Saturday, November 27, 2010

asleep at the wheel

This was a melancholy week. I am still feeling a tide of inertia sweep over me daily. I wake up in good spirits, but as the hours tick by I feel less inclined to move forward into the projects of the day and more like just zoning out, numbing my brain. The computer and the many, many amazing blogs out there in the internet twilight zone lull me into a strange sleeping wakefulness. I am drawn to the blogs and photostreams of some very creative and crafty people and can spend hours and hours gazing at them, being inspired in a way, but can't seem to light the fire in my own hands and eyes to create. I feel asleep at the wheel.

I don't want to cook. I don't want to clean. I don't want to read or knit or sew or paint. I just gaze, and simmer, and stare out the window.

It was difficult to even get up the energy for Thanksgiving at my loving cousin's house. Once there, surrounded by family, I was good. But that morning, that was an effort.

I am trying to be patient with myself. I am giving myself space. I am stunned at the time it is taking to gather myself together and get back to normal. And I wish that the time I spent in my quiet numbness would feel like a valuable expenditure of time. Unfortunately, the perfectionist in me, the overachiever in me feels a loss. At the end of the day I look at the clock, shake my head to clear it and take stock of the time I have wasted, with nothing accomplished, nothing to show for the passage of all those minutes. An emptiness is what is embracing me these days.

I had such anticipation for this period following the celebration of his life, thinking that I would feel lighter with the weight of that event off my shoulders. But I now realize that it will still take time, a march onward of the days and hours, until I begin to notice the sun peeking through the clouds, and a lightness returning to my step.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

my father's navy watch cap

It took my dad several months to figure out how to access my blog. I'm not exactly sure what was so elusive about it for him. But after sending him a link numerous times he finally got on it, and read it, this summer. He was pretty surprised, I think, that we both were writers and he loved the stories of my life that he found here. We had a lot in common. More than I realized for most of my life. Our looks, our love of photography and writing, our tempers. Our distractable minds, our cleft chins, and our love of family.

The poem below was my closing for the celebration of Dad's life we held on Sunday. I read it and then we followed it with a communal recitation of the Kaddish, the Jewish mourner's prayer.

My Father's Navy Watch Cap

I wear my father’s navy watch cap these days
when I go down to the pasture
on cold mornings

I knitted it for him early this year

He waited patiently for it
but I was otherwise engaged
-   a sweater for myself
-   a scarf for my sister in England
-   a neck warmer for my mother
taking precedence,
in line before his thick, navy watch cap

He waited patiently,
though I could hear his eyes glitter when we talked about it
a cozy hat
to cover his head
just like the one he had in the navy

When I finally finished it and
sent it down to him,
it was spring
and spring in Los Angeles is barely spring
in other regions
it is more like the long beginning of summer,
temperatures in the 70’s, as you know,
not much need for a thick, navy watch cap
knitted by your oldest daughter,
your biggest-tallest

And yet he wore it
proudly, I suppose,
when the moment required it
when the thermometer dipped
a bit low
and his balding pate felt a chill

He dug around in the basket of his scooter
and pulled out the hat
then tugged it snuggly over his head,
thinking, I hope,
of the love knit into each stitch

It was there waiting for me to take it home
when he died
in the basket of the lonely scooter
not even worn through one winter
his winter
an LA winter of sorts

These days when I don my mud-encrusted boots
and button up my flannel barn coat,
I also grab my father’s navy watch cap
and pull it on over my thick head of graying hair
like a hug
and the memory of our last conversation
and the words “I love you”

I want to tell you I have other hats
but this is the one that calls to me each morning

I open the door, pulling on my gloves
and think about the day’s list
-   what will occupy me
-   what I need to attend to
-   what takes precedence
and what will have to wait

And as winter approaches and fall fast becomes a memory
I tug my father’s navy watch cap down around my ears
and bring him with me to feed the animals
down in the pasture

Sunday, November 21, 2010

A celebration of a life

Yesterday was my father's 79th birthday. Today we held his memorial.

