Sherril Jaffe is the author, most recently, of the 2011 novel, Expiration Date, and the 2013 collection, You Are Not Alone and Other Stories, which was awarded the 2011 Spokane Prize for Short Fiction. Black Sparrow Press published her first six books, and her collaboration with Alan Lew, One God Clapping, was given the Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence, a PEN Award, in 2000. She is a Bennington MFA, MacDowell fellow, and, as of this fall, Professor Emerita of Literature and Creative Writing at Sonoma State University.
During the Republican Convention
While the Republicans were having their convention in Cleveland, Laurel was flying her mother from San Francisco to Portland, Oregon, ostensibly so Verna could celebrate her ninety-eighth birthday at Laurel’s sister Betsy’s house surrounded by Betsy’s kids and grandkids, all of whom would be in town. It had been several years since any of them had seen Great-grandmother Verna, so this could very well be their last chance. Really, how much longer could she live?
Verna had been a lifelong Republican, but she had excused herself to her Democratic daughters by explaining she had only been a “tax” Republican, and now she was looking forward to voting for a woman for president. Since making this declaration, however, Verna had lost her ability to form words, and it was now doubtful, unless Laurel did it for her, that she was going to be able to vote for anyone. Along with her words and her ability to write her name, in the past year she had also lost most of her mobility, so transporting her to Betsy’s was not going to be easy, but Laurel had hired Ronaldo, one of Verna’s round-the-clock caregivers, to come along to assist them.
Laurel could not handle her mother by herself anymore. On their last visit to Portland, a few years before, when Verna was just starting to lose it but was still fairly high functioning, she hadn’t understood why everyone was walking around the terminal dragging roller bags behind them. Laurel had tried to explain to her that airlines had been charging to check luggage since 911, but Verna still hadn’t been able to understand, and by now, it was hard to say what, if anything, she did.
The sisters didn’t expect she would know Betsy’s kids and grandkids, nor did they think she would remember having seen them after she had flown back to the Bay Area the next day. Her mind was largely gone, and now her body, also, was on its last legs. No longer could she stand up, sit down, or go to the toilet without help, and yet her heart and lungs were good, and she still had all her own teeth, and so her doctor had predicted she would live at least another five years, bringing her to 103.
It was up to the sisters to determine how those five years would be spent, and one-on-one care was proving to be enormously expensive. They needed to make sure that Verna didn’t outlast her money, for neither daughter was prepared to be her mother’s personal caregiver. Both were hoping, instead, that there would be a little something leftover for the two of them to split, but that ultimately would be determined by how rapidly Verna declined.
In the past year, Verna had given up most of her former activities. All she had left of what she had loved about life was the company of the young men Laurel and Betsy had hired to take care of her, but the sisters knew that if their mother had been capable of comprehending how much of her money her daughters were spending on these caregivers, she would have been appalled. Laurel’s earliest memory of Verna was of her checking receipts down to the penny, and clearly Verna’s greatest happiness in recent years had been to go to the dollar store with her ninety-two year old lover, even when he was completely falling over in the parking lot from vertigo and Laurel had to come to his rescue. Laurel knew what her mother was like: Verna did not like to see money wasted.
Indeed, she went ballistic when anyone left a light on. Commonly, this was Betsy, down for a visit, charging the plane fare to her mother at her mother’s request. Verna had told the girls many times over the years that she wished she could give them more, financially, but she was saving her money so she would be able to afford the very best care in her old age and wouldn’t, therefore, ever become a burden to her daughters. She had only been thinking of her daughters. Unbeknownst to her mother, because her mother would not have been able to comprehend it, Betsy had scouted out a memory-care home in Portland that provided lots of activities for people with comprehension issues.
Laurel had flown up to tour it with her sister, and they had agreed that this place might provide a richer life for Verna than what she was presently enjoying, now that she could no longer play bridge, follow the plot of a movie or wipe herself. Verna might prefer to move to such a place, a home where she could live in the company of others in a similar predicament.
Incapable of making any decisions herself, it was up to her daughters to determine what would be best for her. The home was brand new, so they knew it would meet one of what they knew to be their mother’s criteria: never to live anywhere where anyone might have died. Moreover, even though the facility was perfectly upscale, meeting another of Verna’s criteria, it was in Oregon, where everything cost a lot less than it did in the Bay Area, so moving their mother there could save her a substantial amount, and that was why the sisters were schlepping their mother to Portland overnight—not just so she could celebrate her birthday with her great-granddaughters, but more pertinently, so she could be evaluated by the home, to see if it would be a good fit. They had an appointment with the staff for eleven the next morning. Their flight back wasn’t scheduled until the next night.
