ALL OF US AT THE SAME TIME©Jo Dereske 2014
When Susan explained the details of Mike’s guardianship to Louise, she’d also mentioned the likelihood that Mike had Alzheimer's, and even though before she became ill, Louise knew Mike had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, it was now news to her. "Do you think Mike has Alzheimer’s?" she asked me.
"I don't know," I told her, sensing the obsessive edge to her question and choosing to try to redirect her instead.
"I don't have Alzheimer’s," Mike said. "God."
I continued to re-explain the benefits of Mike’s guardianship, hoping to focus her on that less explosive topic.
"How will Ray pay the bills?"
"Remember," I told her, "You gave Ray power of attorney years ago. That was very wise of you to do that."
Aunt Louise looked up at the ceiling. "Thank you God for Ray."
When I told Ray, he grinned in embarrassment and said, "My shoes just grew two sizes."
But in the coming days, a familiar tangent developed that we were helpless to stop. Louise grew tormented by the idea that Mike had Alzheimer’s. She couldn’t let it rest. She was both terrified and angry by the vision of Mike succumbing to dementia. She cried for hours and accused Mike of having Alzheimer’s, as if it had been his choice. She told him he was forgetful and “going downhill” and she couldn't take care of him; he’d have to be sent away.
When I tried to interfere, to calm her down, she accused me, "You told me he had Alzheimer's."
"I don't know if he does or not," I tried to soothe, "but you're making Uncle Mike feel very bad."
She continued to pick at him. He was helpless under the assault of her rants, growing disturbed and refusing to eat or talk. I returned to the little house and quickly baked chocolate chip cookies, their favorite, and delivered them, warm, forty-five minutes later. Even in Louise's confused state, I felt her behavior was cruel and uncalled for.
Before I opened the door, I heard their raised voices and Mike ask in exasperation, "Well what do you want me to do?"
Which was exactly our question. Kipling and I were both discouraged by our inability to dissuade her from the topic. We watched helplessly as Mike became more sullen and withdrawn.
"What does she want from him," Kipling asked, "an apology?"
Kipling spent more time trying to coax Mike away from Louise, encouraging him to help in the garden, asking him several times a day since usually he’d forgotten he’d just pulled weeds or hoed the carrots. Perversely, the more Louise railed at him, the more Mike wanted to remain in her presence.
Louise and I sat on the patio as Kipling walked past across the yard.
“Don’t you think I belong in a nursing home?” she called to Kipling, plainly searching for reassurance. “I can’t take care of Mike and I can’t take care of myself.”
“This isn’t the time to go into a nursing home,” Kipling said conversationally over his shoulder. “It’s warm and everything’s green. Winter’s a better time,” and he kept on walking.
She gazed after him, her mouth open in surprise, and gave a half grunt - half chuckle.
As often happened when Mike was under stress, he wet himself and needed a bath.
"Do you want Kipling to come wash your back?" Louise asked, her attention momentarily diverted.
Mike, who was extremely modest, guffawed. "I can do it myself," he said self-righteously.
"Good," I told him, "I'll start your bath."
"Don't make it too hot," he warned me.
Triumphantly, certain that this would be the easiest bath yet – I ran water and coaxed Mike into the bathroom, leaving him to finish undressing and get into the tub. I had returned to sit in the kitchen with Louise when Mike stalked into the room, stark naked. He looked accusingly at me and said, “That water isn’t hot."
I was so dumbfounded I prattled on about fixing it for him, and he followed me into the bathroom while I ran hot water. "Let me test it," he said, perfectly coherent. "It's all right. Shut it off."
All the time nonchalantly standing around naked.
Back in the kitchen I heard him happily splashing water and humming a tune behind the closed bathroom door.
1931 I’m very nervous and jumpy. I need Billy. Went to Scottville with Mother and Dad. Dad tried to talk to me about Bill but he doesn’t know the whole story. I work as hard as I can at whatever I do. It’s the only way not to think.
The plot we hatched to divert Louise from agonizing over Mike’s Alzheimer’s wasn’t exactly honest but it worked.
“You know what we should do,” I said in a conspiratorial tone to Louise the next morning. “Let’s plan a birthday party for Uncle Mike.”
“When’s his birthday?” she asked.
“June fifteenth,” I told her. It was already August and we had celebrated his birthday in June. It was taking a chance because Louise’s memory was unreliable enough that she might actually recollect the cake and candles, and especially the singing.
But she didn’t remember. “Let’s do it.,” she said, her eyes shining. “A surprise party. With Ray and Barb and the children. Don’t they have children?”
