February, 2017. We’re sitting at a swank, expense account kind of restaurant. I’m in D.C. for the AWP conference and visiting my cousin is an added perk. Since I’m stranded at the downtown Marriott, Ruth has come to me.
Once her father worked with mine building houses. But that was fifty years and many funerals ago. We catch up on stories. Talk children. Grandchildren. Our history bridges gaps. Our speech finds a rhythm. We stay first one hour then two.
May, 2017. The child of Holocaust survivors, my cousin’s had a hard life. A difficult mother. A wayward father. We grew up together in Miami. Then when her marriage fell apart, she moved to D.C. and started over. Ruth made success look easy. A career as a publicist. A college teaching gig. We keep in touch with occasional visits and phone calls each month.
It’s a bright spring morning when I punch in her numbers. Though it’s nearly 11 a.m., her voice is groggy. It sounds like she just woke up.
“Sorry. Sorry,” I say. “I’ll call you later.”
But later that afternoon, her voice is still slurred. Thinking it’s the connection, I move around my house, shoot for four bars instead of three. Then once again I call her.
“What?” I say. “What?” And all at once I realize the problem is on her end not mine. Ruth for some reason is mangling her words. Though my cousin’s not a tippler, there’s always a first.
A week later I call back. When her voice on the third phone call is merely a mumble, I start to worry. I call other cousins. Is Ruth okay? The mystery is solved a few months later. I’m in D.C. attending a baby shower for her daughter when she pulls me aside.
“I have A.L.S.,” she says. “You know, The celebrity disease. Lou Gehrig. Stephen Hawking. Tuesdays with Morrie.”
Her eyes are panicked, her speech garbled. Meanwhile her mouth twists like an undecided mask.
“With some people, it starts in their limbs,” she says. “With me, it’s my face.”
While everyone’s wolfing down finger sandwiches and sipping champagne from plastic flutes, Ruth just stands there. Gripping a fork, she glances at her plate. The food, I notice, hasn’t been touched. It’s already difficult to eat.
May, 2018. We’re in Ruth’s apartment. Since we’ve known each our whole lives, my cousin’s blunt. Her good hand fingers the machine. Then a robotic voice speaks. Since she literally chokes on her words, she now needs a device.
“The only reason I keep going is the grandkids.”
A walker is parked in the vestibule. A feeding tube is jammed in her chest. In honor of my visit, she has invited the two older grandchildren over. The children are four and seven. While they’re a source of solace, they’re also a bottomless well of worry. A boy and a girl, they’re both autistic. When I go to greet them, they flinch instead of hug. They circle the floor with Legos in their hands. Over and over. Zoom. Zoom. Zoom.
Meanwhile my cousin scrutinizes their every move. In silence she sits like a puddle on her couch. Her feet are immobile, that bad hand a claw. I know her well enough to read the shorthand. I too am a grandmother. Her very smart brain is willing their minds to work.
“Aren’t they wonderful?” says the robot.
Out of the entire universe, life is distilled to this stage and these characters. The irony doesn’t elude me. Ruth and her progeny are opposites. One’s strengths are the others’ weaknesses. But at this moment–in this act, in this scene– they have found a common ground. The occupational therapists. The bathroom challenges. The fussiness with food.
She knows that they are heading in different trajectories. But while her fate is sealed, their prospects are unknown. And she can’t rest–it’s impossible to rest–until their future’s assured. She shifts in her seat.
“It’s the grandkids I live for,” says the robot. “If not for them…”
She gazes at the ceiling. Then once again she wears that crooked grin.
March, 2020. As soon as I enter the apartment, I paste on a smile and spit out a greeting. The first thing I notice is Ruth’s appearance. My cousin has always prided herself on being well-groomed. But now everything’s off. Hair that was dyed black is now streaked white. Her blouse is partly buttoned. Her clothes, like her crooked smile, are all askew.
Folded into a wheelchair, Ruth is flanked by two small women. At this point she needs help for the simplest things. The bath. The toilet. It’s not that Ruth’s heavy. She must weigh at most a hundred pounds. But her body has lost its definition. Her back’s concave, her limbs floppy. It’s as if something very essential has packed its bags and left.
Hi. Hi. Hi. the women whisper in a Caribbean lilt.
I brave two three steps into the apartment. But instead of embracing my cousin, I hesitate. For there’s no mistaking the confusion in Ruth’s eyes. She’s looking at me like I’m a stranger, like she hasn’t known me for over sixty years.
A few awkward moments later, one of her daughters pulls me aside. “She’s just startled,” says the daughter. “She’s okay. Her mind’s okay. They’ve promised us she’s fine.”
Meanwhile a tornado of activity swirls. The two autistic grandchildren. And now a third makes an appearance. She is babbling and laughing, throwing food off her highchair tray. A toddler, she waves and claps her hands when I wave back. Hi. Hi. Hi.
