my father who art in heaven – part 1

My father, Howard Oxenberg, passed away 2 years ago, on June 25, 2010, a month short of his 91st b’day.  This is a chronicle of the last 6 months of his life. He was one of the most challenging people that I have ever met. He was a great teacher, in retrospect, but his methods were definitely adversarial, not warm and fuzzy. I resented him for making it so hard to love him. My whole life, I longed for closeness with him, I longed for the key to open his heart. I felt a deep sadness that this seemed unlikely. After all, he was the first one to tell me that you couldn’t teach an old dog new tricks. To make matters worse, he now suffered from dementia and severe paranoia, so the idea that I would be able to connect with him in any meaningful way, seemed absolutely hopeless.

Dad had always been an enigma to me – and if you asked his 5 children to describe him – even the ones who he insisted weren’t his (even though they were!) – each would have painted a completely different picture. The information he told each of his children never matched, and it was always interesting to compare data – if we ever got the chance – because often that information was so inflammatory that it had a tendency to polarize all of us against each other. Dad could be Machiavellian!

In January 2010, I started to split my time between California and Florida. My father’s condition was deteriorating and my younger sister Ashley was at a loss. She asked for my help. I had him admitted to a hospital after he had a dangerous seizure. I discovered that he was being treated by different doctors for various conditions and none of the physicians had any idea what the other ones were prescribing – so as a result, he was taking a dangerous cocktail of medicines. Viagra being at the top of the list. Dad! Honestly! I had to give the urologist a serious scolding for even contemplating giving him any more! This was Dad’s personality, he was very secretive and didn’t like the left hand knowing what the right hand was doing.

While he was under observation of the hospital, I got a call from a very concerned physician who felt that my father was suffering from severe grandiosity. “Apparently, your father believes that he was married to a princess?”

“Well, actually, that is accurate.”

“And that he knew the Queen of England and most of the members of the European Royal families?”

“Hmm, actually, he is telling the truth about that as well.”

“And that one of his children is a Kennedy?”

“Hmm, well there was a rumor about that.” I decided not to elaborate. (I’ll save that story for when my mother gives me the green light!) The doctor probably thought that our entire family was suffering from delusions of grandeur!

The following day, Dad had a severe outburst and became violent. He was admitted to a mental institution.

The upside of being sent to “a cuckoo’s nest” – as Dad called it- was that he was finally diagnosed, at 90 years old, with bi-polar disorder. I had my suspicions for over a decade that his volatility might be more than mere eccentricity –  it was bittersweet to have confirmation. I could only imagine how much he must have suffered his whole life with an undiagnosed mental illness.

The symptoms of bi-polar symptoms and dementia can be very similar. The doctors prescribed medication for him – finally the right ones – and the experience reminded me of that film Awakenings. This was the first time that I could truthfully say that I was grateful for pharmaceuticals, because whatever they put him on, it allowed my father’s authentic personality to emerge. After a lifetime of struggle and confusion, I finally had the father I had always dreamed of. This new dad, who I like to remember as my real Dad, might have been the sweetest man I have ever met in my life. He was kind and patient and loving, and he communicated with a level of self-awareness I never thought possible. The belligerent, repetitive rants had been replaced with introspective conversations about his newly identified alter ego, whom he aptly named, “Mr. Bi-polar.”

I went to visit him in the lockdown unit, and found him dressed in a neon-orange polar fleece jacket with lime green pants. This was Lily Pulitzer on steroids! Had Dad gone color-blind now that he could see beneath the surface?! The color combination was startling – most especially because he had always prided himself on his style, and for appearing on various best-dressed lists!

After slurping down some revolting synthetic hospital concoctions, he brought me over to a very elderly lady who lay in a gurney, “I’d like you to meet one of the most beautiful people I have ever met. This is real beauty – from the inside!” The lady smiled a toothless grin. I stifled tears. If you knew my father, you would know that this was a miracle. My father hated everything about old age and most of all the way old people looked. He would never even consider dating a woman half his age. In fact, he had only married women who were 26 years old (5 times- the last wife was 51 years his junior!) – regardless of how old he was – I was stunned. He now had the ability to recognize inner beauty – he could SEE – truly see. This ability was something that had eluded him his entire life. He continued, excited, “You’re not going to believe it! We went to the same high school in Brooklyn! What are the chances? A billion to one!” I had to admit, it was an extraordinary coincidence, for them to reunite in a nut house in Florida!

