October 28, 2010
Every night Alice talks to her sister Pearl (90), who lives in Wisconsin. They do not agree on politics or religion. Pearl watches Fox News and swears by it. Alice watches CNN and is not so sure all that they tell her is the whole truth. Nevertheless, they are the only two remaining from a pack of seven (six girls; one boy), and they are loyal despite their differences. But this week there have been no nightly conversations. Read the rest of this entry »
October 23, 2010
About six months ago Alice was sitting on the edge of the bed folding laundry, one of her favorite activities, and suddenly found herself on the floor. She couldn’t remember exactly how it happened. “I’ll be okay,” she said as paramedics surrounded her. But no. Her right hip was broken and had to be replaced. After the surgery she lay in a hospital bed under the spell of the painkiller Oxycodone. She hallucinated dancers on the walls, as well as elegantly dressed couples going out for dinner at candlelit restaurants. “Who’s that man?” she’d ask me as she looked across the room at the blank wall beside the whiteboard that listed her doctor for the day, and I would respond, “Tell me what he looks like.” She’d describe some tuxedoed stringbean, and I’d say, “It’s Fred Astaire. No? Cary Grant. No? Frank Sinatra. No?” We did this over and over, and she always shook her head and insisted I didn’t know what I was talking about.
Every day the same nurse came to her hospital bed and bathed her. One day a new nurse showed up. She wore a purple scarf wrapped decoratively around her small, perfect head. Alice found the scarf fascinating and wanted to know where the woman was from.
“Zimbabwe,” she answered.
She asked her name.
Alice’s eyes, dimmed by pain, met mine. “Queen of Zimbabwe,” she said. “I wonder how much this bath is going to cost me.”
All three of us found this funny, but Alice was too deep in Oxy-fog to laugh.
Although the surgeon had confidence, everybody else at the hospital–floor doctors, nurses, and aides–continually reminded me that my mother was probably too old to survive a broken hip.
“Like you say, she’s 94,” they’d invariably start out, even though I hadn’t said a word about how old she was. But I guess they didn’t want to be responsible for the long, winding road of years that had led to this pretty pass. “Well, you know,” they’d say, “these things happen and then…” They’d trail off, and I would point out that she was still in there, still Alice, still making jokes. It was plain to me that she didn’t know how serious a broken hip was for someone in her age group, or she had forgotten. I instructed them not to tell her and to let her keep trying to be whole again. And so she continued to expect herself to improve and she did, little by little, inciting disbelief, astonishment and, eventually, celebration.
After she left the hospital, the doctor ordered her to go to a nursing home for a month. Her first room-mate talked incessantly. That inmate was followed by another who slept with her television set turned on full volume all night long. Finally, along came a woman who sat in her wheelchair and banged the door against the wall, trying to get someone’s attention so she could go to the bathroom. Alice stayed sane by doing books of word puzzles. Whenever I complained about anything to the kind and overworked staff, they reminded me there weren’t enough of them to get around to everyone in a timely manner. I moved Alice back to The Place with a stack of puzzle books all filled in. “Don’t lose those,” she said. They were artifacts of a time gone way wrong that she had survived.
All the physical therapists who visited her apartment for lengthy sessions of exercises fell in love with her. “She does everything we ask!” Each of them (a rotating staff of three) reported this with utter amazement. I wondered what other people did in order to walk again. Half of what they asked? None?
When physical therapy finally ended, the head of the team called me and said, “I’ve enjoyed every single second I’ve spent with your mother. We all feel the same way.”
Thanks to their dedication and her own, Alice now goes for walks almost every day, as long as there’s no wind to muss her hair. The other day I joined her for a short stroll in the sun.
“That sky,” she said looking up into a marbly blue, “reminds me of my new sweatshirt.” Before I could say anything she started to laugh, “Oh, what a thing to do to the beautiful sky, to compare it to a sweatshirt!”
As always she was intoxicated by trees and greenery.
But her arms began to ache from pushing the walker. “My arms aren’t so good today,” she said. “And my shoulders are hurting. They don’t work right any more. Have you seen how shabby they’ve gotten?” She turned around to show me that she could not make her shoulders raise her arms very high.
“But you are walking very well,” I said.
“I can walk. Yes!”
That night she called to say she was soaking her feet in a white vinegar foot bath and had added a few drops of cocoa butter lotion from the Dollar Store. She swears by vinegar’s power to cure all aches and pains. (Here’s a list of the wonders of vinegar.)
And while she soaked her feet, she said, she was sipping her nightly drink, which she calls a Tartini.
1/4 glass cranberry juice (straight; no sugar)
1/4 glass red wine
1 tbsp Bragg’s vinegar
Yes, it’s awful, but she swears she has even seen a few strands of black hair among the white since she started this regimen. “Vinegar is good for everything.”
She told me she was looking forward to watching the President on television. “He’s here in Portland today, you know,” she said, sounding as pleased as if he’d come to town to see her personally which, if he knew her, he might find useful.
