Dying for Respite

I roll Ivy out poolside and tilt the big green umbrella just so to keep the sun from touching her parchmented skin. She looks like an old china doll, fissured with cracks, crouched in the over-sized wheelchair, too small and too breakable to be outside on a sunny California day.

“There now,” I say. “It’s a beautiful day. Some sun will do you good. I’ll bring your tea out here.”

“Thank you, Sylvia,” she murmurs in the husky voice that’s all that’s left of what was once a tobacco-colored alto. “I don’t find the day at all beautiful, but I would appreciate my tea.”

I almost respond, but it’s better not to contradict her. Let her think whatever she wants of the day.

Ivy is a thorn in my flesh. I’ve never said that to her, but she knows it. She was my late husband’s parting salvo though, to be honest, I don’t think Howard thought of it that way. In fact, at the end I guess he hardly thought of Ivy or me at all. He’d brought his mother out to live with us because she could no longer live alone. To move her into an institution of any kind seemed needlessly cruel, and besides she refused to go. We had a big house where she could reside cheerfully at one end while we lived in the other. Her mental faculties were passable; she spent most of her days reading books about New England and writing letters. Why not do the same things in California instead of Boston?

Most of all, bringing her out soothed Howard’s conscience. He’d never loved the old lady and she didn’t seem to care much for him, even if he was her only child and, in fact, her only remaining relative. But under the circumstances, what choice had he, had we, but to bring her to the golden state, no matter how she protested? How could we have left her alone in snowbound Massachusetts, communing with her favorite authors, corresponding with her friends, but nearly helpless when it came to shopping for groceries or trekking down the icy sidewalk to the mailbox. She was ninety-three years old then. I try not to think how old she is now.

In the beginning, it worked out well. Ivy pursued her same occupations; she even cooked her own meals. We only saw her occasionally. When we had friends over, she’d suddenly appear, an apparition leaning into her walker, looking around expectantly. Someone always invited her to the party. She fascinated our friends with her storied life—so much of it and so colored with her opinions of nearly everything. She’d sit there, sipping a martini, holding court. She got along with most of them better than I did.

But that’s the problem, isn’t it? She’s always gotten along with everybody, except me. She hated me then and she still hates me now. I’m not sure why, and I don’t think there’s anything I can do about it, although I did try to be her friend. I talked to her about New England—I took a stab at everything from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Seiji Osawa. I spent hours on-line examining the scoring history of the Celtics. But I’d only just get up a rhythm, I’d finally get on a roll, when, invariably, I’d make a mistake, usually from sheer nerves. Of course, I knew Emily Dickinson, not Louisa May Alcott, wrote poems about death, and that the Minutemen numbered 77, not several hundred.

I brew her a cup of Earl Grey Tea, a no-nonsense tea in a blue willow patterned cup. No fruit-flavored tea for her, and none of those California herb teas that hippies and their friends drink. Real tea. A cream pitcher also in blue willow. A few sugar wafers. I put everything on the tray that came with her from the East coast, silver and engraved with summer flowers, elegant I suppose. Not the kind of tray most people would want poolside.

If Howard hadn’t died, Ivy and I might have remained civil, although she was always rude. Howard told me not to take her remarks seriously, but how could I not? “It’s so wonderful of you to laugh,” she’d say to our guests after she’d told the same story about Rose Kennedy for the umpteenth time. “Sylvia never laughs; she doesn’t appreciate my stories and she hates New England.”

I never said that. I never said I hated New England. I love colonial houses; I like historic monuments. Plymouth Rock. Faneuil Hall. I’d even come to admire the Celtics.

“Thank you, Sylvia,” she whispers as I set her tea down in front of her. She lays down her book, something about Nathaniel Hawthorne, and pours just the right part of a teaspoon of cream into the Earl Grey.

Neither one of us expected Howard to die. He ate nothing but organic foods and devoted himself to yogic meditation twice a day. Whenever a charity was prominent, he ran a marathon for it. He climbed mountains and flew off cliffs on hand gliders. He also took extraordinary photographs. His pictures fill the several coffee table books that grace the living room. They hang on nearly every wall. Howard is still everywhere. I’ve given a few photographs to his friends as mementoes, but Ivy always notices. She emerges from her apartment in the evening: “Oh look. The lovely photo of the crow on the cliffs is gone. Oh, I will miss it,” she twitters, and looks at me balefully.

