Wednesday, August 9, 2017


”Have you had breakfast?” I asked my sister the next morning. 
       ”Yes, I have.  Linda wanted me to choose a table next to a window looking out on the garden, but I was given two choices.  I chose the one where people were sitting that I had supper with last night.  I ordered oatmeal, then. . .  monkey see, monkey do, I ordered a poached egg on toast.” 
You had both the oatmeal and the poached egg?”
 “Yes, the egg was cooked too long and the bread was white with raisins in it, but I ate it.” 
 Is this my sister the anorexic speaking?  How is she going to have room for a big lunch if she has a big breakfast? 
For lunch she had Chicken Cordon Bleu, Wild Rice, corn, and caramel pudding.   I can’t wait to hear what she has for supper.
        It is three p.m.   Janeth is whimpering into the phone that she has run out of Aricept.  What will she do?  I tell her to get her medications and look at the vial that contains the Aricept.  After a long while she says she has found the vial, and there are a few pills in it, but her dispenser doesn’t have an Aricept in it for Tuesday.  I tell her that’s because today is Tuesday and she took it this morning, along with her Lucinipril and Oxybutinin.        
       ”There’s a Risperdal still there for tonight, right?” 
       Yes, but what about the next few days?  I tell her to look at the dispenser, and she’ll see that the pills are there for the next few days.  I feel like a magician, when every wondrous outcome I predict turns out to be true.   She calls again at six-thirty, asks if it’s a good time to talk.  Since I am sitting on the edge of my bed and have just finished the last bite on my tray, I say yes, we can talk. 
       [My dining room has a glorious view of the marina.  If I were to have my meals there, the awareness of my solitary self would swamp me with loneliness.  A tray table in the vast living room would be equally desolate.  My bedroom has long been a cozy, welcoming refuge.]
       “I got into a bit of trouble tonight,” Janeth says.   “I almost got lynched!”  She unfolds her story.
 “Well, not really, I’m being  . . . um  . . .  .um . . . facetious.   I’m used to having someone come and get me for my meals, but this time no one came.  Donna knocked on my door and told me I was late for the early sitting.  I didn’t know if I could find my way, but I did, and I sat down with people who were almost through with their supper.  They got up and left and other people started coming in. 
“I was finishing my dessert when I heard someone say I was sitting in her seat.  I felt all these eyes looking at me disapprovingly.  Like the three bears.” 
I laughed at the image.
“I jumped up said my place could be cleared in a minute.  And it was, and Goldilocks got out of there as fast as she could.” 
        Fascinated by what my sister has been ordering for her meals, I ask her what she had for supper.
        “A chicken sandwich.”  
        A sandwich? I can’t resist saying I thought sandwich was a four-letter word in her book of swear words.  (Sorry, Kathie, it popped out before I could bite my tongue).
       “It was preferable to the other choice.  I asked for it on rye bread, and it was delicious. When the dessert cart came around, I planned to try the tapioca because you like it so much, but then I saw the pecan pie  . . .”
When I call before eight to remind her about her Risperdal, she sounds out of breath and full of anxiety.  "I've been trying on clothes for tomorrow.  I can't find anything to wear, they're all wrinkled." 
“Surely there must be a shirt and a pair of slacks that would be satisfactory.” 
She doesn’t think so.  She takes her pill with five sips of water, then says she has to go back to trying things on. 
"Don't forget to cut off the price tags, Jan.  I'm bringing you a pair of scissors tomorrow." 
“I’m going to use nail clippers.”
 I praise her for being so resourceful.  Paying attention to her appearance is a good sign.  What a change from that day in January when I first saw her, her bangs chopped off jaggedly, as if with a child's hand. They had a treacherous way of falling in front of her eyes while she fretted over the thousands of papers that would take a million years to make sense of.

