Verlie Burroughs is a west coast writer from Vancouver Island.
There are muddy paw prints on the sheets. There are muddy paw prints down the wall under the window sill.
Eliza is scratching fleas. Mrs. U never seems to be bothered by them.
"They don't bite me," she says over toast and coffee, choking on the crumbs, and gagging til her plate falls out.
"I can feel them jump on me in bed, but they don't bite. Brewers yeast is good for that, sprinkle a little in the cats' food."
With a flip of her hand the teeth are back in her face. The old bleary-eyed face surrounded by white hair, held together with a pair of stark cat's eye glasses with coke bottle lenses.
The lenses intensify the clear blue watery eyes, and Eliza could swear the old lady is watching her.
Legally blind? What does that mean?
"I'm legally blind," spouts Mrs U, to each new visitor, although there aren't that many since Eliza got the 'helper's' position. Her old cronies don't worry about her now that she's in 'good hands'.
Eliza is just as happy the 'Committee' has decided to back off, bunch of old bats.
Being legally blind is a frustrating reality for Mrs.U. She is ill-tempered from morning til night. But she can still see a piece of fluff on the carpet after Eliza has vacuumed.
"What's this?" she asks, picking up the cat hair between her long hooked fore-finger and her thumb.
"I swear she can see," Eliza tells Mrs U's doctor on the street in front of the Post Office.
"Her vision goes in and out," is his professional reply.
"But she says she can't see at all."
"Some days are better then others," he tells her. The Doctor is head of the 'Committee'. Ever since Mrs. U fell down, he's insisted she have a live-in helper. If not, she will have to go into a 'Home'.
Eliza wonders how much the old lady can see. Did she see her drawing a sketch of her at the table when she was supposed to be writing out the TV listings in extra large bold letters on the back of a used envelope?
This is the part of the routine Eliza hates. She has to translate the TV guide's long titles, like 'Josh and Ron's Family Adventure' or 'Great Moments with Nature's Film Makers' into something Mrs U will be able to see later.
She is searching for programs that might interest the old lady.
"Does it look like anything's on TV today? asks Mrs. U taking another bite out of the toast and choking on it as she speaks.
"What's on channel 9? Read it to me!"
"It's a telethon."
"Oh! I don't want to watch that! What's on Channel 7? Are there any gardening programs?"
"No, no gardening on today."
"What? No gardening on Channel 6 either?
"No Mrs U, no gardening on. Channel 6. There's a special on the life of Margaret Lawrence," she says hopefully.
"What? Why do people write novels? I hate fiction!" Mrs U likes to read only non-fiction or Detective stories, but she can't see to read anymore.
"I like books I can learn from! I've always wanted to read the Koran. I miss my books.
By the way my tape machine is mixed up. I must have pressed the wrong button last night. Can you look at it?"
Mrs U listens to talking books on a big blue tape deck borrowed from the Canadian National Institue for the Blind. The talking books arrive regularly in the mail. The current Reader's Digest is in the deck.
In a fury Mrs U picks up the tape deck before Eliza has a chance to look at it. She presses the wrong button and the words speed up into a high pitched babble.
Eliza takes the tape deck and trys to get it working. It's at the end of side one.
"I think you have to press the track button to continue Mrs U. That gives you the index. If you wish to bypass the index you need to press Stop, the red button, and then press the track button to continue." Eliza is completely confused. She sets the big blue tape deck back down on the table.
"Let's finish this TV schedule first so I can get these dishes cleaned up", she suggests weakly. She doesn't know how she is going to get the talking book back on the right track.
"I don't care about the dishes!" shouts Mrs. U. "People are too tidy!
Mrs. U's half-chewed toast is dribbling from the corners of her mouth as she speaks.
"There's better things to do than clean house! I don't mind a messy house!"
Eliza looks around the room. There is cat hair everywhere. She can feel a flea biting her ankle. She had 24 bites when she counted this morning. The bites are swollen, red and painful.
Mrs U chokes again as she takes another slurp of coffee.
"It's the crumbs, they get under my plate. She rubs her watery eyes with a soiled tissue. But her plate stays in her mouth this time.
"I'll watch a nature program and then I'll have a bath. By the way I had to use the commode last night."
Eliza is printing up the TV schedule on the back of the envelope in extra large bold letters. When Mrs U holds it right up to her face she can read the times and titles of her favorite programs. But if it's a card or a newspaper someone has to read it to her.
The big blue cassete player is still not working. It's stuck on the wrong track and still sounds like the 'Chipmunks' when Eliza presses the play button.
Eliza helps Mrs U to the bathroom where the old lady struggles with her walker and jams one of its legs between the door and the door jamb.
"God damn it!" she cries, flinging the walker forward with an amazing burst of strength. Eliza helps her with her dressing gown and gets her settled on the toilet. She leaves the door open because this is how Mrs U likes to have it.
While Mrs U is in the bathroom Eliza picks up the breakfast things and wipes the crumbs off the table. She waits in the living room and plugs her ears. Three cats stare at her from their respective perches.
Mrs U loves her cats. They are her companions since her husband died. There is Bad Boy, Sweety, and Sue. Bad Boy sprays around the house on a regular basis.
Sweety eats on the counter so Sue cannot get her food, but she is too fat to jump up on her own so Eliza has to lift her to the food bowl. Each cat has its own menu. Mrs U spends about twenty-five dollars a week on cat food.
Soundtrack for Two Sides to Every Story
Mrs U chain smokes
Mrs U chain smokes, but she doesn't inhale. She usually lights the filter end because she can't see. She saves these ruined ones in a basket on top of the TV, and there is another whole box of mutilated cigarettes in the cupboard under the phone.
