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 will 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.
Kathie and Frank and Sarah arrive in the Weymouthport garage at 12:45. I pick up my mail before I get into the van, find that the Sovereign Bank has at last sent a packet of Janeth’s new checks.
My 17-year-old grandson, Timmy, has a big part in “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” being performed at the First Lyric Stage. On the way to Boston, I call Janeth and ask her if Carla has spoken to her.
“No,” she says. “I don’t know what to do. I feel as if I should carry my pocketbook with me when I go to supper. I feel as if I should lock my door.”
“Do other residents carry pocketbooks with them?”
“No, but I have fifty dollars in cash.”
“I’ll keep that for you, if you’d like.” Then I come up with a hypothesis that I hope will not boomerang.
“Jan, I’m sure your money is safe. But suppose a bad man happens to get into Advantage House and sees that you’re the only person carrying a pocketbook. Wouldn’t he think to himself that you must have some really valuable possessions? You call attention to yourself by being different.”
“I know. I stick out like a sore thumb.”
I urge her to go to the Bingo game at one-thirty without her pocketbook. “You have plenty of dimes in the small white purse. Maybe you’ll win some more.”
She says uneasily, ”I’ll try.”
Young Tim is self-assured and professional as Prince Landless (He didn’t once glance at me or his aunt, who was practically on the stage in her wheelchair). After the show, on the way to the Ninety-Nine restaurant in Hingham, I look to make sure Janeth’s checks are still with me.
We put our leftovers in takeout boxes. When Kathie pulls up in front of Bedford Building, I ask Sarah to hand Frank the carton and the packet of checks. Then I step carefully onto the metal wheelchair platform; Frank gives me my takeout goodies and the precious packet.
There is a message on my machine from Tim, saying he’ll pick me up tomorrow for the cookout at Kathie’s. Ten minutes later I can’t find the packet. I look everywhere in my apartment, then retrace my steps to Bedford’s front entrance, down the stairway, all the way to the curb. No sign of the packet. When Kathie calls to ask if I’ve heard from Timmy, I tell her about the lost checks and ask her to have Frank look in the van, just in case he and I hallucinated the transfer of the packet. Frank says he knows I had it in my hands, along with the takeout, when I said goodbye. I look in the refrigerator.
Kathie says that if the checks haven’t turned up by Monday, I should stop at the Sovereign branch in Hingham and ask how I should handle the loss. I may have to cancel the account and ask for a new packet. We agree that I should not tell Janeth what has happened.
Jan describes a meeting she attended. “There was a male resident who is the biggest bore I’ve met yet. He monopolizes the conversations, so hardly anyone else can get a word in.
“There were some unpleasant words exchanged by a couple of women. I think maybe they were related to each other. One kept talking about how the other one was overweight because she ate too many desserts. The other woman said this was the only relief she could get when she was feeling anxious. The first woman said, `Well, I like you anyway,’ and the heavy woman said, `Well, I don’t like you!’ Meanwhile the boring man was saying something mean about his daughter. I don’t ever want to go to one of those meetings again.”
I look at the Advantage House calendar and see that this activity is called the “Newcomers Happy Hour.”
Jan says she didn’t get her usual pills this morning. “They came in several vials instead of the pill dispenser.”
I call Nurse Celia, who says this is a mistake and she’ll see to it that it is rectified.
My sister sounds okay when I call her at 6:30. The tenderloin was good after she cut away the gristle and fat, but when she took a couple of gulps of milk, she realized it was sour.
“I believe the bacteria in sour milk can be harmful.”
“Cottage cheese isn’t harmful, so you’re probably going to be all right.”
“My big toenail is getting so long it’s cutting into my shoe, but I’m afraid to clip it. The flesh is right there, I don’t want to start hemorrhaging again.”
“I’ll ask Celia if there is a podiatrist for residents.”
Jan calls at 7:30 the next morning, so frantic she is almost shrieking. “I don’t have one thing I can wear! Everything in my closet is dirty! And I smell!”
“I can’t believe you smell, Jan but if you think you do, maybe it’s time for an aide to give you a shower. Meanwhile, you can give yourself a French bath.”
She says angrily that she doesn’t know what a French bath is. I describe it.
“A French bath isn’t going to make my clothes any cleaner.”
“Jan, among all the outfits in your closet, there must be something you can wear.”
“You would think so, but there isn’t!”
“I know you’re not going to go down to breakfast in your underwear.”
“The aide picked out something and said, `Just go ahead and wear it and stop upsetting yourself so much.’ How can I help being upset? She’d be upset if she didn’t have anything to wear!”
When I say there’s nothing I can do about this problem, she snaps, “OKAY!” and hangs up. No hugga hugga today. After I mull over our conversation, it occurs to me that Jan may not have been given one of her most important medications, the one that helps keep her calm.
Nurse Celia answers my call. I tell her how distressed my sister is over her perception that she has no wearable outfits in her closet. I convey my concern that she may have missed taking a much needed medication.
“And she says that she smells. I think she hasn’t had a shower in quite a while.” Celia says she will see Jan and help with her wardrobe problem.
