The Janeth challenge is giving more purpose to my life, plus the pleasure of truly loving that pesky kid sister at last. And truly loving to make her laugh. I printed Margo’s latest e-mail joke for her.These four questions test whether you are qualified to be a professional. #1. How do you put a giraffe in the refrigerator? The correct answer is: Open the refrigerator, put in the giraffe, and close the door. The question tests whether you tend to do simple things in an overly complicated way . . .)
After the laugh fest over the absurd but logical answers to the quiz, Janeth said she had something to tell me.
“I sat in on a Bingo game and saw a woman miss a number she should have covered. I didn't know whether it would be all right to tell her about it or whether I shouldn't. So I didn't, and then I felt guilty when someone else won the pot."
"Don't feel guilty," I said. "Did I ever tell you about the time Ed and I played Bingo with three other couples?” She doesn’t think so.
“We were staying at the Chatham Bars Inn and decided after dinner to join the Bingo game. Before it started, Ann’s husband said, `Let's have an agreement that if any one of us wins, we share it with everyone else.' Jeff was a notorious skinflint. His idea of a Christmas present for his wife was a bathmat.
“So we begin playing, and pretty soon Jeff wins a big pot. And what does he do with it? He hurries off to put it in the hotel safe. I was furious. My friend Marguerite said, `Why does it bother you? We all know that's the way Jeff is.' It bothered me because he would have been the first to remind us of our agreement if someone else had won. I never could feel any liking for him after that. I suppose they don't play for money here, Jan."
“Oh yes, they do,” she says. "You bring a pocketful of quarters with you, and you can play one or two boards."
"It's like the crossword puzzles; it's wonderful mental exercise. I hope you'll play a lot of Bingo from now on."
I hug her and say I have to go on my way to duplicate bridge in Marshfield. As I go out the door, I have an empty feeling, as if I were abandoning her. When I reach the elevator, I hear Jan calling, "I want to come with you and say goodbye." She is trailing along after me the way she used to when we were teenagers. I didn't like it then but now I like being trailed, although I barely made it to the bridge game on time.
Janeth tells me she decided to sit in Ruth Reynolds’s place at lunchtime, since Ruth was away for the day with her daughter Margie. Jan had found it increasingly disturbing to have to get up toward the end of a meal to let earlier diners get by with their wheel-chairs.
When Jan seated herself, Patricia Paine turned to her and said, “Since when are you in charge of this table?”
“I was so shocked by her nasty tone, that I murmured, `I’d like to be dead.’ She didn’t hear me, of course, and I wasn’t about to repeat what I’d said more loudly, for all the other diners to hear.”
Knowing this wasn’t the first time Patricia had been unkind to my sister, I went to Nurse Celia's office to report the bullying.
“Who is the resident?”
When I gave her Patricia’s name, her expression told me she was not surprised. She started looking through a folder that I surmised contain seating arrangements in the three dining rooms. She said she’d think it over and work something out.
I take the stairway to Jan’s apartment, carrying the white plastic hangers she wants. It doesn’t seem so end-of-the world-ish now that I know the way. I am always happy to find that she feels trusting enough to leave the door unlocked. We hug, I put the hangers in her closet, and then I ask her to sit down with me so I can show her my copy of the Advantage House newsletter. I point to her name on the Happy August Birthdays column. I note that resident Peter Kelleher, who is profiled on the first page, has the same birthday I do, August 17th.
“I don’t understand how he does that. How does he make the bird stay on that piece of wood?” It’s nearing the time for Jan to go down to lunch. She picks up a cane and walks beside me toward the elevator. She tells me her left hip has been feeling as if the bones were grinding together. A gentleman resident noticed her limping and offered her his cane, saying he didn’t need it any more.
“We wouldn’t make a good pair because we have similar problems with our. . . our … “
“Eliminations?” I suggest.
“Yes, our eliminations. He has to use a catheter and never knows when he might have to seek a bathroom. I think he needs affection, but I wouldn’t want his sloppy kisses.”
“How do you know they’re sloppy?” older sister asks reasonably.
“Because when he gave me the cane, I kissed him on the cheek. Then he picked up my hand and kissed it, leaving it moist with his saliva.” (“Oh, how wonderful!” Kathie cried when I reported the incident later, editing out the moist saliva.)
The elevator door opens on the first floor.
“And now I can’t go into the dining room because I have to whittle,” says Jan, sounding panicked. I suggest she use the bathroom coming up ahead of us.
“The door is closed. Someone’s in there.”
I turn the handle and the door opens.
“I don’t have time!” she cries.
I say she does have time, it’s only twenty past eleven.
As I glance at the menus on the pedestal outside the dining rooms, Celia shows up.
“I think I have the perfect place for Janeth to move to,” she says.
