Thursday, August 31, 2006

Bea Says the Darnedest Things

I always enjoy the searches that lead readers to Bea’s Bedside. Here are some of the most recent:

• Worn out by non-stop talking of elderly parent
• Lift bedridden
• Where can I buy a bed-jacket for an elderly person who is bedridden?
• How to change brief bedridden
• Elderly people
• Remembering happy times

I like the idea that this last search produced Bea’s blog from all the millions out there. An elderly bedridden person often recalls the past. Fortunately Bea seems to focus in on happy times. Her mind is frequently back in childhood.

I have also noticed that Bea's inner-censor has gone offline. This situation makes her say the darnedest things. Among the more recent:

• “I want to go to sleep. I want to sleep until spring.”
• "The pee has a mind of its own."

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

When an Elderly Person Has Hallucinations - The Magic Ceiling

Bea sometimes talks to people I cannot see. She also has visions. Is this normal behavior?

“See them?” she asks, pointing a shaky finger at the right-hand corner of her room. “I know I shouldn’t point, but I want you to know where they are.”


“The two gentlemen I was talking to.”

“I’m afraid I can’t see them.”

“I didn’t know you were partly blind!” Bea exclaims, so certain is she of their existence. Her visitors always seem to appear at the same location

I improvise: “It’s a magic ceiling. Only you can see through.”

We peer up at the exposed rafters together. Bea’s face lights up with pure wonder. “Why, that’s a perfect description.” Then rationality, the ruler she has used all her life, creates doubt. “Is that true? Is that known?” There is urgency in her voice now.

I wonder what I have gotten myself into. It is one thing to play Alice in Wonderland with a child. I realize I am out of my depth with a bedridden elderly person. Should I tell her she is crazy? Is she? Are her visitors simply hallucinations? Who is to say so with certitude?

From the Internet I learn of Charles Bonnet syndrome. Elderly people with some visual impairment can have “complex visual hallucination.” It is not necessarily a sign of dementia. Often the elderly do not report their visions for fear of being labeled as mentally unwell. Charles Bonnet identified the condition in 1760.

Sven reminds me of the altered state people enter when close to sleep. Visions, insight, can occur. I think of extrasensory perception.

Small children often have imaginary friends. Mine had a name and I certainly sensed its presence. Are Bea’s visitors the same phenomenon? Does extreme old age open doors that we shut when society teaches us what we are sensing does not exist? We must lose the ability to tune in to the same frequency. Bea’s experience seems to indicate it is not lost forever.

Charles Bonnet syndrome. Okay.

Bonnet's patient came to regard his visions as something “he had to put up with.” Bea finds her visions entertaining. I am not surprised that she interacts with them. The thing is, they often interact with her, too. Perhaps science cannot fully explain what Bea is experiencing when she peers through her “magic ceiling” …

Tuesday, August 29, 2006


Bea’s hands pat the covers, just the way she used to do after misplacing glasses in bed. The glasses lie folded on the bedside table, unused for five months now. “Where can they be?” Bea asks absentmindedly, convinced of their disappearance. During her hospital stay, we finally conceded victory to macular degeneration, and I stopped proposing glasses. Now, back in the past, she needs them to craft a proper guest list. Yes, Bea is entertaining again.

My mother ate the banana I provided at 1 am but did not return to sleep. I ignore her chatter until 7. When I bring breakfast, Bea tells me she has decided to invite several cousins from Belleville to a party. I have never heard of Alan, Adelaide, or Robert Chinnock. Bea plans to introduce these family members to a young visitor from Africa: “Festigoombah.”

“Festigoombah,” I repeat. “Strange name!”

My comment provokes laughter. We laugh and laugh. She is in fine spirits today. It is nice to share a good old-fashioned belly laugh with one’s almost 97-year-old mother.

Bea tells me she has also invited a whole football team. “Write that down for me,” she says.

Suddenly Bea interrupts herself. “I ought to go to the ear doctor and see if there’s anything to be done. I just can’t face it, you know.”

“Ear?” I ask, disconcerted by the digression.

“Ear doctor. E-A-R. The one Dad went to.”

“What’s wrong with your ears?”

As long as Bea is the one doing the talking, hearing problems do not really matter she must have concluded because my mother jumps right back on her train of thought. I struggle to catch up:

“I have to find a way for people to be interested in football. I’ll worry about that later. First, I’d like to go over the menu with you: orange juice, roast lamb, with leftover fish, if that’s not enough, and, after that, desserts, if there are any left over. Chances are they’re all eaten. I guess I can ask someone to go to Manhattan and get more. I want to have exactly the same people to dinner, as for football.”

“I’ve written all the names down. That Festigoombah fellow is intriguing.”

“Sexy-Goombah” she says with a wink. “You’ll have to mail his invitation since he’s from Africa. You know Emerson?”


“He lived a long time ago. I wanted to invite him for the evening as I thought he’d enjoy seeing another aspect of American life.”

I consider pointing out the impossibility of his even sending regrets, but Bea’s mind has already raced on: “We should invite Alexandra.”

“Cousin Alexandra from France?”

“No. The one in my office. Ruth Alexandra. I’m so shy of people I don’t know very well.”

This is a preposterous idea: “You’re not shy at all!”

“Thank you. Maybe we better have Esther who is in the same office with … oh, what is his name?”

Really confused now, I ask, “Murdo?”

Bea guffaws at the idea in her quiet way. “No, we don’t want Murdo. He’s much too old. My grandfather’s office, not my father’s!”

Apparently the party is going to have guests from all periods of Bea’s life, except for the football players. I don’t think she ever met any football players, but then, who knows?

“Should I arrange for cocktails ahead of time? Makes it so much more festive. I have to get Helen’s consent. She needs to come back from downtown. I didn’t want to invite her, but I guess I should.”

We plan flower arrangements and songs. Bea agrees to have guests sing a little ditty from the 1920s. She aces a memory check on its lyrics:

ME: “Oh, Charlie, my boy,
You fill me, you thrill me …”

BEA: “With shivers of joy.
You’ve got the kind of, sort of, bit of a way
That makes me, takes me,
Tell me what shall I say?”

She breaks into song as the tune comes back:

“And when we dance
I read in your glance
Whole pages
And ages
Of love and romance.

They tell me Romeo
Was some lover, too.
But, boy, he should
Have taken
Lessons from you!
You seem to start
Where others get through.
Oh, Charlie, my boy!”

When Bea is hyper, she uses a more authoritative voice, more bossy, in as much as anyone bedridden can be bossy. I try my best to listen, by turn amused and amazed at this manic person my mother becomes one day a week. I leave the room, exhausted.

Sven and I tune out the low murmur coming from Bea's room during dinner.

At 8 pm, the chatter is still going on. I hear her greet guests as they arrive. Former neighbors Ruth and Martin Clapp, both deceased, were not on our list, but they make it to the party. “Martin!” Bea laughs as if he were really here. “You should take your vitamins!”

“Time for sleep,” I say and snap on the light. Bea’s eyes are open wide. Her flushed cheeks seem more sunken than ever. I pile the covers she has tossed to the floor back on.

“I was so looking forward to it,” Bea is telling someone. “The flowers do look lovely. It is such a wonderful time of year for a party."

“Did Festigoombah come?” I ask, curious.

Bea breaks into a toothless grin. “Festigoombah,” she repeats. “But that was a joke!” Her face says how funny it is that I believed her.

I’m helping my mother maintain her dignity.

“Goodnight to all of you,” Bea calls to the other imaginary guests, the ones whom she does not consider figments of her imagination.

“And goodnight to you, too, Festigoombah,” I whisper.

Bea falls asleep at 11 pm.

The 22-hour marathon is finally over.

Postscript: From deep in the recesses of her mind came the name “Festigoombah.” I thought she had made it up. It turns out not at all, according to grandniece Ellen who surmises “Festigoombah” was a part of her grandmother Dorothy’s world as a child, and therefore, also of Bea’s. Ellen remembers references made by her mother, Dotty: “My mom used to say things like; ‘Oh, everyone was there, even Festigoombah,’ or ‘Okay, so if you didn't leave the milk out, who did? Festigoombah?’ I only remember it being used a lot from when I was really little. When she was in a good mood, she used to answer the phone and say things like ‘Festigoombah here.’ At some point it faded from her vocabulary pretty much.

Monday, August 28, 2006

“Me and the Boyfriend"

I slip two pills onto Bea’s tongue and reach for the glass of water.

“Dr. Millhoper?” she lisps through clenched teeth.


I watch her swallow the pills. Lately she has been spitting them out while my back was turned.

“What a name! How do you hop – mills!”

Seeing as Bea’s mind seems to be hopping, I ask her to sift back through the sands of memory to recall a tune from the 1920s.

“I found a little notebook of yours, with old songs. I wondered if you remembered. Want to try?”

Bea nods.

I then read,
“Me and the boyfriend
The boyfriend and me.
We stick together like ...” and stop.

“Sap to a tree,” says Bea, without hesitation.

“He’s like a diamond,
A little bit rough,
But …”

This time Bea sings the lyrics in a soft voice,
“When he’s there,
he’s there with his stuff.”

(Pretty good! The text she wrote down years ago indicates the line was “when he gets started,” but the meaning isn’t much different.)

ME: “We have our battles…”

BEA: “Like most sweethearts do.
But after the battle - oh, Gee!
We sit in the park
And get that kiss in the dark.
I mean the boyfriend, the boyfriend, the boyfriend and me!”

ME: “Good for you! Did you have a boyfriend back then?”

BEA: “I suppose so. I was certainly better looking back then than now.”

I proceed to read Bea a limerick someone wrote for her over 80 years ago, entitled Miss Chinnock:

“There was a young lady named bee
as pretty as one might ever see
but she gave us a glare
that ‘most grayed our hair
‘you can’t write notes,’ says she."

The author will remain a mystery, because Bea does not remember this homage at all.

