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Five Things I Never Want To Talk About Again
Emerging Writer Series
Every two weeks or so I am publishing an essay from an emerging writer. This week, we are publishing “Five Things I Never Want to Talk About Again” by Joanna Glum. Joanna is a playwright and filmmaker from California. Her works have been featured at the Edinburgh Fringe and Middlebury New Filmmakers Festivals, published in The Brooklyn Review, and recognized or supported by, amongst others, Vermont Studio Center, The Sachs Program for Arts Innovation, American Zoetrope Screenplay Competition, Yefe Nof Core Residency, and the MLA Annual Convention. She is currently developing a feature film (and a play!) about geriatrics, caregiving, and shifting Northern California landscapes. You can find her in her Subaru or at www.joannaglum.com
There’s plenty to talk about. Let’s forget these five.
I can’t imagine that’s their actual name. But I’ve never been good at pastry taxonomy.
So cream puffs you said, and cream puffs I repeat in line at a Solvang bakery whose name I’ve forgotten but whose counter I remember, having spent four days with you one summer down the street in a hotel I didn’t tell you we couldn’t afford, not really.
But we made it work, and the man at the counter makes it work as I point to cream puff like dessert’s a language I’m learning. My friends wait in a corner somewhere, smelling a sourdough and the Danish kitsch of a town whose economy I imagine rests on Sideways and some kind of California tradition. (One day, I’ll remember to tell you how a Hallmark movie had it snow there, where no snow has ever been known. As if the quaint windmill reality couldn’t be imagined in the drying, dying Central Coast.)
We drive out of town with cream puffs in tow; having done it once with you, I no longer need to look at a map, a main street memory unlocked behind the wheel.
“Are you sure they’ll make it?” I’m asked. But I’ve done this before, en route from a southern city I never liked (and never gave a chance) through to San Luis Obispo where I spent the weekend with the kind of friend folks can look to to see what they looked like, once. An old friend, who knew you when. I asked to use her fridge.
Cream puffs did nothing to clarify. That they were for you, did. Your name an absolution for my incomprehensible behavior – up to a point.
When I bring them to you, finally, your face will expand, though not your stomach, and you’ll eat half and forget the rest to rot beyond recognition in the freezer.
“Cream puff!” you’ll shout into the tray, “cream puff!” into the tray you once offered me when I might’ve shouted through half-grown adult teeth ice cream! ice cream!, repetition the territory of children and enthusiasts. And you.
The Trouble with Angels (and other Nuns).
You know it well.
Disney darling post-puberty Hayley Mills and whatsherface are fast friends and faster bastards-in-arms at a boarding high school for girls – run by nuns. Rosalind Russell purrs her way through tsk after tsk but lends her fuller weight to the moments that chastise Hayley Mills for being such a little dick. Rosalind knows, yeah?, that whatsherface is just following this charismatic strawberry blonde, and, oh, how she’s got leader potential. Hayley’s also the one who finds Rosalind in the full-bodied impact of her asides: about a fellow nun (whom the pair had mocked and) who, as it were, housed Jewish refugees during the War; or during a Christmastime visit to a nursing home as Rosalind (Mother Superior, I ought add) holds a woman twice her middle-age as the elder laments, “my children said I could have a Christmas at their house, but they didn’t come. Ihadgiftsforthem-.” Hayley Mills watches it all, truly watches (how she passes another elderly resident, alone, cheeping at a small bird, alone, held in a Christmas cage.) Mother Superior catches her watching, and Hayley, naturally, says,
“I hope I die young!”
“And very wealthy,” she adds.
But you know all this! Not even the highlights, what with burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee making a cameo (Gypsy, Joanna, from Gypsy!) and a rather funny bit involving tours of Superior’s bedroom and oh, my god, I would’ve died! you say.
I never would’ve. We were so scared! you say. How much that film reminds you of high school, way back in an early 40s Chicago. Your time with the nuns (and you’re not even Catholic.)
