Wednesday, August 9, 2017


       I arrive with a raincoat and jacket over my arm, well ahead of Janeth’s dental appointment.  As I enter, Norma is exiting with a grumpy face.  
Janeth is in the dining room, where she and Robert are finishing their desserts.  I ask if she minds my asking her tablemate a couple of questions about his two lives. 
“Three,” he corrects.  “Fire away.  I was twenty-nine when I was shot.  That’s always the first question people ask.”
 “Were you married?” 
“No, I was engaged.  She was the prettiest thing you ever saw, with long blonde hair.  I got her moved to Boston and settled in an apartment.  She was teaching mentally challenged children.”  A rhinoceros looms up next to my ear. “Did she stick by you?” the blundering creature asks.  “Shut up,” I say.
       “Jan tells me you had to learn how to do everything all over again.” 
“I woke up and didn’t know where I was or who I was.  It took me years before I could start living anything like a normal second life.”
       And the third one?  “Living from a wheelchair in this place.” 
       On the way to the dentist, Jan says she had asked Robert to please explain to Norma that she doesn’t hear well. “She was so upset when I asked her to repeat something, she got up and left in a huff.” 
“So that’s why she was looking so grumpy.” 
 “Yes, and it isn’t my fault.  I can’t help it.  I try reading lips but that doesn’t work very well.” 
       My sister tells me more about the woman who gets indignant when she’s told she’ll have to go to the Country Kitchen to finish her meal.  “She has been shown the schedule, but she doesn’t think it should apply to her.  She has Alzheimer’s, and it makes her difficult to deal with.  She’s as arrogant as a spoiled movie star.”   
 “I’m glad you’re not like that.”   For some reason this amuses Janeth, and she bursts into peals of laughter.  I haven’t heard that wonderful laugh—literally—for years. 
       Another blessing for the day—Janeth likes Dr. Shelsey. 
At the end of the appointment I heard Jan ask him whether she should floss with regular tape or waxed.  He prefers waxed.  As we leave, I say to the receptionist, “I didn’t hear any screaming.”    
“Not from either of them,” Janet says.
       The like-the-dentist blessing flies into the void when Janeth calls me an hour later.  She is irate because she can’t get the floss to go between the repaired tooth and the one next to it. 
“He cemented them together!  He’ll have to fix it!  Food is going to collect and rot and smell!”  I try to placate her by offering to call the office.  
Janet says, “Tell her to just do the best she can.”
       I relay the advice to my sister. “And that’s what I’m trying to do, Jan, and that’s what you’re trying to do. We’re all trying to do the best we can.” 
“Just you wait and see, Barbara, this tooth is going to rot and I’ll have to have it extracted!” 
“I’ve had two molars extracted in the last few years.  These things happen when we get old.  I hate it as much as you do.  There’s nothing we can do about it.” .
       My evening call to Jan hits a nerve—not in her tooth but in the aide.  I always ask if her pills have arrived because otherwise, we may be interrupted with, “Oh, here’s Lucy” or “Here’s Hertha.”
 I pose the usual question, and Jan says, “She just got here.” 
“I’ll call back.  Five minutes later Janeth calls me, highly indignant.  “The aide had the effrontery to say you shouldn’t call me anymore, they know what they’re doing, you should keep out of it.”      
I can see how easily the aide might assume the purpose of my call was to check up on medications delivery.  I will explain to Nurse Celia that I am merely checking how my sister’s day went.  My daughter calls me every evening for the same reason.
       Janeth says she has food stuck in her new dental work.  I advise her to use her plastic pick to push it out. 
“I’ve lost the plastic pick.  I’ve looked and looked and it’s disappeared the way things do around here.” 
       “You showed it to me this morning.  It was in the right-hand pocket of your slacks.  Did you look in there?” 
“Of course I looked in there!  I looked in every single pocket I own!” 
I tell her I’ll buy some picks at the pharmacy tomorrow.

