It doesn't matter, after deciding somewhere deep inside to never stand on her own two feet again, that Florence hasn’t walked in months. We kept all her shoes.
Maybe, just maybe one day, after all the massages and physical therapy and coaxing, just maybe a breeze will come through the window cracked open just a tiny bit, dance around her and remind her of the outside wonderfulness she used to stride through.
And maybe, just maybe she’ll put her shoes on again and return to her own two feet.
Florence used to say denial wasn't to be sniffed at.
It was the early 1990s when New York was still New York City and I still belonged here.
Unless it was life saving - like going to work to pay the rent - I had stopped leaving my apartment.
Every morning a desire to die would slammed into me and leave me unable to pull on the latex body suit of chirpy-supportive-sister-sledge-we're-all-family-let-me-support-you-with-your-dreams-girl bullshit personality I had worn for quite some time. I knew I had been me at my birth, before I became what everyone needed. But I didn't have a clue how to get back to her. So I lived in that bleak despair. Every day. Every night. Very little relief. Not even eating helped.
Then a friend's husband started leaving messages and sending letters and then leaving more messages. He was giving her a surprise birthday party at their suburban mansion. She was turning some big age like forty and no expense would be spared. He would even arrange for a car service because I just had to be there.
And he was right. I did have to be there. This woman had saved my life many years ago. Not by pulling me out of some ocean or taking a bullet for me. She had just made sure I got taught to protect myself. I owed her my life and I owed her my presence and that meant leaving my house.
It was the first time in a long time I was around people and I not only got through the night without a psychotic break, I even gave a warm birthday toast. Something about licking stamps and making a siddach.
True to his word, the husband had hired a car service to take a bunch of us back into the city. A gaggle of self-important women filled the back of the car. So I took shot-gun. I listened to conversations that seemed vapid and cruel and clanging and wondered if leaving my house had been worth it. One by one the driver dropped them off in neighborhoods I would never be able to afford to live in.
To be polite, or to counteract the unpleasantness of the other passengers, I asked the driver if he enjoyed driving for a living.
He answered that driving his own taxi in the town he lived in allowed him to always know what size shoe his kid wore. I probably exclaimed something like wow or brave or huh.
And then he said, "Well, I died once. And when I came back I decided to change things."
He had been working security at one of the fanciest hotels in mid-town. There was a jewelry store in the basement promenade. One day in the afternoon an alarm sounded. Someone was robbing the jewelry store. He raced down to the promenade and ran smack into the robber who then shot him point blank.
At that moment he looked down and saw his body and the frantic efforts to save him. Then he saw the corridor and the light.
He rushed towards it because it felt really good and he could hear all his relatives on the other side of the light and he couldn't wait to see them, his favorite aunt, his grandmother, her grandmother, his entire family from the beginning of time. But just as he was about to go through they all said, "No." It wasn't his time. He had to go back. He'd see them again when it was right.
That was the moment his heart began to beat again and EMS shouted many things and he was rushed off to the hospital.
By this time, we were parked at the corner hydrant by my building. I suddenly had this great hope that if I took his hand, touched him, somehow his life would pour into mine and I'd be able to return to the land of the living.
The second I thought that he said, "I don't know why I told you that story. I rarely tell anyone. When I do, they always want to touch me."
I sat on my hands.
For the first time since I fell apart I thought about what, if anything I might have to offer another person that was uniquely mine to give, but wouldn't kill me if I gave it.
He started talking about his wife's brother. The brother had just died. In those days it was still called the "gay cancer" and rumors ran rampant - you could catch it from toilet seats or using the same plate or standing next to...
No one but the driver's wife and and the driver had been willing to love and care for the brother as he got sicker and sicker. Now the lover of the brother was sick.
The driver spoke heartbreak and he spoke alone and he spoke my days in and out. The journey through despair. I knew what I had to give and I knew giving it would begin my life again.
The hope was that there was some place to hide - either from sudden Nazis or one's family. Both reasons brokered the same search. Where could I quickly disappear into if threatened? What would offer a fast way out to freedom? Where was the magic door to a happier and more magical world?
Perhaps it was too many fairy tale books from the Seward Park Library or the real life Anne Franks living in our neighborhood that infused my gullible heart, but it took many years into adulthood to not seek another road out.
One day in my late thirties I decided to learn to drive. Again. For the third time in 25 years.
