Good morning, everyone! Greetings again from Washington State. We seem to have found the “perfect” house. We saw it online first and were excited about it, but this time the pictures actually match the hype! Of course, there’s the little matter of selling the house in Houston, but that’s another story. In the meantime, these photos are a little gift ordered up by the local chamber of commerce. 🙂
Meanwhile, the ladies at The Foreign Language of Friends are getting more stressed out about their lives. In this chapter, Ellen starts to recognize the value of having someone to talk to. If you’re just joining this blog, I post new chapters each Friday…or, you can purchase the entire book for the low, low price of $1.99 on Amazon.com! A print version will be available soon.
CHAPTER NINE – JUNE 28
After the latest emergency room scare, Ellen’s father returned to the nursing home, his hip not broken, though he was badly bruised. She reminded herself that the fall was not serious, but it didn’t ease her worries. She spent the bulk of the day working on the new writing job, then decided to visit her parents to make sure they were okay. Part of her wanted to keep working and avoid facing them, but her sense of duty overruled. She scolded herself for her resentment. After all, she no longer had to care for them 24/7, right? Yet she felt bone weary. Though she had always assumed she would have children, she felt relieved not to have that responsibility, too. Just an hour, she told herself. Go see them for an hour. You owe them that much. Eventually, she coaxed herself outside, to the car, and over to The Venice.
Taking a deep breath, she opened one of the ornate double doors and went inside. She listened to the sound of her shoes clop, clop, clopping on the shiny floors. She regretted changing from her usual shorts and tank top to a slacks outfit with pumps, wishing she didn’t feel the need to impress the staff. Did she really think that dressing up would make her look like a better daughter, not some mean ungrateful child who put her parents away?
The building nearly shouted its scrubbed bacterial-free environment. Sunlight streamed in, some of it shining in the eyes of the residents, whose wheelchairs hadn’t moved since after breakfast. They were lined up along the walls, staring vacantly ahead, many of them restrained, and no one seeming to pay attention to anything but their own mysterious inner thoughts. From time to time one of the residents screamed. Even so, the entire staff looked oh so cheerful, and how was she today, and wasn’t it a great day? Ellen wanted to throw up.
Heading toward her parents’ room, she reminded herself to be grateful. The Venice offered her parents care that Ellen was ill-equipped to provide. Cleaning women bustled up and down the halls all day. Her parents were fed well, with meals far more sumptuous than Ellen could ever conceive of, much less execute. It ought to be good, for all this place costs. Thankfully, her parents had lived a frugal lifestyle, so staying in the home was not a problem. They had always played by the rules, working hard, sacrificing, putting away for a rainy day. She wished they had saved a little less and celebrated life a little more. They had always planned to travel but never did, and by the time they were ready Mother’s disease had robbed them of their opportunity. Her father gave up after that, leaving Ellen to suddenly play the role of parent to the people who had raised her.
She found them side by side, in their wheelchairs, holding hands, smiling like shy children who have fallen in love for the first time. Ellen breathed a sigh of relief. At least they knew each other today.
“How are you doing, guys?” she asked, keeping her voice bright and cheery. Must be the effect of this place, she thought. I’m starting to talk like the staff.
“Hello,” her father said, leaning his forehead toward her as she kissed it. “They’re not very nice in this place. I seem to have hurt myself, and now I can’t walk at all.”
“What happened?” she asked, though she already knew. She had learned to play this game with her parents to find out how well their brains were working on a given day.
“I’m not sure. I think someone pushed me,” he said. “There’s a man down the hall who has tried to break into our room, and I think it might have been him.”
“Is that right?” Ellen asked. She pulled up a chair, studying her mother, who sat silently, staring at nothing. “Mom, is that what happened?”
Her mother turned toward her, gazing at Ellen with vacant, gray eyes. “Are you the girl who’s bringing me my lunch?” she asked. “Because if that’s the case, I want you to make sure it’s hot this time. The food is never hot.”
“No, Mom, it’s Ellen.”
“Oh?” Her mother studied Ellen more closely. “I don’t have a daugh-
ter.” She recoiled, her childlike face filled with suspicion. “Who are you, really? What do you want from me?”
Ellen stepped back at the sound of her mother’s agitation. It wasn’t the first time that her mother didn’t recognize her, but she had never lashed out before. “Sorry,” she mumbled. Rattled and helpless, she stood up and backed away, not knowing what to do. Before she knew it, she had rushed out of the room and run to the nurses’ desk. She stood there, wide-eyed, feeling suddenly foolish.
