Wednesday, August 9, 2017


        Janeth watches me sign out to make sure I do it correctly.  “Oh Barbara!” she exclaims.   “You spelled my name wrong when you checked in!  Look, you wrote B L E A C K!” 
“Yes, I was in a hurry when I got here.  Do you want me to cross it out and write it properly?”  Jan whimpers that she just doesn’t know. 
Ruth speaks up and says it isn’t necessary.  “We know who you are.” 
“Jan, I wish my penmanship were as neat as yours.  I’ve always admired your handwriting.”
       “I don’t admire it,” she says.  “That tiny printing of mine is impossible to read. It used to drive me crazy.”  
     Recalling an example I’d seen, I could well imagine that the tiny printing placed on a large piece of paper, inside rectangles of different sizes, some horizontal, some vertical, would drive her crazy. She said she used to sit on the floor of her former apartment for hours, trying to make sense of words she had written so minutely.
Jan follows me outside.  As we near my Honda, she says, “Oh darling, look!  Your car is damaged!”  How does she do it? How does she spy the two barely visible dents that resulted when I pulled away from the pump with the hose still attached? I tell her once again the story of the long line at the gas station with the bargain price, how I was only trying to be considerate when I saw the attendant go into the office with my charge card.  How the next time I stopped for gas, another customer came to my door and told me he’d done exactly the same thing for exactly the same reason.
 My sister wants me to look at her nose.  I see a perfectly normal little nose with no defects, but she says the skin is dry.  “You could put the CVS lotion on it,” I suggest.
“No, I can’t do that because the instructions warn you not to get any of it in your eyes.  I am constantly having to do this” (she demonstrates by running a finger along the lower rim of each eye), “and if I had any lotion on my nose, the chemicals could be a danger.”
       “Okay, we’ll add your nose and your eyes to your list of problem body parts.”  I’ll be late for my bridge game if I don’t get going.  We exchange I-love-yous, and I climb in my car and put my seatbelt on.  I can see in my rearview mirror that Jan has remained in the same spot, watching me.  I roll down the window, and as I pull out, I wave.  She waves back. 
       What is she thinking, my poor little sister?  Does she wish she could come with me, as she so much wanted to when she was twelve and I was fifteen? How I resented it when Mother forced me to let her tag along with my friends and me.  That was over seventy years ago, but I can clearly see the three of us, Mom saying Janeth isn’t a leper, what harm would it do to take her with you?
“I always loved my little sister!” she would say, as if repeating the assertion would make me love mine.  I’m thankful my mother lived long enough to see her daughters become friends in their twenties, but not long enough to see them become estranged again in their seventies.
            Kathie, aware of how stressed I’ve been getting because of my sister’s constant negativity, suggests that I ask her to focus on pleasant topics. 
“But there is nothing pleasant in her life.  She still insists she wants only to be non-existent.”

       When I stop at the desk to register, Jessica points toward the room where an instructor is showing residents how to line dance.  None of them want to try it.  I see Jan among the elderly men and women lining the walls, but she doesn’t see me until I join the teacher and her assistant and motion, “Come on!”  She is first surprised, then immovable.  She shakes her head adamantly.
        The assistant takes my hand and I stumble over my feet a few times, but then begin doing better.  Jan keeps shaking her head, no.  At last, to please me, she rises from her chair and makes the effort.  By now my eighty-six-year-old back is saying enough already, so we say thank you and leave for Jan’s apartment.
       I have with me a carton of flaxseed meal for my sister’s constipation and a couple of pencils for stretching the loops on the dark blue blouse that buttons in the back.  We haven’t yet opened her door when she reads my mind. 
“That dark blue blouse is impossible, it takes too long to button it, I want nothing more to do with it.” 
“Okay, we’ll give it to Linda.”  This time she doesn’t protest when I retrieve it from her closet floor.
 “The knee-highs you tried to stretch didn’t work out either.  They are still tight.”
 “Mine are too, always have been, and they haven’t cut off my circulation yet.”
        I show her the flaxseed meal, my regularity remedy.  “You could bring this down to breakfast and have it with a dish of cereal, but how about having some now?”   
        I put two scoops of flaxseed in a bowl, hand my sister a spoon, and she has it straight up and very, very dry.
       “Like my ex’s Martinis,” I observe.  “You can experiment until you find an amount that makes you drunk enough, I mean loose enough.” 
        While she’s munching, Janeth has a new tale about Norma. 
“She looked at me coyly and asked if John and I were sweethearts.  She saw him grab me by the shoulder and plant that sloppy kiss on my mouth before I could stop him.  Just because he gave me the cane, that doesn’t mean he can take liberties!” 
The phrase takes me back to our mother’s warnings about boys, when we were pre-teenagers.
 “Now people are gossiping about me, and I hate it!”  She takes a last mouthful of meal and puts down the spoon.  She makes a fist, draws it back, and plunges her skinny arm forward, as if it held a weapon.  “I’d like to kill him,” she scowls.  
       She accompanies me to the elevator.  Halfway down the hall, I feel a hand touching my shoulder, gently moving back and forth.  “I’m sorry I’m not better.”  
I am almost too moved to answer.  Then I say I’m sorry, too, as sorry as she is.  What has happened to her isn’t fair, she doesn’t deserve it.

