our family, still in mourning this Christmas, it was like a twinkling star in the East on Christmas Eve. Our father's baritone, softly singing these ancient hymns of hope, was the highlight of our evening--reminding us amidst the darkness of that night, that morning would come and we would, one day, be joyful, restored, and united again for the very first time.

God bless us every one and Merry Christmas.

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

William Ashley Chapman Turns Ninety

There have been many days in the last year, that I seriously doubted my 89-year-old father would survive to celebrate his 90th birthday. But amidst all those worries, never did I imagine that it would be my mother who would miss the celebration. Since that is what happened, we invited family and friends to the nursing home on Dad's birthday so her absence would not be as obvious to him. He had a wonderful morning.

Dad in his Christmas sweater marking his three-days-before-Christmas birthday.

My sister Kimberly and her youngest daughter Lena, pose with Dad and his birthday cake.

We put pictures of him from previous decades on the table in the nursing center's library, and he laughed to see photos of him when his hair was its original dark brown. Both of his daughters--me and my sister Kimmy--joined the party, along with his son-in-law Dan, his granddaughter Lena, neighbors, church friends, and even his favorite neighborhood dog Sunny. Sunny is fifteen, and, as my sister pointed out, that is pretty close to ninety in dog years.

Neighbors Donna and Mickey P. brought their dog Sunny to visit Dad on his 90th. What a kind thing to do.

Sunny looking up for a treat as my beautiful niece Lena poses with her grandfather.

We know that each day with Dad is a gift, and though his life isn't easy these days since he can no longer walk nor feed himself, we're doing everything we can to make sure we don't waste the remaining days. I have been the chief instigator of events like this one, and they are events my engineer father used to think of as silly. But nowadays, he survives them with good humor and seems to enjoy seeing the familiar faces. At this event, he recognized everyone.

At right is my Dad, almost 90 years ago, in a photo we set out at the party. "I remember I was crying that day," he said. "I think my diaper was wet."

"No need to ask who planned this," he said with a sigh, looking a me, as if he's been worn down, having spent a lifetime trying to put a lid on my hyperactivity. "It had to be Robin." So I reached out to hug him, and as I did so, he turned to his nurse Alem and said: "And now, I suppose, I am going to get hugged." Which he certainly was and I certainly did. I think he almost smiled.

Postscript: I learned twelve hours after I completed the above, that my father's Los Altos, California, flying buddy, Ollie Frasier, has passed away. The two met at the Palo Alto airport one day and discovered they were both from Birmingham, though Ollie attended the University Alabama, and my father was an Auburn grad. They managed to set aside their differences to spend many happy hours together in the air. They discovered later that my father's sister was in Ollie's sister's wedding, proving once again, that six degrees of separation is far too separate for most of us. RIP Ollie Frasier.

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Saturday, December 19, 2009

Solitude With a Difference: A Guest Post from Michele Slung

Michele Slung's 18th century farmhouse near Woodstock, New York.

Robin writes:
I've spent a week in tribute to my remarkable mother. Now it is time to return to the world of Christmas, with its annual beauty and its promise of renewal. Thus, I asked my friend, writer and editor Michele Slung, for a guest post from her East Coast farm, which, like Michele, is beautiful, old-fashioned, traditional and warm.

Woodstock, New York, December 2009
Snow & Commonplace Books

by Michele Slung

Last week was the first snowfall of the season in my corner of upstate New York. Here in the Hudson Valley, at the edge of the Catskills, every rise in the roads around my house comprises its own microclimate. Up at my friend Bob’s house --- higher than town but still at the foot of the mountain, Overlook, that looms above it --- where I stopped for a quick visit around 6pm, it looked like your cliché Currier & Ives Christmas scene. The fir trees were tall marshmallow-coated silhouettes in the moonlight, and every bush and stone wall glowed whitely.

But such a perfect glimpse of the winter landscape actually wasn’t a sure thing: if you were only a quarter of a mile lower than Bob’s or traveling in a different direction, you were just as likely to be greeted by that old weatherman’s staple, “snow mixed with rain.”

Bliss, however, doesn’t accompany a sleety drizzle.

The moment of suddenly glimpsing the year’s first snowflakes cascading down outside the windows has been, since I was little, an ecstatic one. The beauty is so transformative: what was banal --- a car, a wooden lawn chair, a forgotten rake, a clothesline, a clay pot holding a dead plant --- becomes simultaneously exciting and hypnotically soothing.

What’s taking place is the most basic of earth-magic, and few fail to experience the spiritual as well as the physical line between the pre-snow and post-snow world.

Michele, with her 15-year-old friend Minnie.

Thus, it bothered me quite a bit, when once, more than twenty years ago, waking to a beautifully blanketed outdoors, I for the first time felt nothing. “I noticed the absence of joy in myself. (I’m very worried, as a consequence.)”

