Jonathan Ames: Old Aunt Doris, Alone in Queens
I went out to Queens to take my Great-Aunt Doris to the doctor. I took the G train all the way from where I live in downtown Brooklyn to her neighborhood, Rego Park, which is right next to Forest Hills, which must be right next to Long Island. I always forget the exact geography, but it's way out there. I was on the subway a good 50 minutes, about 23 stops. I drank a coffee and read the whole paper.
I got off at 63rd Dr. and started walking the several blocks to my great-aunt's building. I was a little hungry and I remembered that in my backpack was a bagel with cream cheese I had bought with my coffee, but had forgotten about. It was almost 1 p.m. and I hadn't eaten anything all day. So I started in on the bagel, especially because I knew I'd need strength to get my great-aunt to the doctor's. My blood sugar is all nutty and if it dipped while I was with her I'd be in trouble. She's three-quarters deaf, and when she walks she teeters and careens, even with her cane, and she makes everything worse by being stubborn.
So I chewed that life-saving bagel and I was thinking about my great-aunt, how she's prideful and brave, but her body is falling apart, getting weaker, and, as I often do, I wondered how much longer she could live alone. She won't wear one of those alarm bracelets and every time I call and she doesn't answer, I fear that she's dead.
The city sends her a woman now who comes Monday through Friday, from 9 to 1, which leaves my great-aunt alone on the weekends, and so she hardly goes out of her tiny one-room apartment until the woman, Mary, shows up again Monday morning. Then maybe together they'll walk to the library or to a bench or to the market. Mary, who is a sweet Haitian woman in her early 40s, has been coming for about a month. My great-aunt needs her very much, but pretends that the city has sent Mary only to help with the housekeeping, that she's a cleaning lady of some sort.
Then, as I kept walking, I wondered who will take care of me if I manage to get old. My son whom I've been a part-time dad for? He loves me now, but what if that ends? And why should he help me? It's like that Harry Chapin song?and it's terrible when songs are true?but I haven't always had time for my son, and so maybe later he won't have time for me. So will there be anybody who loves me enough to look after me? And if not, will I be able to pay for someone to take care of me? I have no money at 36, how much will I have at 76?
And so my morbid, self-pitying thinking went, and I was licking the cream cheese, with its fat and its fake white color, out of the corner of my mouth, and just a few bites before this bagel was saving my life, my sugar, but now I thought of it clogging my heart and how I'd pay later for this bagel-with-cream-cheese when I was old and deteriorating and in pain. I saw myself lying on the floor in an apartment in Queens?inherited from my great-aunt? All that I'll be able to afford, her subsidized rent??paralyzed by a stroke, an aneurysm, a something, just lying there, a thousand bagels-with-cream-cheese my undoing, and I'd pass the time on the floor by thinking how once I could chase girls?I could!?and all the while, too, I'd be hoping that someone would come save me, knock on the door, remember the old man in 6V.
Well, I still ate the whole bagel?the folly of youth. And I passed a lot of old people on the sidewalk. Queens is like one big nursing home. But I was defiant. I ate that bagel! I won't get old! I'll be healthy up until the moment I die!
I rang her buzzer, 6V. The door clicked open. I took the elevator?which often is broken, further trapping my great-aunt in her crowded, antique-filled apartment?to the sixth floor. Mary opened the door. She's a handsome, kind woman. We had met once before.
"I'm glad you could come," she said. "I don't like the way she looks. She's not herself today."
My great-aunt came out of the bathroom. She's tiny, a little less than 5 feet now, having lost a few inches over the years. I hugged her to my chest as I always do and stroked her reddish-white hair. We parted and she said, repeating the symptoms she had told me over the phone, "I have knitting needles every couple of minutes running from neck, up my head and into my face. Knitting needles. I haven't slept for three days."
"Sounds terrible. We'll see what the doctor thinks," I said.
I shouted this time and she caught it. I had called the doctor that morning and got her an appointment by convincing the nurse to let us come in, even though there wasn't an opening until the next day.
Mary had to leave and she and my great-aunt hugged goodbye. "She's sugar," said my great-aunt. I called a taxi. I helped my great-aunt on with her sweater-jacket, and her fingers were too shaky to manage the buttons, so I leaned over her from behind to button it, the way I used to help my son with his jackets when he was very little. We got in the elevator and she almost tripped on the way out?the elevator hadn't stopped even with the floor. It was dangerous, and my vigilance had been lacking, I didn't have her arm.
"I almost fell," she said, nervously. A few years ago, she broke her ankle and she worries about falling again.
We got in the waiting taxi without incident. The doctor was over in Forest Hills, about eight blocks away. It was a quick ride. While I paid the driver?a man with an odd orange-ish wig, I only saw the back of his head?my great-aunt opened her door and started getting out. "Wait for me," I said.
"I can manage," she said, obstinate.
"Famous last words," said the bewigged cabbie.
I got the change, raced out my door and around the cab, and sure enough she was out; she had managed. Disaster averted. I helped her up the curb. "How much did you tip him?" she asked.
"A dollar," I shouted. It had been a four-dollar fare.
"Too much," she said. "A quarter would have been enough. Are you rich?"
I piloted her into the small, shabby and quaint office of her doctor.
"I have knitting needles in my head," said my great-aunt to the receptionist.
