I visited my favorite curmudgeon yesterday afternoon, clad in my new glasses, bearing Penuche fudge from Laura Little's candy shop. He likes that fudge. His preference always led me to buy two pounds, back in the day when I brought the little white boxes to his wife, at the Sweet Life, during her final months. Now I come with a pound of Penuche which the girls at Laura Little's cut in thirds, nestling each piece in a little paper cup like a delicate flower. I brought a bag of freshly-roasted cashews, too. We talked about his cancer and I rearranged his room to be more comfortable. Before I left, I held him in my embrace. I love that man.
As I passed through the lobby of the facility where Jay lives, I stopped to speak to a man with whom I have exchanged pleasantries on prior occasions. A nurse stood by him, holding a small water cup. I bade him good evening. He protested, mildly, a bit mockingly. Not a good day with her making me take these pills, he told me. I smiled at him encouragingly, then made my way to the car. As I did, I suddenly remembered my last visit to my aunt Della, who lives in a similar facility in Illinois. I haven't seen her for six years, and my neglect of her has weighed heavily on my mind in recent months, as I make my way to visit my father-in-law two or three times a week, and visit my mother-in-law's grave with her favorite roses.
My son and I navigated the streets of the suburbs south of Chicago, in October of 2008, when we were on our college tour. We had been told to look for an angular street at the end of which we would find the nursing home. We didn't have a GPS, we hadn't been there, we weren't familiar with the town. We came upon the place almost by accident. We parked and went inside where an attendant showed us how to get to Della Mae's floor.
She recognized Patrick. We had been frequent visitors to her home for most of his life, and in fact had been present the weekend of her first strokes. Patrick had been ten that year; or maybe eleven. He'd spent many days in Della's driveway, playing with his cousin Jacob, with the little boys, Tyler, and Colin, and Kyle. They'd hauled out the army guys which had belonged to Della's sons Adam and Richard and played fort in her living room. Now he stood five-ten at 17; but Aunt Della, even in her foggy state, knew him. He bent down and she put her arms around him and said, Oh Patrick, you came to see me.
But she did not know who I was. More to the point: She saw me as my mother. She called me "Lucy" and talked about our Daddy, gushing out a long garbled story that I did not understand. I smiled, and nodded, and all the while fretted over getting her downstairs and out onto the visitors' patio, where I thought she might enjoy sitting in the autumn air.
But a cloud covered the sun and Aunt Della lasted only ten or fifteen minutes before she began to squirm under the jacket that Patrick shed to drape over her shoulders. My hopes of an afternoon of outdoor visiting vanished, swept away by an unanticipated wind. We took her back inside and sat in the lounge instead, with other residents wheeling themselves into the area to engage us with varying levels of coherence during our visit.
My aunt had been a vibrant, eccentric woman for all the time I'd known her. She raised three children in the southern suburb of Tinley Park, in a split-level house with its mortgage and one-car garage. She was a good wife, I think; but the marriage had its troubles. She held her tongue until the children all left home and then divorced her husband in a noisy, determined manner which scandalized my mother's family. She went back to school at 45, got a degree, and opened a therapy practice, working with victims of domestic violence and also with abusers. She saw clients in her home and taught a communications class at a local college. I adored her.
In the nursing home, that day, she talked about her husband Richard as though they had never parted. She assured me that he would be coming for her any moment; that he shared her room; that he ate dinner with her every night. She teased the men passing in the hallways, telling me that one was her boyfriend. She cackled, and blushed, and hid behind her hand. My son spoke to her in gentle tones and I stood helplessly by, trying to see my vibrant aunt inside the aging, disoriented woman before me.
I remembered one visit that Patrick, my second husband Dennis, and I had made to Della. We took her to a restaurant that she particularly liked. The waiter took a long time coming to our table. Dennis fretted, wanting attention, wanting to place his order, wanting to be noticed. Della took a paper napkin, speared it on a straw, and waived it above her head saying, Yoo hoo! Yoo hoo! Waiter Person! Dennis really needs some coffee! Even Dennis laughed.
The fullness of time pulls us forward. My father-in-law's cancer will claim him; and my sorrow will seem unreasonable to some but will clutch my heart and pull me into a slump from which only the knowledge of his personal tenacity will pull me. I watch the seasons change. I clean out my closets and my cupboards. I turn the pages of the calendar and think about my aunt Della Mae, wondering if she would know me after more than half a decade, even know me as her sister. I would not mind that now. I would answer as a sister, as my mother. I have grown accustomed to the changes which take me down the path that the women of my family trod before me. I see them in the mirror every morning, in my eyebrows, in the slant of my cheek and the curve of my smile. They watch from the blue of my eyes with the brown of theirs. They guide my step, at four o'clock each day, to the room where my favorite curmudgeon lives. They do not mind my visiting his Joanna's grave instead of theirs. They gave me the love that I now give to others, and they rest easy, both the living and the dead, with the comfortable knowledge of their legacy.