Two friends in New York City find themselves unexpectedly at a roundabout where life, love, desire, and death all want right of way. In the struggle that ensues, there is a winner, but it isn’t one of them. A brief excerpt from “Palisades” appeared on page 49 of the November 2010 issue of World Literature Today; herewith the complete text.
Dalia Stern was a young sixty-three. She rose early, at seven each morning, and went for a two-mile-long walk. She shopped for her daily fruits and vegetables at the green market and ate fish three times a week. She took the calcium supplements her doctor had prescribed and drank green tea. She didn’t believe all the hoopla about goji berries but conceded that blueberries might be a potent health plant and sprinkled the dried kind over her oatmeal every day. I don’t know how strictly she adhered to the government’s food pyramid for her daily consumption, but her tastes were never illicit, or forbidden, so, in that, as in everything else in her life that was meant to be good for her, I have no doubt she was quietly compliant.
So it was a shock to all who knew her when, on a routine visit to the doctor, she was sent to the emergency room at St. Vincent’s Hospital, Greenwich Village, in New York City.
There were more than twenty years between us, so my other friends often asked what we shared, what our common tastes were. It would have been easier to answer what we didn’t share. I am a music composer and the violin is my instrument. Because of her keen ear, her deep appreciation of music, and her own long-lost aspirations as a cellist, I trusted her as my strongest ally in my creative world. During the day, I worked as a cataloguer in the music division at the New York Public Library. In the evenings and in my spare time, I composed and played. When I felt I’d hit creative gold, I would call her up excitedly and play over the phone what I’d just written.
Once I’d seen a white parakeet encircle the West Side Highway in an obvious panic, its confusion compounded by the fact that there was another unusual bird species circling the Hudson that evening. Two ducks, male and female, appeared out of nowhere in a confusion of violently flapping wings. They crashed into the water, gained balance immediately, and were soon companionably skimming its surface. The parakeet scratchily rustled its wings as it joined the ducks, swooping onto the surface of the water with a thud, riding along for a brief moment before flying off giddily to join the gulls. Its panic made me a little anxious. I wanted to call someone but my jogging pal, a hard-boiled New Yorker, laughed. “Who’d listen? And who’d you call, anyway? The Westside Highway Lost Pets Patrol?” But as soon as I got home, the bird’s panic demanded translation and I wrote a page of music re-creating the frantic beat of wings, the blare of horns, and the whoosh of oncoming traffic, with the piercing cries of seagulls resonating throughout the piece like the chorus in a Greek play. Though it was unfinished, I played it to Dalia, who said in her quiet, unassuming way, “Give it a rest.”
“It’s meant to be racy and frenetic,” I said.
“Try it with and without,” she said.
I did. The rest was the perfect tempo moderator. She was fond of the piece and often reminded me that I hadn’t finished it yet, that it deserved the dignity of an ending. She fed on the energy of the creative process; I, on the pleasure it seemed to give. Symbiosis, I think it’s known as, sometimes understood more clearly through its antonym—antipathy, or aversion.
A few days before her visit to the doctor, we were to eat dinner together at my place. She cancelled, complaining of a vague sense of discomfort. It was the same the next day, and the next.
“What are the symptoms?” I asked.
“A heavy feeling.”
“Like a headache?”
“No, not like a headache.”
“Like the flu?”
“No, not that.”
I sighed. She sometimes had these indefinable short bursts of “not feeling well.” Probably it was one of those moments. “Without a symptom, there is no cure,” I said.
“Well, maybe it’s like the flu,” she said. “It’ll go.”
By Thursday, it still hadn’t gone. The next day was the Jewish holiday, Rosh Hashanah. She said she didn’t want to deal with it just before a holiday weekend. They might have to send her to the hospital for tests. City residents know hospital holiday weekends well. Manned by a skeletal staff short on civilities and long on wait times, and nurses resolutely sunk in a fog of ignorance until the doctors all came back on Monday, these institutions resembled funeral parlors, with stricken relatives and crying children everywhere. I understood her hesitations. Still.
“Please see your doctor tomorrow,” I pleaded with her. “It’s been four days.”
“All right,” she agreed, after some negotiation. “I doubt he’ll be there but I’ll go.”
“And after that, come over to my place for dinner.”
“That’ll be great,” she said, “if you feel up to it after work.”
“I’ll be fine.”