As always, there’s a spread on the table. It stands to reason: the more heartache, the more food. The daughters offer me lunch, but who can eat? When I swallow all I taste is fear. Fear of catching a non-communicable disease. Fear of old age. Fear of death.
Instead I sit and watch the children, the older ones on their hands and knees, pushing their Lego cars. The toddler smiling and waving. Goodbye. Hello. Goodbye.
April, 2020. I’m in Miami, quarantined in our home, when I get the bad news. Our cousin Danny has unexpectedly died. He was seventy-four, a Vietnam vet, in his prime movie-star handsome. A New Yorker, Danny used to swing by our house during the winters. The kind of guy who was fun to hang with. Joking. Drinking. Good times personified.
Later, Danny’s path took unexpected turns. He struggled to make a living. And thanks to Agent Orange, his two-year stint in Nam left him tortured by mysterious pains. Towards the end, his failures were buried in drink and dementia. Grief takes many forms. Danny spent most of his life mourning the life he once had.
Ruth took the news hard. Did you hear that Danny had a stroke? she texted. So so sad.
One person can have many iterations. But when you love someone, the good memories float to the top.
June, 2020. Today is Ruth’s birthday. To mark the occasion, her daughters have asked all friends and relatives to send short videos wishing her well. Isolated before the pandemic, Ruth’s world has become even smaller. Her grandchildren see her from a distance. Her physical therapy’s come to a halt. The two aides take public transit to see her. We all are praying they stay well.
With the Beatles birthday song playing in the background, I dance around my bedroom for a full five minutes, shaking my butt and acting a fool. I throw in every dance move I can remember from The Twist to The Swim. My blubber bounces and my boobs jiggle. Then I press send.
September, 2020. It’s hard to believe this year can get worse. Then my phone rings and the conversation I’ve always feared happens. One of Ruth’s aides contracted Covid and came to work. Now my cousin’s in the hospital and everyone’s sick. Her two daughters. The toddler. Only the two autistic children remain unscathed.
My phone calls to Washington are punctuated by wheezes and sputters, long pauses and hacking coughs. The news is relentlessly bad. In the six months since I’ve seen her, Ruth has gone downhill fast. Except for one finger, she’s paralyzed from the neck down. The legal directives are loud and clear. She wants to die at home surrounded by family.
Meanwhile Ruth’s in the ICU, alone, and refusing intubation. Neither family nor friends can visit her. And though her mind’s intact, she has no means of communication. Phones and iPads are well beyond her grasp. Who knows what Ruth is feeling and thinking? Her fears? Her discomfort? Her pain? Her daughters are frantically trying to locate a new machine. Something with eye-tracking, I’m told. Some state-of-the-art device.
For now, our hands are tied and our options few. Ruth wants to come home. She needs to come home. But until she tests negative for Covid, the hospital won’t release her. So far her oxygen levels are holding. It’s a race against the clock.
A tarp. A dozen folding chairs. A casket. A mound of dirt. An empty hole. A lone Rabbi. Ten days after Ruth entered the hospital she was buried.
The end, I am told, was quick. The hospital staff was both competent and kind. Local friends and distant relatives attended the gravesite while the rest of us watched on our screens. Of course, there were no shovels. Shovels could potentially carry germs. Instead they scooped the soil with their bare hands. Tenderly and carefully, they blanketed Ruth. I’m hoping she sleeps in peace.
The rest of us are stuck in PC Purgatory. The two sick daughters. The grandchildren. Me. We press the buttons on our keyboards and cry at our computers. But despite our efforts, to spite our efforts, we’re left wanting. A Zoom shiva is like an air kiss, an elbow bump, an empty plate. They’re meaningless gestures and polite asides. We’re left hungry and greedy for more.
How did we get here? Who wrote this guidebook? I, for one, refuse to play along. Instead I’m punting my self-pity and shelving my sorry. And on one of those endless nights when I can’t sleep, I’m writing myself a note. A Save-The-Date if you will. Thanks to the virus, I have drawerfuls of them. Reams.
It may take six months. Nine months. Perhaps a year or two. But when the time is right, I’ll revisit my note. Empty my pockets and take out my pain. Then I’ll air it and blare it. Wake it and shake it! For only in the comfort of community can I mourn.
Danny. Ruth. My parents. Their parents. First one generation now two. The list is long and getting longer. Death may rob us of our loved ones. But it took a plague to rob us of our deaths.
Marlene Olin was born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan. Her short stories and essays have been published in journals such as The Massachusetts Review, Catapult, PANK, and The Baltimore Review. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of The Net, Best Small Fictions, and for inclusion in Best American Short Stories. Marlene’s twitter handle is: @writestuffmiami.