I am busy applying lotion to her arms by now. The skin on her underarms feels like old leather, thick, flaking, desperately in need of lubrication. She protests that the lotion is too cold.

I find the lip balm and smear some on her mouth, also dry.

BEA: “Hey! What are you doing?”

ME: “Making your lips softer.”

BEA: “Not much point in that. Who am I going to kiss?”

ME: “Why, You can kiss me!”

I present my cheek and she dutifully plants a kiss …

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Bea’s Journal (1)

Bea married Paul June 16, 1944. She would wait three years before having a baby. I remember her always saying she wanted to be "sure."

Bea writes, "In my late 20s, I tried to sublimate my maternal instincts in a career. Then, at the age of 37, my joy at last to have a beautiful baby girl knew no bounds."

The above passage comes from a 1980 letter. Bea goes on to explain her distress when Paul rejects the baby - me. Being a charmer, I won him over, but how hard that period must have been for my mother! A year later, she started a journal.

“Wellfleet, August 12, 1948. The decision is to write, write, write, anything any day, as much as I can.

Here everything fades in the sun, even time.

I saw a meteor flashing through the sky. It seemed incongruous that there was no sound. A flash in silence, a trail of light, and it was gone.

I looked at Mars through a telescope. Such varied, sparkling light – not just red.

The beauty of the physical world around us is great, but, when its harmony is confronted with a great lack of harmony in ourselves, the feeling is painful. I remember the island of Cythera at sunset, sixteen years ago, when I regretted that my companion could not share with me what I felt. Now I see the lack was also mine. But how we long for a sharing of such experiences.

People are the whole sum and substance of life. Only people matter.

I write now out of pain. But why should I be reluctant to put it down? It seems an acknowledgement of failure. There is the guilt.

Other people sometimes write out of pain, though they may not say so. Too much pain alienates other people. They wisely know the other one is not enough there to see and appreciate them.

I know many people feel pain in the present world. I wonder in what ways theirs is like mine.

That is the advantage and disadvantage of a journal. One can write without considering the censors. But, unless there is a respect for the censors, there is not enough control.

If a person came to me and said, ‘I am in agony,’ how would I react?”

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Uncle Hunter

“Who said that people searching for the meaning of life are sick? Freud? Whoever it was, I think it makes sense. Healthy people accept life.”

This scrap of paper, written by Bea in pencil, became stuck to an envelope. Whether she intended for them to be together, I do not know. The envelope, postmarked July 7, 1942 and addressed in Harry’s bold scrawl to Bea’s Georgetown address, held this letter from Hunter:

West Hill Sanitarium, Riverdale, New York July 1, 1942

Dear Dad,

This briefly is the record:

1.) 3 months “Overbrook”
2.) 14 months “Hartford Retreat”
3.) 1 ½ months “Morristown.”

I have something to write about as well as Seabrook who wrote “The Mind that Found Itself.” Now I am in “West Hill Sanitarium.” Believe me, I don’t like to look back on two years spent in asylums any more than you do. It represents some $4000 of your money, a great deal of worry for you and the family, and unhappiness and misery, to a large extent, for me.

In that same time I could have gotten my M.A. in physics or pretty well established myself in some sort of occupation.

Dad, I can’t go on staying at these places indefinitely. I have a theory that “nature is the best cure for practically everything.” I think that if I had gone out west when this business first struck me and lived on a ranch, this business wouldn’t have happened.

All yesterday and today I have heard no voices. I could hear them if I chose to, but I have consciously tried to “not listen to my own mind.” Sounds sort of funny, doesn’t it?

Dr. Durham came up to see me today and we talked about things, mostly what I should enjoy after I got out of here. He said, in his opinion, an outdoor life was the thing for me.

The food is good, but there is no “Golf House” as in the Hartford Retreat where you can buy food, cigarettes, or candy between meals. There was an “Extension Unit” at Greystone Park that fulfilled the same purpose. That is one of the few things I can say for that place.

So help me God! I want to live, not join the shades or souls in limbo. No more of this rope stuff or hanging anything but pictures, and I mean it!

I have but one shirt and two pairs of shorts. Some of my clothes got lost, no doubt in moving around from ward to ward. When you come, could you bring: shirts, shorts, slippers, carton of Chesterfields?

I am fine and this place is 10,000 times better than Greystone Park.

All my love to you, Hunt”

Shortly afterwards, Hunter wrote brother Bob:

“I am having the opportunity of making a better acquaintance with your mentor, Dr. Durham. He is a rather likeable chap, but my feelings about psychologists and psychiatrists is about the same.

It seems I got damned “hanged” sick of Greystone Park. I am treated here as a result like a ten-month-old baby. I have an aide all day and one all night. They both are nice fellows, but being trailed about and confined to one floor gets awfully tiresome. My life consists of crossword puzzles, the paper, studying physics, reading and after supper, pool and bridge.

What the hell are you doing these days – no doubt waiting for your number to come up? Do something, Bob, some sort of job. The money is not important. Hell, the only worse thing than hanging around in that house is a mental institution.

Give my love to Mother.


On July 16, Bob sent Bea a note on a small page torn from a notebook, enclosing Hunter's letter.

“I saw Hunt yesterday with Mother. He is on the verge, I think, of either settling down and making a conscious effort to adjust to the environment and cooperating, or trying to escape to Alaska. Is quite ambivalent. He was sitting outdoors on the terrace with an aide. West Hill is a veritable Shangri-La, one of the most beautiful spots for a sanitarium that I have ever seen.

Your things came yesterday from the warehouse in New York City.

Enclosed is a letter from Hunt, which I forgot to send with my last letter.

He asked about you and said he hoped you would write him. He also asked for a typewriter.


Dorothy’s daughter Sally wrote me, “My strongest memories of Hunter are the times Mom, Bob and Helen would drive to Southern NJ to see him in the mental hospital. Mom would buy all sorts of basics - underwear, etc. and "treats" such as candy - and would also bring cash and small gifts for the staff. She always said that the clothing she had brought the time before was stolen and that he gave some of his stuff away. Sometimes they could take him off the grounds and sometimes not. He was lucid at times and ranting and raving at others. Sometimes he would refuse to see them at all. It was always an exhausting day for her. She would pick up Helen and Bob in NYC and sometimes she would have to get them up and wait until they had breakfast and wouldn't return home until the night, sometimes with Helen or Bob in tow. Then they would sit up all night drinking and talking. These were emotionally wrenching times for her, and difficult for the whole family. Mom always held it against Harry that he had remarried without discharging his responsibilities to Hunter and Helen. She felt that he had no "right" to seek his own happiness when they were in dire straits. Also, I remember her being very upset when he relinquished custody of Hunter and turned it over to the state. I have heard of this happening a lot. It is strictly a matter of finances - if you can't pay anymore, the state takes over and the patient gets the care they need. Of course today he would be on medication on an outpatient basis. The whole thing is very sad and haunted Mom forever. I have the general impression that the family didn't handle his illness well. Of course at that time there was so much stigma and Freudian stuff that it was all caused by bad parenting, etc.”

Bea is sound asleep. As I listen to her rhythmic breathing, I cannot help but wonder about the pain she must have felt at Hunter’s institutionalization.

Uncle Hunter, two words I never associated. Auntie Dotty, Aunt Helen, Uncle Bob – these were my mom’s siblings. Bea never ever mentioned Hunter. I do remember, however, overhearing her say that one of the voices in his head was hers …

Friday, August 25, 2006

At the Movies?

“I have to live my life again,” Bea declares this morning after a bowl of Sven’s porridge, her favorite, a breakfast standard as a child.

I doubt she is referring to reincarnation.

“What do you mean?”

“Do something useful for society … What do you do?”

I must admit I did not answer. I could have screamed, “I take care of you!” but don’t.

A recent email from Beth and Ellen’s sister Tibo is running through my brain: “I know Auntie Bea said she is ready to die, but I think there is so much more she can teach us …”

Something useful for society. Yes, that is what we are trying to do with this blog – stimulate people to think about old age and elderly care options. It is so easy to accept the status quo.

Bea snuggles down into the pillows. Once comfy, with a peaceful smile on her face, she looks back up at me, the keeper of her lair, facilitator, cook, lifeline to the outside world.

“You all set?” I ask.

“Thank you. Yes. What are we going to have for a movie today?”

Did I forget stewardess aboard the final flight into the Great Beyond?

I stand there with the empty porridge bowl and stare at her until the meaning sinks in. She is asking about future dreams.

“I’m not sure,” I say. “I hope it will be something you enjoy.”

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Dotty’s Baby

Fragrant rambling roses climbed up the back porch trellis at our Washington D. C. home on Brandywine Street where we moved in the early 1950s. Each block had a back alley. I remember a neighbor had to leave after being denounced as a Soviet spy. Spring brought hyacinths to our front garden. Summer smelled of tar as I skipped rope on the hot sidewalk with my girlfriends. I remember how we would go to great lengths not to step on the lines while walking to school. What I don’t remember is little Dotty’s coming from Long Island to live with us all of a sudden. Since Bea’s mind is clear as a Cape Cod sky on a cool autumn night, I ask why Dotty came. Bea says simply, “She was pregnant and couldn’t marry the guy. He made love to her. She had no protection.”

As a child, I used to associate Dotty with the home for unwed mothers, up Brandywine Street. Actually, her baby was born in Yonkers, New York. Here is Bea’s version of what happened:

“We lived in a two-family house. There was a doctor in the other half. That was a surprise, because usually doctors are prosperous, and you don’t find them living in two-family houses. He caught on fast enough. And actually later they put the baby up for adoption.”

I don’t want her to skip over Dotty’s pregnancy, but she already has. I need to hear about my cousin who passed away this spring, a victim of pneumonia, caught in a nursing home. Devoted to Bea, in 1999 Dotty even traveled from Long Island to participate in my dad’s memorial service, right before Parkinson’s declared itself.

Bea is moving on with the story: “Some people from the South adopted the baby.”

“But, what about Dotty? How old was she?”


