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No Country For Old Women (Part 1)

2008: I'm driving a stolen car. Not technically stolen, but it feels stolen. My guilty conscience clatters along everywhere I go in the car, like the tin cans and old shoes honeymoon-bound brides and grooms used to tie to their rear bumpers, minus the festiveness. The car, a beige 1988 Ford Taurus, had belonged to Gwendda, the 88-year-old woman I look after. One day about four years ago, she parked the car in the garage and hung up her keys. The car had sat for three years after that, a fine coating of pale green mold gradually dusting the steering wheel and dashboard.

I drive toward the dumpy-looking little nursing home in the next town where Berna, another old lady I know, is permanently flat on her back in bed. Like the Chief in "Little Big Man," she decided one day it was time to lie down and die. Old Lodge Skins only stayed up on his funeral platform for a day or so waiting fruitlessly for death; Berna has lain in that bed for almost five years now. She disassembled her life, broke the set, reduced her earthly belongings to a box or two, and checked herself into the nursing home to die. But she didn't. I have her car, too.

Tomorrow, I'll go visit my Alzheimered mother in the assisted-living place where we put her eight years ago. The distance I drive roundtrip will be the equivalent of crossing Nebraska. The last time I was there, Christmas day 2007, a 17-year-old kid was getting killed by an escaped Siberian tiger at the San Francisco zoo, about 50 miles from where I was, right around the time I finished the visit and got into the car.

Things had been more grim and silent than usual at my mother's old-folks' home when I'd arrived. It looked as if everyone had keeled over from a poison gas attack: one guy slumped with his forehead resting on a table; another was on his back on the sofa with his eyes open, head hanging off the side. My mother was in a recliner in front of the TV, head back, eyes shut, mouth open. I sat down by her chair and read out loud from the National Enquirer, as is my wont, and my mother came back from far, far away and actually laughed at a couple of the stories. She looked at me as if I were someone familiar but whom she couldn't quite place. I also hauled out the photo album I assembled a few years back, full of pictures of her when she was young and gorgeous. She never fails to respond to it, and it attracts the attention of the staff, who gaze in wonderment at the pictures and then at the ruin in the chair.

When it was time to go, I put my head right next to hers and whispered in her ear, telling her who I am and that I love her and such, and her hand went around and caressed the back of my neck. This almost destroyed me. You become accustomed to the "remove" of dementia, accommodate yourself to the notion that she's "gone," and out of habit and self-protection, harden up. But in that moment, she was not gone; she was fully there, she was my mother, and she was caressing my neck. I went out to the car and blubbered. Not for long; I blew my nose, started the engine and got going.

On the drive home, I heard about the tiger attack on the news. And I thought: is this the exact diametric opposite of what's happening to my mother, or what? She's 86 and dying a protracted, ignominious death, decaying in full view while she still breathes. The kid at the zoo steps out one fine day, at the apex of youth, and gets killed in the space of a few seconds by a huge predator. What's the statistical likelihood of that in a major American city in the 21st century?

Back in the Pleistocene, death at 17 by big cat was more of an everyday sort of event. You were lucky if you even made it to 17. I remembered a demonstration by an anthropologist I'd seen on TV: he had two skulls, one of them a juvenile humanoid with a pair of dime-sized holes in the back, right at the base; the other a sabre-tooth cat, complete with wicked scimitar canines. The anthropologist took the sabre-tooth skull and fitted it over the humanoid skull: the canines slipped cozily into the two holes with a precision fit, as if that particular sabre-tooth had killed that particular humanoid. The anthropologist had a theory: The big cats, he believed, were our species-specific predator, with a taste for the very young. This is why children have an instinctive fear of the dark, he opined, why there are "monsters" under the bed. Because once upon a time, there literally were monsters that came for you in the dark, sank their fangs into your skull and dragged you out of the cave. When the zoo tiger was on the kid, I have no doubt that ancient ancestral memories were activated in his brain during the brief moment before consciousness was extinguished.

