I've realized that although the sort of descriptive writing I've done for six years now on the blog comes with a modicum of ease now, my weakness as a fiction writer (besides not having a true plot yet) is that I don't have great facility with dialogue, and that's been dragging me down both story-wise and in terms of word count. So, as an exercise, here's a section that I set out to write almost completely in dialogue.
Nurse Linda came out to greet me as I pulled into Great-Aunt Emma’s driveway, and started in immediately to brief me.
“Let’s get you set up while Emma’s napping. She’s doing well today,” she said as we hauled my suitcases from my car. “Some days are worse than others. She gets frustrated when she can’t remember, and it makes her angry, but then she has clearer windows when she’ll be very sharp. She has the most vivid memories, but I don’t think she knows who I am from week to week.”
“Will she remember me?” I asked.
Linda shrugged. “Hard to say. If you tell her who you are, she may. Or she may talk to you as if you were a child, or your mother, or grandmother. You’ll probably learn lots of new family stories, and then you’ll hear them again, and again.” Linda shook her head, as if to clear her head of the stock of family stories she’d heard in iterations and variations from patients in her years of practice.
The house seemed smaller and dingier than I remembered it. The furniture still occupied the same spots and the wide metal blinds still cast the usual shadows across the green carpet, but instead of the former expansive and easy ambiance, a stale claustrophobic chill had settled over the rooms despite the warmth of late August. I brushed off a shiver and headed down the hallway to dump my bags in the guest room.
This, too, was smaller and shabbier than I had expected it to be. “Everything’s so… different,” I said to Linda, who was wrestling a suitcase through the doorway. “This room… When I was little, I would come and sit in the chair and imagine that I was a queen and this was my royal bedroom. I used to pretend that the curtains were my royal cape, and I would wrap myself up and refuse to pay any attention to my sister unless she addressed me as ‘Your Mellifluous Highness’.” Linda smiled indulgently, and I felt a pang of embarrassment at contributing one more dull story to her bulging collection.
“It’s still a lovely house,” she said, professionally reassuring. “I’m so glad someone will be here with Emma. The house wants someone to live in it. Here, come come to the kitchen and I’ll show you her medication schedule. Everything is in a weekly pill box – you just have to remember to fill it up each Saturday night with the right combination of pills. I hope that won’t interfere with your weekend party schedule.”
“You lead the quiet life? Well, that’s nice. It’s pretty calm here most of the time. What will you do during the day?”
“I’m supposed to start cataloging her books and things and clean up the place against the day she needs to go into a nursing home.”
“Well, you’ll have a job of it. All those books!”
Linda pulled open the fridge and we surveyed the sparse contents.
“I know it looks pretty barren, but she doesn’t eat that much, and you have to catch her in the mood or she’ll wander away from her meal. She can be picky about what she eats, or get upset later if her uneaten dinner is thrown out, and she won’t remember that you tried to get her to eat, and she refused. There’s cheese in the drawer, and various snacks and things in the pantry: crackers, bread, fruit snacks, protein shakes. Those jars are her coffee.”
“Her coffee! What do you mean?”
“Oh, you’ll learn the coffee soon enough. She’s not supposed to drink caffeine, so she created this whole Rube Goldberg system of brewing a pot and diluting it down several times. She still gets the coffee taste, and it saves money. There aren’t many things that stick in her memory, but don’t mess with the coffee – that she doesn’t forget. Are you all right?”
“I’m sorry. I… I just remember this fridge being so full of the most wonderful snacks and fresh vegetables and wine and… oh, all the things she liked most.”
“Have you visited much with her recently?”
“No,” I admitted, ashamed. “I just graduated from college. I really haven’t seen her in those four years, and I haven’t been to this house for even longer. I used to come every once in a while and stay here for a week at a time when I was a kid, but everything seems changed.”
“You’ll find Emma changed too, then. She’s not generally unhappy, though I wouldn’t recommend that you miss any days giving her her anti-depressants. But she doesn’t always know where she is or who she’s talking to, and she’s easily confused. She’ll say or do unreasonable things that will frustrate you. Don’t get upset with her or try and argue with her – it only agitates her more. Often she can be distracted by an old memory or song. She loves to sing.”
“She always did. She wasn’t very tuneful, but she had a strong voice.”
“Now, the TV. She loves it, but occasionally she will fuss at the people on screen or think they’re old friends or relatives. Changing the channel will generally distract her in that case. Sports are great – she loves golf.”
“Aunt Emma likes sports?”
“She likes sports on TV, anyway.”
I wandered through the kitchen, brushing counters, poking my nose in cabinets, opening drawers. “What on earth does she need with so much string? There must be miles in here. Where does she get it?”
“She’s had it. It comforts her to make shapes with the string. She’ll lay a piece out on the table and poke it into a square or a big squiggle.”
“It sounds so childish.”
“You’ll find that in many ways, dealing with Emma is like dealing with a toddler.”
“I might be in trouble then. I’ve never dealt with a toddler.”
“Did you never babysit?” Linda’s hint of surprise was the first time her easy professional manner had slipped. “Watching children is great life experience.”
“I guess living with Emma will be my life experience.”
“I guess it will.”
The bathroom, formerly so spacious, was now cluttered with medical paraphernalia.
“This is her booster seat for the toilet, so she doesn’t have so far to bend. She’ll want to hold that bar getting in and out of the tub. There’s always a danger of slipping at this age.”
“Do I need to give her a bath?”
