Bad At Small Talk


 I think my first memories of Lois were from when I was around four or five. The thing I loved about her was how grown up she seemed, far more grown up than even my parents. And I was one of those kids for whom adulthood was royalty.

 At the time, she lived on an upper floor apartment in The Plaza, an upscale eating-and-shopping section of Kansas City. She would often pay for things with money from her change purse, and that thing fascinated me to no end. I was too young to understand the concept of dollar bills (how could they be worth anything if they weren’t shiny?) but I was fascinated by coins. And when Lois snapped her change purse open, it would always have more coins than I had ever seen in one place. I thought she was extraordinarily rich.

 There were other things I loved about her, all of them having something or other to do with an aura of hyper adulthood around her. She worked part-time at Sacks Fifth Avenue, and while I didn’t understand why the store wasn’t located on Fifth Avenue and why it sold clothes instead of sacks, I knew she and the people she worked with had to dress nicely. One reason I admired grown-ups was that they dressed nicely. And I knew that grown-ups were supposed to smoke, and naturally, Lois smoked even more than my parents.

 But she was a kid where it counted with me: food. I, like most four-year olds, hated food. Lois did too. She dressed elegantly like an adult, but she ate like I would if my parents let me. Her favorite meal was always a slice of sharp cheddar cheese and half a can of cold Coke poured into a glass with no ice.

 When my parents moved from the city to the suburbs, Lois followed and lived in yet another apartment nearby. After a few years, a tradition was born. Friday nights with Lois. She would pick me up from Walnut Grove Elementary School (having a ride waiting for me at the end of the day, rather than getting on the school bus, always seemed awesome to me) and together we’d go to dinner. Not just any dinner, but Wendy’s. Lois would sometimes eat something, and sometimes she wouldn’t. I was well removed from my pre-school finicky eating at this point, and I enjoyed my cheeseburger, fries and Frosty. But the real treat was the salad bar (which Wendy’s had back then), because the salad bar had something called ranch dressing. And the salad bar had all my favorite things that tasted even better with ranch dressing: shredded cheese, ham, hard-boiled eggs, pepperoni. I eventually eschewed lettuce altogether, creating a kind of ranch-and-fixins soup. I would start dreaming about it usually by Wednesday.

 After dinner, I would spend the night at Lois’ apartment, usually watching ABC’s TGIF lineup. The anticipation of these Fridays was amped up considerably if that night’s programming involved the conclusion of a two-parter, as I was always keen to see if Uncle Jesse got his guitar fixed in time to jam with the Beach Boys or something.

 I would spend the night in the guest bedroom and sleep better and deeper than I would all week. The bed was bigger and firmer than what I had at home, but my favorite part was the smell of Lois’ apartment. It was a clean smell, a perfect smell. The perfect smell to fall asleep to.

 Saturday morning was breakfast and cartoons. Sometimes breakfast was peanut butter toast, but sometimes she’d spring some serious morning food on me…eggs, bacon, pancakes or the best homemade French toast to ever grace the midwest.

 Things happened after that. My parents divorced, which did not rattle me. My mother began demanding more from me in the way of hugs and hand-holding, which did rattle me somewhat. But more to the point, Lois moved in. And she brought her cooking with her.

 The first few years were good. Lois still made French toast from time to time (and spaghetti one would propose to), and she introduced me to things like grocery store paperbacks and afternoon talk shows. Because my mom was either working and constantly tired or unemployed and demanding hugs, Lois became my go-to person for the daily panic of pre-adolescence.

 Here’s when it started: I came home from school one day and, for the first time, found the front door to be locked. The door wasn’t supposed to be locked. It was supposed to be unlocked, I was supposed to open it, walk into the living room where Lois would be sitting, smoking and watching Donohue and I would yell “I’M HOME!” as if she were upstairs or in another room. It was a joke between us.

 Lois would unlock the door shortly before I got home. But not this time. Maybe she forgot. I rang the bell. No answer. And my 12-year old brain opened its limited file cabinets of possible scenarios, and found the one most logical. She’s hurt.

 Suddenly nauseous and sweating, thinking up worse scenarios by the second (cut herself in the kitchen…fell in the shower…choking on a piece of sharp cheddar cheese…a good old-fashioned heart attack) I ran to the backyard, grabbed a rock from the garden and smashed my way through the sliding glass door to our basement. I ran up the basement stairs, yelling for her, looking room to room, finally seeing her as she walked through the garage door with a bag of groceries.

 She’d been held up at the grocery store. She wasn’t dying. She wasn’t dead. But those three minutes that started when I found the front door locked opened an internal gate and let something out. Lois was a person. An old person. And she was going to die. She was going to die before my mom. She was going to die before my dad. Both of whom I also didn’t want to die, but not half as much as I didn’t want Lois to die.

 So of course the only thing left was for Lois to start dying. Which she did, year-by-year. The doctors took part of her lung, told her she needed to quit, took yet another part of her lung and told her that no, really, she needed to quit. The winters brought attacks of bronchitis so severe that she would wake up in the middle of the night, her room next to mine, and gasp “Oh…God…oh…God…oh…God...” Since my mother couldn’t hear the gasps down the hall, it was my job to walk to Lois’ room, calm her down, walk down the hall, wake my mom up (the phone was in her room), dial 911, go back to Lois’ room, empathize in the nicest way possible yet at the same time suggest that a cigarette would not help at present time, re-wake my mom up and wait for the ambulance.