How do I know exactly my sensations of that morning? The answer’s easy --- I found the above entry recently while browsing in my commonplace book, a personal patchwork of quotations, ideas, phrases, interesting words, observations and other prose bits which to this day I continue, irregularly, to maintain.

Different from a diary, a commonplace book is meant to be a compendium of wisdom, and, for centuries, people copied their favorite passages down into these journals. Explains the ever-helpful Wikipedia:

"Such books were essentially scrapbooks filled with items of every kind: medical recipes, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, proverbs, prayers, legal formulas. Commonplaces were used by readers, writers, students, and humanists as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts they had learned. Each commonplace book was unique to its creator's particular interests."

Not unlike a blog, you might say. In fact, my own commmonplace book actually offers the occcasional News from Myself --- bulletins from my state of mind --- along with notable quotations jotted down from books I once was reading. (There’s even a lock of my 40-year-old hair taped in --- and I stare at it sometimes, hoping to find there a glimpse of my former self, as if reconstructing the person I was back then from this DNA-filled snippet.)

I learned about the practice of keeping commonplace books from W. H. Auden’s A Certain World: A Commonplace Book, published in 1970. It was, he said, as close as he “would ever come to writing an autobiography,” calling it "a map of my planet." It took a while, though, to begin following his example; my own opens with a line copied from Persuasion in the spring of ’77.

Today, on Planet Michele, I’m pleased to report my failure that day to respond to the sweet stimulus of snow was a short-lived phenomenon. It didn’t last til the next winter, although it did signal change. And, meteorologically or otherwise, there’s nothing but inevitability about that.

Before I disappear to haul in more wood for the stove, here are just a few samples from my commonplace:

“To be free is not the result of a moment’s decisive action but a project constantly to be renewed. More than anything else, freedom requires tenaciousness.”
Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage

“There is no collection so valuable as a collection of adjectives. Everything depends on adjectives.”
Frances Hodgson Burnett, Through One Administration

“Her peace of mind was dependent on lists . . . “
May Sarton, Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing

“Dreams have always had an importance for me: ‘the finest entertainment known and given rag cheap.’" Graham Greene

“To have her meals, and her daily walk, and her fill of novels, and to be left alone, was all that she asked of the gods.”
Anthony Trollope, The Eustace Diamonds

“She had known no one --- but her solitude had had a difference. Then, as she walked about the streets alone, she walked an adventurer.”
Olivia Manning, The Doves of Venus

“It occurred to me as I gave her hands a quick clasp that hell was not, as Sartre had proclaimed, other people. Hell was being obliged to pretend to be someone quite other than one’s true self.”
Susan Howatch, Absolute Truths

“‘But this is something quite new!’ said Mrs. Munt, who collected new ideas as a squirrel collects nuts and was especially attracted by those that are portable.”
E. M. Forster, Howard’s End

Robin note on 12/19/09: Just after Michele filed her report, a huge snowstorm began to drench the East in snow. We will check in with her, just to make sure she can shovel her way out.

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Friday, December 18, 2009

Forever Young

Faye Ellyn Latta in an undated photo, probably about 1942.

We gave Faye Ellyn Latta Chapman, my mother, a wonderful funeral on Wednesday, December 16, 2009. The rain held off for the graveside service, and many more people came to pay their respects than we had expected. "All my friends are dead," she had taken to saying in recent years. Her service and the reception that followed were testament to the fact that this was not true.

I had ordered a blanket of white roses for her casket, having it in my head that it would somehow look like one of those blankets of flowers they put over the saddle of the winner of the Kentucky Derby. I thought that would be subtle and pretty. But the florist had a better idea and turned it into a spray of white roses that reached from one end of the casket to the other. "Tell me there were eighty-eight roses in that tribute," a neighbor said to me, thinking it mirrored my mother's eighty-eight years. No, I told her. That was four hundred roses. And it was stunning. Faye, the thrifty girl who sewed her own wedding dress, would have died again if she knew how much we spent. But you can only go once.

We surrounded the casket with red poinsettias and the white and red and green spoke of Christmas and snow and holly and ivy. All the things she, as a gardener, would have loved.

And when the ceremony was over, we gave the poinsettias away, one to each family. And people loved that, as they said, because they would have the red and green plant with them and would think of her during the holidays.

So many people came to the reception that we would have been overwhelmed, except that three friends from out of the past came to our rescue. My college roommate Phyllis flew up from Los Angeles and took over in the kitchen. My high school friend Leslie brought a wreath for the front door and dessert for all. And our neighbor from childhood, Gene, stayed at the home with my sister and her family and kept things organized. Her mother was a good friend of our mother, and since her mother died some years ago and Gene could not bring herself to have a service for her, we mourned the two women together.