Gwendda, the 88-year-old woman whose car I'm driving, is British. I met her about twenty-four years ago when she hired me and the guy with whom I was writing a giant novel about 7th-century China to paint her house. This was what we did before we got a contract and an advance: slung ladders and buckets, risked our necks teetering way high up in thin air on rickety scaffolds. What she wanted us to put on the house turned out to be not exactly paint, but blue oil-based stain, even runnier and drippier than water, with that aggressive velocity peculiar to refined petroleum products. My writing partner hated house painting, and didn't give it his full attention when he was doing it. I didn't like it much either, but I was good at it and had earned a living at it for years and years during my misspent early prime.

My coauthor got into big trouble pretty quickly with the blue stain. It raced, ran, dripped, exploded and splattered. If the stuff had been red, the deck and west wall would have looked like the scene of a really atavistic murder, complete with spatters and footprints. Gwendda wasn't happy at all. I salvaged the situation by telling her that I would finish the job by myself, including remedial work on the drips and footprints, and that when it was done, she could decide what she wanted to pay. I remember the moment when her expression went from exasperated and expecting the worst from a couple of grifters to pleased and surprised that the encounter had been so sensible, civilized and satisfactory. Thanks to my mother, I knew how to actually listen and be reasonable when another person talked.

I could not possibly have imagined how that little moment of cultivated diplomacy would play out, a couple of decades and many convolutions down the line.

Berna, the woman in the bed at the nursing home in the next town, had been a writer and a first-rate reader. She came from a family with a congenital streak of craziness; she told me this herself, along with stories to back it up. Her sister, she said, had been a full-on madwoman, turbocharged by a high I.Q. and a law degree. Berna had been an odd duck, but considered the "sane" one in her family. She'd had a stroke at age 69. It left her able to walk, but feebly and clumsily. She hired me to empty her house, gave me her car, an '86 Toyota, as payment, and put herself into assisted living. After a few miserable years among people old enough to be her parents, she checked herself out, got a senior citizen apartment, settled into a wheelchair and played fierce games of Scrabble. Then she had another stroke. She wasn't paralyzed, but she said that if she raised her head even slightly, she was overcome by black, sucking, devouring dizziness. This was when she put herself in the nursing home. I'm done for, she said to me that first week, looking up from her pillow, after arranging herself to receive the Reaper.

Still waiting, she lies in one position, asleep or awake, forbids anyone to crank the head of the bed up, bellows in fury if they try. She refuses a TV, a radio, a Walkman, those prismatic glasses that allow people flat on their backs to read at a 45-degree angle. No Books on Tape, no movies, no nothing. Her mind is intact and dementia-free; when I visit, she remembers exactly what we talked about the last time and asks for news of the world. She's grown deaf to the point where you have to shout directly into her ear, like the town crier. But when she's alone, she just lies there, drifting and dreaming. Year after year after year. People who used to know her are frightened when they learn that she's not demented, not dead, and still just lying there. That's crazy, they say.

Gwendda, the Brit, had led a strong, adventurous, stunningly competent life. In a photo album she showed me, there's a picture of her when she was a baby just sitting up. There's a slight but definite "caste" to one of her eyes in the baby picture, a subtle misalignment of the features that kept her just this side of being beautiful when she grew up, and which had everything to do with making her ferociously sexy. Later pictures show a long-legged athlete doing handstands on beaches in Spain alongside bare-chested, muscular young men, posing on fountains with skirts hiked up to display sleek shapely thighs and calves, then, during the war, in uniform and in full frog-woman gear, being trained to plant explosives on German subs. Always in the pictures there's this look on her face of deep, sly satisfaction, the slight irregularity of eyes and nose alluring and transformed by cheer, humor and confidence. Like those holographic postcards, though, that change when you tilt them — so that Jesus' eyes, for instance, open and close — those irregularities are tilted into something ominous when a certain misaligned defect in her personality occasionally emerges.