They were not going to try to disguise anything about Verna in order to get her in, of course. Laurel and Betsy would not move her there if the place weren’t going to be able to handle her, if they were going to end up evicting her in a few months, after all her bridges had been burned behind her, but both sisters hoped, nonetheless, that the home would take her, and she would move to Portland where she would be under Betsy’s supervision. For the past five years, Laurel, the daughter who lived closest, had been managing their mother’s affairs, and it had been becoming more and more burdensome as Verna had become more and more out of it, so now it seemed only fair that Betsy take a turn.
They hadn’t told Ronaldo of their plan, however, because they didn’t want to upset him, make him think they were about to deprive him of his livelihood. There was no point in doing that before they knew for sure that was what they were going to do. Anyway, the risk of suddenly losing a client was built into his job, and Laurel and Betsy were prepared to offer him a generous severance package, besides, but there was no reason to say anything until they had to.
To get to the airport, Edgardo, another of Verna’s caregivers, would drive them in the Prius Laurel had leased for her mother to be driven around in. It had been a two-year lease, and it was almost up now, but Laurel hadn’t thought it practical to lease it for longer. If they didn’t end up moving Verna to Oregon, Laurel was going to have to lease or buy another car for them very soon.
Laurel had hired Edgardo on Ronaldo’s recommendation, when Verna had started requiring round the clock care. Edgardo and Ronaldo had been best friends as children in the Philippines, where their houses had shared a wall and where they had addressed each other by special nicknames: Ronaldo was “Onad” and Edgardo, “Bong.” After high school, however, they had lost touch with each other, until recently, when, miraculously, they had reconnected at their church in Walnut Creek where they had learned that each now worked as a caregiver, was married, and had children. Edgardo’s wife was with him in Walnut Creek, but his children were still in the Philippines, as were Ronaldo’s wife and three kids.
Ronaldo hadn’t seen his family in six years, in fact, although they Skyped every day, but now the government was helping them all to emigrate and helping the whole family to get green cards as the result of a court case that had proved Ronaldo had been exploited, indentured and, basically, enslaved. He had signed a contract to get a non-immigrant working visa so he could make money to send home, but found himself forced to live in crowded apartments with high rent on less than a living wage and threatened with being chased by a bounty hunter if he ever ran away.
Now he was officially eligible for a T-visa. The T was for trafficking. Although it wasn’t widely known, a small number of these were issued each year. The Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach Program in San Francisco his church had connected him to found a lawyer for Ronaldo, a woman who said, “We’re here to help you, not to deport you,” and she had told him all the costs would be taken care of by the government.
Ronaldo was young and pleasant to look at. Verna had reacted violently to all the other caregivers the agency sent. She disliked anyone fat, ugly, or female. Laurel asked the agency to send only men, but that hadn’t always been possible. When Verna disliked a caregiver the agency sent, to show her displeasure, she would run, cursing, to the edge of her porch, screaming she was going to kill herself, and then she would throw her pills dramatically over the rail.
That was when she could still speak, could still find each person’s weak spot and stick in the knife with her words, when she could still push caregivers out the door with her bony fingers, which is what she had done to everyone the agency had sent, until the agency sent Ronaldo. “AQWF” Laurel had texted Betsy when all was quiet on the western front.
Then one day it came to the sisters’ attention that the agency was charging them thirty-five dollars an hour for Ronaldo but only paying him thirteen. This didn’t seem quite right. This seemed like more exploitation. Laurel and Betsy decided to buy him out from the agency, so he could earn a lot more than that and they could pay a lot less. That cost their mother a great deal, thirty thousand dollars, but the sisters felt that they didn’t have a choice. Both they and Ronaldo had signed contracts with the agency, and if they didn’t buy his contract out, he would never be able to work for them again.
Although their mother was extremely thrifty, Verna’s primary wish, one she had repeated to her daughters on numerous occasions, had been to have the best care money could buy in her old age, and since that was what Ronaldo provided for her, the sisters concluded she would have wanted them to buy Ronaldo out. In point of fact, they didn’t know how they would be able to handle their mother without him. Before they had found him, Verna had lived for a month at Laurel’s house in San Francisco, and Laurel had come very close to having what seemed to her was going to be a psychotic break. Nothing she did had made her mother happy, and she never had any time away from her.
Edgardo drove Verna and Ronaldo from Walnut Creek to the city, where they scooped up Laurel and drove to SFO. They had given themselves plenty of time, because they knew it was going to be difficult transporting Verna with the walker she had recently started using. They had to constantly be cajoling her to walk with it. She preferred to ride, but Ronaldo had told Laurel that once her mother stopped walking, she would go swiftly downhill. Verna had become extremely unstable and would fall unless Ronaldo guided her from behind. The plan was for her to ride on the seat of the walker and for Ronaldo to push her through security to the gate, while Laurel pulled the two suitcases.