(We did not have my father come to the service. We didn't think he could handle it. He was told that my mother was gone, but he doesn't remember this and we've decided not to hammer it into his head.)

I was struck by how many people told me my mother had been a mentor to them and such a lovely friend. She always found it so much easier to be kind to people whom she was able to keep at a distance. Intimacy so frightened her, she always found ways--sometimes cruel ones--to keep it at bay.

At the heart of all this was such low self esteem that near the end of her life I despaired for her. She was given so many gifts: beauty, brains, a great figure and good legs, pretty blond hair, a stunningly handsome and kind husband, two accomplished and loyal daughters, a strong religious faith, prosperity, longevity, fidelity. The list could go on. But it was never enough to give her the one thing that might have brought her some peace--self confidence.

But if she had been watching on Wednesday, she surely would have seen how much she was loved, and how many people thought she was wonderful.

"Mom's not there, I know that," my sister said when I asked her if she stayed to watch the casket lowered into the grave. "And now she's young and beautiful forever, just the way she wanted to be." And I guess that's right. It was a long, long road. But she finally reached the place where she will not have to do one more thing to make herself feel good enough. Where someone else, other than her flawed fellow men, will handle the judging part, and where He, if all we believe is true, is bound to be more merciful to her than she was to herself.

Faye and Ash at Peace Lutheran Church in 2007.

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Monday, December 14, 2009

Obituary Notice: Faye E. Chapman

Long time Los Altos resident, Faye E. Chapman, died December 11, 2009 of pneumonia at the Forum Health Care Center, in Cupertino, California.

She was born May 18, 1921, in Spokane, Washington, the second of four children of Lena Verwolf and Harry E. Latta. She attended Washington State College (now Washington State University) and was a member of Alpha Gamma Delta sorority.

At a wartime dance in Spokane in 1944, she met Capt. William Ashley Chapman, of Birmingham, Alabama and the couple married that same year. After World War II, they settled first in Palo Alto and then in Los Altos, where in 1949 they built a house on Clark Avenue, now called Echo Drive. For forty years she was active in Peace Lutheran Church in Santa Clara, California. Mrs. Chapman is survived by her husband of 65 years, her daughters Kimberly (Mrs. Daniel D.) Moore of Denver, Colorado, and Robin Chapman of Los Altos, three granddaughters, three great grandchildren, as well as by her brother Jack Latta, a retired Spokane police officer, and her sister Ruth (Mrs. Joseph) Peterson, of Lincoln City, Oregon. Graveside services are planned for 11:00 a.m., Wednesday, December 16, 2009 at Alta Mesa Memorial Park in Palo Alto.

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Saturday, December 12, 2009

Faye Ellyn Latta Chapman: May 18, 1921-December 11, 2009

Faye and Ashley with the Thunderbird in the 1970s.

Ashley holding Faye's hand on the night she died. We don't know if he understands that she is gone.

This rainbow appeared this afternoon in the hills above the nursing home where my mother died last night.

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Friday, December 11, 2009

Before I Wake ...

My mom, at right, and my Aunt Ruth, with Reggie, in the summer of 1945.

My mother has been in the skilled nursing center in a bed next to my father for about ten days, since a fall in the bathroom at our family home. When the physical therapists tried to get her out of bed to exercise, or to walk to meals, she has resisted and has spent much of her time in bed.

As a consequence, she has come down with pneumonia. Today she did not eat or drink. I'm not sure she is going to make it.

Before dinner, I took Dad to her bedside and he sat and held her hand. I was worried about doing this, because he is so vulnerable right now and his whole life has been built around her. But my sister felt I should do this, and for her I did so. I think it was clear, even to my father in his diminished state, that my mother is very ill. She is on oxygen, gasping for breath, thin beyond belief. She's not conscious. The nurses gave her morphine about midday.

After Dad sat there for a while, he asked me what we were going to do, so I told him we were going to dinner. I walked him around in his wheelchair for about ten minutes, as it was a little too early for dinner, and I needed the walk. He appeared to sleep as I pushed him in his chair. When we got to the table, he continued to look as if he were sleeping.

I tried to give him his soup and he didn't seem to want to wake up and eat it. I tried to give him his juice and he didn't open his mouth.

His nose always runs when he eats so I went to get a box of tissues and when I returned he still appeared to be dozing. I touched him on the head with the box of tissues and he opened his eyes. I asked him if he was okay.

"I'm okay," he said, without changing his expression. "I'm just thinking about your mother."

It made me think back to a night, long ago, when I was nine. My mother had pneumonia then and had been taken to the hospital. Dad came home from work, rushed my sister and me through a half-cooked chicken dinner and then a neighbor came over to sit with us while we went to bed and Dad went to the hospital.

