Never Change

( 25 )

Overview

You know people like me. I'm the one everybody liked...the one who sat in a folding chair out in the hall selling tickets to the prom but never going, the one everybody liked but no one wanted to be with. A self-anointed spinster at fifty-one, Myra Lipinsky has endured the isolation of her middle life by doting on her dog, Frank, and immersing herself in her career as a visiting nurse. Myra considers herself reasonably content, telling herself, It's enough, work and Frank. And it has been enough—until Chip ...
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Never Change

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Overview

You know people like me. I'm the one everybody liked...the one who sat in a folding chair out in the hall selling tickets to the prom but never going, the one everybody liked but no one wanted to be with. A self-anointed spinster at fifty-one, Myra Lipinsky has endured the isolation of her middle life by doting on her dog, Frank, and immersing herself in her career as a visiting nurse. Myra considers herself reasonably content, telling herself, It's enough, work and Frank. And it has been enough—until Chip Reardon, the too-good-to-be-true golden boy she adored from afar, is assigned to be her new patient. Choosing to forgo invasive treatment of an incurable disease, Chip has returned from Manhattan to the New England home of his childhood to spend what time he has left. Now, Myra and Chip find themselves engaged in a poignant redefinition of roles, and a complicated dance of memory, ambivalence, and longing.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
Elizabeth Berg has penned an unforgettable tale about second chances that tugs hard at the heart strings even as it soothes the soul. Never Change tells the bittersweet story of Myra Lipinsky, a 51-year-old home care nurse and self-acclaimed spinster who finds herself assigned to care for the golden boy she secretly worshipped back in high school. Only Chip Reardon isn’t quite so golden these days -- he’s dying from a highly virulent type of brain tumor.

For Myra, the chance to care for Chip fills her with both pleasure and anxiety, particularly when she realizes that she still has strong feelings for him. At first their reunion is marked by fun, joy, and memories. But then reality kicks in when Chip’s old girlfriend, Diann, shows up, and Myra once again finds herself feeling like the fifth wheel she was back in high school. Yet despite slipping into their old roles, the three quickly discover that they have all changed. For Myra, this leads to a bittersweet irony as she finds herself in a loving relationship for the first time in her life -- only to have it be with a man whose days are drastically numbered.

Berg takes on the controversial issue of assisted suicide and handles it with a delicate but deft touch that somehow manages to speak out for both sides of the argument. This story may address our concerns about death, but the emotional complexity of the characters makes it feel more like a celebration of life. (Beth Amos)

From The Critics
Fifty-one-year-old Myra Lipinski is fairly well adjusted for a loner. While she sees plenty of people as a visiting nurse and lives in the kind of town where everybody jumps in on others' conversations, she's nailed the essence of living solo: She cooks dinner for six and eats for a week, and she indulges in "an astounding array of bath products." Her eclectic collection of patients, including an argumentative married couple and a drug dealer, make up Myra's ragtag family. When her newest patient turns out to be none other than golden boy Chip Reardon, her high school crush, the novel takes its most banal turn: Stricken with brain cancer, Chip has come home to die, and Myra is his designated nurse. Though lucidly drawn, Berg's characters tend to fall flat, and the final outcome is annoyingly predictable. In this Oprah Book Club wannabe (Berg already has one under her belt with 2000's Open House), everyone learns a lesson, even, in the book's most ridiculous moment, a mugger cowed by the power of terminal illness.
—Daneet Steffens

(Excerpted Review)
Library Journal
Berg seems to have bounced back. Her previous novel, Until the Real Thing Comes Along (LJ 5/15/99), was a fun read, but there was no substance beneath the diversion. With Never Change, Berg gets closer to the power and depth of her early novel Talk Before Sleep (LJ 3/15/94). Fifty-one-year-old Myra Lipinsky is the classic "old maid": she has always considered herself unattractive and wallows in self-pity over her lack of a husband or children. Myra's job as a home-care nurse, which she loves, brings her into contact with many different people and gives her a sense of strength and importance. When Myra's high school crush Chip Reardon is assigned as her new patient, she longs for him as she did years ago. Chip is dying from a brain tumor and has chosen not to seek further treatment, letting nature take its course. Chip and Myra become lovers at a crucial time in both of their lives the end, for him, and a new beginning for her. Recommended for public libraries. Beth Gibbs, Davidson, NC Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Another bedside drama from prolific bestseller Berg (Open House, 2000, etc.), again featuring her preferred plotline of a woman in emotional distress finding herself against all odds. At 51, visiting nurse Myra Lipinsky has been lonely for as far back as she can remember. "I come into the evening like I'm coming onto a stretch of bad road. Tighten my hands on the wheel. Sit up straight. Wait for it to be over." A kindhearted softy, Myra takes a personal interest in all her patients. Among this colorful if standard lot are Rose Banovitz, a forgetful old woman who wears her slip on the outside; Fitz Walters, a blind patron of strip clubs; Grace, a teenaged mother terrified of mishandling her newborn; and DeWitt Washington, a black drug dealer with a gunshot wound who's nonetheless so charming that anyone would want him for a neighbor and friend. Into this picture come Chip Reardon, the high-school football hero Myra adored from afar, and Diann Briedenbach, his equally popular girlfriend, who used to call upon Myra for consolation when she was feeling insecure. Chip has come home to die from a brain tumor, and Myra has been assigned to his case. He's happy to see her; she's delirious with joy to be near him, despite 30 years and the tumor. She even invites Diann to stay at her house, re-creating their ménage à trois. But this time, with Diann's blessing, Myra wins Chip: only she is able to bear his degeneration. In fact, she is so much in love that when Chip makes the decision to end his life, Myra not only agrees to stay with him but secretly plans to commit suicide as well, although she ultimately grants herself a reprieve. Berg wastes her considerable writing talent ona contrived, familiar story, and a likable but implausible protagonist. Still, who can argue with success? Author tour; radio satellite tour
From the Publisher
USA Today A touching novel.

