Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Life of Peggy

For eight months, I visited a family in my town. A matriarch of 95, Peg had been admitted to Hospice for "failure to thrive," although she rallied with the wealth of services and support. Her 64-year-old son, a magnanimous, intelligent and outspoken man had returned home several years ago to care for her and his brother. The younger brother, a Down's syndrome man of 55 named Larry, liked hugs and often inquired if I was single, pointing at his brother with a sly look. I smiled, touching him on his rounded shoulder, saying, "Thanks for thinking of me."

When Larry was born, the doctors told Peg and her husband to institutionalize him immediately. They said he would never walk or talk. Her husband Ed said, "If he won't walk or talk, he can do that in our home." They nurtured him and fought to have him included in regular school classes. They created Special Olympic programs in which Larry was a wrestling champion. His brother said that he has no agenda, which also means he has no guile. A kind word, a smile and a hug go a long way with him.

Peg was frail but feisty, a strong character. I asked questions about her childhood, her marriage, children, and work. She worked in insurance agencies and for the FBI during the World War II. She was a member of the Fire Department Ladies Auxiliary,with whom she marched in the middle of the street late at night, after drinking through their meeting. In turn, I entertained her with stories of my children, of weddings, travel. When I went away, I sent back chatty emails for Ed to read to her.

I asked her if she would like to "write" a book, and scribbled as she narrated. She told me about her mother, who generously helped a family in need only to glance up in a mirror and find the woman stealing her rings. She told me that her mother stole ribbons from the cemetery because they were so pretty. She said a boy who stole her tricycle threw a "clinker" at her. When I asked her to define "clinker," she started to answer, then looked at me sharply. "Girl, don't you know ANYTHING," she snapped. We both burst out laughing.

Even as she and her sparse white hair grew thinner, whether in bed or in her chair, she continued to tell me stories for our "book." Ed gave me photographs to scan; there was a picture in a striped bathing costume, inner tube around her waist. There were dozens of pictures of her with girlfriends. They wore shirtwaist dresses, coats with fur collars, shorts and peter pan collars. They sat on blankets at picnics, next to men in uniforms. Unable to see the tiny faded black and white photos, she identified most of the girls as "Helen who lived in Iowa."

Memory is impressionistic, imprinted on our psyches with emotion. Years later, it is hard to separate fact from feeling. Capturing her stories was also impressionistic; time shifted. She would start to tell me a story of her childhood, then turn to her son to ask him about it. "Ed, remember when we…" she would query. "That wasn't me, Mom," he responded. I told her the problem was that she had too many Eds. Her father, husband, son, son-in-law, grandson…No one could keep all those Eds straight!

Peggy died peacefully, with her daughter next to her. Despite Ed's diligent care or perhaps because of it, she waited until he left the house for a rare errand. I arrived an hour later, and Larry wailed when he saw me. "My mother's dead!" he cried. "Can I have a hug?"

The Life of Peggy was pasted into a spiral notebook, along with photographs. I brought it to the funeral home and left it on a table for people to see. "Do you want to see my mother? I can't believe she's dead," said Larry, holding my hand. I patted him on the shoulder and told him how much she loved him. His eyes filled with tears. I thanked them for allowing me in to their lives, gave Larry one more hug, and left.

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