Some time later, I woke up and saw the light on in the hall. And I heard the strangest sound: I heard my father crying in the kitchen. It is the only time in my life I have ever heard him cry and til this day I have never seen him do it.

Many years later I learned the doctor had told him he didn't think my mother would last the night.

She surprised my father on that night. But I do not think she will surprise us again, lo, these many years later.

In the dining room of the nursing home, I began to cry, because I know how much my mother means to my father. I did not want him to see me, but my father's eyes were closed again. I got up from the table. Thad, the CNA from Kenya, has told me many times he would be happy to serve my father his dinner, and tonight I asked him if he would do it for me. I blew my nose and I went to the room to check on my mother.

She looked terrible. When we lose her ... my father will be devastated. Although she wasn't conscious, I sat and spoke with her for a few minutes, even though I knew she could not hear me.

I kissed her on the forehead and went back to the dining room. I gave my father a hug and kissed him too and then left the nursing home to return to my own home. Each of us must now face this sea of troubles in his own way. I am out of things to give.

I wrote the above, and then the call came. My mother died at 11:50 p.m.

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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

People-Watching at the Nursing Center

Visiting my parents in the nursing home has given me the chance to see all kinds of sorrow and sweetness in the lives of some of the other patients I have met.

I've already written about the woman who cries help. One morning she was sitting across from us at breakfast and she did her "Help!" cries once every few minutes as she generally does. They varied in intensity. Sometimes loud, sometimes soft, and as she cried out, she looked as if she were in a faraway land.

Then an old man came up behind her wheelchair and touched her on the shoulder. She came to herself immediately.

"Oh Edwin, the love of my life. How are you this morning, dear?"

And the two them them trundled off to the other dining room together, Edwin pushing his wife's wheelchair.

* * *

At the Thanksgiving dinner party I met a Jewish couple who are my parents' age and who both seemed so well I wondered what they were doing there. The husband told me that each came from Vienna at different times: he in 1939, and she in 1941, so I could only imagine their story. She was a nice looking old woman and I asked her about living in America, after a childhood in Vienna.

"Yes, ve've been here about vorteen years," she said. So I knew then that she was the patient.

One day, soon afterward, she sat across from my father and me at breakfast. That's how I meet most of the people in the nursing center. She was feeling well that morning and her mind was clear, so we had a nice chat.

"Why did you leave Vienna in 1941, Mrs. K?" I asked, certain the answer would be interesting.

"Ach, it vaz da Nazis," she said. "Dey took our vactory, dey took our house, dey made us lif in one room vith three other vamilies."

"But how did you get out?" I asked

"Zey didn't vant me. I vas too young. My parents they took, my mama and my papa, and dey died in von of dose camps. It vas da Nazis. It vas da Nazis." She shook her head.

I changed the subject to Vienna itself and we talked about the movie The Third Man, filmed in the rubble of post war Vienna.

"Ve've been bek many times," she said smiling. "I luf Vienna."

Later I heard her in her room, screaming at the nurses: "Don't touch me. You aren't nice." She was treating them as if they were guards in the concentration camps that had taken the lives of her loved ones. Her husband was standing outside her room looking at the floor.

I asked him how long his wife had been in the nursing center and what her illness was. She had only been there two weeks.

"It's cancer," he said. "Lung cancer. And its spread to her second lung. I'm almost blind so I can't care vor her." At ninety years of age, he stands straight and tall and you can't tell he doesn't see or hear very well. He comes every day, and when his wife is yelling, he stands outside the door of her room.

She has grown thinner and quieter by the day and is now on morphine. This morning, she sat across from us at breakfast again, and used enormous concentration to spear the fruit in the dish in front of her so she could get it to her mouth. She didn't speak when I spoke to her. But near the end of breakfast she did speak. She cried out.

"Mama!" she said in a plaintiff cry. "Mama!" At eighty-eight and near death, we still seek the things we've lost.

* * *

There is another couple I've taken note of, perhaps since they don't look too much older than I am. She must have an early-onset neurodegenerative disease, and her husband comes to see her each day, a tall, grey-haired, bearded, Silicon Valley-engineer-type. He wheels her in her wheel chair and sits with her and talks, his laptop nearby. He often smiles at her.

He isn't with her at breakfast and everything is very difficult for her then. Sometime she sobs quietly to herself in frustration. She doesn't know what she is supposed to eat, and she keeps arranging and rearranging the napkins. She asks me lots of questions about what she should do and I try to be helpful and kind.

One morning, I noticed she was wearing a sweatshirt from the Naval Graduate School in Monterey. My niece is marrying a young man who is studying there, so I asked N. about the sweatshirt and if she had attended the school.

"My husband did," she said. And then her eyes looked away from mine. "But, of course, that was a very long time ago."