I pull over to the curb on Compton Road and call Jan.  “I have those plastic picks for you.  Meet me in the library.  I’ll be there in a few minutes.”
 “And I’m supposed to be down there in a few minutes?” 
“Take as long as you want, I can wait.”
  I sit down in the library and glance through a book.  A resident is sitting in the corner with a volume held up to her face and a magnifying glass in her hand.  If my one good eye ever fails me, I will do the same, if possible. A bookworm, please, in my next incarnation.  I look at my watch and start pacing.  I try another book.  Finally I tell Ruth to tell Jan I had to leave. 
I get into my car, start it up, then get out again, thinking my sister surely must have come down by now.  She has.  I give her the picks; she examines them dubiously.  I say hugga hugga, but she follows me out to my car.  She has something she wants to tell me, but she can’t remember what it is. 
“Sorry, dear, I have to leave or I’ll be late.  I’ll talk to you tonight."
        The traffic is heavy all the way.  Unpassable trucks slow it down to thirty miles an hour.  I breathe deeply.  Mustn’t let my blood pressure rise, or my bridge score will plunge.  Shirley and I do fairly well, coming in fourth.  If only I’d taken that obvious winning finesse.  No one in my other world will want to be my partner if I don’t shape up.
        A message from my niece is blinking on my machine.  She had thought Steph wouldn’t have to pay tuition when she switched to the University of Maine.  Linda has been taking courses for her social worker degree on a grant from the state.  But she has received a tuition bill for $3500 that she doesn’t have.  She hates to ask her mother for money, but . . .
       This Wednesday evening simply has to be Janeth’s Washday. I can count, and four weeks having gone by without a shower.  As I call with the reminder to “let the aide bathe you,” I think of our mother’s wonderful poem, “Birthington’s Washday.”  That gurgle-and-slosh day, That sputter-and-splosh day, Known in the village as Birthington’s Washday!
       My sister shrieks, “Lila did my hair today!  She cut it very short.  I told her to be careful not to leave the right side longer than the left side, but she didn’t listen.  None of them ever listen.” 
       “Oh dear. I thought we had the schedule worked out for showers Wednesday, hairdos Thursday."
        What am I going to do?  This is terrible.  That Lila does whatever she wants whenever she feels like it.”
        “It’s a shame.  You have always been such a fastidious person.  How about this idea?  Ask the aide to shower you below the waist, and you’ll take care of the rest.” 
        I’ll try, she says fretfully. 
I tell my sister about the tuition bill for $3500.  “Linda says she hates to ask you for money, but I thought you’d want to help.”
“ Of course I want to help!  Go ahead and send her a check. I can’t do anything right, I can’t say anything right.  I open my mouth and shit comes out.  Norma said she was sorry she got mad, but an apology doesn’t erase the way she made me feel.” 
“Maybe an apology is better than nothing.”
 “She and Robert were all lovey-dovey, blowing kisses to each other and ignoring me.”
She tells me a nurse from Dr. Felton’s office called. “She said something about a letter you need.  I didn’t know what it was all about and I was reluctant to give out your number, but I finally did.” 
“I’m glad you did, dear.”  I explain that the letter could save her hundreds of dollars if the bank makes an exception when we close her account four years early.   She says uh-huh, not understanding a word.
       Spent half the morning on phone calls.   The first to Nurse Celia, concerning the aide’s understandable misinterpretation of my calls and Lila’s changing my sister’s hairdo appointment. 
“You and I had worked out a good program, Celia.  All she had to do on Wednesdays was to ask the aide to try not to get her hair wet because she was having her hair done on Thursday.”
     “Why would it matter if her hair got wet if she was getting it done the next day?”      “My sister is very particular about her hair.  It’s the one thing in her life that she’s proud of.  She doesn’t want it looking straight and stringy for breakfast Thursday morning.”  
I call Sandra at Paula Young’s, asking if she’ll order a head-wrap for me to consider when I come in next week.  I have a list of new wigs to try.  I like only one of the three I have.  We Beyer girls do have problems with our hair, home grown or purchased.      
My third call is to Lila, asking her to switch my sister’s appointment back to Thursday and explaining why.  Fourth to Jan re the 10:30 Food Advisory that’s on the activity calendar.
“I’ve been to those,” she says, “and they don’t pay any attention to what you tell them.  Like the garnish they put on your plate that fries your brain if you eat it.”
 The solution seems simple to me.  “Then don’t eat it.” 
“I always takes a little nibble to see if maybe it’s a different green this time.”
Fifth call to Jan about her appointment tomorrow with an Ear, Nose, and Throat doctor.  “With a little luck, we’ll get there before it rains.”

