Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Memories, Hers and Mine

This morning, while applying lip balm to Bea’s mouth, dry from two hours of non-stop conversation (3 to 5 am), I remember how she used to favor bright red lipstick. As a child, I would enjoy her gradual smile of satisfaction as she outlined lips in front of the mirror, then pressed them together on a tissue.

Another reason for dry lips is refusal of fluids. She balks at Ensure and I cannot blame her. Orange juice solicits a frown. We try grape and cranberry. No go. Concerned about dehydration, I offer Coke. She takes two gulps, then out the straw pops. That’s when I remember how Bea would administer Coke as medicine for upset stomach, spoonful by spoonful, a worried look in her eyes. Funny how memories creep up on the caregiver of an elderly parent …

Lisa finds me in the kitchen, slapping together a salmon salad sandwich for my hungry mother who sits straight up in bed, waiting expectantly. She receives her half with two hands and takes a large bite. Lisa offers milk. Bea drinks the glass down.

I ask where she met my godmother, Nancy Macdonald, and Bea treats us to some memories of her own:

“It was in Josselyn, freshman year. There were benches in the dining hall. There was a place empty at the table. I noticed she was wearing a beautiful crystal necklace. I thought this girl is somebody I would want to know more about. She moved over and let me sit down, and so began the best friendship of my whole life.”

Bea's mind is obviously sharp today, so I ask more questions, this time about life after Vassar:

"Did you attend Nancy’s wedding?"

“Oh, yes!” Bea says with a happy smile.

“Do you know how Nancy met Dwight?”

“Through her brother, Seldon, I presume.”

“Seldon was very handsome,” I whisper to Lisa.

“Did you dance with Seldon at the wedding?” she wants to know.

“Oh, did I dance! I had a dental appointment with my uncle, who was a dentist. Angelo. I finally got to the dentist and he told me if I was that late again I’d have to get somebody else instead … I was late because of the wedding.”

“What did the bride wear?” Lisa asks.

“Nancy wore the prettiest dress, white with light white fuzzy sleeves.”

I give Lisa a quick summary of Nancy’s life – wife to Dwight, mother to Nick and Mike, angel to Partisan Review, moving force behind Spanish Refugee Aid – and produce a photo from the Vassarian, and another from the jacket of Nancy’s book, Homage to the Spanish Exiles, Voices from the Spanish Civil War.

“Oh, look!” says Lisa. “She’s wearing a necklace in this one, too.”

“I went where she went in the summer because I wanted to be where she was.” Bea says simply, as if to do otherwise would have been foolhardy.

“And where was that?” asks Lisa.

“Wellfleet!”

I find a letter Nancy wrote Bea after the marriage, right before moving into a new apartment with Dwight. Sick in bed, swaddled in flax seed poultices, Nancy writes, “I’m glad our friendship means something to you and hope we will develop and make something more of it this winter. But, above all, let’s be honest with each other. That’s the most permanent and valid thing in life. The mistakes don’t matter as long as one understands and admits them …”

Their friendship lasted 67 years. Once Parkinson’s turned feisty Nancy into an invalid, Bea organized hospice care during the summer months and went to sit by her bedside twice a week.

After I leave the room, Bea confides how sad she was when Nancy died. Indeed, surely the hardest part of extreme old age is seeing dear friends depart this world, one by one …

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