My grandmother called at 7 A.M. asking if I could come over right away. She said her husband Herschel wasn’t doing well. That he was dying. Not as in one day soon, but as in today.
About 14 months ago, his body stopped producing white blood cells and they gave him a year to live. Last time I was in town, a few months ago, his face was covered in scabs. One of them was bleeding when I went to kiss him hello, but I didn’t think he was really dying. After all, he was still playing golf and driving even. But a few weeks ago, he lost control of his car and sideswiped a tree. Then, the other week he fell. No one knows why or how, but he knocked a really beautiful lamp into a million pieces and bled all over the living room floor.
My grandmother’s corgi was on his couch jumping and barking when I knocked on the door. I heard my grandmother yell, “Quiet Max!” and a minute later a woman with cornrows and an apron answered the door. My Aunt Karen told me there was a new weekend caretaker. (My grandmother fired the last four.) She introduced herself as Toni, and in her eyes I someone kind, thoughtful, and not in the mood for any bullshit. My grandmother was sitting in her chair, wearing what’s become her uniform—the long pink satin nightgown with poufy sleeves. Her hair was wild, like a storm cloud, and her eyes looked sad and worried. In her lap was her phonebook, the pages as disheveled as her hair, exploding out every which way.
“Hello, Darling,” she sang.
I bent down to give her a hug, and her arms lifted around me slowly, covered in brown spots, blood spots, and band aids. She kissed me a bit longer than usual. “I don’t know how much longer he’s gong to be around,” she told me, her voice deep, hoarse, and slightly panicked. “He can’t decide whether to go to the hospital or not.”
“What does his doctor think?”
“He was very rude to me the last time we spoke, so I’m not going to call him. I’m trying to get a hold of one of Herschel’s sons, to see if they’ll call. Oh, Jess, it’s a damn mess.”
Toni passed by with a bucket of cleaning supplies.
“I don’t like her,” my grandmother whispered loudly.
I headed to the kitchen to kiss Hershel hello. He was sitting at the table, hooked to oxygen, practically curled over a plate of toast, like his body was forming back into fetal. He looked so skinny, his face covered with scabs and silver stubble, yet he was wearing brand new baby blue flannel pajamas.
“Hi Herschel,” I said, walking closer.
With his hand, he shooed me away.
I walked back to the living room and sat on the couch, my face flushed with the shame that someone didn’t want me near them. My grandmother was on the phone with Herschel’s son. “Well, I think he should be admitted, Marty. He’s been very demanding. And I’m disabled. I can’t get him everything he needs… Ok, I’ll let him know...”
“That was Marty,” my grandmother told me. He said he’s going to call the doctor and have Herschel admitted.”
“That’s good,” I said.
“Toni!” my grandmother yelled.
A second later, Toni was standing in front of my grandmother’s chair. “Yes, Mrs. Allen.”
“Tell Dr. Allen that I spoke with Marty and that if he would like to go to the hospital, Marty will arrange it with Dr. Kasakov.”
Toni walked back to the kitchen.
“Honey,” my grandma says to me. “Do me a favor, would you?”
Her arthritic finger pointed to a large vase sitting on top of the TV. “Divide those flowers into two vases. Michael brought them yesterday, but they’re so cramped, you can’t even see what they are.”
“That will look pretty.”
“Ok!” I say louder.
“Make sure you take enough leaves off.”
I carried the flowers into the kitchen where Toni was washing some teacups. Her nails were long and red with little rhinestones at each end. I set the vase down on the counter and smiled. “My grandmother wants me to put these in two vases.”
Toni moved away from the sink.
“It’s ok. I can wait. I don’t think it’s an urgent matter.”
“Go ahead,” she said.
“Thank you for being here,” I said softly so Herschel couldn’t hear. “I know it’s got to be difficult...”
Toni smiled, and I felt relieved to connect with someone. I’ve always felt most comfortable around people who are being paid to clean up other people’s messes.
At the sink, I peeled the leaves off the stems. Then found some scotch tape and crisscrossed it over the top of the vase, which I learned how to do from interviewing a florist last year for the little newspaper I sometimes write for. I could hear Herschel around the corner in the little sitting area. He was moaning, “When am I gonna die already?” Toni was checking his oxygen. “When the lord is ready for you, Dr. Allen, he’ll let you know.”
I peeked around the corner and saw him at the kitchen table, still slumped over his toast, like he wasn’t sure if he wanted to eat it or not.
