Turning the Page

In the nine months since my parents moved to AZ I’ve been on a mission to reclaim my life. And I started with my body.

There were many aspects I’d ignored. How I ate. When/if I exercised. Regular medical screenings. Dental cleanings. I didn’t skip them completely. It’s not like I’m toothless but I was late. On everything.

Me. I worked 20+ years in medicine. I take care of these things. Meticulously.

During the years of caring for my folks I injured my back. Both knees, one twice. Since they moved I had one surgically repaired and spent months on crutches while the other healed. I’ve had sinus surgery. A pap smear nearly a year late. A colonoscopy over two years overdue. A dental cleaning and exam six months past the reminder postcard. 

How did all of this happen when I know what I know? When I know to ‘put my own mask on before helping the person next to me’? When I know the research on shortened life spans of caregivers.

Knowing what you know isn’t enough when thrust into eldercare. That’s the bottom line.

When my brother took over as the custodial child as it were, he’d had a heads up from watching me in the preceding years. He’d worried about me and wondered why I didn’t ameliorate my behavior and shift some care to myself in spite of my mother’s constant demands and illnesses and my dad’s deadly diagnosis. His concern, and mine, too, was that I might collapse before them, or shortly after. Be too spent to enjoy retirement with my husband because of the cost of caring for Mom and Dad.

I couldn’t answer him when he asked, “Why?” And he has a tough time doing differently with his own behavior now that he’s ‘the one’.


I’ve asked myself this question many times. My son and husband barraged me with that question. My friends challenged my management of the situation. Every morning I’d awaken and pledge a more even distribution of thought and energy, and by nightfall each day looked exactly as the one before. A time-sink of managing my folks, their business, and their care.

My brother was a scuba instructor and he recalled drowning data from his days as a student in the instructor program and then again from classes he taught. The greatest percentage of drownings occurs between parent and child. It doesn’t matter who’s going down, parent or child, the other rushes in to save the situation and frequently both are lost.

With this information as a springboard I began to consider my situation. My parents’ dire straits hooked me twice over – all my pictures of being a good daughter were invoked (what I knew my parents expected of me) and all those of good mother and caretaker (what I expected of myself). I couldn’t merely toss my folks a life jacket because I was clear they wouldn’t know how to put it on even if I believed they’d know what it was. I was constantly jumping off the boat and swimming out to them. 

Exhausting. And yet I couldn’t stop diving in.

Good daughter and good mother. I put myself in a vice of expectations.

That was the beginning of my own understanding that what I knew about caring for myself was not enough to actually do it. I ran to the water without thinking just as my brother’s scuba data would predict, playing the role of parent and child.

Does this knowledge change anything? No. It helps me understand me. And if affords me the opportunity to say again, what you think you know is not enough to actually follow through with doing. Don’t lose that if you’re a caregiver.

Which brings me to my last point in this series of reflections on care giving – the spouse stands alone.  

My husband saw everything and helped in every way he knew. He did, and does, bear the brunt of a completely unavailable mate. My brain was in such a muddle from juggling my numerous parent related responsibilities there was little to nothing left to relate to him. I lost myself (and often continue to) in hours of computer games or television reruns because I didn’t know another way to quiet myself from running ahead to the next, predictable crisis. He could see the damage being done and was powerless to influence a different outcome for me.

He encouraged me to contribute some small amount of energy to myself but by the time I could hear him it was too late. I was too tired to want to do anything but sleep or zone out.

He was essentially single for years while I was consumed with care giving. Even worse, he didn’t have the freedom of being single and would be pressed into duty when both parents were simultaneously in need and I could only tend to one.

Now I hear from my sister-in-law words which echo my husband’s. “I know in my heart I’m your number one priority, but nothing I can see or feel reflects it. I’m lonely and I miss you. I worry you’ll never come back to me and if you do, you’ll be too broken to ever be the same.”

The spouse stands alone. And they shouldn’t have to.

I don’t have answers. I wish I did. I have regrets, for myself, my husband, and son. We all lost the same person. Me. And ironically I still wonder if I did enough for my parents. Good daughter/good mother pictures prompting a hamster-wheel of second guessing. Did I do right by them?

I’m hoping that will fade over time. My intellect tells me I cared for them well. Emotions trail behind. 

Though short on answers, I would suggest if you’re in my position you remember three things:

  • What you think you know is not enough – there’s a “knowing-doing” gap. Make a deal with those you trust that you’ll heel when they yank your leash because you’re not doing what’s required to care for yourself. Negotiate this upfront. In the thick of things is too late.
  • Remember the drowning data and consider your own triggers. I realized mine but only in hindsight. Do it now so you can keep them top of mind.
  • Don’t let your spouse stand alone. Yes, they signed up for thick and thin, sickness and health, and they’re most likely willing to do it. But don’t make them watch you throw your health away. They didn’t sign up for that.

This is the fifth piece I’ve written on eldercare. It’s time to get back to being me. I’m finished with this. I’m shaking it off, I’m turning the page. I’ve offered everything I think might help. 

If you have questions about resources or how I/we handled something, feel free to ask, either here in comments, or email me, but I won’t be writing about this again.

Good luck. Take care. 

Dedicated to my hubs with more gratitude than words can express. And to me. 





Posted in eldercare, memoir, Pamela Hester King, self-reflection | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

I Was Wrong

From the beginning of this series of blog posts I wanted to write about family relationships and the way they can change. Some grown stronger, others crack or break irreparably, especially with illness or death of a loved one. I saw it when my daughter died, and then again with the death of my husband. Maybe someone presents at the perfect time with grit previously unseen while another disappears. Neither expected. A hero surfaces while someone else avoids a chance to save the day.

But I didn’t know how to tell this part of the eldercare story without venting or ranting, or being perceived that way no matter how carefully crafted my words or intention.

I still don’t know but I’m writing it anyway because it’s too significant to omit. Excising it would play into the protection racket.

I add a qualifier. This is my tale from my experience. If you spoke to someone else in my family their version could sound different and not untrue from their perspective.

But it’s important to entertain the possibility that your family could fracture from the strain of prolonged illness. Or, I hope for you, become closer. Perhaps some of both.

August 29th marks the fourth anniversary of the evening we were told Dad had six weeks to six months to live. Since I was told. I drove to their home in the woods early one Sunday morning, pulled my tentative parents out and carted them to the medical facility I trusted most, a drive of four hours. I was able to convince them to come by promising that if I was wrong, I’d happily drive them back that night. First I needed to hear from an expert that Dad was okay.

Within 30 minutes of arriving at the ER I was told Dad had a tumor that covered half his brain. He snored with his usual roar on the gurney next to us as the doctor spoke to me. I repeated the words to my mom who sat in stunned silence in the waiting room. I called my husband, my elder brother, and my son. Brother One phoned Brother Two.

Six weeks to six months. But four years have passed. Dad has outlived Mom. On the list of the unexpected, that would be at the top.