That evening, I tried her number as soon as I got home from work. Dalia never went out in the evenings. Naturally reclusive, she preferred to watch movies on her favorite channel, Turner Classics, than spend her time with people she wasn’t entirely comfortable with. She and I went out for dinner sometimes to a new restaurant “under $25” that Eric Asimov might have given several stars to in the Times or to a neighborhood Chinese or Thai, but more often than not I would just cook a meal at home, since it was what she liked best. These at-home dinner evenings were not without their intense irritations. Dalia had honed self-denial to a patina that made her glow—like acedia in a monk. “Morels?” she’d say. “You bought morels?” spying a few crinkly morsels in the ravioli. Or, “Raspberries aren’t in season now. These must have cost a fortune.” However disapproving of the luxuries at my table, she did not abstain: in her nibbling, sipping way she sampled all the fare, indulging in an extra thimbleful of wine or an extra teaspoon of gelato, and left feeling like a guest at one of Lucullus’s feasts.
I tried her number again. No answer. A half hour later, I tried again. And then every fifteen minutes. Something was wrong. Fearing the worst, I thought I’d try the emergency room at St. Vincent’s, the hospital closest to her in the Village. It was there that I learnt that she had been put into a room for the night. There was no telephone in her room, but I persuaded the nurse to get her to come to the phone if she could walk. And about ten minutes later, I heard Dalia’s voice on the phone. There was a dreadful crackle on the line. “Dalia? Dalia?” Phone calls to India back in the eighties used to be like this—with people shouting at both ends, trying to drown out the crackle and noise, and were often cut off mid-sentence. In a subdued tone, Dalia explained that the doctor just wanted to check her out for a few things, and so he’d had her admitted for the night.
“What sort of things?”
“Oh, just routine stuff. At my age, they worry about everything,” she said.
“At your age, Dalia?”
“I am sixty-three,” she reminded me, “and that’s when things start happening.”
“But these days, that’s almost young!”
“Yeah,” she said, with a rueful chuckle. “You’d think so. But the doctor’s insisting.”
“You think there’s something wrong?”
“N . . . o,” she said with a sigh, adding quietly, “I hope not.”
It was her voice—that low subdued tone. I felt my internal alarm registers take note. “Dalia, I need to know what this doctor’s saying to you. What exactly did he say?”
“I don’t know exactly. It’s Rosh Hashanah and no one knows anything. Just . . . they’re going to look into my brain.”
“Your brain?” I yelled. “What for? What’s wrong with your brain?”
“I think he just wants to look to make sure.”
Her husband, I knew, had died of brain cancer. But that had been twenty-three years ago, and brain cancer wasn’t contagious, surely?
“Shall I come now?” I asked.
“Please,” she said. “Please come.”
I raced over in a cab. That smell, of generations of sick people, of hospital disinfectant, the pallor of fluorescent lighting and white-gone-grey stamped sheets. It being a holiday weekend, it was exactly as I expected. No one seemed to know anything. The nurse, looking relieved, took me to Dalia. She was lying there among the stiff bed linens, her face sallow with anxiety, the lips puckered, the light in her eyes stone cold, as though she had already decided to believe the worst.
“Looks like I’ll be here for a few days, the doctor says now,” she said.
I just shook my head at her. “They must be trying to make some money,” I said, trying for a jocular note.
“Let’s hope you’re right.”
Some people can take any kind of psychic knock while physical knocks will completely derail them. Dalia had suffered many losses—from suicides in the family, to sudden deaths, to depression, and eventually, a stifling of her own hopes and desires. When you’ve suffered that much, you win immunity from psychic pain. Physically, though, she had been strong and in good health for most of her life. She worked at home, and gave cello lessons to kids who lived in the building. There was little stress in her life, and her natural abstemiousness protected her from the severe mental lashings people like me regularly inflict on ourselves for overindulgence. So now this illness, however temporary, had completely unnerved her. We talked about practical things—what did she need? Should I go across to her apartment, pick up some essentials for a few days . . . a pair of pajamas, some underwear, bedroom slippers, a gown, toothbrush, toothpaste? Yes, and, she shyly added, some deodorant.
In the precisely ordered world of her apartment, where every single thing had a place and could be found in a second, even in the dark, I sat down in a chair for a few minutes, trying to deal with my irrational fears. In one corner of the bookshelf, a knife protruded from the spine of a book. I got up to inspect it. The book was the unabridged Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil. Why was there a knife sticking out of the spine? Strangely comforting, that odd gesture of explicit violence in a room notable for its halcyon calm.
Once, I had asked her what her blood type was. She didn’t know exactly but thought it might be B. I said that, in that case, I couldn’t come to her aid if she ever needed blood because I was O. A few weeks later, she mentioned she’d had a blood test and her blood type was O. “Same as you,” she said. “Then I can give you blood,” I said happily. “And I you,” she said. In a city like New York, a small thing like that meant so much more: who would respond when your light turned red was a question not too far from most people’s minds. Dalia and I knew we could count on each other in this urban wilderness. Yet, it was strange. Blood is thicker than water, yes, but what kind of blood? We were linked by the same blood type yet not by heredity. We were kin, by virtue of the fact that we were all the “family” the other had in this city, yet not kin. Not mother, not daughter, just a friend. I rushed back to the hospital fighting back tears. Our bond seemed to me more precious than ever.