I learned quickly, though, that this familiar energy was not always welcome. In fact, you’ll isn’t there anything else when I ask to watch it twice in a Christmas, having learned Ida Lupino directed and of course a woman did! Elderly women chirping to their alone birds on their alone holidays!, even then, in my over-researched preamble, you only finally and begrudgingly agree.
Because you’ve seen this before, seen a more faithful version of it all, back behind your eyes somewhere. So you remember aloud while I connect the dots around my prepubescent fascination with post-pubescent strawberry blondes, a gravitational pull from the navel toward an unspoken, undeniable sense of an aborted something (anything!) as, inevitably, she joins the order. And so she must move away from her magnetic friendship with whatsherface, away from a future together (together!), away from what might’ve been (and what it might have been I wouldn’t fill in till later, at which point I knew you and I had nothing to discuss.)
So I let you do the talking.
She was our history teacher, but, oh let me tell you
And you do
She was something else.
She’d say to us, she’d say:
Every time you come across a word you don’t know,
Write it down
So that way, you know
You look it up later.
And she was our history teacher! But, oooooh
And your voice shakes on a fault line
She was smart as a whip. They all were. All those nuns.
And so I did
Always had a little slip of paper in whatever book I was reading and
So do I. I keep a notebook, though, and that’s the possessive in me. I labeled it, “words, words, words,” a bad joke for just myself. Full of the good advice of a long-dead nun.
I tell you this at some point, courting a viewing, and I say how I think of her, your history teacher from way back. I say:
“I thank Sr. Ildefonce every time!”
And what I thought would land warmly has landed pointedly, and you tear up.
“She was magnificent,” you say.
“She was something else,” and you cry.
So when I write velodrome and panegyric and effluvia in my little red notebook, I remember, more, your tears and something else. New words from an old habit.
We’re stumbling out of a house in South Philly that my best friend calls home. A few blocks from the Italian Market (In Rocky, you ever see Rocky? Anyway-), we’re making our way into the day, one she’s taken off and one I’ve given myself from the pockets of my underemployment. It’s been a year or so with you, and so I make my semi-annual tour meeting the folks who make up the living in the lives of everyone I love.
We’re barely out the house before I stop us dead on Christian, right in from of him. Dead at 38, that glittering heartthrob of the midcentury opera world gone faster than anyone will take the time to Google. Just another guy, dead and immortalized on the kind of sign that’s unremarkable and unfashionable in a city that shouts its history.
But I shout in kind. The way Mario Lanza hasn’t earned in decades, hadn’t earned even then, outside of certain circles. And my buddy, best as she is, remembering when she caught me in my first fresh snow, thrilled by the unremarkable, the unfashionable, she promises to take me to the park named in this tenor’s honor, just a few blocks down.
I think about calling you then and there, but:
We’ve got somewhere to be, on our way, this friend leading through tapas and coffee shops and that one place they go to dance with the friends with whom they share their Tuesdays. I’ll join in that night, tourist in the lives of others, where over dinner with friends of friends we’ll make plans for that Wednesday, for that promised walk in a park.
We get caught in a no really. No, really, I would love to see that park named after that dead tenor!, after who? Not sure if they’re in or out of the joke, I watch the indecision in these strangers’ smiles and clarify: “I’m really just 90.”
Ah! Ha? Ha ha ha on we move. Through Tuesday, through Wednesday, through pushes and pulls in the direction of a collective inertia. I’m led by half-recollection and people who know exactly what lies where on that walkable city grid, who know home as a muscle memory. In this cobbled group of best and friends of, we find ourselves a Lucy Dacus concert, the one I drove in for, and I buy a round I can’t afford, not really. But it’s worth the price of a cheers to a stranger’s hospitality (that they might become less strange.) We drink, and we dance – too much, apparently. So much that the folks sat near us at the sticky Philly venue, there for a folk concert, clear out from the entire section, and we’re left to our own good time, shouting at the strings. And it is a good time.
I’ll call you, finally, making up for the failure against my everyday schedule (call me every day! you said before I left the country to be myself elsewhere for a moment, and so I did, every day.) You run through the what, where, who were you with, and when I say concert, I regret immediately telling you the truth, like always. This time, only because it’s an inconvenience to explain. An inconvenience to again rupture your notion that our tastes ever could diverge. And I can’t exactly describe that my-age mezzo like I did to others (as your favorite aunt who finds a guitar somewhere in a corner and plays to herself until all of the party’s gathered round her.) You won’t know I mean that as the highest kind of compliment.