“She must have been so grateful … I guess she didn’t want to have an abortion.”

“Nobody wants anybody else to have an abortion.”

“Did you ever see the baby?”

“You bet. It was a lovely baby. We looked her up long after. How I wish I didn’t talk in this feeble voice! I feel ghastly. But you can’t stop time.”

“You mean you saw the baby again?” This revelation seems incredible.

“When we went to the adoption agency, I said I wanted someone who was religious, a religion comparable to mine. The people were so very happy with the child. I told Dotty.”

I assume she means Dotty, her niece, not Dorothy, her sister.

I am not sure how much of Bea’s story is true. Dotty did spend several months with us on Brandywine Street where her aunt encouraged visits to the National Gallery of Art. Dot would spend hours there.

Bea remained involved afterwards, but to exactly what extent I do not know.

Dotty tracked down her baby once she was a grown woman.

Younger sister Ellen emailed, “I know my mom named my grandmother as godmother so she could get to hold her during the baptism, secretly thinking that once her mother held the baby she wouldn't make her give her away. It didn't work, but I think it did make it a lot harder for my grandmother, which considering how hard it was for my mom was probably some cold comfort to her at that time in her life. I've always marveled at the things she did - naming her Damaris, a name in a book she was reading that was so unusual she figured - at her tender age even - that if the baby had an odd name, it would be easier to track her down some day. She even breastfed her for a while before giving her up. How awfully hard!”

I sent Dotty’s daughter, renamed Beth, a condolence note at Dotty’s passing. Beth responded, “I think Dot found Bea a role model she could never quite successfully inhabit. And I also know the time spent at your home in DC while she was pregnant was a consolation since she was feeling so outcast and isolated. And I wonder what influence my little neonatal cells might have picked up there …”

I remember now. The week Dotty left, I cut some of those red roses and placed the bouquet in her room. I missed my cousin after she went back to New York ...

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Conversation over Breakfast

One of the hardest parts of elder care is role reversal. Apparently, it bothers Bea, too. We discuss the subject yet again one morning early.

BEA: “You’re my daughter, and I’m your mother. So I should take care of you.”

ME: “You did. Now it is my turn.”

BEA, after much thought: “Thank you.”

Bea is eating ice cream, slowly, savoring each spoonful. She pauses again and furrows her brow. That grey matter is getting a real workout today.

BEA: “I guess I’m just one of those queer people …”

I wait for her to elucidate but she doesn’t.

ME: “What do you mean?”

BEA: “People who don’t die.”

ME: “Oh! Well, you’ll die soon enough. In the meantime, we can enjoy having you here with us.”

Bea offers a faint, slighted embarrassed smile, like a young girl who has been told she is pretty by people she has only just met.

BEA: “What is the name of this place?”

I am not sure whether she is asking about Wellfleet or not. So I choose not, seizing the opportunity for self-promotion, a behavior that has become second-nature.

ME: “Chez Sven Bed & Breakfast, which makes sense since you’re having breakfast. Imagine, a place that serves chocolate ice cream instead of scrambled eggs and bacon!”

BEA: “Sounds ideal …”

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

A Gift

Yesterday my brother emailed, “What you said about Dorothy's death was illuminating. I remember hearing that when Katherine Graham died (at around 83), it was called the ‘perfect death,’ because she died suddenly and painlessly just before her mental and physical abilities diminished. While you're caring for Mother, do you think about what your life will be like when you are her age?”

I have said many times that I do not want to burden my own children this way. I also do not want to live in a nursing home.

Last week, two caregivers, staying at our bed & breakfast in search of respite, told me a cousin had purchased long term insurance to avoid the scenario their life was following. It costs $3000/year, per person.

These thoughts are swirling through my brain when I hear Bea call. I hurry to her bedside. She stares up at me with fixed gaze and demands, “You’re my daughter?”

The tone is sharper than usual. I nod and stand there wondering what my mother will say next.

Heartbreaking is the only way to describe the feeling inside as her second and third questions register: “What was your father like? Was he a nice person?”

I do not remember my response. I immediately seek out Sven for comfort.

I had a hard time posting yesterday’s blog. It is difficult to imagine one’s own sweet father actually punching one’s mother in the nose.

Was he a nice person?

Yes, of course. He probably regretted the action immediately and did not hit Bea again.

Sven comments, “He couldn’t have been such a nice person then, but he became one.”

Bea would have said, “He had a difficult childhood.”

Sure enough, in one of her letters, I find just such a passage:

“Certainly you have seen in Daddy’s memoirs some of the hostility-provoking treatment he received from both parents and Irish tutor, Mr. Boyle. The effect of getting attached to people and then losing them as a child must have been traumatic: first the adored nurse, then Koukoulya, then his summer tutor, all without explanation from anyone as to why they had to part. And the social environment at home so arid with his mother all alone for eight years while his father was in Cannes. As a child, Daddy was really starved for love and that is why, in my opinion, he nearly got anorexia nervosa at 12, saved only by a kindly cousin, lonely in an unhappy marriage herself. Then, just when he was coming to grips with life and asserting leadership at the Corps des Pages, comes the revolution and all its uncertainty …”

Still, a difficult childhood and revolution are not an excuse for violence.

Bea was a firm believer in psychoanalysis. She always explained away behavior based on life experience. She certainly did so with my dad, more than once. That is what love is about, the acceptance of both good and bad.

I tiptoe back into her bedroom several times during the afternoon. Bea sleeps, and sleeps, and sleeps. Often her face is illuminated with joy. I like to think that my father’s spirit is visiting, ready to lead her away when the time comes …

Bea may not have had “the perfect death” of Katherine Graham and sister Dorothy, but staying this long has allowed me to know her better, an experience that enriches my life.

I open an email from Joe, who blogged about a similar experience: “Enjoy this most beautiful time you have with your mother. As people often tell me, and I know now for myself, it’s a gift.”

Monday, August 21, 2006

In Her Own Words

Bea was a copious letter writer. She enjoyed writing and realized the value of words, asking family members to preserve her correspondence. One handwritten letter from Europe is 50 pages long!

When I moved to France, Bea wrote at least once a week. I placed all her letters in shoeboxes, which are now stored away in my brother-in-law’s Parisian basement, 20 years of love waiting to remind me of her the day I can retrieve them.

Bea kept drafts of some of the more important letters.

Several blogs ago, Vassar friend Louise filed a wedding report and commented on the easy camaraderie between Bea and my grandparents. Bea explains why in a letter written Nov. 23, 1977 to my brother and me:

“As I see it, all young people struggle to free themselves from dependence on parents. I remember my twenties and early thirties. You both know enough about my family situation and now, from his book, about your father’s, to know we each had a hard time.

Father was married to Laura Harris for 10 years before I met him … Laura asked if she could come and see Sandy when she was a few months old. Then she wanted to have dinner with me, so I met her in a small restaurant. She asked me to acknowledge that Father was a difficult man to get on with. I would not. I was aware of difficulties, but I looked on psycho-analysis as a means of resolving them and probably did say that I thought psycho-analysis had been helpful, but I would not concede what she wanted to hear, that, yes, he was difficult. I am sorry now that I did not, as it were, betray him to that extent – to acknowledge what I knew to be true, but I then could not bring myself to do it and resented her wanting me to.

Incidentally, I knew why their marriage had failed, but I did not, of course, tell her. She had sided with him when he criticized his parents and was openly hostile when they came to the United States, not realizing that there were two sides to his feelings. She disregarded the positive side and deliberately alienated him from them, thinking it was for his own good. It wasn’t.

The intensity of your father’s feelings about his parents is shown in two instances. Before we were married, and I was living in New York and Father in Washington, I saw something of them and frequently took them to dinner at the Vassar Club or brought them some cold turkey breast, which Grandpa specially liked, from a good delicatessen. I even had a tea for them to meet some of my New York friends, with Father there from Washington for the occasion. So, because he had warned me not to see so much of his parents, and I apparently had done so more than he wanted, one evening he punched me in the nose. It almost bled. I was aghast and wondered whether I should break our engagement, but I was buoyed by my knowledge of human motivation and realized that he was getting out some of his long-repressed resentment.

Shortly before Grandma died, we arranged for her to come back from the hospital to our apartment. Father insisted that I feed our family before I prepared her tray, and it was all I could do to prevent her from feeling his hostility. But she knew toward the end that he had made progress in his feelings about her for she said that there was a time when he had been hard but that now he seemed softer and attributed the change, in part, to our marriage...”

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Ready to Die?

Bea looks really worried.

“I need to talk to you about something.”

She is speaking in a very soft voice, almost a whisper, so I take her hand and lean in close to catch her words.

“Something is the matter with me and I don’t know what it is.”

“What do you mean?” I ask, thinking she may refer to pain.

“Well, I’m not going to have a baby …”

Bea makes a face at the silliness of this statement. Elderly women do not have babies. We both have a good laugh. Then I get it. Bea does not understand why she is in the hospital bed. I go into a lengthy explanation of how she had bursitis and spent time at Cape Cod Hospital, then in rehabilitation. I explain about Medicare paying for her electric bed, which makes it easier for me to care for her in our home.

“When people reach extreme old age, they don’t get out of bed anymore. That’s what happened to you. You got elderly.”

Bea thinks this over and says, “I must be really elderly then.”

“96 ½. Almost 97.”

I squeeze her hand. There is a short silence. Bea is trying to figure out how to express her feelings. Finally, almost apologetically, she says, “I’m ready to die, but it just doesn’t happen …”

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Changing A Brief (Elderly Bedridden Person)

First thing every morning I change Bea’s brief.

You would think this task would be quite straightforward but it actually has become harder than ever. A month or two ago, my mother could actively participate. Now she no longer has the strength to stay up on one side. Changing Bea also is complicated by knee pain. Her knees hurt whenever they move.

“Good morning!” I say and lower the bedrail.

“What’s your name?” Bea mumbles absentmindedly.