Dalia Stern has a nephew, but he has been elusive and difficult to locate. In his absence, and I suppose in the absence of any other person who can shoulder the responsibility of knowing what is happening to her, the presiding doctor decides, reluctantly, to share with me the grim diagnosis. I can tell, from the look of distaste on his face, and his slightly furtive manner, that this is not a job he relishes. He is doing something he shouldn’t, but he can’t avoid it because Dalia takes hold of my arm, and says to him, “Tell her everything. She is my friend.”
And so I learn that the medical authorities are all in agreement that something rather large is lodged inside her brain. “This is not a simple brain tumor,” the doctor says. They don’t know any more but intend to find out.
As each day passes, I see her eyes cloud with deeper confusion. She seeks mine for a rosier take on her situation, but I am incapable of giving her the assurance she needs. My own fears are ascendant now.
There is another, more stringent set of tests. When the results come in on Tuesday evening, she says, “I don’t know what they’ve seen in there. They’re not telling me.”
I barely conceal my shock but manage to ask matter-of-factly, “They’ve definitely seen something other than what they had initially thought, then?”
“Yeah. I think so.”
“Why do you think that?”
“There were several doctors discussing the results; they seemed worried to me. Why do they need so many people to look at routine test results?”
“Oh, thank God that’s all,” I say. “Doctors always look worried—you know that, Dalia. The more specialized everything is, the more reluctant they are to give any kind of opinion. Who’s the main doctor? Can I call him?”
“Sure,” she says. “I doubt they’ll tell you more than they told me.”
The name of the doctor is Indian. I recognize it immediately, being Indian myself. “Oh, I’m sure he’ll tell me something,” I say.
I finally get hold of Dr. Reddy after twenty tries. It is around ten that evening, and my desperation must have spurred the operator to page him. But the doctor isn’t about to talk.
“She’s like my family,” I say. “You have to tell me if something is wrong.”
There is a pause. “You are Indian?”
He has deciphered this from my name. “Yes.”
“Then how can you be family? The patient—”
“Is not Indian, is Jewish, as a matter of fact,” I say in a louder tone of voice. “Yes, I know. I don’t mean family family, but we rely on each other for everything. I mean, we’re all we’ve got in this city.”
“But you are still a friend, not family.”
“Please, Dr. Reddy, please tell me if it’s serious. I cannot get in touch with her heir—she has a nephew somewhere—if I don’t know how serious this is.” I suddenly know, without his telling me, that it is serious, more serious than Dalia and I imagine.
“Call the nephew,” he says, and hangs up abruptly.
I visit Dalia on my way to work the next morning. “Did he tell you anything?” she asks nervously.
“Um, no, not really.” I sit by her bedside, ask her how she feels. She isn’t listening to me. Her eyes seem to be fixed on another world.
Then she hands me a piece of paper. “The doctor left this for you,” she says. It reads:
Brain left temporal lobe excision. Anaplastic mixed glioma (astrocytoma / “oligodendroglioma”). Tumor has several foci of necrosis, some with pseudo palisades around them, and there is focal vascular hyperplasia as well. Grade: High. 3 or 4.
I read it through twice but it makes no sense. “What does this mean?” I ask her.
“Search me,” she says, shrugging.
I wonder at the poetic language. Since when were tumors referred to as palisades?
The next day, we are faced with the worst. They have decided to operate immediately (that is, by Friday; it was then Wednesday). They’ve seen a biggish lump in there and don’t want to mess around. The nephew, it turns out, has been located in Los Angeles. I am glad. He has power of attorney. Without him, nothing can be done. “Call him and let him know what’s happening at our end,” she says. She writes down his cell phone number on a paper napkin. “Alan’s a lawyer,” she says, crinkling her nose.
The lawyer is terse, says he’ll book himself onto a flight from Los Angeles immediately. “It is serious, then?” he asks. “Why don’t you gauge for yourself?” I say.
I’m uneasy about this nephew, this Alan Heisinger. I confide in Dalia. “Men always take charge, men always push women away in situations like this. He won’t let me be involved, I can just see it coming,” I say.
“How could he do that when I’m still around?” she says. “I won’t let him push you away—over my dead body.” Her vehemence, clear, articulate, reassures me.
I stare out of the window on the 23rd Street cross-town bus on my way to the library from the hospital, knowing it is all going to change very quickly. Fall has come early this year. Yellow-gold leaves are falling from trees, curling along the flat, hard surfaces of pavements. Urban trees are not flora; urban trees are decoration no one looks at closely. But here they are now, preening in autumnal glory—fiery slashes of red and orange, gold and yellow run through their full green branches, giving them a rare beribboned splendor. By the Flat Iron building, a slight man with angel’s wings attached to his white spacesuit-type outfit is standing there, waiting for someone it seems. I’ve seen the angel man before. He’s some sort of neighborhood fixture, appearing from time to time, making people smile. Now, suddenly caught in a moment when unlikely sights and irrational imaginings come together, I wonder whether he is the angel of death, come to announce that my friend will be taken away from me much sooner than I’m prepared for.