So I just say, “a folk concert,” and you, “ah,” so, “I don’t know that it’s for you,” and you, “it’s not,” like I knew you would. So I, “by the way, guess who-!” and Mario Lanza earns himself another gasp.
I hear your mouth lift from across the country. How it pulls itself from its perennial ache and daily contortions into something you might better recognize in a mirror. Something to draw a smile-line from you, now, to you, then, beaming beyond the borders of your cheeks for some singer in their 20s when you were in your 20s. Something more like you.
“Did you ever see him in-?!” Yeah. You showed me.
After we hang up, I’ll text a picture of Mario Lanza Park to Dad to give you. You’ll call again, asking vague questions about Philadelphia geography, “and who is that with you?”
I don’t remember her name, friend of friend. I won’t remember until I make the trip a few more times, enough to worry that some day, somehow, in the getting to know me better, I’ll rupture that pleasant notion they had from that first night when I stuck around long enough to leave no trace but a fond memory. (Oh, kiddo, I lol on the reread. Still-)
I say she’s great (and I mean it), and you say, “you look like you’re having fun.”
I’d look at the photo later and think the same. How broad her smile (which matched mine), how broken my Birkenstocks (which matched hers), how navel-gazingly I’d forgotten that someone near like me smiled for Mario Lanza, too, and she’d never even heard of him.
Lady Bird! Joan Didion! That’s the capital, right!
If you’re a woman of a certain age and you happen to be from Sacramento, you’re met with a few responses. None bad, not really. (Here I am, telling myself a story in order to – )
But our heroes are known for coming from this hometown; none for being in it. Outside of a basketball team that hit its fever pitch in 2002 and hopes toward a 2023 revival, much of Sacramento flies auspiciously under the radar, leaving east coast ex-pats to whisper fondly of its diamond in the roughness and locals to pass around the hushed pride of its champions.
There’s a studio, somewhere, in which Wayne Thiebaud made his once-place (rest in peace, prettily amongst ice cream, a slice of pie.) There’s The Sacramento Observer, which for six quiet decades has become one of the top Black newspapers in America, family-run and published weekly. There’s the office at a State College once dedicated to the woman who made a clandestine living off lesbian pulp fiction in the 50s (and did you meet dear Ann Bannon back in Champaign-Urbana when you overlapped unknowingly as undergrads, and did either of you know you’d soon spend your forevers in such a, per your claim, cow town?)
I’ve found context for Sacramento driving through Harrisburg, through Albany and Springfield, thinking, “huh! This is the capital,” as I move on and decide to get gas elsewhere with more personality. Which is to say: I don’t necessarily blame folks when they claim, “I went to the railroad museum once. It wasn’t very good,” and never return to town.
But I’m happy to have grown there. I was never bothered much by questions of an afterlife, though, even as a kid in Catholic grade school, not even Catholic, knowing my synapses would snap and body extinguish, and I’d be no more aware of after than anybody else. So perhaps I’m happy to have grown in Sacramento because I will never have another beforelife.
Though, I suppose, there’s nothing before about it.
I’m in Sacramento right now.
I’m sweeping and keeping the halls in Sacramento that I swept and kept a decade ago.
I’m here, overgrown in this starter-home that overstayed your aspirations, falling asleep in this museum of myself, outside of the hallway that cracks and the bathroom that molds and the kitchen that courts a whole host of pantry moths. I do what I can when I’m around. Do what you no longer can, though you would if you could. (I never did remember the mess when you could take that one small step into the kitchen all on your own.) But I do what I can when I’m around, and I’ve been around, on and off, for the last 9 years. The moths, inevitably, return.
Friends, too, inevitably return to town on holidays and capstone days (a baby shower here, a birthday there), and I have to remember to check myself when they ask to hang. Hang like home for the holidays is a time to catch up with old friends, who knew you when, nothing but potential too big to be held by its roots. Hang, like we’re all taking a break from the everyday.