Mrs U never throws anything away, ever. She will use a piece of aluminum foil over and over again. She will use a plastic bag over and over again.
Eliza is washing up a plastic bag when Mrs U clumps herself out of the bathroom.
"My bowels aren't working today. I think I'll have forty winks. Will you cut me up an apple and leave it on the TV."
Eliza helps Mrs U get settled on the couch.
"Thankyou, now where's my Sweety-Pie? The fat cat goes and lays beside her head.
Mrs U is snoring. She is still wearing her blue velour dressing gown. It has stains on the back where Mrs U has soiled herself.
While Mrs U sleeps Eliza creeps around the room doing her morning routine. For most of it she wears a pair of yellow rubber gloves. She is nauseous as she empties the commode. She flings the bathroom window open. Outside is the cool green of the garden and the sound of birds.
Eliza strips the bed and throws the wet sheets into the washing machine in the back room. She makes the bed and picks up an empty glass off the floor from under the night table. Mrs U likes to have her Rye beside the bed at night. It helps her sleep.
Eliza quietly opens the fridge and pulls out a beverage. She tiptoes past Mrs U on the couch (Sweety is sleeping on top of her now) out the front door and through a glass porch to her own apartment which is in complete disarray. She is weary and sad, and she hates the damn fleas.
In a few weeks it will be Spring and Mrs U is very excited about what's popping up in the garden. The Snow Drops (great mounds of them) have been out for weeks, but now there's more showing, and Mrs U likes to take a walk around when she wakes up from her afternoon nap.
Mrs U can't get far with her walker, she can just get down the ramp and then she has to stop for a rest. Eliza comes up behind her and unfolds a deck chair under the old lady's ample back-side.
"What's that?" asks Mrs U, pointing to a spot of bright yellow.
"That's a Daffodil."
"I know it's a Daffodil, but what type is it? I have at least twenty varieties of Daffodil in my garden! Did you know they are actually Narcissus?"
Suddenly the joy goes right out of Eliza, she doesn't care what variety it is. She only cares that it is bright and yellow, that Spring is coming and that she is outside in the fresh air.
They proceed around the garden past bed after bed of bursting new growth. The Primula are bright and colorful in shades of pink, yellow and deep purple and red. The Crocus are abundant.
"Take a bouquet to your Mother. I don't like flowers in the house. I like to see them growing."
"Thank you, I'll come back and pick some later".
"Lets have a cigarette now," says Mrs U. The two women sit and smoke without talking. When Mrs U is finished her cigarette she puts the butt in her pocket. She never throws a cigarette on the ground, ever.
Mrs U looks perky in her blue ball cap with the words 'Caterpillar Tractor' on the front. Eliza feels a wave of warmth for the old girl. They sit huddled on the flimsy plastic deck chairs. Mrs U is wearing her 'Gum boots'. She doesn't like to get her feet wet, ever.
Eliza helps Mrs U with her boots when they get back inside. She has to be careful how she pulls so she doesn't hurt the old lady's bad ankle, the one she sprained last winter when she fell down after she got into the Rye.
"My toe is bothering me again, can you look at it?"
Eliza removes the white cotton sock and stares at the horny big toenail and the swollen red toe.
"Yes it looks sore, I'll trim it for you when you have your bath."
"Don't ever cut your toenails straight across. Always cut a V in the middle, otherwise they'll grow in."
"Yes, Mrs U."
"The people from Family Services are coming today Mrs U."
"I don't know why I have to talk to those people."
"They need to know what your needs are to help set you up with a Home Care."
"I don't need their help, I'd rather find my own help."
"The appointment is for three-thirty Mrs U."
Mrs U is looking pretty when the Home Care people arrive. She is wearing her pink sweater and her hair is clean and her big toe is nicely clipped with a V, although the Home Care people won't be looking at her toe. They just want to know about her income.
Eliza makes tea for the meeting. She has vacuumed and dusted and aired out the house, despite Mrs U's protestations.
Eliza has a hidden agenda. She wants out. She is trying to find Mrs U some alternate care, but she can't tell the Home Care people this, especially in front of Mrs U.
There is a catch. If Mrs U will put her name on a waiting list for a Nursing Home the in-home care people will provide services for free until a bed is available.
There is a two-year waiting list. If Mrs U won't sign up for the Nursing Home then they won't be able to help her unless she pays full price.
Mrs U will not discuss going into a nursing home and she flatly refuses to pay full price for the government Home Care Services.
"They must think I'm made of money, she tells Eliza after the meeting.
It is morning. Eliza is late for work. She can hear Mrs U's TV as she walks through the porch. The door is locked. She knocks and waits.
Mrs U is rustling around. Her walker is clumping slowly across the floor. She opens the door for Eliza.
"Good morning," Eliza greets her.
"Morning, what's so good about it," replies Mrs U. Eliza feels drained. The old lady looks ruffled and there is a weird smell in the room. Eliza follows Mrs U into the room. There is a horrible mess all over the back of the old lady's dressing gown.
There is the same mess on her slippers and smeared across the kitchen floor and along the counter top. The mess leads into the bathroom.
Eliza finds her rubber gloves under the sink.
"Don't do that now, I want my coffee first."
Eliza is making coffee and stepping around the mess. A flea is biting her ankle, but she doesn't feel it. She doesn't feel anything as she lifts the fat old cat onto the counter to eat, and pours hot water into a cup.
© 2011 Verlie Burroughs