Four years ago, right around the time she'd quit driving because she knew she was slipping, Gwendda was ready to go back to England. Her younger brother, who still lives there, was making arrangements to bring her home. She has no children, but plenty of nieces and nephews and a couple of surviving siblings. She was ready to pack her bag and walk right out the door, leaving her house and everything in it behind. Then, during a phone conversation with her brother shortly before she was to leave, she said something that shook him so badly that he abruptly cancelled all plans to bring her home.

I know the brother, like him a lot, had met him on a trip to the U.K. We spoke about that conversation. Whatever she said was evidently so horrible that he couldn't bring himself to repeat it, but he did describe it: Vicious. The word resonated. From the way he was affected, I knew this was something from way, way back, something chronic and ancient in its toxicity.

This was how I came to be "in charge" of her affairs. The brother engaged me from across the Atlantic to oversee her existence — shop, pay her bills, take her to the movies, look out for her. She's two years older than my mother. She doesn't have Alzheimer's. She has plain old-fashioned senility, not the same thing at all. Her short-term memory is shot, and her world slowly narrows down like the closing-in walls of the room where Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher sloshed around in "Star Wars." But she knows where she is and who she is, bathes and dresses herself, reads books and the newspaper, and occasionally surprises the hell out of me by remembering something we talked about on another day. She walks strongly despite being all bent over with arthritis, takes no medications whatsoever, and freakily enough, does not need glasses to read. Occasionally, she gets confused about the real world versus the dream world, but not like my mother, who dwells in a perpetual shifting kaleidoscopic fusion of the two.

Like her brother, I'm scared of her, though not quite to the same degree. It's a remnant of my own glimpses of her deep perverse streak. She'd traveled the world, lived in Australia and Canada before emigrating to the U.S., was a high-powered executive before she retired and moved to the house she still lives in. She'd invested wisely, saved and grew her money, was fun, worldly, well-read, sophisticated, sociable. For years, she threw Sunday afternoon mad tea parties that spiraled up into wild sugar-and-caffeine-fueled hilarity. Invitations were prized. She'd done what a smart, successful person without offspring does to prepare for old age: cultivated financial security and friends. And the plan had always been to return, eventually, to England.

But she ended up in exile and with just one viable friend: me. How did this happen? Right around the same time she had the fatal phone conversation with her brother, she was on a tear about another friend stealing her credit card. I knew this woman, and she would no more steal a credit card than I would knock over a convenience store. It was just flat not possible. But Gwendda repeated the story every day, and even acted it out: She was riding in the back seat of my car. I saw her in the rear view mirror, holding my purse in her lap. She thought she could slip the card out and that I wouldn't see. But I did. Every time she repeated the story, she embellished it, demonstrated the wrist action and the cunning removal of the card, and it became more real to her. I heard the story so many times that I had a lurid video of the event running in my own head, though I knew full well it was fictional, complete with a chilling cinematic moment involving the mirror, the old lady's surveillance-camera eyes, the thief caught in the act. The accused woman had been a devoted friend, the kind that comes along maybe once or twice in any lifetime. Twenty years younger than Gwendda, she would have been an invaluable old-age asset. But she was driven away permanently.

Stealing. She has a pointed British way of saying this word so that it comes at you like a heat-seeking missile, imbued with an accusatory, fatalistic cynicism: They act like your friends, but eventually you'll catch them stealing from you. And this was the theme, in one permutation or another, of the terrible perversity that emerged from time to time, so incongruous with her largesse, sociability and hospitality, like a form of Tourette's Syndrome — ugly, baffling, intrusive, shocking. I suspect this beast had had her in its jaws all her life.