But you’ve been, for better or worse, my everyday. Everyday with the neuropathy and pressure sores and calls from the other room my neck, could you, I’m in spasm!
Sacramento means you.
I had prepared something. It was full of asides about maggots in neglected nursing home residents’ feeding tubes (Longwood Manor, Los Angeles). Stats about private equity firms that own 11% of all facilities within the 70% of the nursing/assisted-living “industry” that’s run for profit (America) and those locked in litigation for 24 deaths at one facility, one nurse to 27 Covid-positive patients (the State we call home.) Secondhand quotes from leading Bay Area physicians who referred to geriatrics as, “veterinary medicine” (over coffee with a student on rotation, a friend who’s never lied.)
It neatly put you behind the infrastructural failures of a country that still shoots up its veins the myth of “independence,” and so has no time for those defined by their dependence, still WASP stings the nation with preachings of, “productivity,” and so continues to founding father in the villainization of those who no longer “produce.” I even wrote off the back of produce, “you no more than the history that made me and me no more than your chance to let it out that you won’t die from choking on all of the you inside.” Such lines! And you yet stuck inside them.
So it was I gave myself a headache writing a version of you that might justify a version of me. A version of us that can be spotted in America by Bosch, the third part of the triptych, Elderhood if you’ve opened it. Though Dr. Aronson hopes aloud that others might pay attention, rallies to reframe for a future better than the current state I declaim (we live in hell! the group chat says in the face of another longform, well-intentioned and well-read, passing around commiseration like it’s something made for us, which, one day, it might be. Another line.)
I hid you behind the dire state of aging in America in the same breath that I offered up a mission to see the person behind the old person.
And then I did it again. Even in the revision.
All caught up in the national $4957/month average for in-home care against the monthly average $1670 Social Security check against the 5.8 million seniors living in poverty against the way Medicaid claims families’ homes against the costs “incurred” by the newly dead, rarely white, always low-income, who sought just a place to lay a final head, and with 34% of the 42 million American caregivers unemployed, 60% working (and some more than one job) without promise of advancement or security, sandwich generations pressed between children, elders, & euphemisms and the whole work-to-die-near-destitute model feeding off a cycle of its own making, I left myself to wonder if it is a joke I make when I say I mean to die in a car crash off the California One, late 70s, a blaze of glory before disuse and infirmity can take me, familiar language of familiar patterns (I hope I die young and very wealthy!!), and wouldn’t you hope something would’ve changed by now?
But folks can read AARP’s 2020 report themselves. They can read about the nursing homes and the owners who don’t enter them, check out the Elder Index, and crunch the very American numbers against the cheery investors' forecast for the multi-billion dollar elder care industry. They can read advice column after well-written column urging and urging families to make a care plan before the inevitable hits the fan. That all presumes the well-read aren’t the already well underway this gradually-then-all-at-once kind of life, aren’t those who know they’re a footnote afterthought on the agenda of all them who tuck the yeast infections and bed sores and cognitive degeneration and spiritually violent isolation and public-facing shits all into corners for others to deal with. That all presumes they don’t already wake up, make their bed, brush their teeth, fix their coffee and bag their lunch, pocket their phone, keys, wallet, turn the key in the lock, and head out for their day, their world, when their pocket begins to vibrate. An incessant, clawing tug back into the house and did you pick up the Clonidine? I’m allergic to generic! You have to- empty the bedside commode, and you’re out of Calmospetine, now, a barrier cream for all the hidden crevices of the body, have to buy some, but what’s for lunch? and where’s the remote? could you reach for it, I can’t-, it’s this arthritis, gnawing, nagging, body breaking against itself, and the doctor, oh, we’ll be late! The robe, watch the shoulder, can’t go looking like some old- x-ray and blood work and this blood pressure monitor won’t work, DNR, if I stroke, DNR!, I won’t end up a vegetable, vege—is it dinner already? oh, where you going? I’m lonely.
