My father’s stroke: 4

The siblings have a standoff.

The siblings have a standoff.

Time to air the dirty laundry.

You might not know from my previous posts that in addition to Pesha, I have an older sister and an older brother.

My brother did stay in touch with me while Papa was in the hospital, but he couldn’t find time to visit. He told me he had several competing “projects” to deal with. I didn’t probe. My brother uses evasiveness the way a cat uses a paw to swat at the mouse in its clutches: With delighted dispassion. A project could mean that he himself had a health issue. It could mean that he had to rehearse with the three community bands in which he plays trombone. It could mean he was involved in the final details of selling a house he put on the market thirteen months ago. All three turned out to be true. But how many times is your eighty-four-year-old father hospitalized after a stroke?

“I was on my way to the hospital and got lost on the road,” he said.

Until my father’s stroke, my brother has had the homing instincts of a bat.

Then there is my older sister. She is sixty-two years old, a member in good standing of her orthodox Jewish community in Atlanta, a wife, mother and grandmother. During Passover she did not offer to help cook, serve or clean up the many dishes that went into feeding my parents’ four adult children, their spouses and six adult grandchildren. At one seder, I asked my sister to pass out some napkins. She peeled off a single napkin and handed it to me. She is a feminist and firmly believes that it is her husband’s job to deal with food-related matters.

Now you get to guess what she does for a living.

If you said warden at San Quentin — wrong.

My older sister is a family therapist with a flourishing practice. A couple of days into Passover, she said, “I’m really worried about my psychotic patient. She’s out of control.”

To my parents, their oldest child is more emperor than offspring. They have seen her as a demigod for several reasons: She was the first child born to them after the murders of their own families. She interpreted America for them. She was the first person since the revelation at Mount Sinai to go to college, and then the first — and only child, as it turns out — to get a Ph.D. When Genghis Khan unified the nomadic tribes of northeast Asia, he did not do more than my sister has done to unify the torn psyches of the Georgian (U.S.) hordes.

The one thing she is not equipped to do is unify my parents’ fragmented healthcare.

I don’t remember what sparked my argument with her.  

It had something to do with watching my eighty-year-old mother transport a pot of chicken soup up from the downstairs oven while the Emperor sat on the sofa leafing through a New Yorker magazine.

It had something to do with watching her deposit her breakfast dishes in the sink and leave them for somebody else to wash.

Or with her finding the time to take a walk around the neighborhood, but not finding five minutes to say a word to my father after he had what appeared to be a stroke-like episode two days earlier.

Or with remembering how my parents used to take twenty-hour train trips to Atlanta to help with babysitting because my father was too afraid to fly.

Or with her having been in Warsaw on the same Shabbat eleven years ago as my parents and me, but telling us she was having dinner with some friends. It had something to do with her using that trip to Poland as part of a speech she gave at her daughter’s wedding, and telling the invitees that we Jews would “never again” tolerate the extermination of the Jewish people.

“Why are you so upset, sweetheart?” she asked me when I sniped out at her.

“You could take a more activist role in the care of your parents,” I said. “You could offer to wash the dishes.”

“I’ve been washing dishes all morning!” she said.

“If I had heard about Pesach from you, then I might believe you. But I’ve been here the whole time. You have let your deaf eighty-year-old mother and sick eighty-four-year-old father wait on you like a princess. You have done squat.”

“I get the feeling that you and Pesha want me to take responsibility for Mama and Papa,” she said.

“We just want to see you do something. Call them at night to say hi.”

She began to shrink into the sofa. “You’re asking me to do more than I can do,” she said.

“Call them once a week.”

“You’re getting unnecessarily upset,” she said. “You and Pesha have everything under control.”

“We don’t have anything under control. Mama and Papa are sick. They’re old. They’re physically impaired. The family is your area of expertise. You could help them.”

“I don’t live here,” she said. “I don’t know doctors in Cherry Hill.”

“Don’t you have patients coming to you with problems about their elderly parents? You must have some strategic thinking on the subject of eldercare.”

She had enough sense to stammer something incoherent.

“You have shown more concern about your so-called psychotic patient than your own parents,” I said.

“My psychotic patient has a rational husband I can talk to.”

“Your psychotic patient has healthcare insurance that covers her ‘treatment’ with you. Do you only help people who pay you?”

More incoherent stammering from somebody who always has a category to fit people into, who always had an opinion about the Iraq War, the Bush Administration, the need for change.

“If Pesha and I ‘didn’t have everything under control,’ would you step in?” I asked her.

“The way Mama and Papa live is their choice,” she said.

Therapist cliches. And people actually seek counsel from her? Cripes.


Even after she learned that my father was taken by ambulance to the ER, my sister did not phone. She was in Oakland with her daughter and used her as her liaison. I suspect she did not want to talk to me.

The requested once-weekly phone call to my parents has not come to pass.

My parents do not have a harsh word for her.

“She lives far away,” says my mother.

“She has a business to run,” says my father.

My sister has “doctor” before her name and my parents remain in awe.

A friend of mine believes that most Holocaust survivors not only respected doctors but feared them. “If you argue with a doctor, he might hurt you,” Leon says.

Well, I don’t know. I think my parents see themselves as lowly, uneducated immigrants with heavy accents and their “doctor” daughter is their superior.

Pesha says, “Don’t even get upset about the older sibs. They are not a factor.”

I’m good with that. But I gotta ask: What was the point of spending all those thousands of dollars on Jewish education, of hearing that we should honor our mother and father? What was the point of reading Maurice Sendak’s “Care” to the kids when they were little — and now that we’re all big, nobody cares a damn?

There is only one thing that stands between you and an indifferent world. It’s your family. And you don’t need a Ph.D. to figure that one out.

NEXT: The road trip that is now our lives

PREVIOUS: My father’s stroke: 1

My father’s stroke: 2

My father’s stroke: 3

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