Neither would I have predicted I’d lose my family as I knew it. I thought we’d hang tough and hang together. Would spell each other, help each other, console each other, and together contribute to Mom and Dad. Imagined tears and blow-ups and all the emotions and expressions that stress and illness can foment but ultimately, thought we’d be together.

I was wrong.

After Dad’s diagnosis and Mom’s concomitant illnesses my parents were placed in assisted living a mile from me. I could walk to them. Saw them nearly daily when they lived in California.

I’m a daughter of a certain generation. My parents’ expectations of me were different and greater than those of my brothers in this circumstance, as were my expectations of myself.

I didn’t ask anyone to do what I was willing to do and didn’t expect out-of-county and out-of-state brothers to equal my assistance minute for minute when mile for mile they were further away. I was explicit in saying this.

But I thought we’d find geographic parody, each doing what he could from his corner.

I was wrong.

As the sprint became a marathon, the illnesses more grave, and the wear and tear greater, Brother One stepped up his support, coming from Arizona at scheduled intervals while Brother Two’s assist slowed to a trickle. His wife said we lived too far away to help. She’d need to drive an hour.

I ruminated. I ranted to my husband. I bored myself with my never-ending internal preparation for a meaningful dialogue with my missing sibling.

Actual discussion with him did nothing to influence behavior; I was hurt and angry. I felt abandoned. I wondered why someone I’d always stood by wasn’t standing next to me.

I fretted on behalf of our parents. The youngest. The cherished. The one in whom they’d  most delighted was nearly absent save flocked and glittered holiday cards signed by his wife, “We love you so much.” But little sitting next to. Being with. Listening to.

And no relief for me.

So I asked a clear question. “What can I count on from you so I can plan? What will you do?”

He was warm. Kind. He smiled. Nodded in understanding. He did not answer and I wouldn’t hear what was in the silence.

Then I emailed.

He did not reply.

I thought perhaps the sound of my needy voice or sight of my name in his electronic in-box grated on him so I asked my son to call when something was necessary. One day he said, “Please don’t ask me to call Uncle again. His voice, it changes to a ‘what do you want now‘ tone, and I feel really angry.”

I convinced myself that maybe my youngest brother couldn’t witness the deterioration. Maybe the baby of the family had been so protected he couldn’t watch our parents die. Maybe he couldn’t see me age at warp speed.

Maybe he thought I was made of sterner stuff and didn’t know we were the same stuff. Perhaps he didn’t understand I faced each day as frightened as he but without his contribution had to access my reserves more frequently. I had to dig deeper because he wasn’t. Didn’t realize I’d accept a spade if he didn’t own a shovel.

Maybe when his wife said she loved me like a sister I’d misunderstood. I’d never had a sister. Maybe sister-love was different than I thought. Different than the way I loved my brothers. Maybe sister-love wasn’t designed to go the distance.

Maybe he thought because I’d managed through the loss of a child and husband I was better prepared. Didn’t know when I’d faced the unreasonable, unthinkable, I hadn’t been hardened in the crucible but instead was burned and shattered inside.

While he offered none I devised excuses for him.

When I couldn’t keep up with caregiver chores any longer, the doctors’ appointments, shopping, hospitalizations and surgeries, hauling one parent to see the other, intercessions with facility staff, when it was too much for me, even with husband and son helping and Brother One flying in and out, we put our heads together to find what if anything we could ask of Brother Two that would not require interruption of his schedule, or travel from his home.

Paperwork. Mom and Dad’s accounting and bill paying.

We found the easiest thing Brother Two might do that would make the biggest difference if lifted from me. Brother One made an email request describing what we needed. Would Brother Two pick up a file box of bank statements and monthly bills, all paid, and take over where I left off so my home office would be free for me to work when I wasn’t with Mom and Dad? Could we change their mailing address to his so that invoices and insurance mail could be reviewed and filed at his house?

He did not respond.

Then I knew.

I could fool myself no longer. It didn’t matter the reason. He wouldn’t be part of the care team. It wasn’t about distance. Or ease. Or schedule.

It was about something I didn’t understand.

In the pain I wondered why we didn’t matter enough. Why didn’t I matter enough?

So I stopped.

I put emotional distance between us. I didn’t ask or phone again. I quit thinking of him as family. It hurt but not as much as being left behind while from my vantage point it seemed his life progressed unchanged.

He was a stranger with whom I shared DNA. A child I’d once walked to kindergarten on his first day of school. The thought of him had me pitch between grief and rage.

I promised me I’d keep him out of mind, prevent myself from inventing relationship that was not there; I’d stop expecting or hoping. Or agonizing.

If I thought of him by accident, I ordered myself to stop. To make the pain go away.

I quit on him. I quit on us.  And I admitted I’d always known our relationship was as close as I was willing to knit. Was contingent on my will to do the work. I hoped what I’d already done was enough to keep us close. That he would notice I was gone.


I was wrong.

When we moved our parents to Arizona, Brother One called to tell Brother Two. To the best of my knowledge Two didn’t visit to say good-bye. I thought I couldn’t be surprised. I was. But I don’t think my parents were. They’d long arrived at a place of acceptance I had yet to find.

Brother One has taken over nearly all contact with Brother Two if there was (or is) a change in status we think should be shared. We disclose so when we look in the mirror we know we’ve acted responsibly. We keep no information from him that might alter his ability to make informed decisions.

Two days before Christmas, Brother One called me to say Mom was being moved to hospice. He was devastated. To ease his way slightly I made the call to Brother Two before I left to help in Arizona. And say a final good-bye to my mother.

Brother Two stayed home to celebrate Christmas with his widowed father-in-law so his wife’s family wouldn’t think he’d abandoned their tradition; he volunteered this to me when he arrived after the holiday.

Mom spoke for the last  time. “My baby,” she whispered when she saw him.

When we were young, would fight and argue, scream and scrap as siblings do, she would say, “One day your father and I will be gone and you’ll just have each other. Don’t fight. You’ll be what’s left of our family.”

Wreckage. That’s what’s left of our family.

Dad’s care goes on. On Easter and Father’s Day he received his Hallmark greetings. But I don’t think he’s seen my younger brother.

Brother Two is a very nice man. With a wonderful smile. He tells a good joke. People are drawn to him.

He’s charming. And pleasant.

When friends think of fun they never want to try without him.

He’s an athlete. But apparently without endurance.

He’s a sprinter. But I’m guessing not a marathoner.

He’s a lover, not a fighter. Not for Mom and Dad. Or, for me.

I think he’s a family man.

Just not my family.

As time has passed and others tell me their stories, I hear a version of this one again and again. Questions left unanswered. Dreams and expectations dashed; disappointment deposited instead.

I don’t pretend to understand. Why, if a chance exists that the journey could be made easier, do families not use each other as a splint to prop the broken spirit? Why splinter, fracture, and wither away?

Do they come back together again? And heal?