I've often thought what a nice man he is, spending so much time at the nursing center with his wife. She is a plain woman, in a Palo Alto-intellectual sort of way, and she is another patient who is growing thinner by the week.

Last night, as I passed her room, I saw her husband changing her socks for her. It was an act of love most of us don't think about when we think about romance. But to me, it was one of the sweetest one's I've ever seen.

* * *

Today my father spoke again about being ill. Lately, he has noted several times that he knows he isn't well.

"I'm coming to the end of the road," he said today. "I've had a good life. I've done lots of interesting things. And I married the girl I loved. " He was looking at the ceiling as he talked. Then he looked at me. I was sitting by his bed and holding onto his hand.

"Robin? Will you stay with me during this? Will you? I need you."

And I said I would. Then we said a prayer together, and, as he closed his eyes to sleep, he spoke the name of his father, who died more than six deacades ago.

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Monday, December 7, 2009

Snow in the Palo Alto Hills

Snow on Skyline Boulevard above San Francisco Bay, December 7, 2009.

It was raining softly when I arose this morning to a chilly dawn. The forecasters said we could expect snow in the higher elevations above San Francisco Bay. As I headed out to the nursing home at 7:30 this morning, you could see the white stuff in the hills above Palo Alto and Los Altos.

I decided to drive up to Skyline Boulevard after breakfast with my father (Mom is still taking a tray in her room) and was dismayed to see very little snow when I got up to Alice's Restaurant at the intersection of Woodside Road, La Honda, and Skyline.

"Oh, we had a lot this morning," they told me. "But it is already starting to melt."

Alice's Restaurant on Skyline Boulevard with melting snow on the roof and stair rail.

Alice's Restaurant (named after the place in the song, not the other way around) is a great little joint for big breakfasts, hamburger lunches, and evenings of acoustic guitar and banjo strumming. On the weekends, the place is jammed with rich guys pretending to be bikers who park their Harleys out front, and with their bicycling counterparts. I've learned that on weekdays, it is much less busy and is a fun place to get away from the crowds in the Santa Clara Valley. But where was the snow I could see from down there?

"Drive down toward Page Mill," they told me. "It is about five hundred feet higher and they have about half a foot."

So off I went in search of the white stuff. Skyline Boulevard runs, as it would suggest, all along the crest of the Coast Range, between the Pacific on one side, and the San Francisco Bay on t'other. It has always been a beautiful road, though I hesitate to say it was originally used by the companies who logged all the redwood trees that used to cover the hills. Today, at one spot, the sky was so clear I could see the Pacific Ocean. And then I got into the snow.

Looking out the windshield of the Swedish Car, into the surprising snow in the Palo Alto Hills.

Along a stretch between Woodside Road and Page Mill, California's Skyline Boulevard, just five miles from the Pacific as the crow flies, was looking a lot more like Colorado. But it wasn't going to last and the denizens of the hills probably won't have enough left to claim a white Christmas.

Snow is like a big paint brush. Everywhere you look it has left you with a pretty picture in place that looked ordinary the day before.

I turned on Page Mill, to head back down to Los Altos and caught a glimpse of an animal in the field across the road. I don't have a great camera, so the focus isn't good, but what I saw was a fox, and when I took its picture, I frightened another one nearby. Mr. and Mrs. Fox were out, slyly looking for lunch. I know you'll tell me they were probably coyotes, but I've seen coyotes up there and they're much more scraggly. Believe me, these two foxes are just the thing ladies used to wear on their shoulders. No wonder they decided to trot away when they heard my footsteps. Perhaps they've heard through the grapevine that I shop at Neiman Marcus, the one place they've spent their lives hoping to avoid.

It wasn't much, I guess. A little snow above San Francisco Bay and a couple of beautiful animals. But it brought to mind a question my mother asked me when I saw her this morning in the nursing home. "What," she asked me, "did I ever do to deserve this?" I was thinking of responding with a list, but I knew that wouldn't have been nice. I went for a drive instead.

And I found myself asking myself the same question (in the obverse) about my morning drive. It was so beautiful, it was (almost) more than I deserved.

And it was certainly worth the seven-mile drive on the windy old wagon road. My wagon rode just fine, thanks, and seemed happy to have a brief dip into cold weather, before returning to the sunny valley below.

The Swedish Car, posing in the sunlight, at just about the snow line on Page Mill Boulevard.

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Saturday, December 5, 2009

Saturday Musings on Congress, Sherlock Holmes and My Limited Brushes With Greatness

Just keep reading, I'll have more on the Hound of the Baskervilles later in our story. But first ...

... I notice Kati Marton has a new book out. It is called Enemies of the People: My Family's Journey to America, and is about her journalist parents and their escape from Hungary after an imprisonment there. She was raised as a Roman Catholic, but when researching one of her books, discovered she was Jewish and that her grandparents died in the Holocaust. (Kati Marton, above left.)