Atlantic Monthly Vital connections are Berg's primary concern. Readers of her earlier novels will hear echoes in the broad themes of Never Change...This book is about the wisdom and closeness that crisis can bring. The narrative road that leads to them is funny, poetic, and moving.

The Midwest Book Review A five-tissue-box novel...Elizabeth Berg has written one of the most dramatic and beautiful books of her career, one that celebrates life to the fullest.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781480501355
  • Publisher: Brilliance Audio
  • Publication date: 9/28/2013
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Unabridged
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 6.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Elizabeth Berg
Elizabeth Berg's most recent New York Times bestseller, Open House, was an Oprah's Book Club selection in 2000. Durable Goods and Joy School were selected as American Library Association Best Books of the Year, and Talk Before Sleep was shortlisted for the ABBY award in 1996. The winner of the 1997 New England Booksellers Award for her body of work, she is also the author of the national bestselling novels The Pull of the Moon, What We Keep, Range of Motion, and Until the Real Thing Comes Along, as well as a nonfiction work, Escaping Into the Open: The Art of Writing True. A former nurse, she lives in Chicago.

Biography

Elizabeth Berg made her mark as a promising writer with the publication of her first novel, Durable Goods (1993), the story of Katie, a 12-year-old girl reeling from her mother's death while her abusive father drags her from town to town. The book, like Katie, was tough but tender, and the American Library Association named it a Best Book of the Year.

Since then, Berg has written subsequent novels, most of them, like Durable Goods, sincere, unpretentious, somewhat sentimental, and focused on an event that changes a woman's life. In Joy School (1997), a continuation of Katie's story, the crucible is her first taste of romance; in What We Keep (1998), it's a girl's abandonment by her mother; in Until the Real Thing Comes Along (1999), it's a woman's love for a gay man. All are grounded in the realistic minutiae of family life: irksome marriages, tempestuous parent-child relationships, love, betrayal, and resolution.

Although her books have received mixed reviews from critics, Berg remains immensely popular with readers who appreciate her fine powers of observation and honest descriptions. Her command of authentic details is on best display in her medically-themed titles. Before she became a full-time writer, Berg was a registered nurse, where she accumulated an endless store of observations related to sickness, healing, and the emotional toll that health crises take on people. In Range of Motion, Berg wrote about the experience of a comatose man; in Talk Before Sleep, about a nurse caring for a good friend who is succumbing to cancer; in Never Change, about a nurse treating an incurably ill man who also happens to have been a childhood acquaintance.

Although Berg's plots can occasionally be predictable, equally predictable is her taut, intelligent foray into the forces that shape ordinary people's lives -- especially women's lives -- and her exploration of the infinite resilience of the human spirit.

Good To Know

Berg had an experience she used for the straight-gay relationship in Until the Real Thing Comes Along: Her college love later came out to her after the two had broken up. The character of Ethan is modeled on that college boyfriend.

Berg hasn't managed to get her way when it comes to titling her books, usually getting overruled by her agent and editor. She wanted to call Durable Goods The King of Wands, after a tarot card; Range of Motion would have been Telling Songs; and Open House would have been The Hotel Meatloaf. Perhaps Berg should be thankful for her handlers?

Durable Goods was never meant to have a sequel, Berg says in a publisher's interview, but she ended up writing Joy School (and later True to Form) because she missed the original characters. Berg explains: "There was just a time when I was lying in the bathtub, and I thought about Katie, and I got out of the bathtub and started writing about her to see what she was up to."

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    1. Hometown:
      Chicago, Illinois
    1. Date of Birth:
      December 2, 1948
    2. Place of Birth:
      St. Paul, Minnesota
    1. Education:
      Attended the University of Minnesota; St. Mary’s College, A.A.S.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

You know people like me. I'm the one who sat on a folding chair out in the hall with a cigar box on my lap, selling tickets to the prom, but never going — even though in the late sixties only nerds went to proms. But I would have gone. I would have happily gone; I would have been so happy. I wanted the phone call with the rough voice asking "Would you...?" I wanted to finger row after row of pastel dresses in silks and chiffons — their sweetheart necks, their wide ribbon ties. I wanted to have some shoes dyed; I thought it was a miracle they could do it. I wanted to put a wrist corsage in my refrigerator, lock the bathroom door, and bathe in perfumed water with rollers in my hair and the transistor at the edge of the sink blaring "Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch." I wanted to allow an hour for the application of all my new Maybelline, suffer the flash-bulbs of my parents' eager camera, stay out all night, and eat breakfast before I came home, bleary-eyed and in the know.

I didn't get asked. I never once got asked. Not to proms, not to lesser dances, not to movies, not to parties, not for shopping with the girls.

