This day the air smells like drying leaves. As Jetta, our teacup poodle, and I walk along Mustard Lane, the day is crisp and dry under a cerulean sky, incandescent within the embrace of a bone-warming sun. The last of the summer crickets chirp their final songs, sluggish from the effects of our cooler nights of October. The leaves on the dogwood outside my upstairs studio window have turned cochineal red. A flock of speckled birds came by last week and swallowed every bright red berry on the tree in a half hour, their recapitulation of years past.
I lie awake in bed upstairs at 3:30 a.m. and I hear Emma coughing downstairs in her hospital bed in the living room. I go down to check on her. She has turned on her side and taken the covers with her. Her back is bare but for her nightshirt. I readjust the blankets so she is snug and warm once again. I go out and sit on our front porch behind the 10-foot walnut tree a squirrel planted in our flower bed two years ago when she exchanged it for a tulip bulb. There is little breeze, yet I hear the leaves drop in slow succession – thack … thack … thack … thack-thack. Some are still green – dry with black edges and brown and yellow speckles. A crimson leaf, and then another and another drop from ornamental plum trees lining the brick sidewalk. I feel centered and peaceful at this hour. The circus people, my neighbors two doors up and also across the street, who run rings around us and whose voices could be heard in the back row of the fourth balcony, without a microphone, are asleep, rejuvenating for the next show.
This is my favorite time of year. It could be autumn year round, as far as I’m concerned. But, then, we’d run out of leaves.
Now I sit at my computer to write this. I glance at my surge protector down in a dark corner on the floor, accommodating a tangle of electronics cords. It tells me it’s working, lit up with red and green lights. It reminds me of the city at night in the rain in the winter. That will come. In the rain, the streamlined trolley cars, green and cream with the orange stripe, like a girth holding together the other two colors, slished past Aunt Mary and Uncle Will’s house in West Philadelphia, where they lived when they were my age and for many years before. Our family sat in the formal parlor behind the lace curtains and fringed shades with the tassel pull cords – like Eeyore’s tail – that shielded us from the view of the trolleys and the slick, cobblestone street. And their cuckoo clock: when our great aunt and uncle signaled, my brother and I would rush between the heavy crimson velvet curtains into the dark dining room to watch the wooden bird emerge and proclaim the hour.
Emma’s music therapist, a recent Temple University graduate, where she studied opera, told me that the city of Philadelphia is refurbishing old trolley cars for use. “Really!” I said, my eyes lighting up. “You mean those big, old, heavy, boxy cars that trundled along?” No, the streamlined trolleys, she informed me. Well, when I was a kid, they were the new trolleys. They were built in the 1930s. When my father was a boy in West Philadelphia, he knew the number, schedule and route of every trolley car that passed beneath his family’s upstairs sitting room window. After he retired, he built model trolley cars. When he died at 90 in 2004, we family said he went to trolley car heaven. My sister-in-law carried a keychain with a trolley car on it, a gold color with red and green lights. In the cemetery at Daddy’s funeral, the trolley car fell off, and she had to look around for it in the grass on that hill overlooking the Schuylkill River.
We never ate at Aunt Mary and Uncle Will’s house. I used to wonder what they ate. We ate at other family members’ houses, but not theirs. I knew they had a kitchen, through the swinging door, behind the dining room, and that they had an ice box in there and a stove, but I don’t know what they ate. There was never any sign of food or dirty plates. They spent most of their time upstairs in the front room, the sitting room, watching quiz shows on TV, when they didn’t have company.
At Aunt Mary and Uncle Will’s, the cuckoo clock was the main entertainment for my brother and me; that and the owl on the parlor mantelpiece whose eyes lit up red.
My eyes lit up red when yesterday morning the new aide, who’s been with us two weeks, snapped, “I’m not here to feed the dog, too!” All she had to do was take Jetta off the couch and place her on the floor, and then place her bowl of dog food, I had already set out, on the floor next to Emma when she sat at the table to eat. I explain all duties to the candidate before she is hired, and ask her if they are agreeable to her. I have invested six years in caring for Emma, picking her up off the floor when she fell, bathing her, dressing her, assisting her with eating, wiping her nose, wiping her butt – it is at moments like this latter that the gentle, patient Dr. Patel seems to have a knack for phoning to set up an appointment for a visit.
Watching the leaves drop, listening to the sluggish chirp of the last summer crickets, observing the little things, the subtleties: I am thankful that, in addition to our Hospice nurse, I have two aides, our Hospice aide and another aide who has been with us a year and a half, who notice the small changes in Emma’s condition, or conditions that occur in old people that tend to be brushed aside by the medical profession; for example, Emma’s ears are nearly completely closed and impacted with wax. While I am aware that wax builds up in her ears, as in those of most elderly people, I must confess, I don’t go looking in Emma’s ears regularly, but these two aides do and pointed out the buildup to me today. At this stage, I don’t know what can be done to clean them out, but I will ask. In the past, I have thought of ear candling, because that seems the most effective method of clearing out the ear and sinus passages; and I bought an ear candling kit a few years ago. But, then, I was afraid that if I attempted the procedure myself, that Emma would haul off and whack me and then I’d drop the candle and burn down the house.
Yesterday morning my new aide – I’ll call her Sally Slacker – didn’t put Emma’s undershirt on, but left it folded in the chair by her bed. How could one not notice this? It’s like getting yourself dressed, leaving the house and getting in your car and driving somewhere without putting on your pants. No undershirt is just what we need with the weather changing and Emma’s lying in bed most of the day and being at risk for a pulmonary infection. And since Emma has been coughing lately – I think because her sinuses are draining due to the change in weather – I am watchful. She has prescription cough medication I give her that dries that up instantly. I have been engaged in a surge of interviews to replace Sally Slacker. Would that there were some magic potion to instantly remedy that. But there is none.
Emma is still a human being and deserves to be cared for like any other human being. She is the sluggish cricket, the trolley car that cannot be refurbished, the tree whose leaves will not bud again next spring.
–Samantha, October 10, 2011