My coauthor and I once house-sat for her when she went to England for a month. When we knew she was on her way back, we scrubbed, vacuumed, dusted, washed windows and polished floors, stocked the refrigerator and arranged fresh flowers in vases, fear nipping at our heels. A big part of our terror was that we'd left a car in neutral in front of her garage a few days before. It had rolled forward about four feet on the gentle incline, hit the door and left a mark and a very slight dent in the wood. We'd scurried around in a fever, mixing paint, dabbing it in the concavity, darkening and lightening it, trying for a trompe-l'oeil effect to disguise the damage. The result looked totally crude to me, glaringly obvious, but she never noticed. She seemed quite pleased with everything when she arrived home. We'd successfully distracted her with the dazzlingly clean house.

Later, we heard that she complained to a mutual friend that we lost things, hid things, stole things. That was when I understood that she was in the grip of a poisonous compulsion. Much later, she drove away the last of her tea-party friends by urging them to borrow books from her, then calling up a week later and unpleasantly demanding them back. And all of us, every friend she had, including me, were "after her money." She came close to getting rid of me, too; soon after I started looking in on her at her brother's behest, she left a message on my answering machine: Those children you brought to my house yesterday stole my figurines. If you don't bring them back, I'm calling the police. 

Of course, I'd brought no "children" to her house. It had been a dream that had leaked through the sleep/wake barrier, persisted, and merged synergistically with her chronic suspicion. That was the last time she accused me of anything, though. I haven't a clue how she dealt with her fatal flaw throughout her life; surely she was aware of it, but as with many people of her generation and class, the mechanics of self-reflection are kept assiduously hidden. But I think another, pragmatic part of her understood perfectly that I was her last friend and all that stood between her and — as her brother picturesquely put it — the "geriatric knacker's yard," and that part of her prevailed. And with the manners and social skills I learned from my mother, I was well equipped for the diplomatic aspect of the job.

The thing is, I'm not totally convinced that I'm not a thief. You'd think it would be plain — either you're a thief, or you're not a thief. But it's not plain at all. It's hazy, shape-shifting, the conviction rising and falling like the stock market, and just as mysteriously. I've felt like a thief for a while anyway, ever since we put my mother in assisted living. What you learn when you are dealing with the non compos mentis is that truth, honesty, and transparency are worse than useless; they can be downright destructive. Deviousness, deception and manipulation become virtues. It's harsh and confusing, but you get used to it. And in exercising these neo-virtues, questionable parts of your character, which were there all along but kept mostly in check, grow new blood vessels, thrive and expand.

I didn't feel like a thief when I got the car from Berna, the woman who now lies in bed waiting to die. That was a clear, unambiguous exchange of goods for services. We were both satisfied, and there was nothing wrong with her mind. And my own mind was much less damaged then, because that transaction happened a couple of years before we tricked my mother into a van full of her clothes and furniture by telling her we were going on a "picnic," drove her 120 miles away, and essentially committed her. Now I know: I traded my mother's life for mine, and it turned out to be a devil's bargain. That was the thievery. I think I thought I could get my youth back, but what happened instead is that my own old age and decrepitude leapt into view with the disturbing immediacy of looking at a faraway scene through expensive German binoculars. I don't believe in karma, but I have a powerful conviction that I've forfeited any hope, or right to, or expectation of a lucky old age. And not exactly "forfeited," but learned that there's no such thing as a lucky old age, because old age by definition means precisely that your luck has run out. Some people's luck runs out more egregiously than others, to be sure, but everyone's luck runs out if they live long enough.


  1. Alice Chouteau July 6, 2018

    Thanks Ellie, a fine piece, and I do recall your mother vividly, an impressive, vibrant personna…and Berna, one of the most dreaded customers at themretail nursery where I sometimes worked.
    I now look at my middle aged sons and wonder what plans they have for me—- hope I might end up at the same odds balls facilty as you, Ellie…thief!

  2. Michael Koepf July 7, 2018

    Exquisite, wise, and deeply touching writing.

  3. Jess Phillips July 8, 2018

    This erag has seen no more poignant prose

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