When the bouquets were finished, I had the bright idea to set one on Herschel’s table, thinking it might make him feel happier. I walked around the corner with the vase knowing better than to smile. But as I was setting it down, he shooed me away again. I felt my face flush. Jesus, I’m an idiot. Of course he wouldn’t want flowers. What dying individual wants to see anything blossom? Have the decency to wait for the funeral.
In the midst of a quick 180 headed back to the sink, I heard him mutter, “I love you.” I looked back at him. “I love you,” he said again, and then he shook his head, wincing, “But… no flowers.”
It might have been the first time he ever said I love you to me. And I felt relieved. My biggest nightmare, besides being gang raped, has always been being unwanted.
It was several moments later when I realize something horrible- I hadn’t told Herschel I loved him back. I should have said, “I love you too, Herschel,” but I had been too concerned with eliminating my presence from the room. I debated walking back to say it, since I knew I’d probably never see him again. But I decided not to. I figured he wasn’t thinking about me. He was probably busy enough thinking about not being Herschel anymore.
Even though he’d been a fixture in my life, I’d never exactly known Herschel. Our main conversation for the past 30 years has been, “Hold on, Jessica. I’ll go get grandma.”
The only thing I knew for certain about him was that he didn’t like to drink water. Only black coffee, tea, and an occasional tumbler of gin. And I think the most lively thing I’d ever seen him do, well besides begging for God to let him die, was the time he set some bananas on fire after dinner when I was a kid. I remember he drizzled some liquor on them and lit a match. Other than that, I know he loved golf and musical theater. I used to love when he’d sing with my grandmother during dinner, with a Bing Crosby voice, and then argue about who wrote which one. Maybe it was easier for him to experience emotions when they were accompanied by a big band, tap shoes, and a vibrato.
I was still standing at the sink throwing away leftover stems and leaves when he started moaning again. “What should I do, Toni,” he asked. “Should I go to the hospital?”
I’d never heard Herschel ask anyone what he should do about anything.
“I don’t know, Dr. Allen,” she said, sponging off the table. “That’s up to you.”
“Well, if I go to the hospital, I won’t be able to commit suicide.”
Toni smiled with commiseration and shook her head disapprovingly, “Oh, Dr. Allen.”
She took the toast off the table and started to walk away.
“Don’t leave, Toni.”
“I’m right here, Dr. Allen. I have to get lunch ready for Mrs. Allen.”
“Oh Christ,” he moaned. “I wish I would die already. Why can’t I die? Why can’t I just die?”
“It’s just not your time, Dr. Allen.”
It was so strange seeing these two sides of Herschel- the one that wanted to die, and the one that was scared to. He always seemed so sure of everything.
Then the phone rang.
“Oh, shut up!” he said to the phone.
Maybe that’s why he wasn’t dying. How can you die when you’re so angry?
Toni got some tuna fish from the refrigerator and some bugles from the cupboard. My grandmother always loved her bugles, those triangle-shaped chip things. Like a kid, she’d get so excited about side dishes and desert. Toni began arranging the gourmet cheese and crackers that someone had brought over in a basket, and took out some fruit salad. I left the one bouquet in the kitchen and carried the other into the living room. “I didn’t know you were a florist,” my grandmother smiled.
It seemed I was always surprising my grandmother. When I became a columnist for the local newspaper, she said, “My granddaughter, the columnist???” I hated the thought that I’d disappointed her. She’d had such promise for me when I was young. “You are so good on the piano you could be a pianist!” “You write such good stories, you could be a novelist!” “You sing so beautifully, you could be on Broadway!” But with each year that passed, I feared I hadn’t quite achieved the hopes she had for me. “What do you mean, you published that yourself? Will anybody read it? What about having a baby? Is it too late?” But I was glad to see her smile. She had such a lovely smile. Even at 87, she hardly had a wrinkle. Maybe it was the Oil of Olay, that little pink bottle sitting on her bathroom sink all my life.
My grandmother was trying to figure out the best place to put this new bouquet.
“How ‘bout on the table by the stairs.”
I carried it over to the stairs and placed it down.
“Not on the wood though, honey. Put some newspaper down first.”
In front of her chair was a paper grocery bag filled with newspapers. Mostly Plain Dealers and a few Sunday New York Times. She slowly leaned over, reaching for the edge of the bag. Her eyes squinted in pain and she whispered, “Owww. Dammit… Don’t ever get old, Jessica.”
