Here's a picture of me with the radiant Sarah Reinhart taken two weeks ago, after I'd spent a good deal of the weekend in the hospital with my mom. I'm the bleary-looking one on the right. You can imagine how haggard I look now.
Every night when Martin called me, I had new and strange stories about Emma to relate.
“Last night she was dozing in the easy chair in the living room, and her walker was standing in front of the fireplace. She doesn’t like the stupid walker, and she often parks it right there. As I was passing through from the hall to the kitchen, she plucked at my sleeve to get my attention, and pointed at the walker, and she asked me, “Do you see that orangutan? He’s just sitting there.” And then she started waxing eloquent about the orangutan on the hearth. Stop laughing, Martin. It was extremely disturbing. I tell you she must see these things. She’s so serious about it, as if there were nothing to debate.
“Okay, you’ll like this one. Emma was sacked out in the same easy chair in the living room, and she was looking at one of the chairs pulled out from the big dining table, in that space between the kitchen and the living room. And she turns to me and says, “Doesn’t that chair look just like the Holy Family?”, as if it were the most natural thing in the world that a chair should bear any resemblance at all to the Holy Family. I tried to get her to elaborate, maybe point out which leg looked like the Virgin Mary, but she couldn’t be any more specific. It’s as if she’s seeing omens.”
“Tonight it was a rhinoceros. No, in the kitchen this time. I don’t know why you’re so amused; don’t even try to tell me you weren’t shaking like a little girl over the man in the closet.”
The evening was a witching time for Aunt Emma. She wandered and kvetched and growled some nights; on others she sank into a tearful depression. This odd sundowning began to take its toll on me. She and I both became nervous and apprehensive as the skies darkened and stars begin to twinkle and night rolled in. Some evenings we sat rigid in the living room, Emma in her own world and me in an agony of frayed nerves over the impending upset or vision that might not even occur.
I described all these things to Peggy as we stood in the yard, her with the paper and me hauling the garbage cans. She grew worried at my nervous laughter and shaking hands. “Emma, you need to get out,” she prescribed. “Let me sit with your aunt tonight while you do something. Get a massage or have your nails done” (I guiltily thrust my ragged fingers behind my back) “or do the shopping or something, but do something for yourself, without Aunt Emma.”
I murmured my acceptance of her offer and retreated inside, where I seethed as I watched her right a fallen flowerpot on her porch and establish herself in a rocker to read the paper in the crisp morning air. How easy it was for her to tell me to take care of myself! Even if I went out tonight, when I arrived home Emma would still be waiting for me. My going out would not solve the problem of Emma’s decline, nor would it fix what ailed her, nor would it stop the twilight madness. When I came back home everything would still be the same. My going out would solve nothing except to give me a slight taste of the carefree life of anyone who was not me. I resented Peggy for her easy life with her happy healthy family and loving husband. I resented Emma for the disease which required someone to wait on her hand and foot. I resented Grace for living with Martin and siphoning his time away from me. I resented Martin for his unconscionable good luck in finding a job that let him travel to exotic locales like Kansas City, where at this moment he was probably having intelligent conversation with polished and professional and non-needy women...
“Stop!” I ordered myself, clutching my arms and rocking a bit. “Stop it, Emma! Get a hold of yourself. You’re being stupid and you know it. Stop now.” But I moved through the afternoon with hot tears brimming and a tingling jittery ache radiating out to my fingertips and feet. I would snap at Emma even as I enjoined myself to resist such behavior. My agitation kindled her own, and she grew restless and angry, which, in turn, keyed me to a pitch of irritation hardly to be endured. By the time Peggy arrived late in the afternoon, I was barely fit to speak to her as I rushed out the door.
I drove aimlessly through Emma’s neighborhood, passing up and down the pleasant residential streets with their lacy covering of venerable branches starting to swell and burst with new foliage. My meandering route brought me around to the cemetery, and without questioning, I parked and passed through the flaking iron gates into the still peace of the abode of the dead. “Resquiescat in Pacem,” bid many of the gravestones, and indeed, I seemed to be the only unquiet soul walking amid the tombs and monuments to grief. I brushed the brittle lichen off the markers and studied the tiny memorials of heartbreak in the children’s section. I passed up a hill crowned by a vast and spreading tree, and at the summit looked down at the sun glinting off the steeple and arches of Our Lady of Lourdes.
Though I had had no firm intention of doing anything in my precious free time, my feet drew me to the heavy doors of the church and to the rear of the line of penitents awaiting their turn in the confessional. A woman intently studied a pamplet entitled “An Examination of Conscience for Mothers”, and a trio of older gentlemen carried on a quiet but spirited discussion of the impending baseball season, which seemed to vie for importance in their minds with the entire Triduum. A small knot of college students preparing to enter the Church at Easter clung to each other for moral support in the face of their first time in the confessional. I allowed myself to be pushed forward along the line until I was before the tripartite box with the ornately carved doors, the leftmost of which opened to emit one of the college students with a joyous, tear-stained face.
