ALL OF US AT THE SAME TIME©Jo Dereske 2014
An End to Reading
Louise had always been a ravenous reader. She often talked about sneaking in reading when she was a girl while she was supposedly doing chores, or how she haunted the library in Chicago. She cut out poems and articles that stirred her and stockpiled them around the house. She’d been a faithful newspaper subscriber and magazine reader.
Now she claimed her glasses weren't strong enough for her to read. She’d been to the eye doctor only a month earlier, the optometrist she’d been seeing for years and had known since they were teenagers. “My, you’ve gotten old,” she’d blurted in shock when she saw him, and when he advised her she needed a new lens prescription, she said tersely, “I’ve always believed glasses are a bit of chicanery.”
"How about if I find you a large-print book at the library?" I asked.
"Like what?" she challenged.
I suggested Reader's Digest, thinking the short articles might hold her attention.
"Personally, I think Reader's Digest is boring," she sniffed. "I'd prefer a sexy novel."
At the library I examined the large-print collection. No sexy novels but I did find a humorous Gorge Burns book so I checked that out.
Louise thanked me and set the book on a coffee table.
And that was that. She wouldn't let me read it to her. She couldn't remember she had the book and she couldn't focus her attention on reading even a paragraph. The newspaper, which was still delivered every day, went unfurled. A world without reading felt a true tragedy. I’d grown up in a family of mad readers and common statements ran along the lines of, “Just one more page,” or “I’ve never been there, but I’ve read about it.”
I was writing the first book in the Miss Zukas mystery series and it was due to my publisher in four months. I was a slow writer, fast to create my first draft so the “bones” of the story existed, but tedious to the point of obsession, in my rewriting, sometimes rehashing portions ten or more times, and like most writers, never quite satisfied, more surrendering my manuscript to my editor rather than submitting it.
My brilliant idea, I thought, was to call upon Louise’s generosity. I asked her for help. Would she give me her opinion if I read portions of my new book aloud to her? I needed “fresh ears,” I told her.
She was doubtful but as always, when a favor was asked, willing. I was nervous that she might be offended that I’d snuck in actual family details, not to mention giving the main character the name of Zukas to honor her.
“This isn’t a true story, Aunt Louise,” I warned her.
“I don’t care whether it’s true or not,” she said, “as long as the story is real,” a comment I would always keep in mind during my writing career, and in fact print in block letters and pin to my bulletin board above my desk.
So I read to her from my manuscript, watching her face for the raise of her eyebrows when a sentence didn’t quite work, or grateful when she laughed aloud at what I hoped was humorous. And especially alert when I noticed her attention wandering, a sure sign I needed to tighten my writing.
Reading aloud helped me clarify niggling problems I was having with the writing, and Louise’s responses were invaluable in honing the story.
I’d return to the little house, rewrite the portion, and the next day return to read it to her again. Rarely did she remember having already heard the passage, only once saying, “This sounds familiar. I hope you’re not copying another author’s book.”
1932 New Years Day. I do hope this year is much better than last year. Employment is tough for everyone and there are long lines of hungry people at the church. I sure worry a lot. Terrible cold but Billy marched me out to spend all day with Al and Sylvia. We made good out of not much.
I found a note on Louise’s placemat early in the morning. It was written on the back of an American Cancer Society appeal envelope in Louise’s wobbly handwriting.
3:00AM Louise was here and left. She will be back. Louise
I rushed to the sleeping porch. Both Louise and Mike lay peacefully sleeping. Nothing in the bedroom or house appeared out of place or amiss. What did the note mean? Had she actually left the house during the night? Had she had a dream? We were so attuned to their sounds on the monitor that any unusual noise, like running water or an opening door or something falling, woke us up.
“Maybe she was making a joke,” Kipling suggested when I showed him the envelope, which sounded unlikely to me.
I worried. They sat in the back of my head, like my children did: always present, a low-level current poised to flash to life like lightning.
Mike now left the farm more than Louise. As his disease progressed, his lifelong tendency toward solitude slipped away. Barbara took him grocery shopping, making it an outing where he pushed the cart while she filled the basket with items that sparked his interest: bright red packages of coffee, bok choy, a twenty-five pound bag of potatoes, and of course, gigantic packages of vanilla sandwich cookies.
Every week or two Kipling drove Mike to Tom the barber's in Scottville for a shave and haircut. Tom had offered to stop by the house and cut Mike's hair – but this was a foray that Mike eagerly agreed to. The town had once bustled and been crowded with cars and competing stores. Now, like many small towns, it faded. Dollar stores and consignment shops poised at the edge of town, waiting for long-time stores to fold.