As with most developmental issues I was several decades behind the majority of Americans. I blamed it on the MTA and student loans. However, at some point your injury is your injury no matter whose fault it is and the fact I couldn't drive a car was no one's fault but my own. All other attempts to capture a license hadn't got well but this time I was highly motivated.
Love being the most powerful fuel with which one takes risks, there was of course a man involved. I had a fantasy of picking him up from the airport in a car after one of his movie shoots or trips home to Puerto Rico. Somehow if this little movie in my head came to fruition our relationship would be cemented in adult forever after. In the haze of hindsight, I see now I understood that he was about to leave me and that I would need to drive away from that life under my own steam.
Still, with great hope, I walked into the driving school that had always been on 10th Street for as long as I had always been on 2nd Avenue. There were a couple of instructors but the one I got was the owner. He somehow taught me to drive forward, turn left, turn right and understand red and green without vehicle murder. And as most people do when tootling around in a moving vehicle we got to talking. Life, liberty, love. Married, he had a daughter he was worried about. She wasn't growing.
Finally my $278.63 learn-to-drive packet was depleted and it was time to take the test (a story all on its own). I drove us both out through tunnels to the hills of Staten Island for the test. Somehow, still not quite getting parallel parking and managing to negotiate a sudden suburban setting surrounded by my city's skyline, I finished the route and was given my license.
The owner/teacher drove us back to the city. Our relationship was over. I wouldn't have to see him again and the little bubble inside his beat-up datsun would be no longer filled with our wonderings and hopes and dreams and questions.
Perhaps it was the intimacy within a moving vehicle or perhaps it was the knowing I was forever leaving and never to be seen again, or perhaps it's just the combination of both that engender men to confess something never before confessed. Sissy says it's the perfect storm - with their visceral attachment to cars, they don't have to look at you while they're talking - they get to do this manly thing at the same time they're doing this girly thing of breaking open a heart exhausted from carrying a secret no one knew was there.
We were suddenly hurtling down a very fast highway in rush hour traffic in I think Brooklyn when out of the blue he reached over to the glove compartment and pulled out a photo.
There he was in the same parka he was wearing now. A tall blond woman stood next to him. He loved her. He loved her like he never loved anyone. They were together for years and years and years. They traveled and skied and loved and redecorated and ate well and were and then one day he came home and she was packing up. She said to him, "It's over."
The owner/teacher turned to me and said, "I had to go teach a five hour safety course after she told me that. I had to park the car and go into my school and teach."
Still driving very fast, he put the picture back in the glove compartment and began talking about his daughter. She wasn't growing.
A couple of months later I walked down 10th street. The school was gone. The store front was for rent. Shortly after that, the man I was with left me.
All I Need is the Air that I Breathe and to Love You
It's 10:30 at night.
Something is wrong.
Even after they give her medicine from a mask that comes pouring out into her face, Florence can't stop coughing it hurts it hurts and afterwards she is too wiped out to even breathe she begs me make it better make it better I keep wetting paper towels beg her to keep the mask with all the medicine pouring out into her face she keeps taking the mask off it hurts it hurts she can't breathe it's wiping her out make it better make it better I keep wetting paper towels beg her to keep the mask with all the medicine pouring out into her face she keeps taking off the mask off it hurts it hurts make it better....
Finally at 11:30 at night it is better.
Finally at 11:30 at night it's better...
Maria! Say it loud and there's music playing, Say it soft and it's almost like praying.
Maria is all of teeny tiny.
SShe lives near Florence - Delancey and Essex or maybe that's where she shops, the Essex Street Market. It’s hard to tell. My rudimentary Spanish picks up about half of what she says. The nurse assistant waves it off saying oh she blabs a lot so don't worry if you don't catch it all.
But this night I come in and she starts talking too fast even after I beg in Spanish "Dispacio, porfavor, dispacio”. Because this doesn’t feel like blabbing. This feels important and I need to understand.
The other roommate - the 95 year-old - sharp as a tack, used to live on Suffolk and Houston but now is in Brooklyn near Coney Island because her son has a house - she translates what I miss, not because she understands Spanish, but because she saw what happened.
Florence hadn't been eating for days. Nothing tasted good, everything made her cough, she didn't feel like it. The nurses or the assistant nurses tried to coax a few things down and the other day I got her to gum a piece of chicken or a piece of carrot before she spit it out. I tried the Ensure but it made her cough. I just couldn't insist. So mostly the food trays stayed untouched.
