September 22, 2011

We Don't Have to Talk

"Will you still need me, will you still feed me..." her singing voice is softer, more childlike than her speaking tone.

"...When I'm 64!" I'd sing on cue, with a flourish.  

She would chuckle.  I'd say something else, try to make her chuckle again, maybe a little scream of laughter.  She'd tell me she's getting old.  Then she'd tell me which politician was pissing her off or which athlete was cute.  She would tell me about the latest movie she saw at the Uptown, or what Bobby the Cleaner said about the hated Red Sox, or her latest Indian dinner.

"So howya doin' kiddo?"

She would have said all these things on her birthday, if she could still talk.

My Aunt Jessica turned 64 this week.  She lives in an assisted living home in Maryland.  She is clean, safe and well fed.  She doesn't get out much.  She doesn't talk, not anymore.  Dementia has ruined her life.  We could talk about the how: How did this happen at such a young age?  Or the why: why why why why why.

Jessica Goldstein has been, at various times, a shy kid, a Phi Beta Kappa student, a Congressional aide, a resident of San Francisco, an owner of a little red convertible, an accountant, a Yankees and Redskins fan, a Sidney Poitier groupie, a Ms. Pac-Man addict, a puzzle lover, at public television hostess, the greatest Trivial Pursuit player I have ever known, a chain smoker, a Chardonnay drinker, a stock guru. a piano player, and a true friend to her three nephews.

She has also lived the private life we all carry within ourselves, the inner voice which cannot be captured in words.  And there is a chance that my Aunt Jessica continues to live that private existence even after most of her external connections have been stripped away. 

When I talk to her on the phone or visit her in person, she gives signs of recognition.  If I tell her a story she enjoys she'll say "exactly! exactly!"  If I mention a sports team or politician she likes, she might make an "mmmm hmmm" sound.  She is thus still connected to the world around her; tenuously, silently, and like a final scene in a Charlie Chaplin movie, trapped inside a bubble of light shrinking quickly, the darkness closing in around her.  

If she can understand me then she still possesses thoughts, and therefore memories, and if so then maybe her days are still full.  Is that good?  I don't know.

My brothers and I never called her Aunt Jessica.  We used the Yiddish word for aunt, Tante, which quickly became Tanti and eventually, Tonsil.  Tonsillitis.  Tonsillectomy.  She loves it. 

I used to tease Jessica that she was “one of” my favorite aunts, but really she is the only relative I knew well outside of my immediate family.  I have no uncles, no first cousins. Tonsil never married, never lived with anyone, never had kids.  Being our aunt is the best and most important thing in her life. 

Tonsil was, for a long time, the person I could confide in above all others.  Her sympathy and advice helped me get through the tough moments.  I would have been lost without her.

At some point I got more preoccupied, needed her less, but she also started acting strangely, drinking more.  She stopped visiting me in New York, would cancel weekend trips at the last minute citing some bizarre excuse.  She lost her job, watched some of her closest friends die from AIDS, cancer and other ailments.  She filed people’s tax returns out of her apartment, supplemented that income with her stock earnings (she made a killing off Disney and Coca Cola), lived frugally, sold her car, and that worked for a while.  Until things started to fall off the cliff, and I won’t recite the events that led to my aunt losing her freedom, her apartment, her entire life, other than to say it was either get her in a home or wait for the inevitable, and it wouldn’t have been a long wait.

I called Tonsil on her birthday.  Our phone calls last 9-10 minutes these days.  They used to go 90-100.  I do all the talking now.  The phone at the assisted-living home rang three times.  A man answered the phone.  I asked for Jessica Goldstein.  The next thing I heard was the man, in the background: “Say hello.  Say hello.  Say hello.  Say hello.” Don’t you think she wants to??? 

I started in.  “Tonsil, it’s Josh!  How’s it going? Doing okay?  How’s the weather?  I heard it’s been raining down there.”  And off we go. 

On her birthday I got three laughs, two “mmm hmmm”s and zero “exactlys,” which might not be coming back.  She listened to me talk about the kids, my brothers, sports, politics, movies, whatever I could think of.  While I rambled on I thought about writing a screenplay in which a teenager is forced to watch his dementia-afflicted grandfather once a week, during which time he ends up sharing his deepest secrets or maybe even a crime committed, the grandfather’s silence proving therapeutic, the son coming to relish these one-sided conversations until…

I could cast Sidney Poitier as the grandfather.

I said goodbye to Tonsil, wished her a happy birthday again, and listened to her put down the phone on the table and walk away, no doubt back to the couch in front of the TV and her spot alongside the left armrest.  She’s at least ten years younger than anyone else in the home.  Her birthday was last week.  She’s 64 years old now.  There isn’t much more left to say.


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