He’s at the hospital by her bedside when I arrive. One look at him and you know immediately he could cut through steel. Pin-striped suit, thick glasses, every inch the award-winning prosecutor. He has tucked the sides of her top sheet in so tightly around her body, I’m wondering how she can move.
He is holding her hand solicitously, patting it in a way that makes me squirm. Soft, pink marshmallow hands, squatting on top of hers. She, like me, is trying not to cringe. For a person who found physical touch difficult and went to great distances to avoid it, she must be experiencing torture, I think. But—and here’s the first thing to feed my worst fears about her giving up control—she doesn’t say a thing. I sense suddenly that she’s relieved a man has appeared to take charge of all the bureaucratic things. She hasn’t even yet imagined how wide his influence over her will extend, how over and beyond just the bureaucratic things. She is an independent principality whose sovereignty will soon be destroyed.
He holds out a hand. It is spongy, as I imagined it would be. I touch it—impossible to shake it. I hug Dalia, who is looking bewildered by everything. The nephew is going to pay me the courtesies due a close friend, at least for now. I see he is watching me very closely, as if I were a Martian. No Indians in Los Angeles? I ask him silently as I observe his relentless gaze. Then I look away and address Dalia. Her speech is worse today. I’m prompting every second word. And there’s a new thing: acronyms. She’s speaking of dire events about to happen, and it’s in a language I can’t understand.
“The NPA are coming tomorrow,” she says, “to do you-know-what,” making a slash across her forehead.
“NPA?” I ask.
“Yes, the NPA and the IPH, you know.”
I decide to look as if I’m following her.
She says, “There were very nice Americans today,” holding her head back and pretending to down a glass of water or some liquid down her throat. It floors me. This has happened since last night? Alan tells me the operation will be in the morning at around nine. He will call me at work and fill me in on things. I look at him with surprise. I have such a crazy schedule at work right now, so many deadlines, his offer seems unexpectedly considerate to me. He has taken two weeks off work—no need for two people to be around. I’ll fill you in, he says.
I still haven’t heard anything by noon the next day. I decide not to wait for Alan’s call and rush to the hospital at lunchtime to see how it went. But, of course, this being New York, land of the ever-shifting time zone as far as doctors, hospitals, and most services are concerned, the operation hadn’t happened yet. Dalia was straining to smile. I hug her, hold her tight. I won’t survive it, she says. You will, I say, squeezing her hand, you just have to. I return to the library and attempt to get some work done, but my thoughts are with her.
A few years ago, a strange thing happened. Dalia had come over to my apartment for dinner, and after an Indian meal of chicken curry, rice, and lentils, I reluctantly agreed to play something on my violin for her. I used to play for her in the past, when my creativity seemed to have no bounds. Short, impromptu performances after dinner that reassured her that I was still composing, and confirmed to me that my playing was still capable of giving pleasure. That evening I was perhaps resentful of the role I had to play. Otherwise I cannot explain why, in the kitchen, while cutting a piece of lemon tart for her, I stupidly managed to practically slice off the top of one of the fingers on my left hand. Blood gushed out of the cut, clearly not something a Band-Aid could take care of. I inspected it in the bathroom. The cut was deep and it hurt—probably a shaved-off bone. I was in there so long, she knocked on the bathroom door. I nudged it open to let her in and saw her face registering shock as she peered at the thin stream of blood that had already formed along the center of the tub and was steadily flowing toward the drain. To my astonishment, I let myself cry for the first time in front of her. She’d always set the tone for the display of emotions in our relationship. So now my tears were setting some sort of precedent. We were both caught by the novelty of this.
I didn’t mention what a daredevil she was on the streets of New York. This normally restrained soul became a kind of Evil Knievel in her red Mini, darting among taxicabs and the most awful drivers from New Jersey with a well-seasoned insouciance that made them idle while she tore in front of them and conquered changing traffic lights. We reached the emergency room faster than any ambulance could have managed it. A few hours later, my finger neatly stitched up and a cup of hot cocoa in my hands, I wondered whether I would be able to play for the next few months but, as Dalia reminded me, I could compose all I wanted to, hum melodies into a tape recorder for later. After all, my finger had nothing whatsoever to do with my brain.
My friend Paul calls with a dinner invitation. You need a break, he says. Let’s go grab a bite, then go dancing. It sounds good, so good. But I decline. “She may be dying,” I tell him.
