ALL OF US AT THE SAME TIME©Jo Dereske 2014
The very next morning after Louise’s comment that life was more interesting because you knew you had to die, I fixed their coffee and left notes while they slept, as usual, then returned to the little house to work on my computer in my corner of the entry.
I looked out the window at ten, about the time I usually returned to their house, to discover Mike shuffling up and down the driveway, wringing his hands and talking to himself. I ran outside and caught up with him, matching his steps. He couldn’t express what was upsetting him, but jerkily waved toward the house, gasping as if his chest were too shallow for deep breaths. I hurried into their house, fearing the worse, Mike at my heels.
On the sleeping porch, Louise still lay in bed, eyes closed. She hadn’t got up for coffee or breakfast. Her breathing was slow and peaceful, a sleeping woman’s even inhalations. I felt her forehead. No fever. She grunted when I asked her if she’d like coffee and I let her sleep, surmising she’d had a restless night.
She barely slitted her eyes when Meals on Wheels arrived. At twelve-thirty when I tried to wake her she mumbled, “I’ll get up soon,” the same at one and one-thirty. She lay peacefully on her back, not moving. Mike paced the house. "What the hell's wrong?" he blurted, rubbing his hands together, rocking himself in obvious fear, before slipping into incoherency.
Kipling had gone to town, so at two-thirty with Louise still lying in bed, I phoned Ray. He arrived in ten minutes and tried to wake her up but she opened her eyes enough to recognize him, smiled, and immediately resumed sleeping. What should we do? We'd talked about this possibility, of letting her slip away. Was that what was happening?
But it was so against human impulse, to stand idly by. At three-thirty, when Louise still hadn’t risen from her bed, Ray called Barbara at work and she arrived with all her nursing knowledge. Louise's pulse was barely forty. Where Ray and I had failed, Barbara was able to get her up and out of bed. Louise was confused and husky-voiced – and ravenous. “I enjoy my food,” she commented between bites of leftover lasagna.
By evening she was herself but we were all rattled. Louise was adamantly opposed to any kind of heroic efforts; years ago she’d had her lawyer draw up a living will, and had clearly expressed her desire to die at home. But could we stand by if she was in pain, unconscious? Just observing? At what point did we take her to the hospital, if at all?
I called the doctor and explained her deep sleep, the low pulse. “Bring her in,” he told me.
She refused – no surprise, promising to go “tomorrow.” She was aware that "something" had gone on so I described again her deep sleep and low blood pressure.
"What would you like us to do if that happens again, Aunt Louise," I asked. "Should we call the ambulance or the doctor?" I knew her wishes would countermand any living will.
She thought for the flash of a second. "Call the undertaker."
While I fixed her a cup of green tea she said, “It’s nothing to die. I watched my husband die. You just close your eyes and click, you’re gone.”
I was intrigued. A story I didn’t know. I opened my mouth to ask more and saw the warning on her face. Let it rest.
Mike was still agitated and had a renewed distrust of us, connecting our presence with Louise being ill. At lunch, the door was locked but when I returned a second time, Mike stood in the open doorway, smiling. Of course, I did have a plate of just-baked peanut butter cookies in my hand.
1932 A horrible letter from Billy. He found out. I’m glad I was good in many ways and didn’t go too far. I’m a jackass and no more of that for me, I promise!
Again the next morning, we couldn't wake up Louise. I took her pulse and found it once more hovering near forty. I forced her to sit up which she reluctantly did and then I led her by the hand to the kitchen. At first she was groggy and confused but after a half hour became happy, even slightly manic.
"I had a dream that wore me out," she told me. "I dreamed I was back on the farm washing clothes under the big maple and I wanted to quit but Mother kept bringing out more clothes for me to wash so I had to keep going."
I felt chills at the back of my neck.
The nurse, Roberta, stopped by before Louise's was due at the doctor’s. We’d planned Roberta’s visit as a maneuver in our battle plan to “encourage” Louise to keep the appointment. When she was reminded of the impending visit, Louise cried and declared she wouldn't go, she'd never go; doctor’s visits were “an intrusion,” and the nurse was “a nuisance.” She believed it was nighttime and no one had brought her any food; we were “starving” her.
Roberta calmly agreed with Louise, took her vital signs, and phoned Doctor Hoffer. He wanted blood tests and scheduled an EKG. Her pulse was 48, her blood pressure high. "If this keeps up she'll probably slip away in her sleep," the nurse told me in an aside.
Louise endured the tests as if she were a sleepwalker. The EKG showed that the only option was open heart surgery, which Doctor Hoffer felt Louise couldn't survive. A pacemaker wouldn't help. "It probably won't be long," he said. "Six months would be optimistic, definitely not a year. Make her as comfortable and peaceful as possible. Let her sleep all day if she wants. She's earned the right."