I don't know Marton, but everybody in Washington DC knows who she is, since she used to be married to the late ABC anchorman Peter Jennings. Jennings had an eye for the ladies, as they say, and at one point when I was working in DC, the gossip was that she became so disgusted by his behavior she came to Washington from their home in NY and took up with one of Washington's most famous columnists, who was also a very nice man (though there is some dispute about his niceness, says one of my Washington friends.) When Jennings heard about it, so the story goes, he came to DC to get her. We all had this image of mild-mannered Mr. C, cowering as the dapper Jennings grabbed his wife and carried her back to New York.

I think she must have returned only briefly as she and Jennings finally divorced and she is now married to Richard Holbrooke. He used to be Diane Sawyer's boyfriend, and is a special envoy in the Obama administration and doesn't need a portfolio as he carries his ego around with him and that is a pretty heavy load ...

... Speaking of marriages, I also saw this week that Chelsea Clinton is engaged to Marc Mezvinsky, the son of a the former Iowa congressman who went to jail a few years ago for bank fraud, mail fraud, and wire fraud. I don't know him but I used to know his wife, Marjorie Margolies, who was a reporter for many years at WRC-TV, the NBC station in Washington D.C.

At right, Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky

After she married the congressman, she used come down from Philadelphia where they lived, and work part-time for WRC, a deal I thought was pretty sweet. Thus, I used to think she really had it wired. Turns out he was doing the wiring and she was married to a crook, and will now be related by marriage to the Clintons. That will teach me not to envy people ...

... and aren't you pleased Congress held those hearings this week into head injuries in the NFL? They were stunned and amazed, as well as very disappointed to learn you could hurt your head really bad playing professional football. Definitely worth a Congressional hearing, I would say. I hope they put a stop to that stuff.

... and, more shocking news. News so shocking all of the sports world and even some political commentators are trying to get over it. A famous and very, very, very wealthy, multi-cultural athlete with a blonde-Swedish-model wife has been caught running around on her. And has been in a suspicious car accident. ("Take that you a--hole," I imagine her saying, as she whacked his car with a nine-iron.) This news so startled me I think Congress should hold hearings on the matter. I mean, there oughta be a law and Congress, I hope, will put a stop to that stuff.

... Finally, I must confess to being a very big Holmesian, that is, a big fan of all of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories about the Great Detective and his Boswell, Dr. Watson.

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes.

Don't know whether I should look forward to the new movie coming out at Christmas starring Robert Downy Jr. as Sherlock, but I do hope it is true to the Holmes canon. I saw a clip that showed Downy Jr. (as Sherlock) using something that looked like nunchucks against the bad guys, so I hope that doesn't bode ill. Or perhaps this is a skill Sherlock picked up during the years he wandered in Asia after we all thought him dead at Richenback Falls, but I believe this would just be speculation ...

... Still, if you wear yourself completely out on Christmas Day and want to get away from all the fuss, you can curl up in front of the television for an entire night of really good Sherlock Holmes movies on Turner Classic Movies, including the 1939, 20th Century Fox version of the Hound of the Baskervilles, starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce.

It is the best movie version of any of the Holmes stories and I'll be watching it for the zillionth time, with a fire burning in the grate and my gas lamps turned down low. So call me Christmas Day, but not Christmas Night, as I plan to be lost in Victorian England where evil walks on the moors by night, but is never a match for the World's Greatest Consulting Detective.

New Movie "Sherlock" Starring Robert Downy Jr.

New Book by Kati Marton

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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

'Til Death Us Do Part

Faye and Ashley together just before they married. The pine tree was on my grandparents' property in Spokane.

When Capt. Ashley Chapman met Faye Latta in Spokane, Washington during the summer of 1944, how could either of them know what was ahead? We often guess wrong about the future. Captain Chapman knew he was going to Japan and has since confessed that he figured he probably wouldn't come back. He was training at Geiger Field, learning the new specs for the runways he would be building for the new bombers America was turning out.

He'd already served in the Atlantic and had money in the bank. He sent to Birmingham, Alabama for his parents and paid their way out West so they could meet the pretty girl he thought he might like to marry before he went off to war and died.

Faye and Ashley, swimming at Washington State's Loon Lake, just before they became engaged. Do they look happy, or what?

His father liked her and that was enough for Capt. Chapman. Their courtship lasted six weeks, their honeymoon was a few months long and then he was off to the bloody battle of Okinawa. The best man at their wedding was killed by shrapnel from a Japanese bomb just a few weeks before the end of the war. But my Dad made it back without a scratch. Waiting for him was the woman he had married in such a fever. Now they had the chance to get to know each other.