“Dalia is consuming you,” he says. “You’re not her daughter, you know. You’re just inviting disaster.” His tone is pitying.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s always Dalia this, Dalia that. I mean, you break off conversations halfway if you know she’s on call waiting. You’re at her beck and call.”
“I have to be there for her now, especially now.”
“I know. But she has a nephew. Let him take care of her now. Stop being a martyr.”
“I’m not being a martyr,” I say as I hang up. But Paul has reminded me of the many times I’ve not done something I’ve wanted to because it would have meant leaving Dalia alone. And of those occasions when I’d begin composing a few bars of music and the phone would ring.
“How was your day?” she’d ask.
“Fine,” I would reply, looking longingly at the sheet music on my desk. “Fine.”
“I called to tell you that Gristede’s has a sale on its salmon steaks,” she’d say. “Four ninety-nine a pound, can you believe it?” Her stinginess always amazed me. She knew I didn’t shop in supermarkets for fish, why was she telling me this? Or, “Sugar snap peas are in season now.” Or, “There’s a twofer for restaurant week. We’ll have to make reservations right away if we want to dine somewhere nice.” Rattled by how a woman of means could spend her days looking for sale signs everywhere, I’d give up on whatever I was doing and accept that the bars I’d written that day were probably pure crap.
Perhaps I needed distance from her now. Perhaps I needed to spend some time away from Dalia, not worry as much.
At four, Alan calls. “You’d better come over,” he says. “Is she dead?” I fearfully ask him. “No,” he says. “But it’s bad.”
It is bad. Worse than I thought it would be. Dalia is conscious, her head is bandaged up, and her eyes are staring at me helplessly. Normally her face was so pale she seemed translucent; now it is vivid with red patches. They have, I am sure, filled her up with all kinds of terrible medicines, which have caused allergies. I take her hands in mine, kiss them. To my surprise, she squeezes my hands, clutches them tight. Her aversion to physical touch has been lessening to the point where she seems to crave it now.
“Dalia,” I say. “What’s wrong? What’s happened?” My eyes dart from Alan’s face to hers. No one’s saying anything. It’s up to me then to guess. I take the plunge. “The operation failed?”
“Worse,” Dalia says now, very articulately. “There are many IPH’s, so many the Americans can’t do anything. The NPA’s and IPH’s have got into everything.”
Tumors. Affected tissue. Cancer. I haven’t processed it but I say calmly, “There’s chemotherapy and radiation. Many people go into total remission.”
“The doctors say her chances of living normally after chemotherapy are very slim. At best, she’ll get back fifty percent of her brain capacity. And she doesn’t want that,” Alan says.
“Dalia, is it true? You don’t want that?” Absurd question. Who’d want it? She doesn’t answer my question because, I realize later, it cannot be answered.
The nurse comes in to take her temperature, her blood pressure, check her bedpan. As she performs her drill, my eyes scan Dalia’s face, wandering over each well-known feature as if for the last time. I see the straight white hair, sticking out now from under the bandages, the anxious, pale-blue eyes, the pale, pale papery skin, the tight, emotionless mouth. She looks like someone gone all wrong, like a stroke- or sudden-paralysis victim. I know what I’m doing; I’m trying to record her into my consciousness so I will always have her with me. I’m transcribing her into my blood.
He tells me he’s taking her to her apartment. Nurses will come and look after her. The hospice program is talking to him about options and he’s considering them all. Dalia is just staring helplessly at me, then at him. She wants reassurance that we are working together. I cannot provide it. I am very alone.
At home, I cry into my food, in the bath, at work, inexplicably, while talking to my boss about recent acquisitions for the music library. We were discussing where to put a new book on Guillaume de Machaut. I said Biography. “It’s about his life.” My boss insisted he should go with the Troubadours. “He was their most celebrated poet. That’s where people would look for him.” “No,” I said in a loud, insistent voice, “Biography,” turning away quickly so he couldn’t see my trembling lips, the onset of tears.
I spend as much time as I can with her in the following week. One evening, as I talk to her softly while she rests, she opens her eyes, looks at me, and says, “I did not have much to give, but I gave you the best I had.” The pure truth of her statement confirms what I already know.
But with each passing hour, I watch the cancers in her brain affect her mind. Her control panel is going dark. Shit and pee just come, hand won’t coordinate movements with mouth, food slips, falls between sheets, forms wet patches on her blue-striped pajamas.
I feed her. It is not hospital food. It’s food I have cooked for her—all her favorite things, fresh from the greenmarket: organic spinach and potatoes, wild Atlantic salmon, leeks lightly sautéed in butter. Spoon by spoon she eats it all. The nurse comes in to change her diaper. I can’t bear to see the look of shame that crosses Dalia’s face as, at her request, I leave the room.