Naturally she couldn’t keep it a secret, but that didn’t matter since each day was new to Mike and it would still be a surprise no matter how many times he was told. The second she saw him, she bestowed a loving smile on him and announced, “We’re having a birthday party for you, Mikey. It’s a surprise.”
Mike frowned. “How old am I?”
“You’ll be eighty-one,” I supplied since they both appeared unsure.
"Eighty-one?" he repeated in disbelief. "No!"
"Do you still feel like a kid?" Louise asked. She was beaming. To call upon her natural generosity drew out her best, or pulled her from a black funk.
Mike was too excited to convey his complete thought but he made fists and vigorously waved his arms like a fighter. "I feel like I'm . . . eeeeeeeee."
"Does that mean we're going to have sex tonight?" Louise asked slyly.
"Gawd," Mike drawled.
"Well, if you're young and able, why not?"
"You're being childish," Mike told her.
"I don't think so. I think that was a very adult suggestion."
The birthday celebration involved a barbecue, a cake and balloons. Louise would never allow such attention for herself but she lavished it on Mike, who couldn't stop grinning. Her involvement in the upcoming celebration was rapt and joyous. She asked for and repeated the details whenever she saw us. “Will you put fifty candles on the cake? He’ll be fifty, right?”
“What should I wear?”
“Did we buy Mike a present?”
The day we’d chosen was clouded over in the morning but turned into a beautiful sunny afternoon. Ray set up the barbecue grill on the patio and grilled hamburgers and hot dogs while Barbara and I decorated the table and carried out the salad and baked beans, chips, and all the accouterments. All the time Louise sat close to Mike, touching him and asking, “Are you surprised, Mikey?”
We snapped photos of Louise and Mikes sitting close together on the rock apron she’d built around the tree, in shorts and barefoot, laughing. More photos with us four adults, and with the four children.
After we sang “Happy Birthday” and Mike blew out a single candle, three- year-old Luke sighed and said, “I love this day.”
That night, after the celebration had ended and we’d washed dishes and put away the barbecue, Kipling and I sat in the swing and listened to the cicadas. Louise’s house was dark and peaceful. The cicadas sang on into the darkness, their whirring voices like high tension electrical wires. In the mornings we found the husks of their bodies fastened to the trunks of the pine trees. Amber shells, completely intact, still clung to the bark, holes in their backs where they'd climbed out and gone on to a momentary higher plane, a brief gift of flight before they laid their eggs and died.
And for a while the specter of Alzheimer’s and illness faded from the farm.
1931 I hated to leave home but I took the 9:45 back to Chicago. Bill was waiting for me with flowers, but I’m not ready to forgive him yet. He took me to a new place on 63rd Street. It’s nice. My sofa is set up by the window. Bill told me I don’t need to look for work.
We went to see “One Reckless Hour.” It was good. A cloudy close day.
When my mother married into my father’s family, she spent her first years in bewilderment.
She was quiet, educated, and kept her emotions under tight rein.
They were oversized – both in physicality and personality – vibrant, big people whose emotions spilled out at the merest provocation. Over-sensitive about what was said to them, insensitive as to what they said to others.
My mother was in literal bewilderment as well because as long as my grandparents were alive, their children only spoke Lithuanian in their presence, even to each other, without bothering to translate for the uninitiated. As a child, I understood Lithuanian, although I couldn’t have explained why. I couldn’t speak it or read it, only absorbed it the way children do and promptly lost that facility by puberty.
“There are men who prefer a woman like her,” Louise had said regarding my mother, “Mild. Someone they can boss around.”
She and my mother had danced around each other one another from the moment they were introduced. My father bought the house we all grew up in as a surprise while she was in the hospital giving birth to me. Louise helped him pay for it, furnish and set up the house for our homecoming. My mother was clueless of Louise’s involvement until years later. Louise had never forgiven her for not thanking her.
And my mother had probably never forgiven her for her involvement, usurping her choice and making her a guest in her first home.
“Johnny was in love with another woman,” Louise told me. “A Lithuanian girl. We believed they’d be married by Christmas but then he laid eyes on your mother and that was that. They married three months later.” She shook her head. “Oh my, but that was a scene.” She gave me a dark look as if I’d somehow played a role in the other woman’s abandonment.
“What happened?” I asked. I adored gossip, or as I preferred to think of it: stories.
She shrugged. “Just what you’d expect when a woman has her heart broken. She finally married somebody else, but everybody knew she wasn’t happy. She’s still around.”