I scoot in close so she can recognize me.

“Sandy,” I say in as cheerful a voice as I can muster.

Her eyes stare straight into mine without a glimmer of recognition. Inside, I pang like a violin in the hands of an awkward child.

“I’m your daughter. Remember?”

Bea furrows her brow. Somewhere, in there, lies the memory. This is what elderly care must be like every day for people whose parents have Alzheimer’s.

I position Bea on the mattress to provide a runway of sorts. Off come the adhesive tabs. I tuck the far side under her body, then swing her up on her hip.

“Hey! Don’t be so rough!” Bea protests. “Makes me feel like a bale of hay.”

I can think of a simile that would be more apt. Every time I push her up into the air this way, I feel like I am manipulating a fragile glass vial which may, at any time, shatter into a million pieces. I have to keep one hand on her body, so she stays up in the air while I clean her.

Changing a bedridden elderly person is not like changing a baby. Newborns are tiny, so lifting their bottoms is easy. One does not lift up an elderly bedridden adult.

Also, babies are resilient and quickly become padded with baby fat. Elderly people are the opposite. Bea’s thin skin is now stretched over her bones which all seem to poke out, revealing her skeleton.

Once Bea is on her side, I quickly administer a baby wipe or two or three, remove the soiled brief, and tuck a new one underneath. She doesn’t complain once the process has begun and appreciates being changed. I don’t know whether this ordeal is harder on me or on her. I am always relieved when it is over …

Friday, August 18, 2006

From Paul, With Love

Question: What feels like a corpse, looks like a corpse, yet isn’t one?
Answer: A bedridden person of extreme old age.

While I was tucking Bea in last night, she said, “I feel like a corpse.” This morning, I find it almost impossible to awaken her. Lisa’s plan for a bed bath is defeated by Bea’s listless immobility. We stand on either side of the bed, looking down, perplexed and not sure how to proceed. She lies there, mouth open. Her cheeks are way beyond gaunt. Her eyelids flutter as if in a dream. This sleep is profound. All Lisa will do is change her brief.

When I change Bea again at noon, my cold hands startle her. She opens her eyes and says quite clearly, “I once cared for somebody.”

One of the surprises of documenting this period of our life together has been the lack of reference to her husband, so it is with some trepidation that I ask, “And who would that be?"

“Your father.”

“That’s right,” I say with an inward sigh. “And he cared for you, too, deeply.”

“Now let me sleep,” she mumbles, again closing those baby blues.

I wedge the pillow in so my mother is on her side and tuck in the covers.

My father was not one to express emotion. He did, however, believe in celebrating birthdays and always made a special effort to find the right card. Bea saved several.

The Paramount From The Heart is embossed with a bouquet of spring flowers. Scrawled across the top I read “For My Lovely Wife” and a poem: “You brought such joy into my life the day you said you’d be my wife.” Inside, more treacle: “Of all the gifts I could give you on your birthday, none could be as special or as precious as the gift of love you gave me the day you became my wife. Happy Birthday With Love.”

Below these words, my father has signed simply “Paul” and added, “The style is not mine. The sentiments are.”

Bea also kept a short love letter from her foreign-born fiancé, written on a Tuesday:

“Darling, I have been thinking of Saturday when you will be with me. I think of Saturday when I go to work and on my way to the dentist and when I get home again. And behind it all is the happy thought that in only eight weeks we will begin a new life together, every day, with our own home. This summer will be two years since we met, but instead of wanting you less and less, as convention would have it, I find that I want you more and more....”

The letter is signed Love. Then there are four hearts, each on a separate line. Next to the last heart, my father has signed his name.

They would live together 55 years.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Come-As-You-Are Party

I notice the wandering foot immediately. Bea must have been trying to get out of bed all morning. The foot dangles over the bed rail. My mother has pushed aside the covers and is wiggling her toes. Looks like she's hosting another party …

“Guests are coming,” Bea says and extends one hand. “Help me get up.”

“You can’t get up,” I say, astonished that anyone can forget having been bedridden for months.

“You mean I receive my guests in bed now?” She looks flabbergasted at the impropriety of this idea. “But I’m not dressed!!”

“The party can be come-as-you-are. Whom have you invited?”

“Ruth and Henry. Miggits and her husband. Somebody from China and his fiancé. She’s very pleased to be included. My sister and her husband. And, of course, you and Sven.”

“What are you serving?”

“I’m not sure yet. I have to think about it.”

As Bea settles in to consider the menu, I congratulate myself that the distraction technique seems to have been effective. I go off to make her some breakfast. Five minutes later I find my bedridden mother again hard at work, maneuvering her way towards the bed rail.

“You have to stay in bed,” I tell her, more firmly this time. “You might fall if you stood up.”

“Can’t I just practice?” she asks. “Come on! Help me get up.”

“I can't do it alone. How about waiting until Lisa gets here?”

“Okay.” With reluctance, Bea leans back against her pillows.

I know Lisa will be willing to help me get Bea into a chair but trust this new fixation on walking will have passed by the time our health aide from Hospice and Palliative Care of Cape Cod arrives. A phone call draws me into the next room. When I return, I pause in the doorway and listen.

“That Ruth knows everything,” Bea is saying in a chatty voice. “Ruth plans to surprise everybody with what we are going to eat. I’m afraid I will be a little late. My husband loves me, so he puts up with my being late….”

I clear my throat.

A brief look of embarrassment crosses Bea’s face but it is preempted by distress at the urgency of her predicament: I am her ticket out of bed.

“Oh, do hurry. They’re coming in 3 minutes. You must help me. I really have to get up. They know I’m eccentric, but not so eccentric as to receive them in bed.”

“I’m sure they will understand.” I search for another way to distract her. “Wasn’t Henry Fox a doctor?”

“A psychiatrist. He chose the name himself.”

“Why? What was his name before?”

“He didn’t tell me. You can ask when he gets here.”

Bea pauses and looks off into the distance, then says with sorrow, “Both Ruth and Henry died of TB.”

Quick as a spring shower, my mother shakes off the melancholy. Bea has an uncanny ability to jump from dream world to reality and back without missing a beat: “Here comes Ruth now. How do I know? I can smell the Chinese perfume. I have such a pretty daughter. The guests have never seen you before. They are all going to gasp.”

Is she talking about me as a child? Are we in the past or the present? All of a sudden I feel overwhelmed by her resilience and reluctance to leave this life she has lived so fully. All I can think to do is express affection. I lean in and hold my head near hers a quiet moment.

“You’re so pretty,” she says then.

“You, too.”

“Thank you so much.”

“Give me a kiss.”

Bea busses my cheek. The cream of wheat has finally cooled down. I spoon it into her mouth and leave my mother with her eyes closed, smiling happily.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

On Being Alive

An unexpected bonus of this blog has been connecting with Dorothy’s daughters and granddaughters. This morning I received an email from cousin Sally, one of the “rosebuds” at the wedding, who writes, “Bea was beautiful, charming, smart, popular, a leader, and an independent woman - and she still is all of that. Many times I heard Mom say all of the above.”

Dorothy’s kids warned their mother about going to Europe on her own, but she didn’t listen. As I watch Bea sleep, I cannot help but wonder whether it isn’t better to leave life at 83, while enjoying oneself, rather than waste away in a hospital bed, even a hospital bed installed in one’s own home. As more elderly people “benefit” from new drugs that prolong life, more baby boomers will find themselves in situations like ours, chained to a loved one whose life is slowly winding down, obligated to stay in what Sven has called a "beautiful prison" during the years which should be the prime of our own lives …

Bea is finally waking from her long sleep. It is normal for the elderly to sleep a lot, but these past few days, have been competition for Rip Van Winkle.

Today Dr. S. comes to call. Remember when doctors used to visit patients at home? Now it takes hospice to make this happen.

First the doctor interviews me about Bea’s condition. I explain the angioplasty in the mid 1990s, list her meds. Then we proceed into the next room where I do introductions, and my mother becomes the interviewer. Bea perks up at the sight of a new person, a lady doctor to boot. “When did you become a physician?”


“The same year you moved to Wellfleet,” I say.

“Where do you live?”


“Do you like it there?”

Dr. S. patiently answers these quick-fire questions. I watch as she listens to Bea’s heart.

Bea looks down at her chest, noticing for the first time how wasted her body has become. “I have no breasts,” she comments in a matter-of-fact voice.

Indeed, she is all shriveled up like a prune. I’m glad she cannot see her pelvis. The boniness is unnerving.

At that point, the doorbell rings, and I rush off to answer. Nurse Diane has arrived, since Jane is on vacation. Diane confers briefly with Dr. S. who pronounces Bea in amazing shape, all things considered. I usher Diane into Bea’s bedroom.

“This is Diane,” I say. “She’s a nurse.”

“Hello, Beatrice,” says Diane, remembering that Bea told her to use “Beatrice” on an earlier visit.

“When did you start being a nurse?” Bea asks and makes an effort to focus. “You look so young, but maybe I’m not seeing straight.”

“Thank you,” says Diane.

“Pas de quoi.”

“How old are you?” Diane asks.


“No, you’re 96!” I protest with laughter.

“Says who?”

Diane is taking blood pressure, a routine task that is complicated by the gauntness of Bea’s arm and her distaste for cold metal on her skin. All of a sudden Diane's patient demands, “Why do you care about me?”

I recognize the theme: Bea has already asked me the same thing. She questioned Lisa, too, earlier in the day, about why she was here.

Diane pauses, then says slowly, “Anybody who gets to be 96 is special in my book.”

Bea closes her eyes again. I perceive a faint smile at the corners of her mouth. Apparently she appreciated this answer.

Diane asks what Bea has been eating.

“Cream of wheat, and especially ice cream. She loves ice cream.”

“What flavor?” Diane asks Bea.

“Any will do.”

I explain Bea ate none at all for dietary reasons from 1970 on, while serving it to my father every night for dessert. She worked so hard at staying alive, that now she is just that, alive.