When I return to the apartment the next day, Alan is seated at the dining table, eating his dinner. He is polishing off the poached salmon, the tiny purple steamed potatoes, the basil and tomato salad I had left in the fridge for her dinner that evening. “Did she get any of that?” I ask.
“No,” he says. “She didn’t want it.”
“She wanted to eat what the nurse gave her.”
I had seen the nurse’s offerings: green beans boiled to a colorless gray, mashed potatoes out of a packet, and sepia-tinted chicken breast you could have lobbed across the room into a waiting Rottweiler’s jaws. “That—that doesn’t sound right,” I say.
“This is really good,” he says, scraping his fork against the plate as he polishes off the last few morsels. “Delicious.”
I turn away from him and go in to see her.
After stalling for some days, her nephew has decided to put her in a hospice in Long Island, in one of those Anywhere USA towns, suburban wastelands with streets filled with fast-food places and pawnshops. I visit her in the early evening, having arranged to leave the office early. I walk through streets littered with smashed beer bottles; heavy metal plays from open windows. There are dilapidated houses with boarded-up windows everywhere. Because he has had to rush back to Los Angeles for work for a few days, Alan has asked me to visit Dalia as often as I can. “I’ve put you in charge for the duration of my absence,” he says, like a pasha handing over the keys to his fiefdom.
The building where Dalia has been put has an institutionalized but warm red-brick façade. I finally find her room. They have already stuck a picture of her up on the door, I notice, as I push it open. Dalia is lying on her bed, curled up in a fetal position. She sits up as soon as she sees me, beams a smile. “No one told me you were coming today. Why do you want to waste your time with me?” she asks. “I have nothing to offer.” Her frequent lucidity is very confusing. It’s as if she’s fended off the waves in her head for a few minutes. I say I’m there because I love her, because I want to see as much of her as I can. “Yeah?” she says, her face wondering.
She is miserable here, she says, and pleads with me to convince her nephew to take her back home. “Go outside and see those people,” she says. “It’s terrible—such silly, silly people.” I hold her hand silently, not knowing what to say. “Me?” she exclaims indignantly. “Me? Would you have ever thought me?”
I shake my head, “It’s so unfair, Dalia. I’m completely devastated.”
Her fists clench in rage. “Would you believe it? This person who can’t speak, think, do anything . . . you think this is me? This is somebody else, not me. I mean . . .” She always said “I mean” in an indignant tone of voice. It was her what-do-you-think-I-am-eh?
On my way to the kitchen to request some water, I see the other occupants of the hospice. People waiting for death, dribbling food, groaning; one man in a wheelchair is sleeping in the breakfast room, his mouth agape like Munch’s screamer. They are all in their late eighties, nineties. Dalia is young; even now, she is far too intelligent to be here. The caretakers, many from the Caribbean, are resolutely cheerful. Their cackles, the jokes they toss back at each other, their excessive jocularity is bizarre and at odds with the paralyzing smell of decomposition, of death, everywhere. Yet among these abject, dribbling specimens of humanity, what could you do but keep up a cheerful front? Who knew what these laughing women did when they got home?
“It must be cold on Long Island now.” Dalia’s face is wistful as she says this. We had once driven there, on a late fall day. The beach was deserted, the water warm, and we sat on the sand and took in the autumnal sun like two bears about to go into hibernation. This year, too, fall has stretched into November. That is when I decide that the whole situation be damned, I’m going to do something special for Dalia. I decide to rent a car and come pick her up the next day. I speak to her nurse before I leave. “Have her ready by ten tomorrow morning,” I say. “We’re going on an outing.”
Whether it is because visitors are so rare at the hospice (“No one comes,” a Jamaican nurse said to me. “Their children leave them to us and go away forever.”) or because it is such a beautiful fall day, the head nurse allows me to leave the place with Dalia in tow. Her nurse even helps to get her settled in the car and puts her seatbelt on. “Make sure she’s properly wrapped up,” the nurse says. “I will,” I say.
Dalia is surprised but the clouds in her eyes clear as she settles in. “We’re going for a drive,” she says beaming. She leans her head back in the car, closes her eyes and smiles. It is a blissful smile, as if she’s hearing Dvořák or Bach in her head. “I can’t believe I’m letting you drive,” she says suddenly in a steady voice. “All those tickets you used to get for driving below the speed limit.” I laugh uproariously as I hear her say, “I must be mad to get into a car with you.” We are both laughing now, relishing our reversed roles of driver and passenger. Then the furtive look in her eyes is back. She has acquired this recently. She jerks her head from side to side, watching warily about her. I imagine there have been struggles at the hospice. “Dalia, do you like your nurses?”
“No,” she says loudly. “No, I hate everyone there.”
I follow the signs for East Hampton, which is where we had gone earlier, and it being midweek and off-peak, there is no traffic. She watches me shift lanes just for fun and shakes her head. “Show off,” she mutters loudly.
