E.'s body is not really cooperating with her plan to live out her days independently. She has all her marbles. So that is good. But some kind of Parkinson-ian condition makes it hard for E. to do much for herself. She needs help to move from her chair, where she needs a walker to assist her with more help to get into her wheel chair. Her legs are still working enough to stand and shuffle but E. wobbles in a scary way. At least, I find it scary. I am terrified that I might be the one to drop her. She will not bounce. I dread when E. needs the commode because it is necessary for me to wipe her. The act itself is fine; as the mother of four I still wipe butts with aplomb. But it is so scary when I need more wipes and I only have a light touch on E.'s back as I grope frantically behind me for the wipes, tissues, Vaseline or whatever I should have located before starting the process. I can see how one slip caused by my carelessness might be the start of the bitter end of my mother-in-law's life. And that thought makes me seriously nervous.
However, when I am with my mo-in-law I do think about the inevitable. I am pretty sure that she does too. I have a strong sense that there is something undone, some task she aims to accomplish. No one cares for themselves and eats with the appetite she does when they are resigned or have been consigned to 'shuffle off this mortal coil'. My guess is that she aims to live to be 100. One deep loss after another was her lot for most of her life. She has borne it all with quiet pluck and stoic resolve. I sense a determination in her that is like stainless steel; it's just that the package that holds her spirit is very worn down.
Nonagenarian #2 As I was heading into to Boston, I took one more look at the sky and then turned on a dime and went instead to visit a neighbor who lives only a few blocks away. My friend's mom is 91 years old and her husband of 70 years just died the end of this January. He was a lovely guy and as a couple they were always kind and had befriended to me as a teenager. The seemed to take interest in my life and always listened as if I had something worthwhile to say. It meant a lot to me to have some sane adults in my life and they were the first people to ever buy a piece of art from me. When I put together my portfolio for art school they wanted to see it and then bought and framed a dry point etching of mine. They said it reminded them of Kathe Kollwitz. This was an act of extreme kindness and meant a lot to me.
Ever since the non observant shiva/reception they had in early February I had been meaning to stop by and say hello but had never found time. Nowadays I live in the same town where I went to high school and S. was our next door neighbor then and is also the mother of a dear friend. Since I enjoy her company - it was not an avoidance thing. Actually I felt pretty bad about how much time had passed.
At 91 and a few months, S. is very different from my mother-in-law. Much to her grown children's chagrin, S. smokes Marlboro's - actually she chain smokes them. My mother-in-law never smoked. And S. is quite capable of wiping her own butt. S. is always very glad to see me and has a style of conversation that is part interrogation, part rant that I find very entertaining. She loves to tell stories and is a good storyteller. She also is frail and has trouble getting up from any seat because of her 'weak knees'. She told me a story about that,
S. is Jewish and she paused to give me a sharp look and then asked me if I was a religious person. When I say no she said,"At the senior center I saw woman struggling like me. So I said this woman trying to get out of her chair, "I have the same problem. So I vocalize, It helps- I say 'O God,' and sometimes, I even say 'O, Jesus'. "
Then S. launched onto a topic I had heard from her before, especially when her husband was dying."Oh, good! Because I thought I had offended this other woman with bad knees by being sacrilegious because she said to me 'I never say that!' And I said " You never say anything like that ? And she said " Never ! I say Oy, sh*t!"
Ah, yes. She sees and names the inevitable. And she is not afraid to say she does not like it. Like my mo-in-law, S. intends to be here, on the planet, until she is 'evicted'. I find her feisty foibles charming. Perhaps it is her New York City accent and the fact that she looks a bit like my own mother? They were of the same generation. Whatever it is, since I am not responsible for S. I can simply enjoy her stories and accept her as she is. As is often the case, I was not nearly so kind to my own mother."Although I am an atheist I spend a lot of time arguing with 'god' or whoever thought up this crazy system called life. We are all born under a sentence of death. It is not right! We never know when or how, we will die just that it will be. It is unfair and wrong!" Then she sighed and said more philosophically " Well, that's life."
After S. told me how she actually felt worse, missed her husband more and was more lonely after 6 months had passed, she shivered and then, literally shook off her sadness and got busy making tea. We played Scrabble at her kitchen table and she won by 50 points. I am going back for a rematch. And more stories.
