Her sister was a stickler for phone etiquette, firmly believing that phone calls shouldn’t be placed during the 5:00-6:00 p.m. timeframe because it could interrupt family dinners, and that 9:00 p.m. was the absolute latest acceptable time to make calls because after that, one could be interrupting productive REM sleep patterns. In the last few days, though, the rules no longer mattered. “Come home,” she told Janie this time, phone etiquette be damned.
It was never good though, Janie rationalized while she tried in vain to stretch her legs in the claustrophobic confines of the 11:00 a.m. Amtrak out of Philadelphia. Even her diminutive height of barely 5’4” didn’t afford her an advantage of a little more room to fidget. Maybe if she were able to find a comfortable position, she’d be able to catch a short nap and give her a reprieve from the constant loop of worries and worst-case-scenarios playing through her head.
Daddy had diabetes and emphysema on top of all the other little maladies, aches, and pains he seemed to develop on a weekly basis. And the unpleasant diagnoses only kept on piling up.
At first, Jilly told her there was no reason to come home when she called in the wee hours of New Year’s morning to deliver the news that Joe McGee had gone into insulin shock and had to be taken to the hospital. They’d kept him in for observation – strictly routine, Jilly assured Janie.
“I’m fine,” Daddy said when Janie called his hospital room later that day. “They just want to poke me with needles and charge me a hundred bucks a pop for pills that won’t do a damn thing for me. It’s all about making money, not curing what ails you.”
Janie thought he sounded very far away, as though he were calling from the outer edges of the universe.
That was typical Daddy, always growling about what was wrong with the system. He insisted everything was fine, though, and what Daddy said mattered more to her than the opinions of a sister who had a tendency to conjure drama out of even the most mundane of experiences. Janie stopped worrying, or at least worried a little less. She went about her life, but made sure she kept in constant contact with the family for updates.
Except two days later, the tests sounded a lot scarier, and Jilly seemed worried, really worried, when she called to say that Daddy had to remain in the hospital for a few more days.
Jilly wasn’t very forthcoming about what was going on, claiming that, “They just want to make sure everything is working okay.” Her voice was strained when she said it, Janie noted at the time. Yesterday, however, she told Janie that things were anything but okay. At least she hinted at that. She didn’t want to discuss things over the phone, a sure sign that something was actually wrong when Jilly couldn’t find a way to make Daddy’s problems all about her. So Janie, in a blind panic, threw a couple changes of clothing into a duffel bag and made reservations for the earliest train ride home.
Her knees bumped into the back of the seat in front of her as she fidgeted in place, and she didn’t miss the dramatic sigh of the passenger occupying it. It was only the third time in the last half hour he’d resorted to such theatrics, mumbling loudly when she lost her grip on her book and it clattered loudly to the floor. Later, he took the time to twist around and glare at her over the top of his headrest when her cell phone began to chirp loudly from somewhere near the bottom of her overflowing purse.
She should have just driven home, she thought, but her old Toyota wasn’t behaving lately. The last time she’d started the engine, a thick cloud of blue smoke belched from the bowels of its exhaust. It made her eyes water with the stench of burning oil and enveloped the neighborhood in a haze that contrasted nicely against the usual Philly-grey clouds of pollution. Better to take a short train ride and not risk getting stranded somewhere between Philadelphia and home, she decided.
Unable to concentrate on the book in her lap, Janie closed it quietly so as not to disturb the grouch in front of her and faced the window to watch the rush of passing scenery.
The suburbs of Philadelphia had given way to the fields and farmland of rural Pennsylvania, lush green in spring and summer, but now a lifeless brown that was marred by scattered dead stalks of corn and hay and muddy clumps of snow too stubborn to melt away. She smiled when she saw the bundled-up form of an Amish man steering a horse-driven wagon across a nearby field and wondered what on Earth he was doing out there on such a bitterly cold January day.
A few rows ahead of Janie, a woman with an admirably tall and teased crown of bottle-blonde hair gasped, disappeared from view, then reappeared with camera in hand. She fired off a rapid succession of photographs, enthralled by her sudden and brief glimpse into the Amish world.
“Tourists,” Janie muttered to herself. She knew quite a few of the Amish when she was growing up, and wondered what the amateur photographer in front of her would think if she told her all about how she used to cruise the countryside with Jacob Yoder in his beat-up 1980 red-and-primer-grey Fiero. Janie doubted the woman could wrap her mind around the image of a suspender-clad sixteen year old pumping gas at the local convenience store while she went inside to flirt a pack of cigarettes out of the pimply-faced clerk working behind the counter.
There were some good points to small-town living, Janie knew. If things were as bad as Jilly had insinuated, and she sincerely hoped her sister was being her typical, over-dramatic self, there would be help. They wouldn’t be on their own. She doubted things had changed that much in her hometown of Meyersville, Pennsylvania. Neighbors looked out for one another. Whatever arrangements needed to be made, Janie knew they would find a way.
Unwilling to consider such a need, Janie opened her book, another one of those feel-good stories about a saucy heroine who finds the love of her life in a coffee shop while making all her career hopes and dreams come true. Disgusting, she thought while she leafed through the first chapter, not really focusing on the words.
Yet she always felt compelled to buy them. It was a dirty little habit, but so much more benign than being the raging alcoholic that Jilly was convinced she was becoming, all because she lived in the heart of Philadelphia and worked as a bartender. In Jilly’s eyes, that meant Janie must wake up every morning, mix herself a gin and tonic, and get soused before half of the city was fully awake.
No amount of argument would convince her sister otherwise, even though the simple fact of the matter was most of Janie’s money went to pay the rent and buy bread and bargain-brand cold cuts for meals.
Benign. Janie snapped her book shut again and felt her heart seize. What if Daddy was sick? At least, much sicker than he’d been in the last several years. He was hardly a spring chicken anymore. At seventy-two, he’d outlived Janie’s mother by twenty years. She’d died of a sudden heart attack. It caught everyone off-guard, most of all Daddy. He’d never been the same after Mom died, Janie thought. She always figured, morbidly, that he’d go the same way. Nobody ever thought something long-term could happen, though her father was turning into the king of long-term ailments.
The emphysema could be getting worse, Janie knew. She vaguely remembered her grandfather and the large green oxygen tank that took up permanent residence by the side of his bed. Poppa had left little of monetary value behind in the wake of his death, and Daddy had once mentioned, in an especially sarcastic moment, that he could have done without inheriting his own father’s bum lungs.
Daddy hadn’t yet progressed to needing a steady supply of oxygen, making due with inhalers and medication, but if the emphysema was worsening, things would definitely have to change. Janie wondered what the next move might be if that were the case.
Never once, though, on that train trip home, did she consider the notion that the emphysema was the least of Daddy’s problems now.