From Chicken Soup for the Latino Soul

Love in Shadows

It’s past noon on a hot Sunday in July. I am with my sister, who rarely gets out, only for doctor appointments or for short visits with her daughters. We are going to a nearby museum. She is in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and while she does recognize me, at times she calls me by another name. Still, she looks at me with love and affection. According to her daughters, she functions best in familiar surroundings; in public she gets antsy, nervous, and can be difficult to handle. But I like a challenge. I’m determined to make this a fun day for my eldest sibling, who bought my Easter bonnets and winter coats when I was a kid. She was the sister who taught me about “good furniture” and good table manners, the 1940s “career girl” whom I always wanted to emulate.

She wears a cotton shift and, although it’s hot, a heavy sweater. On her feet, once adorned by ankle-strap sandals, are white shoes like those worn by nurses. High white socks cling to her skinny ankles. She is slowly losing weight, so that when I see her after a time, the weight loss is more apparent. Yet, if allowed to, my sis will eat all day, a common occurrence among Alzheimer’s patients; they forget when they last ate. I find it scary that with all she eats, she continues to lose weight.

Her complexion, once flawless, is pale and pasty from lack of sun. I’m surprised to see she wears blush—too much blush. (In her days, they called it rouge.) The effort to make her look healthy fails; she just looks made-up. The round red spots remind me of circus clowns. But the dark eyes and long eyelashes I still envy retain their freshness. Wound around her head is a bright scarf like that worn by Lana Turner in movies. She smells nice.

Just getting her in and out of the car begins to test my patience. Because my vehicle is a bit high (a 4-Runner), she needs help getting into it. She confuses the door lock and the handle, and when she’s able to locate the lever that adjusts the seat, she pulls it. Her head is now close to the windshield. Worse, the seat belt is too tight! She is irritable, and I’m in a sweat—and we haven’t even left! I take a deep breath, turn the ignition key and off we go.

As we hit the freeway, she appears tense, almost frightened. Traffic on the I-5 is treacherous, even for a seasoned California driver. Cars doing at least seventy-five miles per hour fly by on my left; a truck comes to a screeching halt in the middle lane; a bus cuts in front of me. I’m beginning to panic. What if I have an accident and we get hurt? Will my sister know her name? Home address? It dawns on me that she carries no identification. I won’t panic. I slow down, stay in the slower lane. As cars zoom by, I pull back, relax. I turn on the radio and pat my sister’s shoulder to reassure her. She says nothing, only stares out the window.

What does she see? I wonder. Can she tell we’re on the freeway? Does she feel the sun’s warmth? Not long ago, I took her on an outing. After the usual hassles with the seat belt, we drove to nearby San Fernando Mission. I wanted to help her recall days past, when she and her friends—and boyfriends—strolled (and kissed?) through the pretty and romantic mission gardens where a stony-faced Junípero Serra looks on. We had a lovely time. At lunchtime, I ordered a large pizza with everything: pepperoni, Canadian bacon and loads of cheese. She liked it, and I was pleased. I hope today turns out like that day.

At long last, we arrive at the Gene Autry Heritage Museum. It’s near the Los Angeles Zoo, which, if things go right today, we might someday visit. Perhaps the sight of pretty birds or a polar bear will interest my sister. My sister used to be interested in everything. She is an intellectual and bookworm who no longer reads, but who once subscribed to the Book-of-the-Month Club. I read most of the books before she sent them back; they were my introduction to English literature. At age ten or so, I read The Razor’s Edge and Gothic novels by Daphne du Maurier. Once hooked on real books, I never read comic books again.

The museum’s current exhibition, “Images of Mexican-Americans in Film,” focuses on movie stars from the 1940s, my sister’s era. I want to jog her memory. We view the display of clothes based on movies of social bandits like the Cisco Kid and Zorro (as in The Mark of Zorro). Dark cape flying, black mask on his handsome face, Zorro fought the evil ranch owner and won the pretty señorita, a blonde in a mantilla. I’m anxious to see everything, but my sister walks so slowly! An image of her gliding into church in a polka-dot dress and straw hat (with cabbage roses) comes to mind. Who would have thought? I ask myself. Who can predict whom this disease will strike?

The exhibit is extensive. She lingers before a photo of Gilbert Roland, the handsome (Mexican) rascal with a thin moustache. The cape worn by Tyrone Power (as Zorro) glitters through a wall of glass. She enjoys the Old West display: the gun collection, chuck wagon and leather chaps. Suddenly, she takes a wrong turn and is lost from view. I call her name in a frightened voice, but she does not answer. Once I find her, I vow to stay close.

She appears to take an interest in women’s calico dresses and movie paraphernalia, laughing at a replica of a 1940s farmhouse replete with washboard.

“I scrubbed on one of those,” she tells me, her eyes merry. When she smiles, her face lights up.

“Hungry?” I ask. She nods, pulls at the buttons on her sweater, then follows me to the museum café. We split a chicken sandwich and dig into chili-cheese spuds. The sister from whom I learned table manners is chewing with her mouth open. In one hand she holds the sandwich; with the other, she digs into the mound of chili. Gently, so as not to startle her, I remove her hand from the chili and go for dessert.

“I’m cold.” She tugs at her sweater. “I don’t like it here,” she says, looking around, uneasy with the cafeteria crowd. “I don’t like it here.” She shakes her head up and down, a now familiar gesture, but I’m startled by the screech in her voice.

“Where are we?” she asks me.

“At the Gene Autry Museum,” I say.

“I don’t like it here.”

Today’s museum program features Arturo and José Luis, two good-looking brothers who sing (and record) the ’50s tunes popularized by Los Panchos during the “Golden Years” of Mexican music. What wonderful luck! Quick-asa-wink I find two seats in the third row. We settle down to await los músicos; this is their last show.

“I have to pee.” Quick! I rush my sister to the elevators, to the bathroom across the wide patio. I push her into the stall for the handicapped, then pace the floor, anxious to get back. We’re missing the concert! She’s out. I run water, splash soap on her hands, then pull her to the hand dryer. Out the door we go, back to our seats, which—thank goodness—have not been taken.

The music begins. Strains of “Piel Canela” fill the room. I’m intoxicated by the guitars and songs of love; los músicos caress every word. Next to me, my sister, suddenly alert, sits straight up. In a wispy voice, she begins to sing! She knows all the words. She remembers! She is not that far gone. I squeeze her arm, but she ignores me, lost in another world, en otro mundo, of ’40s print dresses, wide-brimmed hats and ankle-strap shoes.

“Creí,” a song of love and longing, is followed by “Historia de un Amor,” a tune that brings tears to the woman on my left. As the song ends, my sister leans over to whisper: “Joe used to play that one.” Joe, her husband of more than forty years, recently died, and I see that she remembers.

Once the concert ends—and after I buy a CD and cassette— we check out one last exhibit.

“I want to go home,” my sister cries, pulling at my arm. But I want to prolong the day.

We might not have this chance again! Will she remember today? The Cisco Kid? Zorro?

As we exit the museum, she pulls her sweater tight, although it’s at least ninety degrees in the shade. Once more we go through the motions: the door, lock, seat belt—then we hit the freeway.

I pop in the new cassette of Arturo and José Luis, and my sister and I sing all the way home.

Mary Helen Ponce

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