I hope so. I don’t like being wrong.

Posted in eldercare, good-bye, loss, memoir, Pamela Hester King, relationship, self-reflection, sorrow, story-telling, truth | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Racism, Accountability, and Paula Deen

I’m interrupting our regularly scheduled programming (my promised entries on Eldercare) because I need to get random here.

I don’t know if she’s a racistI haven’t talked to her in years. Okay, I’ve never met her. All that cooking and never once has she invited me over.

If she’s a racist, there’s no law against it. Moral law, yes. Spiritual law, certainly. But no legal-type law.

If she created a hostile work environment and discriminated against employees, the courts will suss that out and more power to the woman who brought it to the attention of the law.

Not to mention karma. When karma’s involved, you know how that one goes…

But truly, we don’t know anything yet other than Paula Deen’s admission that she used the n-word.

I hate that. And I don’t buy that it was only once because she was robbed by a black man. Though if someone put a gun to my head, goodness knows what I’d say. Or do. Other than clean my britches and hide for about ten years.

There is such a thing as institutionalized racism and we don’t always know when we’re perpetrators. We don’t know what we don’t know. I can’t speak to the covert ways that sections of the human race are demeaned because I don’t walk in their shoes and I can’t always see it. (Not even speaking to the appalling overt behavior I’ve seen that no one should have to experience.)

When I was very young I was married for all of about 15 minutes. With the last name of Rosenthal, in 15 minutes I learned plenty. About things that had been invisible to me.

I know ugly things are said and said by people who sometimes don’t even know they’re offensive.

“I’m gonna Jew that guy down and see if I can get a better deal.”

“You gypped me.”

Hell, way back when I lived in Texas a restaurant menu showed three salad dressing options. Thousand Island. Blue cheese. And WopI assume that’s Italian?

A few years ago I was at a BBQ joint with my parents. In front of us in line was a mixed race couple. My mother said under her breath, “I just hate that.”

I knew my mother. I knew exactly what she was referring to. I feigned ignorance.

“What, Mom? What are you talking about?”

“Black men and white women.” Right after which she attempted to disown her opinion.

“Oh, I know, it may not be right, but that’s just what I think and I can’t help it.”

Interesting, I thought. Bestie’s married to a black guy. Mom loved him.

“Mom, is that what you think every time you see Bestie and Billy?”

“No,” she answered. “I don’t think that at all. They’re different.”

I let the moment breathe. Paused. “Well, Mom, I gotta think you can help it if you don’t think it when you’re with Bestie and Billy.”

She didn’t like that. Nope. Not one bit.

And what’s different about Bestie and Billy? We all know. She knew Billy and trusted him. He isn’t part of a nameless mass of humanity of a different color that’s suspect until proven different.

I come from a bunch of Italians (who discriminated against each other because some were northern Italian and some were bas-Italia, low Italian, otherwise known as Sicilian and very dark) and Russian Jews. Shaken not stirred, vigorously at that, if you know those folks.

But I have an advantage. My predecessors paid my dues. I have homogenized looks and a last name to match. My hair is bleached blonde. Good luck figuring out my ancestry. My roots don’t show (well, sometimes, but then I go to the hairdresser) and for awhile, I didn’t even know what they were.

In third grade my friend said to me, “See that new girl. She’s Jewish.” 

Are you kidding me? Sidra Silberman. Hell, yes, she’s Jewish. But at that time I’d never even heard the word.

“What’s Jewish?”

She whispered, “They don’t believe in Jesus.”

Seriously? People who don’t believe in Jesus? I went to catechism on Saturday mornings. My parents made a choice between the two religions they came from. I was raised Catholic. I didn’t know my paternal grandmother was Jewish.

I walked up to Sidra. “You don’t believe in Jesus? Why?” I asked astounded.

Can you imagine? I grimace at the thought, even though I was only nine. I’m really sorry, Sidra. 

Clannish. Humans are clannish. We haven’t been socialized all that long and sometimes I’m not so sure we’re socialized at all. Outsiders are – well, outsiders. Humans tend to hang with their own kind. And there’s safety in numbers, after all.

Been to the Castro in San Francisco? They have their own flag for land’s sakes. 

None of this is to say that any of this discrimination stuff is okay. It’s not okay. It’s reprehensible. The marginalizing, keeping down, holding down, demeaning of any individual or group. It’s just plain wrong.

But there’s a lot about the Deen affair left to come to light. In this situation, quite literally, the jury isn’t out – the jury doesn’t even have the case yet. 

I’m not known to quote Al Sharpton but (paraphrasing) he said something about not being much worried about what she said years ago but plenty interested if it’s still going on today. Me, too,and it remains to be heard.

Thank you, Reverend.

Credit David Shankbone

Paula Deen’s affiliates are cancelling contracts, non-renewing, and running for cover. As though their association was an accident. They just bumped into each other mistakenly. And the media are all over the deal like a wet sweat.

But this is what I absolutely do know. There’s something called accountability. It has a few components. 1) Owning your stuff. Good and bad. 2) Accepting the consequences. 3) Cleaning up any mess; paying the fine; making amends. 4) Making a plan for improvement. 5) Improving.

Rinse. Repeat. Till trust is reestablished.

But who in their right mind will ever do the thing we all say we want, take responsibility and own up, if when we do the world lands on us, judges us, kicks us out before fair hearing? If our message is owning up and cleaning up mean nothing. 

There are some distinctions we need to make in this and other cases. Have those accountability benchmarks been met? With my mom, “I can’t help it,” – not so much. Mel Gibson – improvement? I don’t think so. More like taking his show underground. Anthony Weiner, we’ll see, (but I really don’t wanna see anymore).  

Then there’s our role. Have we examined our criteria for forgiveness? Is it reasonable? Which are our one strike and you’re out principles, and which transgressions do we let others earn their way back from? Are our standards rational? Do we hold ourselves to the same ones? Would we be okay if others held us to them?

Do we know the difference between forgiveness and pardon? Nixon was pardoned and to this day he hasn’t been forgiven. Because pardon doesn’t help produce ownership. It says the opposite. It makes the sin like it didn’t happen.

If Paula Deen did bad, she shouldn’t get a bye. No pardon. Not because she’s 66, raised in the South, is famous, a kindly grandma-type on television, or cried for Matt Lauer. She should be accountable.

But how can she, or any of us enact a plan for improvement and seek forgiveness if we’re shunned and humiliated, and left no place to do that?

Make no mistake – her professional associates aren’t severing ties on moral grounds. It’s about money. They’re getting rid of her before their sponsors, clients or customers get rid of them. No report of one saying more than, “We’re weighing our options.”

How about, “There will be no decision until all the facts are in. Because that’s the diligence with which we make our product and we believe that’s what you value about us.” Or, “She’s been an excellent partner with us and we believe everyone should have a fair hearing. It’s too early to act.”

Nope. They think we’re reactive, irrational, and unforgiving. Really, I think they think we don’t think.