From the onset of the dementia, my father’s daily mantra had been, “Get me out of here! I want to go home!” – regardless of where he was, he was plagued by a perpetual restlessness. The truth was, that his desire to constantly flee was a metaphor for his inner condition. He wasn’t at home either in his mind or his failing body, and he could no longer find access to the person that had been his ‘home’, his safe haven – his whole life. He had become a stranger to himself.

But it wasn’t so simple to get him out of the mental hospital. Now, that he was a ward of the state, the hospital had the right to keep him locked up until they deemed he was well enough to be released. Of course, Dad wanted to go home. But Dad had evicted all the nurses we had hired for him and his home was not habitable. The house was infested with rats and mold. In fact, I had discovered a rats’ nest inside the couch in his living room. (I shudder thinking about that couch!) That was the couch that my family and I spent hours sitting on, over several decades, a captive audience for Dad’s endless rants that we dared not interrupt.

Apparently, Dad knew about the rats, because when I confronted him with this news, he told me that did not want to have the rats removed – he said they were his friends!

Those rodents had been surviving on a rich diet of pistachio nuts, which Dad always left in a bowl on the coffee table – didn’t he ever wonder who kept emptying bowl after bowl of nuts? I found thousands of shells inside the rotten upholstery of his furniture!

The institution would only discharge him was if he was admitted to a facility with fulltime care. This could prove to be a problem, because most nursing homes wanted well-behaved inmates, not ones with mental illnesses with Dad’s oppositional history. After a nail-biting interview, Dad charmed his way into the only 5-star nursing home in Palm Beach!

When we drove up to the Inn at La Posada, Dad exclaimed, “This place is a masterpiece!” We marveled and pointed out that the street was in fact called, Masterpiece Way! For the first few days, he was a model patient. He was so grateful to be out the nuthouse!

Unfortunately, this good behavior did not last. The problem was that Dad soon forgot that he had ever been locked up in a mental home! He soon became belligerent again and refused to take the medication that had allowed him a semblance of short-lived normalcy. He was back to his old ways.

The nursing home admitted him on one condition – that we hire a fulltime aide/bodyguard to watch him 24/7. Even so, he managed to trick his aide, in 2 daring Bonnie and Clyde getaways – which cost the bewildered aide his job. I got frantic calls from the facility – he had been kidnapped. The police had to be dispatched. Dad had gone through his address book and called random people to help him escape. He said he was being held against his will and had bribed them with the lure of a $1million reward to rescue him. We pleaded with the facility to let him stay but they warned us that he needed to be locked back up in an institution. He was too big of a risk.

It was hard to explain to my concerned children that people kept stealing Grandpa Howard!

(to be continued)

The institution would only discharge him was if he was admitted to a facility with fulltime care. This could prove to be a problem, because most nursing homes wanted well-behaved inmates, not ones with mental illnesses with Dad’s oppositional history. After a nail-biting interview, Dad charmed the only 5-star nursing home in Palm Beach!

When we drove up to the Inn at La Posada, Dad exclaimed, “This place is a masterpiece!” We marveled and pointed out that the street was in fact called, Masterpiece Way! For the first few days, he was a model patient. He was so grateful to be out the nuthouse! Unfortunately, this good behavior did not last. The problem was that Dad soon forgot that he had ever been locked up in a mental home! He soon became belligerent again and refused to take the medication that had allowed him a semblance of short-lived normalcy. He was back to his old ways.

The nursing home admitted him on one condition – that we hire a fulltime aide/bodyguard to watch him 24/7. Even so, he managed to trick his aide, in 2 daring Bonnie and Clyde getaways – which cost the bewildered aide his job. I got frantic calls from the facility – he had been kidnapped. The police had to be dispatched. Dad had gone through his address book and called random people to help him escape. He said he was being held against his will and had bribed them with the lure of a $1million reward to rescue him. We pleaded with the facility to let him stay but they warned us that he needed to be locked back up in an institution. He was too big of a risk.

It was hard to explain to my concerned children that people kept stealing Grandpa Howard!

