Saturday, April 16, 2011

Let The Sunshine In State of Being

Flying Over Tennessee:

"I don't want to go to the beach," said Miguel. "There's too much sand."

So we spent three full sun-splashed days an hour north of Miami, with temperatures in the mid-upper 80s and two golf courses and one CVS on every corner, and never reached the shore. Miguel and Maya frolicked in the pool at my brother's hotel one day and at my aunt's pool the next.

The Florida we visited was a combination of traditional Friedman family values meets 21st century ethnic enclaves. We were there first and foremost to spend time with my father and stepmother, who each turn 80 towards the end of this month.

We were also there to help support my father and stepmother as they deal with severe physical and mental limitations. My father has a very bad back and is bent over all the time, and not in the way of Apollo Ohno gliding across the ice. He said this morning, "The pain is there everyday."

My stepmother needs a cane to walk and is experiencing some cognitive decline, so it is impossible for my father to care for both of them. My step-siblings are there now to initiate conversations with them about seeking support from Jewish Family Services.

All I did was remind my father that it was OK to utilize help. "Dad, you can't go it alone. Please listen to Michael and Andrea."

Florida was also seeing different cultures, Haitians, West Indians, African-Americans, that Miguel and Maya have almost no contact with in a California county that is 85% Caucasian.

On Thursday we drove to the Gulf side of the state, to Ft. Myers and Lehigh Acres, to spend time with my aunt (father's sister) and uncle, two of their children (my first cousins), several of the cousins' children, and a few of my aunt's great-grandchildren (and my aunt is only 74 at the most). Outside of my aunt, whose been in California in the past ten years and was at Verna's funeral last September, I haven't seen my Florida family, who grew up 1/2 mile from us, since late 2001.

Soon after we arrived at my cousin Sharon's house, she pulled me aside and shared what was going on in the family. One sister, Elaine, who lives nearby, has been in and out of the hospital for the past few years. She was in there again.

"Steven, it's been so frustrating," Sharon said. "We are all so worried about Elaine."

Sharon and I have a special relationship. We are the same age and always went to the same school. We always sat together on the school bus and reserved a seat for each other. Even after we drifted apart in middle and high school, I never forgot sleeping over at her house, having a wicked crush on her, or all the times we talked on the phone, sent each other postcards over the summer, and spent holidays together at the shore.

Sharon's third child, Brooke, who is almost 16, and Sharon's sister Arlene's youngest son, Alex, who is almost 17, are as close. Sharon said to me, "Brooke asked me, Steven, if Alex is going to move away from me like you did."

"Sharon, you moved to Florida before I left Connecticut," I responded. But I got her point. Sharon's and my lives are not that intertwined, though we talked a lot during Verna's illness, and Brooke fears a future separated from Alex.

Frankly, Alex is pretty special. I don't think Brooke should worry right now. After Verna died last August, Alex decided to organize a relay team for the American Cancer Society's 24-Hour Relay for Life. He named his team Verna's Heroes and he pledged to raise $2500. So far this lithe high school student with size 14 sneakers and sandy blond hair has raised more than $800.

"I told him it's OK if doesn't meet his goal," said Arlene, his proud mother.

Alex had plans Thursday night. He was supposed to hang with some buddies from school, but stayed home to meet me. Once I heard about Verna's Heroes, though, I wanted to meet and hug him.

"Have we ever met before?" he asked me.

"I was there when you were eight days old," I said.

I happened to be in Connecticut for his brit milah (Jewish circumcision ceremony) and the rabbi and mohel (the one who does the circumcision) had recently had throat cancer, so he asked me to chant the prayers while he performed the ritual mutilation. The rabbi's wife chimed in whenever I slowed down to pronounce a word I hadn't seen in a while.

So this amazing kid was also what Florida was about for us: A generosity of spirit in honoring Verna's memory and raising money for cancer research. I made sure to remind Miguel a few times that Alex opted not to spend the evening with friends because he wanted to chill with us.

So we missed the beach and consumed very few citrus fruits, but we did experience what was really important about the Sunshine State.

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