“Who is it?”
But she wouldn’t say.
Louise and my mother misinterpreted each other, both of them generous and then hurt when they suspected their generosity wasn’t appreciated. Each of them strong women in her own manner. My mother quiet, forceful like water, her determination not to complain worn like a credo. Louise was straight forward, brooking no fools and ready to take on anyone she believed deserved it.
Yet they sought each other out, defended one another, comforted and supported each other through tragedy, always searching for gifts each hoped the other would enjoy.
An hour and a half together was about their limit before their smiles froze, their hands wrung, or fingers tapped, and they looked for any excuse to escape, as if they knew they were about to slip into a minefield where my mother might say, “Your roses are beautiful. I’m more of a hydrangea person myself,” and Louise would parry with, “Hydrangeas are boring. They bloom no matter what you do to them. There’s no challenge in hydrangeas.”
And if the escalation wasn’t brought to a screaming halt, it would continue until they parted ways in prickly stiffness, not speaking again for weeks.
So I didn’t tell Louise my mother was coming to visit until the night before she arrived.
“June’s coming? No! I miss that girl,” and she waxed on about Mom’s gorgeous chestnut hair – long ago turned white– her calmness. “Smiling, always smiling. I’ve never heard her complain once in all the years I’ve known her.”
But even telling Louise of Mom’s visit the night before her arrival was too soon.
At daylight, I looked out to see Louise, fully clothed, sitting on her patio with her chair turned to face the little house.
“Is Junie here yet? I’ve been waiting all night.”
It had been a project to secretly remove clothes from Louise’s closet that required buttoning, zipping or hooking, replacing them with new snap-on or buttonless clothing that were slipped into her closet when she wasn’t looking. She was convinced these were old second-hand clothes a friend had given her. The friend, Kitty, had been dead for years. “I’m happy I didn’t throw this out,” she said showing off a sleeveless dress I’d tucked in the day before. “When do you think Junie will be here? Didn’t she just have surgery?”
Ten years earlier, our mother had had breast cancer and a mastectomy. She had serenely and silently suffered through recovery and chemotherapy, each session leaving her vomiting and weak when she retreated to her bedroom for a day and emerged as if she’d only just taken a nap.
On the day my father died of a sudden heart attack, she’d completed a chemo treatment that morning and managed to hold off being sick until she and my brother and sister retrieved me from my late arrival at the airport. Once we were back at the house she spent the night retching and the next morning began composedly planning our father’s funeral.
After she’d passed her seventh year without a cancer recurrence, we’d celebrated. It was behind her. It had been ten years now. Just the year before, her ninth after surgery, there’d been a “spot” on her chest, which she assured us was small, insignificant, and had been eradicated by a few zaps of radiation. Flash and it was gone. She’d carried on as calmly as usual, moving to California to help care for her aging parents, assuring us that everything was “fine;” she felt “good.”
When Ray drove in with Mom in the passenger seat, Louise was up and beside the car before my mother opened her door.
They hadn’t seen each other in a year and they hugged and talked at the same time, their voices stumbling over each other’s. Even Mom’s eyes were wet.
We left them chattering on the patio and could hear their happy voices and laughter through the windows of the little house.
But true to form, ninety minutes later we noticed Louise glancing toward the little house as if looking for rescue, and our mother rubbing her arms and petting Morris.
I went to the patio and invited them both to the little house for a cup of coffee. “No, no,” Louise answered, much as I’d expected. “You go. I think I’ll take a little nap now.”
Mom was saddened by Louise’s deterioration. “She kept asking me if I’d recovered from my surgery yet. That was over ten years ago.”
She spent the next few days visiting family and friends in a whirlwind that left me exhausted hearing about it. Her family was extensive and had lived in the county over a hundred years and many of the people she talked about – those she “had to see” – were only names to me. As the time of her flight back to California approached, she asked my brother to take her one more time to visit the cemeteries in the county, nearly every one of which held a relative.
She seemed full of energy, happy to be in Michigan. When we asked her about her health, the new doctor she’d off-handedly mentioned, she laughed, advising us not to worry, she was “just fine.” And as Louise noted, “Smiling, always smiling.”
1931 Billy is gone to a meeting or to the south side at all hours, night and day. It makes me lonesome, blue and crabby. I’d like to go to the south side sometimes, but he doesn’t want me to. He bought me a new coat. Sylvia and I went to see Joan Crawford in “Modern Age.” John came over for dinner. I told Billy Big Mike is not welcome.
Next Tuesday, Chapter 21: The Missing Diamond