Joan Didion once wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” and I believe this is true. I don’t know how to write this particular story but I feel compelled to share it.
Tragedies that make the evening news occur every day. Someone gets shot in a movie theater or at a school. Tornadoes tear through towns, floods wipe out neighborhoods. There are accidents on highways and dark country roads.
Late Monday afternoon, I found myself laying by my mother’s side on a bed in my aunt’s condo. Sunday afternoon the townhouse next to my parents’ place caught fire and spread to their unit via the roof. They made it out safely but their home is destroyed from smoke and water damage so they are currently staying at my aunt’s place just across the parking lot, while she is vacationing in Florida.
My parents have been struggling with illness and aging for quite some time now. I have only occasionally written about my mother’s Alzheimer’s. It is difficult and hard to share a private, personal story. Over the last few months, as often as I can, I make the two and a half hour trip to Rhode Island from the inn where I work and live in the remote northwest corner of Connecticut. Like many people, my siblings and I juggle demanding jobs, parent our own kids, and try to help our elderly parents when we can, but the brunt of much of this falls on my sister who lives close by.
My mother is disorientated. She wants to go home. She doesn’t understand why she can’t sleep in her own bed. Last night she stayed at my sister’s house and today she is here, and she is tired and upset.
My Dad went to Walmart to buy some essential things — underwear, T-shirts, a couple of sweaters, and a nightgown for my mother. It is a soft purple fleece and she is covering herself with it like a blanket. She wants it to cover her feet but each time she sits up it falls out of place. I tell her to lay still and I will fix it. She also wants the sleeves to fold over her chest but then decides she would like the sleeves tucked beneath her back. We continue to arrange the nightgown for quite some time. I straighten it out, making sure there are no wrinkles. I tell her it is nice and neat, “no wrinkles, it looks perfect.” She keeps telling me her house is spotless. “Nice and clean. Not perfect, but almost perfect.”
“Your house is always perfect,” I tell her.
“I work very hard,” she says. “I clean all day. For hours and hours.”
“I know you do.”
“You’ve been to my house?”
“Yes, many times. You decorated it very nicely. And it’s very clean. Spotless.”
“This isn’t my house. I want to go home. I’m tired.”
She knows something is wrong with her house and is worried it may be dirty. It is actually very dirty. The floors and carpets are covered in black muck from the roof and the insulation. It was heartbreaking to see and although my father didn’t bring her back there today she knows something is very wrong, but she isn’t sure what.
I hold her hand and show her pictures of my daughters, her granddaughters, on my IPhone. “I have four daughters,” she tells me. “They all live in New York.” She has three daughters and one son, and none of us live in New York, but I don’t correct her.
“You like New York, don’t you? Do you remember when you were little and spent the summers there with your Aunt Jeanette?”
“Oh, you know Jeanette?“ she asks.
“Yes, I do. I didn’t know her husband Pete, but I know you used to ride with him on his tugboat on the Hudson River.”
She nods and points to a picture on the wall. It is a reproduction of the famous painting Pinkie by Thomas Lawrence, a woman in a flowing white dress wearing a pink bonnet with long pink ribbons.
“I painted that picture.”
My mother used to paint. I have a picture she painted of a red sleigh crossing a snowy field beneath a mountain. It depicts the sleigh ride my husband and I took after we got married in Lake Louise. I am worried about her paintings in the townhouse but my younger sister is over there now trying to salvage the old photos and the paintings, the priceless things that have no real value but are priceless nonetheless.
“That’s beautiful,” I tell her.
“She’s a friend of mine,” she says.
My father has been offered five days of respite. Hospice has been available to him for over a month now. My mother eats very little, she insists her doctor has told her she can’t eat food anymore. She weighs eighty-four pounds. This is considered an end stage symptom of Alzheimer’s, which makes her eligible for hospice care.
Tuesday morning my younger daughter offers to come with me to pick up my parents and drive my Mom to the hospice home where she will be “taking a little vacation”, my father tells her. She isn’t paying attention, she has no idea where we are going.
The place is lovely. We walk her to her room where they already have her name on the door. She sits in the chair by the bed and talks to the nurse about her house which is spotless. “Your house is clean, too,” she tells the nurse, looking around the room, checking for dirt and dust.
We kiss her before leaving the room. I tell the nurse she should be prepared for some serious separation anxiety. My Dad has to have a procedure on Wednesday to check on the bladder cancer he’s been diagnosed with. He has insurance to deal with, and he needs to find a place to live for the next six months or more. He has a lot on his plate. I reassure him it’s okay not to visit during this five day respite. It will just set my mother back. My sister and my aunt will come.
We drive my Dad back to my aunt’s place. Although overwhelmed and sad, it appears a huge weight has been lifted off his shoulders. He has been trying to do the impossible for four years now and finally he has some help.
After I drop my daughter off at her apartment, I begin the drive from her ethnic, urban Italian neighborhood in Providence to the quintessential New England town in the southern hills of the Appalachian mountain range where I live and work at the inn. In between, I pass through rural farmland and old mills in northwest Rhode Island and eastern Connecticut where the blown-out windows of abandoned factories are wide open to the elements, just like the roof at my parent’s townhouse.
Unemployment, lack of opportunity, and heroin addiction are the problems facing a lot of people who live here. From the poor neighborhoods outside of Hartford with their boarded up buildings, pawn shops, Jamaican bakeries, and convenience stores that accept EBT to the wealthy enclaves of West Hartford where people shop at Whole Foods, I get a snapshot of income inequality in twenty-first century America.
I think about whether or not I should tell this story and if I do, how will I write it and why would I write it. I don’t have a large following and I don’t sell a lot of books. I’m a small voice in a loud, brash world where outrageous behavior attracts attention, money talks, and the right connections open doors. Will anyone be listening? Does anyone care?
I lean toward slice of life stories with anecdotes about daily life. I often see the personal through a universal lens. On the road home from Providence I begin to think about the definition of providence, which is the foreseeing care and guidance of God or nature over the creatures of the earth. In a Google search of definitions I also find this: “your circumstances or condition in life (including everything that happens to you); “whatever my fortune may be”; “deserved a better fate”; “has a happy lot”; “the luck of the Irish”; “a victim of circumstances”; “success that was her portion”.
I think about the ‘heterogenous mass’ as Walt Whitman called the ‘many in one’. My story is the story of one daughter, one family, touched by an unexpected tragedy that made the evening news, but it is also the story of the human condition and how we all have more in common with each other than not, and I suppose that is the calling to write. To share the stories, to help each other through the hard times without feeling so alone.