Editor’s note from Sudha Balagopal: Stephanie Austin’s creative non-fiction is at once poignant and loving. In That Doggie in the Window, Stephanie tells us about her grandmother, Sis, who lived in a group home, a lady with definite opinions and a colorful personality. As is the case with Stephanie’s other work, we come to care about the person she writes about, despite their foibles and oddness. In this piece, Sis endeared herself within the first couple of paragraphs. We all carry a wealth of personal stories within us, but it takes a special skill, a particular perceptive ability to paint characters as vividly as Stephanie does. Sis is someone we won’t forget soon.
On Sundays, the memory care unit gathers in the common room for sing-alongs and prayer. A young woman sits at a piano and pounds out “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?”
My grandmother, who most people call Sis, sits in her wheelchair at the outer edge of the circle. I tap her on the shoulder. The woman next to her, who snaps along to the song and sings the words, smiles at both of us and we smile back until Sis sticks out her thumb, signaling it’s time for me to wheel her out of the room.
“Get me away from these old people,” she says, loudly.
We move five feet into the TV area where other residents also sit. I help her out of her wheelchair onto the couch. She is agitated, complains of pain in her hips and legs. She is not a big woman, but she does not put weight on her legs and almost takes me to the ground. When I get her on the couch, we are both out of breath. I cover her with a black velour blanket full of gold stars. She pulls it to her and says her mother made it. She finds comfort in this idea, so I let it go. The blanket belongs to another resident—I don’t know which one. It’s been sitting out in the common area for months.
The questions begin. “Where is my purse?” “Can you get the airline on the phone?” “Where is my checkbook?” “Can you call me a cab?”
I point to the TV. I ask her if she knows the movie. Without much thought, she tells me it’s The Yearling. I ask her if she finds the scene between the dog and the bear disturbing because back then there was no such thing as “animals not harmed” in the making of a movie. She doesn’t answer. She’s dozing.
I want to leave. I want to stay. She is failing. She is still here.
I think of “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?” as a children’s song, condescending for adults but perhaps the song was bigger in its day. If I get to 89 and I’m in the common room of a memory care unit, all I want is to sing Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy.”
“How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?” was released in 1953. Sis was 23, a wife and mother, seven years away from the early death of her husband and seven years away from her beloved career as an accountant. Did she connect to the song? I Google music as therapy for dementia and get depressed. I stop to watch other residents. This also makes me sad.
A tiny woman in a wheelchair peels one sock off, then the other. Her toenails are long.
Another woman, tall with short hair, also in a wheelchair, begins to rock herself forward to gain momentum to stand. Sis stirs. She takes in the situation.
“There she goes,” Sis says about the woman, who makes it to a standing position before she plops down again. “Ack,” Sis says and throws her hands out like the woman was a bet and she lost.
Two men sit at a small table to the right of the TV room, a game of checkers between them.
“That’s your friend,” a staff member says energetically, like how you’d speak to a toddler. “That’s your buddy.”
My grandmother says, “These old people are terrible.”
The questions start again. “Where is my purse?” “Can you get the airline on the phone?” “Where is my checkbook?” “Can you call me a cab?”
Sometimes, I lie. I tell her she is in this facility because she is in recovery. She must recover and then once recovery is complete, we can take next steps. I say recovery so much I no longer understand the word.
Sometimes, I tell the truth. Neighbors found her on the floor in the garage of her condo complex. When she went to the hospital, she was dehydrated and malnourished, and the doctor told my mother she might have died in another day or two. When she woke up, she had forgotten how to walk. My mother flew to Illinois and checked her out of the nursing home where the hospital sent her because the hospital said she could not be alone. My mother brought her to Arizona where she could be near family for as much time as she had left.
Another woman, not in a wheelchair, head down, frowning, shuffles through the TV room. Sis watches her like a dog stalking a bird.
“She’s always crabby,” she says.
“You’re a little crabby sometimes,” I say.
She thinks this is funny. “I know I am.”
The questions begin again, this time angrier. “Where is my purse?” “Where is my checkbook?” “Where—
Pivot. I ask her about her favorite song, and she stops the questions, relaxes. She tells me about “Strangers in the Night,” and a man who once asked her to dance.
Stephanie Austin’s short stories have appeared in Carve, Pembroke Magazine, Emrys Journal, Pithead Chapel, Jellyfish Review, Heavy Feather Review, and others. Her CNF has appeared in The Sun, Spry Lit, and Bending Genres. You can find more of her writing at stephanieaustin.net.