“Oh, hi, Ellen,” said Virginia. The head nurse, who looked to be in her mid-fifties, had been reviewing a file, where every page lay in perfect alignment with the others. When she saw Ellen, she closed it and placed it in a basket. Every item on her desk had found its perfect place, with nothing extraneous creating clutter. Ellen knew Virginia to be a no-nonsense woman who had worked at the facility for years and always spoke with authority. “Your father is doing much better than expected. He must have amazing bones for a man his age.”
“He’s pretty bruised, though.”
“Well, remember the CAT scan that they did – all clear, so he’ll be fine. All that bruising will be gone in a few weeks, and he’s already forgotten what happened.”
“He thinks he was attacked,” Ellen said ruefully. “He’s getting paranoid.”
Virginia closed the file she had been working on and stood up, a knowing look on her face. She walked over to Ellen and placed one hand on hers. “It’s part of the process, dear. It doesn’t happen to everyone, but it’s not unusual.”
Ellen swallowed hard to try to rid herself of the lump in her throat. “And Mother? She was afraid of me today.”
“I know. That one’s harder because she’s so young. Your father could go on for years the way he is, but your mother…You can’t take it personally, Ellen. She just can’t help it. I’m so sorry. This must be so hard on you.”
“Yeah.” She bit her lip, knowing she could say no more without choking up. She thanked Virginia and left the facility, wincing less at the sound of her shoes, knowing that the real noise was the guilt in her own head. When she got to the car and turned the key in the ignition, she knew she couldn’t go home just yet. She decided to drive to Sláinte before going to her quiet, empty home. A nice chamomile tea would calm her down.
She was surprised to find Julia there, sitting alone, Spanish book on the table, her fingers flipping absently through the pages, a melted iced tea next to her.
“Julia?” Ellen asked.
Instantly, Julia’s face changed, and a bright smile appeared. “Ellen, it’s great to see you! Would you care to join me?”
“Sure,” Ellen said. “I’ll get some tea.”
“I’d be happy to upgrade if you want. The wine is pretty good here.”
“Oh, I don’t…” Ellen thought about her day and decided to abandon the anti-Alzheimer’s campaign, at least for a day. She hadn’t had a drink in, how long? A couple of years? But stress wasn’t good for the brain, right? “Sure, yeah, that sounds good, actually. Tell you what, I’ll buy the first round. What do you want?”
“Oh, just get the happy hour white for me, that will be fine. And thanks.”
Ellen stood in line for the drinks, amused that Julia wanted the cheap drink when everyone knew she could afford the best. Maybe she thinks I’m poor, she thought, then pushed the negativity from her mind. Julia knew this place, so she knew the wine. There would be no reason for her not to get what she wanted. When her turn came, she ordered two of the whites and paid ten dollars, plus the coins in her pocket for the tip jar. After she threw them in, she realized that she hadn’t paid attention to the amount. Was it enough? Too much? Doubtful, she pulled another dollar from her wallet and dropped it in, just to be sure.
“Studying hard?” Ellen asked as she took a seat and handed Julia her glass.
“Thanks for the drink. Well, not really. I thought it would be good for me to come out here, that maybe I could focus more than at home, but everything blurs together. Class is harder than I thought.” She sipped the wine and smiled. “I’ve had great wines all over the world, but this is one of my favorites. It comes from a little winery not far from Austin.”
“It is good,” Ellen agreed, and truthfully. “That’s really tasty.”
“Cheers,” Julia said, raising her glass. “Or, I guess I should say, salud. I guess I’m learning the important words, anyway: vino and cerveza. I’ll be able to drink freely in any Spanish-speaking country.” They both laughed. Then Julia’s face turned serious. “You look like you had a rough day,” she said. “Do you want to talk about it?”
Ellen stared at her glass, thinking. No one knew her story. She had no family to tell, and there was no point bringing it up to work contacts. No one ever talked about anything personal. “I’m not sure,” she said, finally. “I mean, I guess it wouldn’t hurt anything, but I don’t know. I don’t know you that well.”
“Well.” Julia cleared her throat. “Look, you’re right. We don’t know each other well. But maybe that’s a good thing. And, despite how some of our fellow classmates have decided to judge me, I really am a good listener. Try me.”
“I’m sorry about that,” Ellen said. “Mickey seems very sweet, but she’s young, and it sounds like she has some things on her mind. I’m sure you were just the nearest target.”
“I suppose,” Julia said with a wry smile, “but it still hurts. I have had a lucky life, I know, but I need friends, too. I have bad days and fears just like everyone else. Money doesn’t change that. But let’s not talk anymore about me. What about you?”
Ellen took a sip of wine, taking in Julia’s statement. “I guess I never thought of it that way. I mean, you’re right, we all have needs.”
Julia nodded. “Thanks for recognizing that. It means a lot to me. But you…what is it?”