I follow her into a different room and she shows me a table that is reserved for two women and a gentleman in a wheelchair.
“No one at this table would be mean to your sister. But if she doesn’t want to make the switch, she doesn’t have to. Or if she decides later she wants to switch back, she can do that, too.”
When Jan comes out of the bathroom, I put my arm around her and take her to the table Celia has arranged. She is nervously unsure about the change. I pull out the chair on the left, she sits down tentatively, and I hook her cane over the carved back of the chair. I take the chair that will be removed when Robert arrives in his wheelchair and introduce myself to Norma, the only other person at the table. Then I introduce Janeth, spelling her name so that possibly Norma may get it right. Then again, she may not. Who remembers names around here? Certainly not I.
The waitress-whose-face-is-familiar starts taking orders. Norma says she’ll have the Chicken Cacciatore. The waitress asks Jan which she would like, the grilled pork chop or the chicken? My sister looks bemusedly at me and says, “I. . . I don’t know.” “She’d like the chicken,” I tell the waitress.
Then I say, “I’m afraid I’ve forgotten your name again.” The smiling woman says her name is Phyllis.
“Oh! I know how we can remember that, Jan. We’ll know she’s someone who will fill up our plates.”
“Or fill us,” she says soberly. Good one, Jan.
Robert arrives in his wheelchair, introductions are made, and I leave for Cohasset.
At the Owl’s Nest duplicate bridge, Diane and I come in not first or second, as we have been doing lately, but at the very end. As my ex used to say after Parkinson’s Disease slowed him down, “How the mighty have fallen.” My mind is more with my sister than with my point count. I plan to see her on my way home, ostensibly to collect all the hangers she doesn’t like because they don’t match the white ones. My real goal is to make sure she goes to the new table for her supper.
I call from the Hingham Library to let Jan know I’ll soon be there. She tells me someone is with her, Victoria . . . Victoria Stannard. “She was hoping to meet you, but she has to leave now.”
Victoria comes on the line and tells me Elizabeth Greg has assigned her to Janeth’s case. She’d like to talk to me soon.
Ten minutes later I pull into a handicapped parking space and find Victoria talking to Jan in the lobby. She is very tall, from the perspective of the Beyer sisters.
“Janeth and I used to be five feet seven and a half before we shrank,” I tell her. She says that’s about what she is when she isn’t wearing heels. Jan says she needs to go to the restroom and leaning on her cane, hobbles away.
Victoria and I chat for five minutes. I mention my sister’s Alzheimer’s, and she asks what makes me think she has Alzheimer’s.
“She knows she has it. She had a book about it in her former apartment.”
Victoria goes into the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s, and I confess my negative bias, admittedly unprofessional, toward the word dementia. Jan returns, we say goodbye to Victoria, and I steer my sister to her new table when she veers toward the old one. I am introduced to tablemate number 4, a plump, round-faced woman named Alice, say hello to Norma and Robert, and go on my way.
I am hard pressed to maintain patience with my sister’s latest complaints.
“The aide went off with my yellow outfit to launder it, and now I don’t have anything to wear tomorrow.”
“I can think of at least three outfits you have in your closet.”
“It may seem that way to you.”
“What about the beige shirt and slacks?”
“I have no shoes to go with it.”
“What about those tan mesh shoes I gave you?”
“They hurt my sore toe. ‘
All her shoes hurt her sore toe. I say I guess she’ll have to go barefoot to breakfast. I know my voice is tart. When I sign off by telling her I love her, she doesn’t love me back.
The next day I stop at Rite Aide Pharmacy to search for toe protectors. I buy a product that looks promising. At Advantage House I find my sister at the back of the Community Room, playing a word game with a gathering of other residents. Set up on an easel is a large white poster with the word “featherbed” printed at the top. A young man is writing down all the four-letter words that participants are able to spot in the longer word.
Jan turns to me and whispers “fart.” We are too refined to suggest it. A gentleman in the front row isn’t so refined.
We progress to five-letter words. I realize that this game, like crossword puzzles, is good exercise for out-of-practice brains. Jan calls out some fitting answers.
She is leaning forward in her chair, her mouth slightly open, her profile exquisite, her skin rose-petal soft. I’m hoping she’ll feel motivated to come every Thursday morning. How very different her life is now from her former reclusive existence. She no longer locks her door, no longer brings with her the large white pocketbook I gave her, let alone the cart that used to accompany her everywhere, like a dog on a leash. All she carries is a small black leather handbag. She no longer starves herself, and her vastly improved diet has vastly improved her appearance.
Back in the Community Room, thirty-seven words have been pried out of the featherbed. The next challenge is the six-letter category. Having cast off my refined persona, I’m ready.