I would get talked to, though. I mean beyond the "Hi!"s in the hall, beyond the preoccupied chatter in the lunchroom. I got talked to a lot. They would call me on the phone, the pretty girls. They would call and talk to me about things that were serious: their parents' alcoholism. Their hidden scoliosis. Their possible pregnancies. They talked to me because I knew how to listen, and I gave good advice. I didn't have a lot of personal experience, but I knew things, because I read and I watched. That is what there was for me. Those girls talked to me — and a boy, once, too — because they knew I would never betray them. Of course they betrayed me constantly. But they didn't really mean to. Probably they didn't know. They didn't think about it that much.

I'm the one everybody liked, Myra Lipinski, oh yeah, Myra, she's nice, the one that everybody liked and no one wanted to be with. The odd shape. The socks, those socks — well, her parents had accents. The face, unfortunate, with its too small eyes, its too wide mouth. The hair mousy brown, too thin and straight, greasy after half a day, no matter what. Even as a five-year-old: the aunt and uncle who once came to visit, sitting with my mother at the kitchen table, chatting quietly in Polish, and smiling over at me. "What are they saying?" I asked my mother, coming over to stretch myself out across her lap and shyly smiling back at them. "What are they saying about me?" And my mother finally breaking into English to tell me, "They say you look like...your father. And now we are not anymore talking about you." I lay still in her lap, contemplating the yellow-and-orange pattern of her apron and forbidding myself my thumb, until she crossed her legs and dislodged me.

So. I sold the tickets and I decorated the gym and I helped win the volleyball games and I sang a good alto in the choir and I lent my notes to anyone who asked; and if people wanted to copy from my test paper, I let them do that, too. I did not become bitter. I don't know why. Maybe I didn't think I had the right.

After graduation, I stayed here in Ashton, venturing no further than the twenty-two miles necessary to get to Boston College, where I earned my BSN. I went to nursing school because I knew it would be a way for people to love me. And for me to love them, too. This happens in illness. The sad plates of armor separate; the light comes in.

At first, I worked in the intensive care unit. I wanted the challenge and the prestige of working in the hardest place. You're eating lunch in the cafeteria, wearing your scrubs, your high-tech stethoscope around your neck, a hemostat clipped onto you somewhere, tourniquets tied onto it. You know a long list of lab values cold; you could intubate if you had to; you can rate heart murmurs and evaluate lung status and draw blood and start IVs better than most of the attending physicians. You see a burst of ventricular tachycardia race across a monitor screen and you save the patient and let the doctor know about it when you get around to it. You can give a lot of drugs that nurses on other floors can't. You can decide when to get certain kinds of tests performed. When you call down to any other department in the hospital and say, "This is ICU," they pay attention. You come first. When you say stat, it gets done stat.

So you're eating lunch and a code is called over the loudspeaker, and you get up and run back to the unit. It's likely you'll be needed, no matter where in the hospital the arrest occurred. The other people in the cafeteria watch you leave your bowl of soup sitting there, and they nod at you as you pass by. In the army of nurses, you wear four stars.

The pay is pretty good, too, especially for a single woman with no obligations — only child with no children, parents dead. I bought a little two-bedroom house a couple of blocks from the center of town. I bought a Porsche Carrera 911, too. Black, tan leather interior. Incredible sound system. The boys look when I pull up next to them; then look away. I beat them off the line, every time.

The problem with intensive care is that the patients usually can't speak. They're on respirators. Or they're unconscious. Or they have such messed up chemistry that they're confused. Or they stay just until they're stabilized, and then they're out of there and another train wreck comes in. That's what the bad cases are called: train wrecks. It doesn't mean what it sounds like. What it means is: right now, I can't get close to you, you're halfway to death. And anyway, I don't have time.

So there's no opportunity, in the unit, to sit at the side of the bed and shoot the breeze with patients. To get to know them. To admire pictures of their children, to style their hair, to slowly help them eat. Not that many of them eat. Tubes. I know a nurse who works in the unit precisely because the patients don't eat. "I didn't go to four years of nursing school to load mashed potatoes onto a fork," she says. But I like feeding people. It doesn't feel demeaning. It feels like high privilege.

The best day I had in the unit came when we had a boarder, someone who couldn't get put onto the floor where she belonged; it was full. She ate. She sat up in a chair. She was oriented to time, place, and person. She dug in her purse for lipstick after her bath. The unit was light that day; she was my only patient. She told me she had a crush on her doctor — no surprise, everyone had a crush on Dr. LaGuardia, with his dark, South American looks — so I told her I'd curl her hair, and she'd look beautiful when he came to visit her. We used 4 x 4 gauze pads to make rag rollers, and she did look beautiful when he came. I stopped him outside her cubicle, told him to be sure he noticed her hairdo. He's a good guy, Dr. LaGuardia. He walked in the room and stopped dead in his tracks. "Where was the beauty contest?" he asked, in the accent you could feel in your knees. "Where's the trophy?" Then he told her she could transfer to her floor now, there was a bed available; and twenty minutes later I was taking care of a gray-faced man with multisystem failure.

I stayed working in the unit for a long time. I mixed drugs, counted drops, monitored machines, resuscitated people who arrested, then resuscitated them again when they arrested half an hour later. I rarely had enough time to talk to their distraught family members. I had to walk away from their sad, worried clusters; I had to go and milk chest tubes while they wept and talked in church-quiet voices.

