"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Saturday, November 7, 2020

Letters to Aunt Grace, Part 146: Lota’s operation

Bishop’s 3 August 1963 letter to her aunt is a dense, two-pager, which will require several posts to work through. The subjects are primarily domestic and family, which means complicated. Even though her previous letter was written only a month before (about the average time between letters for Bishop), she noted that it felt “as if I hadn’t written you for a long time.” That feeling was, she determined, “because so much has been happening,” especially in the past two weeks: “Two weeks ago today Lota was operated on for an intestinal occlusion.” She had been discharged only “two days ago.” 

Bishop then offered Grace, a retired nurse, an account of the whole process, which started with “stomach upset.” Bishop observed that Lota had experienced this condition “once or twice lately, vomiting.” They chalked it up to her “being overtired” from all the busy, stressful work on the Rio park. The difference “this time” was “the vomiting didn’t stop.” She went for “X rays the 2nd day” and was “rushed off to the hospital.” This issue was serious, causing the indomitable Lota to be “fed intravenously,” which required “a tube in her poor nose for about eight days.” Bishop’s comment about this intervention: “Poor thing, it was tough.” All was well now: “she’s fine but naturally tired,” and was still sporting “a huge bundle of bandages” and “all the stiches in.”

(Lota on right, at a meeting about the park, early 1960s.)

Bishop had only praise for the hospital, which she described as “excellent and so were the doctors.” It was standard practice to “let someone – or want someone, called the ‘acompaniente’ – to stay – so I stayed, along with the nurse.” Bishop slept in the large room for “a week.” She conceded that the whole ordeal was “an awful scare for a few days.” 

One of her big tasks was “to keep ALL visitors away except me and one or two close friends.” And now that they were back home, at their apartment, this job became even more difficult: “Brazilians treat a sickness like a party – or like a wake.” It kept Bishop and the maid “running all day long fending off callers, serving hundreds of little coffees.” Or so it seemed to Bishop. And all this “getting rid of people” had to be done “tactfully.” 

After the ordeal, Bishop hoped that Lota would be “made to rest for a month.” Bishop reiterated that the cause of it all was “mostly because of overwork, I suspect.” But Lota was already gearing up again, as Bishop wrote, “yesterday she had her secretary here and dictated letters – oh dear.” 

Bishop noted that it had been a “good thing … it happened here instead of in New York – where it would have cost a fortune.” Then Bishop confessed to Grace that she “lied to her [Lota] for 24 hours or so (the Dr. said to),” telling her “she wasn’t going to have an operation.” But barely “half an hour” before the surgery, “the nun came in and asked her, ‘Daughter, do you believe in God?’” The “very anti-church” Lota replied, “More or less, sister.” Then she turned to Bishop and declared, “Well, you can’t fool me any longer, after that!” 

Bishop quickly observed that Lota “was very brave, -- I must say.” Scribbled in the left-hand margin next to this long paragraph, Bishop wrote: “9 people visited with me all through the operation! 2 ½ hrs.” 

They had some support from “our best friend, Mary Morse,” who came to Rio “from Petropolis with her two adopted babies.” Grace would have remembered Monica, who was “almost 3 now.” The second child was only “3 months.” Bishop’s word for these children: “darlings!” As much as she adored these babies, however, she observed to Grace: “I know what you mean about small children!” 

Adding them to the mix in the household when she “was tired from all the hospital business” was a challenge. Monica was active and just as Bishop “had barely got to sleep,” the child “was pounding at the door saying, ‘Open the door, Aunt Elizabeth – I want to say good-morning to the canary’.” Not to mention her “jumping up & down on top of” Bishop. As soon as Lota left the hospital, “Mary went to stay with friends.” Having them all together in the apartment “would be too much for an invalid.” 

After this dramatic and detailed account, Bishop quickly concluded, “all is fine now and everyone recovering.” 

The next subject Bishop broached concerned a stressful and delicate family matter. The next post will pick up this reveal. 

Click here to see Post 145.

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