Wednesday, August 9, 2017


My sister and I have consecutive appointments at Cohasset Family Health. I introduce Jan to my friend, nurse practitioner, Patti Koziel.  
“Patti,” she says, shaking Janeth’s hand.  She checks my vital signs, looks in my ears after I take the hearing aids out, listens to my heart.  She says the irregular heartbeat isn’t there anymore.  How am I feeling in general?  
“I have no appetite.  In fact, with a tad less interest in food, I’d feel nauseated.  I searched online and found dozens of reports from pregnant women who said that except for junk food, they have to force themselves to eat.  I’m thinking of going to McDonald’s.”  
“Or getting pregnant,” says Jan.  We laugh.  Considering the results of my blood work and today’s checkup, Patti sees nothing that could explain my lack of appetite. Everything looks normal.
“Do you cook your own meals?”
Yes.  I admit they’re boring and bland.  She relates a Thanksgiving story about her husband’s cutting remnants of turkey from the carcass, and setting a pot of soup on the stove to simmer.
“My mother sidled up to him, tucked her arm under his, and dropped a bouillon cube into the broth. When I got home Mother took me aside and said, `Guess what I did to make sure the turkey soup would be delicious.’
“My husband took me aside and said ‘Guess what your mother did to ruin the turkey soup.’  I realized that hereafter we would have to have two pots of soup, one for her and one for the rest of the family.  Maybe all you need to do, Barbara, is add a little salt to your food to make it taste better.”
“I have a friend who has offered to give me a substance I can put in my Ovaltine, a guaranteed appetite stimulator.  I had it in a brownie back in the seventies, and it does make you ravenous.  Did you ever try it, Patti?”
She doesn’t say yes and she doesn’t say no.  She says she never heard of its having that particular effect.
 “Don’t tell anyone.  I don’t want a policeman showing up at my door.”  Patti says she will consult with her colleagues and get back to me. 
We are early for Janeth’s cortisone shot, so we chat in the waiting room.  My sister talks about Linda’s sweetheart, Toby. 
“He has a paunch and he puts Linda down, with his talk about ‘this woman I'm dating.’”
“He’s teasing her, Jan.  When they stopped to see me, I could see they were crazy about each other.” 
“I don’t know what Linda sees in him.”
“Paunch or no paunch, he may be loving and cuddly in bed.”  My sister’s expression tells me what she thinks of that image. 
A survey asked women what they found most attractive about the man in their lives.  A significant percentage cited the cuddly factor.  This was true of the man I met in 1972 at Parents Without Partners, a year after finding the letter from the Other Woman.  Combine cuddly with very funny and you have Jack, healer of a broken heart.
An aide calls my sister’s name, and Dr. Freed gives her the cortisone shot.  I hope she’ll soon be discarding her cane. 
I go with her to her apartment to see the other blouses Linda chose for her.  The ones Jan condemned as garish have pastel tinsel threads on either side of their pale stripes.   She would “never have taken them from the rack,” but suppose there was nothing else?  Suppose her daughter had other things to do besides go shopping every two months for new outfits?
“This red one will be perfect for Christmas, Jan.” 
“I’ve been thinking about sweater sets. I could probably stretch the neck enough to protect my hair.”  This concession may solve the I-haven’t-a-thing-to-wear problem.
“I’ll be coming early to the Christmas party to help you get dressed in something festive.” 
       “I don’t have a thing that’s festive.” 
       “You have the red blouse Linda just brought you.” 
       “It’s way too big.  The sleeves would fit an orangutan.”
       “You can turn them up.” 
       “And have everyone looking at me in my makeshift blouse?”
       “I’ll be here at about 5:30.”   
“And today is . . .Wednesday?” That’s right, dear.  “Wednesday the fifth?  And tomorrow will be Thursday?  Thursday the sixth?  I've lost the marker for my calender.” 
“That’s exactly right.  Good, dear.  I’ll bring another marker.”

On the drive back to Hingham and the Christmas party my thoughts are on Linda and all the time she has spent in department stores, trying to find clothes that won’t be rejected. 
Suppose by some quirk of fate, Janeth had been the caregiver for our mother.  And suppose that again and again, Ernestine wasn’t satisfied with anything Janeth bought for her wardrobe.  How long would my sister’s patience last?
The exterior of Advantage House is glowing with holiday lights.  I am early enough to find a parking space in front of the building, for which I’m grateful.  My last cortisone shot made my joints feel worse instead of better. 
“No need to sign in,” Joan says.  “There’s Janeth, right over there.”
My sister is sitting next to Norma.  She gets up and approaches me.  She’s wearing a white blouse, beige sweater, beige shoes, beige slacks, and a fretful expression.      
“Everyone is dressed up for Christmas except me!” 
“That’s why I’m here early.   The party won’t be starting for half an hour.”