I park the car and help her out. There is a mild late-summer breeze blowing, but I sense its bite. I put a shawl around her shoulders, grab the plaid blanket I’ve brought along, and we walk slowly, step by step, toward the sea. She is unsteady and draws back a little with every step forward. But she sniffs the air as we get closer to the beach. “How lovely,” she says. “How lovely all of this is.” I lay the blanket down and help her sit down. I settle down beside her and we look around at the deserted beach. All the houses are boarded up for the winter. Higher up, the undisturbed beach is ornately patterned with wave impressions and the whorls of sand creatures circling dizzily around their holes. The silence is peculiar, raucous. Wind sucks at the sand through the oncoming waves, their cresting whitecaps revealing a strong undertow. The sound is a series of deep suspirations as the waves roll in, then a wail as they withdraw, leaving behind drained land that is surfaceless for it neither reflects the clouds nor polishes the dome of sky. The sand dunes covered with marram grass shivering under a cool sun, the wind sharpening like ice crystals under cream.
Then I see it again. That blissful smile, the sound of music in her head playing on her face. She puts out a hand, twirls it in the air, then the other. I watch her legs move, her toes become soft in the breeze. She is seated, yet her movements seem unbounded. She is oblivious of me now; her attention is fixed on the whitecaps rolling in toward the shore. She reaches toward them with her twirling hands, as if drawing them closer, into her. The surge of music seems to be in her as she turns to me. The look in her eyes isn’t anything I’ve seen before—she’s grounded, yet she’s flying and there is rapture in her eyes.
We sit there, watching the waves draw closer. The tide is building. I move to draw her up farther away from the water. “No,” she protests, “I’m not moving. I want to feel the water.” As the water reaches her ankles and fills the turn-ups of her jeans, she laughs and laughs. “Don’t let’s ever go back,” she says. “No,” I say. “Not ever, Geeta.” “No, Dalia, not ever,” I repeat after her. But we both know this is short-lived. For that moment, we both let the water entice us, like two kids cutting school. We let it travel up the legs of our trousers, and even as the wind gets colder, I do nothing to move her away. She is wet and giddy; she has a delirious look on her face, and I realize that the excitement is wearing her out. Yet I am reluctant to do anything. I watch her sit there like a flopped balloon, her energy dissipated, prey now to the forces of nature. She starts shaking as the breeze blows harder, sending grains of sand into our hair and our eyes. I jump up. “Dalia, we have to leave now; you’ll catch your death of cold if we stay any longer.” She doesn’t protest as I lead her back to the car and strap her in. Her clothes are wet but since I have neglected to bring a spare set, she will have to manage the cold as best as she can. I bundle her into a blanket and get into the driver’s seat. I put my seatbelt on. As I start the car, I turn to look at her. She is fast asleep, her head to one side, mouth slightly open. From time to time she twitches slightly, and I start wondering if she’s caught a chill.
An hour later we are back at the hospice. The nurse changes her immediately and shoots me a puzzled look. “She was sopping wet!” she says. “How did this happen?” I shrug. “We got caught by the water,” I say. The nurse shakes her head and doesn’t say another word.
Seeing Dalia back in the fetal position in which I had found her earlier that day, my heart sinks. I leave her there not knowing what to expect when I next come in to see her.
When Alan returns from Los Angeles, he calls to tell me that, as he had feared, Dalia has caught some kind of virus from the many germs floating about in this kind of healthcare facility. “She has caught a bad cold.” He lets out a long sigh. “I can’t commute back and forth every day like this. It’s exhausting. And this place sucks.” His frustration is palpable. “I’m taking her back to her apartment tomorrow,” he says tersely. “If you get here by ten a.m., you can get into the back seat with her.”
As we stand in the foyer of the hospice the next morning, I can’t help feeling triumphant. I had campaigned for Dalia’s removal back home obliquely, through frequent pleas to the doctors and nurses, and eventually directly, to Alan himself. Now, swathed in shawls, Dalia sneezes as she takes my arm and lets me lead her down the steps to the car.
I huddle next to her in the back seat of the car, while her nephew drives us back to New York. As we drive up Canal Street, she exclaims, “Look at this, look!” I try to see what she’s seeing. Crowds surge up and down the street; children yell, street vendors dole out their pretzels, ice creams, fruit shakes, noodles; performers break dance or play guitars, drums. Life, vibrant life; that’s what she’s seeing.
“Even me in my old days didn’t know these brand-new places,” she says. She knows Canal Street well; we’ve driven through it together so many times. But now, with death perched on her shoulder, it appears brand-new. I feel the cool November sun on people’s faces, people buying fruit or gelato or dictionaries, people eating hot dogs. In the end, this is what matters—these small, everyday things. All our psychic angst for naught—give me a cupful of tiramisu gelato and I go off happy. I sense my hand holding hers, the not-aloneness of that, as if we’re staving off the inevitable loneliness at the end. I hold her hand tighter: I want my blood energy to flow into hers, drive the cancerous particles out.