I call Jan at ten, hoping I can persuade her to go to the Crossword Puzzle Game at ten-thirty. She says an aide is going to take the clothes that are machine washable.
“My green pants are rayon and the top is rayon, so I suppose they’re going to charge me fourteen dollars for dry-cleaning them.”
“I’ll take care of the extra fourteen dollars as a birthday present.”
“I don’t know if it will be fourteen dollars. I said that because today is my birthday, the 14th of August.”
“I know. I’m afraid you aren’t having a very happy one. I hope you’re going down to the Crossword Puzzle Game. You’d be good at that.”
“I can’t leave because I’m too involved with Hertha. She thinks she can hand wash the green pants in cold water, but I know they’ll shrink.”
“If they do, I’ll ask Linda to replace them.”
“And the green blouse has a thread hanging from it, which means the whole thing is on its way to unraveling.”
“On the inside seam? I’ll bring a needle and thread tomorrow and mend it.”
Nurse Celia calls to say that Janeth is now getting all her medications. She says she looked through Jan’s closet and couldn’t find any clothes that looked dirty. However, she gathered up all but the rayon ones for the aide to machine-wash.
“I didn’t say anything about getting someone to bathe her. One problem at a time is the way we do things here.”
I climb the stairs to Jan’s apartment, bearing a needle and green thread. She can’t find the loose thread she was worried about. I finally find one a couple of inches long on the inside cuff of her green shirt and cut it off.
The podiatrist surprises Jan by coming to her apartment and clipping her toenails. I thank Nurse Celia for arranging this. I’m glad I can say something positive because in a previous call, I had reiterated my sister’s desire to get her morning pills earlier. Celia repeats what she has told both Jan and me, that the aides have dozens of other residents needing their a.m. medications. I must stop calling her, or I’ll only make matters worse.
My sister’s latest stressor: “Victoria will be coming at 9:30 tomorrow, so I’ve told the dining room I won’t be able to have breakfast. And I won’t be able to have lunch either, because it will be too late by the time we get back.”
“The appointment is at ten. You know how fast Dr. DeSouza hustles you through. I don’t think you’ll miss out on lunch.”
“Well, I do,” says Jan.
“Tell you what. If you don’t get back in time for lunch, I’ll give you five dollars.” (A half laugh, half snort from Janeth.)
Another concern is the green slacks that have finally dried after being washed in cold water.
“I wanted to tip Hertha, but she said all she needed was my thanks.”
“I wanted to tip Hertha, but she said all she needed was my thanks.”
I call Jan at 7:15 a.m. “I want to be sure you’re awake, so you’ll be ready for Victoria.”
“Oh, I’m awake all right. I had terrible insomnia all night. I couldn’t sleep because my bed was deliberately demolished and there was no way I could get warm. This is the aide’s revenge because I didn’t pay her after I said I would. I know you don’t want to hear this, Barbara, but I expect this kind of thing will be happening from now on.”
“I thought the aide said all she needed was your thanks.”
“This is a different matter. The aide performed a service for me and I didn’t pay her.”
“If she performed a service, the cost will show up on your bill.”
“No, this was between her and me. I’ve got to hurry to get ready now.”
Ten minutes later I call again and say briefly, “When Victoria comes, tell her about what happened, and after you get back, ask her to go up to your room and see your bed.”
“There won’t be time. I have to be at the doctor’s by ten.”
“When you get back, go to the dining room but ask Victoria to go up to your apartment and look at the bed.”
“I’ll try,” she says.
I have turned 86, but doctors have priority over birthdays. Kathie and Frank drive me to Mass General, Kathie driving both ways so Frank can save his energy. When we get back to Westwood, he will drive down to the Cape to take his parents shopping and out to dinner. I tell Dr. Matthews that I am having much less pain this week and no pain at all in my left hip.
He spends a lot of time checking the ingredients in Tramadol and Tylenol. He asks me what other medications I’m taking, then asks what strength they are. He chides me for not knowing, after I thought I’d been so brilliant to coming up with their names. I should check the strength, he scolds. (If I did, half an hour later I wouldn’t remember. This doctor has great expectations for octogenarians.)
I show him my list of vitamins and supplements, with the strengths noted. “I knew you’d make a liar out of me,” he says. I consider him abrasive; my always tolerant daughter believes he was joking.
On the way back to Westwood at noon, I call Advantage House from the back of Kathie’s van and ask the receptionist if my sister got back in time to have her lunch. “Yes, she’s in the dining room.” I tell Kathie I won’t say anything to Jan about the five dollar bet I won’t have to pay.
I go to Marshall’s and find several bargains for me and a pair of shoes, size 8 1/2 wide that I hope Jan can use on her swollen feet. For the first time in over two years I feel comfortable enough to spend a couple of hours walking around the store.
I decide not to call Jan until after I have my supper. Her news could take away my appetite. At 6:30, I call and say, “How did it go today, Janeth?” Her voice sounds brittle and tense as she describes her morning.