It was a good day for someone like me, so far from my nonage, to hang with nonagenarians. And S.'s quarrel with death reminded me of this story:
Tía Miseria, Aunt Misery
by Olga Loya
Momentos Mágicos, Magic Moments Arkansas, August House Publishers, Inc., I997
Once there was an old woman known only to the people as Tía Miseria, Aunt Misery. She lived outside a small village. Tía Miseria was poor but happy. She had a garden with large vegetables, two big chickens, and most of all, she had her pear tree. Oh, how she loved her pear tree! She would pick a pear and feel its smooth form. When she would bite into the pear, she’d sigh and say, “Ah, how delicious, how marvelous, how sweet!”Tía Miseria was a proud woman who walked through the village with her back straight and her hair pulled back in a bun. Although she was very old, her skin was smooth except for a few wrinkles around her eyes. But Tía Miseria had a problem with the children in the neighborhood. These children were the great-grandchildren of the ones who had named her Tía Miseria. Indeed, her life had been miserable for a long time. The children would run right through her garden, step on all of her vegetables, and taunt, “Tía, Tía, Tía Miseria.” They would climb her tree, pick some pears, and bite into them. With the juice running down the sides of their mouths, they would say, “Tía, Tía, Tía Miseria.” Poor Tía would get very upset. She would go under the tree and say to them, “Come down from my tree right now!”But the children would just look down at her and laugh: “Tía, Tía, Tía Miseria!”Only when the children were good and ready would they climb down the tree. Then they would run through the garden calling out, “Tía, Tía, Tía Miseria!” Poor Tía! She had to replant her garden because the children had stepped on everything. Then she had to go look for the chickens in the bushes because the children frightened them so much. Worst of all, they were eating up her sweet, delicious pears.One night as she was cooking supper, she heard a knock at the door. When she went to see who it was, there stood a short, thin man with friendly brown eyes. He wore a straw hat. “Can I please stay the night?” the man inquired. ‘‘It is so cold outside!”“Of course,” said Tía Miseria. “Come in, come in.”Tía served him a fine meal of rice, beans, and codfish. In the morning the man said, “Tía, I am a magician, and because you have been so generous, I will give you a wish.”“A wish—let’s see, what can I do? Maybe I will wish for silver; no, maybe I will wish for gold.” Then she stopped and smiled a very big smile. “I know what I want. Once someone is up my tree, they can’t come down until I say the magical words.”“Fine,” said the magician. He said goodbye and went walking down the road.That day the children came to the house. As usual, they ran through the garden taunting, “Tía, Tía, Tía Miseria!” They climbed the tree and picked some pears. They bit into the pears and then threw the uneaten portions at the cats and chickens. They threw the pears all over the garden. But Tía did not react as she usually did. Instead of standing under the tree and yelling at them, she went into the kitchen and brought out a cup of coffee. She stood on the porch and drank her coffee with a big smile on her face. The children knew something was very wrong. She never acted like this. So they did the one thing they knew would make her mad.
They said, “Tía, Tía, Tía Miseria!”
But she just smiled and sipped her coffee and said, “Children, come down from the tree.”
“No, we are not ready,” they replied. Finally the children were ready to come down from the pear tree. But as they tried to climb down, they found they couldn’t. The magic spell was working.
“Tía, Tía, please, let us down,” the children cried out to her. “It is very late.”
Tía sipped her coffee, looked at the children, smiled, and said, “No!”
“Please!” they called out to her again. “Let us down! It is getting late!”
Tía was enjoying this very much. She looked at the children, took a sip of her coffee, smiled, and said, “No!” Oh, the children cried, begged, and pleaded. Finally Tía went under the tree and said, “If I let you out of that tree, will you promise me never to come back?”
The children responded immediately, “Sí, yes.”
So she said her magic words, “Come down, come down, come down from my tree.”
The children came down the tree as fast as they could. They ran around the garden instead of through it, and they did not return. Now Tía was very happy. Her garden was quiet, her chickens were safe, and now she had her precious pear tree to herself.
One afternoon, when she was cooking supper and thinking about what had happened, she heard a knock at the door. She thought, Oh, my friend has returned. She went to the door. A man stood there, but he was not her friend. He was a tall, thin man, and when he looked into her eyes, she felt as though she were falling into a deep, dark hole. She felt a shiver come over her body and she stepped back. The man moved toward her. He looked her in the eyes and said, “I am Death, and I have come for you!”
Tía Miseria thought quickly. “Well,” she sighed, “I knew you were going to come. Before we go, though, can we pick some pears to take with us?”
“No, no,” said Death. “I have a long list of people I have to get tonight. I don’t have time!”
But Tía continued to talk about her pears, how wonderful and delicious they were to eat. Finally Death could see he wasn’t ever going to get out of there unless he yielded. “Go and pick some pears,” he said. “I want to leave.”
“Me?” Tía said. “I am a little old lady. Look at you. You are tall and young—and besides, you look like you could use a pear or two.”
Death was so exasperated that he said, “Fine. I will pick some pears.” So he climbed the tree and picked some pears. He picked a few here and a few there, and then he was ready to climb down. But he could not go anywhere. He was caught in the magician’s spell! Oh, he called her the most terrible things you have ever heard—and probably some other things you have never heard.
“Old lady, let me down now!” But she did not obey. She just said to him, “Throw me a pear, please.”
She left him in the tree for a day, a week, a month, a year! Finally the village priest came to her. “Please let him down,” he pled. “No one is coming to church because they know they are not going to die!” Tía just shrugged her shoulders. Then the undertaker came by. “Please let him down,” he said. “I have no work and my children are hungry.” Tía looked at the undertaker and said, “Get a new job!"
Finally, her very oldest friend came and spoke in a slow, halting voice. “Please ... let him down. I am very tired and I want to go ... Everything hurts me. Please ... I want to die.” Tía could not refuse the request of her oldest friend. She went under the tree and said to Death, “If I let you down, will you promise never to return for me?”
Yes, yes,” Death replied. He was tired of being in that pear tree. She said the magic words, “Come down, come down, come down from my tree.”
Death came down, leaned over her old friend, gently, swooped her up in his arms, and went running down the road. Death did keep his promise. So Tía lives on and on. And that’s why some say that as long as Death keeps his promise, there will be misery in this world.