“You used to like peach ice cream. There was this little old lady who used to come over the mountain, carrying ice cream in a box. When you were a girl? That’s what you told me. Remember?”

“At Green Pond,” Bea says softly. “Yes, I almost remember …”

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Bea’s Mantelpiece

The mantelpiece in Bea’s bedroom has become so cluttered that I feel a need to clear away the bits and pieces, as well as old school photos of all five grandchildren, two consumed candles, and a thick layer of dust. Sitting here, by her bedside, I can now see what remains quite clearly:

• A photo of Wellfleet harbor at dusk.
• A photo of the Neva taken from the bow of a ship.
• A small unframed wedding photo of my parents.
• A photo of me in a round frame, sitting in a field of grain, near Geneva, when 17 and visiting cousins there, a present for my parents the year I got married and moved to France.
• A watercolor of Newcomb Hollow Beach with a chocolate-colored mat that does not match the soft beach tones, unsigned, artist unknown.
• Bea’s precious oil lamp from Greece.
• The ivory statue of a lady without her head, which Bea has “had a long time” and let me play with as a child.
• A photo of me and Sven on our first trip to Wellfleet.
• A photo of Bea in the kitchen, an unlikely choice of setting since she was not a good cook, which perhaps explains her amusement that someone should want to photograph her with a frying pan.
• A tall spray bottle of Eau de Rochas, present from cousin Alexandra.
• “The Blessing of St. Sergius of Radonezh,” an icon sent as a postcard by Serge Cheremetieff from Rome in 1968.
• A large framed photo of my brother and his wife, both smiling.
• Two crystal candlesticks.

I pick up the photo of my parents after their wedding and stare at it. The newlyweds are not touching. My father looks uncomfortable and very young. He was 41; Bea, 34. Bea smiles and seems about to say something. The wedding veil is back from her face. She wears a string of pearls and bright red lipstick. The Fortuny Delphos gown she loved so much – in red on the Internet (click Fashion, fourth model from the left) – reveals her figure and small waist.

Thanks to a Vassar friend named Louise, we can crash the party: “Your wedding was one of the merriest ones I have ever attended. Paul’s and your family were on such easy, happy terms that it made everyone doubly at their ease. I’m sorry I got no more than a glimpse of Paul, but what I did see convinced me that all will be well for your menage. Incidentally, the luncheon was delectable! Your guests devoured the delicacies with unfeigned joy. And those flowers on the mantelpiece? A stroke of genius! It was good to see your father again, as handsome as ever, and Dorothy blooming like a rose, surrounded by her rosebuds. Helen was so good to all of us. We went home thoroughly pleased despite the heat. Your gown was stunning!”

Monday, August 14, 2006

A Letter from Bertha

“Wednesday, 3 am

Beatrice dear,

As I do not want to disturb anyone at this hour – although I did ask Helen for her fountain pen – and she peevishly asked what I would do if I couldn’t borrow. I said, “Keep it, since you are so stingy.” So, I am using a pencil and sorry to feel that way toward her.

I am glad to have had your letter. I had felt that I had no one with whom there could be understanding outside Bobbie. I, too, am troubled in spirit. I feel so alone and solitary. Helen seems to be quite alienated from me, living a sort of dream life apart. I think she feels a strong sexual attraction for Fred, rather than love. I cannot sit down and have heart-to-heart talks with her. Her very personality, as well as her voice squeaks, “Oh, Mother!” and shuts me out. There isn’t much in her of the something that I have and you have, to coalesce. When I was sick, there was no tea in the house, and I asked for some. She didn’t want to share any, not a pinch. She has never been affectionate, so I can’t lose what she hasn’t given me. I can’t understand her and yet I worry. I wish I felt surer of her love for Fred.

Now, about you and Ted. If you are in doubt, don’t go ahead. Life after marriage is one’s whole life, looking back from where I am now. Before is just preparation for a more serious life. I rejoice that you have had the opportunity of meeting so many young men. Had I had it, I think my life now would be different. Dad is a peach, but mentally we do not quite jell, nor spiritually. There is something lacking between us. Maybe no two individuals can understand each other.

I would like to feel that you could have financial security in your married life, but more a feeling of sympathetic understanding and a one-ness in spirit, a bond of understanding. I don’t know if you have yet met your man. We will have to talk about it. I am glad you are coming home… ”

I never met my grandmother Bertha, and Bea didn’t discuss her much. Sitting by Bea’s bedside, reading this letter, I am struck by how close the two women seem to have been and how open their communication. When Bea tried the same approach with me, I would snap shut like one of the clams in the ocean that separated us. At a distance, interest morphed into morbid curiosity. I felt as if she were always prying into my affairs, analyzing my life, and wanted none of it.

Bertha died at age 58 of a stroke. I ask my mother what she remembers. Bea says simply, “She died the day I got home.”

I know the story. It was one she did share. Bea rushed back to New Jersey by airplane. Mabel, the maid, greeted her at the door. “Miss Beatrice,” she said. “Your mother is waiting for you.”

Bertha passed that day. My cousin Sally reports that our grandfather, in his grief, blamed Hunter because Bertha had been worrying about him …

Sunday, August 13, 2006

The Baby, The Big Sister, and the Baby Doll

I never realized what a packrat my mother was. Bea worked as a producer at CBS Radio in the thirties. "Children Are People" must have been her favorite job. She kept everything, including a pile of scripts from that period, hidden away at the bottom of a closet. Later, perhaps in the fifties or early sixties, Bea drafted a short script for television, jotting it down on a 4 X 6 inch pad of paper. She was in therapy by then, which may have served as inspiration:

Video: A shaft of light falls on a baby in a mother’s arms. A lullaby plays in the background. We start with an image of chromosomes.

Audio: “Everybody’s autobiography begins here, for the dramatic conflict starts with our genes. One child differs from another child in the same family. Each of us – brothers and sisters – inherits different chromosomes. Essentially, this is a virtue. Consider how dull it would be if we all had the same characteristics.”

Video: Paper dolls all in a row; Rockettes chorus line.

Audio: “But we are different and sometimes our needs conflict.”

Video: Image of group of boys off to play football and one boy at the piano.

Audio: “It begins for everyone the way it began for me, in the home, wherever that home may be. I am trying now to remember how it was early, very early in my life, the warm milk and the pleasure of sucking. My eyes begin to focus. Shining in the sun is my mother’s golden hair. I can see her eyes. These are good because they are part of that enveloping tenderness.”

Video: Show baby looking up.

Audio: “She is my world. I trust her and rely on her completely.”

Video: Baby goes to sleep. Mother puts baby in bassinette.

Audio: “But, one day I am hungry, and she doesn’t come right away.”

Video: Image of baby crying.

Audio: “This is terrifying. What can I do? Inside me, the emptiness hurts. I am helpless. She comes at last. I gulp the milk and begin to wonder how I can keep her here. How can I control my world so I won’t feel those pangs of hunger?”

Video: A small hand reaches out to hold the mother’s finger tightly. The mother laughs gaily but the baby won’t let go. Then the mother sings a lullaby until the baby sleeps.

Audio: “I am just gaining control of my hunger and understand that I don’t completely possess my mother when other people show up.”

Video: Father’s face looks into bassinet. Father picks up baby gingerly.

Audio: “This one, too, holds me tenderly. He makes me feel better.”

Video: Father walks and burps baby.

Audio: “But even these two (M & F) have their own world and sometimes they call each other away from me.”

Video & Audio: “Mary, where are my new brown socks?” “John, come for dinner.”

Audio: “There are other sounds and events that take them away.”

Video & Audio: A telephone rings; sound of another voice in the next room.

Audio: “There are other people who are not my parents, and some don’t entirely like me.”

Video: Show resentful look on Helen’s face as Mother plays with me. Helen looks at crib, pokes at me when nobody is watching. The baby cries. The parents come running and punish Helen.

Audio: “I feel apprehensive when they slap her. And with good reason for one day, when the mother isn’t looking …”

Video: Helen observes parents disappear through doorway.

Audio: “Helen strikes back – at me! This time her motive is clear – obliterate the competition. Her approach is direct, but sly.”

Video: Here we show a doll baby, not the real one, to whom it happened. The doll is pushed off the bed.

Audio: “The fall hurt.”

Video: Show baby on floor, crying. Mother rushes back in. Helen looks terrified.

Audio: “After that, I know how defenseless I am. In my dreams I live it over and over, trying to understand the experience. I need to work it out and not be afraid anymore because the fear makes me uncomfortable. It tightens my stomach and produces colic. My muscles tighten when Helen passes by, and, if she stays too long … I cry, even if she only came to look. But she doesn’t like it when I cry. So, I try not to.”

Video: Scared look on baby’s face.

Audio: “How to cope with Helen? After a while Mother’s friends come to see me, and Helen doesn’t like it when I get all the attention. She grows sad and goes off by herself, examines her reflection in the mirror. I crawl into the kitchen, even though the linoleum is cold, to be near Mother and smell the good things baking in the oven: biscuits and cookies and cakes and pies. My mother turns to the cabinet where there is a flour bin. You put the flour in the top and it sifts down as needed. Somebody had given me a little wagon with a doll driver. The doll broke off, and Helen climbed up on the kitchen counter one day when Mother wasn’t looking and threw my doll in the flour bin. I wondered about her life in the flour bin and imagined all sorts of activities.”

Video: Show doll sliding down the flour and finding a little room with a table and chairs, like Goldilocks. Doll sits there eating a little dish of flour. She goes to bed on a little flour bed and looks out a window at a flour landscape.

Audio: “Mother couldn’t figure out why I had become so interested in the flour bin.”

Video: Baby points and tries to explain without being able to speak.

Audio: “She thought it might be because I liked cookies and gave me one.”

Video: Baby accepts cookie but still tries to explain about the doll. Mother looks puzzled, shrugs and goes to do something else.