“Farted,” is my clarion call to the tune of scattered, embarrassed laughter. Several more words are supplied, but we find the game is getting tougher.
An aide comes in with a wheelchair for one of the residents, looks at the list and wants to know who came up with “farted.” I raise my hand and say, “I did, but it was my naughty sister’s idea.”
I have brought a pair of scissors I use to wrestle the ProFoot toe protectors out of their plastic armor. I cut half an inch off the tube, so that Janeth can pull it onto her sore toe. She does so after she takes off one of the tan mesh shoes that used to be mine. She seems satisfied that the tube might be helpful and returns her attention to the game. I place a goodbye kiss on her soft, pretty mouth, no longer leathery and wrinkled as it was when I first became a sister again.
This steamy summer morning I go to Jan’s old apartment to get a package that hadn’t been forwarded to my address. I see a heavy box on the bed, can’t imagine what’s in it. I bring it to the office and say, “Look, this was mailed from California in 1987 and has taken all this time to reach my sister.” Jerry says no, the current mailing is in a yellow envelope on Jan’s bed, marked URGENT.
Jerry is concerned about what the heat has done to my face, fears I’m about to collapse from sunstroke, and won’t let me go back to Jan’s apartment until I sit down and have a cup of water. What a kind person!
I take the elevator up to number 822 and find the yellow envelope that I eventually figure out is from Old Mutual Insurance Company concerning the maturing of Jan's annuity. The envelope has four pages of forms I have no idea how to fill out. I will have to call their 800 number for help.
As for the heavy box mailed to Janeth in 1987, I now realize what’s in it—her son’s ashes. Her husband’s ashes are in another box in my car. I have alerted Linda that she needs to think about what she wants done with these much-traveled remains. It is time for them to rest in peace.
Before I head home for a cool shower, I bring Jan my autographed copy of Poetry with a Purpose, which I gave her years ago, so she can keep it on the table in her living room. Victoria had spoken of how few personal things Jan brought with her. She doesn’t understand that all Janeth collected for twenty years were tons of out-of-date papers and heaps of obsolete clothing. The only personal treasure she possessed was the locket Mom gave her, containing a picture of Grandfather Camden Cobern.
I was taken aback when I opened it and saw Timmy’s photograph on a tintype. He’s the image of his great grandfather. Jan gave me the locket, and I will give it to Kathie on her birthday, with the understanding that it will go to Timmy someday. “When I’m dead, you mean?” says Kathie. Uh-huh, that’s what I mean. My daughter and I are comfortable talking about death, which, according to the Bible and Google, comes to all men. Women, too.
I forget to call Jan in advance to let her know I’d like to see her. The receptionist thinks she’s probably in her apartment. I knock on her door and call to her. She calls back, come in! “Oh, it’s you!” she says in surprise, not having heard me announce myself. It saddens me to see her sitting on the loveseat at one-thirty in the afternoon, all alone, doing nothing.
I tell her I have brought something personal for her to keep on the living-room table. This is where my sister keeps her large white pocketbook.
“Would it be okay if I transfer this to your bedroom?” The question has an alarming effect. Janeth tilts her head upward and with her eyes closed cries, “I don’t know! I don’t know anything! My head is empty!”
She reads the inscription aloud: “There is no better writer, editor. or raconteur than my darling sister. At Southern Artery Apartments, may Mother’s spirit watch over you and nourish your talents. June thirtieth, nineteen eighty-seven.” It was today--almost exactly twenty years later—that I returned her apartment keys to the management.
What can I do for my poor, frightened sister, now sitting motionless and silent in her chair? Would a crossword puzzle bring her back to me? I take the paperback out of the small black handbag she keeps it in, look through it, find a page on which she had filled in a few words. I sit down beside her.
“Let’s see if we can finish this one.”
Soon she is absorbed in the mechanics of 15 down and 20 across, proving that her head is far from empty. It takes us half an hour, and in the end I’m convinced we are stuck in the left-hand corner. I am about to look for the solution page when Jan suddenly comes up with “Captain Hook.” The other words fall easily into place. She has solved the puzzle. I could cry.
It’s time to leave, but again, I just can’t do it. “Want to come with me and see what’s happening downstairs?”
Jan picks up her handbag and follows me, pausing to make sure that the door is unlocked. On the way to the elevator, she points out the apartment of the man who gave her his cane and who has a way of coming through the door just as she is going by. She helps me find the Community Room, where something is going on.
“It’s Bingo,” she says.
We sit at a table across from a female resident and take some boards, two for Jan, one for me. A slim young girl who must be a high school volunteer calls out the numbers in a clear voice. After the first win, the girl comes to us to collect the fee, ten cents a board. My sister pulls out the little white purse full of coins. I stay for another round, then really, really must leave her for my other life.