Wednesday, August 9, 2017


       In tonight’s call, I learn Janeth was displeased with the result of today’s Bingo game. 
       “I shouldn’t have let myself be influenced by Kate.  She handed me some cards and said she had a hunch they’d be lucky.  Not one of them won anything.  Between yesterday and today I lost a lot of money.”
       Supper, too, was a disappointment.  “They had something called Mulligatawny Soup.  I had no idea what was in it.  It came with a raspberry salad.  The seeds get in my teeth, so I had to pick all the raspberries out.”
        “Raspberries should be outlawed.  The seeds get in my teeth, too.”
       “The waitress keeps bringing me whole milk. I should think she’d know by now that I want two percent milk.”
       “Didn’t you want whole milk when you were getting Meals on Wheels?”   
“I was trying to gain weight when I lived in the other apartment.  Now I want to lose weight because I have a big pot.” 
“So do I.  So do most octogenarians.  You’re too thin, Jan.” 
“I hate it.”  Showing my sister my own pregnant pot didn’t make her more accepting. 
       “How is Norma is behaving?”
“I can see that she’s trying, but she still is all lovey dovey with Robert and bossy with me.  He came late to dinner and said he hadn’t slept well.  Norma put a finger to her lips, telling me I shouldn’t ask why he hadn’t slept. That’s the sort of bossy thing she does to me.”   
 “I had a friend like that.  She would stop me if she thought I was about to ask someone a tactless question.  Next time I come, I’m going to bring our mother’s book called.  . . something like Happy Farm Animals?” 
Happy Animal Families. 
We reminisce, much as we used to, about Ernestine’s poetry. 
“Do you remember how Mom used words in her poems that she wouldn’t get away with today?  Like `gay.’  She loved that word. She said she wished those people had chosen some other name for themselves.”
“Someone else did that in a book," Jan said. "`Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.’  I have no memory of young and gay.  I’ve been old and sick forever.” 
        “Mother escaped that feeling by dying before she was eighty.”
       “How old would she be now?”
“A hundred and four.  Remember the poem about the mother hen who liked her large family and asked Father Rooster if he did, too.  He said, `Indeed I cockadoodle-do!’ Mom was puzzled when someone asked if she thought roosters had penises.  I played dumb because I didn’t know how to explain the question.  Such an innocent she was.”
         “I remember a time when I was living in Quincy and was trying to be nice to the cook’s daughter.  I was reading Mom’s poems from that book your wrote for children.  I showed her the pictures she could color, and she took a crayon and scrawled all over the pages.  I was very upset.” 
“Was she four or five years old?” 
“She was old enough to know better.  She ruined your book.”

        I try several times to reach Jan on this sunny Sunday afternoon.  Finally call the desk to ask where she might be.
        “She’s probably milling around in the crowd.  There’s a lot going on here for Grandparent’s Day.”
        I hear about the activities when my sister finally answers the phone at 7:45.   She tells me about the singer, who so impressed her that she wanted to compliment him. 
“I was wishing my hair looked better, but I went up to him anyway and told him how moved I was by his songs.  I don’t know what era they were from, but I knew most of them.” 
       “Oh Jan, if only you’d let everyone hear your beautiful soprano.” 
“I don’t want to do that.  I don’t look the part any more. There was this wizened up old lady who knew the words to songs like `Route 66.’  I could see her lips moving.  Those love-birds Robert and Norma were singing to each other, all lovey-dovey the way they are at meals.”
       “I came across a song you particularly liked. You wrote the lyrics on a sheet of paper and made comments about what a great song it was.” 
“Maybe it was `As Time Goes By.’” 
“No, that wasn’t it.  I’ll call back in a few minutes.” 
       I returned to the phone with two pages Jan had written about “Killing Me Softly with His Song.”
“Oh yes! That was a good song.” 
       I quote the first stanza, then stop reading because I don’t want to hear the word “killing” any more.  The word reminds Janeth of a fly in her bedroom.