(to be continued)

10 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. crisgraddy
    Jun 16, 2012 @ 05:52:17

    Awesome stories! The one where Casper proposed?? needs to be a movie. That is too romantic not to be shared with the rest of the world. js

    Reply

  2. catherineoxenberg
    Jun 16, 2012 @ 06:17:59

    Thank you for reading all my blogs! Casper would agree!🙂

    Reply

  3. Jane
    Jun 16, 2012 @ 15:34:29

    Catherine…You’re a beautiful writer. This reminds me of when my mom was ill …the elderly are not given respect by the medical profession. They write them off. It takes the family to intervene. So glad you were able to connect with him xo

    Reply

  4. Harley
    Jun 16, 2012 @ 16:17:38

    Catherine, I want to comment on your story of your dad, part one. Absolutely riveting. I want part two!

    Reply

  5. Envuelo
    Jun 17, 2012 @ 00:30:20

    I love your blogs. Part 1 resonated with me on many levels, I realised after reading the last line that my heart was racing. You are the real deal. I’ve tried to write this before but could never find the words and even now find myself writing, deleting, and trying to write them again. So I’ll just blurt it out and press send. I want to say THANK YOU. I was able to escape some pretty relentless, alienating and soul destroying LGBT bullying in my youth through your work on screen and I am so grateful that you continue to inspire, comfort, inform and cheer through your writing. I read a quote somewhere, sometime ago how art helps you lose yourself and find yourself at the same time. I think that pretty much sums up what I’m trying to say. That, and what a privilege it is to be able to say thank you for then and for now.

    Reply

  6. TB2942
    Jun 17, 2012 @ 01:17:56

    I too was saved from “a cuckoo’s nest” with the right combinations of medicines that they at first refused to give me. I am a long haired, tattooed, freak as many would describe me from just looking.

    This weekend is hard for me as I lost my father 10 years ago. He was in the Army his entire career and died exactly one year after retirement. His heart was broken, all he knew was the army. I didn’t help much either as I was in the middle of becoming a drugged out, wanna be rock-star. I regret not spending more time with him.

    At the time he died, cell phone cameras didn’t exist yet and video cameras were still quite expensive. I would give anything just remember his voice. Twice I have had dreams about him and both ended with his army way of waking me up, a loud shout of my name. “MICHAEL!” When he did that when he was alive, I jumped and woke up instantly. Those two dreams ended the same. He was waking me up, and I jerked in bed, waking up. The sad thing to me is I HEARD his voice, but it instantly faded away as all dreams do. I wish I had one recording instead of fading photos.

    Cherish your time with loved ones people, document them before you can not anymore.

    Bless you Catherine
    Michael Hyatt @TB2942MH

    Reply

  7. Jill drucker
    Nov 08, 2014 @ 16:41:59

    I was Jill Oxenberg (now Drucker), our grandfathers were brothers although mine came to England where I live now. My twin (in America) has more details of family.

    Reply

    • catherineoxenberg
      Nov 08, 2014 @ 22:21:29

      HI Jill, Thank you for reaching out to me. I have been looking for ways to uncover family history. My father was a Sphinx! Please let me know how i might be able to do that! I had no idea there were Oxenbergs in England!

      Reply

      • Jill drucker
        Nov 09, 2014 @ 09:53:24

        Lovely to hear from you Catherine. The English Oxenbergs changed their name to Owen (!) to hide their Jewish background as so many did at that time. The Oxenberg family came from Vitebsk in the then Russian Empire today Belarus as a result of the pogroms (v early 20c). As a child my official papers all stated ‘Oxenberg known as Owen’ – very complicated. By the time I divorced my first husband I proudly reverted to the correct name. However, the rest of the family in England still use the Owen name. I will send you a family tree when I get my hands on it. But meanwhile there is a small coincidence in that my elder son Elliot went to St Pauls as you did, and then on to Cambridge.

        I was saddened to hear about your father’s last years. Looking at his photos I think I can see a family resemblance.

        Jillie x

      • catherineoxenberg
        Nov 10, 2014 @ 01:31:17

        Thank you so much for the history! i always thought we came from Lithuania! And that is a coincidence about your son🙂
        xo

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