“My parents both have Alzheimer’s Disease,” Ellen said. She wondered if she had ever said those words aloud before. “I put them in a nursing home recently, and they’re not doing very well. Today my mom accused me of lying about being her daughter.” Tears welled in her eyes, and when she looked at Julia, she saw tears in hers, too.
“Oh, no, that’s so sad. So that’s what you were talking about that first night in class.”
Ellen reddened, remembering how she almost didn’t go back to class after that. “I guess it sounded pretty weird, huh?”
Julia took another sip of the wine. “Not weird, just…well, maybe a little. They have a great cheese plate here. Want to split one?”
Ellen nodded, laughing a little. “Sure, I guess…telling this story is new to me. I mean, yes to the cheese plate.” They both laughed again, and she felt herself relaxing a little. “But as you can imagine, I’m a little nervous about the whole thing. I’m only thirty-five, but I may have a ticking time bomb inside of me, and yeah, that scares me a lot.” She took a deep breath. “A lot. Listen, I’d rather you didn’t tell the others, okay?”
“It’s just between you and me,” Julia said, holding up her glass for a toast. “To new friends and to keeping confidences. And hope for a future when science understands Alzheimer’s.”
“Salud,” Ellen said, and they drank together.
They sat in Sláinte for hours, eating cheese, ordering more wine, and sharing. “So, what made you sign up for class?” Ellen asked.
“The brochure,” Julia said, rolling her eyes, and they laughed again. “Seriously, I needed something to do. My husband travels all the time — he’s been spending more and more time in Paris these days – and I get sick of playing tennis all day, to tell you the truth. I love it, but I would like a little more from life.”
“Why not study French?” Ellen asked.
Julia stared at her wine glass. “Hmm, that’s a good question. Well, we’re also looking at getting a little place in Belize, so Spanish would come in handy there, I guess. French would make more sense though, ultimately, wouldn’t it?” She looked up at Ellen, her eyes wide with confusion. “I’m going to have to think about that. I mean, I could say it was Belize, or I could also say that Spanish comes in handy in Houston, but that isn’t really the truth. I don’t know. It sounds crazy, but I’m a little sick of Paris. I can’t believe I’m saying that.”
“I’m sorry,” Ellen said.
“Why, what did you do?”
“I don’t know. I feel like I brought up something painful. You seem so sad.”
Julia grinned, and her facial muscles relaxed. “No, I’m glad you brought it up. I don’t know the answer to your question, but I’m happy you asked. I think it will help me to think about it. But I have a question for you, my friend.”
“What’s that?” Ellen asked, taking another sip of wine.
“How come you apologized for something that wasn’t your problem?”
Ellen nearly spat out the wine. “Oh, God, I did, didn’t I? It’s a bad habit I have. When Daddy started going downhill, he would get really agitated. At first I argued with him, but then I learned to keep the peace. I would just say ’I’m sorry’ to him until he calmed down. I’ve been doing it for so long now, that it’s practically a reflex. I’m sorry I said I’m sorry.” At that, both women started to giggle.
“We’re a mess!” Julia said, gasping the words out through her laughter.
Ellen glanced around and saw that some of the other customers were looking their way, some curious, some grinning. “Oh, Lord, everyone’s looking at us. They probably think we’re really drunk or something.”
Julia held up the empty bottle that they had graduated to when they realized that one glass wouldn’t cut it. “I think we are,” she said, and they descended into another round of giggles.
“We should get Mickey and Claire drunk,” Ellen said. “Then maybe we could all get along.”
Julia nearly shrieked with laughter. “Could you imagine Claire Malone out of control? Now that would be something to see!”
“Mickey, too. So young, yet so uptight. Scary.”
“We probably shouldn’t talk about our study group this way,” Julia said. “It’s not very nice.”
“Nope,” Ellen said. “But let’s do it anyway. I like them, don’t get me wrong. They’re just – I don’t know. Whose idea was this study group, anyway?”
Julia raised her hand. “That would be me. But you know, I do this a lot. I throw people together at dinner parties, and everyone ends up happy about it. I’m sure we’ll all find a way to get along.”
“If we don’t kill each other first,” Ellen said. Then she looked at her watch.
It was eight o’clock. “Oh, my God,” she said. “I still have to get some work done tonight. Julia, it was great. Thanks for being here.”
“My pleasure,” Julia said. “I enjoyed the company.”
As Ellen left, grateful to have walked, she wondered how long Julia would stay at Sláinte. Julia had everything, and yet she was still alone. The money is nice, Julia had admitted, but it doesn’t mean I don’t bleed.
We all bleed, Ellen thought. Every one of us. We are all lonely in our own way, and we all carry burdens. Understanding that somehow made her own feel lighter.