       “He was dive-bombing me all night and sitting on my forehead.  He has an intuition that’s as big as anybody needs.  I would get up to go to the bathroom, and that damn fly would wait for me. He loves darting at your head and defying you.  He has more energy than I do.  I couldn’t use an insect spray because then I’d be inhaling the poison.”
         “When I have that problem, I spray the fly, then shut the door and go into another room.  I wait until the fumes have dissipated before I open the door.”  
“Well, good luck to you.”
       After we hang up, I read more of the heart-rending “Killing me softly . . .”
I felt all flushed with fever/Embarrassed by the crowd/I felt he found my letters and read each one out loud/ I prayed that he would finish but he just kept right on/Strumming my pain with his fingers/Killing me softly with his words/Killing me softly with his song
He sang as if he knew me in all my dark despair.
And then he looked right through me as if I wasn't there.
But he was there, this stranger, singing clear and strong.
He was strumming, oh, he was singing my song
Killing me softly with his song,
       On the second page, my sister had written notes about library inquiries. “Jamie helpful re Roberta Flack."  The date of these notations was less than three years ago, when Jan was still driving, still unaware of what lay ahead.

       When I sign in this morning, Jessica says Jan is in the art class.  She looks so sweetly intent, working with a watercolor brush, I wish I had a camera. I tell Jessica I won’t disturb my sister; I am thrilled to see her participating in something she is really good at.  I go up to 253 and leave the stretchable black shoes I sent for from a catalogue, along with a pair of not-so-tight support knee-highs.  She has crossed out the days up until the tenth on the activity calendar.  Smart Jan.
       I return to Advantage House late this afternoon and find my sister hibernating in her den.  My first words are about how happy I was to peek in and see her in the art class. 
 "I hated it!" she snarls.  She doesn’t intend to snarl, but that's what her face looks like when she's expressing loathing. 
“The woman kept telling me what to do with the brush.  I hate watercolors!”
 It seems I must have dreamt yesterday and this morning
        The knee-highs made my toe sore again.”  She tries on the new shoes and walks around.  At first they  appear to be all right, but soon she informs me her feet are screaming. 
“I don’t know what I can wear to supper.  Pulling on the knee-highs made my slacks all baggy.”  
        I look in her closet, find a pair of tan slacks folded over a hanger—but where are all the other slacks?  At last I spot the four outfits Linda brought, hanging on the right side of the closet.  It had been my bright idea that right will be right, and Jan will go right to the outfits.  I move them closer to the middle and show Jan she can wear something different every day. 
“No matter what I wear, I will be cold in the dining room.  All I have is that too-short white sweater on the sofa, and the too-bulky tan sweater on the chair.” 
Then she looks me in the eye and says, “I hate getting old.  All I want to do is to curl up and be out of this life.” 
I put my arms around her.  “I know you do, darling, but I love you and I want you to be here.”
        I leave for the Cohasset duplicate bridge game, wondering if I’ll be able to focus on conventions like Jacoby Transfers and Opening Preempts.  Diane and I have the top score for East-West.  I copy and paste it in a whoopee message to my loved ones.  Sometimes things go well in that segment of my life.
       In tonight’s phone call, Jan tells me more about the dive-bombing fly. 
       “I don’t have any Scotch tape, so I used toothpaste to attach a note my living-room window so one of the maintenance brothers will do something about the drooping screen.”.
“What an ingenious solution!  Good for you!”
       The next day I ask Jan if anyone showed up to fix her screen. 
“Yes, Tim was here, but I forgot to show him which window had the drooping screen.  He saw the fly in my bedroom and opened the window to help him on his way.  Either he let another fly in or the same one is still buzzing me.  He’s a very intelligent fly.  He always knows exactly where I am.” 
The insect is beginning to sound like her pet fly.  She sounds less irritated with him than she is with me when I give advice that won’t work.        
Ted has sent me “Vegetable Sculpture,” an art dreamed up by someone with the imagination to see cunning creatures in humdrum foods like Romaine and mushrooms. The head of lettuce becomes a scenic display of three fish with fluttering fins; the mushrooms are tots on a seesaw, one of them sailing mirthfully into the air.  I printed them for Jan’s entertainment.