Over 70 people came. Family, friends, old and newer. Business associates from 40 years ago. Both of the original partners from his beloved firm Stonefield Josephson. Two of three ex-wives! The tables were full, the flowers beautiful, the food abundant and tasty (from Canter's deli on Fairfax Ave. in LA), and a strong mid-night storm scrubbed the air clean to showcase the LA skyline and mountains covered with snow.

I did my dad proud. And now I can take a deep breath, sit back in my chair and relax.

Here are the words I opened the event with:

I don't know if you knew this, but my dad was a photographer. He absolutely loved pictures and taking pictures and he lined his bedroom walls with photos of all his beloved people, a constant reminder, like a group hug every time he looked at them.

When he was in high school, Dad set up a dark room in his closet and soon became known as the go-to guy for party photos. He often told me how much he loved that. Basically, he attained a certain popularity by being a sought-after photographer and because he was behind the camera he didn't have to navigate the tricky social terrain of the teenager. He got to be at the party without really being at the party. Clever, eh? Not bad for a shy stutterer...And he developed quite the skill with the camera. All these years later some of our most cherished family photos are the ones Dad took.

I knew my dad through the lens of the oldest child. Who he was, or who I thought he was and what I knew about him had much to do with my own lens, my own view of him. He was the man who stood at my door early every morning singing silly made up songs meant to encourage me to rise, he was the man who smoked a stinky cigar, who had a temper that flared unexpectedly and hotly, who listened when I talked but not all that well, who loved to sit next to the keel of a sailboat and breathe the salt air.  He was the man who tagged along quite happily with my high school marching band and who walked me down the aisle on my wedding day.

I knew my father through the lens of his child, even as I moved deep into my own adulthood. I really only could see him through that lens.

As he aged, we aged, however, and our relationship deepened and grew. We did not have a fairytale relationship, it was not trouble-free. But, compassion and acceptance allowed me to appreciate that Dad loved me, us, with his whole heart. So, when he died our connection was whole and clear.

I cannot hope to encapsulate for you the highlights of his life all on my own. I cannot stand here and tell you about the man you knew, perhaps better in some ways and less in others than I.

And so I welcome you here today to share your stories and to hear some of his. For a brief time we can honor that avid photographer by overlapping all of our lenses to put together a picture of who Joel Stonefield was and to celebrate his life.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

suspension of disbelief

It occurred to me yesterday as I worked on my father's memorial service, that I can not believe he is dead. I CAN NOT wrap my mind around it. It is positively unbelievable to me. He is in the other room. He is in LA and I'm up here. He's at his computer, grousing about Sarah Palin or the Tea Party movement. He's watching a movie on Netflix with Mildred, his loving caregiver and sweetheart, pictured above. He's not dead, he's not gone, he's not a pile of ashes in a box in my sister's apartment.

He's not. He's NOT, I tell you.

What did Elizabeth Kubler-Ross call this? Denial?

As I put together a program for the service my siblings and I are hosting this coming Sunday, I have looked at many photos of the man who gave me the dimple in my chin and 1/2 my DNA. I read all the stories he wrote for his memoirs. I cried a bunch. And every time I looked into his eyes I felt his presence, not his absence.

It's been almost 3 months and it still feels impossible. How will I talk about him as if he's gone, if I can't wrap my head around that fact? I asked myself. 

And then a thought floated to the surface of my brain. The suspension of disbelief: the willingness on the part of the reader to overlook the implausible or fantastic in order to believe...The suspension of judgment in order to accept the unbelievable (or just swallow it).

I need to do that now. It feels like time. And yet.

I should be packing. I have been attending to so many little details, big details too. The program. The number of people attending. The flowers (deligated). The food and drink (deligated). The paper goods (deligated). The obituary (mine).

