When my father and I stop by Aunt Jeanette’s house, Christmas music, coming from the radio, echoes in the empty living room and a smell of human waste fills the air. We find her in her soiled bed, the telephone knocked from its cradle and lying on the floor. Aunt Jeanette has been living there alone for about a year.
Before that her mother and her sister, Beatrice, lived with her in the house; these were the years after the four brothers married and left. Then one day grandma fell and broke her hip, and with that accident came some slight dementia and so for about two years she remained bedridden while Jeanette and Beatrice nursed her and my father helped out in the evenings after work.
I visited grandma at the house over Spring break. She’d always been small — under five feet — but she’d shrunk even more with age and when I saw her lying in bed, her white hair strewn across the pillow, a pained smile on her face, I believed for a moment I was in the presence of a child. I said my name more than once, explained I was one of Angelo’s daughters, and after staring for a long time, my grandmother, who had stopped speaking English years ago, said, “Be nice.” I stared at her, wondering if my face looked mean; since leaving home, I had discovered both alcohol and boys. Almost immediately after she passed, Aunt Beatrice developed cancer, I can’t remember exactly which, but a stealthy kind affecting her internally without any tumors swelling the surface of her body. She was the oldest of my grandmother’s six children, and had lost her sight at twelve. My father told me during the final days before blindness, she screamed from the pain of headaches every night and during the last month, my grandmother’s hair, which had been a luxurious black, turned completely white. It wasn’t until I left home for college and returned that I recognized the tone of Aunt Beatrice’s voice had remained within the sweet, adolescent register of a girl.
After Aunt Jeannette is taken to the hospital, I wonder, Did she feel it her duty to take care of her mother and sister? I ask my mother. We are together in the kitchen with a box of family photographs spilled onto the table; in these snapshots, Aunt Jeanette wears a hair-do and red lipstick and dresses with padded shoulders exactly like those once worn by my mother. My aunt had been, if not beautiful, a striking and well-groomed woman.
Bending over the oven, my mother doesn’t answer. It is Christmas break of my senior year in college and I am waitressing in a diner that employs me each summer and spring break. I pick up the graveyard shift or whatever hours one of the regular
waitresses cannot work. Usually I drive my mother’s car to and from this job, passing under glittering red-and-green holiday decorations fastened to telephone poles and strung across the main streets of town. As easily as slipping into my polyester uniform, I morph into the role of waitress from that of student. After all the long hours in library cubicles, I find relief in lifting heavy trays, bending to clean tables, occasionally mopping up a spill on the floor. And of course I need the money that is paid to me in tips, so much more satisfying than a simple check, I leave work in the early hours of morning my apron filled with heavy coins and crinkled bills, George Washington’s stoic face splattered with coffee.
While staying in their house, I study my parents. I watch them move like two planets orbiting one another — rarely touching, rarely looking into one another’s eyes. When at times their eyes meet, it seems as though too much meaning is in the look they share to be necessary for the stuff of daily living. As a product of such a bond, I am embarrassed and reassured; at the same time, I feel myself an intruder. On my evenings off, I go to the hospital to visit my Aunt Jeanette. For the first couple of days I sit beside her and ask her questions like, “Are you in pain?” Eventually, we lapse into silence.
Then I begin to talk to her about what she will do when she “gets out of the hospital.”
“I don’t think about that.” She half sits, propped against the pillows.
“You don’t want to go back to the house and live alone again, do you?” She says nothing.
“Do you want to live in a nursing home? You’d enjoy being with other people, don’t you think?”
The expression on her face isn’t pain, so much as hardness. “I wouldn’t waste the money.”
“But it’s not a waste if you use your money to make yourself happy.” My aunt looks intomy eyes in a way that makes me feel I am still a child. Neither of us says anything more.
We used to visit both my grandmothers every Sunday after mass. My mother’s father had died when she was just twelve and her mother had only remarried after raising her three children. Although the brief civil ceremony had occurred when I was a baby, we still referred to her husband as “Walt,” never granddad. Their house was spotless, cleaned with the energy of a grateful widow, and she feed us pot roast and homemade cream puffs. She would ask about my father’s family, mentioning Aunt Beatrice, and her face would crinkle into a worried expression.
Often, she’d gather together old dresses or pull a pound cake out of the refrigerator and instruct my mother to give them “to the others.”
My other grandmother’s house had one big room which was divided only in name into a living room and a dining room and as soon as we walked in from the outside I could smell sweat and spaghetti sauce. My two oldest sisters usually sat in kitchen chairs brought into the living room, and the four of us younger kids sat on the couch, eight legs squished together like pale sausages. My mother would sit at the dining room table, at the end closest to us in the living room, and as my father paced restlessly around, the rosary beads would rattle against plates in a cabinet. Sometimes he would sit in a chair at the table. Usually, one of his brothers was there visiting too, and along with my grandmother and aunts, they all spoke in Italian. My mother didn’t understand Italian, so she’d sit in her chair, her skin and hair pale in contrast to the others, her blue eyes penitent, and she would twirl the engagement ring on her finger.
Occasionally, Aunt Jeanette or my Grandmother would break free and, in English, offer my mother food. With a nod, my mother would consent to eat something made by these thinner, darker women. She would say, “This is good,” and smile. I could always tell she didn’t like the taste.
Like our mother, we kids would listen and, once safely ignored on the couch, we’d play games until my mother gave us a look. Occasionally, Aunt Jeanette would get up from her chair in the dining room to come and pinch our cheeks. For a treat, she’d give each of us a pizelle, a large though delicate cookie made like a waffle in an iron embossed with a beautiful sunflower pattern.
