i've neglected my blog for the last week not only because the charms of twenty-first-century edmonton struggle to match those of nineteenth-century buenos aires, but also, and primarily, because i've been overwhelmed by quotidian demands with unexpectedly big emotional impacts, most of which revolve around aunty jo.
in case you haven't met mo's mother's sister, jo is 84, deaf, and frail. she is, in almost equal measure, sweet, conniving, slow, opinionated, aggravating, grateful, selfish, sly, proud, scared, affectionate and feeble. she's a total dear and very fond of mo and me. "you're more the sporty type," she says to mo, "and heather's more the lady type." she smiles a little, pleased to have cracked the butch/femme code.
jo has been in the hospital for a month now, but they're sending her home on wednesday. which hospital, you ask? could it be the university hospital, conveniently located to work and home? the royal alex, within walking distance? the misericordia? the general? no: they've taken her to grey nuns, which is a day trip away from here. and now you're wondering, is "home" the right place for jo to be? shouldn't she be somewhere with a little more care? indeed. if i have learned one thing over the last month, it's that nothing is as important as a pension indexed to inflation. it's more important than good health -- it is good health. it buys community. it will ensure that you can find a spot in a dementia wing, where monthly rent starts at $3500.
when jo was hospitalized a few years back, geriatric medical personnel set out to test her cognition -- not a bad idea, given that she suffered brain damage in a car accident twenty years ago. she passed their tests, but only barely, mostly because she thought the tests themselves were stupid. she has a point. same tests this time around, only (in case her deafness had spread to her eyes, causing blindness?) they wrote the questions down for her to read. TAKE A PIECE OF PAPER AND FOLD IT IN HALF. THEN PICK IT UP IN YOUR LEFT HAND AND THROW IT ON THE FLOOR. jo reads the instructions and looks at me. "why do i have to do that?" "they just want to be sure you still understand instructions." skepticism. "it's so that if you're at home and have to use the stove or something, they know you'll be safe." the OT is standing patiently by, beaming encouragement. jo snorts. "you don't need to fold a piece of paper to use the stove!" "well, true....," i say, "but just show them you can do it. it will make them happy." jo rolls her eyes. the OT's smile is starting to strain. i can see the word "difficult," as in "difficult patient," taking shape in the thought bubble over her head. jo reads the instructions again, her lips moving around the words. she looks at me; i look stern. she looks at the OT, who looks meaningfully at the instructions. outnumbered, jo decides to do the task. but with her left arm in a splint, she can't really throw the paper on the floor properly. the OT hesitates, then yells, "ARE YOU FINISHED, MRS VALE?" "yes," says jo politely, automatically, "no, just a minute." she reads the instructions again, heaves a sigh of exasperation and throws the folded paper onto the floor with her splinted left arm. then she giggles.
ten or fifteen years ago, jo might have seemed mentally slow, but her demographic has caught up with her (caught down with her?), so now she reads like an 84-year-old whiz kid. "that's a nice blouse," she'll say to me. "you wore it last time you visited, too." busted. or, "i like those pants. i wonder what they'd look like ironed." when my mom visited during our buenos aires trip, jo complained that she wanted to get out of the hospital. casually, a bit later in the conversation, she inquired, "do you drive?" this is not someone suffering cognitive impairment.
what she does suffer from? a chronic acute case of vanity. in fact, we all suffer from her vanity. her first concern, always, is her hair. "oh!," she says, "you're here!" then her hands go immediately, reflexively, to her hair. "i look awful," she apologizes, "i need to get my hair done." then, usually, there is a short tirade against whoever's done it last, a detailed account of how they did or didn't use curlers, or made it too straight, or over-permed it, or pinned it up wrong. she's a piece of work, is aunty jo. she takes offence when servers apply the seniors' discount at restaurants. "how does he know how old i am?!" she wouldn't be caught dead using a walker -- "that's for old people." she doesn't socialize with anyone in her building: "they're all old." we cajole in all the typical ways. mo: "i'd love to have a walker! you could sit down a have a little rest whenever you felt like it!" jo looks levelly at us. we change topics, but not tactics. "boy, i'd love meals on wheels," i enthuse. "just think: dinners delivered hot to your door at mealtime!" no comment.
jo has outlived two husbands, her twin sister, her older brother and her best friend. her two great pleasures in life are "who wants to be a millionaire" and eating dinner at boston pizza. she'll order lasagna or chicken fingers, and the staff refill her coffee cup all night long. this winter, she started finding the half-block walk to BP a bit too long. it breaks my heart to see her enfeebled. she's so frail that when she falls (and it's now "when" she falls, not "if"), it takes her hours to get up again. that's if she's conscious, if her arm's not broken, if she's dressed and indoors, warm. she lies to everybody about her frailty, of course. "HOW MANY TIMES HAVE YOU FALLEN THIS YEAR, MRS VALE?," asks the doctor. ("wasilenko: that's my doctor's name. what a name!") "oh, two or three," says jo, breezily. yvonne, the building manager, tells a different story. "i know i'm not supposed to help her up, i know i'm supposed to call the ambulance, but ...." she spreads her hands, helpless before her good heart. it's only through talking to one another that we piece together horrifying images of joyce lying behind a car in a snowy parking lot at 2 AM. "i tripped," she'll tell us, when we ask, "i think there was something on the sidewalk."
that's jo as a character in my narrative. everything in this post so far could have been written at any point over the last five years. what's different about this time is that i see clearly, perhaps for the first time, jo more as a person than as a character, jo as a failing human being who needs my help.
i'm not sure exactly what's brought about this new perspective, but it has something to do with mo being away; jo being alarmingly accommodating and open to suggestion; and the acrid smell of urine and all that it represents about our base, human existence. jo's been somewhat incontinent but it's got worse lately. when i went over to tidy her apartment last week, i find it unbearable. when did it get so bad? wondering this, i look more closely at her as i've seen her over the last year or so. the picture comes into focus and i realize: her clothes are dirty, she doesn't bathe herself properly, and she's anorexically thin. i snoop through the kitchen. she has a collection of napkins and some sugar packets from boston pizza. in the fridge, two jars of jam and a half litre of now-sour milk. is this what the future looks like, a cold, white, humming emptiness?
i feel quite disoriented to be in this entirely new and different relation to jo. in cleaning her place, i am finding things i'd rather not know, but also, and worse, finding things that by rights we should have known, being her only companions in the world. our willful blindness is shocking. i'm shocked, morally shocked, by how cavalier we have been. as my good friend renee put it the other night, mo and i have not taken seriously, have not internalized, jo's need for care. but now, i get it, and to mo and bobbee's chagrin, i'm sure, i am in full-on, over-compensating, bossy-big-sister mode. (poor jo.)
in a profound way, this is the first time i've been called on to be unselfish. many times in my life i have been generous; in fact, i like to cultivate generosity as a way of being. however, generosity is always self-serving. when i'm generous, i get to set the terms. this is different, and hateful. it's what i turned my back on when i walked away from church. it's why i don't have children. and yet: here is a woman who has outlived everyone in her life, who has an accidental connection to me, and who needs things i can provide. and so: there can be no question. i don't like it -- i prefer my old relationship with her, the one where i wear a pretty dress to make her happy, and she compliments me, and then we leave, telling ourselves she's okay on her own.
what blithe lives we lead. what luck.