I had a brilliant idea the other night to have family and friends read from my dad's stories at the event. I will also be posting some of them here, so that you too, dear reader, can get a sense of my dad's sense of humor. It feels wonderful to laugh with him, to hear his voice (it is so, so clear to me). The melancholy part feels so out of place right now. But as I said in my last post, I am missing him so very much.

So, here's the first one, one of my favorites, The Chaplain:

The Chaplain

by Joel Stonefield

In mid 1955, I was transferred to the USS Gainard, a sleek World War II destroyer, loaded with torpedoes, depth charges, 5 inch (diameter) guns…and me, an eager 23 year old supply officer with a weird sense of humor 

My time aboard the Gainard consisted of an uneventful year at the Naval Base at Newport Rhode Island, BUT THEN….In the Spring of 1956, President Nasser of Egypt took over the Suez Canal from Great Britain.  Gainard was immediately dispatched to the Persian Gulf to look after America’s oil.

First, a very brief story from the peacetime Navy.

While in the States, our squadron was assigned one chaplain for the entire eight-ship group.  He acted as a sort of circuit preacher, moving for brief stays – of two to four weeks -- from one ship to another.  When our ship’s turn came, we welcomed the young fellow to our fold.  He turned out to be rather humorless and over-serious – not a great formula for popularity in the tight quarters of the Destroyer Navy.

Our visit with the Padre included a two-week training exercise – straight time at sea.  Each night at “taps” the chaplain would gravely announce over the ship’s loudspeaker system:


The officers and crew were constantly grumbling about the Chaplain and his long-winded and boring nightly sermons.

Finally, the brief cruise ended.  What do sailors want as soon as they hit port?  Payday!!  That meant me.

Minutes before the payday was to start, I asked one of my watch-standing buddies to go to the bridge with me.  I asked him “How can I make an announcement to all hands?  After he showed me which lever to pull, I suggested that he “take off”.  Knowing I was up to no good, he did as I asked.

Next came the moment for which I had been waiting …….I pressed the lever and with my best official voice I solemnly intoned:


Saturday, November 13, 2010

Tangled up in blue

Dad and Ben on our last visit in June.

It's been over two months since my dad died.

Lately, my heart has been racing a bit too much. Localized anxiety. Generalized chaos. I put my head on my pillow and my mind churns and my heart runs away. I write things down on lists and then forget to do them. I remember things I need to take care of while I'm down in the pasture or in the shower, and then forget to write them on the list.

I keep wondering when the clouds will break, when I will calm down, when my head will clear. Things are easing up, but before me still lies my father's memorial service, an event that will bring us closure of one sort while opening up my heart, as well. I am coordinating the event (which we're calling "A Celebration of His Life" and which we're holding the day after what would have been his 79th birthday). I have been feeling blocked about the plan, the design, of it all. The more concrete details are taken care of. But what I will say, what we will read, what pieces of poetry or music I want to include is all up to me and still undecided.

We will gather at Kingsley Manor, in the Sky Room, a lovely spot at the top of the building he lived in. When he was alive and I was visiting we had several wonderful family and friend gatherings up on the roof, my cousin Beth bringing in large salads and pizzas and platters of bbq chicken wings. Dad would sit in his motorized scooter, enjoying the kids buzzing around and the variety of folk who came to enjoy each others' company and the view of all Los Angeles from that rooftop patio. So it is appropriate that we celebrate him there one more time.

The last time I saw him, in June of this year, we had one of those parties. He was both thrilled that we were there and exhausted by what it required of him. I noticed that time that he was a bit befuddled, a bit more distracted, and much more tired than I'd ever seen him before. It worried me.

In the past, my dad held it together at each momentous juncture in his aging process. After a serious car accident in 1985 when he temporarily lost the vision in both of his eyes, he only told me about it months later. (I'd been living in Italy at the time.) After that he suffered from some neurological issues that were finally diagnosed as Multiple Sclerosis in about 1990. He took it in stride over the many years the disease progressed, somewhat resigned to the weekly shots of interferon, enjoying the chance to flirt with the nurse. At my wedding in 1991, he proudly walked me down the aisle, dragging his bum leg along behind, tripping on the unfortunate white sheet marking the path in the grass, and almost falling down. I never heard him complain about that.

In fact, he never complained about his condition. He almost went the opposite direction. When it finally came to pass that he needed to move into an assisted living facility four years ago he argued fiercely that it wasn't necessary. After all, he was still young, in his 70's and those places are full of old fogeys. But, after a painfully difficult visit up to us it was obvious to me and Mark that there was no other option. He was living at the time in an apartment that was not wheelchair accessible, he could barely walk 10 feet, he needed a cane or two, and when he was feeling ill he had no way to care for himself.

I resorted to tough love.

I told him that if he didn't look for a place to live now when he was in relatively good shape, we would most certainly face a crisis situation when he took a fall, injured himself, was in the hospital incapacitated, and I would have to find the quickest, easiest solution, even if it wasn't the most desirable. I wasn't particularly nice about it, as I recall. But Mark was. I remember quite clearly Mark's gentleness at that moment. I'm not sure why I was so hard on Dad. Maybe because I'd been talking about it for a while with him and he'd been avoiding it, steering around it, denying how bad the situation actually was. I felt like I could see the future and I could feel him turning his face away.

I also knew I'd be left holding the bag, the one who would have to pick up the pieces, so I needed him to pay attention.

I need to say right here, I need to interject, that I never had a storybook, fairytale relationship with my dad. He was too distracted by work, his own pursuits, his needs, his second wife, his other family to really be there for me. He rarely picked up the pieces for me, and certainly never did after my parents divorced when I was 15. So when I think about that tough love speech, that was love tangled up with anger, anger about having to be a grown up for my own father. It had me in knots.

Ultimately, he heard me or maybe it was Mark, and a couple weeks later the family took a trip down to LA so that Dad and I could take care of it. We toured several retirement homes and found Kingsley. It was basically in the barrio, a section of LA near freeways, downtown and a very ethnic neighborhood full of Armenians, Salvadorans, Latinos, and Asians. The neighborhood has a fairly run down and scruffy feel, but Kingsley, formerly the Lutheran home, is a beautiful oasis in the midst of the city. The campus takes up several acres, has architecturally detailed old brick buildings, rose gardens, green lawns, and patios. The dining room was nice and bright and the people seemed happy. Dad signed up right away and moved in within a month.

I know he was feeling tentative, moving this direction is a one way ticket. (I've often said that it's like moving into the college dorms only people don't graduate, they die. And as awful as it sounds, it's the truth.) He was hesitant about giving up his independence, but as soon as he got there he was relieved. He called me within the first week to thank me, something I think he'd never done before in my whole life. He told me that he hadn't realized how lonely he was and how hard life had gotten for him. As soon as he moved in he was made to feel welcome. People greeted him every time he left his room. He called the ladies at his dining table "My Girl Scouts" and they were happy to have him there, it seemed. Soon he had a new girlfriend!

But the other side of that coin was that as soon as he moved in his condition worsened. While we'd told them he was still ambulatory, within a couple weeks he only used the motorized scooter to get around. Walking was so effortful, he endeavored to never have to.

Yet, life was good there. There was that slide, and then things evened out for quite a while.

But later that year he had a mild heart attack and again we saw a downhill turn. Less mobility, less energy. Several months later he had a bout of pneumonia which left him in the hospital for two weeks. Before he came home we arranged for a caregiver to come in the mornings to help him get up and dressed. He protested and we insisted. He agreed to it "for a few months" and we knew it was for good. A few weeks later he again thanked me, realizing after the fact how much energy and how many hours had been devoted to just the basic first steps of each day. It was a relief to have help with those tasks, to be able to conserve his energy.