Almost immediately after my grandparents bought their house in the years before the Great Depression, my grandfather lost his job so the family had no choice but to send the two oldest sons to work. My father was twelve at the time. He traveled down to a farm in south Jersey in the back of a truck, and he picked fruit all day, each day of the summer, and then slept nights in the barn, his arms curled around his older brother. In the fall, the boys were allowed to return home and go back to school, starting later than the others.
Whenever we walked into my grandmother’s house, my father would tap the walls with authority. The day Aunt Jeanette moves to critical care, I stop by the bank to sign my student loan papers. I’d begun this ritual after high school, I was only seventeen that first time so my mother’s co-signature was required. It’s always the same, I’m taken to a place at a distance from the tellers who stand behind bullet-proof glass and there a bank officer sits comfortably and quotes percentages and then indicates the places where I initial. I never see the faces in the family photographs, arranged like a small hurdle on the desk, I only see the backs of the frames. Driving from the bank to the hospital, snow begins to fall and at a stoplight I watch it melt on the windshield. When I arrive at the hospital, I find the nurses can tell me little about my aunt’s changed condition, so I track down the doctor.
Dr. Rodriguez still looks young and idealistic. His eyes and skin are the same tone as my father’s and his face possesses the kind of distinction that comes from hard work. When I speak to him he tells me that my aunt has leukemia and a slight case of pneumonia and they will be checking her for tuberculosis. He describes the cancer as aggressive. “She obviously contracted the disease some time ago.” He looks at me for a long moment. Like listening to a language you cannot speak but somehow always understand, I comprehend this accusation.
“Until we determine whether or not she has tuberculosis, when any of the healthy members of your family visit her, you will have to wear a surgical mask.” He hands me one, rectangular and white like a flag of surrender.
“We need a couple days before we test — the oncologist needs to perform a spinal tap, first — and until we know her status, I don’t want any of the other members of your family to be at risk.” He pauses and his eyes hold mine and I make everything that is soft and weak inside me stubborn and blunt. I know I have neglected her but I am not a liar. Even if I had foreseen this, I probably would have stayed at school.
“We’ll provide a box of masks at the entrance to her room.”
“Thank you, Doctor.”
Later, when I am in the room, feeding my aunt soup brought from home, Doctor
Rodriguez comes in to examine her. He smiles and tells me I can stay. My aunt looks at him, then at me, and her eyes widen. Back and forth from him to me, the smallest of enticing smiles forms on her face. I stand silent at the foot of her bed, watching him check her pulse, take her temperature. When he leaves the room, the smile dies on her face.
The next day my father’s brother comes to visit while my father and I wait by Aunt Jeanette’s bed. Uncle Vinny is the youngest of the family. When he stands talking to my father, their profiles look like reflections, except for the fact that Uncle Vinny slumps where my father stands with his chest thrust forward. Uncle Vinny looks like a thwarted version of my father. I can hear little of what they say, just the words “legal” and “signature,” then they step aside for a nurse rushing past with an IV, and I hear a single phrase of Uncle Vin’s, “We have no choice.”
“I don’t want to disturb her,” my father says, “She can barely sit up.”
“Remember what happened after ma died — we need to take care of this.” Uncle Vin stands with his hands on his hips, stubborn and runt-like. “She can go any day now.”
For a long moment my father stands facing Uncle Vin, his eyes studying this younger incarnation of the family, when finally he raises his eyebrows and shrugs. “Bring the papers in tomorrow — she’ll sign them then.”
Uncle Vin relaxes now. With my father he’s divided the responsibilities of taking care of their mother and Aunt Beatrice, and he also seems exhausted with family and sickness and hospitals. They have both run out of energy and patience now that it is Aunt Jeanette’s turn to need.
The following day is Saturday, and when my father and I get to the hospital, Aunt Jeanette is no longer sitting up in bed. She has an IV in her arm and an oxygen tube attached to her nose. She looks very pale and a few strands of her black and gray hair cross her face. I take her hand when we enter her room. She does not speak. My father sets the bag with a container of soup on the stand beside her bed and he curses softly about hospitals killing people instead of saving them. He tells me to feed her, and after I get started, he tells me I am inept — “Look at how you’ve dribbled it on her face.” He takes the spoon from me, and begins to do it himself.
He is so gentle with her, feeding her like she is a two year old child, and although I am hurt, I am resigned. After he lifts the spoon to her lips, I take a napkin and touch it to her chin. My father says nothing.
Uncle Vinny comes in just as we finish feeding her. He holds a worn, leather case. “I’ve got the Power of Attorney, Jeanette,” he says, “Do you think you can sign it?”
Inert, my aunt says nothing. Uncle Vinny tries again. My father paces back and forth at the foot of the bed. My aunt’s eyes lift to Uncle Vinny’s face and then she looks away from him as if disgusted.
Abruptly, my father steps over to the side of the bed and begins to lift my aunt to a seated
position. With his touch my aunt’s eyes widen with fear. “Put the case on her lap with the paper on top of it,” my father says, twisting his head toward my uncle. “Did you bring a pen?”
Uncle Vinny walks to the other side of the bed and helps lift my aunt to a sitting position.
My father places the pen in her hand, but Jeannette does not hold on to it. Before allowing her to collapse, my father holds her small hand in his own and forces it across the page in the curl of our family name.