She is 92 years old. Her head falls sharply against her right shoulder, her tired face and hawk nose now angled 90 degrees, most likely until the end of her life. She had a stroke in April: now the right side of her body is weak and non-responsive. I notice the way she wistfully rubs her right hand, hateful and loving, hopeless and hopeful.
My stepdad explains. “She did most of these paintings and drawing around her apartment.”
In total wonder, I walk around and gaze with sheer joy at ink sketches of Colorado wildlife; water color cartoons of times long past; an oil painting of a castle on a lake, and scrawlings of medieval men of both poverty and nobility.
Later, she tells me about the time she spent in Scotland. It was 1939, and her husband had just graduated from some Midwestern university. At the same time, a cheap Scottish lord was looking for free labor, and the Future Farmers of America put out a request for a chaperone for 14 high school boys to work on his manor for the year. Richard volunteered, and soon they were off to Europe. This is the story of the dreamy purple castle set amidst glowing sunset sky and stretching, sparkling loch.
“We visited a different country every weekend,” she says. “Half the Scottish people absolutely hated Americans; they refused to serve us in restaurants and they wouldn’t speak to us at all. But the other half was okay. But oh! I loved the Irish! They were the friendliest, most beautiful, most cheerful people I ever met…”
The French were rude; the Italians were every bit lovers as she’d always heard they were, and her favorite country was Switzerland, though Sweden was very beautiful.
“Did you go to Norway?” I ask dreamily, imagining Oslo in the summertime again. They did; it was nearly as lovely as Switzerland.
And then Hitler invaded the Rhinelands, and frantic parents in the United States clamored for their young sons to come home as war broke out. Tickets in hand, Irene, her husband, and 14 boys-turned-handsome-young-men, found themselves unable to get within three blocks of their port. Americans were flooding out of the European continent in a frenzy. Finally, Irene found a ship with the Merchant Marines and arranged passage. The tickets were $100.00 a piece, and her numerous young escorts were required to work in the boiler room for six hours out of each day. The merchant vessel traveled in the center of a flotilla- 32 ships, all packed together to avoid U-boat attack.
I am in awe. The living history before me sparks my romantic heart. I’m already addicted. I quickly find that this is one of Irene’s main stories: she often recounts fondly the difficulty of preparing three meals a day for so many growing boys plus husband and Lord, and speaks admiringly of the way in which those full meals and back-breaking farm work turned flaccid, weak young bodies into bronzed and muscled Adonis imitators.
“My, they grew so handsome by the end of that summer…”
She often trails off. The first time I hear the story, her quick old eyes snap back suddenly and curiosity is present.
“Do you know Chaucer?” she asks.
I am giddy. None of these girls who come to care for her are the type to know Chaucer. But here I am, my bizarre combination of middle and working class, and the English major inside of me is in heaven. The medieval portraits, she explains, are illustrations of all the characters from Canterbury Tales. An author came to her in 1963 and asked her to draw them for a book he was writing. She was paid $2,700.00. But she wasn’t a college graduate herself. A man came to her on three separate occasions and read the story to her, translating it for her again and again.
“Middle English is hard, “ I agree empathetically.
“Old English!” she corrects me. I laugh inside but acquiesce nobly. Far be it for my English major self to correct a little old woman with a rumored temper.
The watercolor cartoons, I find out, are the story of the road trip she took with her family when she was a little girl. Her family moved from Hungary when she was nine. Her father bought a small dairy with 80 cows, and he was an attorney in town from 8 to 5, Monday to Friday. They brought with them four women and four men, all of whom intended to marry and begin their own new lives in the United States. However, they all had difficulty learning English, and spent the rest of their lives as contented servants. Irene had eight brothers. Then her aunt and uncle died in a train wreck, and her father went to collect their five young sons from Chicago. He intended to adopt them to good families, but the hardship of the Great Depression meant no one had money to adopt a single one. Their tiny farmhouse was forced to accommodate thirteen boys, one girl, eight servants, and two frazzled parents. The dairy eventually grew to have 200 cows, and while most of the farmers in America suffered, their dairy operated almost entirely self-sufficiently. Delicacies like roasts and beef and butter made regular appearances on their table. In some ways, Irene was lucky. In others, such as having thirteen over-protective brothers and a temperamental father, she was not.
Her brothers beat up every boy she tried to bring home. Had she been a plainer girl, this might have been a less common occurrence. But oh! She was a lovely young woman. She was curvaceously thin, and her eyes were large and expressive. Her hair was richly brown and curled delicately around her Germanic face. When she was eighteen, she entered a beauty contest and was a favorite pick to win. But as she stood on the stage, her father threw open the auditorium doors and marched angrily down the aisle. I can imagine how wildly terrified she must have been, and indignant as well. Irene is an individual, and I can’t see her ever being anything less than such. Yet here was her father, enraged that his beautiful, only daughter would embarrass the family by participating in something as risqué as a beauty competition. He rose to the stage, fire in his eyes. And then he grabbed her by the arm and threw her several feet to the floor. When she hit the ground, her internal organs were damaged. Because of the trauma to her ovaries, Irene was never able to have children. She had two miscarriages before she stopped trying. Though she speaks fondly of her past and all the adventures she had, I can see the pain in her eyes when she tells me of her childless existence. I love to bring my children with me when I stop by for just a minute. The sadness in her eyes turns into utter joy and I’m so grateful to see them sparkle.