       New carpeting installed day before yesterday.  Ted and Frank were a great help in getting stuff out of the way and returning to put stuff back.  One problem, a lamp I can’t find anywhere.  May call on Tim, the finder of mysteriously disappearing things like a favorite photo album labeled “Jack and I.”  I know what my sons will say: “Poor old mom, she put that lamp somewhere or she gave it away . . . lamps don’t just disappear.”  Meanwhile I am way behind on what’s going on with Janeth.
       She told me in last night’s call that a blue shirt has a thread hanging.  “It could unravel the entire row of decorations.”  
So I go to Advantage House this morning, am told by Ruth that Jan is playing basketball.  I watch for a while, unbeknownst to her, see her get two out of four baskets in the box placed between two rows of residents.  Her nemesis, the kiss stealer, is sitting across from her.   It’s nearing Jan’s lunchtime, so I corral her and we go up to her apartment.  She shows me what some fool has done to her calendar. 
“They put the check mark here on the 23rd, and now you can’t see the time of the entertainment on the 29th.”  I can see that there will be a pianist at 2:30, tell her that must have been last Sunday. 
“No, the checkmark is covering important information.”
 It’s like the old days:  she’s sure she’s right, I’m sure she’s wrong.  Jan gives a sigh of exasperation and says all right.
       She brings out the shirt with a loose thread on the verge of unraveling into a heap of filaments.  The thread is in the middle of what was once a small white diamond shape.  I secure the pattern on the back of the fabric with needle and thread and assure my sister the embroidery is now safe from demolition.  “No one would ever notice it except you.” 
       Driving home, I give more thought to our discussion about the calendar.  Oddly, the last week seemed to end on the twenty-ninth. “Thirty days hath September . . .“ When I look at my Advantage House activities for September, I see what Jan was trying to tell me.  On Sunday, the 23rd a notation states that on the 30th, a pianist named Alfred Watson will entertain the residents.
       I call my sister to acknowledge how wrong I was. 
       “Remember a while back when I left three birthday cards in your apartment?  You said you didn’t know where I got my patience.  Now I want to return the compliment.  You were the soul of patience, Jan.  All you said, only a little bit crossly, was all right!”
       Jan laughs.  I must put myself in the wrong more often, so she will have at least one thing in her life to be happy about.

       A new statement from Old Mutual Insurance Company is in today’s mail.  The date of issue for a five- year contract was Feb. 2, 2002.  Wouldn’t this mean that it matured last February?  I talk to a rep at Old Mutual and learn that because Janeth failed to sign a surrender form, the annuity was automatically renewed for another five years.
     A recollection comes to me.  Janeth was in a panic over a phone call from a bad man who kept trying to tell her she should do something she didn’t understand about her Old Mutual annuity, and when she wouldn’t do it, he punished her by taking away the account. 
       Today I realize what the poor man was trying to convey to my sister.  Far from being bad, he was trying to help his client see the wisdom of signing the form.
       After supper I drop a table knife, it bangs against my thin-skinned ancient leg, and the wound begins to bleed.  I get to the medicine cabinet in time to keep from spotting the new carpet. I press the edges of the torn flap together, bandage it, and hope I won’t need the visiting nurse again.
     When I call Jan at eight, she tells me a new aide brought her pills too late, and now she won’t get to bed as early as she likes to, won’t get to sleep, didn’t sleep last night, often doesn’t get to bed until 11:00 or 11:30.  When she winds down I tell her about my misadventure with the table knife.  My sister is horrified to hear about the blood.  In Janeth language, I was hemorrhaging all over the new broadloom.      
       “You poor dear,” she says.   The role reversal feels good. 