Oftentimes, I worked in my dreams. I heard the beep-beep of the IV telling me the infusion was completed, the rhythmic sighs of the ventilator, the dull bong of the alarm on the heart monitor. I changed dressings in my sleep, emptied urine and bile and drainage from wounds into toilets, sent polyps and kidney stones and spinal fluid to the pathology lab. I tested feces for blood, tested urine for blood, tested vomit for blood, kept track of each ounce that went into a patient and each ounce that came out, monitored levels of consciousness, listened to lungs, to hearts, to various levels of activity in the four quadrants of the abdomen. I awakened after those nights feeling exhausted, feeling like I'd just put in eight hours at the hospital after having just put in eight hours at the hospital. Or nine. Or sixteen.

These days I work for a Boston agency called Protemp, as a visiting nurse. When I was hired, I asked for easy patients; I was tired of high acuity levels. Now that I've been there for ten years, I don't think I could hear a heart murmur if it were as loud as sandpaper on sandpaper. But I'm happy. And when I sleep now, I am back to dreaming only gauzy mysteries.

I have some clients I see daily: Rose Banovitz, who lives in a seedy area on Commonwealth Avenue and needs her morning dose of insulin, and who often sings to me in her high, quivery voice. Fitz Walters lives in Chinatown and needs me to check his blood pressure and his wildly erratic heartbeat in order to determine his dose of Nitropaste. He goes to strip clubs every night, Fitz, though he is blind. The Schwartzes live in the heart of Brookline and need weekly visits to supervise their medications and to keep them from killing each other. Another once-a-weeker, a black woman in Dorchester appropriately named Marvelous, I will keep on seeing even after I'm no longer paid to help her with her colostomy. I also see one DeWitt Washington, because nobody else will put up with the combination of his personality and his neighborhood in Roxbury. I have to go every afternoon and change the dressing on his gunshot wound.

I give eyedrops daily to a rich woman in Back Bay, Ann Peters, who can't see to do it herself and whose family can't be bothered. And since last week, I've been going to Allston to see a fifteen-year-old girl named Grace to help her with the baby she just had. I gave her my home number, and she leaves me messages at least once a day. Things like, "Okay. His shit looks exactly like scrambled eggs. No way is this normal. All I do is fuck up, and he don't even cry. Can you call me? Sorry for the swears, can you please call?"

You know the boy who once called me in high school? That was Chip Reardon. He called because he knew I had been talking to his girlfriend, Diann Briedenbach. They were having trouble. He wanted advice, some inside information. He felt comfortable asking me — we'd had a lot of classes together and he knew how carefully I observed things. Once, in fact, after an essay of mine had been read aloud in English, he stopped me after class to compliment me on my perceptiveness. I treasured that small event, carried the memory of it home from school like a wrapped gift. I even decided, foolishly, that had the bell not rung, that conversation might have led to something more. I remember getting home and looking at myself in my parents' full-length mirror, wondering if I'd finally worn something right, something that would make a boy like him really see a girl like me. I'd worn the same outfit a week later, down to the same color tie to hold my hair back, but of course nothing happened.

Anyway, when he called that night I told him only that he shouldn't worry, Diann loved him, I knew that for certain. He thanked me, though it seemed to me that his relief was not so great. But then I decided I was only making that up, trying to make him less invested in her than he really was. After we hung up, I put my fingers to the place his voice had come from.

As there is one of me in every high school, there is one of Chip Reardon, too. Other end of the spectrum. Every girl's dream boy. The handsome star athlete with a good head on his shoulders, too. And a genuinely nice guy. Everyone fighting over him for college.

He went west. That's what he said, to keep from bragging about Stanford — nobody from Ashton High had ever gotten in there. But now he's back here. I know because I got a message from my agency, asking if I could possibly fit in another client. A man called Chip Reardon. Fifty-one years old. Brain tumor, end stage, apparently; not too much to do. Probably home to die — he'd only need comfort measures.

I called my agency back. I said, yes, I could take another patient. They told me it would be daily visits at first, starting tomorrow. Then they told me where his parents, with whom he would be staying, lived. It was in the south part of town, a newer, wealthy area that is in marked contrast to the rest of this mostly blue-collar area. It's too far to walk to the hardware store from there, to the library or the bakery or the common; but it is close to open areas of farm lands, with their lovely stone walls, their rolling hills and peaceful populations of sheep and cows. I wrote down his nice address and his terrible diagnosis, entered it next to the 2:00 P.M. slot for Wednesday. And you know something bad? You know something bad about me? When I wrote that, I felt happy. I thought only one thing. I thought, Good. Now I can have him.

Not that you should think I haven't had my moments. I have had my moments. Some. Moments. You know, the blind date with the guy whose face at first turns in on itself when he sees what he got. But particularly after age forty-five, one can make do. One adult female can offer a certain kind of comfort to one adult male. And although they didn't usually stay the night — only two ever stayed the night — I was glad for that. After my rare interludes, I actually prefer a sandwich alone at my own kitchen table. I know I'm better off sitting under the fluorescent light in my bathrobe, alternating bites of pickle with my ham and cheese, turning the pages of the Chambers catalog and finding the one thing I'll let myself order — that's much better than the smiley conversations I endure when they stay. The awkward partings in the morning, the indignity of picking the guy's hair from my sink when I know I'll never see him again. Better to eat the sandwich and then look to see if any Mary Tyler Moores are on where Mary still lives in the old apartment. The only thing wrong with that show is that they acted like Rhoda was unattractive.