My sister went into a tailspin after following my suggestion that she talk to the nurse about her loose bowels.  Nurse Celia decreed:  no more mushroom soup, no milk, no eggs, no desserts, no anything delicious.  These edicts made her very unhappy.  She confessed to exchanging unpleasantries with the waitress.  I was afraid she'd alienate people important to her welfare if she kept acting out. I reminded her of how capable she was of sticking to a strict diet, although it's a crying shame that she's had all those goodies whipped away from her after only two and a half days.
Ray found Jan’s new address, took her shopping, and although she tried not to be late again for supper, she was, and the regulars who showed up at the second sitting were annoyed again. 
“I said okay, I’m outta here and I scrammed.  I understand they like to arrive promptly so the waitress can start serving crackers and cheese while they enjoy their wine.” 
The next day it occurred to me that Jan could surely have tapioca for dessert.  I called her, hoping I'd catch her before she went down for supper. 
       “I’ve already had supper, such as it was.  There was some dry rice and no chicken broth to put it in.  There was a peeled banana with the end cut off.  I asked the waitress what happened to the end.  She said, `Oh, they just throw it away, I guess.’  I said, `Well, when that's practically all you're having for your meal, you'd kinda like to have all of it.’  Whereupon, the waitress callously pointed at the whole banana beside my plate!” 
       I lost it.  I won't go into what I said because I wish I hadn't lectured her.  The gist was that I was afraid she would alienate people important to her if she said things like that.  She didn't need to starve herself, the nurse hadn't intended for her to do that.  She surely could have had a sandwich.  I said I was going to talk to Celia, so she'd know Janeth needed to be encouraged to have a complete meal.   It was too soon for the chef to come up with chicken broth for her supper, but I was sure that starting tomorrow they would try to supply what she needs . . .
I call at eight and we discuss her problem.  She is bitter about the verboten goodies, about having to sit with women who don't understand why she is having such a skimpy meal. 
“It's hard to explain softly that it's because of my diarrhea, what with most of them being deaf as doorknobs.”
       I told her my friend Kathie Carr made a point of getting to know the chef, buttering him up, and thus getting special attention from him. 
       “I never see the chef.  I couldn’t do that.”
       "You could say my compliments to the chef.  That's what I used to do when I had a great meal with Kathie.  I'd send the message via the waitress.” 
        “Well, goody for you, you could eat whatever you wanted.” 
        I was reminded of the story of Sara Crewe that Mom used to read to us.  Her father was rich but he disappeared, so she worked as a servant in the home for children until one day she came to her attic room and found a glorious banquet awaiting her.   I believe this was how my sister was feeling before the nurse gave those horrid instructions to the kitchen.

Drove to Southern Artery Apts to get items Jan wants and to pay her rent for June.  I sent the too-big rollers down the chute, gathered the smaller ones in the bathroom, and found the tube of skin cream on top of the desk, as my sister had remembered correctly .  I also found a total of 9 Equate dental flosses. 
 Janeth has always been obsessive about flossing her teeth.  I remember her walking around my living room, flossing away, while telling me one of her friends had said she shouldn’t do this in public.  To myself I’m thinking, “Or in front of your sister.”
        The next time we had lunch together, I flossed in front of her in an attempt to show her how unappealing the function is to watch.  We sisters did things like that in the old days.  Jan thought my answering-machine announcement should say, as hers did, "Please wait for the beep."  When I didn’t change it, she went to the trouble of leaving a garbled message that was supposed to prove how wrong I was.  We irritated the hell out of each other. 
       No more of that nonsense in our 80s.  I will merely tease her about the collection of dental floss containers when I deliver them, using Janeth-type language.  “Jan,” I will say, “I found HUNDREDS of dental flosses!” 
I stop by the office with Jan’s check , signed with my Power of Attorney.   The secretary opens her file to record the transaction.  I see a small mug shot of my sister and ask if I can have a copy.  “It won’t come out very well,” says Jerry.  But it wasn’t bad.  It shows Janeth as she looked 20 years ago when she first moved in, a pixie-ish smile on her pretty face.   Jerry remembers me from the day I talked to her about reserving an apartment for my almost 62-year-old sister. I wish I had her gift for remembering a face longer than five minutes.  
Next stop Advantage House.  I take the stairway to Jan’s apartment, where she has her checkbook ready to reimburse me for the rent.  She makes a note of the amount on the back of the checkbook, starting on the right-hand side and printing the weensy figures backwards, starting with 00: $346.00.
“If I don’t do this,” she says, “I will find myself without enough space for all the figures.
 “No wonder you were able to spell `world’ backwards so easily during your test.  D-l-r-o-w, you said without a moment’s hesitation.  I couldn’t have done it that fast. “       
Janeth’s décor isn’t what it was the first couple of days.  Garments are hung on chairs and doorknobs, and the table next to the sofa is covered with various brands of diapers and pull-ups.    
“Do you want me to put those things in a bureau drawer?  In case you have a gentleman caller?” 
She says the only gentleman caller she has is Ray, and he helped her get those things.  He won’t be fazed.  Okay. Live and let live.  I start pulling out one dental floss container after another from the bottom of my plastic bag. 
“In Janeth-language,” I say, upping the ante, “I collected THOUSANDS.”  When she looks at me blankly. I gather she is unaware of her exaggerations. 
When I leave, she follows me to the top of the stairway and we wave to each other until we can no longer see the waves.   Janeth was in the Waves.  At the end of WW II, she gave me the trim little-below-the-knee navy blue skirt she never wanted to see again.  It fit perfectly; we were both a tall size 10 in those days. 