        I call Jan to tell her that a piano player named Watson will be there at 2:30.  She says she wasn’t planning to attend. 
“I was wondering if this Watson was related to a Watson I knew in Cohasset.  He played the piano magnificently and gave lessons.” 
 “If I go, I’ll ask him.”
I urge her to go.  “Remember the lovely time you had when you heard a woman who sang so beautifully, she brought tears to your eyes?  This man might also be worth listening to.  Please go, Jan.  Please don’t sit there in the dark when you could be missing something worthwhile.”
       My sister calls later and says the piano player was Polish. 
“I got there too late to get a seat at the back so I could leave early if I wanted to.  I had to sit up front.  This Mr. Walinsky, or whatever his name was, played a piece that seemed to have some intentional discords.  I told him I thought I detected humor, and he said I was right.”  Who else, I thought, would notice a thing like that and correctly interpret the discords as musical humor? 
       “Then he played a tune that was melancholy,” my sister says.  “We talked about that, too.  He was a fascinating man.”
       I bring Jan a pair of soft black leather shoes from a catalogue.  I’m hoping they won’t make her toes scream.  She slips out of one of the boys’ athletic shoes I bought for her, size seven and a half, and pushes her foot into the right shoe.  Meanwhile, I untie the laces. 
“Why did you do that?” she asks.  “Now I’ll have to lace them all over again.” 
Sorry, I say.  This is how she broke a hole in the lacy fabric of my “dressy” sneakers, slipping out of them without undoing the laces. She was showing me that her swollen feet were still smaller than mine. (Ted would say I’m as paranoid as my sister.)   I have to keep mending the hole. You’re a royal pain sometimes, Janeth.
       “Look at the soles,” I say. “See how thick and grooved they are?  They would be safe on a rainy day.”
       She walks around in the black shoes, concedes that her toes aren’t making as much noise as they usually do. 
“I’ll see you after my bridge game.  If your toes are screaming by then, I’ll return the shoes.”
       It’s nearing Janeth’s lunch time.  As we take the elevator to the first floor, she tells me again how terrible the meals are.  We look at the lunch menu outside the dining room.

       If she remembers, my sister doesn’t say so.  She condemns the salad because they don’t use Romaine lettuce.
 “They use fancy things that fry your brain if you eat them.” 
“You mean the garnish?  So don’t eat it.” 
She condemns the vegetables (greasy) and the rice (oily). 
“It could be olive oil, and that’s good for you.” 
 Janeth fixes me with a look and says, “Barbara, do you really believe they wouldn’t hesitate to use peanut oil?” 
I say I really do believe they don’t use peanut oil, but maybe she should go to one of the meetings where such things are discussed.
       On my way back from the Monday duplicate bridge game, I stop in Hingham to make a dental appointment for Janeth with Dr. Shelsy.  I tell Janet, the receptionist, that my sister broke a tooth last Friday. 
“She’s a new patient?”  She sets up an appointment in November, then decides a broken tooth should be attended to sooner.  I will be taking Janeth there next week.
       I arrive at # 253 at 4:15 and am flabbergasted when my sister says I don’t need to return the black shoes; they aren’t bad.  I wish she would say the same about this evening’s supper, but I know that’s expecting too much of the fates in one day          
       I fill out a form the dentist’s secretary gave me, forget to call Jan until 8:15. I ask her if her pills have arrived.  She cries out that she doesn’t know.  “I don’t know anything!  I’ve been sitting here trying to think what I should do next!  My brain isn’t working worth a damn!”
       She has never sounded so desperately depressed. 
“I know, darling, this is what your illness is doing.  I hate it!  It’s mean, mean, mean!  I wish I could make you better.  All I can do is tell you how much I love you.”
       “Thank you,” she says.  Then . . . “I’m going to have to hang up.  I don’t have a single thing in my head I can talk about.  Hugga hugga.”  Click.