Audio: “I was glad to have the cookie, but it was hard not to be able to make her understand. Maybe the doll wanted to get out of the flour bin …”

Bea has created a remarkable story of sibling rivalry at a very early age.

Saturday, August 12, 2006


Nurse Jane comes to visit Bea, tucked into bed and just about as comfy as a bedridden can possibly be. I peel back the covers. Pillows are wedged here and there. Bea wears a fresh nightie and a tranquil smile. Lucy was in to give a bed bath earlier. It is almost as if she had stuck a magic wand in her back pocket, and while she worked, a fine pellicle of pixie dust had settled over everything, including my mother. The team from Hospice & Palliative Care of Cape Cod all seem like fairies. Having their support makes home care so much easier.

“Let me sleep,” Bea says when I try to wake her. “Go away. I want to sleep.”

“Nurse Jane is here to see you,” I say. “She wants to examine your bedsore.”

Bea opens one eye and immediately closes it, more tightly this time.

“Can I at least check your blood pressure?” asks Jane.


So, Jane and I stand there, on either side of the bed, and chat for a while in the hope it will inspire Bea to join us. Bea plays possum, but we know she is listening intently. After a few minutes, Jane checks the bedsore, and together we “flip” Bea.

“She hasn’t been accepting any fluids recently,” I tell Jane. “Milk, orange juice, chocolate milk, water, cranberry – I’ve tried everything.”

“You need to drink, Bea,” says Jane, pragmatic as ever. She reaches down and runs a finger affectionately along her patient's nose. “If you had a choice, what drink would you want? What’s your drink of choice?”


“Wine?!” Jane purses her lips. “What kind? White, red?”


“Any special type?”

Bea squeaks out the word, “Liebfraumilk.”

I recognize the name immediately as an old favorite of hers, Germany's most exported wine, sweet, inexpensive, and generally looked down upon by connoisseurs. This was what my parents drank for years until I imposed my French tastes and started buying Pinot Grigio.

With Jane’s blessing, I go to the liquor store and purchase a bottle of Liebfraumilk. Triumphantly I carry in a glass with a flexible straw. Bea draws in the sweet liquid. Then her face decomposes into a grimace as if I had brought lemon juice.

“Too sour!” she exclaims furrowing not only her brow but her whole face.

I know how sweet Liebfraumilk is. I take a sip to make sure. Yes, sickly sweet.

Tastes must change as we age …

Friday, August 11, 2006

“Each in a Separate Star…”

Bea has another sluggish day. She lies in bed, diminished, resigned, apparently waiting for death. No stream of words bursts forth from her lips. The visitors have all gone. Bea’s mind does not invent any parties. She talks in monosyllables when I interact with her, breathing out short words through the missing teeth and yellowed stubs that remain, puffs of communication. Even ice cream doesn’t interest her. This business of being old must weigh heavily on her soul.

A certain melancholy has settled over her features. Three days of sleep have made the skin around her eyes translucent again, but it doesn’t glow like before. Her face reminds me of the Renaissance paintings she tried so hard to get me to appreciate. I feel as if my extroverted mother has retreated into herself and it makes me sad.

At one point, Bea does recite poetry, only she gets stuck on a certain line, which she repeats over and over, as if to possess it completely: “Each in a separate star …”

When she notices I am paying attention, she explains in the matter-of-fact voice of a child, “Each in a separate star … means we are all going to be in Heaven.”

I am surprised because Heaven is not a concept I can remember her ever mentioning.

Out of curiosity, I measure her wrist. Five inches around. Mine is 7; Sven’s, 8. Her hands are dreadfully cold.

“When the bones grow old, the blood runs cold,” I say, a phrase she used to repeat over and over.

“Shakespeare,” she lisps, still cognizant.

I pull the cover up around her chin, so the fleece touches her face, the way she likes it.

“I don't understand why you are here. Why do you care for me this way?” she asks suddenly, the most words she has said all day.

“You took care of me when I was a baby. It seems normal for me to take care of you.”

A faint smile crosses her lips. Her eyelids grow heavy.

“Each in a separate star,” I hear her whisper as I close the door.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Natasha Comes to Visit

Bea is awake and somewhat subdued. Food does not interest her today. She just lies there, staring into space. I like it better when she clamors to get out of bed. Bea has always been the belle of the ball. This new acceptance of wallflower status is disconcerting.

I tell her my dad’s cousin Natasha and husband Malcolm plan a visit later in the afternoon. Bea registers this information with a mournful smile.

“You remember Natasha, don’t you?”

She does a modified shoulder shrug. Yes? No? The meaning remains obscure. It is really not one of her better days.

Natasha and Malcolm arrive, with actress daughter Nadia in tow.

To my relief, Bea recognizes them all immediately, but it is Malcolm, standing at the end of the bed, who attracts her attention. “Are you a good husband?” Bea says straight away. At 96 ½, there is no time to work one’s way up to such a question. Bea's philosophy has changed. Now it is don’t beat around the bush, skip the small talk, just ask what you want to know.

“Sometimes I am, sometimes I’m not,” Malcolm declares, laughing. “I do my best.”

Bea smiles. She has always been fond of Malcolm, tall, tan from Wellfleet's summer sun, and handsome. I notice some of the color has returned to her cheeks. They were so pale earlier in the day.

I sit her up and lower the bedrail so Natasha can bestow one of those wonderful warm embraces of hers. The room smells of French perfume. As the guests bustle around Bea’s bed, in one magic moment, we are all transported into the past. The house rings with the excited voices of little children. Natasha distributes helium balloons, red, yellow, green, and blue. Malcolm lights the candles on a big cake, and Bea smiles, holding the hands of grandchildren Natalie and Paul, as Nadia toddles into our living room to celebrate her second birthday.

“I remember the day Aunty Bea told me Paul and I should stop thinking of each other as cousins,” Nadia confides with a wink while her dad gives Bea a kiss.

Natasha and I exchange news of our new grandbabies.

We chat about this and that. Bea does not participate but the light that sparkles in her eyes tells me how pleased she is that a real party is taking place around her bed. Unfortunately, the festivities do not last long. Natasha and Malcolm are both doctors. They do not want to wear Bea out. With many kisses and a promise to return, our guests take their leave.

Bea settles back into bed to await the next party …

Wednesday, August 09, 2006


Since Bea still sleeps, I want to include her fourth sibling, the baby in the family, my Uncle Bob. I did not find any correspondence with Bea. Perhaps she threw it out? She did keep, however, this letter written in 1983:

“Dear Aunt Estelle, I was sorry to hear that you have broken your arm. Please forgive me for not having written. Things have not been going the best with me. In the hopes I would be able to enclose a little something in the envelope, I have postponed and postponed this letter. As you probably know, I had a heart attack a few years ago from which I am by now recovered but not quite as completely as I would like. Also, I had to move, as the building I was living in was torn down for a parking lot. The good job I had at Delmonico’s evaporated when the restaurant went out of business. I haven’t had a steady position since then. Although I have had other jobs, nothing really satisfactory. In fact, for a fair amount of time, I was either unemployed or only working weekends. I am presently on unemployment and looking for a job. The fourth of July I came down with a severe case of acute bronchitis that lasted six weeks. I do hope you are feeling better. However, at your age, you cannot expect to feel too spry. I hope you have enjoyed visiting my sister Bea. With affection, your Nephew, Bob”

Bea and Dorothy sent Bob money on a regular basis. He spent much of it betting on horses.

After Bob died March 4, 1986, Dot and Bea organized a tombstone for their siblings. Hunter had passed in 1979; Helen,1980.

Dot sent Bea the exact dates and wrote beneath their names, “Three tragedies. Needless tragedies. My heart is heavy with sadness.”

Bea and Dorothy were the survivors.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Letters from Siblings

Yesterday, when Bea was talking about beau Bill Whitney, she mentioned he had paid for a party organized for Helen at the Rainbow Room, “a dance floor on top of Radio City,” after her divorce from Fred Parker. I asked if Helen had enjoyed herself.

“She wore a $2.95 dress. Imagine, receiving guests in an out-of-date dress! Parker got a good job in Detroit. She couldn’t take being alone. She came home and went to secretarial school, but hated it. Helen always was sort of disgruntled. Poor Helen! Things went wrong from the very beginning …”

After leaving home, Bea maintained a lively correspondence with her siblings. Since the route to understanding Bea passes through the same landscape experienced by Helen, Dorothy, Hunter, and Bob, here are a few excerpts from their letters. The first is written by Bea’s “disgruntled” elder sister:

“Dear Bea,

Thank you so much for the lovely compact and cigarette case. I will enjoy using them. Thank you loads. I have just spent about two hours arranging one large bouquet of flowers and two small ones. Mabel was down in the cellar. I think she thought I was awfully dumb to spend so much time – and maybe I was. I am trying though, to arrange flowers as a florist would, and it isn’t the easiest thing to get them looking just right. Seeing that I grew these flowers myself, it was sort of fun. Saturday is always a lonely day for me, and I have plenty of time to do what I want. Of course on Saturday, Dad goes to the races, and all my friends are always very busy with their husband or kids or both…. On my vacation, I did nothing but rest. I didn’t meet anyone, I mean, anyone new. I put my name in at Baubs (?) long ago for a job in their advertising department, and while I was at Lake George, I got a letter to come in immediately. I went as soon as I got home, but the job was taken. Sometimes I think I’m just unlucky….”

“Dot didn’t seem to be material for death,” Bea said yesterday about Dorothy.

“What is material for death?” I ask, curious as to her meaning.

“Someone who is very frail and tires easily.”

I could comment that Bea fits this description but hold my tongue.

I agree that my Aunt Dorothy was exuberance itself. She had a stroke and died at 82 while enjoying herself on a guided tour of Austria.