Edgardo let them off at American Airlines in Terminal Two. Laurel had not been able to print a boarding pass, for some reason she couldn’t comprehend, and tried to do it at the kiosk, but it still didn’t work, so the three of them got in line. After a while, an agent approached and asked where they were going. “Portland,” they said. “We don’t fly to Portland,” she said.
American had sub-contracted to Alaska. That was why Laurel couldn’t print a boarding pass. Alaska was in the International terminal, a twenty-minute walk, with Ronaldo pushing Verna on the red walker. Luckily, she wasn’t a big woman, and they made it in good time to security, where an agent went over and over Verna’s hands with a wand looking for explosives and swiped her walker again and again with wipes. As this was happening, Verna looked up at her as if thinking, “Who the fuck are you?”
She certainly would have included the word “fuck.” It had been one of her favorite words, back when she could actually make words and didn’t simply burble. Amongst the few words she had left that she could almost enunciate were “You’re pretty,” which she said to every woman she was brought into contact with automatically, which Laurel believed was a primitive, self-protective strategy. It came out “Yrggb puwrdee,” which, after Laurel translated for her, never failed to get people on her side. “Yrggb puwrdee,” she said now, and Laurel translated, but the TSA woman didn’t smile. She must have known that she wasn’t really pretty. Ronaldo took out a water bottle and gave Verna a Seroquel.
They got to the gate in plenty of time, which was good, because they could have lunch and there would still be time for Verna to be toileted. Ronaldo would have to handle it. Laurel and her mother had never had that kind of relationship. Besides, Verna was too heavy for Laurel to lift. They had to find a “Companion Bathroom” so Ronaldo could assist her, and when they finally did they had to wait while a woman inside expressed milk, but when their mission was finally accomplished, they made their way to the gate, arriving in good time, and discovered that their plane had been delayed.
In the end, it was delayed four hours, and keeping Verna from getting too agitated had been quite a balancing act, but Ronaldo had been patient. They spoke of what would be required next at home—a black-out curtain for Verna’s bedroom would be good to keep the morning light from awakening her too early. There would be a few doctors’ appointments next week. Verna had been complaining about her foot, and she needed to get an echocardiogram to make sure she didn’t have congestive heart failure. They talked about whether the time had come to put Verna in a wheelchair permanently.
Finally, the plane began to board, and they were allowed to board early, one advantage of travelling with a person with a walker, but when they got to the end of the tunnel, they had to surrender the walker, and so Ronaldo had to hold Verna under the arms and guide her down the aisle, Laurel assisting the best she could from behind. When they arrived in their row, Ronaldo lowered Verna carefully into the seat, buckled her in, and sat down beside her. Laurel was across the aisle. The plane began to fill up, and then a middle-aged white man with a backwards baseball cap stood over Ronaldo and started screaming.
Apparently, he was sitting in the man’s girlfriend’s seat. “I’m sorry, it was a mistake,” Ronaldo said, but the man in the ball cap was now yelling that he had known very well what he was doing when he sat in his girlfriend’s seat, that he had sat there on purpose. Ronaldo began lifting Verna out of her seat in order to carry her to the seat that had actually been assigned to her, on Laurel’s side of the aisle, and Laurel moved to the middle. Lifting Verna took quite an effort, of course.
All the surrounding passengers watched as this drama unfolded, everyone glaring with hatred at Ballcap Guy. When he saw this, he immediately began apologizing, in a very loud voice, explaining that the plane had been delayed four hours, and that was why he was so angry.
“Let’s let everyone else get off, including Angry Guy, before we try,” Laurel wrote in a note she passed to Ronaldo as the plane was landing, but when they were on the ground, Angry Guy insisted upon holding up everyone behind them, like a crossing guard, while they slowly and awkwardly deplaned. On the way from baggage claim, they got a text from the shuttle driver and found his van without too much trouble. His van was very high to lift Verna into, however, but they eventually managed, and within forty minutes they were at Betsy’s house, where the challenge was getting Verna inside.
Because of the steep front steps and the number of stairs that led into the house from the garage, they decided to push Verna on the walker up a steep hill and through a side gate to the two steps that led into the kitchen. This was accomplished cheered on by Betsy’s daughters and granddaughters. The plan had been to go out to dinner at a fancy restaurant, but because they were four hours late, Betsy had gotten pizza instead. Laurel brought out the party hats she had brought with her, and they all put them on.