        She looks at the first one, the three Romaine fish, and says flatly with her mouth turned down, "Why would anyone want to waste time doing something like that?" 
       “Because the artist has a wonderful imagination, like the people who make sand sculptures.  Have you ever seen those marvelous sand sculptures?" 
       “No, I haven't, and I’m sure I wouldn't be interested.” 
I keep turning the pages, glancing at her to see if she is still frowning.  She is.
       Surely she will smile at my favorite, the little mushrooms.  Her only reaction is to wonder how the one on the left got up in the air like that. Very literal-minded, she has become. 
“Maybe the photographer had a helper that pushed down on the rhubarb slide to make the child go flying.”  Like Queen Victoria, my sister is not amused.
“What’s the point?” she says.  “They’re only going to rot.”
       "I was going to let you keep these so you could show them to your friends, but I have a feeling you won't want to do that." 
“I don’t have the slightest interest; I guess I must be unartistic.”  Ruthless Al Zheimer has throttled my sister’s sense of fun.
        I have to get on my way.  Janeth allows me to embrace her, but she isn’t through with me yet.  She points to the round table opposite the kitchen area. It is the repository for a package of pull-on Depends, her Thesaurus, and other assorted items, including the birthday card I gave her last month.  On the front of the card is a scrawl in my handwriting, “Linda coming Sat. September 1.”
       “That’s obsolete,” I say.  “Linda is coming again next Saturday.”
        “The card is ruined.”
“It’s in pencil, I’ll erase it,” I offer. 
“Then it will be even more ruined.”
        Tossing my arms helplessly, I say, “Sorry about that.  I do the best I can.”
 I give her another hug, although I lean toward kicking her.  I walk down the hall thinking, what an unappreciative little S.O.B.!   Feeling guilty for the thought, I decide it’s all right for my inner self to express resentment.  Then I realize what the initials spell.  I should be sobbing for my sister, not cursing her.  Tears spring to my eyes.  She can’t help it!
       After the bridge game, I check the greeting-card department in Rite Aide Pharmacy.  I find three birthday cards and sit in my car, writing words of love for my poor demented sister.  In one of them I say, “I couldn’t resist buying this card.  Read it carefully and you’ll see a funny mistake.”
       It’s Jan’s suppertime, so I am able to go to her apartment, tear off the front of last month’s defaced greeting, preserving the message, and place the new cards here and there. 
       When I get home, a message from my sister is on my answering machine.
“Hi darling—I don’t know how you can be this patient with me, but I’m puzzled by the card that calls me both your sister and your niece, n-i-e-c-e. It says `Having you for a niece has always been one of my favorite things.’  How can that be?  I’m very confused, but I thank you for the beautiful cards and as I say, I don’t know where you get your patience.”
       Kathie and I agree that Jan’s awareness that she had been difficult is a sign that her mind is still functioning well, even if her memory is not.  I called Jan and told her to read what I had written on that odd card.  “Too bad it wasn’t a mistake on a U.S. postage stamp.  We’d be rich! ”
       Jan was upset last night because Lucy had arrived to give her a shower. 
       “This seems to be something she wants to do once a week.  I had just had my hair done and she’ll get it wet.”  I ask to speak to Lucy. 
“Could it be arranged that Janeth will have her shower the day before she has her hair done?” 
The aide says, “Talk to Celia.”
        I sign in at the desk at ten-thirty, and suddenly Janeth is by my side, asking if I was looking for her.  “No, I’m hoping I can set up a schedule with Lila on the day after you’ve had your shower.  I’m going to speak to Celia.” 
“I’ll come with you,” says Jan. 
        It’s all arranged:  Jan will continue to have her weekly shower on Wednesday evening and will have her hair done on Thursday. 
“If it works,” Jan says, ever doubtful that anything will work.  She follows me outside.
“I’m going to order prunes with my lunch because I’m constipated.”  I encourage her to have them twice a day if necessary.