Bea had encouraged her younger sister to go to Vassar but independent-minded Dot chose Wellesley. Here is the first letter she wrote home:

“Bee, dearest,

I have been meaning to write before this but have been so busy trying to make a good start. I didn’t forget your birthday. I contemplated calling the family but thought 60 cents too extravagant just to talk for 3 minutes. I wish you a happy, fruitful 23rd year, and now I am going to write about myself, because I know that’s what you want to hear…

Thank you so much for your package. I’ve never seen such an interesting assortment of things. I certainly needed some kind of file, thank you, and the chocolate and ashtray were welcomed heartily. Everything was nice, only I think I ought to send your pin and scarf back. It seems I walked off with enough of your things, let alone having them sent to me! …

Please write and tell me how your job at Wanamakers is coming on, and all about yourself and your adjustments. I know there must be many.

We have a song ‘Where oh where are the grand old seniors? Lost, lost in the cold, cruel world.’ Every time I sing it at step-singing, I realize how it applies to you, especially since I’ve tasted a morsel of college myself. I hope you’re not lost but have found yourself. I know how it must be. You’re at an age when you should have contacts with young men who are your equal, and I’m afraid they are few and far between. Good night, dearest. I love you so very much and miss you. It seems we only see each other for little short snatches, and yet, I know you better than anyone else in the family, except maybe Mother and Dad. Affectionately, Dot”

Hunter was a year younger than Dorothy. He wrote this letter while at Franklin & Marshall in Lancaster, PA. Later he seems to have attended Wesleyan.

“Dear Bea,

Two days ago I wrote a three-page letter, but it was so damn macabre, morbid, and somewhat moronic that I did not send it. This house and town has a very strange effect upon me. Some day, if I am great, I will attribute my greatness to 413 College Avenue, or if I languish in a nut house, I will also blame 413 College Avenue … I have done a powerful lot of thinking since I’ve been here, not along purely academic lines, but about philosophy, religion, science, sex and sociology … If you should ask me what I hold to be true in life, I would offer only two facts. (1.) You shall suffer more or less before you die and (2.) You shall die …

I would love to have something to believe in! I am a miserable atheist now. Intuition tells me to believe in a God. Reason says there are no grounds to. (After all, who in the Hell gave God his power?) Christianity, as a code of ethics and morale, is fine but, as a doctrine, it is riddled with holes like Limburger cheese …

It is swell what you have done for Helen. I know it probably cramps your style, but continue the good works! Well, sister mine, keep your chin up, keep fighting, keep healthy.

All my love, Hunt”

I never met Uncle Hunter who suffered from schizophrenia. Yesterday Bea told me she saw Hunter only once “after he went insane,” with my dad along, as protection perhaps. I asked why Hunter was institutionalized.

Bea’s response: “He was threatening the father of a girl he liked, head of Newsweek. It was very hard. Very depressing. I was so sad!”

Monday, August 07, 2006

Remembering Happy Times

Bea has been having an exceptionally good day. She is articulate and glad to have company. I remain by her bedside for a long moment. Nick and Elspeth Macdonald drop in for a short visit, a welcome change from our routine. The timing is perfect. Bea has just mentioned Dwight and Nancy, friends whom she saw while living in Manhattan after Vassar.

“She said Nancy was in a special category, people you care about and who are important in your life,” I tell Nick and Elspeth.

“Nancy felt the same way about you,” Nick responds.

"Did she?" Bea asks hopefully.

"Maybe not when you were at Vassar, but certainly afterwards."

Bea’s eyes light up. “You made my day!”

She then amazes Nick by going into detail about his stay in a London hospital, an event which took place in 1978.

After I show the Macdonalds to the door, I find Bea back with the Whitney brothers, Simon and Bill. She had been remembering them fondly earlier. Bea is mumbling to herself in a low voice. I turn off the fan to better make out her words. It seems there is something she does not understand.

BEA: “I would really like to straighten out this business about economics...”

ME: “Are you talking about a lecture? Did you dream about a lecture?”

BEA: “No. They were telling me about the functioning of the economy.”

ME: “Simon and Bill?

BEA: "Yes."

ME: "Which one did you like better?”

BEA: “Oh, I was in love with Bill. I had an affair with him. He had rooms in a hotel. I would meet him there.”

ME: “Why did it end?”

BEA: “He broke up with me. So did Joseph Philips. Both he and Bill were older men. When I decided I was going to have sex, I went to this famous woman and got a contraceptive. It’s very hard to care for a man and have an affair with him, then not have it work out. I took a week of vacation to get over Bill. He had been married already and divorced, with children.

ME: "How did you get to know him?"

BEA: “Six friends got together to give dinner parties. They all went to Yale. When they gave a party, they usually invited me.”

ME: “How nice that must have been!”

BEA: “Every six weeks they had a party. I thought it was important to go because the Whitneys were in this milieu that I wanted to be in. They had rented a house on W 74th Street. I lived on 66th Street then.”

ME: “Who cooked?”

BEA: “Their cook. There were different people every time. Barbara Russell, she took up with me because men liked me, and she wanted to meet more men. I was working at CBS then. I was at CBS for quite a while. Simon taught at Yale. So did Bill. And Simon wrote a book on economics. That Whitney family was really gifted. Their mother was the first woman to be in the state legislature of Connecticut.”

ME: “Was the conversation at dinner interesting?”

BEA: “Yes. I could keep up or they wouldn’t have asked me back.”

ME: “What did you discuss?”

BEA: “The theatre. Things like that.”

ME: “Sounds like fun.”

BEA: “That was a very happy time of my life …”

Sunday, August 06, 2006

The Elderly Bedridden Lady’s Shopping Cart

If an elderly bedridden lady could shop, here is what she would put in her cart:

• Flexible straws. Makes drinking in bed so much easier.

• A sippy cup. Yes, from the infants aisle at the supermarket. As an alternative, a plastic cup with a straw already inserted.

• An air sponge or two or three. (Now there are several different kinds. The first one I got is called Nature’s Air Sponge Odor Absorber. It pledges to absorb pollutants and remove odors. I am not quite sure what the active ingredient is, but trust me, it works. The air is immediately refreshed once you remove the lid. Smells Begone also makes a Relaxing Lavender Odor Absorber.)

• Depend Fitted Maximum Protection Briefs, Small/Medium, the kind with tabs, as well as underpads, both located on the same aisle. (Since the small size sells out quickly, I advise the purchase of several packages of briefs at a time.)

• Baby wipes

• Individual portions of applesauce, Jello, chocolate pudding, etc.

• Lavender skin lotion

• A face mister: Evian makes a mineral water spray that fits easily in the hand, but not all supermarkets carry it.

• Ice cream and popsicles!

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Grace of the Eskimo?

Sometimes people send thoughtful comments rather than post them, like this email from my sister-in-law, Betsy Krogh:

“I particularly appreciated your ‘militant’ belief that having family care for the very young, the elderly as well as folks who are sick, dying, and disabled is preferable to institutional or professionalized care. And your observation that professional care givers are usually poorly paid, often immigrants or other folks who can't find other better paid work...not necessarily people who are gifted in this kind of caregiving work, or following a calling to do it.

I think home and family care is the best way if it is possible. I felt that when I was a stay-at-home mom all those years …

I was also appreciating that out of love and/or duty and/or the willingness and ability to sacrifice your time and energy, you are caring for mother so well. It is a mitzvah, for sure ...”

Yesterday a stranger posted a comment about people tossing out elderly relatives like discarded rags. Sometimes I can relate to that. Last night at 3 am, for instance, when Bea demanded food. I do not like to give sleeping pills on a regular basis, especially after she has been asleep for a day or two already, but being awakened in the middle of the night turns me into a zombie.

I wonder if Bea would be alive today had we chosen the nursing care option? While she has an incredible will to live, I am not convinced that a prolonged stay in a nursing home would have had appeal. She hated being at the rehabilitation center. As soon as I got to Pleasant Bay, she would say, “When can I go home?”

I was asked recently if I don’t regret having assumed Bea’s care. Sometimes, yes, I do. Sometimes I wish she would just die. I do not understand why she does not want to leave this life. My mother has literally become skin and bones. It is hard for a daughter to witness, hard to have her so diminished mentally. Still, our reward is that frequent toothless smile, a rare occurrence while at Pleasant Bay.

It is almost impossible to talk to Bea about passing. Rill tried to reach her through poetry. Perhaps we should also try music? Here is what Bartok’s 2nd Concerto for Violin inspired Bea to write in 1972:

“Education is no colorful appurtenance. It is to help us through the vicissitudes of life – technical education to handle the material vicissitudes and give pleasure to the logical mind; education in the arts and humanities to strengthen the spirit and give life and necessary expression to the emotions.

Tenderness is all; it even makes possible the release of passion.

Art must relate to people. And, so it will inevitably reflect its times or, as the artist is intuitive, be a precursor for its times.

Wise men like A. N. Whitehead – though not at artist himself – look to the artists for explication of life’s meaning.

Must we be prepared to take to ourselves other people’s suffering? How to do so without being crushed? How, if we may be making it an excuse for working out of our own suffering or that of people for whom we are or have been to some degree responsible?

How can the world’s problems be worked out unless we can curb population?

As the world’s resources lessen, can we learn from the Eskimo the grace of older people taking themselves off out of consideration for the living, at the point where they might otherwise be a burden?”

Friday, August 04, 2006

Notes for Cousin Louise

Bea’s cousin Louise wrote a family history entitled, “Grandpa Was A Plumber.” Bea did not like the title and told Louise she should change it. Louise liked her title and kept it.

Among Bea’s papers, I find these notes about her mother’s family, written for Louise in 1994:

“My father’s father, James ‘Hunter’ White, was the son of Mary Stevenson, cousin of Robert Louis Stevenson. (My cousin, BCG, visited Stevenson’s birthplace in Edinburgh.) Mary married (first name?) White, and they had a large family, including James Hunter and John, and at least two daughters. The Whites were descended from Orangemen who came from a town or hamlet called Bally James Duff in County Caven, Northern Ireland, not too far from Belfast, the area where conflict is now acute. The Whites were descended from a henchman of Cromwell who had been given a castle in Bally James Duff as a reward for fealty and as a part of the subjugation of Northern Ireland. The Whites, of course, were Protestant, as were all Orangemen. The story goes that one of our ancestors had to run several miles in his nightshirt in the middle of the night to take part in some pitched battle relating to Orangemen’s Day.