I had barely had the mental wherewithal to think of anything in the confession line, much less examine my conscience, and it was not until I found myself kneeling in the dark cubicle and being blessed by the priest on the other side of the screen that finally confronted the reality of the present moment. I took a deep breath and opened my mouth and spilled out all my failings of the past months, the jealousy and anger, the envy and bitterness, the petty grudges and spites. I enumerated the times I’d failed Emma and the ways in which I’d hurt Martin. I dredged back into my past and hauled up times I’d lashed out at Stacy or disobeyed my parents. And then I waited for the judgment to fall, braced against the consequences.
“The Lord has already forgiven you,” said the priest.
And when I emerged from the confessional with a joyous, tear-stained face and knelt with bowed head in the wash of jeweled light pouring through the stained glass window, my ridiculously simple penance of three Hail Marys , so little to offer the One against whom I had truly offended, became sufficient by the very merit of their inadequacy. They were not enough, but I offered them, in that present moment, with everything I had to give, and the peace I received in return was extravagantly out of proportion to my meager gift.
Aunt Emma was planted in her chair with her evening face on when I arrived home. Peggy greeted me with undue warmth as I walked in the door.
“Oh, Emma, I’m so glad to see you,” she said, with the slightest hint of hysteria in her voice. “She’s been saying the oddest things, stuff you wouldn’t normally pay any attention to, except that it’s as if she really sees something. I feel as nervous as a cat. Is she always like this anymore?”
“That’s how it is most nights,” I commiserated. “It can really wear on you.”
“I don’t know how you do it,” she said reverently as she gathered her coat and book. “I think I’d go crazy. You let me know the next time you need a night out, and I’ll make sure John is available to come over and sit here with me.”
“You’re too sweet, Peggy.”
At the door, she took my hand. “I’m serious, Emma. Please let me know if you need me to do anything for you. You’re so competent that I don’t always remember to offer help, but I’m always to give it.”
“I appreciate that, more than you know,” I said. “I think I’ve been trying to be too self-sufficient for too long.”
Even the promise of rain could not dampen my newly strengthened spirits the next morning. The morning was cool and cloudy and temperate -- the first true day of spring. Emma too seemed heartened by the change in weather. She consented to eat, to take her pills with no fuss, and to select her own outfit from the closet. We were going out.
Nurse Linda has expressed concern, at her last visit, with Emma’s increased moodiness and torpor. “This could be just the normal progression of the disease, of course,” she said, “but I think she needs to go in and have her medications evaluated. Maybe we can find a different dosage that will help keep her from these big emotional arcs and mini-depressions.”
“I hope so,” I replied, watching Emma shuffle sullenly around the living room with her book. “It’s painful to see her so unhappy.”
“I hope so,” I replied, watching Emma shuffle sullenly around the living room with her book. “It’s painful to see her so unhappy.”
It was more than the usual production to take Emma places anymore, since she had been prescribed her walker. It was apparently a standard-issue model, down to the tennis balls on the front feet, but it seemed less wieldy than the average beast. To fold it for travel took a combination of Rube-Goldbergesque maneuvers, none of which I ever mastered. Every time I set out to collapse the thing it was as if I was confronting it afresh. Emma, for her part, disdained the walker and avoided using it as much as possible. She preferred to travel under her own reduced speed.
Today was no different than usual. I pulled up to the curb at the doctor’s office and wrestled with the walker while she climbed out of the car and started for the door.
“Emma, wait a minute while I get your walker,” I commanded, but she shuffled doggedly on toward the door. Finally I abandoned the half-opened walker and hastened to take her elbow.
“Is it all right if I leave my aunt here for a moment while I park the car?” I asked the receptionist in the waiting room. Emma, safely in a chair, cast a benign eye on the fish tank, the reception station, and the magazines.
“Of course!” replied that lady, with professional cheer. “I’ll keep an eye on her.”
A light drizzle was starting to blow as I parked and hauled the walker with me back into the office. Emma, unbudged, reposed like an angel, cherubically turning the pages of a children’s activity book. The bright colors and simple illustrations pleased her, and she carried it back into the exam room with us.
The doctor and I discussed her strange new behaviors and her recent fall in front of her, as if she were a child, but there was no answering indignation or even interest on Emma’s part as she sat on the paper-covered exam table peering nearsightedly at an image of children ice skating on a small pond on a snowy day. He scrutinized her current prescriptions and asked questions as he checked her over.
“How’ve you been feeling, Emma?” he asked heartily.
“Howard ice skates,” she said, holding the magazine close to her nose.
“Does he? That’s great!” the doctor boomed. Emma paid him no mind, searching, perhaps, for Howard among the hooded and mittened children cutting figures on the frozen pond. “How’ve you been getting around? Okay?” he persisted.
“She hates the walker,” I told him.
“It does mean a certain loss of independence,” he conceded, “but especially with this recent fall I think it’s crucial that she use it any time she’s trying to get around. She was very fortunate not to have been injured the other night, but as the body gets older, even minor shocks to the system can have very serious effects.”