Life at Advantage House is getting better.  Celia is going to show Jan how to use the shower attachment.  Best news of all: Janeth is constipated.  She is now allowed to have anything she wants on the menu but must drink a lot of water.  She complains that this makes her whittle in her pants but has accepted the need to wear an adult diaper routinely. Her size is between a toddler's (too small) and a small–to-medium adult's (too big). "Under my slacks, the bunched-up diaper looks as if I have a penis sticking out.” 
As my friend Margo promised, we do find things to laugh about.  
I was fixing my cereal and fruit when Jan called.
"Guess what!  Carla says she'll be moving me to another apartment on Tuesday. She doesn't know exactly where it will be in relation to the stairs and the elevator, but she's working on it."  
I said Oh how wonderful, and it was indeed wonderful to know that Janeth had survived her two-week trial period before even a week was up.  In another call I heard about the cookout she'd attended.  It was accompanied by music, "lovely music," she added to my amazement, “and singing.” 
“One of the male vocalists had a particularly good voice.  He was singing oldie goodies, and I really enjoyed them.  I made a point of seeking him out to compliment him.”
        I brought up the possibility of her participating in the next sing-along function, but she said no, she wouldn't want to do that, all bent over the way she was. 
       "You could sit down.  You don't look bent over when you're sitting."  
        “No, I really wouldn't want to do that.”  
I looked in my files for a letter I sent Janeth 15 years ago.                            
      Last night 's show was simply superb.  The high point came with your singing of "Give Me Your Tired." I never heard anyone sing those words with more tender, heartfelt emotion.  You brought tears to my eyes, and I know I wasn't the only one so moved.  I heard one of the women in back of me say, "I've heard her mother was an opera singer."    
        I turned around and, "So was mine.  Jan is my sister."    
       If a talent scout were to hear "Give Me Your Tired" and knew it was sung by a woman who had only recently discovered she had such an exquisite voice—what a story it would make for TV.  The strangers around me all felt it was a shame that our mother didn't live to hear her daughter singing like an angel.
       I long for my sister's "Give Me Your Tired" to be preserved, like Mother’s “Meranda's Song” about the mermaid.   To sum up, BRAVA JANETH!!!                                              
Back to the cookout, I was curious about what Jan would find edible.  "A lot of potato salad," she said.  Did they have any dessert?  "I had a couple of those ice-cream sandwiches, vanilla with chocolate on the outside."  A couple!  