This particular night had been extra busy. I am not sure why. Maybe more beds got filled or dinners were arriving all at once and the healthy people in charge of the unhealthy people suddenly had their hands full. Whatever the reason, there just wasn't enough hands to go around or enough time to make sure everyone got fed. So no one was around to coax Florence to take a second bite or another sip.
Maria got up out of bed, went over to Florence and fed her.
If dreams there be....
In her later years, whenever Florence said goodbye to anyone she’d give a jaunty wave and sing out, “See you in my dreams!”
This is the picture I take after getting a message that Florence is being sent home once she is assessed for palliative care.
We all had great hope it would go away. But it didn't.
I was still putting back together small pieces of a recently and sudden broken life - I just wanted a bit more time before another 10 hours in the ER.
I kept asking Gabriella (with great hope), "Maybe it's a cold?"
Gabriella kept saying "I don't know".
I couldn’t ask Penny who had opinions on these kinds of things. She was on vacation.
Then Penny’s substitute home attendant and the recreational therapist both said something.
I finally asked Doctor Russia (with great hope), "Maybe it's a cold?"
He said, "No, it's not cold. Bring her to ER. It is best. They’ll do X-Rays…”
Then Gabriella said (with great hope), "She seems better!"
But the next morning it was still there. And when I got down to her apartment I knew it was not a cold. Her chest heaved up and down like Signory Weaver in Ghost Busters when Weaver got possessed.
So we began the long and winding…
"You're doing great," I told her.
"You're just saying that. I'm a mess,” she said.
I couldn’t stop laughing. "You're right. You're a mess."
"It's all your fault,” she reminded me.
When the ER nurse asked her, "Do you know where you are?", Florence answered, "I'm not home."
Time, Time, Time, See What's Become of Me
What to bring to a day at the ER:
Your own spoon
Pens and highlighter case
Filofax with all the numbers to contact in case of...
Prayer bag with sutra book and beads
LL Bean catalog to distract Florence
Swimming to Antarctic by Lynne Cox to distract me
Journal to write everything down
You Can Hear the Ocean Roar In The Dangling Conversation
"I'm not going to say no in this place."
"Did you think a little nothing in the morning could keep me here all day?"
"I have unsettled things in my body."
"Claire. Are you Claire or Louise?"
"When do I get up in the morning?"
Me: When you wake up in the morning.
"I swear if I ever get past here I'll shoot you."
Doctor: Where are we? What kind of building is it?
"Oh, it's a swell building."
Me: What do you need?"
"I love you.
Me: I love you.
"I never said that to anybody."
Me: I know
"How do you know?"
One night, in the early 1980's, I left New York for a brief funeral.
In those days there were only three ways to get to Philadelphia - Greyhound, Amtrak and NJ Transit. Because death had come suddenly, I needed to leave within hours of getting the rare long-distance phone call telling me to come. Greyhound left every two hours.
I sat up front so I wouldn't get car sick. The bus was empty, the night was bleak and the roads leaving New York were fast. I am not sure how it began but the driver and I began to talk. It would not be the last time a man turned to me to confess.
He had just gotten back from World War II and out of boredom and mild curiosity started dating a young woman. One day he showed up at her house to find her and her mother busy addressing envelopes. "What are you doing?" he asked. "Sending out invitations to our wedding," the young woman replied.
So he got married to someone because of proximity and minor distraction and maybe postage already spent.
And he did all the right things. Brought home the bacon, raised their daughter, showed up at the functions husbands were supposed to show up at. And he stayed married. For decades, was still married and now his own daughter was married, he had a granddaughter, apple of his eye, told me if a pedophile ever came near her he'd kill him, just kill him didn't care what would happen next.
But. All these years with the woman he married. He hated the way she breathed when she slept. Hated it. Hated being in the bed with her listening to her breathe. The sound of her life.
Link up the Real Person to the Real Question Really Asked in the Last Couple of Days!
A. Should we go to the ER? B. Do you think she has pneumonia or is it just a cold? C. What are you going to do if you get sick or injured? D. Do you want extra time off for your birthday? E. Where is our house? F. Is your father still alive?
1. G., the Home Attendant 2. Me 3. Former boss 4. Florence 5. Old friend 6. Me
At 9pm tonight, Coney died. Condos will be built in its stead.