People think women like me should settle. That we should not aspire to certain things. Well, I had a crush on Chip Reardon, too, just like all the other girls. I had a full-time longing that went beyond the brief fantasy I enjoyed that day after English class. I saw him kissing me. I was not a different person when I imagined this; I saw him kissing me. I was aware that if most kids knew that, they'd snort their disapproval. They wanted me to have a crush on the guy equivalent of me. But of course I didn't. No one did. I didn't want Thomas Osterhout, him with his horrible posture and his stick-out Adam's apple and dandruff dusting the shoulders of black knit shirts tucked into his high-waisted pants — I didn't want him any more than he wanted me. Probably Thomas kissed Diann in his dreams, rode her around in his battered Gremlin while all the jocks stared, their fists shoved into their pockets.

Mostly, I have a dog. Don't laugh. Take a look at marriages that have survived a long time and see if it's the dog or the spouse that offers a better package to either partner. The dog can't call the internist for you; he can't accompany you out to dinner or to a show. But he will lie by you the whole time you're sick, and he will listen to every word you say and offer nothing back but acceptance. My dog, Frank is his name, is an eighty-five-pound golden mix, selected from the suffering souls at the dog pound. He sat quietly in the corner of his concrete cell, asking for nothing. When I stopped in front of his dank space, he walked up to me and sat down. Looked up. Held my gaze and waited.

"This one," I told the overworked attendant.

Frank walked out into the office on the leash I'd brought with me, lifted his leg apologetically against the desk where I filled out the necessary forms, and never again had an accident.

Usually, he sleeps smack up against the side of my bed, quiet as a shadow, except on the nights he has dreams — then he whines through his nose in a way that sounds like a story. Other nights, he senses a need and he jumps up to stretch out next to me. He lies on his side, his back to me. I put my arm around his middle, push up next to him, note with pleasure the salty earth smell of his paws.

It's enough, work and Frank. Or at least it has been, until now.

Copyright © 2001 by Elizabeth Berg

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First Chapter

Chapter One

You know people like me. I'm the one who sat on a folding chair out in the hall with a cigar box on my lap, selling tickets to the prom, but never going — even though in the late sixties only nerds went to proms. But I would have gone. I would have happily gone; I would have been so happy. I wanted the phone call with the rough voice asking "Would you...?" I wanted to finger row after row of pastel dresses in silks and chiffons — their sweetheart necks, their wide ribbon ties. I wanted to have some shoes dyed; I thought it was a miracle they could do it. I wanted to put a wrist corsage in my refrigerator, lock the bathroom door, and bathe in perfumed water with rollers in my hair and the transistor at the edge of the sink blaring "Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch." I wanted to allow an hour for the application of all my new Maybelline, suffer the flash-bulbs of my parents' eager camera, stay out all night, and eat breakfast before I came home, bleary-eyed and in the know.

I didn't get asked. I never once got asked. Not to proms, not to lesser dances, not to movies, not to parties, not for shopping with the girls.

I would get talked to, though. I mean beyond the "Hi!"s in the hall, beyond the preoccupied chatter in the lunchroom. I got talked to a lot. They would call me on the phone, the pretty girls. They would call and talk to me about things that were serious: their parents' alcoholism. Their hidden scoliosis. Their possible pregnancies. They talked to me because I knew how to listen, and I gave good advice. I didn't have a lot of personal experience, but I knew things, because I read and I watched. That is what there was for me. Those girls talked to me — and a boy, once, too — because they knew I would never betray them. Of course they betrayed me constantly. But they didn't really mean to. Probably they didn't know. They didn't think about it that much.

I'm the one everybody liked, Myra Lipinski, oh yeah, Myra, she's nice, the one that everybody liked and no one wanted to be with. The odd shape. The socks, those socks — well, her parents had accents. The face, unfortunate, with its too small eyes, its too wide mouth. The hair mousy brown, too thin and straight, greasy after half a day, no matter what. Even as a five-year-old: the aunt and uncle who once came to visit, sitting with my mother at the kitchen table, chatting quietly in Polish, and smiling over at me. "What are they saying?" I asked my mother, coming over to stretch myself out across her lap and shyly smiling back at them. "What are they saying about me?" And my mother finally breaking into English to tell me, "They say you look like...your father. And now we are not anymore talking about you." I lay still in her lap, contemplating the yellow-and-orange pattern of her apron and forbidding myself my thumb, until she crossed her legs and dislodged me.

So. I sold the tickets and I decorated the gym and I helped win the volleyball games and I sang a good alto in the choir and I lent my notes to anyone who asked; and if people wanted to copy from my test paper, I let them do that, too. I did not become bitter. I don't know why. Maybe I didn't think I had the right.

After graduation, I stayed here in Ashton, venturing no further than the twenty-two miles necessary to get to Boston College, where I earned my BSN. I went to nursing school because I knew it would be a way for people to love me. And for me to love them, too. This happens in illness. The sad plates of armor separate; the light comes in.

At first, I worked in the intensive care unit. I wanted the challenge and the prestige of working in the hardest place. You're eating lunch in the cafeteria, wearing your scrubs, your high-tech stethoscope around your neck, a hemostat clipped onto you somewhere, tourniquets tied onto it. You know a long list of lab values cold; you could intubate if you had to; you can rate heart murmurs and evaluate lung status and draw blood and start IVs better than most of the attending physicians. You see a burst of ventricular tachycardia race across a monitor screen and you save the patient and let the doctor know about it when you get around to it. You can give a lot of drugs that nurses on other floors can't. You can decide when to get certain kinds of tests performed. When you call down to any other department in the hospital and say, "This is ICU," they pay attention. You come first. When you say stat, it gets done stat.

