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Sunday, July 9, 2017

(11) CHANGE THE SUBJECT, YOU NINNY.

          The move to another table in the dining room has taken care of the problem with Patricia, but now Jan tells me of a new one.  Norma has started criticizing her.  "One time I was distracted at the moment my meal was put in front of me.  Before I had a chance to say thank you, Norma said, `You didn’t say thank you.’  Another time she said, `You’re very fussy,’ when I asked the waitress to make sure my bread wasn’t toasted.”       
        My sister let her tablemate know she didn’t appreciate her negative comments. 
       “Norma was offended because she thinks she’s the kindest, most thoughtful resident at Advantage House," says Janeth.
        I try to think of a way to cope with Norma.  “How about saying, like Ronald Reagan, `There you go again,’ whenever she criticizes you.  This would call her attention to the fact that she is being unkind.”
       As I am leaving, I figure Janeth will have no memory of my suggestion, but when I ask her, she repeats it perfectly.  
       Jan calls, dismayed because her portrait has fallen off the wall.  The paper on the back is torn, and she doesn’t know what to do about it. 
       “I’ll pick it up and have it repaired.”  I go to the Wednesday duplicate bridge in Marshfield, stop at Advantage House on my way home.  Jan is waiting in the lobby with the damaged portrait.  
        “I don’t know what will happen to this if it rains.” 
        "I’ll be careful."

       Today, on our mother’s birthday, August fourth, I collect Jan and go to the South Shore Plaza to meet Kathie, Frank, and Linda for an early celebration of our other three August birthdays.  We are seated in a booth, and soon Kathie, Frank, grandson Michael, and Linda join us.  Our waitress, after flirting with Michael, lifts up a table-enlarging board that’s in a groove on my left.  Frank says he’ll go to the extension, and Michael trots after him, saying he wants to sit with Papa.
      Janeth and I exchange birthday cards and gifts.  I tell everyone that my sister doesn’t know about her present to me because I stole it from her former apartment.  It’s a wide-eared little dog that resembles  “Flydo”  in our mother’s poem.  My present to Jan is a ceramic bunny with enormous ears, the image of Ernestine’s “Funny Bunny.”  I pass around a few lines: 
His ears were most enormous-long, and with those funny ears            
He heard all sorts of tiny sounds no other bunny hears.
For instance, if a little leaf fell softly from its branch,
He'd flinch and twitch his nose and say:  "Must be an avalanche!”
Why, he could even hear a distant weeping willow weep—
And shadows made so loud a noise that he could hardly sleep!   
 
        Nana Kathie asks Michael to show us how he sings operatically.  Without hesitation, he launches a clear, strong voice into his version of an opera singer.  We don’t know where he picked up this concept but surmise that he is mimicking someone he heard on TV.
       I must have been nine or ten when I started doing my impersonation of an opera singer for my Metropolitan Opera star mom. I would press my hand dramatically my non-existent breasts and stride around voicing non-existent words at the top of my lungs and as high on the scale as I could reach.  Ernestine thought my act was hilarious. She often asked me to perform for guests, which I was willing to do until I turned twelve, too mature to do anything so embarrassing.
      
       Janeth has been telling me worriedly that she won’t know what to order from the menu.  When Kathie and I choose the Seafood Special with broccoli and mashed Red Bliss potatoes, she tells the waitress she’ll have the same. 
       “If I order something else, “I’ll look at what you’re having, and I’ll be jealous.”  Our laughter rewards the quip.  
       When our meals arrive, my sister focuses on the almost raw broccoli, sawing away at the stems with a steak knife.  What she needs, I point out, is a saw.  I will take my broccoli home and cook it.
       