I take my place in a lounge chair a few feet from her, looking out at the azure water stirring in the morning breeze, listening to the rustle of palm trees, feeling the soft warmth of spring sun on my legs, still white from the winter, or what I call winter but Ivy calls “a trifle chilly.” She’s ignoring me, glad to be in Hawthorne’s Salem, I guess, and away from California for at least a while.

When Howard discovered he was dying, he decided to share his last days with all his friends, who turned out to be legion. No day passed without some kind of laying on of hands, the smell of incense, the chanting of monks or baying of whales. While he’d been tolerated and even occasionally enjoyed in life, in death he was deeply loved. People were suddenly moved by his photographs and delighted by his sense of humor. They discovered a saint in the dying Howard. It was difficult to find a moment alone with him. Some of his most devoted disciples—if he had lived he’d have started a cult—even spent nights with him, lying with him, giving him back rubs, singing to him or reading poetry aloud by the pool under a full moon. A harpist played him to sleep most nights. His mother and I were both forgotten for days at a time, so naturally Howard did nothing to ensure that we would find a way to enjoy her last days on earth. He was leaving, what did he care? He would soon be one with everything. Surely, even though we had to stay two, we could get along.

Since the funeral, I’ve been looking for respite care for Ivy. I don’t intend to keep letting the old lady run over me in that chair of hers. One of Howard’s admirers promised to come over this morning and meet her; so far she seems to be the only one of our acquaintance who might have time to sit her while I shop, or play cards. Whatever. As much as all of Howard’s and my friends love Ivy, none of them has time to give her—not even for pay. But Cynthia, who hasn’t met her, needs some odd dollars, and I’m prepared to give them to her if she’ll only give me some respite. Ivy shouldn’t be left alone, Howard said; between the two of us we’ll manage. But now there’s only one of us, and that one is failing fast.

Cynthia appears at the gate. ‘Come on in,” I call out. “It’s good to see you.” A bland looking woman with straight unkempt blond hair, she smiles brightly and walks over to us.

“It’s good to see you too,” she returns my greeting, eyeing Ivy, trying to interpret the old lady’s stare.

“Ivy,” I say, “this is Cynthia. I don’t think you’ve met before.” I have no intention of telling the old lady why Cynthia is here, but she’ll probably be suspicious. She knows I’d like to get rid of her and if she had her way she’d get on a plane and go back East. But she has no home there now. It was sold long ago, and what she owns is stuffed into the apartment here, or stored in lockers a few miles down the highway. There’s no one in Massachusetts to look after her even if she weren’t too fragile to fly. She’s stuck; California is where she’s going to die. She might as well get used to it. I have to.

“Hello,” she says hoarsely, and asks almost crossly, “Where are you from?”

“I’m from Boston,” Cynthia says. We’ve talked; I’ve given her notes. “We haven’t met before because I was visiting my family. I just got back.” I know better. She wasn’t visiting her family; she hasn’t been back to Massachusetts for years. They don’t want to see her, not ever again. She’s a bald-faced liar, more power to her.

Cynthia moves a chair close to Ivy and sits down so they can make eye contact. Ivy’s rheumy eyes and Cynthia’s squinty blue ones. “Where are your people from?” Ivy rasps.

“Beacon Hill,” Cynthia lies. I know she’s lying again because Beacon Hill is wealthy and Cynthia hasn’t got two dimes to rub together.

“Wonderful!” Ivy croaks with excitement. “Your people must be very distinguished.”

“Why yes they are,” says Cynthia. “My mother is DAR. She’s descended from William Bradford himself. My dad’s people are from Lexington. He’s a doctor.”

“How splendid,” says Ivy. I can’t believe she’s buying it. “Tell me,” she asks, her voice like a rusty door, “what kind of spring are we having? Is it very beautiful?”

“Oh, yes. The redbud and the dogwood are blooming up and down the hill. The window boxes are dancing with color.”

“Oh, I do miss the window boxes.”

“Why, you could have some here. Sylvia, couldn’t you put some window boxes in here?”

She’s taken me by surprise. “I guess I could. I’ll have to look into it.”

“It won’t be the same,” Ivy declares. “California window boxes won’t be the same. They’ll be too…too orange and yellow.”

