The Melba Notebooks: Prologue

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His trim figure is thin and wasted.  Under closed eyelids he lies flat on his back the way he always has, neck extended and slightly turned to one side, hands clasped lightly over his stomach.   He usually breathes softly, dreaming, perhaps. But now, intermittently, he stops breathing altogether for long periods, then breaks out in a series of deep rapid sighs.


Under his bed is an electric train set complete with trees, town, people, animals and countryside, fixed to a 4 x 3 foot rectangle of  plywood. It is the train he wanted so as a child some 90 years ago, given to him at last by his youngest daughter, Sophie. When he’s up in his armchair she places it on the bed, and turns it on. He watches intently for long periods, but says nothing. On his face is the knowing smile he puts on to mask confusion, and feign understanding. Yet he focuses on the moving toy train.


The room is spacious, clean, and simply furnished, with a large window overlooking the carefully sculpted yard and woods beyond.  His is one of 5 similar bedrooms in an adult care facility. His days are a still sameness. They are spent with several residents in the living room vacantly watching TV.  Each inmate, or guest, sits in a recliner beside a small table with a water pitcher and a glass, various magazines, books, boxes of Kleenex, and snacks. An occasional comment finds only a response in the electric voice of TV. A care-giver intermittently makes rounds among scattered coughs and throat clearings, asking if anything is needed, adjusting a pillow, and cheerfully encouraging a drink of water.


He appears to watch TV even though it is something he has always despised. And feared; from the first he declared it would limit and enclose the human mind and imagination within an electronic box. He scorned the contention that TV would inform, educate, and civilize our old isolated world, revealing to us our shared human condition. He is unaware that his dire prediction may actually apply to himself, now, as he stares unknowing at the electronic being. At times he breaks free, dozes, and perhaps dreams. That ritual is broken only by visits to the bath, the toilet, and meals; or as now, when there is a visitor.


As he fixedly watches his train a helium balloon floats up and sways  and tugs at its anchor string.  Across one wall is a long PC generated banner proclaiming ‘Happy 94th Birthday!’  Sophie sits at the bedside holding a battered looking 8 ½ x 11 spiral bound notebook with 9/11/95 written darkly in marking pen across the front.  Several more lie on the bedside table. A letter is clipped inside the front cover, and reads as follows:


“I always feel admiration, gratitude, and no small degree of humility when I visit. There is something substantive yet ephemeral in the inter and intra-generational events we share. It struck me at Melba’s  9oth  birthday that the notebooks we keep to communicate with one another  capture the essence of these weeks and years during which we grow old together, with the knowledge that we will, even with the best of luck,  likely each reach our own notebook stage one day.”


Melba’s  birthday was celebrated as we made preparations for a wedding; as two generations launched a third and awaited a fourth.  Both celebrations   were suffused with tenderness and toughness, organization and disarray, affection and exasperation, like life itself. The Notebooks are a touching and never to be repeated dialogue among us, and yet they reflect a universe of truth for families in similar circumstances.


These are  photos  from 1928 when Bob and Melba were in college. The Notebooks  begin in 1995 on September 11. My own record at home has an entry at August 29, 1995, with the name and phone number of St Joseph Hospital, and the surgeon who removed Melba’s chronically infected gallbladder, the cause of an abnormal white blood count, long misdiagnosed as “chronic lymphatic leukemia”.

The precipitating event for the Notebooks was Melba’s recovery at home from that operation. The notebooks depict the constancy, resourcefulness, and toughness of caregivers. Though some do not make entries, they are there between the hand written lines that tell of quiet strength, and unfailing affection. The Notebooks speak of us all and of Bob and Melba during this bittersweet time of their lives.

Many entries are routine, or repetitive, because they merely relate significant but recurring details. Sometimes they reflect irritation. Sometimes they are outrageously funny, occasionally filled with pathos.  They tell of growing old, and caring for the aged.  They tell what it is to watch those all-knowing and all-powerful giants of childhood shrivel and shrink toward death while revealing something about living.  They reveal how subtle the qualities and failings we may derive from our parents are; all their lives Melba and Bob read to their children and quoted poetry to us. While Melba could  declaim for hours from memory, Bob can only survive a few stanzas without tears.  I cannot read poetry aloud without choking up; sometimes I do so when reading remembering lines or saying them silently to myself.

Notebook entries are  headed by a date, a time, and the initial of the person making the note. The text of the notebooks appears in normal font here, while commentary is in italics. I do not often try to describe the writers in my own words; they speak better for themselves;  that is why I usually refrain from edits for spelling or grammar, for fear of corrupting that genuine voice.

All great art is the telling of that which is beyond words; the numinous, as Joseph Campbell likes to say.  There is in these notebooks much that can only be found between the lines.  The voices are powerful and clear.  My contribution is only to occasionally offer comments that can clarify the dialogue, bringing to the reader background that is helpful to interpret what is unstated. Though I skip most repetitive entries I preserve a few to reflect that sameness of days, nights, and tasks that are universals for caretakers and the elderly.

The Dialogue  begins simply, starkly, unpretentiously, without explanation or instruction, continuing with some gaps for more than five years: Bob and Melba, age 87, are in their home.  They carry out their regular activities of living with very little occasional help.

They will pass from their ninth to their tenth decade of life, from one millennium to another, from fierce independence to those long quiet days and nights punctuated by the voice of  that shade who searches and calls out the names  of all the living, but is more strident and insistent with the aged.