A Touch of Grey

Grey Wolf
Image by Todd Ryburn via Flickr

A Touch of Grey

…..I know the rent is in arrears
The dog has not been fed in years
It’s even worse than it appears
but it’s all right.

Cow is giving kerosene
Kid can’t read at seventeen
The words he knows are all obscene
but it’s all right….

Oh well a Touch Of Grey
Kind of suits you anyway.
That was all I had to say
It’s all right.

Touch of Grey, Robert Hunter

The first grey hair showed up when I was seventeen.  This sudden loss of melanin in this particular follicle coincidentally followed my first Grateful Dead concert.  It seemed a novelty at the time – – a rare phenomena like corn snow that would occasionally fall for two minutes every few years in Los Angeles and then melt quickly against the wet, warm asphalt.  That single hair was a harbinger of a silver flood that would transform me from ingénue to elder statesman by thirty.

Dickens once said that “Regrets are the natural property of grey hairs.”  While scientists insist the process of graying is genetic, I am convinced that I earned most of my silver the hard way.   I am a firm believer that each grey hair is a “reward” for life’s travails: telling your boss what you really think, hitting a seventeen at the blackjack table with your semester’s spending money on the line, losing your toddler in a department store for an hour only to have her emerge laughing from a circular clothes rack where she had watched you frantically search muttering “she’s going to kill me.  She’s going to kill me!”  It’s having your computer literate child hack through every parental control application you have installed.  It is a call at 3am.

Some people run from the grey.  They use cosmetic products to mask the salt that starts to sprinkle in their hair.  Guys, I hate to tell you but those products don’t seem to really work for men.  I see a guy who I know is pushing fifty but he has hair blacker than a bowling ball at Rip Van Winkle lanes.  It’s not good genetics.  It’s bad shoe polish.  And there are those who nurture their single strand of hair that could actually stretch across the state of Utah.  Lovingly, each morning they wind that massive black mamba around their head, carefully avoiding swim parties, wind tunnels and head massages.

Grey is a state of mind.  Youthful Satchel Paige, the oldest major leaguer of his day debuted for the Cleveland Indians at age 42 after years as a star in the Negro Leagues.  He was the first African-American player in the American League.  Ever the ingenue, Paige was constantly asked about his age.  He would rhetorically ask, ”if you did not know how old you are, how old would you be?”

For me, it’s only as a result of mirrors and cameras that I am reminded that I have physically yielded to middle age.  I still feel twenty and as my spouse will attest, I maintain a highly childish and warped sense of humor and see comedy everywhere….in growing up in a house full of boys, Will Ferrell, neo-conservatives, movies like This is Spinal Tap and The Big Lebowski and well, everything. Certainly my inability to be serious for sustained periods of time has sometimes proved a social impediment.  However, immaturity occasionally serves as a tender bridge to a surly teenager or a disgruntled friend.  It is also healthy.  It’s a known fact that one’s immune system is reinforced through the simple act of laughter.  Laughing suppresses the release of cortisol and epinephrine, two chemicals known to attack the immune system.  According to studies “laughter activates the T cells, B cells, immunoglobulins, and NK cells; it helps to fight viruses, and regulates cell growth.”  It starts with learning to laugh at oneself.  Grey hair gives you permission.  It’s a rite of passage and a merit badge that suggests you have been around long enough to know that Mel Torme was not a forward for the New York Knicks, Hunter S Thompson was not the 39th President and Jerry Garcia is not an ice cream.

A silver streak means you may have felt the deep ache of losing a close friend to illness.  It means you have known disappointment. Grey means you are on your way to realizing the only person that can make you happy – – is you.  It means you understand that comedy is tragedy plus time, and that you never burn a bridge because you invariably need to  cross it again.  Grey hair teaches you to be careful how you treat people on the way up because you will meet them again on the way down.   A little frost around the temples means you understand that expectations can become resentments.

A little grey means you probably have lost something that you could not afford to lose.  You most likely have discovered that you can’t control life but you can control how you react to it.  A little salt and pepper has you finally figuring out the more you focus on other people, the less likely you are to feel sorry for yourself.  You understand that fame and fortune can be a trap and that your legacy will be how many lives you have touched, not what you have accumulated.  You understand that class is style, not stature.

