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Taking Care of Joe

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Joe and Gloria Smith Torres were photographed in their home by Jane Fulton Alt in March 2000 as part of the CITY 2000 photodocumentary project. Gloria was interviewed a month later by radio producer Andrea De Fotis, who was then CITY 2000's audio editor. I prepared this text from the transcript of that interview and a follow-up visit in February 2001.

My name is Gloria Smith Torres and I am 73 years old. This is my 44th year, I think, in the Roscoe Village neighborhood. When I moved in I had a little bit of a hard time, because I was the wrong nationality maybe. I was Irish. German too, but they didn't consider me German because most of them were German from Germany and I was here three generations. So I was different. And Joe was completely different. He's Mexican. When he would come around they would call the police. They'd say that somebody was going around the block who wasn't supposed to be here. It wasn't very nice. The police would come and ask him what he was doing when he was looking for a place to park or whatever, and he would say he was coming over here. Well, I owned the home so they couldn't do too much, could they? That was in the 60s. It wasn't really easy at that time; now I see some of these people who did it and they're older than I am and they kind of hide their heads now, you know? Things are different now.

Joe's in hospice, so that means he's going to die. I just want to do what I can do for him. The diagnosis is Parkinson's and dementia. At first I said it couldn't be dementia. When I used to ask him something, he knew. But now I think he has it. 'Cause now he doesn't really know.

He's on medication so he doesn't shake. One of the problems is he falls. He can't walk by himself. I have to support him, and that's getting harder every day. He leans on me too much, and I'm afraid I'm going to fall. He can speak a little bit. I can understand him sometimes; sometimes I can't. I try, but it's hard.

It started, let's see, 1994. I was helping my granddaughter at the time--she was sick, she was born with a heart defect--and I started noticing Joe was not functioning the way he should, and I said, Hey, I better stay home and take care of Joe. I used to have a sofa in there and sometimes he would stay on the sofa all night, and I'd say, "What's wrong, Joe?" He was always falling down. In fact down there at Ravenswood, down at the end of the block, I found him just kinda sitting there swerving, and I thought, What's wrong with this man? I took him to the doctor after that. I insisted. I wanted to take him in for this test at the U. of C. hospital, to test the swerving or whatever was wrong with him. I thought maybe they could figure out why he didn't have any balance: Why? What is this? But the doctor wouldn't OK the test because he was in an HMO, so--we'll never know. One of the tests they did give him, the doctor would say, "How much is two plus two?" and Joe was not going to answer a question like that. I would look at him and say, "Joe, you know how much it is," but he was bound and determined he was not going to answer a silly question. That doctor only had ten minutes for him, so he didn't approve of the doctor. I didn't think he was a good doctor either.

They didn't diagnose him right away but eventually they said he had Parkinson's and dementia. I guess they look at a book and say this is Parkinson's, but you know, that's a relatively new disease, isn't it?

Right now hospice is taking care of him, and the nurse comes once a week and takes his blood pressure and his vitals, and he's OK. I haven't seen a doctor lately. I've been asking. I said I want to take him over and see what the doctor says, but I don't think he will say too much because he's the one who signed Joe up for hospice. You know, it doesn't seem like they're on our side. I would like him to get better, but I've lost all hope now. I don't think he's going to get better.

I came to Chicago from Wisconsin, when I was 17. I was kind of on my own. It was 1944. The war was still on, all the guys were gone. It was like a depression, all the people were depressed. I said, What have I got here? Let me go. And I took a civil service exam and I came to Chicago. I didn't know east from west or north from south or anything. I had to learn. I worked for the government. It was the treasury bonds at the time. I worked at the Merchandise Mart--after I found it--and over at the other mart, the furniture mart, for a short time. After a while I decided that they weren't paying me enough money and somebody said I should be a waitress, and that's what I did, I ended up as a waitress. I had a husband and he was the father of my first three children. And he died in a car accident. Then I was a widow for five years. And then I met Joe. I was a waitress and he was a waiter at the Edgewater Beach Hotel.

He was very macho to begin with, so we had to calm him down a little bit. He had to be the boss. So between us we said, Hey, that's not going to work here. This is the United States, everybody is equal. And I think he realized that it was going to work out. We had no problems other than that in the beginning. We got along good. We were young--when you're young you can adapt to anything. I still can adapt.

We used to go to Mexico all the time. I saw all of Mexico, backwards, forwards, whatever. I took the Copper Canyon train tour, which goes from Chihuahua City to Los Mochis. It's very popular now. All the tourists want to do it, but I did it 30 years ago. Because of Joe we could do a lot of traveling, because he knew the language and he was interested. And then my Greek girlfriend, she said she was going to the Orient, would I like to go? And I said yes! I think it was 25 years ago. Joe did not want to go. Mexico was OK, but he did not want to go anywhere else. And I said, "OK, I'm going to go," and he said, "OK, go," and he was so proud. I went to Japan and Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong, Philippine islands. We went to Aruba too. He approved, he always wanted me to go....I went to China twice, Africa, India twice, Britain, Russia, Egypt, Istanbul. I still travel. I go on tours. I just went to India. I took Joe to a nursing home. I do things that I want to do. I think if I get away, I won't think about it and I'll be OK, which I am. I may do it again in May: my son wants me to go to Taos.

We get up in the morning and have breakfast. At first I used to take him out--wherever I was going to go, he would go with me--but now I can't take him anymore. I'm afraid he's going to fall down the stairs and I'm going to go with him. I have to wait until someone comes to help us.

Then I do the laundry. There's always laundry. Sometimes I do laundry two or three times a day. And then there's lunch. That takes a long time. Sometimes it takes an hour and a half to feed him. I have to hold him and feed him too. It's a big job. Sometimes I lay down to take a rest. Then every once in a while, maybe twice a week, our daughter comes over after work to have dinner with me--and she comes on the weekend and we take him with us shopping. She feels it's her responsibility, and I say, "No, don't worry, we're getting along fine." We're the two parents! She lives on the south side so that's quite a jaunt for her.

Everyone wants me to put him in a nursing home. Well, a nursing home is fine, but at $3,000-plus a month I won't have any money left. I have to think about myself too, you know? I will take care of him as long as I can. Of course then the money will go away anyway. I have long-term nursing care for me, in case something happens to me. But it's very expensive, and at the time I got it Joe said no, he did not want it. I said OK, I didn't push it. I should've gotten it for him anyway, but I didn't. So I made a mistake.

I don't think anything is hard. He's such a good patient. He used to tear things apart--that would get me mad. Now it's calmed down, but before it was really a rough way to go. He's pulled four beds apart. He's got to work with his fingers: he destroys things, but he doesn't know what he's doing. One time he was in the bedroom up here and pulled the corner off of the wall. And four chairs, the lounge chairs. He sat on them and wiggled so much that I had to throw them out. Which was OK. They were old.

It's been great. I can't believe it's almost over. There's so much I would like to see and I'm trying to see it. Like I just told my son, maybe you guys would like to go down to Mexico and go to Lake Chappala and rent a house. I was trying to figure out how to get Joe down there, I thought that would be a nice thing to do. I have to see if we can fly him down in a bed or something. Or drive down, but I think that would be too hard on him. I think the thing to do is to fly. I was thinking about that. I think he'd love it.

Postscript: Gloria never did manage to get Joe back to Mexico. He died last July. Since then Gloria has been to Ukraine and southeast Asia. In August she's going to Siberia.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jane Fulton Alt.

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