Wednesday, August 9, 2017


Jan has her first thorough examination by her new primary care physician.   Dr. Freed asks if she’s seen a neurologist. She doesn’t remember.
“There was a Dr. Martin in Quincy a few months ago,” I say.  “He gave her some memory tests and told her she was fine.”
Dr. Freed says, “I’m going to give you a list of five things.  Try to remember them because I’ll ask you to repeat them later.” 
“I won’t be able to do that.”        
“Do your best,” says the doctor.  Next she asks my sister to draw a clock with the numbers on it.  Jan’s clock is too small to fit in the hours.
        “I don’t have room for ten o’clock,” she says.  The doctor tells her she’s doing fine. 
The third test is more difficult.  “See this area with the numbers and letters?  I want you to draw a line in ascending order between the letters and numbers.  For example, you would draw a line between the letter a and one, another line between b and two.”
 Jan attempts to follow the instructions but is troubled when she has to draw over an existing line.  “That’s all right,” says Dr. Freed.  “You’ll end up with a bird’s nest.”  
Jan makes it as far as c connected with three but goes astray with the letter d, connecting it with the number five.  “Good, Janeth.” 
As for the pain in Janeth’s left hip, Dr. Freed says it can be treated with a cortisone shot.  "Yes, right here at Family Practice.  Barbara, make an appointment with the South Shore hospital for a CT of your sister’s head." 
I call Jan at 1:30, hoping to persuade her to go to the afternoon’s charcoal drawing class. 
 “Ray is coming on Saturday.  It will be interesting to see what Norma makes of his visit.  She’s taken to calling John my lover just because we talk together sometimes.  If she’d ever seen me kiss him on his head to thank him for his help, she’d be sure we were sweethearts.  I tell her I don’t want or need a man in my life.”
I get back to the topic of the charcoal drawing class. 
“The charcoal would get on my hands and my clothes.” 
“You don’t have to participate, but it might be interesting to kibitz. 
 “I really don’t have any interest.”
 “It would be something to do,” I persist.
 “Stephanie was here to give me a shower last night,” Jan says, using my change-of-subject resource.  “She took all my clothes and hung them in the closet.  She didn’t seem to know she wasn’t supposed to do that.  Her excuse was that she didn’t want my clothes to get wet.” 
“Get wet?”
 “Yes, the clothes in my bathroom.  She left my apartment in a shambles.”
  “I’ll come up after we get home from the South Shore Hospital and help get everything back in order.”  Or disorder, depending on one’s point of view.
“Did you get your hair done today?” 
“Yes, and it looks good but it won’t after I go out tomorrow.  I’ve been looking at the rainstorm and the wind.  It will ruin my hair.” 
“The weather is supposed to improve tomorrow, but if it doesn’t, I’ll park the car as close as I can to the entrance.  I’ll lend you my rain bonnet and put the umbrella over your head, so you’ll be protected.”
“And today is . . . is it Thursday?”  That’s right, dear. 
“November 14th:?”
       “You’ve got it.“ "And tomorrow is . . . .Friday?  November 15th?” Good, dear.  “And the next day is Saturday?  November . . . November what?”
I knock on Jan’s door at 7:30 the next morning. She is in her skivvies, not knowing what to wear any more than she did last night.
"I was up until eleven, trying things on." I look around at the shambles the aide created by hanging my sister’s clothes in the closet.  The room looks tidy.
"Stephanie was flattered that I remembered her name," Jan says. "She wouldn’t be flattered if she knew I remembered it because I never wanted to see her again."
At South Shore Hospital a parking place opens up close to the main entrance. The white bonnet and my umbrella protect my sister’s hair. A volunteer offers a wheelchair. The receptionist escorts her to the CT scanning area. Jan returns in five minutes. Next stop, the Good Health store and the accursed flaxseed meal.
I park across the street from the store and give Jan the pages I wrote about Robert, so she’ll have something to do while I shop. I buy so much, I ask for a double paper bag.