Cousin Beatrice remembers our grandfather well although he was killed in an automobile accident when she was six. He was going to visit brother John in the hospital. His “Tin Lizzie” went out of control while negotiating a sharp turn onto a bridge.

Beatrice remembers Grandpa White as a martinet at the dinner table, saying “Tut! Tut!” to any misbehavior of the grandchildren. However, he was not always stern and showed Helen and Beatrice how to hide their crusts under a dinner plate and gave them peppermint candies. His plumbing establishment was on the first floor at 218 Clay Street, Paterson, with an office in front and plumbing supplies in the rear. Suspended by ropes from the ceiling were two circular metal rings on which people – children – could perform gymnastics. At the front of the office were display windows in one of which stood a handsome white toilet. One day Beatrice, with delight, spied the toilet, climbed into the window, and was about to sit down when Aunt Esther, Grandpa’s accountant/secretary, dashed over and grabbed her.

More about Grandma White: She was born Mary Chadwick in Middleton, a suburb of Manchester, England. Her parents brought her to Pawtucket, RI, where the skills learned in the cotton mills of Manchester were in demand. What Grandma commented on was her regret at having to stay home while younger brother, Harry, could go to school.

Her mother got homesick and returned for a time to England while Grandma's father got a job in Philadelphia where he had a child by his housekeeper.

When Grandma and Great-uncle Harry and their mother returned to America to join their father, the parents worked in the silk mills in Paterson. Our great grandfather’s specialty was preparing the warp, a very meticulous and tedious job.

Grandma White had her first child, Bertha, on a very hot day in August in the home of her mother-in-law. In spite of the occasion, our great grandmother went right on canning peaches over a hot wood stove, making the house even hotter.

Bertha's parents took their 13-year-old daughter out of school and put her to work in a silk mill. She used to go into the bathroom at the factory and pray that God would deliver her. Deliverance came in the person of one “Uncle Manny,” a jovial, prosperous butcher in Irvington-on-Hudson, who declared it a shame to have such a bright, pretty little girl working in a mill when she should have a chance to go to school. Fortunately, the family took his advice. Bertha finished high school in three years, taking a commercial course to qualify as a secretary. She was lucky enough to get a good job in Manhattan, working for Guy Benson, a cotton broker. When she married Harry Chinnock, she turned her job over to him and he advanced to salesman. He did well during World War I and, on Mr. Benson’s death, took over the business.

Bertha had four sisters and two brothers. Beatrice remembers Henry White as her favorite uncle, even if he occasionally teased her when she was small. She remembers family gatherings in which Bertha played the piano and Henry and Jim sang excerpts form Handel’s Messiah. Beatrice liked Henry better than Jim and knew that his life, like his track record, was much better than Jim’s. Henry had rock-bottom integrity and good family feeling. He was a good son. As a child, Beatrice was proud of the way her Uncle Henry starred at all the Canoe Club activities on Green Pond.

Grandma White was always proud to have been born in England. While she stated that she came of ‘humble folk,’ she considered English ancestors and English traditions something special. Church of England was the basis of her religion, and she saw the Episcopal Church as continuing that faith. Devout, she sang in the choir of the Church of the Redeemer in Paterson and attended the same church there all her life. She kept up with the doings of the British Royal family as would a loyal subject. When Beatrice happened to see Queen Mary driving out of Buckingham Palace at close enough range to observe lipstick, she was almost sorry later to have reported this fact to Grandma because, in Grandma’s scale of values, lipstick did not fit the image.

It must have been hard to have her husband die in his 50s because relatives on the other side of Beatrice’s family, who also came to Green Pond, said that when Grandpa took too long a time to come to their summer cottage, she would take off to be with him. She had one suitor in later years who proposed marriage, but Grandma refused him. She was pretty and feminine to the end of her life. As to a lasting influence? Grandma’s cheery, fun-loving, almost childlike pleasure in life, in people, in a good time, was reassuring to a child. A favorite grandparent, remembered with affection!”

In "Grandpa Was A Plumber," Cousin Louise reports that she researched the Robert Louis Stevenson connection and concluded the families were not related. I don't think Bea believed her. She liked the idea of being related to Stevenson too much.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

The House Party

What does the intelligent, bedridden woman do to pass the time when bored? Take characters from one’s own life and invite them over, in one’s imagination, for a party. Add a few memories, shake well, and enjoy:

“I applaud Ruth for the way she corralled us all. We got together and sang songs. It has been so much fun. I think we should plan to do that again some time. Don’t you, Martin? …”

I stick my head in the door. I do not know whether the party is over or just beginning, but I fetch my pad anyway and begin to record Bea’s words:

“I take my nap on the second floor. Other people are to take naps when they feel like it. Then it will be time to get together again.

Oh! Looks like Helen and her fiancé have arrived. She does have a fiancé, you know. It’s so lovely.

We will start with the piano, and I think Ruth will decide what else we should have tonight.

No, Ruth. No, Ruth. No, Ruth …. Ruth darling ….”

There is a long silence while the differences between Ruth and Bea are resolved. Bea has both her old Vassar friend Ruth Berrits Fox – with husband Henry – and Wellfleet friend Ruth Clapp – with husband Martin – at this party. It is different from the bridge game and the garden party (see earlier blogs) in that there are no visitors, just Bea's very active mind at work.

“I am so glad we were able to get more ice cream. Ruth and Henry brought it. Wasn’t that nice of Henry? Thank you for planning it so well, Ruth. You planned it beautifully. We will all have ice cream.

What a good idea to give away wedding clothes! Now we will all be able to go through our things and get rid of whatever we don’t need.

Well, look who's here! I want you all to meet Miggits Campbell ... But darling! That’s my brother’s hat you’ve got on. Do come and give me a kiss.”

To the others: “Everybody says she’s the best teacher in the United States.”

“Margaret, please explain to me what it was you played with your very nice husband?”

Bea’s mind must be considering the fact that Miggit’s husband did not turn out to be such a prize, because she pauses.

“We should all be able to find someone to care about if we just care properly …”

But reflection does not last long. There are too many guests to tend to:

“How did you like the soup, Ruth? She says she liked the ice cream much better. I did, too. One, two, three, four. I know a secret: those people are going to have another baby. Okay, Ruth. It’s half past 2, and don’t forget Martin. Martin is one of the most important people here. There he is, sitting on the couch. We only invited people that you like. I want to tell you about Martin and how lovely his life is. He has a beautiful family. It was so very nice of Ruth and Martin to get us dessert. They found these delicious desserts and brought them.

Aunt Estelle? She’ll go soon. We can still be carrying on this way.

Now, what do you people want to eat? I think the favorite is always ice cream. So let’s have that.

What I want most – and I hope other people do, too – is the beginning of the spring season ...”

Bea’s mind drifts into a discussion of her desire for sleep. She stops talking in mid-sentence.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Wild Women

I am happy to report that Bea’s bedsore is better. Nurse Jane decided to remove the DuoDerme and apply Bag Balm instead. I have been conscientiously turning Bea from side to side. The combination seems to work: the lesion is almost healed.

I’m on the phone with a prospective bed & breakfast guest when Jane arrives to check on Bea.

“How are you today?” I hear her ask in the next room.

“I’ve been feeling lonely,” Bea says.

Lonely she will be no longer as Jane settles in by her bedside. Today our favorite nurse is wearing a red and white checkered shirtsleeve dress, ornamented by a brooch of a wild woman with electrified blue hair. I ask the origin.

“Picked it up at the Wild Women weekend in Provincetown,” she tells us. “Bet you would have liked that, Bea. A wild weekend with the girls?”

“No,” Bea says, in a quite-sure voice.

“How about spending a wild weekend with men?”

“Yes. That’s much more likely …”

We do not pursue the topic further, although the twinkle in Bea’s eye indicates the idea has sparked pleasant memories.

Before leaving, Jane examines Bea’s bedsore and exclaims over the results our miracle balm has produced: “We are miracle workers!”

“And I have a miracle daughter.”

Bea smiles up at me with pride as Andrea Bocelli begins his serenade, the melodic voice creating a seamless seguy from our peaceful conversation.

Such moments make it all worth it.

But elderly care can be a rough ride ...

Bea has had so many good visits of late. Her mind has been totally there until tonight, after ice cream, when she asks this disconcerting question:

“Do you have any more little playmates for me?


“Somebody to talk to.”

“Oh, you mean the ladies who have been coming in, like Lisa and Jane?”

“Yes, playmates. Because I’m a little girl now ...”

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Poetry Session

Bea has been on one of her sleeping gigs. All she will accept in the way of nourishment is a bit of water and some ice cream. It is a bit disconcerting to live with someone for whom day and night fuse into one long nap. Again, the behavior is reminiscent of my children when they were infants.

This morning early, Sleeping Beauty wakes up.

“Is there anyone who can bring me some food? I need food. Food, please.”

I hear the SOS and open my eyes. Pitch black outside. At least she is not shouting, which would be unseemly, given the presence of bed & breakfast guests in the house. I make a detour into the kitchen before entering her bedroom.

“It’s 3:00 am,” I whisper. “Here. If you’re hungry, you can eat this banana.”

“Yum, yum,” she says and accepts it greedily.

Hunger has made her forget bananas have risen to the top of her Undesirables List.

During the afternoon, Chaplain Rill stops by with favorite poetry to share, Stanley Kunitz’s last book, The Wild Braid. She sits by Bea’s bedside and reads several poems out loud. Bea listens with rapt attention, eyes closed. I am touched that Rill has thought to reach Bea through poetry. How clever!

As the Chaplain is leaving, Bea tells her she is hungry.

“What would you like to eat?” Rill asks.

Bea's response: “Anything but a banana.”