Honeymooning in Victoria, B.C. before the war divided them again.

Sixty-five years later, I was walking through the house they lived in for half a century, packing some clothes for my mother to take with her when they transferred her from the hospital to the bed next to my father in the nursing home. The house was cold, eerie, and empty. It always comes to this, for all of us, so why is it such a shock? Each of us must discover it.

All of their belongings were neatly stored away in the drawers and cupboards and closets. Accumulated over the years, they are all permeated with the smell of the moth balls my mother puts in all the drawers and closets. And none of the possessions means anything to them anymore.

My parents have been so much luckier than most people. Dad made it safely home from the worst war in world history, and he'd married a woman who shared his values so they stuck it out together afterwards, as many did not or could not. They prospered in what became the richest state in the nation and in what became one of the most exclusive towns in their region--a town they built a home in strictly by accident. The house they lived in for most of their lives increased in value sixty times and though my father made many wise investments their house was the best one of all. We haven't had to sell it yet to pay for their care, but if we do it will care for them for a long time. So they've already had the "better" part of their marriage vows.

Now comes the worse.

When they brought Mother into the skilled nursing facility on a gurney, my father grew very worried. My mother was not very lucid, but when she saw my father she brightened: "Oh, Ashley, I have missed you so much." They held hands and the nurse cried.

My father's dementia and his total deafness have limited his understanding and he could see that Mom looked like a very pale and tiny bag of bones. He kept asking me: "Is Faye all right?" Then he started saying: "Am I all right? I'm not all right, am I? Faye's not all right either, is she?" But he calmed down because he was tired and he went to sleep, as she did. They were back in the same room, not quite as they had always been, but together.

If you had told me they would both fall apart at the same time I would have laughed at you. A week ago, Mom was balancing the checkbook and doing the crossword puzzle and one day later we had to take her to the hospital, which she told me later was some kind of "Disney ride." She spoke of having conversations with people I know to be dead and "putting things away" when she was lying in the hospital bed. Ga ga? My mother? That is a shock.

Together throughout their married life, they are now both ga ga together. Mother's illness was, in a way caused by Dad's. When he had to go to the nursing home, she was alone and though I stopped by every day, I didn't know she had stopped eating and drinking water. The doctor told me this isn't unusual when there is a trauma in a person's life, for them to lose their sense of hunger and thirst. Then I remembered that when I lost my husband, I found myself unable to eat for the first time in my life. I didn't lose him as much as he was mis-laid, if you get my meaning. But it was still a trauma. I got very thin and beautiful and had many other offers, though, so it all came out right in the end.

In Mom's case it did not. By the time we got her to the hospital her kidneys were failing from lack of water. And, for some reason, her mind was also affected.

So there they were this morning after breakfast. Two wheelchairs. Two old people. Holding hands. They had vowed they would stay together until death parted them. And for better and for worse, they have shown they are both making good on the deal.

I had to sneak this photo of the two of them sitting together at the nursing home, so the focus isn't great. Mom's hair was wet from a shower, so I put it up in a towel. Dad has reached over to kiss her.

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Friday, November 27, 2009

Thoughts on Thanksgiving With Both Parents in the Pokey

Thanksgiving greetings from my elderly triage center in Northern California.

I had to take a break from blogging to attend to the latest Crisis of the Elderly Parents: Mom fell at 6:30 Tuesday morning and is now in the hospital.

Naturally it is never as simple as that. She called me after she fell and I rushed over and called 911. They took her to the ER and X-Rayed her and said she hadn't broken anything and sent her home. I got her some strong pain pills and put her on the couch and gave her something to eat and a pain pill, with strict instructions to stay put. Then I went up the hill to visit Dad who has pancreatic cancer and lost five pounds last week in nursing care.

When I checked back in with Mom, she was in the fetal position, calling out in pain. How could this be, I asked myself? She's always dramatic when she is ill, so I wasn't sure what to think. Her doctor prescribed some even stronger pain pills and said if they didn't work she would have to go to the hospital. On Wednesday morning, since she was still in the fetal position and crying out, I called 911 again and took her to the hospital. After all day in the ER (Such fun! And I could have been defrosting the turkey!) they decided to admit her. She spent Thanksgiving Day on morphine in the hospital.

She didn't like visiting Dad in nursing care anyway.

"I hope you aren't planning to let her live by herself anymore," the physician said to me on the telephone yesterday. Oh sure, I said to myself. My mother always does exactly as we tell her. Instead of saying this I said to him, "Oh, you are so right. My family wouldn't think of allowing that."

We'd like Mom to go from the hospital to the bed next to Dad in the nursing home. Not that Mom will go there. But we continue to dream of the triumph of hope over experience.

Entrance to skilled nursing center and location of parent #1.