In Janeth’s apartment I see a black marker on the table.
 “I have another one of those in my pocket,” I say.  “I thought the two I brought you were both lost.” 
The way I expressed the comment sets her off.  “They’re terrible things! They leak through anything you write on and ruin what’s underneath the paper!”
Suddenly I’ve had my fill.  Show me!” I snap back, picking up last month’s calendar, with its days partially checked and crossed out.  “I don’t see any black marks on the windowsill!  But that’s all right, I’ll take this home with me, since you’re not using it.” 
“Why don’t you take everything I own, while you’re at it,” my sister says. 
I’m as angry with her as I’ve ever been. “Yes, why don’t I take everything you’re never satisfied with, while I’m at it!”  (“This is a great start to the party,” says Janeth.)  “Why don’t I take myself out of your life again.  Is that what you want?  I’m wound up, can’t stop, don’t want to stop.  I voice those dark thoughts I had in the car. 
“If you were our mother’s caregiver, and no matter how hard you tried to help her, all she did was whine and complain and criticize, how long would your patience last?” 
       Janeth silently heads for her closet.  I am spent.  I look at my watch and follow her.  She is taking the red blouse from its hanger.  I help her get her arms into the sleeves. 
       “Look, Jan,” I say, showing her my too-long sleeves.  “I have to turn these up.” 
       As she folds back the cuffs, she says, “I’m sorry, darling.” 
       “I’m sorry too.  We relapsed, didn’t we? We relapsed into our old feuding selves.  We’re too grown up to do that.  Put on your black slacks, and I’ll show you something pretty I brought for you.”   
       Jan puts on the slacks and asks if she should wear the blouse in or out. 
        “Your figure looked very nice with the white blouse tucked in, so wear it that way.”  I take the silver boa out of the bag and drape it around her neck. 
       “One of my bridge friends made this for me.  Let’s go to the mirror.  You look beautiful, sweetheart.  Where is your black cardigan?” 
“My black cardigan?  I don’t have a black cardigan.” 
“Yes you do, dear, I was with you when you bought a black one and the white one you’ve been wearing a lot lately.”  
I don’t find the cardigan in the closet, so I go into the living room and start looking through jackets hanging on a chair.
“Is this it?”  Jan has found the sweater under other garments on the handle of her cart.   She puts it on and I look at my watch again.  It’s time to join the party. 
       Throngs of guests are arriving, decked out in their colorful Christmas finery.  Everyone compliments Janeth.  Dark-haired, pink-cheeked Kit, the activity director, dressed in a silver lame top and silver slacks, says she wants Janeth’s silver boa. 
       “Try and get it,” says Jan.   
We say hello to Ruth Reynolds, who is expecting  her daughter any minute..  When Margie arrives, she takes the three of us under her wing, latching onto a table in the dining room before they are all taken.  Waitresses pass hors d’oeuvres, and I set an example for Jan by choosing a couple of scallops wrapped in bacon.  I find one for her that has very crisp bacon. “See, Jan?  No grease or fat.” 
She continues to receive compliments on her boa when we go to our seats in the dining room. My spine is sighing thanks a million.  Margie is a pro at keeping our conversation flowing.  We learn that Ruth doesn’t have a high opinion of the meals at Advantage House, although she doesn’t go so far as to call them dog food. 
“Margie, you told me you’ve had at least twenty-five meals here.  How did they seem to you?”
“I wouldn’t describe them as gourmet, but they’re not bad.”  She has to think for a moment about one meal that was particularly delicious . . . “Chicken Marsala.” 
I urge my sister to try this dish next time she sees it on the menu, as if she’ll remember.  We talk about how long Ruth has been a resident and when it was that I started seeing my sister for the first time in years.  Margie wonders what happened to cause the separation, and I shorten the encyclopedic explanation. 
“It was a misunderstanding.”
We don’t want to lose our table, so we go in shifts to the buffet.  There is well-done roast beef, macaroni and cheese with broccoli and chicken, and cubed steamed vegetables.  Janeth helps herself to very little.  We return to our table, where she starts picking off specks of herbs, one by one.
“I saw Jan do the same thing with a bowl of fish chowder,” I remark to Ruth and Margie.  “I figured she thought they were bugs.”
 “I like my food to be unembellished,” my sister says.
Santa Claus comes ho-ho-ho-ing our way.
“Last year,” Margie says, “my mother sat on Santa Claus’s lap and had her picture taken.”
 Hearing music, we migrate to the hall, where a three-piece band and a singer are providing the entertainment.  There are no chairs available, so I sit on the stairway.  Jan and Margie join me, and Ruth perches on the seat attached to her walker.  Jan tells us about a little boy who believed in Santa Claus a lot longer than most children.
“He was sure his father wouldn’t spend that much on presents. “ 
       A good many residents, staff members, and guests are circling the room, performing the Chicken Dance, which I’d never seen before.  It looks like so much fun, I wish I were ten years younger, a spry seventy-six.