I don’t say this to you. I never would. “‘Getting old ain’t for sissies,’ that’s what Bette Davis said,” you refrain. So we leave it at that, and I spare you knowing your name’s on this flag I wave boldly to no one in particular, playing my invisible trumpet at the walls of nursing home industrial complex and hoping there’ll be a different, better option for all who want to have just one job, see just one movie, think of just themselves and not the words duty, obligation, culture, codependence, love when they make a moment for themselves and, hypothetical-willing, know it’s not at the expense of another. Something, too, for those of us who’d like to see the ones we love have a choice to die where they lived, where to die like cats and dogs choose—and not just because they’re caught between their wallet and a hard place—and spend their afternoons swapping stories from the couch, enjoying the company and knowing it’s not at the expense of their living, knowing it need not be justified in long or short form to be justifiable.
Hoping someone will finally smash a brick (again, again, again, again-) on whoever it was said the economy was more important than lives like yours—lives like theirs soon.
And so look—I’ve lost you once, twice more, even when I said I wouldn’t. I can’t seem to help myself. Maybe you’d prefer that, though. You thought you’d had some say in where you spent your later years, but this is nowhere you’d like to be at all (and you were always very private.) Maybe I lose you willingly, knowing we’re two drops faring comparatively étsi ki étsi in a bucket bigger than a couple paragraphs could contain, and anyway, everyone cares about their grandma, everyone cares about everyone, so what’s the big deal? Others have said it all better and before.
Maybe I just knew this would sound nothing like you.
As though you’re the Disney movies you stream over ceaseless nights in your 90s, you were such a cute baby, oh I wish you were- playing under the “Bella Notte” you will it to be.
As though you’re the way you crawled through the jungle gym, late 60s, after a two-year old whose hip dysplasia you exercised into a granddaughter who’d take a running leap at life and so, as society intended, away from you.
Or how you sang a song from a midcentury musical under the window of your not-yet-husband, early 20s and enamored just by the street where he lived, enamored the way only the not-yet can be.
How you kept a notecard over the pantry—when in doubt, do the kindest thing—and how your adult children would scoff as they walked by, scoff at your reminder—hope, maybe—to be your better self.
How you still grope for the modesty wrenched from rheumatic knuckles years ago when first your shower became our shower, stepping into the cracking tile opposite the long-forgotten tub in which you used to soak my eczema in oatmeal, my cocker spaniel playmate lapping at the sides, me laughing at him, you laughing at me, neither yet knowing just how much time we’d spend together, a pair, in that collapsing bathroom.
World-willing, I’ll have thousands of showers left in my days, some alone, some not. Even so, there’ll be no words in any notebook that know what you and I know, there, scrubbing at the privacy you can no longer reach, Lotrimin in the corners of you only your mother, your husband, your doctor, and I have touched. No words for the night terrors from the next room as you dream your dead husband’s cheating on you, again.
Nothing to know the feeling of late nights googling in the middle of a locked-down pandemic the names of old friends, who knew you when, and how I caffeinated happily until 2 a.m. to give you the comfort of knowledge even if found only in obituaries, and as we made our way through three, four, 10 names until landing upon the one that made you weep full-bodied weeps, I held you at angles awkward, you in your Barcalounger, me above.
You wept into the undershirt of my grandfather’s I kept while clearing out his sweaters, body no longer. I found myself, there, wishing it wasn’t me who was. I willed my body into proxy for the ones you would’ve kept close, had they not been halfway across the country and your replaced joints threatened to scream at the impossibly-crossed TSA checkpoint. Them who knew you when your hair was darker than mine, who knew you when you were Elaine and not mom, certainly not grandma. Because, really, who am I, this kid who’s known you a quarter of your life? -!!! that you might remember what it was like to have all parts (before, during, after) held in one, by one.
I printed out a picture of her, your Lucia, the one whose obituary made you weep. It was 3 a.m. by then, the witching hour of which I’ve always let myself be wary. But it’s easier to be brave for others, and don’t you think? I put the little pixelated Lucia by the candle you ask me to light when you think of your mother. Two pictures, actually. Lucia on the left, Lucia on the right; before (young), after (not so). She’s smiling more broadly in the latter.