        I drive to Bill’s new duplicate game in Norwell at the Methodist Church, corner of River and Church Street. He didn’t tell us the game would be in the Parish House, so I go from door to locked door and then see him standing outside the building in the distance.  By the time I get to the table where Diane is waiting for me, I’m hurting.  Dorothy Trott is in the East chair.  I tell her I need to sit down.  She’s deaf, so she keeps chatting. 
“DOROTHY, I NEED TO SIT DOWN!”  I shout this three times before she gets the message.
 “Oh all right, go ahead and sit down!”  
          Later, she is very happy when I get into an impossible contract at her table and say in the middle of the hand, “Dorothy, don’t you dare trump this.”  She laughs merrily, goes ahead and trumps and takes three more setting tricks.  I’ve made her day.  Diane and I made everyone’s day. The metal chairs are too hard on my back and my behind.  The joys of being an octogenarian.
        I have spent altogether too much time trying to make a good print of the mushroom tots on the rhubarb teeter-totter. I’ve learned a lot about saving copies in My Pictures, but at a dreadful cost.   Suddenly I see that it’s past time for Jan to go to supper.  I call her, hoping she won’t answer.  When she does, I tell her I’m sorry to be late, but it’s past 4:30. 
“Oh my gawd. I have nothing to wear except the crinkly pants I have on. I’m DEAD!” she yells.  “I’m DEAD, I’m DEAD, I’m DEAD! I can’t find my glasses, I can’t keep on this way, I want to be DEAD!”      
I don’t remember what I say besides I’m sorry.  I’m too shook up to remember anything.  When Kathie calls me at seven, we talk about my sister’s death wish. 
“I think it is so much at the forefront of her mind that it bursts out whenever something frustrates her.” 
Kathie believes in a person’s right to die.  “It’s a shame that someone who has good reasons for wanting to commit suicide has no painless, easy way to exit this life.  Dr. Kavorkian had the right idea.” 
“If I tried to help her, I’d go to jail.”
 “Yes, you can’t do that.”
        I have to force myself to call my sister at 7:30.  “Hi Jan, have your pills come yet?” 
 “No, not yet, but whatever time they come, I won’t be able to sleep.  My shower is broken, and they’re going to think I did it.” 
“What do you mean, broken?  How did you find that out?” 
“A piece is broken off, and there’s no hot or cold water. They’re going to blame me.”
“Linda is coming tomorrow.  We’ll look at the shower and see what’s going on.” 
“And I can’t find my glasses or my keys.” 
        “Your keys?  I haven’t seen you wearing any keys around your neck in ages. Linda and I will look for them.” 
She responds in a voice heavy with woe, “I hope you come soon.”
        I call Jan at seven-thirty the next morning.  “Hi sweetheart, I remember the last time you lost your glasses, you found them in between the sofa cushions.  Have you looked there?”
        “Yes, I have, and they’re not there.” 
       “Maybe they’re in the Lost and Found.” 
“No, they aren’t there either.  Someone took them.  There’s a man who has his television on so loud that it’s bothering his neighbors.” (Yes, I interject, I’ve heard that racket and thought how lucky you were to be living at the end of the world)  “People have been coming and opening my door and looking angrily inside.  The noise doesn’t bother me, so they think I egged him on to turn up the volume.  That’s why they took my glasses.”
        “Janeth, that’s crazy!” I have blurted the forbidden word.  A lightning bolt doesn’t strike me, nor does a shriek of protest.
        “You may think it’s crazy,” she says calmly, “but that’s what happened.”
        I am too appalled to just “change the subject,” as all the books and articles and friends advise. 
“Janeth, this is your illness speaking.  Remember how sure you were that someone had stolen the battery in your flashlight?  And someone demolished your bed?  Those things turned out to be untrue.  I’m sure the glasses will turn up.”
       “You think so, but I know they’ve been stolen.  Hertha seems so sweet, but I didn’t pay her when I said I would.” 
       The same twisted reason she came up with when she thought poor, maligned Hertha was getting even with her.  Trying to convince her she’s being irrational is useless.

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