“I’ll do my best to make sure she’s using it,” I promised.
Emma touched the picture in the magazine gently as the doctor and I discussed different options for her new medication routine. He tapped the prescriptions into his computer. “We send ‘em right to the pharmacy for you,” he assured me. “You should be able to go right over and pick them up, and we can get her started on these today. Now you’ll want to call me if you start noticing any of these effects...” By the time we were ready to leave I was awkwardly clutching a sheaf of papers in one hand and guiding Emma’s walker with the other. To complicate the situation, Emma, previously so accommodating, had become attached to the children’s magazine and would not give it back.
“Here, Emma, let’s leave this for other people to look at!” I wheedled, trying to pry it from her fingers. She demurred and fussed and began to protest loudly.
“She can take it with her,” offered the receptionist, with professional cheer. “We’ve got plenty more.”
The drizzle persisted as we stepped out the door, and I looked with dismay at papers, Emma, purses, and walker. Out of the mists of time floated up a memory of my mother trying herd Stacy and I around a store when we were small and rousty. Someone had said to her, “My, you have your hands full!” Standing by the doors just out of the drizzle, I suddenly felt a surge of understanding for my mother wash over me. No wonder she had seemed hassled and frustrated so often, all those times we had thought she was overreacting to what seemed normal childish games. “You were right, Mom,” I acknowledged, shaking my head.
The solution seemed to be to leave Emma parked by door while I drove up to the curb again. After being given her way over the magazine, she was biddable again, and even chatty as we rode over to the pharmacy, commenting on the buildings, the people, and the scenery. Only once did she seem to rise out of her bland affability, on seeing a man with a dark suit and a hat darting out of the rain into a building. “There’s Howard,” she exclaimed, leaning toward the window and craning her neck to follow the figure.
“No, Aunt Emma, it can’t be Howard. He’s not around much anymore.”
“Where’d Howard go?” she asked, puzzled. “Where’s that man now?” And she continued to brood over the question as we pulled up to the pharmacy.
Urban’s is an institution, founded in a brick storefront nestled amid an assortment of small family-run businesses back when Milton Avenue was still a sleepy neighborhood lane. Even as the street grew to be a thoroughfare, and then a four-lane artery, the small historic district has maintained its plateglass charm, though the once broad sidewalks have been reduced down to strips that tuck comfortably under the striped awnings. Tourists and connoisseurs flock to Urban’s now to sit at the vintage soda counter and order phosphates and egg creams, but it is still a working pharmacy. Emma was a long-time customer of Urban’s, and the druggist and cashiers knew her well.
The rain had increased to a steady downpour, and I hoped we’d be able to find a parking space somewhere near the pharmacy so I wouldn’t have far to struggle with Emma and her walker . The street was busy today, however, and there were no gaps along the curb as we approached Urban’s. And then, a stroke of luck: a car backed into the street and pulled away, leaving a vacant meter directly in front of the big glass doors.
“Hang on, Emma!” I called cheerfully. “It’s time for some parallel parking action.”
I pulled up, flipped on my right turn signal, and waited for the irritated driver behind me to get a clue and move on. Then I began to maneuver the car back into the space.
The instructors in my high school driver’s ed class had presented parallel parking in very technical terms, thus producing a classroom full of navigational idiots, but I learned the proper technique on spring break junior year from a white-haired gent in New Orleans who observed from the sidewalk, plastic beer cup in hand, as I made several fruitless attempts to wedge an SUV full of coeds between two compacts on Amelia Street. Whether he took pity on my incompetence, or he just thought I was cute, I don’t know, but he taught me the trick of parallel parking, and I’ve used it to impress people ever since.
Parallel parking is a science first, but there’s a measure of art in the execution. First the car should be even with the car in front of the space. Then, before the driver starts reversing, the wheel needs to be cut all the way to the right. When the car is backed halfway into the space, the wheel needs to be cut all the way to the left. Once the nose is smoothly in, the wheel is straightened out, and the car is adjusted in the space.
“Piece of cake,” I bragged to Emma.
“That’s nice, honey,” she said, leafing through her magazine.
We were nestled nicely against the curb, and Emma would be able to exit the car right under the awning so she wouldn’t get wet. I patted her shoulder. "You stay here and look at the pictures while I get your walker set up."
"Howard ice skates," she said, finding the winter pond scene again.
"That's a good idea, Emma. You look for Howard.
Cars splashed past me, raindrops gleaming in their headlights, as I tried to wrangle the walker out of the trunk without scratching up the car behind me. Emma let herself out of the car and stood watching the street as I fought to unfold the recalcitrant thing. “I’ll have this in a second, Emma,” I promised as I tugged at a sticky latch.
“Okay, honey. That man is Howard,” she said.
“What do you mean, Emma?” I asked, glancing toward her. But she was gone, and before I could even call out for her, I heard an onrushing shriek of brakes and the soft and sickening thud of impact.