October 14, 2010
To celebrate turning 110, Irene wore a tiara with Happy Birthday spelled out in rhinestones. Someone tied balloons to her walker. People poured through the gates as if dispatched by the king to discover the secret of longevity. People she’d never met. They probed for the answer, even though few among them would probably care to live a day over eighty-five. She told one stranger that she used to drink bourbon but now it’s red wine. When another asked what she and her friends liked to talk about, she answered crisply, “None of your business.”
She mentioned to the gathering crowd that she’d gone to Reno when she’d turned 100. She joked that she could still do all the things she was able to do at 109. She remembered a husband she had loved. She ate cake.
All the usual suspects drifted in and out of the scene. Mr. Fickle lingered in the little post office after others had come to wait for the mail delivery and gone back to their apartments when it arrived. “I wasn’t sure it was him,” Alice said in her nightly report. “I was sitting at my table in the dining room and he had his cap on backwards.” At The Place a backward cap is a rarity. “But I knew it was him when I saw him kiss the mail girl. I want to call her the mail maid.” She stopped and thought about this. “Maybe the mail maid was sad about something. Or maybe he knows her from somewhere else.”
“Maybe he’s just being Mr. Fickle,” I suggested.
“That could be.”
Irene was too exhausted to eat her dinner. Also, she said she’d eaten a lot of cake at her party, which Alice did not attend. “Too much noise. Too many people.” As they sat together at dinner, the person Alice calls the Dancing Man approached–he who moves jauntily from side to side as he goes along in his walker to the tune of (in Alice’s mind anyway) Some Sunday Morning. He wanted to take Irene’s photograph. Irene, subject of picture-taking all day, agreed. “Then off he went ‘Some Sunday Morning’ back to his table,” Alice said.
Shortly after that, the Dapper Man dropped by with his camera. Irene smiled for the picture.
Alice wearied of reporting on Irene’s big day to me and changed the subject. She told me that when the aide came to her apartment with her medications, she took them and started to throw away the little white paper cup they came in. But the aide stopped her. “There’s a lady here who collects those,” she said.
For a moment Alice was speechless. The day had held such a huge event, and now this: someone who collects the little white paper cups that pills are delivered in. Then she said to the aide, “Whoever that is must be really hard up for something to collect.”
“I probably shouldn’t have said that,” she told me. “But why…?”
We were as unable to find a satisfactory answer to this question as were those who came to seek the secret of longevity. On the one hand, here was Irene, starting out in 1900, collecting years one by one, outliving everyone she knew from a life that contained love and marriage and friends, but still enjoying an occasional glass of Merlot and an annual birthday bash. On the other, a woman somewhere in the building collecting tiny white paper cups.
We hung up on the mystery of it all.
Oh, Irene. 110!
Some Sunday morning is going to be
Some Sunday morning for someone and me.
Bells will be chiming an old melody,
Spec’lly for someone and me.
There’ll be an organ playing,
Friends and relations will stare,
Say, can’t you hear them saying,
Gee, what a peach of a pair?
Some Sunday morning we’ll walk down the aisle,
She’ll be so nervous and I’ll try to smile,
Things sure look rosy for someone and me,
Some Sunday morning, you’ll see.
Actors: Clint Walker, Joan Weldon, and…???
An interesting British television documentary on scientist Aubrey De Grey’s exploration of living forever located here.
(The names of residents and others in this blog have been changed to protect privacy.)
October 10, 2010
Every six weeks my mother and I sit for up to an hour in a chilly waiting room in northwest Portland until a nurse from Ukraine calls out Ah-Leece! She ushers us into a room with what Alice calls a “tilt-back chair,” and we wait for the doctor to appear. He will dismiss us anywhere from an hour to three hours later with a bag full of eye drops.
The young doctor grew up ten blocks from our house in Iowa. He attended the same school I attended, but thirty years later. Sometimes I want to tell him about the shortcut I used to take through the neighborhood cornfield–crows cruising overhead in an opaline blue sky and the rustle of mice in fallen shafts. But why would he care? Before he was out of diapers, that cornfield had been plowed under and turned into blocks of apartment houses. Place has always been important to Alice, and she feels connected to this man because of it, but he’s a taciturn Iowan, so it’s hard to say if he feels the same about her, or if she is just another elderly patient with a degenerative eye condition. He sees so many every day and he gives them all injections. In their eyes. Including Alice. Okay, not another word about injections, but maybe this is a good time to bring up that expression we’ve all heard and shrugged off but may want to reconsider: Old age is not for sissies.
The treatments help Alice keep what little remains of her sight. She loves to read, to watch people, to see what they’re wearing, hairstyles, clothes, make up. She spins stories about what she sees, even though her vision problems leave her with a world partially obscured by a black spot smack in the middle of both eyes: The silver-haired woman with a white cane in the waiting room doesn’t get along with her son, who sits beside her for short stints and then wanders off. Those two men are army buddies, the way they lean into each other and laugh (I think they’re probably lovers). The child who waits with her grandmother stomps twice around the room singing Who Let the Dogs Out at full volume, and Alice concludes the grandmother regrets bringing her along. Each new person walking in gets tagged with a new story.