I smiled and placed the flowers on the table. I could hear Herschel moaning again, but my grandmother couldn’t. She was too busy watching Max who was staring at us through the big window out back.
“Jess, honey,” my grandmother said. “Let Max in, will you?”
The back door was right next to where Herschel was. Herschel and his oxygen tank. My Aunt Karen told me the main reason Herschel sat in the kitchen was because my grandmother didn’t like the sound it made. “But she hardly hears anything,” I’d said. My aunt shook her head, as if my grandmother was an evil horrible woman. But the truth is, I can feel that same evil horrible blood flowing though my own veins. I can actually understand why I wouldn’t want my husband to be clicking and clacking on oxygen right next to me, even if I could hardly hear it. The idea that he needed it to live would pale slightly beneath my having to endure its irritating noise carving through my own sense of peace. I’m fairly certain I would also have to send him out of the room, to avoid bleeding from the inside out. But the difference is, I would know better than to behave like this when people were over. I’d be very nice and friendly while people were over and only after they were gone, would I send him out of the room. That way, no one would ever call me evil, and even if my husband told everyone what I’d done, no one would believe him.
I walked past Herschel and his oxygen once again and opened the back door for Max, who shuffled in and sniffed the carpet around Herschel’s feet looking for scraps. Herschel nudged him out of his way. Max was panting. “Oh would you shut up,” Herschel muttered. “God damn dog.”
Herschel was out of white blood cells and also out of patience. In all the years I’d known him, I never heard him blurt out so much.
“Toni, I think I should go to the hospital. Something’s not right.”
“Should I tell Mrs. Allen?”
“Might as well.”
Toni turned the corner and saw me at the sink. I poured a glass of water so it didn’t look like I was eavesdropping. I gave her a smile so she knew I appreciated her, and then a look of commiseration because I knew she was going to have to talk with my grandmother who was not going to like a word of what she had to say.
I followed Toni into the living room.
Before we got there, my grandmother yelled, “Toni!”
“Yes, Mrs. Allen.”
My grandmother jumped, “Jesus, you scared me.”
“Dr. Allen says he is ready to go to the hospital.”
“Very well. I’ll call Marty… Did you make lunch yet?”
“Yes. Mrs. Allen. Do you still want it?”
“Well, I still have to eat, don’t I?”
My grandmother picked up the phone and looked through her mess of a phonebook for Marty’s number again. “Hi Marty, uh… Herschel says he’s ready to go to the hospital… Ok… Thank you.”
“Alright,” my grandmother winced, lifting herself with the help of her walker.
“Can I help you, grandma?”
“No, dear. I have to do it myself.”
Once she was standing, she ice-skated her walker into the kitchen and lowered herself down in her chair. “Ach! Dammit… Herschel, I spoke with Marty and he says the ambulance will be here within the hour.”
Herschel said nothing.
“Did you hear me, Herschel?”
My grandmother dished herself some tuna fish, moving so slowly.
“Are you sure you don’t want anything to eat, Dr. Allen?”
“No thank you, Toni.”
My grandmother crunched on a bugle. “You should eat something, Herschel. Who knows when they’ll feed you at the hospital.”
“I’m not hungry, Eunice.”
There was nothing that appealed to me at the table, but I knew better not to eat. My grandmother absolutely doesn’t understand people who sit at the table without eating.
“Help yourself, Jess.”
“Toni, uh, the coffee is cold.”
“I’ll warm it up for you, Mrs. Allen.”
“That would be nice…. And this melon is old. Isn’t there a new melon in the refrigerator?”
“I’ll check, Mrs. Allen.”
“When will the ambulance be here?” Herschel asked again.
“Marty said it’ll be here within the hour…”
“I’d like Toni to come with me to the hospital.”
Eunice put down her bugle. “She can’t come with you Herschel! What about me? Who’s going to take care of me? I’m disabled too, you know!”
“Oh yes... I forgot. I wasn’t thinking about you,” Herschel said.
“Yes, I know you weren’t.”
I think this might be the theme of all the women in my family - what about me.
I think it stems from not having our emotional needs met when we were children. It’s one of those generational viruses- while the mothers were wondering what about me, the children were falling through the cracks, making promises to themselves never to be forgotten again. Being heard becomes a compulsion. And for some of us, feeling invisible for just one second is unbearable. We must make ourselves heard, even if what we are about to say has nothing to do with who we really are.
“Toni would you mind getting my things together for the hospital?”
“Of course not, Dr. Allen.”
“He doesn’t need much, Toni. He’ll have everything he needs there.”