To Louise, Doctor Hoffer, who’d once coolly asked her if she knew who he was, said, with great generosity and warmth as he held her hands in both of his and gazed into her eyes, "Louise, you have a sick heart. I want you to relax and take it easy."
"Well, what else can I do?" she retorted.
1932 Billy found us two rooms on East 62nd Street and I came back to Chicago. It’s April 1 and Billy hasn’t worked one day this year, not real work. I get so nervous worrying.
When Ray talked to Louise’s lawyer about her weakening situation, he advised Ray to make Louise’s funeral arrangements. Funeral arrangements! It was a hard reality but he and I dutifully consulted the funeral director at the chapel from which three generations of our family had been buried. Louise had directed in her will that there be no funeral service. Plus, she wanted to be cremated. Neither of us could recall a single dead relative who’d skipped out of a funeral or been cremated. Viewing nights, rosaries, funeral masses, cemeteries, tombstones,; it was all part of the only package we knew.
The funeral director knew our family and inquired after our brother, our cousins. “I remember your father on that fancy motorcycle of his.” He gently led us through the complex formalities of death, existing even without a cremation or funeral. A kind of numbness settled over us. We planned, saying the words, making the necessary decisions; all the while I imagined Louise fuming over what we were doing.
From memory the director described the style of tombstones installed on the family plot in Riverside Cemetery. Ray and I exchanged quick glances; was this a sales tactic or was he really able to remember individual tombstones? On our way home we stopped by the cemetery just to see if he was correct. He was.
Riverside Cemetery covered land near the river, neatly divided into Catholic and non-Catholic quarters. The Catholic side occupied a high and sandy plain, the non-Catholic rolled beneath oak trees and pines along the Pere Marquette River. Driving through the cemetery and reading surnames on tombstones was a brief and disorienting trip through the past.
Later in the day, the funeral director phoned Ray to say he’d checked into the cemetery lot where Louise's first husband, our grandparents and infant sister were buried. “Back in the 1940's,” he said in a bemused voice, “Louise bought twelve plots.” After our initial surprise we realized it was perfectly in keeping with her penchant for buying in quantity.
At the Alzheimer's Support Group, Susan suggested that we assure Louise that Mike would be taken care of, that perhaps she was clinging to life because she was worried about him and it might set her mind at ease. She also offered to look into care facilities for Mike.
Every time I entered Louise's house I suffered a stab of fear. In the mornings I crept to the sleeping porch and watched her chest for movement, my own breath held. If she took a nap I studied her before I called her for dinner.
"There's a little girl inside her who wants to go home," Kipling said.
I thought about that statement. When my son was born, he had a lung condition that the doctor explained was similar to “two wet panes of glass stuck together.” The doctor told me he wouldn't live and gave me medication to dry up my breast milk. After my son spent two days in an incubator in pediatric intensive care fighting for every breath, still in critical condition, my inability to help, to share my own strength, culminated in my going off the medication and buying a breast pump to express milk every four hours.
I poured that milk down the drain but it stimulated my milk production. I would have breast milk when he recovered. When, in my mind, not if. Besides my mother-desperate prayers, it was all I could think of to do.
With that same sense of helplessness, I decided to take a drive for Louise. She completely and adamantly refused to step inside the car, so I imagined her sitting beside me as we revisited her past.
I followed the secondary gravel roads to my grandparents' old farm, and as I grew near, I approached it in the lives of so many people: as a little girl in the back seat of our car, as my father on his way to help his father bring in the hay, as Louise on a Sunday afternoon. Passing O'Brien's old house a mile from my grandparents’ farm I expected their long-dead black-and-white collie to burst onto the road and chase the car while the Dad laughingly opened his door, and the dog, knowing that game, anticipated it and jumped clear.
All their ghosts, like filmy layers if we could only peel away the present. In the barnyard, with the horses, at the watering trough, making cheese, putting up loose hay. The sense of so much life and passage of parallel time was dizzying. If it could be gathered up and sorted out again, they'd all be there, all the people we loved, in all their flawed beauty and perfection. I could sense them.
All afternoon, Louise sat listlessly in the living room wrapped in an afghan, her feet on the ottoman, unable to rouse herself for more than a few seconds. Either Kipling or I remained in the house, watchful, monitoring her, aware that her time was growing short, that perhaps death truly was approaching.
1932 I started work as a salesgirl. Billy is doing a small job for Jimmy. Boy, this is going to help out beautifully. I’m not so nervous when Bill works. Received food from home.
Solemn May Novena began tonight. I went. Billy went to a meeting.
Next Tuesday, Chapter 24: The Revolt