The first few months without my sister were so peaceful, I made no effort to contact her. The months became swiftly passing years until a greeting from my niece appeared on my computer screen on January 1, 2007. Linda asked if I remembered telling her about my biggest fear on my eighty-fifth birthday. “Mom has it,” she wrote. “The dreaded Alzheimer’s.”
Suddenly the lifetime of disagreements with Janeth seemed unimportant in the face of what she and Linda were dealing with. I Googled the disease and learned that someone contracted it every seventy-one seconds. There were hundreds of thousands of cases just in Massachusetts. .
I thought of the last-straw angry scene that alienated me from my sister. Maybe she would have no recollection of our falling-out. It would be ironic if she only remembered that she hadn’t seen me in years. If I were to call her, would she know who I was?
I wrote a note, sealed it and put it by the door, ready for mailing. Then I stopped, reeling from memories of past misunderstandings. I could picture her interpreting any attention from me after this long silence as evidence that I was gloating over her plight. She once startled me by saying she figured I was happy about the problems she was having at the time. I hoped and prayed that things would be different now, that she would accept my written message as deep-down sympathy and caring. I took the risk and sent it.
Janeth called, and we had an hour-long conversation. She told me how much it meant to her to see the words, "Dear Sister." We soon found that aging had insulted us in numerous similar ways. She had shrunk 3 1/2 inches, I had shrunk 4 and 1/2. To avoid pain she had to bend forward when she walked and so did I. We hated the veins that crawled on our hands like blue worms on crinkled parchment.
She described other trials and worries and misfortunes, including a fall that opened up a bruise that "popped like a grape" and began bleeding in the market. When it happened, she had the most important papers of her life in a little cart she brought everywhere she went. An ambulance came so promptly while she was pressing on the injury that she was carried off, protesting wildly that she needed her important papers. By the time she was delivered to the hospital, still wailing, she was diagnosed as delusional.
She told me the papers in her cart included Ray’s old love letters, and she knew without question why things became so quiet every evening. The nurses had started reading the letters and were so fascinated, they kept reading. Her cart was returned when she left, "but the contents were in a jumble." I wondered how much of this was accurate and how much the paranoia that Linda and my
|ON MOTHER'S DAY 2011, DEVOTED FRIEND RAY DROVE FROM|
MASSACHUSETTS TO MAINE TO BE WITH JANETH FOR A FEW HOURS
Janeth confided that she was practically a recluse because she didn’t want people to see how old her face had become with the awful little curl under her nose. Ray was loyal and helpful but had troubles in his own life.
Clearly my sister needed a lot of in-person support that my niece couldn’t supply, what with her job as a social worker, the 3-hour drive from Maine, and her daughter Tiffany’s special needs. I resolved to do as much as I could to help.
I saw my sister for the first time in eight years when I picked her up to take her to a doctor’s appointment. I hardly recognized the little person who emerged from her building. What had become of my tall, slim, stunning sister? She moved towards me, pulling a folding cart stuffed with two satchels and a large black pocket-book.
“We have to bring this,” she said. “It has all my important papers. If I leave them in my apartment the snoops will sneak in and read them.” Together the two of us wrestled the cart into the back of my car. We got into the front seat. It had been a long, long time between hugs.
We sisters must have been a quaint sight walking along the hospital’s corridors, with Jan very stooped, and I, too, unable to straighten up as much as I’d like to. A pair of head-turners 40 years ago, metamorphosed by Father Time’s sorcery into squashed versions of our former selves.
After Janeth’s appointment, we moved our conversation, which had become intensely personal in the doctor’s waiting room, to an area where we could talk more privately.
“I have become ugly,” she said. “NO,” she held up her hand, “don’t say anything, I have a mirror.” She told me she worried a lot about her privacy, another reason she was so isolated and another reason why she took the cart with her on the rare occasions when she went out. She suspected a maintenance man invaded her apartment when she was away, ferreting out information about her past. Changing the subject, I showed her an old photograph with Jan on the left, Mother in the middle, and I on the right. We were young and blooming, Mom more than a decade younger than we were now.
|JAN AND I WITH MOM IN WESTWOOD, 1968|
We used to have happy times, meeting for lunch or dinner, but no more. Janeth has been literally starving herself for years because of her strict avoidance of sugar, salt, and fat. On Thanksgiving, Ray took her to a buffet in a restaurant she had formerly enjoyed, “and all I could eat was an apple.” I didn’t see how she could go on living alone, subsisting on raw vegetables and fruit.
What would she think if we tried to persuade her to go into assisted living? How would this ever be accomplished? What would such a place be like?