Again I say, there’s no excuse for racist behavior. I pray I haven’t unknowingly been an example of Jane Elliott’s “Blue Eyed Experiment” but that’s probably too much to hope. Instead I’ll ask for forgiveness and the opportunity to make things right if I’ve caused a hurtful impact I didn’t intend. I would wish that for anyone.

While the court sorts out what Deen did and didn’t do, while she explains and dusts herself off, I believe we need to hold ourselves to a standard, too. We have a role in this, in the great world of accountability. Let’s play it well.


Posted in culture, current events, famous people, Pamela Hester King, random observation, social commentary | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Protection Racket

©pamela hester king


It has a clear, maybe not simple, definition for me. It’s the reputation I have with myself. Who I say I am. What I’m proud of. My talents, skills, competencies; the roles I play. My perception of my weaknesses and strengths. How I see beauty and success, and why. What I value, what I believe. And key personal, historical components that have contributed to my thoughts about how the world works, who I am in it, and what’s possible for me. That’s my identity

You have one, too, made up of all those things. 

When I work with leaders learning to give feedback, I tell them to be cautious when giving information that contradicts identity. It may be perceived as an identity assault. It’s important to give necessary and sometimes negative feedback but equally so to help the recipient maintain their definition of who they are, hang on to their dignity.

Whole wars have been waged, and continue now, over identity. Look at the Middle East if you don’t believe me. 

I won’t give feedback or information that ‘deconstructs’ identity if in my opinion the situation is such that it’s impossible for the person on the receiving end to restore their reputation with self, or build a new one. If they can’t somehow make things right for themselves.

©pamela hester king

Does that make sense? I have an example.

A long time ago a friend phoned to tell me her mom was terminally ill. My friend had a lot of unfinished business with her mom. She wanted me to guide her in a clear-the-air conversation, and help her say things to her mother that had been left unsaid, or were said but not heard for years preceding.

I coach communication so I was a logical choice for help. We were old friends; I knew her mom and had a deep understanding of the issues that troubled my friend. But there was a rub for me. If I helped my friend say what she wanted, I’d likely also undo the accomplishment of which her mom was most proud – she had tried to be a good mother. Believed she had been. Thought she raised her daughter well, with love and advantages, and was leaving to her only child a large estate to secure her daughter’s future and that of her grandsons.

Giving my friend the benefit of the doubt, I’ll say she planned to be compassionate in the conversation. I still said no. Would not do it. Not under the circumstances. There was no time left to work through things. For her mother to refurbish her reputation with herself as having done right by her daughter, let alone time to shift her daughter’s opinion. 

My decision caused a rift. My friend was angry with me. Felt deserted in a time of need. All the things she needed to say before her mother’s passing might never be said. 

I understand her point of view better now. 

©pamela hester king

But that’s how I thought, and think today. If there’s no opportunity to restore or rebuild, I won’t be party to sending someone off whose identity has been upended, and may be left to believe they were not who they strived to be through a lifetime so someone else feels better. It serves no one. It has its own fall out for those who remain behind. One burden lessened while another takes its place…

So as my own parents struggled with their illnesses and my brother and I were challenged with maneuvering through a minefield of financial mishaps we hadn’t known existed, we positioned information to my parents to preserve their identities and protect them from ever feeling ‘less than’ in our eyes.

We told most of the truth. That we needed to be judicious, budgets were required, assets were limited and creativity necessary, but we kept to ourselves that at nearly every junction where a decision needed making my parents had chosen poorly with devastating consequences to their future. They never asked certain questions and we didn’t feel compelled to tell. 

We protected them with our money. We protected them by doing things that may have been better handled professionally had more resources been available; we protected them by filling in as many blanks as necessary so they were never without, sometimes to our own detriment.

We protected them from gaining the knowledge that they worked a lifetime to wind up insolvent. We could not bear the pain that would be caused for them were they fully in the know, especially my dad whose identity in part consisted of being a good provider.

They had lost the dream of aging and dying in their own home. Were reconciled with great difficulty to the knowledge they would not be leaving much to their children; for them a final picture of meaningful parenting had died. I couldn’t tell the entire, unvarnished truth of their circumstances. Couldn’t handle taking anything else away. Even an illusion.

We managed the facts in small bits, without lying. But without fully truthing either. It was a protection racket.

And then it finally became necessary to ensure their future well-being with the move to Arizona where they would have the benefit of the ALTCS program if needed. I wrote about that a few weeks ago in, Working the System.

Mom called the move her extradition from California. She thought I was too tired to continue caring for them as the primary custodial child. Thought I didn’t love her enough to do the hard stuff anymore. She was disappointed, angry and sad. Afraid to leave what little she had that was familiar.

I highlighted all the reasons why the move was good. Better weather. Close to my brother. A larger apartment with more amenities. Bigger resident population with less dementia so more real peers, companions, and activities. Things which were important to her. As my brother had done when they lived near me, I planned to come monthly to visit. She would have one child near her and the other visiting. The reverse of what we’d done in California.

But the most important piece of information was held back except for the words, “You’ll never have to worry about your financial future.”

Though my brother and I never stopped worrying, I don’t know that they ever did, we’d protected them so well.  

©pamela hester king

My mom fretted. 

told her it was our last great adventure together as a family. We spent part of my childhood moving from city to city because of Dad’s work. And here we were again, blazing a trail, learning a new town, making new friends, adapting, just as she’d taught us.

She was not appeased.

I kept wondering whether we’d, I’d, protected Mom too much. In my fervor to help them maintain their identities as sovereign, responsible adults, she had no real context for the move. She was a native born San Franciscan. Californian to the core and was being asked to surrender one more piece of her history. Of herself. The protection bill had come due. My mother would not, could not, did not understand.

If my father understood more than was said I don’t know. He cooperated, even seemed a little excited, until the evening before the move during which he cried out in his sleep, became restless then finally remained awake and disoriented for the rest of the night.

When Mom said good-bye to her favorite cousin the week before we left for Arizona, they both knew realistically, it was forever. There was no protection from that. 

Mom & Cousin ~ A Lifetime of Love

The move itself went smoothly. Mom helped unpack and directed furniture placement. She appeared to recover some enthusiasm for her living situation, except for the new laundry routine. She vigorously disapproved of the weekly schedule and told me so on the phone twice daily for a week after I left. When I distracted her with a planned shopping trip upon my next visit and she was nearly restored, temporarily. 

I left her on December 5, my air travel ticket already secured for a return trip immediately after Christmas. She had her Christmas lights and ornaments and my sister-in-law to help decorate their suite. I ordered a wreath for their door.

Mom asked me what I wanted for Christmas. As ever, she didn’t get it. 

“I want you to scout every nook and cranny of this building so that when I come back you can give me a tour, show me everything they have here and introduce me to your new friends. That’s what I want for Christmas.” I hugged her and said, “I love you,” her tiny body lost in my bear hug. She nodded, waited and watched as I walked down the hallway to the exit.

