I’m in England for my brother Steve and friend David’s 60th birthday parties. During my time in London, I take a day off from festivities to travel by train to Cheltenham to see Juanita, my “godmother.” This is my fourth visit to see her in the last three years. It’s a pleasure, not a duty.
“Not brilliant,” she tells me on the phone when I ask her how she’s doing the day before my visit. Unlike previous visits, Juanita does not meet me at the train station.
A few days ago she had “tremendous pain” in her chest, “almost unbearable,” she says. “I thought I was having a heart attack.” She was in the local hospital for two days, where they lost her medical records and gave her no treatment. They put her in a “short stay ward with a lot of elderly people.” The staff took off for about two hours for some kind of event, leaving the ward unattended. When a bed-ridden, disoriented woman tried to get out of bed, Juanita got her back into the bed, fetched a bed pan, helped the woman do her thing, and took the filled bed pan away to the nurses’ station.
The next day, she basically discharged herself. “I’m glad to be home,” she says.” “I need the rest.” She attributes her problem to “leakage of my heart valves.” Not clear to her yet what the treatment will be.
I arrive to find anybody but a recuperating patient. She’s dressed in a stylish tailored suit, accessorized with an amethyst ring and purple earrings. “I have a lowdown passion for jewelry,” she once told me. Her hair and face immaculately in place, smiling and gracious, she looks a decade or so younger than her age, with no apparent signs of the illnesses that have preoccupied her body, but not yet her mind, since she was eleven years old, the year of her father’s death in 1937.
On a previous visit, when she showed me two of her photo albums – organized in seemingly random, non-chronological order – I could see that from her earliest years she always had a zest for life, not traditionally beautiful but a looker with pizzazz and smarts, who attracted men and looked them right in the eye. She’s outlived three husbands. From her attentive father to the two men who, she tells me, have proposed marriage within the last two years, she’s always had suitors.
During my afternoon visit the phone goes several times. She’s glad people are concerned about her wellbeing, but can’t stand telling callers all the medical details: it takes up her valuable time. After a while, she just lets the phone ring until the answering machine kicks in.
Today, rather than taking me out to a restaurant, as she usually does, she’s driven to Marks and Spencer’s and bought a “prepared” smoked salmon appetizer, a lamb and veg Sunday lunch, and pudding. She pops them into the oven to “cook.” “Eileen would not be pleased to hear about this,” she says, referencing my mother’s sharp tongue and preference for homemade meals. “And Monty would be even more critical,” she adds even-handedly about my father’s propensity to have his meals home-cooked from scratch by somebody else. We both laugh at these irreverent criticisms of my dead parents, her old friends. Then we dig into the meal; she can’t taste a thing – two years of steroids have erased her taste buds – but she eats along to keep me company. “I eat from memory,” she tells me.
She talks a little about her health issues (Crohn’s disease, polymyalgia, off-the-charts cholesterol), more about the disgusting conditions at the hospital. Then she wants to move on to other matters. So we discuss presidential politics in the US, the Middle East, the state of London theatre, and my new writing project, of which she approves, and gives me the thumbs up. Whew!
As for her work, she’s busier than ever, busier than most people twenty years younger (she’s 82). “Achievement. That’s why I think we’re put on this earth,” she once told me. “To get things done. That’s what life is about.” The new illness is annoying because it’s taken her away from her beloved books and editing projects. She’s reading and editing several manuscripts: novels, memoirs, books on aviation, and philosophy. Aspiring authors somehow find their way to her and get her rigorous editing services for free. She shows me one of her edited books that just came out (Flying in Defiance of the Reich), a novel she’s submitted to Routledge on behalf of the author, and another 500-page novel that she’s about to reject. “It’s so boring.”
She’s more up to date on literature and the arts than I am. Her gifts to me are Bernard Schlink’s latest novel (Homecoming) and a new book of unpublished stories by Primo Levi (A Tranquil Star). She knows my tastes well, but she’s usually ahead of them. When I ask about her bedside readings, she shows me a new book on Walter Benjamin (Archive) and a coffee table book of Tracy Emin’s controversial work. She flips open the pages and shows me the artist nude, the artist semi-nude, and the artist with legs spread-eagled in a very unladylike pose. Emin’s texts refer to fuck and fucking in many inventive permutations on just about every page. “Well, some of this is silly,” says Juanita in her ever-so-polite and measured English, “but I think she’s saying something interesting, don’t you?”
We spend time going through her impressive collection of poetry, first editions back to the 30s, many signed. She also opens up one of her cabinets to show me various collectibles and keepsakes, many with stories attached. “A poet gave me this hookah … I collected these ivory elephants in Africa… This is my father’s humidor the way it looked the day he died.” Inside the glass and silver container are two cigars and a box of wax matches, seemingly unopened for 70 years. “This sculpture” – the head of an older black man – “reminds of the Africans who worked in my family’s home in Johannesburg. Look at his lovely expression.”
At the end of the visit, I return to the state of her health. I wish her well on her visit to her personal doctor tomorrow, and hope the best for her heart. “It’s still painful here,” she admits, sweeping a hand over her chest. “But perfectly bearable.”
“I’ll call you to find out the results,” I say as I reluctantly leave. “I’ll answer the phone if it’s you,” she smiles. We hug without words. The night air has become very chilly, but she lingers outside her front door waving until the taxi takes me out of sight, away to the London-bound train.
Valentine’s Day, London