But it’s getting late for this lame octogenarian, so I take the elevator to Jan’s room to get my coat.  I discover I can’t leave yet because the band and the crowd are filling the lobby with the sound of patriotic songs.  Jan has joined them, I am happy to see.  I stand next to her while we sing God Bless America.  It’s 8:15 when I head home, the route so familiar I can drive it in the dark.
Janeth tells me another Chicken Dance took place after I left. 
“Phyllis grabbed my hand and pulled me into the circle.  By watching her, I was able to do the steps almost perfectly.”  I’m glad to hear about this because lately my sister has been complaining about the kitchen goddess’s do-whatever-I-please-whenever-I-feel-like-it attitude.
From Linda:
 I spent over two hours  in JC Penney, looking for what I think mom is describing.  I found parts of sweater sets scattered all over the store, finally managed to get the right-sized pieces coordinated.  I never know if mom is asking for a current style or if she’s seeing an older wardrobe a resident is hanging onto.  But I’m sure to buy the wrong thing in any event.
Such is MY world.  Full of little errands and playing catch up on my visits to clients.
Jan reports that she’s started having a lot of loose bms—“Oh, that’s wonderful!” I interject.  “I mean, isn’t it?”—“Well, yes, but I never knows when I might have to rush to the bathroom.  My date with Ray at the Quincy buffet could be a malodorous one.” 
“He is the perfect friend to be with if that happens.”
        ”At least it would be a way to turn off any romantic inclinations he might have. “
 “That might do it.”
 “I almost choked to death during supper, had to be pounded on the back until I coughed up what was caught in my throat.”
 “Remember how Aunt Ruth almost choked to death at our house?  Mom and Dad rushed her to the kitchen sink and pounded her back until she finally caught her breath.  Maybe you’ve inherited her small throat.”
“Maybe.”  My sister was in a chatty mood.   “There wasn’t an entrée I could eat, so I pondered for a while on what to have instead.  I usually have a chicken sandwich, but before I could make up my mind, Faith got impatient and made my mind up for me.  She turned on her heel and came back with a grilled ham and cheese sandwich.  I went ahead and ate all that fat, but I think she should know by now that I order a chicken sandwich when I don’t want either of the entrees.
“I had to eat it because it was getting late.  When I finished, I said to her, `It would seem that if someone hasn’t decided what to have, you would wait until she tells you instead of bringing something she can’t eat.’ Faith gave a whoop.  I knew it was a whoop of joy because she was pleased she had succeeded in upsetting me.
“The Sennacot for my bowels is getting low.  Stephanie looked for a piece of paper for a note to give Celia.  She had to write it on a paper towel.  And I’ve been worrying that my pills will be delivered so late tomorrow morning, I won’t get to breakfast on time.” 
“I don’t recall that this ever happened.  As long as you get to the dining room before nine . . . ”
“You imagine that the staff is accommodating, Barbara, but they’re not.  If you’re the last one there, they give you the bum’s rush.” 
I say I’ll hope for the best.  The prophesying of a future problem is more than I can deal with.  My bad time of the month, maybe, although the syndrome is hard to pin down in your eighties.  

       I call Jan and tell her we sisters are having twin problems with our food.
       “You almost choked to death during your supper, and tonight I almost bit my tongue off during mine.  It bled so much that it still hurts to talk.”
“ Oh, you poor darling, I’ll let you go.”
“ No, that’s okay, I can listen.  How did it go today?”
“For a start, Norma and I are like oil and water.  No matter how long you stir it, it’s not going to blend.    Norma gets aggravated by Alice’s Alzheimer’s.  She’ll say aside to me, `I don’t think she’s well.’ Then she gets impatient and starts making pushing away motions with her hands.  She doesn’t have enough sympathy for people’s problems.
“I have run out of Sennacot.  I don’t know if Celia got the message Stephanie wrote on a paper towel.  I’m also getting very low on toilet paper.  I think someone has been coming into my apartment and depleting it.”
Taking care not to bite my already bitten tongue, I say, “I have lots of toilet paper.  I’ll bring you a couple of rolls Monday morning.” 
“I hope it won’t be the kind that tears crookedly instead of straight across. “
 “I’ve never had that worry, no matter what brand I use.  But you’re more of a perfectionist than I am.”  Janeth’s response is a trill of laughter, whether at me or herself, I’m unsure. 
She is amused again when I recall the awful day I spilled flaxseed meal and prune juice all over her kitchen counter and then spilled another gusher when I placed the flaxseed bag in her fridge.  Two deplorable messes in five minutes, created by her clumsy sister.
 “I should have been stood up in a corner.”  
 My comment produces a crescendo trill, longer than the first one.   It’s a shame that my sister refuses to join the Advantage House chorus.

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