 During this evening’s phone conversation, Janeth doesn’t sound as despairing as she did last night.  She is concerned about wearing the same knee-highs day after day.  
“Rinse them out, squeeze out the moisture with a towel, and hang them up.  They’ll  dry by morning,” 
“You believe that, but I do not.” 
“Jan, I gave you three pairs of knee-highs.” 
“I can’t find them.” 
“I’ll look for them tomorrow.” 
I notice in Dr. DeSouza’s records, obtained for her new doctor in Cohasset, that Janeth allegedly quit smoking in 1953. 
“Jan, I think your doctor made a mistake.  You didn’t ever smoke, did you?”
       ‘Yes, remember how our brother taught us how?” 
“That was kid stuff.  I don’t ever remember seeing you smoke.  What period in your life was that?” 
“It was before I had Lindy.  I thought I should stop when I got pregnant.” 
“If you were able to stop that easily, I’ll bet you didn’t inhale.” 
“No, Dick didn’t teach us how to do that.”
       “It used to worry me that Jack was a smoker.”
“Jack, my boyfriend back in the seventies.  Sure enough, he got emphysema and died at his daughter’s house in California.” 
“Jack who?” 
“Remember how you were sure someone had stolen your filing cabinet drawer?  And I broke up with Jack because he didn’t believe the drawer was stolen?  And then you found it?”
        “Oh dear, I’m sorry,” says Jan thirty years later. 
“It’s all right.  We broke up forever many times.”

        My agitated sister calls at 9:15 this morning to tell me there will be a sweater sale going on at ten o’clock.  “They’re being sold very cheaply, I don’t have any cash or a single check!  How would I pay if I buy anything?” 
“I’ll be there at 10:30 with a check.” 
“By that time dozens of people will have come rushing down with checks or cash in their hot little hands, and nothing good will be left.”
        I hurry to get to Advantage House by ten, look into the activity room, see three or four women going through cardigans and pullovers.  Jan won’t want a pullover that would spoil her hairdo. I ask the salesman if there are any petites.  He says no.
       I go to #253, and there she is, sitting on the sofa looking straight ahead, as always.  I show her a note I have brought for her to give to the aide when it’s time for her Wednesday evening shower.  She has staved this off for three weeks with one excuse or another. 
“Please be careful not to get Janeth’s hair wet,” the note says.  “She is having a shampoo and set tomorrow, but she would like her hair to look presentable for tomorrow’s breakfast.”  Signed: “Janeth’s sister.”
       We go to the sweater sale, although I expect a small size would be much too big for tiny Janeth.  I’m wrong.  For twenty dollars each, she buys a black cardigan and a white one, both with the pockets she likes.  I fill out a check for her signature and hand over a twenty for the black sweater I bought for myself.
       Back in Jan’s apartment, I start a search for the other two knee-highs, find them in the top bureau drawer. 
“Oh, those brown ones?  They are too dark.” 
“Jan, when you unroll them and put them on, they’re just as sheer as the one’s you have on.” 
“I’m whittling in my pants,” she says. 
       “So go,” I say.  I sit on her bed while she complains from the bathroom that she’s running out of toilet paper.  “The last time I had a shower, the aide said not to worry about my hair falling out and clogging the drain.  Before I could stop her, she goes whirr, whirr, whirr and uses a big handful of my toilet paper to clean the drain.” 
“I’ll bring you a couple of rolls tomorrow, a lovely soft brand.” 
“I don’t like it too soft.  If it’s too soft, the sheets tear unevenly.” One time Janeth saw me tear the tissue carelessly and cried out, "Look what you just did!"  An odd hangup, courtesy of Al Zheimer.     
       Call Jan this evening, ask if the aide was careful not to get her hair wet. 
       “Oh, I told her not to give me a shower because I’m having my hair done tomorrow.”
       Well, I tried.  By the time the aide comes next Wednesday, my sister will have gone four weeks without being bathed.  I must talk to Nurse Celia, tell her to tell the aide to insist on the shower because HER SISTER SAID SO.

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