I have become accustomed to daily calls from Janeth.  Today, every time the phone rang, I expected it to be Janeth, but it never was.  At last I called at 4:00, and had nowhere near as satisfactory a conversation as the one yesterday. 
       “I’m trying to decide what to have for supper. They have Quiche on the menu, but I don’t know what will be in it.  There might be little pieces of meat.”
“Can you ask the waitress?”
“They never know.  And when they bring the soup in, it’s not hot.  They should warm the cup so the soup won’t cool when they pour it in.  And there’s another problem. I might order the soup and then happen to ask about something else.  Instead of bringing me the soup, they bring the something else.”
She sounds so much like the pampered princess in one of our mother’s stories, I find myself getting irritated.  Extremely irritated.  I know I’m not supposed to, but I do.  Keeping my voice calm and agreeable I ask a question.  Would she like me to look for another place? "What?"  Another place for you to live, I say, a more satisfactory place?  Oh no, she’ll just have to adapt.  I say I won’t tell Linda about this.  “She was so happy to hear about what a pleasant time you had yesterday.  I’ll just hope things get better.”
She asks me to bring a bigger pair of scissors next time I come, the pair with black handles that’s in the hutch drawer.  “And would you try to find my 1970 telephone book?  Somewhere on the cover is the number of my friend Rose Marie O’Hara.  She must think I’ve deserted her.”
I tell her I’ll look, and we hugga hugga goodbye.  I’m feeling guilty about letting myself get cross with my poor sick sister.  I get out my South Suburban telephone book and run my finger down the O’Hara surnames until I come to Rose Marie.  I dial the number, thinking it surely can’t be this easy to find an olive branch.
A woman answers.  I say I’m Janeth Black’s sister, and I wonder if she’s the Rose Marie who is Janeth’s friend.  What?  I have to raise my voice several decibels and repeat the question several times before Rose Marie at last says, “Oh yes, Janeth Black is my friend!”  I tell her my sister has moved to Advantage House, and I know she’d love to get a call.  Rose Marie gets a pencil and paper and says she’ll call someday next week.
“Oh, but she’s moving into another apartment on Tuesday, and her telephone number will be different.  Could you call her this evening?  She’ll be back from supper in about an hour.”
Janeth calls, her voice lilting with pleasure.  She thanks me for connecting her with Rose Marie, says they had a lovely talk. “She’s the one who used to bring me desserts I couldn’t eat and I’d have to give them away to another neighbor.”
I ask what she had for supper. 
“I had the Quiche, and it was so delicious I sent my compliments to the chef.  Next thing I knew, another serving was in front of me.  Then the chef sent out a third piece for me to take with me!  For dessert we had a fudge cake with chocolate frosting.  It was so good, I sent more compliments to the chef.”
I ask if she knows his name. 
“It’s a woman,” Jan says.  “We had a meeting this afternoon about the service and the quality of the food in the dining room   She told us no one should ever leave the table hungry.  And if anything wasn’t hot enough, we shouldn’t hesitate to send it back to the kitchen.  That’s where I got the idea about warming the cups before the soup is poured.  She said that’s what they should always do.”
Our second conversation today was so different from the first one, it was as if I were talking to two different sisters. Or a sister with a split personality.  Before I hang up, I tell Jan I’m watching Tiger Woods trying to catch up in the U.S. Open.  She says, “Oh Tiger was always one of my favorites!”  Mine, too, I say.  He’s on Channel 7 if you want to watch.”  No, she says, I have too much to think about.

