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And Her Rusty Old Wrists
“It’s hard to be an old person,” my great-aunt says on the phone to me. “I spend most of the day calling to figure out how to change my Times subscription, or fix the bill for Murray’s rehab, or fight with the state about that letter for our house on Fire Island.”
“Rose,” I begin, “Can’t you just get all of that done online? You’re good with your phone,” I say, remembering that she once FaceTimed me before I remember that that was an accident.
“I’m terrible with my phone,” she says. “It haunts me! I should’ve been born a century earlier,” and I hear her breathe heavily, maybe a bit more heavily than usual, as something loud slams behind her. Their black front door. New York apartment doors always slam like that.
“Why not be born a century later?” I ask.
“No. Things were better before,” she says.
“Well, a century before, women couldn’t vote which… to be clear…is something I agree with, but…”
She ignores me, and I hear what sounds like the rustling of grocery bags.
“People cared about each other more back then,” she says. “Families lived together, and there was a community to catch you, if God forbid you were to fall.”
I hear her walking around her apartment, wearing what I imagine to be an olive green winter coat and her cute round golden glasses. She’s the grandmother I never had. I hear a clanking sound. Maybe she’s putting something on the counter. Maybe in the kitchen.
She lives on the Upper East Side with my Uncle Murray in a tiny two-bedroom apartment. The windows are always too cracked, and the radiator is always too loud. It’s one of those old steam radiators where it sounds like a monkey is banging a wrench on a set of pipes. My aunt and uncle don’t mind though. The longer you live in a rent-controlled apartment, the harder it is to leave.
I remember visiting them when I was a kid. I must’ve been 6 or 7, in town from my family’s safe San Diegan suburb. My mother was at a wedding or a funeral, and I stayed in their guest bedroom while Murray and Rose slept across the hall. I didn’t like New York at night. A bunch of strangers in a building, all waiting to kidnap me — boogeymen lurking just beyond the loud-slamming door.
I couldn’t sleep. I walked to their bedroom and knocked. I heard my aunt’s footsteps approaching, and then she flung open the bedroom door, wearing a CPAP Darth Vader-style mask.
“Everything okay?” she asked as she ripped the machine off her face.
“What does he want?” my uncle yelled from the darkness.
“I’m scared,” I said
“He's scared,” she said, turning behind her.
“Scared of what?” yelled the far-away voice.
“What are you scared of?” she asked me.
“I don’t know. Just…,” my toes curled, “noises.”
“He said he’s scared of noises.”
“What kind of noises?” yelled my uncle.
And this went on for a minute or two until they told me there was nothing to be afraid of and that I should get to bed.
“Where’s Murray?” I ask my aunt on the phone while she unpacks groceries in the kitchen.
“He’s in the hospital.”
“Again?” I ask.
“He never left.”
I want to ask her ‘what for,’ but I don’t remember what lured him in last, and I don’t want to get caught as uncaring, so instead, I ask if he’s doing okay.
“No,” she says, “he can’t even stand.”
“Is he…getting better?” I ask, hoping to suss out the cause.
“They don’t know. He has COVID but I don’t think that’s what it is.”
“What do you think it is then?”
“I think he’s old,” she says.
“Hm,” I say, letting the ‘hm’ hang there, not knowing if I’m supposed to ask her if she thinks he’s going to get better while not wanting to ask and have her tell me he won’t. But it feels like she wants me to ask. “Is he going to get better?”
“What am I, the doctor?” she says. And then I feel her smile.
For Rose, life is meant to be joked about. Nothing is off-limits.
Four years ago, we were at an Italian restaurant, and I noticed that Murray’s neck had curved and maybe…hardened, if that’s how necks work. And it hardened and curved so much that he couldn’t lift his chin and instead was looking at me out the tops of his eyes. I imagined it was sad for him, as a still-working cartoonist, to not be able to look left and right and up and down to see all the curious scenes he could draw. And for her, to watch someone she cared for shrink and fall more and more into constant pain.
I called her a week after the visit. “Rose,” I said, “what’s wrong with Murray’s neck?” I asked.
“What do you mean?” she said,
“Why is he hunched over?”
“I don’t know.”
“You’ve never asked him?”
“No,” she said.
“Why not?” I asked.
“That’s his problem. I’ve got my own problems,” she said. “These knees!” She laughed. “And this wrist. Now, these are problems.”
And they were.
But Murray and Rose are fighters, trying their best not to let the body rule the mind. Sure, the two of them have health problems, but they also have places to go and people to bother.
A few years ago, my uncle was on a Subway, sitting next to a couple of Chinese tourists, when he noticed a pain in his chest. His defibrillator kicked in like it had many times before, and while sitting upright next to the tourists, he started involuntarily convulsing as the machine shocked him back to life. The couple, having no idea what was wrong with this seizing old man, stared in horror.
Moments later, he came to.
And then he turned to them and, with what I imagine to be perfect delivery, said, “Don’t mind me.” Then he paused calmly, “I’m just having a heart attack.”
At the next stop, he climbed the stairs and called an ambulance.
“Remember that time with the Chinese tourists?” I ask her on the phone.
“Ha,” she chuckles, “of course. Still the same old Murray.”
“Yeah.” I say before pausing. “How about you?” I ask.
“What about me?” she says.
“You feeling okay? You’re not gonna die on me anytime soon, right?”
“Ha. I’m terrible. But, no, I have a bit more time,” she says, confident. “I am more tired though.”
“Tired from what?” I ask before almost saying, ‘you don’t do anything besides whine about calling service providers,’ but I know that wouldn’t be nice, so I don’t say that.
“I don’t know, but the tiredness feels different,” she says. “I’ll sleep for 12 or 13 hours a day and feel exhausted. I think I’m just old,” she says, and as she says this, I imagine her looking at photos on her wall: a Rose from 30 years ago, standing at my mother's wedding, or maybe a Rose from 60 years ago, standing at her own. A woman less wrinkled. More spry. One who could dance and leap and wonder and dream and believe that her situation would get better — a Rose who hoped.
“Well…” I say as I prepare to deliver a 33-year-old’s mediocre advice about aging with gratitude and grace, but before I can do so, she thankfully cuts me off.
“Don’t worry,” she says. “It’s nothing I’m afraid of. I just don’t enjoy being alive as much as I used to. It’s not fun in this world when you’re my age. Everything is impossible. I’m exhausted,” she says.
I hear something that sounds like Rose placing a pan on a stove, and I look at my phone to see that it’s late for her, 915p.
“Are you cooking?”
“Yes dear. I was visiting Murray at the hospital, and I haven’t eaten yet.” She breathes again and moves something else around. “Actually, I should go,” she finishes, and now I’m tempted to ask her why she isn’t just getting Uber Eats, but I know that that would cause more stress to her than it’s worth — another task that she’d deem impossible.
“Okay,” I say. “Well. Go cook, then. Love you.”
“Love you too.”
We hang up, and for the first time in my life, I worry about her.
Not because the conversation we just had might end up being our last, though that might be true. And not because her visit to the hospital today might end up being the last time she’ll ever see Murray, though that also might be the case. But rather, because when she tells me that her life is sad and hard and lonely, and I picture her, as an 85-year-old with no nearby kids or family, in a rickety apartment, late at night, with not-so-working knees and rusty old wrists, leaning over the stove, trying to squint through her fogged-up round golden glasses so she can cook dinner for one, and I imagine her thinking to herself that her life, as it is now, might not be all that worth it, all I can think about is that she might be right.
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