       I wish I could remember the things four-year-old Michael said that entertained us throughout our meal.  He is a charmer of a great-grandson.  I want to be around when he makes his debut on the stage.  Grandson Timmy did this at an early age, so Michael may be equally accomplished in a few swiftly passing (for me) years.
        When we part company in the parking lot, Linda hands her mom a shopping bag full of the slider sandals Jan thinks would be more comfortable than shoes.  Another bag contains a new outfit for the lady who never has anything to wear.  Linda says she will visit tomorrow and retrieve any garments Janeth can’t or won’t use.
       I have a difficult time finding my way out of the South Shore Plaza, which has turned into a city while I wasn't looking, make the same wrong turn twice, finally see an exit I recognize.  As we are nearing Advantage House, Jan’s always watchful eyes see something I would have missed.
        “Look! Deer!”  I slow to a stop so we can gaze with awe and pity at the pair of elegant young animals  making their way across a grassy area to the woods beyond.  It’s a shame that their habitat has been taken over by two facilities for the elderly, plus many homes on either side of Compton Road.  How confused and lost the deer must feel, as confused and lost as the elderly who suddenly find themselves in an unfamiliar environment. 
       It’s seven-forty when I sign us in at the desk.   We climb the stairway to the second floor.  I see that my sister no longer has any trouble finding the apartment at the end of the world.  I watch her put on the prettiest pair of sliders, jeweled and dainty like an exotic courtesan’s favorites.  They look enchanting, but they have a wedge heel.  I tell my sister I fear they would be dangerously tottery; she would be safer in the flats.  She puts on the shirt belonging to the outfit Linda bought for her, and the petite size six fits her small body perfectly.  Then I have to leave because twilight has fallen, and I'd rather not drive in the dark
      
       Jan’s friend Ray hasn’t seen her in several weeks.  I called him to suggest he drop by Sunday afternoon, figuring Linda will have made her visit in the late morning.  I reckoned without the new patch of poison ivy found in the Malley-Morrisons’ yard. If the cats get into it, they will give Kathie a rash.   Linda can pull the weed out because she is immune, and this is why she gets a late start from Westwood to Hingham.
       Linda calls at one-thirty to tell me she’s at Advantage House, and her mom has gone off with Ray.  Do I know his cell phone number?  I find it and wish her luck.  My niece and I both blame ourselves for not reminding Janeth about the visit.
       An hour later my phone rings.  It’s Kathie, telling me my sister has called her, distraught over the missed connection with Linda.  For the first time, Kathie learns what it’s like to talk to a distraught Janeth.  It’s a disaster, it’s a tragedy, she should have remembered.  It is impossible even for an experienced psychologist to soothe her.
        When I talk to Jan, she again refers to the tragedy
         “It isn’t really a tragedy, Jan; a tragedy would be if Linda had an accident on the drive back to Maine.”        
        “That’s exactly what I’m worried sick about, Barbara.  I’m afraid Linda will have an accident on the drive back to Maine.”      
         “She always wears her seatbelt.  I’m sure she is safe.” Change the subject, you ninny.  “How are the new sliders, Jan?” 
           None of them will do, nor will the new outfit.  The slacks are too short, and she’s sure the top would shrink in the wash the way the white one did.  I tell her Linda said the reason the white one shrank was because it was rayon and not washable. . 
         “The new top is machine washable, Jan.  It’s so becoming, you should keep it and give the slacks away.”
       “But I don’t have any pants I can wear it with!” 
       “It will go with almost anything.  You have a pair of green slacks that would be perfect.”  She doubts that.
      
       I stop at Advantage House on my way to Monday bridge.  I have a list of things to discuss with my sister and forget to bring the list.  I am carrying a doorstop Jack gave me back in the 70s.  I know she needs one because she’s been using the skin moisturizer I bought her as a doorstop, following the suggestion of her off again-on again friend Norma.  She isn’t using the bottle for her skin because the instructions (Oh, what attention she pays to the most minuscule instructions!) say the product works best after bathing.  She is never big on bathing, especially not when she’s just had her hair styled.  I have brought my CVS moisturizer that makes no stipulation about bathing and intend to swap it for the Lubraderm. 
       I show Jan how cute the doorstop is—a baby that’s sitting next to a trio of A-B-C blocks.  Then I explain why I’m swapping the moisturizers.  It makes sense to me, but it’s all too bewildering for Janeth. Her mouth turns as far down as it will go, as she says haltingly that she just doesn’t know what to do about this.  I say firmly that I do know, and I must have spoken too sharply because now her face looks frightened.  My poor baby sister, I didn’t mean to frighten her. 
       I say in an upbeat tone, “Let’s go check on the putting contest.”  It’s been going on under her window, and she was thinking of attending it. 
       We go through the back door, past the barbecue area, find the putting contest.  I help Janeth find a seat in the shade because it’s already hot and humid.  Then I get in my car and drive to my other life.
To: Diane
       When I drove home today, I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach about betraying my sister's most intimate miseries, even though you are my best friend and the least judgmental of anyone I know except Kathie.  I thought it would be good for me to unload this pathetic story, but how would she feel if she knew?  How would I feel if I were in her shoes?  I'm afraid my mouth was bigger than my heart, and I'm so sorry about that.  I won't reform completely because I need your wisdom, but no more gory details.
From: Diane
       About your tales of woe, not to worry, I’ve heard them all before and could tell you some that would curl your hair. You must never worry about telling stories, this is very good for you and if you were going to a support group you would hear all the sad and funny stunts from each and every person there, it's the best therapy for you.  And remember our feelings about things are very different than theirs. You know I care and worry about you, but you are doing very well. Thanks for another fun bridge day.

