Mrs. Frolich had unflinching poise. She was so couth she made you feel uncouth just standing near her but that was never her intent just a natural consequence of being in her presence. Her hair was always swept up off her face in an elegant loose bun. Thick and buttery white, it was like a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Her skin was pale with a hint of blue undertone that she offset with her Max Factor orangey-red lipstick that few people can pull off without looking garish. Mrs. Frolich was one of them. She wore no rouge because she knew better and she was always dressed in feminine suits with straight skirts falling properly just below the knee that emphasized her thin figure and gave a hint of her life before. Of tea, lunches, garden clubs and martinis at five. I never saw her lying in her bed, rather she always sat upright with her ankles crossed like you imagine she learned at etiquette school and she never went without her L’eggs pantyhose in Nude. Once in awhile there was a pair hanging apologetically to dry on her shower bar and the plastic egg shell they came in could be found in her wastebasket discreetly pushed down below the tissues and empty Lipton tea bag envelopes. Her eyes were a shiny sea blue, watchful and solemn that were looking out in earnest for some explanation of how she’d come to be here. After all, she’d only blinked.
Mrs. Frolich was 81 years old when I met her. I was 15.
I was volunteering at the local long-term care facility for the elderly every Sunday morning. My best friend Denise was always signing us up for stuff to do. Ski trips, art classes, after school clubs, cooking classes, part-time jobs, volunteering… you name it, if Denise did it then so did I. It didn’t take me long to figure out why Denise was always so eager to leave her house. There was always lots of yelling going on within those walls and her mother seemed to be on the brink most of the time. Denise was just trying to avoid the crossfire. It was all so life-y over there and completely the opposite of my house where unlike Denise’s parent’s who lived out loud, my parents avoided making eye contact and being in the same room with each other if at all possible and rather than shout, engaged in clipped conversations and uncomfortable silences. My parents maintained a polite anger that was holding its breath.
Denise and I did everything together from the first day she moved two houses down from me in 3rd grade all the way to being voted Class Inseparables in our senior year. She listened and cared for the bits and pieces of myself that I was trying to fit together to form this puzzle that was me, and I listened to hers. We were each other’s secret keepers and custodians of each other’s dreams. I spent my entire childhood with her by my side making mud pies and picking rose petals to make perfume until boys crept their way in between from time to time as we got older. We could communicate paragraphs through a glance or a raised eyebrow and had even invented our own shorthand code eons before texting and LOL’s. As we split to our own houses getting off the bus each day, we’d say CM (call me) or SYL (see ya later). Light years ahead of our time we were, Denise and me.
Being best friends with Denise all those years, I discovered early on how important it is for us Type B people to attach ourselves to Type A’s. Otherwise, we would rarely get out of our pajamas and leave the house. We tend to put the least possible energy into experiencing new things so that’s why I make sure to always have a Type A person I like in my life. The I like part is key though and sadly, not always easy to find.
Outfitted in our candy stripe jumpers and ponytails, we showed up every Sunday looking good. We also showed up bracing ourselves for what awaited within. From our first interview with the program director, Ms. Hollings, we should have known this wasn’t going to be a day at the beach. Ms. Hollings had no tongue. Like..oh.. my…God. I kid you not, my son asked me just a couple of days ago if someone can talk without a tongue and I said no. Then I remembered Ms. Hollings and changed my answer. Then I started this piece but only after I lectured him again on the evils of smoking like any good mother would. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Denise and I sat in her office as Ms. Hollings inexplicably explained how she had cancer of the tongue and had to have most of it removed. It was horrifying. If the choked car rides up and down the NJ Turnpike with my parents growing up didn’t stunt my growth and my desire to smoke then this sealed the deal. The effort it took for her to make these muffled noises, that somehow after a while of intense concentration you could make out as a sound associated with actual words, was excruciating to witness. Then every few “words” or so she would pause and slurp up the gathering saliva in her mouth in dramatic sucking inhale using her whole upper body for momentum. We kept nodding our heads in stunned silence pretending we comprehended when in fact, we didn’t grasp more than a gist of what she said. This was by no means encouraging and it wasn’t the only troublesome encounter we would have with defiant tongues there.
