July 16, 2012
Alice arrived in Portland and moved into The Place four years ago.
Even though she always says she doesn’t like it here, she still wants to celebrate this anniversary. She suggested going to the Dollar Store. We may do that Wednesday or Thursday.
But today I’m going to revisit a post about how she got here:
The Reluctant Traveler
For years after my father died, every time Alice and I talked about moving her from Iowa to Oregon, she claimed there was no way to get her here. Planes were out, she said; she’d traveled by airplane only twice, back in the 1980s, and both times she’d been removed via ambulance. Panic attacks. Read the rest of this entry »
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.