I haven’t found the will or the right question to ask you why it is you cried for her most, still cry for her some nights, sigh for her as we drive past the street where she used to live. I don’t need to know, really, what makes anyone grieve the people with whom they shared their life as they wanted and as it became. I don’t need to know what it is to miss a friend.
Mine ask me about you the way they ask others about a girlfriend, a new baby. They know you at your worst, sometimes, more than your best (manipulative, a once-buddy said, when you threw a shoe from your room at our adjoining bedroom wall, my adolescent attention drawn to a woman with a nose ring, away from you, your sense that mine was yours to own). They know you by your fits and expectations never met, never communicated just as well they know you by the way you eat ice cream for dinner, say if I were 20 years younger! at some screentime hunk (TheoJameshe’sGreeeeeeeeek!), speak yourself into all your memories with the same vim and vigor you might’ve had 60 years ago and how your favorites to tell are the ones in which you were wronged and, then, avenged. They love you, your name an excuse for my behavior (up to a point). And they know you as much as they don’t know you. Just as we don’t know each other. Not really.
You don’t even know I’m here. How I write you knowing you’ll never read this and euphemize me just in case you do. How I wish this sounded more like Diane Seuss or Sarah Ruhl and how you wouldn’t like them at all. I wonder if there’s something in the Sacramento water. Wonder if I’ll ever tell Greta you said it first I love him but I don’t like him before Lady Bird ever had the chance to ask. Maybe that’s just having kids, and I’m sure I’ve felt the same about you. Sure I felt the same, just then, condescending to you. You’re not my kid, even if you wouldn’t be able to feed yourself on your own. You wouldn’t want to know I’ll never have them, and you wouldn’t believe me if I said it weren’t for years already spent changing condom catheters. You wouldn’t like that. Your love, unconditional; your preference, well. So I keep mine to myself that I might drive you to the doctor in peace. A belief in trade over loss.
You will never listen to my Mario Lanza (Frightened Rabbit gone too soon), know truly my Sister Ildefonce (who kept the Catholic school setting, but directed a play instead). You will never know them to whom I’ve written morning-after-post-its of endearment, though you’d’ve loved her, too.
You will never know the parts, warts and all that self-define, that carry me on.
But you are the part of me I will never be able to carry out of the house you can no longer leave on your own. Before either of us knew it, we became just that, couch-bound in front of a television watching others mosey about their lives like it’s a matter of course, watching each other boil to the brim at the seams of ourselves, and, not knowing whether the other can piece it all together again, not knowing whether we even want to, we talk about cream puffs and put on a movie with nuns instead.
There’s no reason any of this should come up in conversation. None of it will affect my day-to-day, not really. I won’t lose any relationship that will come to mean the world to me because their world doesn’t include a dead tenor. (Even if fluency in Turner Classic Movies is a kind of foreplay.)
But all of this will turn into the three languages you spoke before you were three. How three turned to two turned to one as your own yiayia took her adopted Turkish with her, your mom her Greek. Words will bubble up in the evening, those nights when someone does something particularly awful on some Tory-fantasy soap opera, and you’ll scrounge for a curse that can only be summoned properly in your parents’ language. You’ll try to translate, “garlic in your eye, onion in your heart,” but it loses something to the puritan tongue, the way I miss just a pinch of the recipes written in a hand that can no longer bring them to life. And yet you ask, week after week, for something to taste like how you remember, something like how you were.
And just as you didn’t need your Turkish, your Greek to live through your 97 years (and counting), to raise a family and then another, to mediate migraines and mortgages, hysterectomies and hip replacements, every crumbled-paper heartbreak and the daily mundanes that make up a century of life, the loss of Sister Ildefonce won’t really bother me. Other tourists will keep the Solvang bakeries in business, and I’ll put my headphones on if ever I want to listen to a crooning Italian in public (because, I mean, Jesus Christ.)
I will eat and sleep and dress and go out on the town where I’ll know just how to say, “I’m geriatric,” whenever I let something slip in black and white, thinking, maybe, someone’s seen that film, too. Who cares, really, if they haven’t. (Who! Cares!)