 I tap on Jan’s door at twelve-thirty, bringing another brand of toothpicks, since the handles on the first ones “bent and turned into a seven.”  I get her two raincoats from the closet.
“But they aren’t waterproof!  I’ll get drenched!” 
“One of them is a London Fog.  Surely it must be waterproof.” 
“But I bought it at a thrift shop.  It ceased being any good in the rain long ago.” 
My sister settles, with my help, on a blue jacket with a yellow lining.  I tell her I have a rain hood in my car that she can wear if it’s showering when we get to Dr. Hill’s office.  Going the wrong way when I encounter a detour near Weymouth Landing, my gas gauge and my spirits sink with every mile. I stop three times to ask where Middle Street is. 
The sunny weather turns to rain, as predicted.  The traffic on Route 18 is horrendous, due to the invariable road repairs that afflict the area. When we at last get to 825 Main Street, I hand Janeth my white head cover, and we scurry through the rain to the building’s door as fast as two octogenarians can scurry.  It is locked.  The main entrance is around the corner.  We climb back into the car, and I am able to park in a handicapped space near the entrance.  Through all this, Jan is patient and uncritical, though I know she is concerned about what’s happening to her hair.
I kibitz during her session with Dr. Hill.  He finds quite a bit of wax but not enough to affect her hearing.  He sends us upstairs to the audiologist, whose goal is to sell my sister a set of hearing aids.  Neither sister thinks this is a practical idea.  She doesn’t have the necessary fine motor skills for their care.  Moreover, since she loses her glasses regularly, losing an expensive hearing aid would be far more traumatic.
The round trip has taken three hours.  As we approach Advantage House, Janeth comments on how deceptively attractive the grounds are.  “They mislead people into thinking this is a good place to live.”
“It’s the best one I know of, Jan, and I looked at several.” 
In my mailbox is an Advantage House questionnaire for residents to fill out, ranging their answers from Excellent to Poor.  I save Janeth the trouble of filling it out and give every question an Excellent.   I feel nary a tweak from my conscience.

We have a new routine, Jan and I.  I have been calling only once a day, and she seemed to be surviving without my hovering.  Until tonight. 
She can hardly stammer the words out, she is so incensed.   “Hertha has gone off with the two pairs of dark slacks I was counting on wearing.” 
“You have a dozen more in your closet.” 
“But when I whittle, they show the wet stain.  The black ones don’t.” 
“I never noticed any stain.” 
“That’s because you don’t bend over and look at my crotch, Barbara.  The impression I had of Hertha from the beginning is right; she is malevolent.”
“She probably noticed you were wearing the same two outfits day after day and thought it was time to wash them. “
“I’m never going to see them again,” says Jan.  “And if I get them back, they’ll be wrinkled and unwearable.”
“All we can do is hope that the slacks will be returned and they’ll be fine.” 
“That will never happen,” says Jan. 
She’s making me sick.  I break away with a hugga, hugga.  She-Who-Must-Always-Be-Right is determined to prove that her original suspicions were justified.  My intellect and my daughter say poor sick Janeth; my emotions say poor maligned Hertha.
How do families who care for such sick relatives in their homes STAND it!  I can escape into my biography of Andrew Wyeth, lingering spellbound by the photographs of his work.  Janeth and her exasperating ways recede into the background.
I point out the two pairs of dark slacks. 