I turned around a few times to see her still standing at her front door. We waved and blew kisses every few feet. I exited.

Ten days later she was in the hospital. Ten more in hospice. Five and she was gone.

Mom & Brother

Had I protected her right out of life? Broken her heart with what she didn’t know? I don’t have the answer. 

Nobody talks about this aspect of elder care. We talk about self-care (I’ll get to that), we talk about social services (I did that in Working the System) but the place where I started, No One Knows How to Do This, well, I know less now than when I began the journey. How to help with adjustments and loss of independence and the different, difficult crises that emerge on the way to the end. 

I don’t know that if I’d done everything perfectly it would have made a difference. I can’t always tell what’s out of my hands. I ask myself some of the same questions even now that there’s only Dad to care for. What should I tell him? What should I demand from him in participation because it’s good for him and protection only serves to weaken him? I don’t know. I say that more often than ever. 

I did the best I knew, as did my brother. I’m learning we need to protect our own identities, too, from second-guessing ourselves. From not being able to shield our parents completely from the pain of withering away. 

But that never was assigned to us. We took it on. 

We try to protect ourselves from wishing we were more than only human, with mere human power and limits. 

Posted in death, dying, eldercare, loss, memoir, Pamela Hester King, relationship, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Working the System

They met at age 12, married at 21, stayed married for 63 years. And both were gravely ill, together, as they’d always been. We never imagined that. Moreover, they hadn’t either. For the first time since seventh grade, my parents weren’t able to care for each other.

August 2009. Novices in our situation. New to a system. We were caregivers. Financial planners. Chauffeurs. Personal assistants. Errand-runners. Note-takers. Translators. Keepers and givers of history. Medication dispensers. Eyes and ears for doctors who couldn’t see everything. Advocates for the elderly.

There was hardly time left just to love them.

My mother moved to a rehab facility to recover from physical and emotional ills while Dad healed after open cranial biopsy for a large brain mass. ‘Crisis’ doesn’t feel an adequate descriptor as I look back. I recall adrenaline surging with chaos, overwhelm, helplessness and panic, all coursing through family veins.

Profound sadness set in as we absorbed the probability of losing both mother and father in the coming months. We grieved for them as they faced their own worst fear, one being left without the other after being together since grade school.

Their relationship had endured for 72 years. They no longer had separate memories.

We originally hoped to return my parents with health support to their home nestled near the wilds of Yosemite. It quickly became clear that was unrealistic. Dad’s treatment included weeks of radiation during which he needed outpatient care Mom couldn’t provide and transportation to various appointments hours from their home; she no longer drove even if well enough to do so.

We conjured a second plan with temporary, respite housing for Dad a mile from me and located next door to where Mom was convalescing. Assuming she was physically and mentally restored and he lived longer than the dire prediction of 3 months, we hoped to situate them in a senior-friendly apartment back in the Bay Area “beehive” my dad had tried to escape. I could deliver meals, home healthcare would oversee meds, and Mom could remain mistress of her domain, a key factor in helping her cope. Dad, when able, need not drive more than ten minutes to anything.

Though she came around several times, it was always temporary. Mom wasn’t able to maintain sound health for longer than six weeks without re-hospitalization. A fragile mental health component concomitantly lurked making treatment difficult and emotional support challenging. Dad worried constantly about her, unable to do anything but watch.

Again we shifted gears. A permanent move was made to an assisted living environment with professional staff to support them as family provided for all other needs.

To finance the situation we sold their home, scrutinized income sources and savings, and began to work the system into which we were conscripted. Our goal was to provide long term care should the doctors be wrong in their longevity predictions.

We spent hours on the Internet researching treatment and understanding likely disease trajectory.

We investigated free and low cost third-party services that might help us leverage the system for financial assist. My brother and I became familiar with Veterans Administration services, their aid and attendance program, military service pension and medical care.

We contacted the county and state, learned about California’s Council on Aging and what it might provide. We sought out nearly free transportation services through the county and took steps to qualify my parents. We looked into volunteer offerings through the parish church that served my parents’ new residence. We talked to social services at the hospital where they were treated. We met with an elder care attorney seeking information about my parents’ rights and ours to act on their behalf.

We had my parents sign sweeping Powers of Attorney (POA) documents so we, their children, could act in concert or independently in pursuit of their interests without redundant signatures or total burden on a single child. Brother One handled financial issues, Brother Two sold their house, and I handled all logistics pertaining to medical care and living arrangements.

Armed with all we knew and attempted to learn about the system, we were still ill equipped to wend our way through the top-heavy, overburdened bureaucracies of the state of California, and the federal government as related to the Veterans Administration. Stabilizing my parents’ medical and financial situation became my full-time job.

The VA has labor-intensive protocols in place that take months, even years to navigate. Close to one year passed between filing the initial claim and the first ‘aid and attendance’/pension payment to my parents. This time frame was considered a WWII veterans fast tracked process. Even then, the claim was processed incorrectly and the fix took another year. The corrected payment, thankfully so, was retroactive to the date of first filing, by then nearly two years prior.

I had 22 years of experience in medical administration that allowed me to comprehend physician-speak and ask important questions. I could talk knowledgably with case managers, crack the code on health insurance benefits statements and hospital bills, and understood the Medicare system with which I had worked as a liaison during my healthcare career.

My patience was still tested by red tape, errors, and the failure to correct them that I frequently encountered. My experience helped me recognize mistakes, ask questions and make requests but generally served to irritate those to whose attention I brought them. A helpful, effective representative was a godsend who changed the tenor of an entire week.

I could be terse, even short-tempered, with someone who seemed obstructive. There were times I had to lay down the load, take a walk, nap, or zone out with computer games to shake off a day of frustrations due to roadblocks, or transfers to multiple phone agents each asking again why I called.

In all of this, lessons were learned.

I recorded names and numbers of specific contacts within organizations whose knowledge was broad, deep and accurate. They became my contact points.

I worked better with the mounds of paper when done in short bursts with breaks between tasks; I started out with specific, small goals tailored to the complexity of the chore.

In what now seems a prescient moment, I had a year earlier asked my dad to compile documents I could easily find if needed. I included these items:

  • Copies of my parents Social Security cards
  • Copies of their health insurance/Medicare cards
  • Original marriage certificate
  • Original U.S. military discharge papers
  • Original birth certificates

These allowed me to file for the VA benefits my dad had earned during his military service but never used, and his original service documents were needed. A Power of Attorney allowed the VA to work with me.

My mother, as spouse of a veteran, was also entitled to benefits that were/are more easily procured while the veteran is alive. Benefits can be obtained after death but the process, already arduous, is longer and more difficult. We filed on Mom’s behalf as quickly as possible given my father’s poor prognosis.

My parents were proud that they had been on top of things, ‘affairs in order’, wills drawn, durable powers of attorney for healthcare designated, and POAs executed in case of emergency. But it wasn’t until we needed those documents that we found their POAs unsuitable, good only if they were dead.

