Halloween hi-jinx are starting early at Advantage House. I stop at my sister's apartment on the way to the Marshfield. game. I’m wearing all black, a full blondish wig standing out in all directions, dark red lipstick, and I’m carrying an orange straw bag. I add a couple of Band-aids here and there because I’m so accident-prone lately.
I help Jan dress in a costume like mine with a similar wig and a bright orange plastic bag to complete the effect. Since Black happens to be her last name, we make our appearance in the Halloween Fun Room as the Black Twins. Nurse Celia, who usually is unemotional when either of us shows up in her office, is warmly enthusiastic: "Janeth, now you can wear the wig when you don't like the way your hair looks."
My sweater is too warm, and in no time my face is fiery red and uncomfortable, the way it gets on a hot, humid summer day. Photos are taken: Jan looks cool; I look as if I need an ambulance.
When I get home from the party, a call is on my answering machine:
“I’m afraid I’ve accidentally wrecked my glasses. I think I rolled on them in bed and crushed them beyond wearing. At least I’m not blaming anyone else for this. I’m pretty sure that’s how it happened.
“The costume was a great success; people didn’t recognize me. In fact, when I went to lunch, Robert said he almost told me I couldn’t sit there, that was Janeth’s chair. But this is just chitchat. I don’t know what we can do about my glasses. Thank you. Bye bye, hugga hugga.”
I call Jan and tell her I’ll be taking her to Pearle Vision on Friday. “How was the rest of your day?”
“Norma got impatient with me again and kept making pushing away motions with her hands. She’s letting me know she’d like to push me away. She doesn’t like to have any conversations going on because she’s always eavesdropping on the next table. She wants to know everything that’s going on. You can see her craning her neck to hear what they’re saying.”
“I’ve been thinking of a way to defuse Norma. I’m interested in talking to Robert about his past. I will tell him I’m a writer, and I’d like to interview him for an article about assisted living. Norma might think twice about picking on the sister of a journalist.”
“How would you go about arranging that?”
“I’ll invite myself to dinner.”
“You can’t do that. They don’t allow more than four at the table.”
“It won’t hurt to ask.”
When I called Jan today, she said she had to rush to the bedroom phone from her bathroom because the one in the living room wasn’t working. I said I believed it had been fixed. She said she didn’t think so. I said let’s try an experiment. Go to your bedroom and I’ll call again. She picked up in the bedroom, said she could hear me on that phone but wouldn’t be able to on the other one.
I said, “Put the bedroom phone down without hanging up and go to the living-room phone.” “
“Okay, but I won’t be able to hear you; this isn’t going to work.”
She picks up and hears me saying, “You see, dear, this is the way the telephone system works. You could have five phones in your apartment, and you could pick up any one of them and hear the caller’s voice.
Janeth says, “I’ll be darned.”
I set out on 3A for Bill’s bridge game in Norwell. At 11:10 I pull over to a safe spot, call Advantage House, and ask to speak to Phyllis, the kitchen deity. The chef answers, asks me to call back in ten minutes. I understand the kitchen is busy with preparations for the early lunch, so I continue as far as Scituate before I stop again.
I tell Phyllis I’d like to join my sister for dinner. Would it be possible to make five place settings at her table? No, they couldn’t do that, but Jan and I could sit at a table for two in one of the other dining rooms.
“I wanted to be with the group, so never mind.”
The bridge hands are so bizarre, we figure the ghosts of Halloween are hanging around, haunting us. I make some inexcusable errors that my new partner, Shirley, forgives. Like trumping with the wrong suit. Drawing trumps when I should be cross ruffing to make the contract. Meanwhile, back at my condo, my sister is trying to reach me.
By the time we finish the last four boards, I know I’ve dragged Shirley down to rock bottom. She’ll never want to play with me again. We can hear Director Bill groaning over the low scores he and Charlie are getting. We laugh, knowing he will call himself Reuben Petunia when he e-mails the results.
I stop my car near Advantage House at 4:15, planning to ask my sister if there’s anything she needs before I go home.
“Hi, dear, it’s nearly time for your supper, but we can talk for a couple of minutes.”
“Where have you been?” my sister cries. “Everyone told me you were coming to lunch!”