I find Jan at the Word Scrambler exercise and participate for twenty minutes, then beckon to her.  On the way to her apartment, I ask if Hertha returned her slacks.     
 “She says she didn’t wash them.  She went into my closet and mixed everything up so I don’t know where anything is.” 
       “Jan, you’re in the habit of hanging your clothes over a chair because it’s difficult for you to hang them in the closet.  Like this shirt on the bathroom doorknob.   Hertha thinks she’s being helpful.”      
“Well, she isn’t.”  Then Jan says she has to whittle.  She pulls down her pants and sits on the toilet, unselfconscious as a child.  I am surprised to see that she isn’t wearing a diaper.  Maybe the OAB pills are working. 
“Now my bum will get all wet,” Janeth says.  The answer to that problem is obvious in my view:  a handful of toilet paper.
 “Not a handful.  That’s what Stella did when she cleaned the drain in the shower.  Whirr, whirr, whirr!    She didn’t care how much of my toilet paper she used.” 
“Next time, ask her to use a towel instead.” 
“Then the towel will be dirty and covered with hairs.”
“So put it in your laundry.”
 “Then it will come back with hairs all over it.”
        “No, dear, that’s what the lint trap is for.”
       Janeth carefully detaches two squares for drying her wet bum, the acme of frugality, no butts about it.  When Kathie and I discuss the Tale of the Toilet Paper tonight, we will laugh because there is no  alternative.         
I drive to Bill’s new duplicate game at the Baptist Parish House in Norwell.  I head for the restroom, and a few minutes later say Oh shit.  My metal ring that’s shaped like a leaf has made a surgically neat cut on my thigh.  Bill rustles up a couple of women from the office, and between them, they put a dressing on the cut that stops the bleeding.   Bill’s official ruling about the Delay of the Game:  “Don’t ever wear that ring again.” 
Back at A-House, I sign in at the desk with one hand, while carrying a roll of toilet paper with the other.  The receptionist says, “That’s one of the most important items that comes through our door. Your sister is in the TV room.”                                                   
       The TV room?  Along with a handful of other residents, Janeth is watching news about the Red Sox, of all incongruities.
       “I didn’t know you cared.” 
       “Someone told me they had to win tonight or they were out of the running.”
Jan and I go to #253 so she can stash the important item in her bathroom cabinet. I also want to check her living-room telephone, which she claims goes beep, beep, beep when she tries to dial a number.  I dial mine and get my answering machine. 
“Now you try it, Jan.”  She dials two numbers, then hands the phone to me.  “No, keep dialing,” I say.
 “Listen to it,” she says.   I listen and it’s going beep, beep, beep.  I think of Timmy, who is always sure, when I have an annoying computer problem, that his muddle-headed old mom has created it.  Once in awhile I am vindicated, as my sister is today.
When I sign out, I report the phone problem to the receptionist.

I call Jan to discuss an easy way to take her daily flaxseed meal, which I think she’s been forgetting to do.  She is too frantic to discuss anything except her lost keys.  They have disappeared.
“I looked everywhere, the maintenance guy looked everywhere.  He even looked in my shoes!” 
“They’ll probably turn up, just the way your glasses do when you lose them.”   Janeth says what she always says when life goes awry.  “That isn’t going to happen.”
“I have to drive to a doctor’s appointment, but I’ll be thinking about you and wishing you luck.” 
I have trouble finding Dr. Anderson’s new address, stop at a small market to ask directions.  As I close the car door, it turns into a bigger weapon than yesterday’s leaf-shaped ring.  I have clipped my leg, which begins bleeding profusely, staining my slacks.  I say Oh shit for the second time in two days.  The couple managing the store are Asian and don’t know where Perseverance Drive is.  Then the angelic Asian husband says, “Do you mean Performance Drive?  Where all the doctors’ offices are?”
I see more of Dr. Anderson’s nurse than I do of him. She treats my nasty-looking injury and bandages it.  Dr. A. comes in and tells me I will need a wound nurse to come to my house.  He says sympathetically that he’s sorry.  He asks how my book is doing.  I tell him it’s doing nothing.  He looks at me kindly and says he’s sorry. 
“I’m sorry you have to keep saying you’re sorry.”

Dear Gary:
It's such a shame that Read Me a Rhyme, Please didn't take off the way we thought it would.  I can understand how impossible it would be for you commit to the sequels.  Maybe if they are accepted elsewhere and do well, the public will wake up to the book your staff and I worked so hard on.
I thank you for all your efforts in behalf of Ernestine's poetry and for having appreciated it in the first place.

[The failure of the book was my fault, I eventually realized.  Kathie had warned me that calling Mother’s poem “Spooky the Ghost” would be offensive to blacks.  I had intended to change it to “Scary the Ghost” but forgot to do so in all the excitement of having the workbook accepted.  The illustrator contributed to the fiasco by depicting a large clown figure as a black.  Months of work and high hopes down the drain.]

