Thursday, August 16, 2007

Jess

So I spent last weekend in Houston. It was 105 degrees and muggy. If it’s that hot how can it be muggy? I’m used to Phoenix where if it’s a 105, and yeah it’s hot, but I can still breathe and my hair remains smooth. In my old age humidity makes my hair frizz like a fright wig. Humidity has never been kind to my hair, when I was younger it would smash close to my head and sit there looking greasy.

The reason I was in Houston is because that’s the hole in the ground where my aunt Jessie has chosen to lay down and die. She lived in Columbus for a few happy years when my mother and I lived there, but Mom and Dad moved to Florida and MDH and I moved to Michigan and we left Jess there all alone. She moved to Texas two years ago to live as a slave labor babysitter to her son P and daughter-in law D. She’s been sick for a really long time and too stubborn to go see a doctor properly and the doctors she has been to have been too stupid to notice the basketball-sized tumor in her stomach and maybe take an x-ray. In between there’s also been a mess with having no insurance.

She basically is riddled with cancer. Starting in her lungs (yes, she smokes), lymph nodes, shoulders, stomach (basketball), and in her bones. She’s in a lot of pain and has been for awhile and never complained. She would pass out from this pain apparently and then act like she didn’t know what was happening and then not let P take her to the emergency room or call an ambulance. She has never wanted to burden P. I’m furious with her. Here’s a list of reasons:
  • She never wants anyone to know that she needs anything.

  • She will lie to cover up pain, illness, inability to pay bills, lack of groceries, busted toilets, broken windows, and lemon cars.

  • She acts like she doesn’t deserve nice things. When you give her a nice gift she will say “ohh that’s too nice” and then put it away and if it’s clothes or jewelry never wear them.

  • She won’t do anything to make herself more comfortable like ride in a rascal at Walmart, wear a hearing aid, or use a cane. “People will look at me” she’ll say, or “People will feel sorry for me”. Like it’s better to sit at home deaf and crippled?

  • She has allowed herself to be ignorant about finances and let the men in her life (3 husbands) be in charge of everything. She has allowed them to beat her, desert her and be twice widowed by men without the common sense to have life insurance, one of whom left her 3 mortgages, neither of these men left her with enough money to pay for their funerals. In both cases she had no idea because they “took care” of everything.

When she lived in Columbus, she had a small apartment blocks from my mother (her sister) and me. My mom helped her open a checking account, she had never had one in her own name, and then had to teach her how to use an ATM machine. Jess had never pumped her own gas. She would drive halfway across town to a gas station she knew had full service. (For those of you young-uns out there in the olden days people didn’t pump their own gas, you pulled up to the pump and a man would come out, ask you what kind of gas you wanted and pump it for you while he washed your windshield and checked your oil). These small gestures of independence were a revelation for her. She was 56.

I never really knew Jess until she moved to Columbus. She had always lived far away, in Marietta, Waterford, (these are both small towns in Southern Ohio near the West Virginia border) and for awhile in Charlotte, North Carolina. While Marietta and Waterford are only a couple of hours drive from Columbus, it might has well have been the other side of the world. We only saw her and P once or twice a year and those occasions were strained. There couldn’t be two more different sisters.


My mother is beautiful, tall and thin and in charge of everything. She has always been the head of our family (don’t tell my dad). My mom is whip-smart, witty, confident, opinionated, graceful and elegant. This was my role model for what a woman should be like and I never felt like I was living up to it. And then there was Jess… even though I rarely saw her, she and I have always had a connection. Mom called us kindred spirits in that we both were creative and quiet. We both have the same kind of bumbling, big-boned awkwardness and a strange combination of loud and shy (we’re also both fat and have bad posture).

At Christmas time I was always allowed to open one present on Christmas Eve and I always chose one of Aunt Jessie’s. I knew that it was going to be something amazing and possibly life changing – like the year I was 7 she sent me what I called the “I Dream of Jeannie” pajamas. It was the 70’s and most children’s pj’s were flannel (and/or flammable) with feet. These were pink gossamer, really more of a costume, they were fabulous and my mom could barely keep them off of me long enough to wash them. My friends would beg me to let them take turns wearing them at sleepovers. These pj’s rocked my world. How did she know I needed them so much?

I was grown when Jess moved to Columbus. Her third husband Herb (she called him Boo) had died and her son P was recently married to D and had been transferred to Houston. Jess had always lived with or near P, but Houston seemed too far away and she didn’t want to go with them. This worked out great for everyone. Jess got a good job and I got to see her whenever I spent time with my mother. They became kind of like a package deal. Mostly we would sit around my mom’s kitchen table on Sunday afternoons, smoking, talking, bitching about our jobs, laughing, and eating, all the while looking through the mountain of catalogs Mom got in the mail every week. “Oooh! Looky here at this! This would look beautiful on you!” or “ Jesus Christ that’s the ugliest damn thing I ever did see”. Both Jess and my mother have amazing laughs. They’re different, but similar in that they are both loud, extended cackling booms. Mom is more of a trill, Jess is more of a long chuckle. Both laughs have a sigh at the end.

