Melissa Berman | Longreads | August 2019 | 10 minutes (2,413 words)
I saw her through the slit of the partially open bathroom door. She left it slightly ajar because she’d started thinking about these things.
She didn’t tell me so, but the slice of light peeking into the hallway said it all. We were taking that turn, the one I never thought would come, though, how could it not?
She was out of the shower now, drying herself off. I walked into the den to casually pretend I was oblivious to the whole thing.
“Can you come here please?” she called out.
So it is happening, I thought.
I looked over to the chest of drawers, the emergency call receiver with the red button — the HELP in such big white letters. The button was bigger than her hand. And the special alert pendant she was supposed to have around her neck, in case she fell or something, sat next to it. The cord was perfectly coiled, looking pathetic, like an ugly necklace no one would ever wear.
“Hell-lo?” her impatient voice curled around the cracked-open door and floated down the hallway.
I picked up the necklace and put it around my own neck.
It felt awkward going in there. I’d never been in the bathroom when she was showering or getting dressed. Why would I? I timidly nudged the door open a bit more and stood there, taking in the scene. She was so tiny, the size of an 11-year-old. Her skin was like an elephant’s, ancient, wrinkled and droopy, but also soft and drapey like linen. She had brown spots all over. I guess that happens over time. She was drying her feet very carefully, toe by toe, and then slipping each foot into her powder blue slippers. The towel was loosely draped around her waist and her breasts, what little remained of them flapping around like deflated balloons. Her shoulders were frail and narrow. She was so fragile looking, even though she was moving through her toe drying routine with impressive vigor.
She was loveliest aunt and I was loveliest niece. We’d dubbed each other so after seeing a Wendy Wasserstein play with a character named ‘Aunt Gorgeous.’
I stood there for at least a solid minute before she even turned to address me.
“Come in,” she said. “What are you standing in the doorway for?”
Um, where am I supposed to be? I wondered. What the hell is going on here?
I put my hand on the necklace cum call alarm and held it out for her to see.
“This was on your dresser,” I said.
“Yes.” She was on to tying the belt on her robe now, and running a brush through her freshly washed hair.
“It doesn’t work by ESP,” I said. “You have to actually be wearing it if something happens and you need it.”
“Why would I need it if you are in the apartment?” she asked, rolling her eyes. “Nevermind that, I want to show you something.” She started to hike her robe up a little and the weirdness quotient shot way up. She sensed my confusion (and horror) and laughed.
“I know you think this tub is too high for me, but I want you to watch this.”
No sooner had the words come out of her mouth than she kicked off her slippers and was up and over the side of the pretty high tub. She hopped in, like a little girl hopping into a spinning jump rope. One foot, then quickly the other, popped right up and over for a solid landing. I noticed that she grabbed onto the sliding glass door for stability. I didn’t say anything.
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She was very pleased with herself. I just stood there.
She smiled her biggest smile, the one that showed the gap between her front teeth, and then she skipped over again leg by leg, like a little girl doing double-dutch and was back out of the tub.
“Pretty good huh?” And now I noticed that her smile, for the first time ever, had a veil of hesitancy, sadness, some deep knowing of what this little show really meant.
Me, I was still just standing there with the call alarm necklace dangling from my neck. She tightened the belt on her robe. I could tell that was just the opener, and the real discussion was happening soon. I put my arms on her teeny shoulders and gave her a squeeze and a smile.
“That was quite a little gymnastics routine,” I said.
Her eyes came back to the room fully and we both left the bathroom.
I went to the den and re-coiled the unused alarm-charm back on the dresser while she went to her bedroom to put her pajamas on.
I was over by the bookshelf, picking up, taking in, and putting back each photo propped in front of the wall full of books. I’d stared at these images for decades, some of them for my whole life, but in that moment, they weren’t memories, they were happening right there and then. I was the little girl with ponytails and her denim hat about to board a sailboat for the first time. I was posing at the guard station at the Tower of London, a visit she’d inspired in me since I was the little ponytail girl. I was outside our favorite Afghani restaurant with my college roommate, her and my uncle, laughing at our pronunciation of the dish I’d ordered. I was all those things at once, and I wanted to stay there.
She stopped at the doorway in her blue and white striped pajamas and slippers.
“Want some tea loveliest?” she asked.
She was loveliest aunt and I was loveliest niece. We’d dubbed each other so after seeing a Wendy Wasserstein play with a character named “Aunt Gorgeous.” We were both so tickled by this name that at intermission we decided we needed similar nicknames for each other. So “loveliest” it was, and forever after that’s what we called each other, abbreviated at times with LA and LN. It was one of a million of our inside things.
And then there were the inside things that didn’t need to be named. The kind of things that just don’t happen with most people. Only with that person, the one who is your person. If you get one. All of it, every beat, every thought, every question and every answer all exist between you and that person — and they never need to be mentioned. Nothing needs to happen. Because it’s all just there, ticking like a third heart.
In the kitchen the tea-making began. You couldn’t just boil water and pour it in the mug over the bag. You had to pour the bottled Evian water into the kettle, and you had to run hot water into the mugs to warm them. And you had to use an egg timer for four minutes to steep the tea bag. And you had to do a whole lot of things to put a spoonful of honey in your tea if you wanted that. I usually skipped the honey. Once we had our tea and were seated at the small round table, and I was ready for whatever we were going to discuss, she decided on a change of venue. “Let’s go in the living room, it’s more pleasant.”