“Everyone was mistaken. I talked to Phyllis about possibly coming to dinner, but you were right, they can’t seat five at a table.”
“I was worried sick! I pictured you at a crossroad where other drivers were going too fast. I was afraid something terrible happened to you!”
“Something did. I played the worst bridge of my whole life. It’s getting late, Jan, better go down for supper.” How matter-of-fact I was, having no idea what my sister had been through.
When I open the door to my unit, I find several messages on my answering machine. Janeth becomes increasingly perturbed with each call.
1. Hi honey. They told me that you were coming, positively were coming to lunch and you didn’t and I’m so confused I don’t know what to do about lunch myself. I’d be interested to hear from you whenever I ever do. I hope everything’s okay. Bye bye, hugga hugga.
2. Ray called and I think he was planning to come tomorrow to see if his glasses could substitute for mine until I got the new ones . I’m afraid he’s going to come on a fool’s errand and I’m not sure I can get in touch with him and I don’t know what to do, I’m mixed up again as usual. Thank you, honey. . .let me know something.
3. Hi dear. [voice extremely stressed] I’m still wondering what to do about lunch because everybody’s left the table and they said you were absolutely going to be here. I can’t imagine what to do except possibly go to Lila and let her do my hair, since that’s what she’s been expecting to do all this time, she had her lunch early in order to try to do me whenever I arrive. So you might get here and find I’m in the shampoo business. Bye bye. . . dear. . . hugga hugga.
4. I forgot to tell you that Ray has been planning to drop off glasses of his that might help me, and here I’ll be gone. He’s gonna come on a fool’s errand, hoping his good old glasses that used to help me still will, but they’re awfully big on my face, of course; they don’t stay on my nose. But anyway, I wish I could tell him not to come because we’ll be gone. I think he’s planning to come tomorrow or even, I don’t know, maybe today. I’m confused about it. I’ll hang up now, I guess. Thank you, dear . . . Hugga hugga.
5. A doctor’s office called me to remind me of an appointment I think they said would be at two p.m. tomorrow? Friday? Is that right? I can’t remember my information very well. I said I thought we would be there because I imagine that’s what you’ve been telling me, so I hope I did right. Thank you, darling. Let me know if I’m right or not. Hugga hugga.
CALLS FROM TIM AND KATHIE
6. My GAWD, what an annoying answering machine! It goes beep for like 20 seconds. I’ve got your printer. Call me when you get home.
7. Now where’d you go? It’s your daughter, and I know Jan was very worried about you and what has happened to you, so give me a call now to let me know you’ve called her. Thank you, bye.
When I call Kathie, she wants a weekly record hereafter about where I am, so my family will be able to reach me in an emergency. Then I call Celia and tell her how sorry I am that I caused a commotion this afternoon.
"This has been the worst day of my life in I don’t know how long. I played most of the bridge hands like a lunatic. My new partner will never want to see my face again.”
I expect Celia knows as little about the competitive nature of duplicate bridge as I do about the demands of the nursing profession. Nevertheless she comes up with the most comforting words one human being can say to another. “Tomorrow is another day, Barbara.”
I arrive early at Advantage House, tell Jill I’ll sign in after I talk to Phyllis. Janeth is finishing her breakfast. I find Phyllis and apologize for the consternation I caused yesterday because I hadn’t expressed myself clearly.
“If you could have read my mind, you’d have known I was referring to the evening meal. I’m terribly sorry!” I explain why I wanted to join my sister and her table mates.
“I’m hoping I can think of a diplomatic way to disarm Norma. She gets very irritated with Janeth.”
“Your sister can be difficult, too.”
"I know she can."
Jan has risen from her seat and is holding an empty paper cup she wants filled with prune juice.
“Oh dear, no results yet? It must be three days now!”
Phyllis motions me away from the dining room and says, “I’ve had your sister’s problem. If you get some stool softener, it should help her within a few hours.”
I am reminded of something funny. I tell Phyllis about this product and its connection with my ex-husband. “He put his cat’s stool softener in his ear, thinking it was his ear-drops prescription.”When Phyllis stops laughing, I promise her I’ll buy the Stool Softener on the way to get new glasses for my sister.