 I call Jan to see how she is faring,
       “I just happened to be in the bedroom when this telephone rang.  Isn’t that a coincidence!” 
“The one in the living room must have rung, too.”
“I don’t know if that’s true.” 
       I didn’t argue.  Janeth rocked me with her next remark.  “Lunch was rather nice.” 
       “What did you have?” 
       “It was chicken. . . . chicken in a cheese sauce.  And I had butter brickle for dessert.” 
        Butter brickle has become a favorite with my sister, the ex-anorexic.
        I remind Janeth that there’s a Bingo game at 2:00.
“I don’t know if I can find a place to sit.” 
“Get there early, and you’ll be sure to find empty tables.” 
“There are people who turn down the thermostat or open the window and make the room frigid.” 
“Get there early and sit at a table away from the window.”   Why is she resisting?          
 “Janeth, do you remember hearing about the brave young man who jumped onto the tracks to rescue a man who had fallen?”  She doesn’t.
  “Ellen Degeneres will be having a show tomorrow about this heroic man.  “Get Channel 5 on your TV, so you’ll be ready to see it.”
“I can’t find my remote.”
“Did you look under the sofa cushions?”
“It isn’t there.”
       An hour later my sister calls.   “I found the remote.  It was under one of the sofa cushions.  You should see the bruise I got.  It looks as if someone had beaten my arm.” 
       “You have fragile skin like mine.  When I carry my tray from the kitchen to my bedroom, I often as not bang my elbow on the door frame.  I have a permanent bruise because I’m not steady on my feet.” 
       Jan makes a sympathetic sound. 
“It’s all right, it doesn’t hurt, but it’s one of the reasons I never wear short sleeves.”
      