There will come a day in the future where I’ll catch myself talking about your birthday on a day folks mostly know as Christmas Eve. I’ll tell them across from me all about you and, for the first time in years, it’ll sound like you and not the mess I make trying to untangle you from us, knowing. I’ll give her the parts of you that make a good story now that they no longer need to mean a good life, no longer the parts of you I trot into the world that you may be out in it again, that all might know you are still rattling around in the homebound body that’s snatched you away.
I’ll play her a favorite of yours or a favorite of mine, close enough. Elina Garança, some Saint-Saëns, something you’d held on pause until I returned Joanna, you gotta watch-! And who knows what this dear hypothetical might say or do, but I am nothing if not consistent. So I know, there, I’ll pray for reverence. The kind the sits back quietly, eyes closed, says, “listen to that voice,” and does just that.
And this dear hypothetical will fail even if she doesn’t.
No matter what she does, how she feels, how tight her eyes shut, she will never hear what I’d wanted her to. I will never hear (again) what I’d wanted. I’ll come to fear the day someone says cream puff and thinks they’re talking about dessert. I’ll loathe the moment they scroll past some old film and think that’s camp! (I promise it’s not.) I’ll hate the days, like today, when I say you and all I can think to offer are the faces of a national crisis and some anecdote bound up in an old cassette.
Because, truth is, I’m so fucking tired of talking about you.
Back when I moved back truly, fully, we tried finding someone to help with the at-home care now that your husband, the man who retiled the bathroom all himself, graduated from perma-barcalounger to the hospital bed from which he’d stand over the next 3 years only for holiday meals and bowel movements recorded on a deskside notebook. You saw him only at those meals.
A woman I need to email back (and thank you for checking in) referred me to a man a couple years younger than me, finishing up at that local state college his degree in gerontology. Any thoughts of a collab were quickly scuttled, money and schedules, oh my. We chatted about the people that raised us to be ourselves, and he showed me a picture of the ones he left behind. There he was, hands all wrapped around those of his abuela’s. There they were, in bed together, in the kind of intergenerational, maternal closeness all the Rugged Independents taught us to be self-conscious about ever letting outside the house.
He was there with me because she insisted that he be—elsewhere, living the life she’d hoped for him. He told me that, and he told me he missed her, and this is not a new story.
We learn early the word for tragedy. Learn, soon, words for grief, too, sure. I’m the first to refer to the right to die cause when I think of those last years my grandfather spent making miserable conversation with his broken memories, disavowing the night, kept going because…? Still, I wonder what words we deny when we say but they lived a good life, which, of course, means a life long enough to be judged old. The words that only a health system built to maintain longevity but not quality of life can produce (if you’ve the money, the access, the Norm-fit). The words for watching someone watch themselves self-abandon, gradually then all at once. The crying over lost wrinkles becomes either a matter of pay-no-mind course or a cause for outrage, tragedy even, if only attached to the too-true numbers that make them victims of capitalism and a culture that has no time for those without much left.
Somewhere, maybe, there’s a nun and her notebook filled with the words for the in-between.
This isn’t a new story, not even mine. Ask anyone who’s cared for another, you’ll find it – the words of those who’ve done everything for another and not much with them anymore, working so hard to maintain their life that they lose time to share in it with them. Words of hope (put my feet up, reach this itch, look – it’s us) to divest from the roles they must necessarily play (I take care of you, I need you to) and know each other as though their hair were darker and could be brushed all on its own, done up for the hell of it, and where would you take me, if you could?
For all the talk of caregiving and geriatrics, that’s really less to do with you than it is a firm belief in the right inherent to company. All of us worthy until proven otherwise, and not the other way around. (And don’t worry, enough of you in me, even on my good days I’ve a long list of those I feel firmly don’t deserve the company.)
Now he’s retired and my grandfather’s gone, Dad gives you meals once, twice, three times a day. Every year, the old women on the screen grow younger and younger than you, them on their alone holiday, you watching by the light of the keep-company glow. You take your shower near often enough, and Dad goes to sleep in the bedroom that used to be yours while you make conversation with the cats. We get by. Yet you are still there. And I know what it is to buy a coffee from a barista just for a shot of small talk to hear myself be heard.