Herschel closed his eyes, surrendering. “I’ll need my wallet, Eunice.”
“What do you need your wallet for?”
“My insurance cards, my credit cards.”
“You don’t need the whole wallet, Herschel. You’ll need your insurance cards and you can have 20 dollars cash.”
“Eunice, why do you have to argue with everything I say?”
He was almost whining. It was too much to take. I crunched on a bugle. The noise was incredibly loud.
“Jess,” my grandmother said. “There’s a green bag from the natural history museum on that shelf over there. Would you go and get it?”
I was grateful to get away from the table. The shelf my grandmother was pointing to was loaded with tons of crap-- the only bag I could see was about the size of a small pocketbook, and so caked in dust, it hardly looked green.
“This?” I asked.
“It’s really dusty, Grandma.”
“Well, wet some paper towels and wipe it off.”
In the sink I watched the stream of dust turn black and whoosh down the drain, revealing the words Natural History.
“Here you go, grandma.”
“Very good. Now, if you go look on my dresser, you’ll find a little plastic wallet insert.”
In a moment, my grandmother and her arthritic fingers were shoving Herschel’s insurance cards inside. “Dammit… Darling, do me a favor and cut these cards so they’ll fit.”
“You want me to cut his insurance cards?”
“As long as they can read the numbers, what difference does it make? There should be a pair of scissors on my desk.”
I looked at Herschel who was staring at his toast, probably thinking of much bigger issues than the size of his insurance cards.
“There should also be some address labels there, Jess. Stick one on the bag, would you?”
Within 20 minutes, Herschel’s belongings were neatly packed into this nine-inch green plastic bag. All the things he’d need for his final departure from Planet Earth:
A little plastic wallet, his identification cards, and a pair of thick reading glasses.
“Do you want your Zoloft?” Eunice asked.
“Your sleeping pills?”
He shook his head no. “Is the sports section in my bag?”
It was the most lucid thing I’d heard him say. How funny, where people find peace.
“I’m sorry that you’re having a hard time,” my grandmother said.
“Don’t,” Herschel said, not wanting her to talk.
“Don’t worry, darling, you’ll back in a couple days.”
Herschel muttered, this time angrily, “No, I will never be back here again.”
My grandmother and Herschel said nothing after that. They just sat there in silence I couldn’t make sense of, and I felt flooded with anxiety. They’d been notorious bickerers from the moment they were married, from the moment they left their previous spouses to live happily ever after with each other and then realized they weren’t as happy as they’d hoped they’d be. And I thought of my own husband, the way we bicker. I always assumed as we got older, we’d cut that out, that our wisdom would just show up like crows feet and varicose veins. But I guess it doesn’t quite work this way. I guess childhood issues don’t go away until you take care of them. And I prayed this wouldn’t be me one day. And then I prayed for peace and love for my grandma and Herschel.
A second later, Herschel reached for a cracker. “Why am I eating this?” he muttered, and placed it down.
I thought of my Aunt Karen and my mother saying how horrible it all is, all this dying. But to me, what’s more horrible than death is the way people die. There must an art, or at least a more elegant way to prepare for death than this. Some wise person who comes over the house and makes everyone go around the room to say what they’re grateful for. Something to give everyone meaning and closure, so the spirit doesn’t need to be artificially loosened from attachments and regrets with Zoloft and sleeping pills and the sports section.
“Toni, before the ambulance gets here, I’d like to use the bathroom.”
“Ok Dr. Allen.”
Toni helped Herschel out of his walker, and guided him to the bathroom. “I have a sister who works at the hospital, Dr. Allen,” she said softly. “I’ll make sure she checks in on you.”
“Thank you, Toni.” Herschel said.
At the table, Eunice started to cry. “It's been so upsetting, Jess,” she said. “He’s been falling apart. He’s been crying all night, I just wanna die. He’s scared. And I don’t blame him. But it’s been awful. And very hard on me.”
“I can understand,” I said, which I could.
Eunice reached for her walker and hauled herself up from the kitchen table. I walked next to her as she shuffled back to the living room. “You know what Jess, could you put Herschel’s name on his cane?”
Eunice lowered herself back into her lounge chair and a moment later, Herschel shuffled out of the bathroom. Toni helped him to his chair, right next to Eunice’s, and he slumped in. Then the doorbell rang.
“It’s them, Herschel. It’s the ambulance.”