At the edge of the street, I wrestle the bundle into my left arm so I can steady myself on a bus sign with the other hand. A kind man offers to help me. I say I can manage but thank him, this rather ordinary looking 40-something man with a soft heart. Jan is chuckling at the end of the last page of Robert’s interview, where he says of his father, "Real Men Don’t Say I Love You."
We sign in at the Advantage House desk and go up to her apartment, where I proceed to make a shambles of it with the aforementioned accursed flaxseed meal. I have opened a corner of the package and am pouring some into her plastic container and onto the counter and down on the floor.
"OH DARLING!" Janeth cries. "It’s all over the place!"
I begin trying to rectify the havoc I have wrought.
"I hate to waste any!" Jan laments. Trying not to waste a grain, I brush the meal into the container and go looking for Lucy.
Ten minutes later I find her and confess what I have done with the flaxseed meal. She says she’ll get word to Peter to come with the vacuum. I go back to Jan’s apartment and take over the task of adding flaxseed meal to half a jar of applesauce. As I stirr the combination in a bowl, I say I don’t know how she manages when I’m not there. She says she doesn’t know either.
Suddenly she shrieks, plumb out of oh darlings. The mixture has slopped over the side of the bowl onto the counter. I am beginning to feel about flaxseed meal the way Janeth felt about Stephanie this morning. I never want to see it again.
I fasten the top of the flaxseed package with a paper clip and bend down to place it in the small refrigerator. Janeth shrieks. The paper clip has given way and out pours the damn flaxseed meal. Again I salvage as much as I can, with my back hurting me in its bent-over position. This time I can’t find Lucy but I find Linda vacuuming an apartment not far from the elevator. She says Peter will clean up the mess.
I report this to Jan. She is upset but forgiving. We hug. I call her when I get home and express my gratitude for her kindness and patience. She says thank you.
"I hope you’re going to Bingo; it starts at two."
"I can’t leave my apartment until someone comes to clean up."
"I am so, so sorry. I shouldn’t have tried to help you. I should have let you do it, you’d do it so much better than I could." She hung up. Did she think I was being sarcastic?
At three o’clock I call the desk and am glad to hear Joan’s voice. I ask her if she can find out whether anyone plans to remedy the disaster I created in Room 253. She says everyone has left for the weekend. She tells me not to worry about it.
My phone rings. 
"Peter came and vacuumed the rug and even vacuumed up some of the crumbs in the sofa, but not all of them." She says something I don’t quite hear about someone coming to her door.
I say of the crumbs, "Better some than none."
"Yes, better some than none. But I shouldn’t keep Celia standing here." I get off the line. I’m reading another John Updike book. He is a master at describing elderly folks. Like me. Like Jan. How did we get so old?

It’s the weekend of Linda’s thirty-fifth high school reunion. She calls me from Kathie’s, where she has stopped to introduce her second-time-around sweetheart, Toby.  I imagined I could choreograph their visit to Advantage House in a way that would be acceptable to Janeth. 
Digression:  I met Lucy for the first time when she brought the morning’s medications after our return. She deposited them in Jan’s hand, and my sister painstakingly began counting them. "Eight," she says at last, satisfied that she hasn’t been short changed or over-dosed. Then she takes each pill with a spoonful of applesauce, a leisurely process, involving dipping the spoon into the jar, then placing the pill on the spoon, then placing the spoon in her mouth.
"Wouldn’t it go faster if you took them with water?" I ask.   
"Are you telling me I should hurry?" She pours a glass of water and downs the rest of the meds.
Meanwhile Lucy has asked me about my family. I tell her about our Stephanie, lost in an automobile accident at thirty-one, and Kathie, disabled in an earlier automobile accident at twenty-five. "She’s been teaching at BU for over forty years," I say. "Drives with hand controls like Robert—the resident who was shot in the head?" Lucy nods yes, she knows about Robert, and then she says nice to meet you, goodbye. 
