Man with a cane

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Man Plans, God Laughs
Peter Applebome on the lesson his family learned the hard way.

My father believed his house in Connecticut, situated by a brook, was the most perfect place. He loved puttering around in it, trying to fix gadgets with duct tape or ward off marauding critters in a makeshift, invariably futile, way he called potchkying. But as he entered his 90s, the house became too much. It was time to go.

And thus began the scramble. My brother and sister and I made lists of retirement homes. We took countless tours, my mother in denial, my father heroically agreeable even as he brainstormed ways to avoid moving. But no option was perfect. We finally decided, out of exhaustion, on the least unpalatable place.

I took a picture of my father on the day he moved. He seems to be saying I've got this. It was the last photo we took of him. When the car pulled up to his new home, he tried to lift two bags from the trunk and fell, breaking his hip. He never got in the front door. He wound up in a rehab facility, where he went from confused to furious to resigned to lost in the mists of senility. Five months later, he died.

My father was always a skeptic about everything but family. He liked to repeat the old Yiddish saying: "Man plans, God laughs." All the agonizing we'd done, all the arrangements we'd made were as effective as trying to fix gadgets with duct tape. Not long ago, I looked up potchky. It's from the Yiddish patshke, meaning "to work in an amateur fashion for little gain." Our earnest planning was our familial potchky, a well-intentioned mission that veered horribly off course. I think my father would have understood.