The document was also sequential. “If Miss America is unable to fulfill her duties, the crown then goes to…”, with power rolling from one parent to the other then on to the kids. In our case, both were out of commission and neither deceased. We had no power to act for them.

We couldn’t allocate responsibilities among us until procuring a different type of POA.

We were fortunate to have discovered this before my dad’s brain surgery so his competence was not at issue, and while my mother was still tethered to reality sufficiently to understand their paperwork wasn’t applicable during incapacitation. We obtained new forms from a local office supply store and a hospital staff notary witnessed execution.

No single individual (including pricey third party senior advocates and attorneys) was more instrumental in assisting us to successfully secure VA benefits than the Veteran Services Officer through our county Health and Human Services Agency. The overworked individuals in this role are themselves veterans and understand the system; they act as veteran advocates as well as being public servants at the community level. Their plates are overflowing.

Our officer was an expert. He explained the VA system, criteria and process. He sat with me while I completed applications. He gave a heads up as to where we could expect bumps in the road and info on how to prepare. He schooled me in the best way to work the system without gaming it, nibbling at the edge of ethics or compromising integrity.

He greased the skids wherever he could and verified we were in process when something seemed out of timeliness. He coached me on language to use when being interviewed by VA representatives, and reassured me every step of the way.

Had I not found him, in conjunction with time to learn the VA system and my own prior medical background, the outcome for my parents would have been very different.

When we had exhausted our own abilities and all avenues in bankrupt California, we had to become even more creative in our research. It was then we learned of the Arizona Long Term Care System. My dad will eventually enter ALTCS. The program will make certain there is no change in his current living situation. His shift in financial status from independent to state funded will be invisible to him and outside observers.

As the Yiddish proverb aptly says, Man plans, God laughs. We find ourselves in uncharted territory once more. My father, now unthinkably four years post-diagnosis, has outlived his wife and his ability to care for himself. His memory is greatly compromised due to the brain radiation that saved his life. He relies on care from professionals and family and is monitored around the clock.

I traded places with Brother One. After more than three years in my care, Dad now lives in Arizona, a state that has gone to great thought and expense to provide for its elderly population in the most dignified manner possible and, coincidentally, where my brother resides. Arizona will pick up the difference between combined VA and Social Security benefits, and the actual cost of maintaining my father. I visit monthly to lend a hand and I manage everything that can be handled remotely. Brother One provides all logistical day-to-day support.

This isn’t a pretty story. It’s not one I relish telling. It was and remains painful to live. It is told with profound disappointment at having to see my parents, now just my dad, down a path he would find humiliating were he competent to understand. But I believe more and more of us will face these challenges and wanted this story told with as much useful information as I could transmit.

Working the system has new meaning in my family. Because of the work we did to find out what’s available we were not only able to shelter my parents well, comfortably, and lovingly, we’ve also eased financial obligations on two subsequent generations that had pulled together to cover the financial needs of its elders.

The Greatest Generation put much of this system in place. Some of them now need to access its benefit, freeing their children to provide for their own old age.

But pursuit of these benefits in conjunction with care for my parents was an all-encompassing quest. The system works but working the system was difficult. Should it be easy in the face of potential graft and corruption? Probably not, but it shouldn’t be this hard either.

Who said, “Growing old ain’t for sissies?” Bette Davis? True, true.

Watching out for those growing old takes grit, too. Work the system. It is work, and all the help we’d wish isn’t there but some is.  Find out what’s there for you and yours. Be creative. Pull your documents together and be sure they’re the right ones. Nurture connections. Get stubborn. Make the system work for you.

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No One Knows How to Do This

I met my oldest friend when we were four. We don’t know everything about each other but 56 years later, let’s say our history is extensive.

When we played as pre-kindergartners our parents were less than half the age we are now. We thought they were Methuselah’s older cousins. Now we laugh at how they managed to raise seven of us ranging in age from newborn to eight when they were really very young themselves. In retrospect it’s quite amazing. We all made it to adulthood, some with our own kids, grown as well.

Three of our four parents survive. My dad is the youngest at 85. Her dad, the oldest at 89. Her mom in the middle. Various degrees of decline are present in all, some days tolerable; others? Not so much. It’s difficult to know what will bring on a bad spell during which time on the clock and in the body might differ by 12 hours. An evening phone call will be answered with, “Good morning.” News previously delivered will be sought again, heard as brand new until quickly forgotten. Then something clicks and for a while things become nearly normal. The brand of normal offered at this stage.

I’ll take it. The nearly normal. The pretend normal. The normal without a minor or major catastrophe for an hour.

I remember something Elisabeth Kubler-Röss said many years ago in a small “On Death & Dying” workshop. “Every loss we experience, right down to a contact lens, is preparation for the greatest loss to come. Laying down our own lives.”

Each day I sit with him I witness my dad set down a tiny piece of his life.

Today was my friend’s turn to cry. Echoing the tears and overwhelm she’s heard from me too often, she said, “I don’t know how to do this, Pammy.”

I don’t know how to do this either and yet we do it, whatever it is. We say good-bye daily, cell by cell, watching parents struggle to be who they once were. Wondering if they understand they aren’t, and if we understand where they might be.

I don’t know how to do this.

But in all the not knowing I’ve identified four present, separate silos of sorrow that live within me and that I heard in my friend’s sadness.

1) Loss, of parents, and the history we share
2) Anguish, frustration and worry about ‘getting it right’, ‘doing it right’, – eldercare and self care – figuring out what helps and what doesn’t while mourning present losses and preparing for those to come
3) Wondering how bad it will get before it’s over – is this the beginning, middle or end of a process of leaving life?
4) Fearfulness – what awaits me in old age? What’s in my control and what isn’t no matter how well I plan or care for myself? Who will be the me for me?

The labeling doesn’t change a thing but I’m helped as I see it listed. It’s a tall order. If someone I loved was dealing with all of this I’d want them to make distinctions between control and influence, and I’d encourage letting go of what’s beyond impact.

I’d tell a friend to be gentle with himself, tender and loving, and while he might consider or plan for tomorrow, in the end, as the saying goes, “God laughs”. I’d ask him not to spend too much time hanging out in the future, as though it were predictable.

But I’ve had such a difficult time doing those things for myself. Especially the letting go.

Dad & Brother

Though I told friends who asked me to write about my experience of giving elder and hospice care I would not do so, here I am. I may have some stored nuggets I didn’t realize were there. In talking to my dear and long-time pal I found words surfaced easily. The list with the labels emerged like it was already written.

I may ease back into writing with a couple of blog entries about my recent journey. I don’t know that it’s helpful. I hope that attaching words to feelings may be a contribution to some. In the process perhaps I’ll come to appreciate what I’ve learned.

I dedicate this to everyone doing this important work in a country that doesn’t do it well (would prefer to shun age completely), gives far too little help, and almost no guidance.