Max started with his barking, so I rushed him outside and then followed Toni to the door. Standing there were two fluffy blonde teenagers, a boy and a girl, in EMT uniforms. It looked like they were trick or treating, but instead of asking for candy, they maneuvered a large stretcher through the door and set it up in the middle of the living room.
Herschel stood up, with the help of Toni. He looked all crooked and weak, and was having trouble breathing without his oxygen, which was still in the kitchen attached to his walker.
“He needs oxygen,” Toni told them.
One of the kids ran out to the truck to fetch the bottle.
Eunice looked so upset. “Can I give you a kiss, Herschel?”
He said yes, but he didn’t seem thrilled about it. He also didn’t seem quite completely alive anymore. My grandmother struggled up from her chair and hobbled close enough to him so that their bodies were touching. He pat her back a couple times and she managed to reach her face close enough to kiss his. Then my grandmother returned to her chair and Toni helped Herschel down onto the stretcher, which was just a foot or so off the ground. Once he was lying down, one of the teenagers pressed a lever and the bed jumped up three feet in the air.
“Please, easy,” Herschel moaned.
“Is it supposed to be tilted?” my grandmother asked.
The boy leveled it out.
Max was watching all this through the window, jumping and barking, but his bark was muffled enough through the glass not to be a nuisance. Maybe he wanted to say goodbye. Over the years, Herschel seemed to grow fond of Max. I mean, before he grew un-fond of everything. Every time I had dinner there, the first thing Herschel did when he sat down was toss Max a treat. “Don’t you want to taste it first?” Eunice would say. “Max said he wanted to taste it first,” Herschel would say.
After Herschel was laid out on the stretcher, Toni set the little green bag onto his stomach. Herschel held onto it. Then the EMT's opened the door and I watched them wheel Herschel out. They ducked under the overgrown tree, and were headed along the walkway, until just before they reached the driveway, when Herschel’s head lifted up.
“Hold on,” he said.
The bed stopped.
“What’s going on,” my grandmother asked, seeing the action halted.
No one said anything.
I opened the screen door and stepped outside to see what was going on.
“Toni, what’s going on?” My grandmother’s voice was deep, concerned, and agitated.
Toni sighed and shook her head like she didn’t know and headed past me towards the gurney.
“Toni, can you bring me my other glasses? I want both pairs.”
“Ok, Dr. Allen.”
Toni ran back inside.
“What is it? What does he want?”
“He said he wants his other glasses, Mrs. Allen.”
My grandmother sucked her teeth. “Oh for God’s sake. He has a pair in his bag. What does he need two pair for?”
“I don’t know, Mrs. Allen. He said he wanted both pair.”
“Well, tell him he can pick one, or the other.”
Toni stared at my grandmother with an astounded expression, one I interpreted as meaning: “The man is dying. Give him his two fucking pairs of glasses.”
I was also staring at my grandmother in perhaps a similar way. He’s got macular degeneration, after all. He needs all the glasses he can get.
Toni was caught in the middle. I could see she didn’t know what to do. But a second later, she went to the kitchen table and grabbed Herschel’s other glasses. My grandmother glared at her as she passed by, and shook her head at me like everyone was nuts. “I don’t know why he would want those,” she said to me.
I gave her a look like, “Beats me.”
I stood by the front door as Toni went back outside with the glasses.
“Mrs. Allen said you don’t need two pairs of glasses,” she told Herschel. “That you could choose one or the other.”
Herschel’s eyes got wide. He now looked exacerbated on top of his dying. And he said, “I will take the two pair of glasses.”
“Ok, Dr. Allen,” Toni said.
Toni put the extra pair of glasses in the little green bag and came back inside.
“Dr. Allen said he wanted both pairs.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” my grandmother said.
Meanwhile, the gurney continued toward the ambulance again. For a couple feet or so, and then it stopped again.
My grandmother was really going nuts this time, craning her head to see out the big front window. “Oh for God’s sake. What now!”
I could tell she hated not being able to get up to intervene.
I held open the door again and Toni walked quickly back outside. Herschel was struggling to sit up. He managed to lean up on his elbow so he could reach into the little green bag. Then, he handed Toni the extra pair of glasses.
“Maybe I don’t need two pair after all. If I do, someone can bring them to me.”
Toni looked at Herschel and took the glasses. “Ok, Dr. Allen. Whatever you say.”
Back in the house, Eunice was satisfied. “I told him he only needed one pair.” And the lights began flashing on the ambulance, and it rolled down the street, and Hershel never came back again. And Eunice died three weeks later.