 You would think I hate hospitals. Everyone hates hospitals. Yet the only good I could take from these post-midnight happenings was the subsequent trip to the hospital. Yes, she could be dying. I tried not to think about that. But here was the hospital, this brightly lit and moving thing existed and hummed while the rest of us slept. I had a bit of a childhood obsession with buildings at night, so circumstances aside, I loved being at the hospital.

 Eventually, I was afraid that if I didn’t hear Lois gasping when she had an attack, she would die. So I learned how to keep myself up in the winter.

 Lois was dying. She was also becoming old. There is a difference. Lois still cooked up a storm when feeling good, but she also began controlling my portions. I had become fat, she told me (nothing I wasn’t hearing at school,) and I needed to do something about it. Increasingly, she talked about Bruce, her youngest son, the Harvard grad, the eye doctor, the millionaire. Bruce was in good shape. I needed to be in good shape. Bruce played football starting in junior high. I needed to play football. Bruce made As. I needed to make As.

 Suddenly, my mom didn’t seem so bad anymore. She would cry, but she wouldn’t critique how I dressed. She, of course, demanded constant touching and physical contact, but she didn’t make me do sit-ups. She, middle child that she was, was also tired of hearing about Bruce. Lois was dying, Lois was angry and suddenly I loved my mother.

 We moved again. Now to Wichita. Now to start at a new high school. Mom working at Bruce’s medical clinic, the one with the family name on the sign. Lois in an apartment, rent paid by Bruce. Medical expenses paid by Bruce. Everything handled by Bruce. So my mom would resent Bruce more.

 Two years of bliss. Not much Lois. I wasn’t fat anymore, though I sometimes thought I was. For the first time in my life, I had friends, a social life. Awkward in junior high, I was finally given the pass key to the teenage world in this new setting. Gossip, girlfriends, drama, bad music…I was in with both feet. Lois still smoked. My mom had stopped demanding hugs, as well as a whole lot of other things. I was independent, popular, the kid who didn’t have a curfew and who wasn’t being pushed to do well in school. I was the kid who was allowed to do whatever the hell he wanted to do, and after over a decade with Lois, I was glad to find some new company. Some of my friends had houses that smelled even better than Lois’ apartment when I was in the fourth grade. Sometimes I slept at their houses, too.

 Lois had two days, give or take a few hours. On the floor with her own shit and wetness. I was in Kansas City visiting my dad. My mom usually swung by Lois’ on the weekends, but she’d just begun a new job, one at a high-end clothing store, and they were having a big weekend sale. Bruce was vacationing. So it took a while for us to realize we hadn’t heard from Lois. It was a stroke, and as for what triggered it, the doctors said it was one of those take-your-pick situations. The cigarettes? Sure. But don’t discount the diet, or lack of one. Cheese. Cokes. Chocolates. Point being, it hit and she was partially paralyzed. Couldn’t call for help.

 I still avoid doing much serious thinking about what those two days must have been like. Especially once the sun went down.

 I did not visit her in the hospital. [Here is where the author would place the moving, unflinching admission that he wasn’t scared, he just didn’t care. This is where he would be frank but charming in admitting that, yeah, in the summer of 1998, finding a girlfriend was a bigger priority at the time. Getting in shape for his senior baseball season was just a little more important. He’d find a way to say that the fun training-traumas of teenagerhood were just a bit more inviting than holding somebody’s palsied hand. He’d also concoct a way to point out that, remember, Lois had changed some, and those changes had done a real number on his self concept. And at 16, in no way was he able to grasp something so sophisticated as knowing that, well, sometimes old people just sort of GET that way, but that doesn’t change the years before they get that way. The ability to convey just that sort of thing in just that sort of way is part of why he started this very random blog which so far he has not shown anyone (though he certainly planned to, at least before this entry, so now he’s a little bit in vapor lock here, since he won’t better his writing without peer review, but would any of his peers really want to know that his whole response to his grandmother spending two wet-and-alone days on her hallway floor was to call his friends and tell them he was finally getting a car?), but he still has a pretty limited cache as you can no doubt tell.]

 Lois went from the hospital to a rehab facility to a nursing home (one of her biggest fears), and of course, all of this was handled by Bruce. For those interested in chronology, this all happened before the start of my senior year of high school. I did not visit her. I graduated and did not visit her, I moved in with my dad an stepmother in Kansas City and did not visit her, and I went off to college in Arkansas and did not visit her.

 I also never found an obituary notice. Not at first. Sometimes, when I wasn’t busy with Starting A New Life, I would do a Web search for Lois. Nothing. Nothing until 2003. All the cigarettes, all the rotten pieces of lung and for all of those two days, yet Lois lived a long time. Not just “longer than we ever could have expected,” but long, period. I had smashed a glass door to “save” her, and I had conducted sleepless vigils trying to listen for her telltale gasps, but it seemed my efforts were wasted. She didn’t need me. Or maybe she did. Maybe one of those nights when I did hear her gasping ensured she would live to see the 21st century. Whether or not she’d want to live that long given the circumstances is another question altogether.

 One thing about the obituary that I finally found, it listed the surviving family, including the grandchildren. My name was not included.


January 4, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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