I stay overnight sometimes, paid to get her a blanket when she’s cold and then go take it off when she gets hot. I’m there so I can call someone in the middle of the night, in case of emergency. Despite all the love I feel for Irene, she is more than a little crazy. She is obsessed with her bowel movements and is under the belief that she is chronically constipated. The girls I work with find her completely exasperating- which is understandable, seeing as she sneaks in laxatives and takes them secretly until she has diarrhea so bad that she has to go to the emergency room. Even before she moved into this senior-living apartment, she was losing it. She called the police once and told them there were two anacondas in her garage. She needed someone to come get them out so she could use her car. Another time, she told the cops that a group of men who were doing contract work on her house opened all the windows in her basement and were blowing fans into her house. Her move to the nursing home has been coming for a long time.
The last night I spend with Irene is nerve-racking. I don’t get a wink of sleep. Sometimes she has more difficult nights than others; but usually I get at least three or four hours of sleep. That night, however, there’s no such thing. She has a UTI, made worse by the fact that she had overdosed on milk of magnesia the day before and had to go to the ER. And she’s anxious and upset about moving. She doesn’t want to. She tells me my boss is after her savings and it’s a conspiracy to get her money. I explain to her that she’ll actually save thousands of dollars a month by going into the nursing home, but she just stares at me blankly and tells me she wishes she could die. I try repeatedly to get her to sleep, but every time I lie down on her couch and close my eyes, she’s calling for me again. She keeps complaining about the pain from her catheter. I remind her over and over that she has a bladder infection and that it’s causing her pain. At four, I go in and hold her hand and sit with her. I tell her to talk to me about her fears. I listen to her worries and think about the pain of being old. I’m terrified of the day when I’ll have so little control over my own life.
At five, when she still hasn’t slept, I finally decide to try something different. I grab a book of poetry she has, “A Book of Living Poems.” I flip through and read her one about love. When it’s over, I pause, trying to see if she enjoyed it.
“Read another,” she says. “But read more slowly.”
I flip through the pages and scan through them before choosing. I avoid ones about death, unless they offer the light of Christ. Unlike most of the elderly people we care for, Irene isn’t a hardcore religious person. But there are hints of her belief structure in her apartment if you look; letters from Christian organizations and old memberships to primarily Christian associations. One night I heard her praying. Though I am somewhere between agnostic and Buddhist, I have only the desire to comfort her in her time of need. I try to find the most soothing poems the book has to offer. I pause again, waiting to see if she wants another.
“Read,” she says shortly.
I read another and fall quiet again.
“Read!” she says, her anxiety increasing. I turn the page and find another. This time I stop only long enough to catch my breath and look for the next. Still she commands me.
“Read! Read! Read!”
Her voice is in an urgent crescendo. I read her a poem about the changes of life and finally she falls silent. I reach out and take her hand again.
“I’m afraid,” she says. “What if I die there?”
It breaks my heart to mentally acknowledge that she most likely will die there. I tell her I want to read her my favorite poem ever, and retrieve my laptop to look it up.
The Little Boy and the Old Man, Shel Silverstein
Said the little boy, “Sometimes I drop my spoon.”
Said the old man, “I do that too.”
The little boy whispered, “I wet my pants.”
“I do that too,” laughed the little old man.
Said the little boy, “I often cry.”
The old man nodded, “So do I.”
“But worst of all,” said the boy, “it seems
Grown-ups don’t pay attention to me.”
And he felt the warmth of a wrinkled old hand.
“I know what you mean,” said the little old man.
“That was nice,” she says quietly and squeezes my hand. She asks me to call her urologist and see what he thinks we should do. I love her, but she is a crazy old woman.
I ask about her after she moves. She’s okay, I am told. She’s able to bring quite a few of her things to her new room. And they allow her to have her own, so she’s happy about that. And her nephew came out to settle her business, so the stress of what to do with all the superfluous things she had fell on him.
But, I find out, she’s still up to her old tricks. Her nephew went home a early rather than spend the extra day with her. She tried to slip him a twenty dollar bill yesterday.
“I’ll call the pharmacy,” she said conspiratorially, “and you can pick up a bottle of milk of magnesia. I’m so constipated. You can bring it in your pants, and then we’ll put it under my mattress.”
I smile. I hope she continues to give everyone hell for the rest of her days.