You taught me to make it on a plastic Hamilton Beach. You’d say how I took after your mom, her mom, in my too-many-cups a day. You blushed when you remembered yourself back to college, brewing large-batch coffee with some football player’s undershirt when the filter went missing, and you didn’t even take him up on that offer for a date (he would’ve crushed me! you said practically). I’d wake up at 5am in the 5th grade to press brew for you and watch Golden Girls. Only later would I find that was less your idea than mine, them far too ridiculous for your taste (and you were always very serious.) But they looked like you and acted like me, and so we roleplayed likeness until it became true.
You weren’t perfect, not that it matters. My thoughts aren’t perfect, not even big. How average it all is, wishing the passenger seat weren’t empty. How average, admitting it. How ordinary, you growing old and me simply older, simply watching. You call me your little buddy, and I wish I weren’t your last remaining. I wish I could’ve known you when we might have been. Maybe, maybe not (but when in doubt do the kindest thing I have to hope a different time might’ve let you blossom into a truer kind of you.) You raised me, and I hope you felt it a choice as I hope to remember the one I’ve made the last decade, even if, sometimes, under duress of all the dysfunction around us.
You raised me. Kept my aspirations safe under the dysfunction all around us. But that’s not why I’m here, not really. Others will read that and see transaction, something paid on return. They’ll get it wrong because it’s impossible to get it right. That’s not on them.
Like any other intimate anything in every other anonymous living room, we’ve made our own language. I could sit here gesturing towards it until I die, cruelly bandying you about as if your individuality were a show pony made to validate all the attention spent on you, reincarnating the person trapped in old photographs that we might find something beneath the old worth all the company. But I held a woman four times my age not because she’s in my blood, not because she raised me, but because being held should be unconditional, and wouldn’t you want an audience for your last days of did I ever tell you?
I don’t feel close to you, not in the way of being known in my nooks and crannies, but I am closer to you than . Like any other intimate language, ours is one of collapses, the more time together, the less need be said, the way I know it’d be best to offer you a pain pill and a bit more of my attention, shutting my laptop and out the world to which you’ve no access when you ask to watch My Fair Lady for the third time in as many weeks. The way you say how you feel like a person when I put lotion on your legs once you’re clean again for another week of sitting, and the way I know you mean I wish I could be who I was. Or, maybe, thank you. The way cream puffs and Mario Lanza aren’t themselves. They’re connective tissue, me to you, and you won’t find them in any dictionary.
When you go, I’ll be the last native speaker of us.
So let’s just forget it.
Sometime in the future, the friends who’ve become my family might build on their own, and some little one might ask what does this word mean? Beyond ways even her family might’ve imagined, Sister Ildefonce will be back once more. As will your mom, her mom, over my third cup of the day. I’ll pass pieces of them, pieces of you on, propagating new growth from what you once planted, living, hopefully, the life you’d hoped for them, for me, for yourself.
They might even ask and what were you like when you were my age? (How lucky that anyone might be so curious.) If they do, I’ll tell this little one all about me which will be all about you. I’ll offer up this you that can be found in think pieces and longforms, anecdotes and old notes. It will be you, and it won’t. It’ll all come to a head, an abrupt end, and as you’ve said to me many times about characters I read in history books, the sepia-people who lived in your full-colored company, who made your life what it was as it was lived, I’ll sum it all up with you would’ve loved her. And that will be that.
I’ve no appetite for the exegesis on a dead language that had once a life of its own, could grow and expand beyond the captivity of a textbook boundary. I’ve given myself a headache writing and rewriting on top of what, in your parents’ native language, had already more words to its name than this puritan space could hold. Philia, agape, storge all fine; I’d argue for the xenia. And so I have – given myself a headache making a case for what’s already been known for ages as that moral obligation to make at home the stranger in your living room.
I’ve given myself a headache talking my way away from saying: how lucky I am that you are not so.
So I don’t want to be talking about you. Not at all.
Because I really ought be talking to you.
I hope you pick up the phone.