At Pearle Vision, my first question for Tricia concerns the wrecked glasses. Jan forlornly produces them. ‘It’s no use, I know the sidebars are on the verge of breaking from my own efforts.”Tricia returns in a few minutes and places the glasses, intact and wearable, on my sister’s astonished face. Then she selects several pairs of glasses for her to try and helps with the tricky challenge of decision making. A lighter, smaller pair than the old ones will be ready sometime next week. I charge the $325 to my Mastercard and tell Jan I will reimburse myself from her account.
“You’ve lost your glasses dozens of times and they’ve always turned up. If you lose them, I’ll replace them.”
“I couldn’t let you do that.”
“It’s not worth causing you one day of anxiety.”
We go up to Janeth’s apartment, with the stool softener.
“The label says adults can take a dose of three.” I pour the red capsules into her hands..
“I hope they don’t stick in my throat.”
“Take big gulps.” She tips her head back.
“Two more, dear.”
“I took them all in the first gulp. You said to take three, so I did.”
In the A-House dining room, l pull up a chair beside Jan’s, so I can ask Robert more questions about his three lives.
Phyllis appears and announces what’s on the menu. The first course is fish chowder. Jan looks at me questioningly and I encourage her to order it. The entrees are Salisbury Steak with onions and gravy or broiled lamb chops. I ask Phyllis if the fat can be cut off the lamb chops. She nods and says she doesn’t know why not. The vegetables are broccoli and summer squash. “Would you like to have the two vegetables?” I ask Janeth.
“No,” she says, “I hate summer squash. “
While we’re waiting for the chowder, I ask Norma a question. “Did any of your relatives ever have Alzheimer’s Disease?”
“Not that I know of,” she says.
I talk about what a cruel illness it is and how frightening the statistics are: over 140,000 cases in Massachusetts alone. “Anyone can get it, even people in their forties can get early-onset Alzheimers. It affects your memory and your ability to make decisions. All over the country there are hundreds of thousands of people with this terrible illness. And hundreds of thousands of relatives who are trying to be patient with them.” Norma giggles.
The fish chowder is served. Jan applies her soup spoon to the surface and begins systematically removing the dark specks floating on the top as if they were bugs. I tell her the chef has probably sprinkled herbs on the chowder to add to the flavor. I finger-taste one of the blobs on her saucer. “It’s good, Jan, and good for your health.”Phyllis tells us the herb is basil. Jan stops going after the specks. When she comes to the fish at the bottom of the chowder, she says, “The fish is solid. Solid foods add to my problem.” She leans toward me and whispers, “My constipation.”
“No, that would make it tougher,” says Jan. “It was cooked too long.” While Jan feeds large broccoli spears into her mouth, I set about cutting meat from the her chop. She sticks her fork into a morsel, spits out a piece of fat. I manage to saw away a few more bites—the meat is indeed tough—then give up.
“I eat things with my hands,” Jan says. She picks up the chop and gnaws at the bone. I’d do that too, if I were dining alone at home, which I usually am.
Robert arrives and orders the chop with two vegetables and a salad.
“I’m glad you’re here to see what goes on,” Jan says to me. “Lots of times there isn’t anything edible and we leave the table hungry.”
“You can always have a chicken sandwich.”
“I have to order it with extra chicken because the filling is so skimpy.”
I decide this is a good time to tell Robert what’s on my mind. “Robert, I’d like very much to interview you someday soon about your three lives. I’m a writer and I think your story would be a good one to submit to AARP—if you wouldn’t mind answering my questions.” He says not at all. I show him the flying article published years ago, “Mutiny on the Skynight.”
“Oh,” he says, breaking into a big smile. “I had a friend who was a pilot. Amazing guy. He’d call me and say let’s fly somewhere; let’s fly to the Bahamas. And we’d go there for a vacation. He’s dead now. I miss him.”
“If you’re interested, you can keep the magazine until the next time I see you.” He tucks it under his sweater, and I say good bye to everyone.
I have a word for what Jan goes through daily: franticsims.. When I bring her more flaxseed meal this morning, I find her on her sofa, looking desperate.
“My pocket-book is contaminated. I had a banana in it that turned black and squishy and contaminated everything. I had to throw away those computer jokes you gave me. I didn’t know what to do when the banana turned black, so I put it in my pocketbook when I went down for breakfast. Loretta said `Why didn’t you throw it in the trash?’ It was so contaminated she didn’t want to touch it. I threw it away, but now I’ll never be able to use this pocketbook again.”