We don’t know how to do this. And we’re doing it anyway.


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Baseball Like Life

Those of you who’ve known me for a while know this story. Even if I’ve never told you directly, you know it because it’s in my skin. I wear it. I live it.

I tell it now because for me it explains baseball at its essence. And why when baseball goes away I feel adrift, no land in sight. I have to get my compass and reorient to north, to life. My heart is tied to baseball.

On October 9, 1979 I bore my first child after a difficult pregnancy that I didn’t know was difficult. I thought it was normal. Because I hadn’t traveled the road before. Millions of women had gone before me without whining, and I didn’t want to be a baby. I said little. I just waited for my infant girl.

She came. Just at the moment that I had a seizure followed by a cardiac event and a weeklong coma. I know these things because others told me when I awakened.

“My baby? Where’s my baby?”

She had died and I didn’t meet her. Never saw her.

It was a long time before I could inhale without doubling in pain. I was too young to know that life would march on and would hold highs in proportion to its lows.

It took a while to recover. Much time before I wanted to join life again. Even after Boy was born and I was ecstatic; it was in some ways more difficult to have missed Girl’s short stay, I came to realize, as I played with his tiny toes.

I became accustomed to her leaving. It happened slowly. I almost didn’t notice that I didn’t think about her several times a day. But it was a nearly impossible climb into the reality that she never laid nestled in my arms.

On her tenth birthday, October 9th, 1989, I was at Candlestick Park, a spectator as the San Francisco Giants beat the Chicago Cubs to win the National League pennant for the first time since 1962.

Sitting in the upper deck with a high blue baseball sky above me while the gods anointed my team as representatives to the World Series. Caps flew into the air as the radio broadcast was routed through the Sony Jumbotron screen and we heard Hank Greenwald shout, “27 years of waiting is over. The Giants have won the pennant.” My husband and I lifted our eight-year-old son onto his seat where he could stand for a better view of the hugging, yelling, jumping players in a dog pile on the pitcher’s mound.

They had done it. We had done it. Different victories, similarly sweet.

We had stood huddled beneath a temporary canopy to shield us from the pouring rain the day we buried Girl. Her small white casket lowered in the ground, a lambs wool bear tucked inside. We did not know what lay ahead for us. I didn’t know I would again hear the sound of my own raucous laughter. Would breathe freely, tickled by the air.

Yet there I was, ten years later, my little family including a son I didn’t know was waiting for me, jumping in unison with the team from our perch in the stands. We sang “Bye-Bye Baby,” wore team colors, and cheered till we were hoarse.

I didn’t need to look back on that day to see its irony, its metaphor. In the moment I stepped away from myself and watched it unfold; I wished Girl a silent happy birthday.

Life moves on, even when we’d give anything if it would only stop.

Baseball, like life, holds many surprises. Some of them leveling while others shoot us to the moon. A few days later an earthquake rocked the 1989 World Series; while there were deaths outside, Candlestick Park held baseball fans safely in her arms. 62,000 of us were defended by the old concrete lady. As she shook she grumbled, “I don’t care if you think I’m ugly, I’ll protect you anyway.” That she did. Didn’t let us know the City was on fire or a bridge to our north had collapsed. She didn’t give a hint.

Baseball had sent scores home from work early, avoiding peak commute at 5:04PM when the earth moved and there would no doubt have been more casualties. Fans had already taken their places on the sofa by the television while they awaited the game’s first pitch. Folks watched baseball, and baseball watched out for them.

Baseball. Life. One a microcosm of the other.

Tomorrow a parade in San Francisco to celebrate the 2012 World Series win of the San Francisco Giants. An orange and black barrage of wildly enthusiastic Bay Area residents ready for pandemonium after a season of blows that spurred a tornado of wins and ended in a sweep of the opponent. Our baseball team had blown right back.

Then, the temperature will drop and days will grow short; baseball will fade into dormancy. From chaotic celebration to rest, reorganization, and preparation. From a hurricane to a quiet day with no news to report. Other pursuits and events will fill the void. Don’t know what those will be, what the future holds.

Inning to inning, day-to-day, life and baseball play out in flukes, serendipitous twists. We hold on through the bad breaks, savor a ball that sails out of the yard, hang in when a star player goes down, and when our spirits are as wreckage on the rocks.

“I believe in the Church of Baseball.”* Even when it seems my team doesn’t have a chance, or I don’t, I know there’s hope.  An unexpected turnaround. A rally. A win. A cheer.

An alleluia.

Life’s like that. That’s why you shouldn’t leave the game early. Not till the last out. You just don’t know what lies ahead.



* Quote from Baseball Annie Savoy, “Bull Durham”. With thanks to bleacherreport.com for the photo.

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Epilogue – The Last Out

Brandon Crawfor & Hunter Pence hug Marco Scutaro on his first World Series trip REUTERS

The downpour could not dampen the moment for the San Francisco Giants or their fans. 

Congratulations, National League champs. 

To the St. Louis Cardinals, well done! A relentless opponent who made an improbable drive to the NLCS with a field riddled with injuries. Mighty Cardinals, see you in the 2013 post-season, as we do nearly every year.

And no matter what’s written by the so-called pros (I’ve read it already this morning), it wasn’t a “run up” score aimed to embarrass. There are never enough insurance runs against you. 

Sergio Romo's final out ASSOCIATED PRESS

 If you don’t believe me, ask the Washington Nationals.

Marco Scutaro, NLCS 2012 MVP REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

17 Happiest Photos of the Giants Winning the Pennant

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Dog Fight

Dog fight at 5:07PM PDT.

Two historic, storied franchises, Musial versus Mays, set to duke it out old school in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series. A rubber match of sorts. 1987 to the Cards, 2002 to the Giants. 2012?

Who will it be tonight?

I’m a Giants fan granted the thrill of a World Series win just two years ago. Still on a high from the first San Francisco win. But I’m a baseball fan, too, and those are different things.

The Giants fan wants black and orange to prevail. The baseball fan wants a clean game, no questionable calls, no errors, a fair fight and a solid feeling that the best team won.

My Giants fan wants Marco Scutaro to tear the cover off the ball so Matt Holliday knows never to try a late slide take-out hit at second base when he plays my boys; Pam the baseball fan knows it’s part of the game and the baseball gods generally even the score without human intervention.

I want to see outstanding play and know I’m watching the best that the best can deliver out of both dugouts; I also want my team to be just a little bit better.

My baseball fan and Giants fan watch together in stunned admiration of the team that won three championship road games in a row to rally from the brink of elimination in the division play-off.

And here we are tonight. Two teams that evenly split wins during their regular season meet-ups. The St. Louis Cardinals, a team built to clobber every other with outstanding hitting and a filthy bullpen loaded with 100mph flame-throwers.