So you're eating lunch and a code is called over the loudspeaker, and you get up and run back to the unit. It's likely you'll be needed, no matter where in the hospital the arrest occurred. The other people in the cafeteria watch you leave your bowl of soup sitting there, and they nod at you as you pass by. In the army of nurses, you wear four stars.

The pay is pretty good, too, especially for a single woman with no obligations — only child with no children, parents dead. I bought a little two-bedroom house a couple of blocks from the center of town. I bought a Porsche Carrera 911, too. Black, tan leather interior. Incredible sound system. The boys look when I pull up next to them; then look away. I beat them off the line, every time.

The problem with intensive care is that the patients usually can't speak. They're on respirators. Or they're unconscious. Or they have such messed up chemistry that they're confused. Or they stay just until they're stabilized, and then they're out of there and another train wreck comes in. That's what the bad cases are called: train wrecks. It doesn't mean what it sounds like. What it means is: right now, I can't get close to you, you're halfway to death. And anyway, I don't have time.

So there's no opportunity, in the unit, to sit at the side of the bed and shoot the breeze with patients. To get to know them. To admire pictures of their children, to style their hair, to slowly help them eat. Not that many of them eat. Tubes. I know a nurse who works in the unit precisely because the patients don't eat. "I didn't go to four years of nursing school to load mashed potatoes onto a fork," she says. But I like feeding people. It doesn't feel demeaning. It feels like high privilege.

The best day I had in the unit came when we had a boarder, someone who couldn't get put onto the floor where she belonged; it was full. She ate. She sat up in a chair. She was oriented to time, place, and person. She dug in her purse for lipstick after her bath. The unit was light that day; she was my only patient. She told me she had a crush on her doctor — no surprise, everyone had a crush on Dr. LaGuardia, with his dark, South American looks — so I told her I'd curl her hair, and she'd look beautiful when he came to visit her. We used 4 x 4 gauze pads to make rag rollers, and she did look beautiful when he came. I stopped him outside her cubicle, told him to be sure he noticed her hairdo. He's a good guy, Dr. LaGuardia. He walked in the room and stopped dead in his tracks. "Where was the beauty contest?" he asked, in the accent you could feel in your knees. "Where's the trophy?" Then he told her she could transfer to her floor now, there was a bed available; and twenty minutes later I was taking care of a gray-faced man with multisystem failure.

I stayed working in the unit for a long time. I mixed drugs, counted drops, monitored machines, resuscitated people who arrested, then resuscitated them again when they arrested half an hour later. I rarely had enough time to talk to their distraught family members. I had to walk away from their sad, worried clusters; I had to go and milk chest tubes while they wept and talked in church-quiet voices.

Oftentimes, I worked in my dreams. I heard the beep-beep of the IV telling me the infusion was completed, the rhythmic sighs of the ventilator, the dull bong of the alarm on the heart monitor. I changed dressings in my sleep, emptied urine and bile and drainage from wounds into toilets, sent polyps and kidney stones and spinal fluid to the pathology lab. I tested feces for blood, tested urine for blood, tested vomit for blood, kept track of each ounce that went into a patient and each ounce that came out, monitored levels of consciousness, listened to lungs, to hearts, to various levels of activity in the four quadrants of the abdomen. I awakened after those nights feeling exhausted, feeling like I'd just put in eight hours at the hospital after having just put in eight hours at the hospital. Or nine. Or sixteen.

These days I work for a Boston agency called Protemp, as a visiting nurse. When I was hired, I asked for easy patients; I was tired of high acuity levels. Now that I've been there for ten years, I don't think I could hear a heart murmur if it were as loud as sandpaper on sandpaper. But I'm happy. And when I sleep now, I am back to dreaming only gauzy mysteries.

I have some clients I see daily: Rose Banovitz, who lives in a seedy area on Commonwealth Avenue and needs her morning dose of insulin, and who often sings to me in her high, quivery voice. Fitz Walters lives in Chinatown and needs me to check his blood pressure and his wildly erratic heartbeat in order to determine his dose of Nitropaste. He goes to strip clubs every night, Fitz, though he is blind. The Schwartzes live in the heart of Brookline and need weekly visits to supervise their medications and to keep them from killing each other. Another once-a-weeker, a black woman in Dorchester appropriately named Marvelous, I will keep on seeing even after I'm no longer paid to help her with her colostomy. I also see one DeWitt Washington, because nobody else will put up with the combination of his personality and his neighborhood in Roxbury. I have to go every afternoon and change the dressing on his gunshot wound.

I give eyedrops daily to a rich woman in Back Bay, Ann Peters, who can't see to do it herself and whose family can't be bothered. And since last week, I've been going to Allston to see a fifteen-year-old girl named Grace to help her with the baby she just had. I gave her my home number, and she leaves me messages at least once a day. Things like, "Okay. His shit looks exactly like scrambled eggs. No way is this normal. All I do is fuck up, and he don't even cry. Can you call me? Sorry for the swears, can you please call?"

