My parents and I spent a good deal of the week discussing the arrival day and time of my brother and his wife. On Wednesday I spoke with my brother, and he said they’d be in San Francisco on Saturday at 12:30. So I told my mother and father and began to plan lunch around their arrival. On Saturday, my mother was upset when they didn’t show up at 11:30, and my dad was surprised they were coming at all and swore he hadn’t been told of their visit.
The weird thing about this is that I had spent the evening before listening to them reminisce about their youth. Not only did they remember the details of big events, but they also recalled with precision tiny throw-away lines from parties they attended 60 years ago. They both burst into laughter when my mom reminded my dad about a woman they had met at a party whose name was Ophelia. She was being wooed by a guy named Bob, but she didn’t want to marry him because then her name would be Ophelia Balsey, which she thought would be excruciatingly embarrassing. “Did she marry him?” I asked. “Oh, I don’t know,” my mom said. “We never saw her again.”
There are so many things that suck about getting old that it’s hard to rank them. But this has got to be near No. 1: The other night, my mom slipped in the hallway (she was using her cane instead of her walker), and she couldn’t get off the floor. After lots of arguing about whether I should call an ambulance (sample retorts to my urging: Leave me alone! Mind your own business! Go away!), I ceased and desisted. Still there was the problem that she was on the floor and couldn’t get up. Her legs seemed fine, and her hips seemed fine, but her arm was too sore to put any weight on. So she kind of inched herself on her butt along the tiled hallway to one of the downstairs bedrooms. My dad got a carpet-covered bench, and somehow she managed to heave herself onto that and then onto the bed. From there she could kind of rock herself into a standing position and grab the walker, which we had set in front of her. I was shaking my head over this sad situation, and my dad said, “Oh, we do this all the time. I get dizzy a lot and fall and have to slide on my butt to get from one room to the other too.”
I lost a lot of sleep over my decision not to take her to the hospital. But I think I made the right choice. Even if her resistance was the result of dementia, it’s her arm, and she’s willing to live with pain rather than risk hospitalization. And in the end, three days later, she seems to be recovering her range of motion.
Still, now that I know that both of them spend a good deal of time perambulating around on their butts, I’m wondering if I shouldn’t get them padded pants.
An odded addity: A prescription-glasses lens found on the floor that no one has laid claim to. This too is greeted as just an ordinary thing. May I say that I have never found a tooth or an eye on my floor in New York?
There are always such odd things going on in this house. When I arrived on Sunday, my parents’ refrigerator held 76 fresh eggs. Well, not so fresh actually. Most had passed their sell-by dates by several weeks. Now how could two elderly people have decided that they needed so many eggs? What’s really odd is they seem to find my perplexity odd. After some strategic soufflé- and pastry-making, I’ve brought the total down to the high 60s, and we’re closing in on a carton with a sell-by date that’s only a week ago. We’ve decided that for a social event on Saturday we’ll make deviled eggs. By the time I leave on Sunday, I would guess that I could get the total down to the mid 50s. I’ve expended a good deal of energy and ingenuity on the egg issue, one that perturbs my parents not at all. As soon as I leave, I suspect, my dad will go out and buy more eggs.
And I always learn such odd things about the past. The other night at dinner, my dad mentioned that he had had a vasectomy. He did? Odd that I didn’t know. But odd, too, that I know now.
And the foghorns are blasting like demented tubas practicing the world's longest whale song. Or like a slo-mo traffic jam with lots of horns. This is not quaint. Surely modern technology has a better way?
My brother and I have sometimes wondered whether my mother had Aspberger’s or autism. Perhaps all children wonder this about their parents. Or wonder, at least, what it is that makes them so difficult. In any case, my mother had acute hearing and eyesight, and small things out of order could enrage her. That sensory supersensitivity, combined with what seemed to us an emotional insensitivity to our feelings, is what got us to thinking. Add to that her language: she was hyperliterate but distant in her speech, as if she had learned to speak by reading translations rather than the original works.
Lately autism and Aspberger’s have been in the news, including a Time magazine article about why these disorders are increasingly common, along with a detailed description of each. “I think I have Aspberger’s!” my mom exclaimed the other day after reading the Time article. But here’s the thing: Doesn’t the level of self-awareness required to think you have Aspberger’s automatically disqualify you from having it?
I was born with a very sensitive nose, and years of chronic sinus infections did not dim it—until one finally did. Suddenly, a couple years ago, it went dark. I was diagnosed with agnosia, or loss of the ability to smell. Time and medications restored just a ghost of its former wholeness. If a smell was really loud, I could pick it up, but a delicate melody was lost. I’m hard of hearing, so the metaphor is apt. I became resigned to a slightly duller olfactory life and made an effort to compensate with my other senses: using my eyes rather than my nose to check the litter box, the cake in the oven, the soles of my shoes when I came in from the street.