My Giants? Can’t categorize them and have it hold from one night to the next. They’re up, they’re down, as soon as one pitcher finds his mojo, another goes MIA. They’ve defied description in the best and worst ways leading the league with errors in the early season, turning it around with a shortstop holding the best defensive record in baseball. They’ve thrilled fans with MVP play, then sucker-punched them with a crowd favorite suspended for PED use.

My baseball fan knows the San Francisco Giants aren’t supposed to be here tonight. Their closer placed on the DL early in the season went without replacement. The league leader in hits was bounced from the team. Their All-Star catcher, recovering from a near career-ending injury, took off with a slow start. Their award-winning pitcher had an ERA above 5 till the last week of the season, and another All-Star position player spent half the season disabled in two separate stints on the DL.

For the sixth game this post-season, the Giants are on the cusp of elimination. Or maybe, this time, a trip to the World Series. Only 50 times in the history of baseball has a championship series needed all seven games. 50.

For a baseball fan, it doesn’t get better than this. A game of games where both teams are literally playing for their seasonal lives. 162 games, plus five divisional play-off games and six league championship games have been reduced to tonight. A slow, plodding progression over six months ends and begins with a one game frenzy to see who lives and who dies.

We are an hour from the first pitch of the last game that determines who moves on to baseball’s last rung. Two evenly matched pitchers will meet on the field of play. My Giants fan’s throat aches from life on the edge, endless cheering, and shoving my heart back down into place. My baseball fan knows it’s a privilege to see such a match, even greater because my hometown team is a participant.

Tomorrow morning one team will have been victorious, will be shaking off a champagne shower, wearing a World Series cap, and doing a light work-out in prep for game one of the World Series. Their fans will be arranging schedules to attend or watch televised games wearing bright new championship t-shirts; one team will empty lockers as their fans count days till pitchers and catchers report to spring training. 

Cardinals Red? Giants black and orange? In which group of fans will I be? Either way, what a ride, what ride.

It’s baseball. And I’m reminded of a Rogers Hornsby quote. Win or lose, my baseball fan completely understands. 

“People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.”

Photo credits to Huffington Post, Sports Illustrated, Getty Images

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All In for Bay Area October

Halloween this month. Should I begin, “It was a dark and stormy night…”?

I’d be lyin’ if I did. It’s 94 degrees outside. I checked on my electronic digital meat thermometer.

Thanks, Joce!

That’s the truth. About the 94, and the thermometer. It’s the only one I have. 

Those familiar with the Bay Area know fog fades this time of year, beat back to sea by a high pressure ridge that allows La Cité, Peninsula and North Bay temps to soar. Not in mid summer as in other places.

In July and August our inland valleys heat up and draw fog to the coastal cities of northern California. There the wispy fluff hugs and hovers; Mark Twain is often erroneously credited for the thing he never said about the coldest winter he ever spent…

That’s why you bring your sweatshirt when you visit San Francisco in the summer, right? Oh, you didn’t? Then you bought yours at Fisherman’s Wharf

San Francisco awaits the tourist exit. It saves its best for locals who then stroll sleeveless late into evening, every moment of warmth absorbed and stored as a morsel in memory, like squirrels and the acorns they hide to make it through the winter. Fall is our time with windows wide open. Coffee and a pastry at a sidewalk cafe. This is a day at the beach. For real.  

Heat is our sign of autumn. Our version of northeastern leaves showing color. Heat is the last glorious gasp before rain and chill set in, and Halloween comes a knockin’.  

As a kid hot weather met us as we returned to school in September. I sat at my desk wriggling in the seat as I attempted to listen attentively in Mrs. Goggins’ science class. Afternoons with temps close to the century mark, the back of my legs itching and sweating in a wool, plaid, pleated Catholic school skirt. It was difficult to be still, checking the clock and waiting to escape the hot and airless classroom. In a rush to shed the stiff school uniform and get to the five & dime to find a Halloween costume.

By October 31st the weather shifts. Predictable cold and drizzle threaten to dampen festivities. Parents argue with kids over how to keep warm and dry. Nothing like a jacket or raincoat to ruin a costume’s fun.

In this heat it’s hard to imagine that conversation lies less than 30 days ahead. But it never fails.


Yesterday, when it was 97 degrees, I contemplated foregoing Halloween hubbub. Admittedly it’s early to begin the annual search for orange squash with jack-o-lantern potential but a hectic schedule threatened to squeeze the fun out of October till late in the month, maybe even too late. Not worth the trouble for only a few days, a week at the most. That’s what I said to myself. Yesterday.

Perhaps 2012 was designated somewhere as the year to skip Halloween hijinks.

I live on a winding street that climbs a hill overlooking a canyon. Street lamps are few. Sidewalks none. The paved road is narrow and though the speed limit is 20mph to safely accommodate pedestrians sharing it, not everyone abides. The night brings critters. It’s poor trick or treat territory.

But we justify a candy purchase by telling ourselves someone may knock and we don’t want to be the house that spoils the fun. Just in case, that’s what the hubs and I say while buying a sack of our favorite treats.

Then five years ago a baby was born next door. He easily became our neighborhood’s child. Drew us all in and each October I would see his mother push his stroller to two houses displaying a few decorations. One across the street with a blow up witch sitting on the red brick steps, toes curled upward, striped witch’s socks. Then they’d roll to our house with my pile of pumpkins and glowing lights.

A whole new haunting Halloween spin on things with the arrival of that boy. As he grew he began to walk with his mother, hand in hand after his nap, to visit the witch and sit next to it on the steps. I added to our collection enthusiastically. More ghoulish fun. A skull with light up eyes. An animated Grim Reaper.

No mystery why the houses next to his have the most decorations. We’re tickled by his delight.

Now he runs here on his own, within Mom’s watching range, to check that we’re appropriately festooned for fall. Monitoring our progress.

A month ago he became a big brother. Last evening with windows open to the hot, still night I could hear the infant’s cry. In the season when life prepares for the dormancy of winter, to pull back and hunker down, I’m reminded that in some places life is new. I’m renewed as well.

The sound of life. I couldn’t help myself. I rethought my original plan. For our neighborhood’s child, Halloween will visit my house. For his baby brother, too, who will pass fast asleep in a buggy.

In big brother’s smile I’m reminded that rituals and novelty are cookies and milk, should never be separated or ever skipped.

I climb a ladder to string peeking, peeping, blinking, spooky eyes around a tree, no longer remembering that yesterday I thought to do otherwise. 

The sun shines brightly without a hint of dark and stormy night though one will doubtless visit soon. If you’re fortunate enough to be here today you can shed that fleece for a while. 

This is autumn in the Bay Area. As it is every year dating back to my childhood and long before me.

Nearby is one little boy and his new baby brother soaking up October. While they go about the work of being children I’m reminded to play. 

Some things are too good to take a pass on. Like warm and sunny fall.

Hello, October. We meet again.  And I’m all in.



Posted in celebration, culture, fun, holidays, Pamela Hester King, random observation, story-telling | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment