Birds And New Beginnings

crispydoc Uncategorized 7 Comments

I worked both days over Christmas and the early morning shift on New Year's Day. The period in between was spent visiting my folks in their coastal California enclave. We had a wonderful time seeing my parents and visiting numerous aunts, uncles and cousins in the area.

Children were spoiled, mom's famous Kahlua flan (even more indulgent than it sounds) was consumed with gusto and many rounds of Cuban dominoes were played.

I accepted that I am now a stranger in my home town. It happens.

Old Birds Vs. Younger Fledglings

Visits home have evolved over the years. Younger, visiting-from-college me chafed at the indignity of being asked to replace light bulbs or perform simple maintenance on the house that an easily afforded handyman could do instead.

Older, aching-from-middle-age me understands that dad won't outsource the chores on principle yet can't physically manage the tasks. I now ask for each visit's "honey do" list on arrival.

It helps to have changed my frame of reference. Every visit is an intervention, an opportunity to keep dad off of a stepladder and prevent the type of intracranial bleed that becomes a life-changing event.

The stuff that kills people over 70 who visit the ER is mundane - a loss of balance while cleaning a rain gutter, a box retrieved from a high shelf in the garage leading to a broken hip. The road to catastrophic impairment is born of fundamentally pedestrian events.

I'm not a natural in this new role as adult child keeping an eye on his aging parents; I regress to my worst tantrum-prone kindergarten self around my folks an embarrassing percentage of the time.

I care more because I fear more. I feel on the hook for ensuring they are prepared for what physician-writer Atul Gawande has called the one-damn-thing-after-another phase of deteriorating health begins its downward spiral in earnest. I want to enjoy the time before it arrives, and that means practicing patience and compromise.

They helped me soar out of the nest. Now it's on me to ensure they remain functional in it as long as possible.

Bird Walks of Christmas Past

A visit to my parents' nest used to mean a walk around the neighborhood with dad, each of us armed with a pair of binoculars, to take in each season's birds as if we were visiting neighbors. We knew the familiar laughter of acorn woodpeckers, the sight of California quail nervously crossing a street, the drunken flight paths of turkey vultures riding thermal currents, and the visual splendor of hooded orioles announcing the return of spring from atop distant palm fronds.

The bird walk tradition began when I found my freshmen year roommate, a lacrosse playing Grateful Dead lover, unexpectedly poring over a Petersen Field Guide in our dorm room one day. Turns out his father, an environmental attorney, was a big shot in the East Coast Audubon Society.

I borrowed his guidebook, picked up the binoculars an aunt and uncle had gifted me for graduation (ostensibly for college sporting events) and developed new eyes with which to view the world.

Dad saw me taking morning walks, and asked if he could join me. It became our regular time away from my siblings when all of us visited home. Later, as I returned on solo visits and my siblings scattered to various geographies and responsibilities that made overlapping visits more challenging to schedule, Mom would occasionally join us.

Dad gets profoundly short of breath with minimal exertion these days, and can't manage the 2-3 miles around the neighborhood. Mom, who joined us some of the time, has osteoarthritis that limits her mobility to a similarly constricted radius.

The best we can share are Anna's and Allen's hummingbirds that come to a feeder in the window by the kitchen sink.

Bird Walks of Christmas Future

My daughter surprised me this past August when, on a family trip to central California (to celebrate my parents' anniversary), I mentioned I'd be waking up early to hike some nearby coastal trails that sounded intriguing. She asked if she could join me, and if we could keep it to just the two of us. My son seemed fine with it, so it was agreed.

Those mornings were golden. Fog-shrouded walks along haunted, dripping clifftop paths overlooking turbulent waters one day, blinding emerald trails crossed by deer tracks the next. It was wonderful, and I assumed it was a limited time offer.

During this visit to my parents, I mentioned I'd be walking early in the morning once more, and my daughter immediately expressed interest in joining me. It would be just the two of us.

We woke before the rest of the household and caught the sunrise reflected in the clouds. I pointed out the abrasive squawk of a scrub jay (heard before it was seen) and the nervous scout quail who edges forward before signaling to the brood that it's safe to cross the open road.

We passed a corral with two white horses, an unlikely suburban Greek orthodox church with whitewashed walls and a blue-tiled dome that was conspicuously not on a cliff overlooking the Aegean, and a pair of eucalyptus trees where a home owner once pointed out a sleeping barn owl he'd named Helmut a decade ago.

Unspoken but understood was the passing of the torch.

It was a beautiful inheritance, and it was ours alone.

Comments 7

  1. I used to be the handyman for my Mom after my Dad died. Today I’m 67 and hire her a handyman. When my Dad died he left my brother the CFO in charge of the dough. He left me the physician, in charge of the chaos, the relentlessly increasing entropy of old age. I live in the same town as my Mom. She lives in her place as she prefers. We got her a place that’s virtually all right turns. She can turn right to get to church. She can turn right to get to the pharmacy. She can turn right to get gas or food. To go to her doctor, we take her. She has some fixed dementia not Alzheimer based on deterioration of her brain mass and so I have to have accurate data about her actual medical condition. She likes to play games with her medication by reading the enclosed warning guide and picking and choosing which med she wants to take depending on the “side effects”. It’s a struggle, but a struggle I need to gently win. Winning can be absolute or it can be simply a 51/49 victory. “But I can’t take that synthroid it says I need to take it on an empty stomach and that means I need to wake up at 4 AM!” Yes mom that’s what it says, just take it with the rest of your pills and you’ll be fine.

    I take her out at least once a week for a steak. It’s an hour drive so we have time to catch up and the drive is through the Florida countryside with plenty of water and clouds an blue skies. I see her other times but this is our routine. Sometimes we go get ribs or a pizza.

    My kid shot a wedding over Christmas. She has a new boyfriend. She wanted to take her Nana out to eat last Sunday, with her new boyfriend, with money from her wedding shoot. Made me smile. The cycle continues.

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      You could be an anthropologist with your intuitive understanding of right turns. There are folks in LA who design their entire life around a right-turn existence for similar reasons.

      That’s one sweet kid who gets it taking grandma out to splurge a little.

      I moved back to LA from Boston after my the last of my grandparents died, with my girlfriend (now wife) in tow, and reconnected with my great uncle, a sweetheart of an 80-something widower who became my foster grandfather. He spoke with a highly specific accent that was Cuba by way of Brooklyn.

      We lived an hour+ distant from a traffic logistics perspective, but would grab a coffee at the Farmer’s Market every other month, catch up on family goings on, reminisce about my great aunt, and generally have a time of it. When my kids were born, they joined us and got a sip of coffee as their initiation to the club.

      I loved the old man, so they loved him. Sometimes that’s all you need to know as a kid – you were enough to win my dad’s affection, and that means something.

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  2. I don’t think anybody is a natural in that role– as adult child keeping an eye on the aging parents. I am not looking forward to being in that role, but I guess at some point the time will come .

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