Whenever Kipling announced they were going to Tom the barber's, Mike called forth old routines and spruced himself up, easily accepting help dressing and choosing his clothes, ready and waiting in the driveway before Kipling could back out the truck.
“I’ll come with and make sure he does a good job,” Louise teased him.
“No women allowed,” Mike told her firmly.
It was a men's day out – in the truck, not the car – and Kipling said Mike was always appropriate. Tom was aware of the situation and had known Mike for thirty years. The barber shop was still familiar and safe to Mike and he held the satisfaction of his trip for the remainder of the day, smoothing his hand over his chin and head, smiling.
1932 Thunder and lightning in winter. I’m always worrying about money. Billy tells me he’ll take care of it but if he breaks his promise I’ll go home. He’s started going to meetings again and I’m afraid of what will happen. Big Mike loaned him $50. How will we repay it, I want to know.
Tony and his girl came over and stayed until after midnight. I went to bed and they partied.
Roberta, the regular nurse who Louise had developed a teasing, mostly cooperative relationship with, took a two-week vacation. She didn’t mention her impending absence to Louise, knowing it could launch another traumatic episode.
The substitute nurse, whose name was Phyllis, was the first visiting nurse I’d seen wearing a uniform: a crisp blue smock and pants. She entered Mike and Louise’s house carrying a black briefcase and glanced around at the furnishings,. “Wow,” she said in a hearty voice. “You’ve sure got a lot of antiques here. I’d like to back a truck up to the front door and load up.”
Whether it was that comment or because she wasn’t her usual nurse, Louise and Mike took an immediate dislike to her.
Louise kept her arms close to her sides, staring at the nurse. “Your visits are an imposition to me.”
The nurse bristled. “Well, you have to put up with them if you want to stay in your home.” To my ears, her voice sounded unnecessarily harsh.
Louise shrieked when Phyllis inserted a needle in her arm for a blood draw. Mike, who’d been sitting in the living room, rushed into the kitchen, his face red.
“Leave her alone,” he shouted at the nurse. “Take mine instead. Leave her alone.”
Louise gazed up at him. “You’d do that for me, Mikey?”
“Yes,” he asserted. “And I always will, too.”
Louise submitted and held her arm steady for the nurse, her eyes soft on Mike.
Phyllis punctuated nearly every comment with a nervous giggle, and after Mike’s initial outburst, he refused to speak again, retreating to the living room, and whenever Phyllis laughed, he imitated her in a high falsetto we all could hear.
“Do you think I should be in a nursing home?” Louise asked Phyllis, as she often did any of the social services people.
“Not as long as you have a caregiver here,” Phyllis said, nodding to me.
Louise looked at me in shock, narrowing her eyes in suspicion and covering her mouth. I could see her thinking: Her niece, her godchild she’d allowed to live in the little house, was her Caregiver?
I seethed. Every nurse, careworker or volunteer we’d met had been helpful and respectful to Louise and Mike despite Louise and Mike’s unpredictable – and sometimes trying – behavior. We felt they were all pulling for Louise and Mike, and for us, too, and we were boundlessly grateful. Louise and Mike might not be paying out-of-pocket for these services but they were tax-payers, life-long community members. Should we accept or expect anything less than first-rate treatment, paid for or not?
I was a bona fide member of my father’s speak-before-you-think family and struggled against an outburst. I reminded myself that Phyllis would only visit Louise and Mike once more while Roberta was on vacation. I wanted to maintain a good relationship with all of social services for Louise and Mike’s sake. So should I overlook what struck me as disrespectful behavior?
No, I decided, I couldn’t. When Phyllis had packed up her nursing supplies and said goodbye in Louise’s and Mike’s direction, neither of whom answered, I walked out to her car with her into the crisp air, a smile frozen on my face and mentally searching for foreign discreet words.
“Thanks for coming,” I began. “It must be hard to fill in for someone else when you haven’t had time to get to know the patients.”
She looked at me sharply. “Not really. We all have the same routines.”
At that moment, Morris twisted around my legs. I leaned down to scratch his ears, and give myself more time to compose my words.
“My aunt’s confused but she’s actually very sharp. I think you upset her by saying you’d like to steal her antiques.” Not exactly the most subtle.
“It was a joke.” Phyllis dropped her briefcase on the back seat of her car and slammed the car door.
“She doesn’t understand joking as well as she used to.” I explained, thinking that was a pile of rot. Louise still “got” jokes before most people. I was on a roll so I continued, also telling her that calling me Louise’s “caregiver” upset Louise’s and my fragile relationship.