“Victoria overslept; we barely managed to get to New England Medical by ten o’clock. Dr. DeSouza spoke very fast, you know, the way people from other countries do, and hurried us out of her office, so that’s why I got back in time for lunch. Victoria looked at my bed and fixed the sheet that was so tight. Last night I had to try to sleep either under that heavy puffy thing I don’t like, or without it, which made me freeze.”
“Do you remember that you have a couple of blankets in your bureau drawer?”
“Those big heavy things? I wouldn’t want them. Victoria put the puffy thing on the closet shelf because she thought if I ever got sick and had to stay in bed, it would be useful. I told her the shelf was sometimes needed for other things, but she said not to worry about it. Then I showed her my black purse with all the dangerous cards in it, my Social Security, Blue Cross, Blue Shield, Medicare. . . ”
“Jan, it’s a good idea to keep your Social Security card at home in a safe place, but you do need to bring the other ones when you see a doctor, especially a new one. You are not in any danger,; the important cards can all be replaced if they’re lost.”
“You don’t have an enemy in your life. I have a vindictive enemy.”
“I don’t think Hertha is an enemy, but because of your illness, this is the way you perceive her. I wish I could calm all your fears. Try to relax and trust the people around you. Nothing bad is going to happen.”
“We’ll see,” Janeth says. I know what she means is, “You’ll see.”
My sister is distressed because she got a bill for her telephone from Verizon and can’t find it.
“I’ll call them to let them know the statements should be forwarded to me. Don’t worry about it, I’ll write a check for them.”
“One of my neighbors got his telephone bill and he thought it was too much. He believes someone has been coming into his apartment and using his phone.” Great. That’s all she needs to hear.
“Poor Joan had to call me again from Florida because when she called the first time, Victoria picked up the phone and said, `Black residence.’”
“Didn’t she hand you the phone? “
“No! She said I was busy and to call later. She’s a very controlling person.”
“Victoria was trying to save your money. She is very expensive per hour, so even if you talked with Joan for only ten minutes, it would be a costly conversation.”
“I didn’t like it when she said `Black residence.’ This will lead to strangers calling me when they see J. Black in the phone book.”
“I don’t understand why that would happen.”
‘It happened to me many times when I lived in Quincy.”
I should just smile and nod, as Diane has told me many times. “Never argue,” echoes Margo. But there are times when it seems as if I should at least try to lead Janeth away from the paranoid path she is so set on following. Like the bed that had been demolished.
“Demolished? You mean the bedding was in a heap?”
“No, it was made up differently, so that I couldn’t use it. I’m not sure which aide did it. I have a hard time telling them apart.”
“I remember you said you tried to tip Hertha, and she said all she needed was your thanks.”
“I did not try to tip her!” my sister shouts. “It was a financial transaction between the two of us. And she didn’t say all she needed was my thanks! She said my thanks was enough! Then when I didn’t give her the money I promised, she got even by demolishing my bed!”
“Jan, perhaps you misinterpreted what happened. . .”
“I don’t want to talk about it!” she shouts. “I’m dying.”
We hang up. My fruit salad tastes like cardboard. I am sick at heart and sick of the responsibility of being a rotten caregiver. Maybe what we need is a cooling off period. Not eight years, as it was the last time, but a few days. Maybe on Monday I’ll bring her the shoes I bought for her and act as if none of this turmoil had happened.
I have to take a break from trying to relate to my sister. She has been paranoid at least from the 70s (Linda says as far back as she can remember), but now I am stymied by her unshakable conviction that a staff member is out to get her. I am too old, too fragile, too weak to take on this cruel disease. It wins. I lose. She’s lost.
I will leave the shoes and my umbrella with the receptionist on Monday. Jan will take one look at the shoes and declare that they are too narrow. You need to take both hands to widen the sides, and then even I, with my Cinderella’s-sister size nine, can get into them. A little cramped for me, but they should be fine for Jan. I will also leave my umbrella, since she says the umbrella in her Quincy apartment must have been thrown out with everything else. I don’t remember ever seeing an umbrella. I must look in my Honda’s trunk, full of Jan’s fall and winter jackets and raincoats because I have no place else to put them. Jan, unable to anticipate, would say, “They’re too hot.”
Kathie calls me as soon as she and Frank get to their hotel for her conference in New York. She thinks I shouldn’t let the altercation with Janeth continue. When she gets back, she’ll help me find the right words for a letter. I found the right words when I came back into my sister’s life all those months ago, but I’m afraid she now views me intractably as one of her enemies.
At first it was a relief. Ted came into my apartment while I was gone yesterday and left a card and a present, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. How nice—suddenly I have plenty of time for books. So I turn to the classical-music station for a background to read by and what I hear is so poignant, I can’t bear it. I had forgotten the power of Puccini. I switch quickly to Easy Listening.
There, that’s better. I look at Ted’s card again: “Another year older? Being our age is a Walk in the Park. . .well, okay…a Stroll in the Park. . . All right, a Seat on the Bench in the Park.” Being our age. Oh, to be 65 again instead of 4 years short of ninety and quarreling with my baby sister.