You know the boy who once called me in high school? That was Chip Reardon. He called because he knew I had been talking to his girlfriend, Diann Briedenbach. They were having trouble. He wanted advice, some inside information. He felt comfortable asking me — we'd had a lot of classes together and he knew how carefully I observed things. Once, in fact, after an essay of mine had been read aloud in English, he stopped me after class to compliment me on my perceptiveness. I treasured that small event, carried the memory of it home from school like a wrapped gift. I even decided, foolishly, that had the bell not rung, that conversation might have led to something more. I remember getting home and looking at myself in my parents' full-length mirror, wondering if I'd finally worn something right, something that would make a boy like him really see a girl like me. I'd worn the same outfit a week later, down to the same color tie to hold my hair back, but of course nothing happened.

Anyway, when he called that night I told him only that he shouldn't worry, Diann loved him, I knew that for certain. He thanked me, though it seemed to me that his relief was not so great. But then I decided I was only making that up, trying to make him less invested in her than he really was. After we hung up, I put my fingers to the place his voice had come from.

As there is one of me in every high school, there is one of Chip Reardon, too. Other end of the spectrum. Every girl's dream boy. The handsome star athlete with a good head on his shoulders, too. And a genuinely nice guy. Everyone fighting over him for college.

He went west. That's what he said, to keep from bragging about Stanford — nobody from Ashton High had ever gotten in there. But now he's back here. I know because I got a message from my agency, asking if I could possibly fit in another client. A man called Chip Reardon. Fifty-one years old. Brain tumor, end stage, apparently; not too much to do. Probably home to die — he'd only need comfort measures.

I called my agency back. I said, yes, I could take another patient. They told me it would be daily visits at first, starting tomorrow. Then they told me where his parents, with whom he would be staying, lived. It was in the south part of town, a newer, wealthy area that is in marked contrast to the rest of this mostly blue-collar area. It's too far to walk to the hardware store from there, to the library or the bakery or the common; but it is close to open areas of farm lands, with their lovely stone walls, their rolling hills and peaceful populations of sheep and cows. I wrote down his nice address and his terrible diagnosis, entered it next to the 2:00 P.M. slot for Wednesday. And you know something bad? You know something bad about me? When I wrote that, I felt happy. I thought only one thing. I thought, Good. Now I can have him.


Not that you should think I haven't had my moments. I have had my moments. Some. Moments. You know, the blind date with the guy whose face at first turns in on itself when he sees what he got. But particularly after age forty-five, one can make do. One adult female can offer a certain kind of comfort to one adult male. And although they didn't usually stay the night — only two ever stayed the night — I was glad for that. After my rare interludes, I actually prefer a sandwich alone at my own kitchen table. I know I'm better off sitting under the fluorescent light in my bathrobe, alternating bites of pickle with my ham and cheese, turning the pages of the Chambers catalog and finding the one thing I'll let myself order — that's much better than the smiley conversations I endure when they stay. The awkward partings in the morning, the indignity of picking the guy's hair from my sink when I know I'll never see him again. Better to eat the sandwich and then look to see if any Mary Tyler Moores are on where Mary still lives in the old apartment. The only thing wrong with that show is that they acted like Rhoda was unattractive.

People think women like me should settle. That we should not aspire to certain things. Well, I had a crush on Chip Reardon, too, just like all the other girls. I had a full-time longing that went beyond the brief fantasy I enjoyed that day after English class. I saw him kissing me. I was not a different person when I imagined this; I saw him kissing me. I was aware that if most kids knew that, they'd snort their disapproval. They wanted me to have a crush on the guy equivalent of me. But of course I didn't. No one did. I didn't want Thomas Osterhout, him with his horrible posture and his stick-out Adam's apple and dandruff dusting the shoulders of black knit shirts tucked into his high-waisted pants — I didn't want him any more than he wanted me. Probably Thomas kissed Diann in his dreams, rode her around in his battered Gremlin while all the jocks stared, their fists shoved into their pockets.

Mostly, I have a dog. Don't laugh. Take a look at marriages that have survived a long time and see if it's the dog or the spouse that offers a better package to either partner. The dog can't call the internist for you; he can't accompany you out to dinner or to a show. But he will lie by you the whole time you're sick, and he will listen to every word you say and offer nothing back but acceptance. My dog, Frank is his name, is an eighty-five-pound golden mix, selected from the suffering souls at the dog pound. He sat quietly in the corner of his concrete cell, asking for nothing. When I stopped in front of his dank space, he walked up to me and sat down. Looked up. Held my gaze and waited.

"This one," I told the overworked attendant.

Frank walked out into the office on the leash I'd brought with me, lifted his leg apologetically against the desk where I filled out the necessary forms, and never again had an accident.

Usually, he sleeps smack up against the side of my bed, quiet as a shadow, except on the nights he has dreams — then he whines through his nose in a way that sounds like a story. Other nights, he senses a need and he jumps up to stretch out next to me. He lies on his side, his back to me. I put my arm around his middle, push up next to him, note with pleasure the salty earth smell of his paws.

It's enough, work and Frank. Or at least it has been, until now.

Copyright © 2001 by Elizabeth Berg

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 26 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 13, 2003

    Elizabeth Berg is one of the best......

    writers of women's fiction. I absolutely love her writing style. After reading Open House and Never Change I went to the Library and read all of her novels. I would recomend all of them. I hope she never stops writing because I can't get enough!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 26, 2013

    What a disappointment. Grabbed this at the library on the recom

    What a disappointment. Grabbed this at the library on the recommendation of a librarian and glad I didn't pay for it. There was no substance to this book. Just fluff and poorly developed characters.