Back at home, using cold water and soap, I scrub and scrub the blood from my slacks and white sneaker.  I’m in no mood to quote Lady Macbeth.  The phone rings. 
“Barbara?  I have amazing news.  I don’t know how it happened, but I found my keys on my wrist.  I don’t know how they got there.  It’s a mystery.  Then when I came into my apartment a few minutes ago, there was a new phone.  I dialed your number and here you are! ” 
“I thought of asking you if you’d looked on your wrist, but I knew you’d say of course you had.” 
“Of course I looked.  I’d even changed my clothes, and I was sure the bracelet wasn’t on my wrist.  It’s magical!”
       I relate the news about clipping my leg with the car door.  She is shocked when I describe the bloody slacks and bloody shoe.  Among the many things Janeth is afraid of, hemorrhaging is high on the list.       
       Dr. Alisa Freed, Jan’s new primary care physician, is a godsend for both of us.  With her office
only ten minutes from Advantage House, there will be no more driving in Quincy’s heavy traffic, my sister nervously tightening her seatbelt, no more daunting walks along interminable halls.   No more absurd referrals to a specialist when the patient points mournfully to a slightly raised vein.
       I have made a preliminary appointment in hopes that the doctor will prescribe a more helpful medication for Janeth’s OAB.  (To uninitiated young folks, the initials stand for overactive bladder, similar to the condition we had as babes in arms.)  
       When the physician walks into the examining room, I am surprised to see how young she is.  
       “Are you sure you aren’t Dr. Freed’s daughter?” I say, then immediately wish I hadn’t.  My idea of a compliment undoubtedly doesn’t match hers.  So much for the doctor’s first impression of Janeth’s caregiver.
       I give Dr. Freed the list of medications that are delivered weekly.   I make my pitch for a change in the prescription for my sister’s OAB.  The doctor asks Janeth how often she has to urinate.  Janeth thinks and thinks and thinks.  “About twice a day,” she finally says.  Terrific. 
       “Jan, what about all the times you tell me you’re whittling in your pants?”
       I appeal to the doctor.  “She keeps telling me she’s afraid she smells of urine.  I keep telling her she doesn’t.”
       Dr. Freed has questions for me, as well as for Jan.  “I see she’s on a timed-release version of Oxybutinin that she takes just once a day.  Did you say she was on the Qualitest brand at one time?” 
“Yes, and she did much better.”
“Exactly when was that?”
       “I know I was able to get a prescription for her; so it must have been when she was still living in Quincy.” 
Dr. Felton asks more questions, and I understand she wants to be thorough, but I’m getting worried.  My anecdotal testimony could be meaningless in her view.  In fact, I am so alarmed that I abandon my pose as Janeth’s sensible caregiver, and blurt, “I’ll be heart-broken if my sister doesn’t get this prescription!”
       In the end, Dr. Felton agrees to fax the new prescription on a trial basis.  I am relieved.  I hope that before long, my sister will cease rinsing out her pull-on disposable diapers and hanging them on her towel rack to keep from using them up too fast.  She has yet to open the new package I bought her a month ago.

       My conversation with Janeth this evening started with my asking if she had gone to the afternoon’s entertainment, The Singing Sisters. 
       “Yes, I did, but they were nuns, and when I saw that, I sat outside the room to listen because it would be too offensive if wanted to get up and leave.” 
“So they weren’t sisters like you and me?”  
“Well, yes, they were nuns who were also sisters.   They told us they performed for groups like ours, and sometimes people who were feeling ill became better after hearing their songs.”
        Janeth barely stops to catch her breath when she switches to the subject of tablemate Robert.  “I understand now why he is such a sloppy eater.  It’s a wonder he’s here at all.  Years ago he was shot in the head by a burglar.  One of the doctors was ready to give up on him and pronounce him dead, but another one said, `Wait, I can see him breathing.’  So he was operated on immediately, and he survived, but he had to learn how to do everything all over again as if he had been reborn as a baby.  Everyone said it was a miracle that he was alive.  Now that he has told me his story, I am making allowances for the way he shovels food into his mouth.”
       Here is what was extraordinary about these conversations: first, there were no long, frustrated pauses between the words she usually struggles to pry out of her brain; second, there were no complaints about meals and aides.  She sounded as chattily articulate as she was in happier times.  Diane and Margo, both the voices of experience when it comes to advice about Alzheimer’s, have told me there would be good days like this. 
“But you can’t get your hopes up too far,” Diane added, “because you’ll only be disappointed when it doesn’t last.”   
Next, Janeth tells me of a woman who makes a scene when residents arrive for the late lunch or supper.  “She refuses to leave the table.  She could bring her meal into the Country Kitchen and finish it there, but she yells at the waitresses that she has been going to restaurants for years and was never treated like this. 
“I don’t ever carry on like that, but I’m particular about my food,” Jan says.  “I do leave a lot on my plate.  Tonight I ordered a chicken breast and it came with a greasy- looking skin.  It took me a long time to cut it off, and by then I was almost too nauseated to eat.”
“You could ask for just vegetables.”
 “They’re no good, either.”

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