      This evening Jan is still confused about the dust ruffle. 
“I don’t know if I’m expected to put it under my mattress or what I’m supposed to do.  And there’s a strange ceramic bunny with long, long ears.  I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with that.”  
I explain again that the dust ruffle is mine, and it ended up in her bag of gifts after we had our birthday lunch.  Frank, handy with a sewing machine, had shortened it for me. 
“I’ll get it next time I’m there.  The bunny was a birthday present from me to go with Mom’s poem.  If an aide wonders about those long ears, you can show her `Funny Bunny.’”   
The next day I call Jam to remind her about Ellen Degeneres’s interview with Lesley Audrey.  Then I call again to encourage her to be patient with one commercial after another. 
“I was thinking of going to the exercise class, but I suppose this is more important.”   
“Oh, it is!  You’ll love it, Jan.”
       At last the segment appears, Lesley Audrey with his two little daughters, cared for by a bystander while their father achieved his heroic rescue of the man who fell on the tracks.  Ellen delays showing the gift of a car that came with two years of insurance and a year’s supply of gas.  I call Jan again to tell her the final segment is worth waiting for.  Then she can go down to the exercise class. 
“I’ll be picking up the dust ruffle today.”
       “Oh good.  I didn’t know what on earth it was doing in my apartment.  And there’s an odd-looking bunny here, too.” 
“I’ll take both of them. “
 “I can’t wear any of those sandals Linda gave me.  I’m afraid they’ll knock off the scab on my toe and I’ll start bleeding again.” 
“Okay, I’ll take those, too.” 
        I sign in at the front desk, decide not to take the time to wave to Jan in the exercise room, and climb the stairway to the second floor.  When I open the door to #253, I find the room dark, the curtains pulled, and two lamps turned on.  I consider turning them off and leaving a note advising Jan to save electricity when she leaves her apartment.  Then, out of the gloom, I hear a voice say, “Hi, Barb.”  
       My sister has been sitting in her darkened living room, just staring into space, ever since my last telephone call. A wave of sadness sweeps over me.  I tamp down the sorrow and try to speak normally. 
“Hi dear, you startled me.  I thought you were at the exercise class.  Forgive me for barging in on you like this.   Oh good, you’re wearing the new shirt and the green slacks.  Now you have a whole new outfit.”
       Jan stands up, looks down at herself, and says, “I guess it’s all right.” 
“It’s better than all right, it’s terrific.” 
I gather up the shopping bag full of Kohl’s sandals and the bag containing the dust ruffle and Funny Bunny.  “How about coming with me to see if the exercises are still going on?”
       “I don’t know what to bring with me.”  My sister looks at her black pocketbook, lying on the table. 
       “If it still has the crossword puzzle book in it, you could take that out.”     
“I just don’t know.” 
I remove the book and the paperback, Politics and Faith, by a bridge player's friend at the Emmanuel House Residence.
       “She’s lucky,” says Jan, pointing to the book. 
       “Because she accomplished so much despite being so disabled?”
“No, because she’s dead.” 
Is it appropriate to change the subject when someone is suicidally depressed like my sister? There are times when I have no idea what to say or do.
 “Well, I have to get going.  Come with me as far as the front door.  It’s almost time for your lunch.” 
We take the elevator, and I sign out.  Jan holds the door for me and my bundles.  
On the way to Marshfield, I pull into the start of Ted’s long, winding driveway to leave a birthday card in his mailbox.  I call his number on my cell phone, not really expecting him to be home, but he answers.  I pull up in front of his house, telling Tucker to stop his barking, I'm not here to rob his master.  Tucker's brother Sammy wags his tail and grins, as Ted comes to my window.   
Ted is sixty-five years old today and looks handsomer than ever.  He talks about how much he’s been enjoying swordfish spotting, although this summer’s fog and rain and overcast have repeatedly kept him from flying. “But I love it,” he says.  “It’s good for the brain.”
       I’m happy for Ted.  I wish there were a pill that would be equally good for Jan’s brain, a pill that would help her to be as vibrant and energetic as her nephew.  Or as she used to be.  A pill that would open her curtains to sunlight, switch off the lamps, motivate her to join the activities at Advantage House.
       When I call Jan after my supper, there is no answer.  This is unusual.   Thinking I might have pressed the wrong numbers, I try again.  Still no answer.  I’m becoming anxious.  Jessica answers my next call.
 “I called your sister to tell her about the entertainment.  She came down to listen to the pianist.”   
       When I talk to Jan later, she says the pianist plays by ear.  “I was hoping she was professionally trained.  She wasn’t familiar with any of the songs I asked for.”
       “Have you talked to Celia about the scab on your toe?” 
“Yes, she put a Band-aid on it.  I don’t know how long it will last.” 
It seems to me that the scab has lasted forever, but Jan says it’s very deep. 
 “Now that we’re grownups we don’t pick at scabs any more, right?”  
“Right.  I wouldn’t want it to start hemorrhaging again.” 
Jan explained why she keeps her curtains drawn.  “I need to protect my privacy.  I can see people on the putting green, so I know they can see me.  Lots of times I’m walking around here in my under-wear.”
       Her perception is the opposite of a baby playing peek-a-boo, who assumes her mother can’t see her because she can’t see Mommy behind her hands.  
“They wouldn’t be able to see into your apartment unless they were on the same level as the second floor.”    My sister is unconvinced.

       In the weekly Advantage House schedule that comes in my mail, I see that a speaker will be discussing identity theft.  I wish mightily that Jan will not attend, as this topic would only reinforce her paranoia.  When I call this evening, my sister is more apprehensive than she’s been since she the day she moved to Advantage House..
        “I’ve been going through my pocketbooks. I have all the cards that could be stolen by a bad person, my social security, my Medicare, my Blue-Cross Blue-Shield . . .   
       “Jan, no one can get at your money because I’m in charge of it.  There is nothing anyone can steal from you.”   She doesn’t believe me.
       I call Carla Thomson and tell her how frightened my sister has become because of the afternoon’s talk.  “I told Jan I was sure Advantage House had never had anyone victimized by identity theft, but she’s still very upset.”  Carla says she will reassure her.

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