We were screwed and we knew it. This is what you get when you signed up late. All the good spots handing out magazines and delivering balloon-a-grams at the main hospital to young people with simple faulty tonsil issues were plucked up fast. Still, we were basically well meaning and we had volunteer hours to fulfill so even though it was obvious that we were in well over our heads, we kept showing up albeit with extremely low expectations. But what is dedication but a commitment to keep showing up.
The Merwick Rehabilitation Center had 4 floors divided by prognosis. Upon entering the first floor, you were hit with the heavy smell of tomato soup and band-aids. This is where the patients who were just in need of temporary rehabilitative services after surgery or a fall stayed. They were the lucky ones. They kept them nearest to the exit as a reminder that there was an end in sight. The second floor was for long term care patients who were not dying right this minute per se but who required too much long term care to be at home until that eventuality. The third floor was for the more imminent terminally ill. And then, God help us, there were the flight risks up on four. Furtherest away from the exit for good reason. The “One Who Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” types. The fourth floor was loud and scary like Denise’s house. If there was screaming, it came from there. So we never went up to the fourth floor. Ever. But sometimes the fourth floor would come down. Like Mr. Bennett. Mr. Bennett would escape from time to time and somehow always find me. Donning only a hospital gown, frequently untied to expose his naked backside, I learned at an early age the effects of gravity on the backside and how to advert the eyes. Always advert the eyes.
Mr. Bennett told me the same thing every time we met. “I’m from Texas, you see but don’t have a Texas accent, you see. I went to Rice University, you see. Isn’t that a funny name for a university in Texas? I was a lawyer, you see.”
“Yes, Mr. Bennett, I see. That is funny. Now shouldn’t you go back upstairs now, they are probably wondering where you are.” Mr. Bennett would scuttle along to another person knowing his freedom was finite and continue his monologue. Like a needle on a record stuck in a groove it couldn’t jump, Mr. Bennett’s brain was stuck on the same track. He was sweet and childlike in his manner but something about how he gazed directly at you, a retinol lock worthy of a hypnotist, told you to play nice and make no sudden movements. Something inside you flashed warning signs, CAUTION: THIN ICE or on a more tropical note, BEWARE of FALLING COCONUTS. Call me crazy but I heeded the signs.
Sunday, of course, was services day. There was non-denominational service held in the rec room that we would help the patients get to when we first arrived in the morning. We rolled them down in their wheelchairs and even hospital beds. Denise and I liked this part because it made the time go by faster. Getting Sadie down was always a challenge. Sadie had advanced Parkison’s Disease and had a lot of flying body parts. It was tiring just watching her. Her tongue was affected and was always shooting out of her mouth at odd angles so her speech came at you in spurts when she could manage it. One of her arms was always flinging itself up around over her head in sudden uncontrollable bursts as if she was shooing an annoying mosquito away. Repeatedly. Can someone please kill that damn mosquito?! It was tricky maneuvering her bed down the hallway so she wouldn’t hit anyone or wouldn’t get hurt hitting a wall or what have you. The you being me. It was a bit like movers trying to roll an expensive armoire in the house without hitting it on the doorway coming in. We weren’t prepared to pay those damages so we were extra especially careful with Sadie and sometimes as added insurance, we would tie her arm down. Can we take a moment here to remember I was 15?? Getting old is not for the weak and neither is caring for them. It just frustrates your hope of easy endings.
It is such a relief when people find a way to bear the unbearable. To live inside the moment you want to run away from. I was not so good at this. Born in May, my mother said I had the worst prickly heat that first summer I was alive and was always crying. Maybe it’s due to my fair skin and Irish origins but hot sticky summer days can still make me feel like I am suffocating. Sometimes, sitting on the beach on a still and steamy scorcher, sweat dripping down my back, running down between my cleavage, I do my best to patiently wait for the world’s biggest air conditioner to turn on from a shift in the wind off the land to off the water. And take those damn flies with you! It happens as quick as flipping a switch. Heaven.