The next day, Laurel and Betsy told Ronaldo he would have a few hours off, because they wanted to take Verna out for a girls’ lunch. They thought they could handle her between the two of them. He helped them load Verna into Betsy’s car, Laurel climbed in the back, and they drove to the home.
In the course of caring for their mother, Laurel and Betsy had looked at many homes over the years, but none had seemed half as nice as Verna’s own three-bedroom, two bathroom condo with a view of Mt. Diablo in her retirement community in Walnut Creek, so they had never before attempted to move her. In truth, Laurel had felt oppressed in all of these institutions that they had visited, but this new place in Portland hadn’t made her feel that way at all. They had found it to be beautifully designed with fish tanks everywhere, courtyards and sunlight.
The people evaluating Verna were kind and capable, but during the interview, Verna’s face had become a mask of anger; it was as if she were aware they were trying to put her in a home. They asked her what made her life worth living, and somehow making herself understood, she had told them “nothing,” that nothing did, that she wanted to die. She seemed to Laurel hell-bent on sabotaging the evaluation.
In the end, the evaluators told the sisters, they actually needed to talk to Ronaldo before they could complete the evaluation. Only he could tell them with any accuracy what exactly was needed for their mother’s care, of course, and, in addition, he would be able to tell them if the sisters had been inadvertently withholding some essential information about their mother, but Laurel did not want to alarm Ronaldo; she did not want him to know that they had been dishonest with him. She told the home she would call them next week. She and Betsy needed to talk this over.
All went smoothly back at the airport. Laurel and Ronaldo pushed Verna in a wheelchair they were able to acquire at the curb, where they also checked their baggage, and this made everything easier. Best of all, there was a special cart to strap Verna to so she could be pushed down the aisle to her assigned seat, the assignment cheerfully double-checked by the flight attendant. This was how they got her off the plane, too, after everyone else had deplaned. Tall, handsome Edgardo was there at SFO to pick them up, pulling up right outside of baggage claim. Ronaldo lowered Verna into the passenger seat, and they sped toward 380, which would lead to 280 and home.
In the back seat, Laurel took out her phone and scrolled through the headlines from the Republican convention. There had been a lot about immigrants, how criminal they were. The overall tone of the remarks seemed calculated to evoke anger and fear. “Tell Edgardo about the angry guy on the plane,” Laurel said to Ronaldo, catching a glimpse of her mother’s contented face in the rear view mirror.
“He didn’t realize I was with Verna,” Ronaldo was telling Edgardo. “It was when he saw that I was, and that everyone was looking at him like he was a monster, that he started apologizing.”
That was when Laurel realized that the guy had yelled at Ronaldo because he had seen a brown man sitting in his girlfriend’s seat, and presumably, he was one of those people who believed it was always open season on brown people, one who thought brown people were trying to take from him what was rightfully his and needed to be kept in their places. His alleged reason for misbehaving, however, which he had offered in a loud voice, so everyone on the plane could hear, had been that the flight had been delayed four hours, as if that were not equally true for everyone.
Laurel wondered how much her mother had understood about her interview at the home. As they had addressed her, Verna had appeared not unlike a cornered beast. The home was as lovely as it had been on Laurel’s first visit to the place, but she hadn’t pictured how it was going to appear to Verna. It was an institution, in the end, a strange place where no one knew who she was.
Ronaldo and Edgardo had known Verna when she could still carry on a conversation and could still climb to the top of the mountain behind her house. Now they and their other friend, Rommel, were bathing, dressing, toileting and sometimes spoon-feeding her. If Laurel ever needed a helper in these areas, herself, she thought she would prefer a woman, for modesty’s sake, but her mother had liked men, above all. She’d had a ten-year affair while Laurel’s dad was still alive and had found the great love of her life after Laurel’s dad had died. That passionate relationship had ended only when her lover had died, three years ago, now, before Verna lost her brain, as she had described the sensation to her daughters.
All that seemed to be left of her now was her essential core, which, apparently, was this love of men and of being touched by men, and Laurel and Betsy had been plotting to take this away from her and to place her in an institution. Laurel hoped that if she herself ever reached this advanced state of decline, that her children would respect whatever it was that was her own essential core and remember that she was a particular person, not a category.
Edgardo turned and smiled at Verna, taking one hand off the wheel to place it on hers, folded in her lap. He was the caregiver who rolled Verna’s hair in curlers and applied her lipstick. How glamorous Verna looked in her dark glasses and silver hair, the glow of the setting sun outlining her upraised chin in orange, happily riding along, next to Bong. Next week, Laurel would use some of her mother’s money to buy them a new Prius, a car that would meet what Laurel knew would be Verna’s criteria, being very economical on gas. With any luck, it would outlast her.