The two of them developed breast cancer within a year of each other. Jess had never been to see an OBGYN. Never one to take risks (except for the cigarettes) Mom went every year like clockwork. Jess is more of the mentality that if you don’t know about something then it doesn’t exist. So sure enough when she got her first ever breast exam they found a lump. She acted like it was going to the doctor that had caused this to happen. The tumor was well developed so Jess’s treatment was pretty intensive. She lost a breast and had to undergo chemotherapy, and all the nausea, hair loss and humiliation that come along with it. A year later my mother was diagnosed, but they found the tumor early enough that although traumatic, her treatment was much less severe. She got to keep both her breasts and had radiation. My mother has recovered, quit smoking and is back to nearly her normal self. Jess has never been the same.

Throughout all of Jess’s drama with breast cancer, P never came to see her. Not once.

A couple of years later when my mom and dad moved to Florida I started looking after Jess. I never realized how frail and weak she was until Mom was gone. Before Mom moved Jess would always be at Mom’s house. With her gone, I began to go to Jess’s apartment. I saw that it was the apartment of an old person and that Jess just didn’t have the energy for house keeping. Jess had trouble taking out the trash on her own, it was too heavy so she would leave big bags of stinking trash in her apartment for days until she found the strength to take it to the dumpster herself or I came over and did it for her. She would always act embarrassed and tell me not to, but it was right there by the door stinking away, did she really think I’d keep letting it sit there?

Within a year after Mom left, Jess’s ankle gave out. (Mom, Jess and me all have similar ankle problems but that’s a tale for another day.) She was no longer able to walk and finally went to see an orthopedist who told her she needed to have her ankle fused, which means months and months of recovery. I had had mine fused a few years before and spent months in a cast and on crutches. She was unable to care for herself at home, so she spent 2 weeks in a nursing home after her surgery, then several weeks at home in a wheelchair with a visiting nurse. I took care of her. I took her to all of her doctor appointments, made sure she had groceries, cleaned her apartment and cooked for her etc., etc…

Throughout all of Jess’s drama with ankle fusion, P never came to see her. Not once.

My heart was broken for several reasons when I found out that MDH’s company was transferring him to Grand Rapids. They didn’t even give us a real choice, they implied that he would be fired if we didn’t move. I had never lived anywhere but Columbus for my entire life, 36 years. I had a job I loved, for a company I loved and had for the first time in my life a real chance for advancement. We had a house we loved in a neighborhood we were (and still are) active in. All our friends are still there and I still miss them. With all that the worst part of moving away was leaving Jess there by herself. If I cried over anything it was that.

I called and emailed her as often as I could, but my job was on the road, so it was difficult. MDH and I drove down once every couple of months and every time we saw her we were more and more scared for her. She seemed to be deteriorating right in front of our eyes. She talked crazy, and would cry in the middle of a normal conversation for no reason. She had never quite recovered from her ankle surgery and her “good” ankle now needed to be fused as well. On top of it all, she had always been a star at her job, but they were going through some major computer changes and she was having a hard time learning to use the new system. It was very traumatic for her.

She finally decided to retire and move to Texas to live with P and D. She has 3 grandchildren that she adores, who have never gotten to be around that wacky laugh full time. P and D also have a houseful of cats and dogs, which Jess has always loved.

Her son of course was too busy to go to Columbus to help her move. So MDH and I drove down and helped her pack and get ready. Her son was also too busy to go to Columbus and drive with her to Texas (or she had told him not to - I'm not sure what the real story is) so she was about to embark on the longest car trip she had ever taken, all alone. She had never driven by herself for longer than 2 hours or so – in her entire life. MDH and I Fed Ex’d a care package to her of Yahoo maps and directions and hotel reservations all along the way. We arranged a 3 day route from Columbus to Texas on the easiest roads to navigate as possible (rather than the fastest routes) and worked it so that she wouldn’t drive more than 8 hours each day. P and D bought her a cell phone so that she could call if she got into trouble and also for her to check in with me, P and Mom each night when she got to her hotel and each morning before she left for the day’s drive. She was scared shitless and I called her every day the week before she left to give her pep talks.

Somehow she made it to Houston and I haven’t heard much from her since. She takes care of her grand kids during the day, but doesn’t like to answer the phone because she knows it’s probably not for her. Her hearing is bad so even if you leave a message she can’t hear you talking on the answering machine. So if I want to talk to her I’ve got to call in the evening when P & D are home and either talk to one of them for half an hour before they put her on the phone or explain to one of the kids exactly who I am before they let me talk to her. It’s a royal pain in the ass so mostly I’ve been emailing or sending her funny cards in the mail. Her emails were getting less and less frequent and it seemed like she was never writing me back.


Last spring she went to visit my parent’s in Florida. She had lost almost 100 lbs and had turned a creepy shade of gray. Her laugh has changed and she has almost no mobility (of course she kept walking anyway). Mom took her to Mt. Dora (her favorite little town for shopping) and Jess nearly collapsed and they had to go home. When she left to go back to Texas, Dad said he reckoned it would be the last time they would see her alive. He was right.