Merle on three was having none of it. He was dying of cancer and was just as quickly going blind. Merle was angry. Fuck you and fuck the world angry. Merle was actually the first person I remember saying, Fuck You, to me. I actually did a double take behind me because he couldn’t be possibly talking to moi? Well, that was unsolicited! Merle’s sign said, NO TRESPASSING. But we didn’t heed his sign. We took his fuck you’s as more of a suggestion folded up and tossed in the box with the others, like, “more ice cream and less pudding please.” Dessert becomes very important, I learned, in the dessert years of your life.
We would try to conjole him out of bed to come to services or just a walk down the hall but he shooed us away like Sadie’s arm. We’d bring him his tray and explain what was where – sandwich at 3 o’clock, fruit cup at 9 o’clock. He would respond, “I can feel for it. What do you think I am, an idiot? Leave me alone!” Sometimes the fuck you was implied.
Looking back it must be so annoying to have someone try to manipulate you into being a bigger sport than you are capable of being. He just wanted to be left alone to die and no one seemed to think this was a reasonable last request. We all wanted to make it better for him. But, one of the hardest things to do is to stop trying to make things come out better than they are. To stop trying to tell someone it’s not so hot, when actually, it is as bloody hot as hell. To stop trying to flip the switch. There are some storms we cannot weather. (Les Miserables) There are some losses that are too great. I admire that in a person. To refuse to pretend you are doing well just to help other people deal with the fact that sometimes we face an impossible loss or situation. There is integrity there. We aren’t here to make everything comfortable for everyone all the time. After all the sun never apologizes for being hot.
It always seems men have an easier time with this. They aren’t taught to be so damn accommodating. To hold their breaths and make nice all the time. Mrs. Frolich was dying also, all evidence to the contrary. Entering her room with her lunch tray, she’d act as if she was at a fine hotel during tea time. She was not about to let her worst nightmare be unpleasant for you. No one mentioned the unmentionable, of Death hanging out on the matelasse bedspread and shams sipping tea waiting… politely. Pleasant, perhaps, but it eventually gets uncomfortable holding your breath like that.
Some days I wake up and feel like we are all doomed. Doomed, I tell you. I am looking out in earnest for some explanation for how we ended up here. The sign says, DANGER AHEAD. That nothing is going to be okay. My heart breaks open on a regular basis to both the world’s beauty and brutality and sometimes it seems its brutality is winning. I am what they call, sensitive. Told often when I was a child, You are too sensitive. Truth is, I was born this way, could never take the heat. Prickly.
Women, in particular, take on the grief of the world. And the world is grieving. Look around. It’s a crabgrass profusion of heartbreak out there. Terrorist attacks, bi-partisan politics getting us nowhere fast, pointless wars, disease, children killing children, parents killing children, racial divide, starvation in a world with so much excess, the good dying young while the worst thrive. Not everything happens for a decent reason. It’s assumed we will adjust, find meaning in it all and then joy and acceptance and move on or die gracefully. Like Mrs. Frolich. Like Ms. Hollings. No tongue, no problem! It’s so lovely and inspiring when we can organize things so that a small miracle takes place and once again, love has turned out to be bigger than blindness or cancer or death or missing tongues. When we can pull out some crabgrass and let the Kentucky Blue thrive. That’s the goal anyway, that’s the hope. It doesn’t always happen. Life is crabby.
This can all be so discouraging. Being human can so dispiriting much of the time. It can be quite a stretch for me quite frankly until I remember one very important thing: I don’t have to go it alone. Like stars in a dark sky radiating light out to a cold, hungry world sharing what is beautiful and brutal about life makes me feel less alone and afraid. Good friends and family are those stars. Those stars say, if you are grieving, we will grieve with you. Even if that grief lasts forever, then we will grieve with you forever. They sit with you and drink Lipton tea one after the other in lipstick stained cups and hold their breath with you, if that is your style. They take an unsolicited fuck you or two and never take it personally. They help you bear the unbearable, stand beside you and walk with you into really scary places that you could never walk in alone. They hold your secrets and your story and carry them for you like special gifts and never lose them.
But mostly, those stars just keep showing up. Because sometimes the most radical thing of all to do is to just show up without much hope of making things better, not knowing what else to do and just watch the storm together.