“Oh, they can’t come up here!” Janeth cries.  “This place is too messy!”  My e-mail to Linda advised her to go to #253 with the new tops, leaving Toby and Ray (who wanted to say hello to Toby after all these years) in the Advantage House library. 
Linda must be behind on her messages because all three trouped up to Janeth’s apartment.  Jan tried on a couple of the blouses.  Then Linda and Toby drove to Weymouthport, so I too could meet her new old boyfriend.  He’s a six-foot bearded hunk, who is responsible for my niece’s current happiness. If he’d looked like a troll, I would have loved him for loving Linda.  
We do a tour of my apartment, showing Toby the painting of Sandy Cove in Cohasset, where Linda played so happily with her cousins, showing him framed illustrations Darrell McClure sketched for my boating and flying articles.  Linda particularly wanted Toby to see the tiny slippers in the living room’s gold curio cabinet.  Tucked inside is a newspaper article:
"Archaeologist Turns Down Girl, Takes Beaded Slippers Instead."
 As Dr. Cobern [my grandfather] prepared to leave the Sheik’s tent, the Arab gravely proffered his very young daughter. . . Dr. Cobern pacified his host by saying, “I am going into places of grave danger into which I dare not take your lovely daughter. But if you please, I would like to have the little slippers she is wearing.”

I call Janeth that evening.  “I hear you’ve had a busy day.  How did the outing with Ray go?”  For the next ten minutes I listen to a non-stop denunciation of the day’s events. 
 “Yes, Ray and I went for an outing because I didn’t know what else to do with him.  We went to Nantasket and looked at the water.  The whole thing was a waste of time.  
“I was horrified when they all showed up here, but what could I do?  I had no choice.  They opened the door and came in. That Toby, he’s the same catastrophe he’s always been. Linda’s making a big mistake, taking up with him again.  And all those tops she picked out for me?  There wasn’t one I would ever have taken off the rack.  Lurid colors, stripes, they’re just not my style, ugly things I’ll never wear but I’m supposed to pay for them!”
I said—not as gently as Kathie would like—“I'll pick them up and mail them back to Linda so you won't have to pay for them. “
"Oh, I'll pay for them, but I'll never wear them.  My whole life is a mess, this is a terrible place to be stuck in." 
I say—still far from gently—“Would you have preferred to stay in Quincy with papers and clothes all over the place, half the time going hungry, you told me, because you didn't know what to eat?  Do you wish you had never moved?” 
"No, I wish I was dead."  I was too angry to feel a grain of sympathy.  I said I couldn’t take any more of her constant negativity.
Uh-huh, said Jan. 
“I know you can’t help it, it’s your illness that has changed you from the sweet person you used to be.”  Uh-huh, said Jan. 
“I have to hang up.  I'll get over it.  I’ll call you when I do.”   
But Jan has begun talking about Hertha, the aide she once thought of as her enemy.    
“Hertha has a sister named Jane, and they look so much alike it's hard to tell them apart.  It's very confusing.”  Much, much later I would realize a role reversal was taking place.  My sister was making a valiant effort to calm me down. 
I was still boiling when I e-mailed Kathie.  Quoting the vituperative monologue, I asked my daughter-the-psychologist, “How do you love someone who’s so unlovable?  She’s bad for my health, my blood pressure won’t settle down for a week.”  A postscript followed the e-mail:  “An odd thought.  I wish she were a man, so I could tell her she’s an ungrateful prick.”     
My anger doesn’t last long.  By the next morning I’ve forgiven her (she-can’t-help-it-poor-darling) and by Monday I was missing her.  I call and tell her I’ll be taking her to the doctor’s for her cortisone shot. 
“First I’ll take you with me to my follow-up appointment with Patty Koziel; then I’ll go with you to see Dr. Freed.”  I know she won’t remember all this, but we need to start over, and that’s what I’m doing.

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