She’s not dead yet, but she’s in a nursing home on hospice care. She gets an injection of morphine every 4 hours and a booster every 2. She started getting methadone on Saturday. She continued to smoke more than a pack a day until about 4 weeks ago when she first went into the hospital. She has lost all inhibitions about people staring at her or feeling sorry for her. She took a big shit in front of me on a potty chair in her hospital room within 5 minutes of my arrival and hasn’t had her teeth in for weeks.

P called my mother last Wednesday and said he didn’t think Jess would make it through the weekend. So mom and I were there on Friday. Do you see how easy that was P? You said she needed us and we somehow found a way to get there. Pronto.

Asshole.

She saw my face and I saw hers and we each got to be reminded of how much we love one another. Mom and I sat around her bed and we looked through giant stacks of catalogs to help her pick out a dress to wear in her coffin. It’s morbid, but it's what she said she’d like to do. “Well this would be pretty on you, but that color is dreadful”, “Hey, I can wear high heels on these nasty old ankles and it won’t hurt a bit!”, “maybe I’ll just go barefoot since no one will see my feet anyway”. We laughed, talked, ate, and in a lot of ways it was like being around Mom’s kitchen table except now none of us smoke and every so often Jess would moan in pain, or drift off to sleep.

I haven’t seen P & D for like 12 or 13 years, since right before they left for Texas. D talked about how inconvenient it has been for her to have “Granny” in the hospital because she has had to find someone else to take care of the kids (poor thing - I really feel for ya). P asked me to help him find a nursing care facility (at the time she was still in the regular hospital) and couldn't help but feel as though he was hinting around that maybe I could come and stay with Jess in Houston at their house to take care of her while he and D are at work during the day. I also got the feeling that he was hinting around that if I was unable to do this that maybe my mother could afford to help them pay someone else to do it. He never came out and said it, but it was like he was wording his sentences so that our replies would come as offers to help. Mom said she thought maybe he was just over verbalizing the situation.

Either way - Assholes.

The hospital she is in is near NASA, about an hours drive from the big airport in Houston and since I can’t bear to say the proper name I will call it He Who Will Not Be Named International. My flight left Sunday at 3:30 so I left the hospital at around noon. I hugged her as tight as she could stand and looked into her eyes for the last time. I didn’t cry. I hugged P and told him I loved him. I'm constantly disappointed in him, but I do love him. I squeezed my mom really tight and told her I love her and cried just a little.

I was looking forward to the drive because it would be the first moment I would have had alone for several days. I had been sharing a hotel room with Mom and she wasn’t more than 5 feet away from me for more than 5 minutes at any given moment. She doesn’t even close the bathroom door. Anyway… I stopped at a gas station a mile or so down the road from the hospital to get a bottle of water. The car hadn’t cooled down yet. I got on the highway and drove for about 10 minutes and realized that the car was still not cool. I look at the display in the dashboard - 105 degrees outside. I drive 15 more minutes and realize that I am drenched in sweat and the car is still not cool. I fiddle with the temperature controls wondering if Mom changed some setting (she’s now at that age where she is always cold and constantly fiddling with the air conditioning). Nope, it all looks good. The snowflake light is on, the dial is at full blast, all the vents are open and pointing straight at my head.

Halfway to He Who Will Not Be Named International I realize that my breathing is shallow and that the fucking air conditioning in this fucking rental car is not fucking working. I look at my face in the rearview mirror and notice that I am as red as a steamed lobster and my mascara is sweating off in bluish streaks down cheeks. I drive the rest of the way at a 70mph clip with all the windows rolled down. My hair, already well frizzed, riots around my head in circles and becomes the consistency of a brillo pad.

I start thinking, “I’m going to hug that car rental return agent when I get there”, “I’m almost there and I can get out of this car soon”, “I think I will ask the manager to take the charges off for today, I shouldn’t have to pay for this”. “Jesus Christ save me, I think I’m going to pass out!”. When I get close enough to see the signs for the airport I start to cry. By the time I pull into the rental car return parking garage I am sobbing uncontrollably. Through my tears I work out with the manager the broken air conditioning ordeal and explain to him how lucky he is that I am alive. I hear the sound of my own voice echoing the word “FUCKING” several times in the garage. He gives me the car for free. I realize that I have become hysterical.

I go to the ladies room and see that my white t-shirt has become completely transparent and I have been giving a free show to the entire rental car facility. I splash cold water on my face, wipe off the mascara, reapply, open my suitcase and pull out a clean bra, panties, t-shirt, and jeans and change my clothes in the handicap stall. I cry some more while I’m in there hoping to god that nobody can hear me and ask if I’m ok. I am not ok. I think I am losing my mind. I wipe off the mascara on my face and this time I don’t bother to reapply. I’m exhausted.

I’ve been home for a few days and I’m still exhausted. I still think I'm losing my mind. I'm angry and sad and frustrated. My hair looks better and my mascara isn't running, but I'm grieving.

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