Let’s face it, society celebrates youth and has a tendency to view “grey” the way some Americans view Europe – – old, past its prime and seemingly jealous of the adolescent that has arrived to assume the role of the Alpha.  Youth may have size, strength and a sense of immortality but often lack the perspective that comes with age.  Insight is gained through pain and the bitter experience of getting what you think you want only to find it is not what you needed. Grey is humility.  It is being able to say “I’m sorry” but not spend the rest of your life self-flagellating.   It is being able to laugh at your own expense, not at someone else’s.  Grey may lack the visceral allure of youth but it radiates the intrinsic beauty of a centered soul.  In the end, age teaches us that nothing in the world is black and white.

Everything, as the Grateful Dead suggest, has a “touch of grey “.

The Sandwich Hour

Medical Equipment in the hospital room
Image by cote via Flickr

Bad news usually stalks you under a cloak of darkness. After midnight, a ringing phone is a collect call from the shadowlands – a realm where the awful things that happen to other people find you.

The cell shrilled as we worked our way through traffic on a bright Sunday afternoon of broken clouds.

” Dad, had a stroke,” my younger brother shared with serious certainty.

” The doctors actually think he suffered two but we don’t know much right now. He’s paralyzed down his left side. He can talk but he’s blind in one eye. It occured in the back side of the brain where the speed of recovery is less certain.”

There was a long pause.

” Mike, you still there ?”

” Yeah, I’m just digesting it. How’s Mom ?”

“She’s doing almost too well. She thinks he will be home in a few days and doesn’t really grasp that everything has changed.”

My dad had been caring for my Mom who has Parkinsons disease for the last seven years. He had turned into a resilient caregiver. Over the years, we had teased him mercilessly on his heavy handed approach to child rearing. Yet, there was never any doubt how much we loved and respected him for making his family his primary priority. We were amazed at how easily he shifted from old school overlord and moody shapeshifter to new age male nurse when Mom got sick.

” She basically ran the house while I was building my career. ” He explained when asked if Mom’s constant care was wearing him down. ” It’s my turn and I love your Mom more than life itself. She has made me a better man and given me you four boys and a life beyond anything I could have imagined.”

When I would visit my parents I would always smile with amusement at their symbiotic routines. I would enter their house to find more prescription drugs than CVS, calendars with various doctor appointments, a hospital bed and durable medical equipment that now occupied the first floor living room — a virtual conveyor belt of medical delivery and 24 hour care.

While caregivers would come at strategic times of day and night to give Dad relief from Mom and my Mom relief from him, they had become a loving Abbott and Costello act.

With the TV blaring at AC/DC concert decibel levels, I would hear them yell at one another.

” I NEED MY MEDS, MILES” Mom would announce above the ear splitting dialogue of another Hallmark channel movie.

A yell from the second floor

” WE DON’T NEED TO CHANGE THE BEDS !”

“I SAID I NEED MY MIRAPAX AND SINOMAT !”

“RUTH ,I AM WEARING MY HAT ”

I once called and Dad was pratteling on about how proud he was of my mother for her resilience in the face of her debilitating disease. “Your Mom, Michael, is a brave woman. I love her so much.”

( A noise in the background of another voice and of course, a loud TV )

” Just a minute” he said with minor irritation. With his hand unevenly over the mouthpiece, I could hear him yell downstairs,” what ? Damn it Ruth, I am trying to talk to Michael. Can you just wait a damn minute?”

He returned to the phone perfumed in love and nostalgia. ” Where was I? Oh yeah, your Mom is just amazing.”

I was apprehensive as I called and heard a weak voice on the other end of 3000 miles. “I’m not afraid to die” he shared, ” I just want to be sure you boys take care of your Mom.”

He was exhausted. His brain was working at triple speed trying to repair the broken synapses and uprooted wires that had connected his muscular and nuerological circuit board. The physical therapy was brutal but necessary to quickly recondition the body to learn to walk – not unlike a toddler who must continue the frustrating trial and error of falling until he had mastered his equilibrium.

I flew out to LA where my younger brother had been busy sorting through a landslide of bills, logistics and a thousand speed dialed questions from my mom.

He looked exhausted and welcomed the cavalry. Another brother had also jumped in and we had soon stitched together a primitive stop gap safety net of care, financial support and hospital visitation.

I was unprepared for my visit. The man who had seemed so indestructible for 48 years of my life was bed ridden and vulnerable. ” This damn left hand has a life of its own.” he said weakly. ” Sure is good to see you, Michael. How’s your Mom?”

I was a wreck. My brain was a rapid screen saver show of faded polaroid vacation shots – the flat topped, ex-lieutenant and his four boys with heads shaved cleaner than recruits. ” Mom’s fine. Looks like you have gone to great lengths to get out of commode duty.”