“No, but you can run the water in the tub for her and get everything ready. And it would be wise to leave the door open a crack so you can hear what goes on. You never know. She rinses out her dentures in this cup, and she’s pretty good about handling that herself. And you’ll find the adult diapers in the big cabinet there.”
I sat heavily on the edge of the tub. “Dentures? Diapers?”
Linda looked at me curiously. “It’s all part of getting older. It won’t seem so strange in a few days.”
“My parents never mentioned any of this. They gave me the very strong impression that all I needed to do was some light cooking and laundry and make sure that Aunt Emma doesn’t wander off. This is… this is healthcare.”
“Yes, it is,” said Linda bracingly. “This is what Emma needs, right now. She needs healthcare, and mental care, and loving care. That’s what people need in old age, and any age. That’s what family is for. Can you do that?”
“Yes. Yes, of course, I’ll try. But I wasn’t prepared.” I hunched helplessly on the edge of the tub and appealed up to her. “I don’t think I’ve ever done anything useful in my life.”
She regarded me with a mixture of sympathy and faint derision. “Then now is a good time to start.” She turned to leave the bathroom. “Do your best and you’ll do fine. Don’t get discouraged already – you haven’t even dealt with Emma yet.”
Linda had walked me through the house and was now spreading papers on the kitchen table, going over last important details with me, when Emma finally emerged from her room. We could hear her in the hall, muttering and humming.
“She sounds happy,” I said, rising from my chair. As soon as the words were out of my mouth, there was a loud metallic clank. Linda, as mystified as I was, stepped into the hall, and I followed on her heels.
Emma was holding the remote control to the television in her hand, and was trying to fit it into one of the sconces in the hall.
“I’ve got to get this thing working,” she explained to Linda. “Look!” And she pressed some buttons. “Now what do you think of that? They make these things, but it won’t go.” And again she tucked it up in the sconce, but the remote stubbornly refused to stay in place.
“It’s the remote for the TV, Emma,” said Linda cheerfully. “It goes in the living room. Let’s put it on the TV.”
“They make these things,” repeated Emma conversationally. “You’d think they’d get some better things now.” Having failed to insert the remote into the fixture, she carefully balanced it against the wall behind the sconce and passed serenely into the den. Linda and I followed. She picked up the remote and deposited it on the television set.
“Emma,” said Linda, “I’m putting your remote on the top of the TV, okay?”
“Okay!” she agreed, settling on the green brocade couch and tucking her pillow behind her back. Then, confidentially to me, she added, “We’ll look at TV later on. They just talk all the time. Do you watch TV, honey?”
I sat beside her. “I do, sometimes.” I had thought I was unprepared for the challenges of caring for Emma, but that was nothing compared to the shock of seeing her after so long.
Her hair, formerly a shade she used to call “dyed in the red”, had become white and thin, though it was neatly trimmed. The thin mottled translucent skin of her hands hung loosely over a web of blue veins and gnarled bones. Once her eyes had been a bright and vivid green, but now they were milky.
Considering the devastation that age had wrought, she was remarkably cheerful. Her thoughts were full of the television, and she told me in great confidence that all those gals on TV ever did was talk, can you believe that?
“Great-Aunt Emma,” I said, gently, bravely. “It’s me, Emma. I’m going to stay here with you for a while.”
She was delighted. “Well, come on in!” she cried. “Put your feet up! I’m glad to see you, honey.” She patted the cushion next to her, and I scooted closer. She took my hand and squeezed it
“I’m glad to see you, too, Aunt Emma,” I choked.
“And this one’s here too,” she chirped, indicating Linda with a nod. “So that’s two of you. When everyone else gets here, we’ll have some grand times.”
“No, it’s just me, Aunt Emma,” I said. “I’m going to stay here, with you, for a while.”
She was delighted. “Well come on in!” she cried.
“I’m going to stay with you,” I persevered, “and help you sort your books and clean up…”
“Sort my books,” repeated Emma, and then, louder, “My books. Selling my books again. Always sneaking behind my back, selling my books. I know! Do you think I don’t know my books?” Her voice rose and quavered, and her eyes flashed. She drew herself up from the couch in agitation and began to pace fretfully.
“Oh, Aunt Emma, no! No one’s taking your books away!” I crossed to her and, unsure what would be the most non-acquisitive gesture, awkwardly put my hand on her arm. She batted it away.
“She’s eating my books. She’s drinking my books,” she moaned, and then, in sudden rage,
“You get your own money! You get your own life!”
Helplessly, I appealed to Linda.
“Emma, come with me,” Linda directed, taking her elbow in a firm yet gentle grasp, and steering her back to the couch. She sat on the ottoman across from Emma and resettled her with her pillows. “Emma,” she said again, in light, distinct tones, “this is your great-niece Emma, Francine’s granddaughter. You know Emma. She’s the little one who ran in during Thanksgiving dinner and said that she pooped like a princess, don’t you remember?”
I yelped involuntarily, but the cloud passed away from Emma’s face, and her eye brightened with a sudden wicked focus.
“The chamberpot is the great equalizer,” she recited, in the same dry tone in which I’d heard her tell the story so many times. “Your mother could have killed me for laughing so much about it, because then you kept repeating that same trick for a month. And Stacy was so embarrassed that she hid down in her chair under the tablecloth and wouldn’t come out until I gave her two quarters. Stacy was always a mercenary brat, but you were a sweet little thing.”
I had often felt that way myself about Stacy, but my pleasure at finding an ally against my sister was threatened by the mingled embarrassment and relief pounding in my ears. For a moment the old Aunt Emma had gazed out through a rent in the thick and dusty curtain that seemed to envelop her.