But suddenly it’s back! My nose knows again! Which is good but has its downside. It’s the downside that announced the return of my former acuity. There was the week, earlier this month, when I was tormented by a strong urine smell that emanated not from the litter box but from our kitchen or the adjacent hallway. I brought it to Other’s attention, but it didn’t bother him. I couldn’t stop sniffing around the house. Finally, I located the source: onions that had rotted to liquification in the pantry closet between the kitchen and the hallway. Then on the plane to San Francisco, a free-spirited young man sat in the center seat and released stink bombs of b.o. every time he rearranged himself, which was a lot. I pressed my nose against the window, but of course that did no good. Five hours of smelling someone else’s unwashed armpits! When I deplaned, I couldn’t resist asking the woman who had occupied the aisle seat whether she had been bothered by it. “I did notice an odd smell!” she said. “But I couldn’t quite place it.” And here I am in my parents’ house, and it seems the mildew that I thought I had eradicated is back. Or perhaps it never left and it is my nose that is back. Could there be hope for my hearing?
Thank god for the newspaper and the pleasure it brings my parents. Every day it arrives (or rather they arrive—the Chronicle and the Times) looking nearly the same as the day before: the big banner name the same, the march of vertical columns the same, the fold across the middle the same. But in the fine print, lies adventure. And every day, my parents eagerly pick it up and read it and clip it and argue about it. One will lose the section he or she was reading and accuse the other of taking it. And, oh, the joy, when it is found (though the recriminations continue)! The rustle and the crunch are the music of their lives. The sad sorting into recycling (how hard to let last Sunday’s edition go!) is the backbone of their calendar. And even before the daily reading is done, they look forward eagerly to the evening news on TV so they can relive it and savor it. Without the newspaper, I think they would die of boredom.
My mom and I do a quick tongue-check of our teeth. "Not mine," we both say.
"O.K.," says my dad and puts it into an old film canister for safekeeping. "I'll just hold onto it."
Now the weird thing isn't that my dad found a tooth on the floor. With three people 60 and over, there's bound to be a crown or a bridge or some kind of artificial tooth lying around. No, the weird thing is that no one seemed surprised that there was a tooth on the floor that didn't happen to belong to anyone.
A cyber friend recently asked why bloggers like me use elementary-school photos for our profile pictures. I can't speak for anyone else, but here's my thinking:
I started this blog about four years ago as an experiment in daily writing. Among other things, I wanted to see how honest I could be without betraying anyone's privacy. One way to do that was to obscure my own identity and by extension that of "my daughter" or "my son," say.
So I used the pseudonym Mia. Since I was often writing about the experience of having cancer, Mia was appropriate. It's the name of the Amore microfiber wig I wore during chemo. Other Amore model names: Tatum, Brittanie, Parker, Holli, Kendall, Brandi. Don't they sound like the street names of prostitutes? I certainly felt like a prostitute when I wore Mia—battered, shut down, severed from ordinary society, discouraged from speaking about my cancer life. The name also meant "mine" and "missing in action," two notions that also seemed appropriate to me.
The choice of photo was based on a similar goal: to be myself without revealing the identity on my driver's license. I've always liked this picture of my 7-year-old self, with its impish smirk and its push-pull of shyness and directness. And there was another reason I used a childhood picture rather than a current one. A year out of treatment when I started this blog, I wasn't used to my real-life aged appearance: the sparse, short, gray hair; the mottled skin; the defeated eyes. It's still hard to face myself in the mirror. (But as my friend M says, "Stop looking in the mirror then!")
So "Mia" and the picture of myself at 7 are attempts to be honest without violating my own or anyone else's privacy. And in a funny way, these subterfuges allow me to be a bit more frank than I might otherwise. Behind the hedge of anonymity, I can let the wild things roam free.
I know this happens to everybody, but next time I’m determined to get it right. I’m going to say what I wish I’d said.
Earlier this summer, after years of making up my mind to do it, I dyed my gray hair, aiming for an unobtrusive brown. It came out a truly hideous tarry maroon. I was mortified and shed many tears. To me it felt as if every ugly strand was a sentence in my pathetic story: an insecure middle-aged woman tries to regain her former attractiveness on the cheap. And every stranger on the street could read my head like a book.
A day or two later, I was approached by a colleague, who lambasted me in public: “What on earth have you done to your hair! It was nice before, and now it looks terrible! I stopped dying my hair when it began to fall out!”
My weak response: “Yes, I know. It looks terrible. I’ve certainly learned my lesson.”
Now, I think this woman meant well. She just believes in speaking her mind. She probably felt I was living in a world of illusion, and someone needed to be truthful. Or she may have regretted her words and wished she could take them back. Many, many people blunder over boundaries with every good intention. I’ve done it myself.
What could I have said to stop this marauding woman and save both of us from her cruelty?
1. “I know you’d be horrified to know how upset your words are making me”?
2. “This is not something I want to discuss right now”?
For 10 years, I've been mulling over a detail from the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. According to news accounts, many bodies were never found because people were "vaporized" by the heat. I just keep thinking, What would it be like to be vaporized? There's something poetic about having your molecules unbound in an instant and dispersed.
If you're hard of hearing and too vain to wear hearing aids, chances are you'll hear people saying some surprising things. Typically, in mild deafness, vowels remain clear but consonants become indistinct. Today, on the subway platform, I was astonished to hear the announcer say, "For S&M service, go to the downtown platform ..." Oh, right, F and M service. Of course.