Meanwhile, back at the nursing home, my father has had a good week. He's been eating well, sleeping well and has gradually adjusted to his new living arrangements and the regular routine we've established.

I arrive at 7:40 a.m. to help him with his breakfast. I enter the dining room behind his chair and scratch his back, and, without turning his head he says, "That's Robin."

Yesterday he said, "I was hoping you would come. And I said to myself if she doesn't come, I'm going to cut her off."

This morning, I kissed him on the cheek and he said, "That's worth a million dollars. Bet you'd like to have it now, too." He hasn't yet heard we're spending his fortune on his care, but oh well. I told him it was raining outside and he smiled and said, "I have a plan." What's that, I asked? "I'm going to let it rain," he said.

He may have dementia, total hearing loss, terminal cancer, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, can't walk or feed himself, but he hasn't lost his personality nor the quirky way he looks at the world.

Speaking of which, last night at the hospital Mom tried to get out of bed on her own and fell again, then pulled out both of her catheters, which in the case of the Foley catheter was quite a difficult task because it involved both her bladder and a balloon.

A rainy day outside Silicon Valley's newest hospital: location of parent #2.

"I can't understand why she would behave like this," my sister said to me after speaking with the nurse this morning. "She's being so naughty."

"Why should she stop now, just because she is sick," I asked. People don't really change much, no matter their situation. Mom has always had a very strong personality and does not take direction from anyone, especially doctors. She has been very unhappy with Dad in nursing care. She wouldn't agree to move out of the house, but she obviously hated living there alone. She's had one ailment after another in the month he's been gone that has kept her from visiting him. Something is clearly hurting in her--whether it is mind, body, or both we don't yet know.

So on Thanksgiving Day, as I shuttled between the two of them, I realized I had a lot to be thankful for. I moved back to California just in time. Just in time to be here when they both fell apart and actually needed me, for the first time in their lives. And though I missed my friends the Seymours and their annual Thanksgiving feast, full of the fascinating and witty characters at their table, I knew I was lucky. Both my parents were safe and having their own kind of fun. Mom, playing Camille and having an audience at Silicon Valley's Newest Hospital (which looks like NY's Four Seasons Hotel inside) and Dad cracking jokes at the world, and imagining his daughter loves him only for his money, which, by the way, the thrifty Scotsman had always planned on taking with him. And which, in a way, is exactly what he is doing.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Moment of Clarity Following a Granddaughter Visit

Dad and his granddaughter, Dana, November 2009. That is something very close to a smile on my father's face.

My sister's middle daughter is moving to Monterey to marry a naval aviator attending the Naval Postgraduate School there. It gave her a chance to stop by and visit her grandfather. She hasn't seen him since he entered the skilled nursing center.

He really brightened up when he saw her and the two of them kidded about the Navy (in which she served) versus the Army (my father's branch.)

She has been very close to her grandfather over the years. When she was about five years old, she and her older sister, Devon, and her mother (my sister) and her father visited the grandparents in Los Altos from their home in Colorado. When it was time for the family to return home, my father asked Devon, who was eight, if she wanted to stay for a while longer, without her parents, and Devon said she sure would. Dana, younger and shyer, hung back, holding onto her mother's leg, and it was decided she was too young to stay. So Devon stayed behind and spent about four days being pampered by her doting grandfather.

The story goes, that when Devon returned to Colorado, she regaled her sister with tales of the fun she had had, and poor Dana burst into tears. Every year after that, until they were in college, the girls spent a week or so sans parents with their grandparents, swimming in the nearby pool, barbecuing hamburger dinners, flying kites and generally having fun with the grandfather they called Pa.

I took this picture of Dana with Dad when we were all in Spokane, Washington several decades ago for my grandmother's funeral. These rites, both happy and sad, bring families together.

My father, who has never been really sure of himself with grown-ups, has always loved children, and thus, he has a special bond with his granddaughters.

Now, one of them is planning a wedding for December, and we're not sure when we will also be planning a funeral.

So it isn't any wonder that Dana got tears in her eyes when she departed from her visit with her grandfather. She said she would be coming back soon, but I saw my father watch her as she walked away.

Later that day, after I had sat and helped him eat his dinner, I wheeled him in his chair back to his room.

"Robin," he said. "I'm a mess. I'm really sick."

I nodded my head that I knew.

"I mean not sick to my stomach sick, but really sick."

I nodded my head again. This is the first time my father has said this to me. Until that moment, every time I had asked him how he was feeling he said, "I'm fine."

But, even though his mind isn't clear these days he does have moments of clarity like this one. I knew he was thinking about Dana and my sister and me and he was letting me know he was going to be leaving us.

I have accepted this, because that is all you can do. But when I kissed him goodnight I wondered, as I often do these days, if I would see him again.

And now, I know that he wonders too.

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