The place my mother, a teenager, went to in the middle of the night to swim naked, the place my aunt met her future husband, both barely teenagers, she wearing a swimsuit and telling me 60 years later "he liked me even after seeing my thighs," the place my grandmother took herself alone, no one really knowing what she thought or who she missed, the place said grandmother took me, dragging me into the ocean for the first time, feeding me Chips Ahoy chocolate chip cookies that forever after tasted like sand and salt to me, the place my mother, no one knowing what she thought or who she missed, took my sister and me early mornings so that we could get a good swim in and eat a hotdog for breakfast before returning to responsibilities, the place every New Years Day, our family went to, frozen on the boardwalk, but knowing nowhere else to to be, the place I could, in desperate twenties, needing to feel like I had someone beyond my own skin, go to and find my mother sitting in the same spot as she had for years - in front of the Aquarium,
The place I knew more than I knew the thoughts of my grandmother or my mother or even my own. The place I knew more than I knew what my grandmother or mother or even I missed.
Like Calvino's Invisible Cities and my mother, Florence's life, my private coney has become just a place within memory.
Tee just got a call from her son. Seems her father, Daddy just fired the third home aide in two months. Hired another one, recommended by one of his friends - either the one who can't walk or the one who can't see. This new home attendant arrived by Access-A-Ride in her scooter. The scooter couldn't get in the house so Daddy sent her for coffee.
"Oh shit," Daddy told the son. "I fucked up."
He's still flushing food down the toilet, won't take off his woolen hat no matter how hot it gets, says mean mean stuff, and keeps telling everyone Tee is either not helping him at all or trying to kill him, depending on the day and which company is visiting. He refuses to be evaluated for anything because he's not crazy, everyone else is.
Daddy is a Vet. World War II. So that means the VA will pay for a nursing home. And sometimes the visiting nurse service for a couple of weeks. That's it. Nothing else. No home aide, no housekeeper, no food stamps. No nothing. Everything outside of the nursing home is out of pocket. His pocket. Tee's pocket.
Tee and her sister write down everything Daddy does that lets them know something is wrong. But just like me and Louise with Florence, how do you prove something is wrong when that's how they've always acted? I tell Tee, well sometimes you got to wait until they start peeing on themselves and can't wipe anymore.
Tee takes care of his part of the house, her part of the house, the kids, the grandkids, her husband, her father. Tee is tired. Real tired. But just like me and Louise before we fought with Medicaid and won, what does it mean to be a good daughter? Where do You stop and Daughter begin? Where does Daughter stop and You begin? I tell Tee you kick out the rage on a wall and every day swear to take nothing personal just keep saying if it was cancer I wouldn't take the tumor personal so why am I taking personal familiar words coming out of a brain eating itself alive?
Thanks to Elizabeth Smith and Joni Wong's emails to the New York Times City Room Blog, MY PRIVATE CONEY is now on their blogroll under PEOPLE AND NEIGHBORHOODS!
Elizabeth's blog COWBOYLANDS (see "Other Writers and Artists You Should be Reading") is dashing, funny, witty, insightful and completely confusing to this New Yorker who only heard the term "Cowboy!" when Florence felt the bus driver was driving too fast. I HIGHLY recommend the list of what makes a cowboy. I laughed, I cried, I wanted to date one.
Joni Wong could be writing a blog but instead makes beautiful things that she sells, along with vintage things, on LifeInAGlassHouse.etsy.com.
Andrew, the Pharmacist, at the store where we get Florence's drugs.
Sometimes he is the only person someone will talk to all day, that someone being an elderly person who doesn't have any kids or doesn't have any kids like me and my sister, Louise. He's it -- the guy behind the counter trying to make sure medicine is taken right and instructions are understood before that senior citizen hobbles back into a home no longer shared and a life no longer visible.
MY PRIVATE CONEY presents IT WAS HER NEW YORK, the short stories that accompany the work-in-progress video and photo collection of the same name (myprivateconey.com - media link - IT WAS HER NEW YORK). The stories and the media explore the tender rubble that holds both my mother, Florence's and New York's soul as one disappears into old age and the other into gentrification. All are real observations and/or experiences with very little tall-tale telling.
Except when it makes the story better.
Please visit myprivateconey.com for additional information and sample works.