"Just have a seat, Mrs. Klein," said the woman, using my great-aunt's married name from the early 60s. She was divorced twice, the first one when her husband came back loony from World War II. Besides her two marriages, she also had many "gentleman-friends" leave their shoes under her bed, as she likes to say. For a long time, she was a manicurist in a barbershop in one of the old men's clubs off of Park Ave.
We sat down in the waiting room for a few minutes. Two other patients came in?first, an ancient Jewish man wearing a yarmulke, a stained yellow shirt and a wide black tie, and then an old Russian woman, doubled over with osteoporosis.
The receptionist, who was also the nurse, led us into the one consulting room, which had a little closet-like changing area attached to it. I helped my great-aunt with her sweater and shirt and with her back to me she removed her lopsided bra: one cup is filled with foam padding to compensate for the breast lost to cancer 15 years ago. She put on a blue paper smock and then the nurse and I helped her onto the examining table. It seemed like she would slide off and break something before the doctor got there, but she held on.
The nurse left and I sat on a stool and looked around; the little room was crowded with boxes of insurance forms and there was dust everywhere, the look of neglect. Then the doctor came in: a man in his 60s with a weak chin and bald head, but clear, smart eyes, though tired. He examined my great-aunt and he told her things, most of which she didn't hear, so I'd repeat crucial phrases for her; she seems to hear me when she can't hear others. "It's most likely a pinched nerve, probably caused by arthritis," he said.
"What? Did you say a pinched nerve?"
"Yes, a pinched nerve!" I shouted. The doctor looked at me appreciatively. He checked her lungs, holding the stethoscope to her back and all over her were little things, brown and dry?how uncomfortable her skin looked. And I admired this doctor, tending to the old, tending to my great-aunt. He wrote her a prescription for anti-inflammatory pills and gave us a sample box as well, enough for two days. He had her take one of the pills with water. "I know she lives alone," he said to me, and she didn't catch a word. "So don't worry, these won't make her drowsy or groggy. She won't fall down because of them." Then he patted her on the back and left the room.
"A nice man," she said.
She went to get dressed, and called me into the little closet space to hook her bra. Then I buttoned her shirt and helped her with her sweater. "What would I do without you," she said and kissed me.
We left the office and she insisted on walking to a restaurant where she'd treat me for lunch. She refused to let me get a cab. As we walked, about 10 minutes per block, she practiced her Christian Science, as she likes to call it, even though she's Jewish. "I don't have a problem. I don't have a problem," she said, and she walked a couple of steps, feeling proud of herself. "It works!" she said. But then she had an attack of the shooting pains and was flinching on the street, we had to stop our slow walk, and she muttered, "Damn, knitting needles," and then she conceded, "Well, I have a pinched nerve. But at least I don't have arthritis. That's one good thing." I thought it was best not to tell her what she had missed of the doctor's diagnosis.
It took us about 40 minutes, but we made it to a diner on 108th St.?Rego Park's main thoroughfare, which my great-aunt calls "Little Moscow." In addition to being a giant nursing home, Queens is also amazing for its United Nations diversity: on 108th St., you see the greatest panoply of ethnicities anywhere in New York, it's like an Olympic village, though Russians do predominate.
So we got a booth in the diner and she ordered a Coke and a hamburger with raw onion. She ate the whole thing. Thinking of my heart and the cream-cheese bagel, I had tunafish salad and lentil soup. We were there a while, she's a slow eater, but finally the meal was over. We hadn't talked much since I'd have to shout, which isn't so good in a restaurant, but I did ask her at one point, "Who are you going to vote for for president?"
"Democrat," she said. "What's his name?"
"Yes, I'll vote for Gore."
She gave me money to pay and told me to leave a one-dollar tip. It was a 13-dollar bill. I let her amble out on her own for a few steps and threw another dollar-fifty on the table, then caught up to her. We have this problem with tipping whenever we go out. She still tips taxis a quarter and for all meals she leaves a dollar. Her tipping hasn't kept up with inflation.
We went to a pharmacy and filled her prescription. The beautiful Russian woman behind the counter asked my great-aunt her birthday for the insurance form, and my great-aunt said, "February 22nd, 1919." I know she was born in 1912; for most of her adult life she's been subtracting a number of years. Even now I guess she prefers people to think her 81 instead of 88, which is not unreasonable.
It took us another 30 minutes to get to her building, about four blocks away, and again she refused to let me get a cab. "Don't make me an old lady!" she said. We stopped on a bench halfway there, so she could rest. She kept getting the knitting needles. I rubbed her neck and watched some 12-year-old kids play handball in a schoolyard. They were all calling each other "nigger" and "bitch." My great-aunt heard nothing.
We got to her apartment and she was exhausted, trembling. Too much walking. I helped her undress and she got into her narrow bed, which is also her couch. I put the phone on her little night table, but even with the extra-loud ringer, she doesn't always hear it. And then next to the phone, I put a glass of water and the pills the doctor prescribed. Then I kissed her on the cheek and I said, "I love you."
"I love you more than that," she said. And then I left the apartment?I had an appointment in the city?and I pulled the door locked behind me. It always feels cruel to leave her. To her and to me. What if I never get to see her again? I always think that maybe this time is the last time. But I steeled myself?you have to walk away from the people you love?and I pushed the button for the elevator so that I could go.
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