Phyllis nervously giggled but she appeared genuinely puzzled by my comments.
I embellished what I’d already said, omitting that I also felt her attitude to Louise and Mike was cold and perfunctory. After a few moments of silence while she stood beside her car, her lower lip between her teeth, she heaved a sigh and said, “I’m sorry if you’re upset.”
I recognized that breed of apology, that abdication of responsibility, the surety she’d done nothing wrong; that it was all in the way I’d perceived her professionalism. In other words, my problem.
There was nothing more to say that would soothe our differences, and we coolly said our goodbyes and she drove away.
The following week, as I nervously awaited Phyllis’s arrival, prepared to hulk over her visit with Louise like an ornery watchdog, the phone rang. It was the nursing office, telling my Phyllis wasn’t feeling well and would I like to reschedule her for Friday?
“That’s all right, Roberta will be back on Tuesday,” I told the receptionist. “We’ll wait.”
1932 Billy out every day. I’m left alone all by my lonesome. I played ping pong at Olga’s and we went to the show: “Delirious.” I bought a few bargains for mother.
Cauliflower clouds ringed the horizon, billowing into the blue sky. The sun shone and the temperature hit eighty degrees, but portents of the changing seasons were definitely in the air. The bountiful bean plants finally collapsed and browned, I noted with relief. The flowers on the trumpet vines formed banana-size pods, pumpkins were oranging up. Squirrels dashed up and down the trees with real purpose now, and the birds gathered on the wires, their flocks burgeoning from ten to fifty and more. Summer was surrendering its long lazy light to autumn clarity.
"I hate it when the seasons change," Louise lamented, always more aware of the subtleties of nature than what year, month or day it was.
Annually, when summer changed to autumn, Louise was prone to slip into “the blues,” that dragged on until late January when the days finally began to noticeably lengthen again. She wasn’t the only one in cloudy Michigan – or Washington state – who followed after the darkening days in their hearts, and I’d often thought that hibernation should be a viable option for some people.
We scrambled for ways to keep her interested. I coaxed her into a drive to Lake Michigan, thinking the sight of the pale beach sand and blue water would make her forget it was autumn.
But I’d forgotten it was past Labor Day.
On the Tuesday after the three-day Labor Day holiday, the City declared summer defunct and began erecting snow fences across the beaches. Ugly green wire-and-slat fences stretched in rows like World War I barbed wire, parallel to the shore, closing off the park and beaches.
The theory was to be prepared; you never knew when the weather might change.
As we pulled into the park, Louise saw the fences and stared out the window. “Are they mixed up, or am I?”
“I think they’re jumping the gun,” I told her. “It’s as beautiful as summer out there.”
“But it’s not.”
A young man, tall and broad-shouldered, slipped around the end of a slatted snow fence and kicked through the sand toward us.
“Is that Johnny?” Louise asked, sitting up and peering curiously through the windshield.
He did look like a young version of my father and when I didn’t answer her quickly enough, she turned to me, her face flushed. “Take me home,” she ordered.
1932 I am at home again. Dad and Frank met me. Billy and I had to give up our apartment again. I don’t want to know what he’s doing while I’m gone. He hasn’t worked one day all month. Stella came home but she’s a little too noisy so I went to the fields with Dad and helped burn wood. Snow and wind. Bitterly cold.
We had a letter from Tofelia. She’s going to unite with Gordon in Canada. Cookoo. Frank, Stella and I went to a dance at Bonnie Belmont. What a crowd! We all went to mass in the morning.
"Are you going to stay here this winter?" Louise asked completely out of the blue as we walked arm and arm viewing the late roses and asters in her gardens.
"We're very happy here," I told her, "and we love our neighbors."
"I have better neighbors than you do," she teased. Then after a pause, asked, "Will you stay here until I die?"
No matter how much I wanted to, I couldn't promise that. In January, we’d be up against another deadline. Kipling’s leave of absence would turn into unemployment. We’d only skirted around the necessity of moving Louise and Mike into a care home. But soon . . .
"I hope you live a long, long time," I told Louise.
"But not forever," she added, shaking her head wearily, "not in this state." Then she grinned and added, "Living forever would be tedious. Knowing we have to die keeps life interesting."
1932 Billie came to Michigan for a day. I wish he could have stayed longer. I’m so blue without him. One of Dad’s pigs had 17 piggies! The weather’s been stormy. The road in front of the farm is very bad.
Next Tuesday, Chapter 23: Realities