My father always took me for a milkshake after trips to the dentist, and I always take Alice for hot chocolate after these appointments. But this last visit she wanted something else. At The Place she’d heard buzz about a store where everything costs only a dollar. She wanted to go, even though her left eye, her good eye, was blurry after the you-know-what. (Sorry.) I knew my mother, child of parents who’d skidded by on next to nothing long before the Depression even started, would love a giant store filled with glittery and cheap goods.
She guided her walker up and down the aisles, tossing things into the cart that I pushed: cocoa butter body lotion (“This stuff really works!”), toothpaste, chocolate covered peanuts, mouthwash the shocking blue of an as yet undiscovered Hawaiian lagoon, hand towels, soap, curlers, a hairbrush, and more. “I’m so happy,” she said. “I love it here.”
Mr. Fickle, whose name she mysteriously changed for the day to Mr. Feegle, has a birthday coming up so she headed for the cards. “I don’t think Mr. Feegle would like this one.” She held up a cartoon of a wizened face and read it.
Outside: You don’t look your age…
Inside: NOBODY looks that old.
She found that funny, but discarded other jokey cards with elders whose breasts drooped to the floor, whose wigs went flying off in rain storms, whose false teeth floated in water-filled glasses, or got stuck all by their lonesome in birthday cakes, or dropped into the flush of a toilet and, like the supposedly amused recipient, swirled around in the final drain of life. “Stupid, stupid, stupid,” she muttered quietly. Because of her eye problems, now with the addition of blurriness, nearly every card ended up north, south, east or west of where it had started. I tried to slip them back into place without her noticing, even though I wanted to rip them to pieces.
She picked up a large card with a river scene and the silhouette of a tall strong male fishing. “To a WONDERFUL man,” the outside read. Inside, it claimed no one was kinder than he. “If only it didn’t have that word wonderful on it…” She placed it in a slot two rows south of where it belonged.
She finally settled on one with candles and a blessing. The message was about gentleness. “He is gentle,” she insisted.
We inched home in rush hour traffic. “It’s a good thing I’m not driving,” she said. “All I’d do is look at the trees.” I thought about her lack of skill at the wheel even back in the Midwest where trees were few and far between and her vision was excellent: the time she passed another car on a hill while I screamed beside her, the time she pulled out of a gas station and into a lane of oncoming traffic, and countless other close calls. She’s as bad as her father, famous for driving a borrowed Model T so fast over railroad tracks that all seven of his children, each holding a paper bag of popcorn, bounced so high that not a single kernel stayed in the bags.
After living in Portland awhile, she can now tell when we’re approaching home. I heard a little sigh.
I got her new goods put away, settled her in, and placed her eye drops on the desk next to her La-Z-Boy. I leaned down to kiss her goodbye. She thanked me for a good time. “We got some really good bargains today, didn’t we?”
She had pushed the appointment–that black spot smack in the middle of her day–out of sight.
October 2, 2010
Yesterday I went to visit Alice and found her wearing a soft turquoise jacket and some eye-catching blue glass beads (yes, Goodwill). She said she’d stayed inside her apartment all day because she hadn’t felt well, and I mentioned that it was a shame no one had seen her, especially You-Know-Who.
This morning she called to report what she’d done after I left. She said she’d thought about my comment, that it was too bad Mr. Fickle hadn’t seen her. She has been liking him again these days because she saw him comforting a woman who was crying. “He tries to help people.”
So when she heard the evening Rosary prayers winding down, she peeked out the door. Sure enough, Mr. Fickle, the unofficial Rosary host, was saying his good-byes to the group. “I wanted to walk through that room,” Alice said, “so I ducked back inside and got my walker and grabbed an empty envelope that was lying on the desk. I carried the envelope out the door, pretending that I was going up to the little post office by the dining room to mail a letter.”
He was busy when she passed through the first time, but when she returned from the post office, he was completely alone. As he pulled a chair from the prayer circle and slid it back against the wall, he glanced up and smiled.
“But that was it,” she said. “He’s definitely not as friendly as he used to be. He didn’t take my hand or do anything else to let me know he thought I looked nice.” She paused. I could almost hear her shrug. “Well,” she said, “I tried.”
She moved on to what she was watching on television, as she sometimes does when we talk on the phone. “Oh there’s Nancy Grace. She looks like she’s had a face lift. I think all these TV celebrities who get face lifts go to the same doctor. They all look alike. Just like all of us women here at The Place who go to the one and only beauty operator at our beauty shop. We all come out looking exactly the same.”
“You don’t look like anybody else,” I assured her, then steered her away from her worries lately about thinning hair and back to the fake letter. “Tell me, when you walked through the Rosary room the second time and saw Mr. Fickle, where was the envelope?”
“Oh, I wasn’t carrying that any more. I scrunched it up and put it in the wastebasket at the post office.” She thought destroying the evidence was funny, and that the whole ruse had been a clever turn in the ongoing Push-Pull game with Mr. Fickle. If they gave an Oscar to the one who holds without sway to the Ideal of Romance (never mind what life has dealt them), Alice would rise, step forward, and most happily accept.