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  • Posted March 23, 2009

    A Great Read!

    This book was a great read! The story is heart felt. You can relate to the characters and feel what they are feeling. A good book for a rainy day, a day at the beach or gift giving.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 30, 2004

    Old Memories Never Die

    Myra Lipinski the girl who never got asked out is someone you would talk to at school, not someone you would bring home with you. June 8, 1968 is the last day when she saw him, Chip Reardon, her old high school crush. Myra Lipinski who is now a visiting nurse working for a temp agency finds a message on her machine one day asking if she can take on another patient, a fifty one year old man dying from a brain tumor. His name is Chip Reardon. By becoming a patient of Myra¿s, they both learn from each other what it means to really live and what it means to really love.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 19, 2002

    Another Berg hit

    I love Elizabeth Berg and have read all of her novels. This one too, is just excellent. The story line is great and very touching and the ending was surprising, yet inevitable.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 21, 2002

    Incredibly sad but inspiring

    This is the second Elizabeth Berg book I have read in four days, and the third overall. Her writing style just kept me hooked. I stayed up into the wee hours of the morning just to finish this book. Myra is a character I admired and therefore found it easy to sympathize, from her feelings of being a fifth wheel with Chip and his girlfriend to her feelings as she watches her one true love fade away so soon after she finds it. While the conclusion was inevitable, it was also one that I needed to get to, at the expense of a good night's sleep. I could identify with and 'feel' for all of the main characters but Myra's strength and morality was most admirable. I would recommend this book whole-heartedly to anyone. However, make sure you have tissues handy. But it was worth the sadness.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 18, 2002

    Fabulous!

    This woman is my new favorite author. I loved 'Open House' so much I decided to try 'Never Change'. I cried my eyes out in the end! This book is definitely worth checking out! I have also read her book of short stories called 'Ordinary Life' It was wonderful as well. I have not been disappointed by Ms. Berg's novels and neither will you!' I will be going back to B&N to find other books by her.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 27, 2001

    Berg just keeps getting better

    Reading this book is like curling up with a good tearjerker movie like 'Long Gray Line.' I laughed, cried and hated for the story to end. She has a knack for populating her books with real people, people you know.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 16, 2001

    Just as good as Open House

    Couldn't wait to read this next book after enjoying Open House by the same author. I was not let down and finished this read in two days. The story was a wonderful love story and the characters were all very enjoyable. You really felt as if you had entered Myra's little world. I highly recommend this book!!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 8, 2001

    I Cried

    I discovered this book recently and read it straight through finishing it June 25th in just over one day. I then read something else and now have just finished JOY SCHOOL also by Elizabeth Berg. I love finding a new author (for me)and Elizabeth Berg is really good. I now have OPEN HOUSE and look forward to starting it. Think what I really like about the two that I have read is that the endings aren't 'and they lived happily ever after' endings. More true to life. Not everything in life is 'happily ever after'.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 2, 2001

    A SPLENDID READING OF A POIGNANT STORY

    Film and stage actress Maryann Plunkett is a splendid choice to read Elizabeth Berg's latest novel, 'Never Change.' Once again Ms. Berg adroitly offers a less than sanguine protagonist who's getting along by getting along. Myra Lipsinsky is 51, unmarried, and convinced she never will be. She has devoted herself to her career as a visiting nurse, and to the care and well being of her dog, Frank. Myra describes her youthful self as 'the one everybody liked but no one wanted to be with.' Things haven't changed much over the years - that is until Chip Reardon, the love of Myra's life in high school, returns to town. But Chip has come back home for a tragic reason - he is dying, and Myra becomes his nurse. Skillful author that she is Ms. Berg paints their relationship with insight and depth. This is a story well worth the listening.

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    beautiful and poignant love story

    Even as a child Myra Lipinsky had no friends and failed to connect with anyone. She sold the tickets to the prom, but no male asked her to go with him. As an adult, she had become a visiting nurse. Her occupation is her only satisfaction as she is content with her solitary status especially since her dog Frank provides her with companionship.<P> At fifty-one, her high school secret crush Chip Reardon returns into her life when he is dying from an inoperable brain tumor. Chip refuses to accept chemo or radiation that will grant him a few more months to live, but at a dramatically reduced style of life. Chip moves into Myra's home where he teaches her to live and she teaches him to love. <P>Elizabeth Berg has written a beautiful and poignant love story centering on a person accepting his fate and living what time he has left in life to the fullest. Chip's gift to Myra is helping her to open up to her feelings even as she provides him with the nurturing and the support he needs at the end. NEVER CHANGE is a five-tissue box novel, for the tears that flow not out of sorrow, but out of living. Elizabeth Berg has written one of the most dramatic and beautiful books of her career, one that celebrates life to the fullest despite the death sentence hanging over the hero¿s head. <P>Harriet Klausner

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 29, 2001

    Berg Does It Again!

    Elizabeth Berg strikes gold once again with her latest novel, Never Change. Poignant and endearing, Never Change picks up where Talk Before Sleep left off. I couldn't put it down, and almost hated to finish it.

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    Posted June 28, 2010

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    Posted December 26, 2010

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    Posted August 15, 2011

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    Posted February 3, 2009

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