“I know what you mean. There’s too much sun here, too much heat. Everything comes in orange, yellow and earth tones.”

Ivy’s white face lights up like an alabaster lamp. “Yes, yes. Exactly. Sylvia, shouldn’t you get our guest some tea? You will have some tea, my dear?” Cynthia agrees, and I head for the kitchen to find the second blue willow cup. Clearly, this woman knows how to talk to Ivy.

By the time I come back their conversation has become intimate, even impassioned. “Yes, I did do the Isabelle Stewart Gardner. It was April and her birthday so red nasturtiums hung from the windows and the courtyard was the tenderest green; the fountains were bubbling. A chamber orchestra played Bach Brandenburgs.”

“Oh such memories you bring back. My life was there, and this, this is no life at all.”

“Is it so awful? I ’m sorry.”

“All my friends are there. Or, these days, just their graves—but I’d rather be close to the crypts of the people there than trapped in what only passes for living here.”

“Of course.”

I settle down with my book, determined to ignore this conversation in which I only just pass for living. It’s not enough to like New England apparently. The colonial houses. The historic monuments. I must also hate California. The orange and yellow of it. The earth tones. They talk about the Red Sox and I silently give thanks for the Giants. They compare notes on Tanglewood and I celebrate the Hollywood Bowl. There’s something edifying about their ocean where ours, they agree, is churlish and undomesticated.

“You must miss your son terribly,” Cynthia says suddenly, without preamble. I wait, wondering what Ivy will say. She and I haven’t talked about Howard since he died. In my notes to Cynthia I suggested she not say anything about him. Apparently, to her my warning sounded like a challenge.

Neither Ivy nor I had really experienced Howard’s dying, and I didn’t know how she felt about it. He’d been lost to us in the crowds that turned his death into their own spiritual adventure, and then he was gone. We went to the funeral together, both of us in black, even though most of the people who attended to him in his death wore red, his favorite color. They were celebrating his life, they said. I could tell Ivy was scandalized. So California, she thought. What about his death? What will you do with that?

“I never liked Howard very much…”

I want to say, neither did I, Ivy. I never liked him. I loved him once, but I never really liked him.

“… I do miss him.”

I miss him too. Before he started dying, we shared a bed. I miss the person who was there, his touch, his smell, his heavy breathing. But I didn’t really like him. I still don’t. If Ivy is guilty, think what Howard’s wife must feel.

“And I feel such guilt for not liking him—my own son! I wish I had another chance to try to like him.”

It’s not lost on me that Ivy and I finally have something in common. It’s just a sad little fact—a factoid even, nothing of great importance—neither of us liked her son, my husband. Odd that we both struggle with guilt, odder yet that I won’t say anything to her, she won’t say anything to me.

“It’s hard to not like someone we should love,” says Cynthia. “I know how that feels. I don’t really like my family.”

“You mean your DAR mother and your Lexington father?”

“Yes.”

“How terrible,” murmurs Ivy.

Cynthia’s revelation about herself seems to have deflated the balloon ride she and Ivy were sharing. The parti-colored craft with its circlets of flowers and rainbows is no longer bouncing in the sky above the swimming pool, charming passing butterflies. The air has gone out; Ivy begins to nod off over her tea.

“I’m leaving, Sylvia. Thanks for everything.” Cynthia stands up, smoothes her hair, and smiles an artificial smile.

“Are you coming back? Do you want the job?”

“No. You can see it’s not going to work out. I hope you find someone.” She heads towards the gate, not looking back at Ivy, not even to smile at her fondly.

Ivy wakes up a half hour later. “Is that dreadful person gone?” she croaks, looking over at me. I’m still trying to read but mostly I’m just brooding: how will I ever find time for myself again?

“Yes. I thought you liked her.”

“Ha! What would you know? She was such a sham. I’ll bet she’s never been to Boston.”

I sigh. It shouldn’t surprise me that there’s no way I’ll ever please the woman.

“Would you like to go back to your apartment?”

“I certainly would. How you can bear being out here lounging by this silly bathtub hour after hour is beyond me. Where I come from we have better things to do.”

I shrug my shoulders and unlock her wheelchair. I could, I suppose, push the chair into the pool. But what would I do without Ivy? Especially now that Howard’s gone.

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