He managed a smile and patted my hand. I was about to lose it but did not want to break the implied ” Stay Strong ” covenant that had been drilled home since an early age.

We talked for an hour until fatigue overwhelmed him, gently taking him from me as he slumped into a deep sleep.

“Welcome to the sandwich generation.” A voice chipped from behind a half drawn, hospital curtain. A gaunt, 50 something, cowboy of a man peered around the corner with a wry smile. His left side had been crushed in a motorcycle accident but he was now on the better side of weeks of arduous physical therapy.

He smiled sympathetically.
“Name’s Doug,” he held out a crooked talon of a hand that gripped mine like a vice. ” You get the complete short straw. You will be caring for your parents, possibly for those extended family that fall prey to the recession and your own kids who will have to work in the long shadows of a sputtering US economy.”

I thought, “who is this guy, Milton Friedman’s Hell’s Angels brother? ”

” Your Dad’s a great guy. All he talks about is you kids, your kids, his wife, Ruth, and of course, how much he dislikes the Obama Administration and Congress” Well, the stroke clearly has not effected his mind.” I mused.

I wondered if the extra burden of caring for Mom had been a factor in his stroke. In recent months, he seemed tired when I would see him but would quickly animate when the subject of politics or business arose.

But each time, he looked like he was losing steam and in some ways, lost to me – beginning some final journey that for the first time in years I could not join him on.

” Dad, where are you going.”

” A business trip, buddy. I will be back home tomorrow night to play baseball with you and your brothers.”

” Can I come?”

” Maybe when you are older pal,” I would watch as the car backed out of the driveway to take him to some exotic location like San Francisco or New York.

.Days later my visits became routine and I witnessed my father’s painful swim back to the surface of the whitewater that had broken his body – but certainly not his sense of humor.”

” I call this useless left hand, ‘ Harry Reid ” and my disobedient, frustrating left leg, ‘Nancy Pelosi’. He grinned. The nurses and physical therapists swirled around him having obviously been charmed by his graciousness and complete willingness to cooperate so he might be released to go home to my mother.

My brothers and I were now wrestling with their fixed income that had not anticipated 24 hour care for two people and a financial meltdown which redendered his fixed income instruments incapable of keeping pace with his expenses. For the first time in retirement, he would be eating into principal. For a depression baby, this was tantamount to deficit spending and leveraging your tomorrow.

Truth be told, he was fine but the anxiety over this next highly complicated stage of their life was weighing on them. Suddenly, father became son and son became father in a bizarre transformation that neither of us enjoyed. We discussed all the salient issues and tough possibilities. In the end. We agreed on a course of action.

Meanwhile, my Mom had mobilized wanting to take a greater role in decisions but missing details that would render her interventions more a distraction than a help. However, without my Dad’s equilibrium, the household was void of control and she was determined after seven years to fill the gap.

Again, we donned one another’s clothing and carried on a difficult discussion about our division of labor and the need for her to let us ” take over”. For someone who bailed boys out of every conceivable miscue and misstep, she still saw us as lacking a critical ingredient of pragmatism that only she possessed. It was some time before we forged an uneasy detente over next steps.

” How are Harry and Nancy today day, Dad?” I chirped as I entered his room the final morning before I was to leave LA

. He was unusually relaxed having gotten an initial conditional release to return home in few weeks. Some motor skills were returning. He would probably never drive his car again.

>”What do you expect from a couple of confused lefties – out of touch with the main body? It’s just one big give away show!”

I smiled and leaned over – hugging him longer than normal and feeling his release twice but choosing to prolong our embrace and not let go. ” I love you.”

” I love you too. I am proud of you and your brothers. Now if those damn Bears can only do something with Jay Cutler at QB, I will die a happy man.”

” I think you should tie your recovery to something more stable than a Chicago sports team.”

” Like what ? ” He laughed. ” The country is going to hell. Obama is running the biggest give away show since LBJ and America will keep reelecting fools like Reid and Pelosi to Congress instead of waking up and realizing they are leveraging our future.”

I left his hospital room and glanced back as he picked up the Wall Street Journal and scoffed at some headline. He was going to be fine and clearly was not going gently into that good night.

For one of the sandwich generation, I began my long journey down a new and unfamiliar road. There is no room for self pity or self centered thinking. It won’t be easy if oracle Doug proves correct – this triple decker sandwich of responsibility. But hey, if Dad can teach Harry Reid to hold a cup and Nancy Pelosi to dance, I can certainly carry my load…