She’s full of fear at what people in the building will think as she walks through the lobby. There are many old-timers like her living there, people she’s known since the building first went up. “I think they’ll care. They would all say so sad, so sad, shouldn’t have happened.” I assure her that everyone would feel terrible for her if they saw her like this. Everyone would sympathize.
We make it through the lobby without incident. Not one soul around, except for the doorman, who’s dealing with the UPS guy and barely notices us. As soon as we enter her apartment, she walks to the window, bursts into tears. The unrestrained laughter of children playing in the park nearby reaches us clearly. Tears flow down her face.
“Oh, oh, oh,” she cries, turning round to hug me. “Thank you, thank you.”
For a half hour at least, it feels like old times. “So boring, this furniture,” she says, articulate again, sweeping her hand around. “I was thinking this is junk. But now I don’t have to change it, I can just leave it.”
Then she turns to me, says fiercely, “Finish it. That’s all I ask of you: finish it.”
“What?” I ask.
“The piece about the bird. Your violin piece—it deserves the dignity of an ending,” she says, shaking her head at me. “Do it for me.”
“I will, as soon as I can,” I say, fighting back tears.
I promise; I’ve been blocked about it for years, it’s a mystery to me how I’m going to fulfill the promise I’ve just made. Alan comes out of the bedroom as he hears Dalia sneezing again. “It’s getting worse,” he says.
While Alan goes out to pick up a few things, I change her and tuck her into bed. She looks at me silently as I sit by her bedside. Her face is flushed; she must be running a temperature.
“It will be all right where you’re going,” I say, holding her hot hand in mine. “No more struggling, no more pain. I think it’ll be very nice, really.”
“Yeah?” Her eyes sharpen. She knows I’m faking but wants the comfort anyway.
“Uh-huh.” I nod enthusiastically.
Then she cannily asks, “How do you know?”
Without pausing for the second it takes to blink, I say, “I know. I know these things.”
It seems to satisfy her. “Yes,” she says, looking into the space in front of her. Her eyes shut and she falls asleep in a few minutes.
But just looking at her lying there, I am wondering: What will happen to her? Where is she going? Is it a place or just a state you metamorphose into? What is dying about?
The grim reaper comes silently, slipping in through the back door. I had gone to the NYPL Christmas party—managerial eyes scanning the crowds for who came, who couldn’t be bothered—and it happened that very night. When I call the next morning, Alan informs me that the cold had very rapidly developed into pneumonia. Her lungs filled up with fluid overnight and she had a very high fever. His voice is matter-of-fact and it’s clear to me that he has decided to tie things up and move on as quickly as he can.
The body is cold, like ice. The room itself feels like an icebox. Her mouth is slightly open, a last breath she couldn’t take, perhaps. It’s been sucked out of her. In Sanskrit, the word for breath is life. Prana: the breath of life. I’m remembering how she was on the beach at East Hampton a few weeks ago, whipped by the forces of nature, yet happy. This ending, when it came, did not release her. Her mouth is slightly twisted. A last, wry thought? Or just: this is it—the moment I’ve feared. That final moment, unrivalled perhaps by any other private moment in one’s life, lingers on the faces of the dead, making them suddenly transparent to the world. I feel like a voyeur, yet I cannot walk away. The room grows dark. I sit there until I can no longer see her face.
The ritual of mourning begins. Cremation. A simple memorial. Kaddish: “O-seh sha-lom bi-me-ro-mav, hu ya-a-seh sha-lom a-lei-nu ve-al kol Yis-ra-eil, ve-i-me-ru: a-mein.” May the source of peace send peace to all who mourn and comfort to all who are bereaved. Amen.
I repeat the words after those gathered there. Some of these people are relatives I have never heard her talk about. It is yet another mystery of blood—the connections that people carry around with themselves and yet do not have to ever come to know in personal terms.
I leave her apartment for the last time, walking slowly down the steps of the building. A melon-orange sun warms my skin, my chilled insides. I look up at the sky and see a bird flying. It is a white bird, like the parakeet I saw on the West Side Highway, yet not like it at all. It swirls in the air like a shred of paper, making arches. I close my eyes, listen to its swishing movements, like rain. Then it comes—the patter of rhythm, the sizzle of sound. A patter building into a torrent. The patch of grass at the foot of the steps is moist. From its nitrogen-packed pores curl up the smells of brine and honey, of rotting vegetation and gamey fungi.
I barely notice the bird flying away, becoming a speck in the distance. Seated on the steps of her building, I write out the bars of music filling my head and give Dalia the send-off I had wanted for her, the dignity of an ending.
New York City