Dad never complained. He never moaned about his lot in life. After the pneumonia I spent a full day trying to organize his medications, something he assured me he had a handle on. There were so many! At least 15 including vitamins! I was completely overwhelmed by his situation, I could only imagine how it affected him to have so many "conditions" (besides the MS there was also Chronic Lymphocitic Leukemia, high blood pressure, depression, prediabetes, obesity...maybe more). About his decreasing mobility he never whined. He just faced his life with a positive attitude.

When he had to give up his car he lost a lot of mobility. I was thankful he'd managed to avoid any dreadful mishaps, but he was depressed, his vehicle being not only a symbol of his independence, but the last actual vestige of it. He still managed to go out to eat, enjoying the multitude of tiny ethnic restaurants in his neighborhood, but it wasn't the same as having wheels.

However, towards the end I heard more and more a tinge of loneliness in the small print of our conversations. He told me how the space he lived in was between bed, desk and bathroom. And that the fact was he didn't have much desire to go out of his room and socialize. I worried about that, seeing his weight increase, his energy decrease, and his mobility evaporate. Soon, I felt, we were going to have to talk about the second level of care at Kingsley; Siberia, as he called it.

A few weeks before he died he took a fall while getting into bed. Ordinarily he got into bed at about 7 pm, when Mildred, his loving caregiver came in to help him with his compression boot and do his nighttime routines. But that night he wasn't ready to go to bed, so he sat at his computer watching Rachel Maddow on When he was ready he turned his chair, aimed himself, and launched to the bed. But for some reason he missed and fell on the floor. He was unable to get himself up due to his weight (he was close to 300 lbs at that point) and his limited flexibility. His cell phone was on the table far from where he was and no one was going to be coming by to check on him until Mildred returned at 7 am to get him up the next morning. For four hours he scooted himself closer and closer to where his cell phone sat in its cradle charging. Finally, after all that time he was able to knock it down to where he could grab it and he called the front desk to get someone in to help him up.

I received a call from the head nurse the next morning. I could see the writing on the wall. Dad was surprised I was concerned. He downplayed it all, and told me he was fine. He told me that, but I think he knew.

That slide, that decent, was happening. I think Dad knew it and I knew it. I turned my face away from it, I really did.

Two nights before my father passed away he dreamt that his mother had come to get him. She held him in her arms.

I spoke to him after this, but he didn't tell me. He told Mildred and he told his Girl Scouts. They told me about it. They told me he was scared, he was quiet. It affected him a great deal.

When I heard this story I felt the truth of it open up my heart. My grandmother had come to get my father. He knew it was time and so he went with her.

I miss my dad these days. I can't quite believe how much I miss him. When I look at the photos of him they are all full of his life, his laugh, his somewhat annoying banter. He has always been a part of my life and now...I just want the joke to be over, I want him back so I can give him another hug and tell him I appreciate his strength and his optimism. I know I didn't do that enough when he was here and I don't feel guilty, but I do feel regret.

I guess, though, that's alright.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Go ahead, laugh

That's right. You can laugh at my weak attempt to control my life.

So much for waking up early to write. So much for going to bed early. Once!

Over the past 12 days my life swirled chaotically around me. I can't even begin to describe the issues I'm faced with, they bother me so much. Suffice it to say, I am taking a lot of deep breaths around here.

There is no end in the foreseeable future. Maybe by the beginning of next month things will calm down. I will be past a couple big hurdles. And maybe I'll be able to talk about them then.

For now, I am taking pleasure in the little moments in my life. The donkeys' squeaky-creaky bray, the taste of fresh baked banana bread (when life gives you mushy bananas--make banana bread! isn't that the saying?), and the insights on life from my youngest child.

The weather's changing, bringing gorgeous sunsets and foggy, foggy mornings. It's cooling down (well, some days are) so I've taken out my knitting again and starting some new projects. I've also begun to organize my craft studio/office space and that feels like something extremely positive.

November: Seriously Autumn. I'm ready for a new season. Very, very ready.