        Home from bridge.  My sister-in-law left a message thanking me for the birthday card and saying she had seen this coming, yes, she could see it coming, but Janeth didn’t want her to say a word to me or to Linda. “If I did, I figured she would never forgive me.  I’d like to talk to you when you have a minute.”
        I call Dixie; and she tells me she has noticed Janeth is paranoid about a lot of things.  I say I blame our father. 
       “Oh!” she exclaims.  “I was showing her the porch we added on to the house, and she saw a picture of Dick and his father, and she began to shudder and shake all over.  She said, `Why do you have a picture of that monster in here!’”
        “I agree.  He was a monster.  If you can’t trust your father. . .”
I don’t tell Dixie I’m amazed that my brother the Pastor was able to forgive him for all the terrible beatings. 
     I was eight when this incident took place . . .       
     "Come on, you can do it,” said Dicky.  I was flattered that he was paying this much attention to me.  I carefully slid the rest of my body through the bathroom window while my brother said, “That’s great, just follow me, we'll be there in a jiffy.”  I used my arms to hitch myself along the roof, with my feet in the gutter.  “Don’t look down,” Dicky said.  I looked down and saw the sidewalk about a mile away, but it was too late to go back.   “You’re doing great,” said my brother, climbing through the window of his room. 
     He was holding his hands out to help me when our mother drove in the driveway.  She got out of the car in time to see the open bathroom window and my head-first dive into Dicky’s room.   She was upset.  She was convinced Dick was trying to kill me. 
The day passed slowly.  We knew mother would tell daddy who would start by ordering Dicky to go his room without dinner.  After dessert he would call Dicky and say, "Take my jackknife.  You know what to do with it.  Cut bigger switches than you did last time."  I huddled at the top of the basement stairs with my fist in my mouth and cried out my pity for my screaming brother.

I should always keep in mind what friends Margo and Diane tell me. There will be good days and bad days and even bad mornings and good afternoons.
 This morning there is a new crisis: an aide came in and took away my sister’s sheets and towels to be laundered.  ‘What am I going to do?  I’ll have to sleep on the bare mattress!”
        “I’m sure you won’t have to do that; the linens will be returned, clean and fresh from the dryer.” 
        She just called, sounding upbeat.  She's going to ask the beautician to see if she can cut the side of her hair that's too long and make it match the other side.   When my sister shows an interest in how her hair looks, I know she's not in total despair.
She said a gentleman resident told her from his wheelchair that Lila was a very good hair-dresser.  “I said, `How do you know?’ since he was as bald as a billiard ball.  He said, touching the top his head, `Can’t you tell?’”  I laughed along with my sister, overjoyed to hear her in such good spirits. 

7:00 p.m. after hours spend reading Jan’s correspondence from the 1940s to 2006
        “How did everything go today?  Did Lila cut your hair?” 
“Yes, she did, and I think she did a good job.  But now I won’t want to use the shower because it will get my hair wet.”
“Did you get your towels and sheets back?”
“Yes, they came back.  Everything was in shreds.  I tried to cut the strings off the towels, but your scissors and Ray’s scissors were both too dull.” 
“Did they make up the bed for you?”
“Yes, but they used those big pillows instead of my little one.”
“Just push the big pillows out of the way when you go to bed.”
“The aide left more sheets on the bed and told me to put them away. I don’t know how to do that.”
“You could put them in the bottom bureau drawer.  There’s no room on the shelves in the bathroom, right?”
“No, that’s where the towels are.” 
“So one of the bureau drawers would be good.”
“No, that isn’t what she meant.” 
I say I think what she meant was to put the sheets away, and putting them in a bureau drawer would be putting them away.  Janeth says again, that isn’t what she meant.  “You could put them under the bed,” I joke.  Jan says that isn’t what she meant, and she’s getting querulous about it.  Solution: new subject.
“I’ve been reading your letters.  I spent hours reading them, and Janeth, you are an incredible writer.”  I went on in this vein while she kept saying “Huh!”
      “You wrote that the question you most hated to hear was, `Are you doing any writing?’  You hated to hear it because usually you weren’t.  Jan, you couldn’t help yourself, you didn’t think you were writing, but you were, in those wonderful letters.  There was one you wrote about just one day when you were in California in 1984.  August 24th, twelve pages on both sides.  Then I found a spiral notebook in which you had written more about that same day.  And everything you wrote was brilliant.” 
     “Huh!” Jan says.
      Jan tells me Donna says she has to learn to be self-reliant, and she is going to try to do that.  Incredibly, for the first time in I don't know how many years, my sister is not taking her cart with her everywhere she goes. 

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