I pick it up and sniff the plastic lined interior. “It has a slight, pleasant scent of bananas. You’ve invented a new fragrance. But if you want to, you could use the black pocketbook instead.”
“Look at it,” Janeth says. “It’s too heavy to carry.”
It’s heavy, I find, because she has stored her Milk of Magnesia in one of the compartments.
“Let’s put this in the bathroom medicine cabinet.” The cabinet is empty, but the bottle is too tall. My sister solves this problem by taking out one of the shelves.
“Smart Jan.” I gather up some obsolete papers on the counter, and amazingly, she allows me to do this.
Her clothes are again hanging everywhere except in her closet.
“I know it’s hard for you to hang them up.”
“It is,” she says. “And then I can’t figure out what goes with what.”
I’m going to ask Celia if Jan could be allowed to keep her outfits outside of her closet. . . to humor her in a helpful way.
“You know that man who has his TV so loud and keeps his door open? You should see his apartment. It’s chaotic, with stuff scattered everywhere on tables and furniture. I never saw anything so messy!”
I take my sister to Pearle Vision to pick up her new glasses, stop at the Rockland Trust on the way back to Hingham to get more dimes for the no-good boards she gets at Bingo, then follow Phyllis to a different dining room where she seats us at a table for four. She recommends the Pumpkin soup.
Robert arrives and cautiously maneuvers his wheelchair toward the table, asking my sister if her feet are safe.
“The table leg is protecting me.”
“A wheelchair has no conscience,” says Robert. “I have to watch myself.”
We have just finished dessert when Lila arrives to get Jan for her Thursday hairdo, and Robert and I find a room where we can discuss his three lives.
Despite Jan’s doubts about my plan (Sometimes he’s late or he doesn’t come to meals at all; he talks so fast brrrp, brrrp, you won’t be able to understand him; you won’t be able to find a private place to talk), despite all these concerns, the interview took place.When Robert was in his late twenties, he put down $9,000 dollars on a Needham house that needed a lot of work. He had experienced plumber and electrician friends to help him with the restoration. They tore out the old heating system and installed a gas forced-hot-water system.
“It was in this house that the burglary took place in the middle of the night. Two or three of them dragged Henry out of his bed—a college friend who was sharing expenses with me—then went to my room and did the same with me. I have no memory of this; I only know what the police told me later. One of the thugs pressed a gun to the back of Henry’s neck and said, `Breathe wrong and you’re dead.’ Henry passed out but woke up when he heard the shot fired at my head.
“My brother-in-law’s brother was a police officer, and when he heard the address of the emergency, he said we’ve gotta go right now. The shifts were changing, and both shifts arrived at my house within minutes. At first they thought I was dead, then one of them saw me move. The Needham Hospital couldn’t handle this kind of injury, so they raced to Newton-Wellesley Hospital. A great doctor, who had already scrubbed up, was waiting for me. Slam bang, a minute later I’m on a gurney being rushed into surgery. If they hadn’t moved so fast I wouldn’t be here talking to you.
“I spent two years in the hospital relearning everything I ever knew, from moving my limbs to reading and writing. The nurses constantly moved my arms and legs in order to repair the broken circuits in my brain. A bullet was sitting next to it, and still is to this day. A sign behind my bed said, `Cannot speak, but can respond. One blink means yes, two blinks mean no.’ My sister was there when one of my skills came back dramatically. Someone read the sign out loud, and I said `Bullshit!’ She had her tape recorder going and assures me my first word is preserved.”
No one was better informed than Robert about the frustrations of the disabled; overcoming all the notorious obstacles became his passion. One of his greatest accomplishments was to work with the state to provide the handicapped parking spaces that are so essential and so common today.
Near the end of our interview, Robert quoted his father.
“I recorded my son’s voice when he heard that he was at last going to be discharged from the hospital. He sounded so happy; he could hardly wait to get home.
“Dad died a few weeks later, but before he did, he told me he loved me.”
“Was that the first time?
“Yes, it was. I loved my parents and I knew they loved me, but Dad was a real man. Real men don’t talk about things like that.”