Into the living room we went, me on the very long, very cushy, down-filled sofa, her to the club chair from which she held court. She sat in that chair, with the small rectangular side table snuggled just under the arm so she could set her tea cup on one of the coasters stacked on top. These rituals sometimes annoyed me. Maybe I’d like to sit in the chair one time. Maybe she could sit in the other club chair. Or on the sofa. Or maybe we could sit together on the sofa. It was long enough for five people, for goodness sake. Maybe we could put our tea cups on a magazine or a piece of mail instead of those coasters. Maybe I could lie on the floor and she could lie on the sofa and we could stare at the ceiling and talk. Why not? Anything different. I’d often wished for this.
But at that moment, the routine of it all, felt comforting, endearing even.
So there she was, like Edith-Anne, tiny in her big club chair, sipping her tea. And I was on the sofa, waiting.
“There are some very interesting plays I’d like to see,” she began. “Maybe you would like to join me for one or two.”
“Sure,” I said.
“Can you go into the den and get my New York Times? I clipped the reviews to show you.”
So off I shuffled to get the paper, with her yelling directions where to find it after me.
We chatted about the plays. I didn’t care really. I trusted her taste and I kind of knew it probably wouldn’t happen anyway. Not now.
“So I’ve been thinking that at some point, I may need a little extra help around here,” she said. Here we go, I thought. I sat up.
“Not now,” she added. “I didn’t say now. I just wanted you to know I have been thinking about it.”
“I think it’s a good idea,” I said. “Do you want me to find someone?”
“No, I do not. I don’t want you to do anything.”
“Well, don’t you think we should have someone lined up for when you do decide you want it?” I asked.
I lay back down and stared at the ceiling.
“Well, if you happen to hear of someone,” she said, “that’s ok I suppose.”
I reached my arm out and grabbed my phone from the coffee table. I started to shoot off a text.
“C’mon loveliest. Can’t we just have our tea and talk?”
She was right. But I wanted to do something. To stop this. And since I couldn’t do that, I wanted to do anything I could to make it easier. And I didn’t want her to change her mind.
“Well who were you texting?” she asked.
“Just a friend.”
She sat back in her chair, her little legs propped on her footstool. She sipped her tea and giggled.
After our tea and conversation about anything but why she was thinking about getting extra help, and what I was thinking about how this was going to go down, she got up to wash the tea cups. She wanted to do it. She wanted me to see her do it. Like the bathtub performance.
She even took her step-stool out to put the teapot back up on the shelf.
She left the bathroom door slightly ajar because she’d started thinking about these things…We were taking that turn, the one I never thought would come, though, how could it not?
She went back to her bathroom to dry her now completely dry hair.
I stayed on the sofa and started to text people. I texted the woman who had managed the care for her best friend, who died just a month ago. I texted a friend who was a nurse. I texted a friend who knew everything about everything. I texted a friend who had no clue about these things. I did something.
A few days later, Martha arrived. She had been highly recommended. She’d taken care of a famous playwright, which I thought, correctly, would help me convince my aunt to meet with her. Just for future reference.
Martha was great. She knew just what to say. By the end of the meeting, she was hired and started the next day. And away we went.
We never spoke specifically about where we were going. We pretended we were just getting through it, and there would be the other side, where everything would be like it used to be.
Where we would go to theatre.
And order in too much Chinese and watch Downton Abbey, and I’d keep saying, “I want that dress, no I want that dress,” and she’d smile and laugh a little every time the camera cut to Maggie Smith, just for the sheer perfection of her being on screen. And she would make her own oatmeal. And time it with the egg timer.
And the tub wouldn’t have been cut so she could step in, and sit on a plastic chair while Martha washed her with a handheld.
And she wouldn’t have been in pain.
And I wouldn’t have felt mostly helpless.
And she wouldn’t have been too weak to read all the cards she received, and even too weak to really listen as I read them to her.
Those things, the stuff that was happening but we never talked about, which were a single note in the symphony of a lifetime, ended up being disproportionate — they got to be so big and so damn loud.
Toward the very end, I decided to try and drown them out. The walker and the wheelchair arriving. The adult diapers. The hair color fading away, the requests for manicures stopping.
I would ask her questions. Who was the first person you voted for? Did you and aunt Janet really invite those sailors up to your room from a hotel window when you were wild young women visiting New York City? How did you know Uncle Ernie was the one? How did blue become your favorite color? What was it like living through the civil rights movement? To which she’d always say, ‘nothing was like living through the great depression.’ Where did you learn to speak French?
She seemed to enjoy these interviews. And I was taking notes. I wanted it all — everything I might want to ask her — but wouldn’t be able to. And I wanted to be anywhere but in the ER for the seventh time.
Tomorrow I’ll go to her grave. I haven’t been since her funeral, which frankly, I would have skipped if I could have. I hope I don’t stand there like a fool and ask the block of granite all the questions I forgot to ask. Or cry as if that will change the seasons of life. I wish I could bring the blue chair and the sofa and stretch out next to that $8,000 block of granite, and look at the sky and hear her voice, and we’d talk about To Kill a Mockingbird being on Broadway and she’d say “Jeff Daniels is a very fine actor, but he’s no Gregory Peck.” Or something like that. Or we’d just sit there and not say anything. Not anything about how weird it is to be sitting on her living room furniture in a cemetery. Not anything about the weather. Not a thing. We’d just be there — together.
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Melissa Berman has made a living making up stories about things like flying on Virgin Atlantic or making your lashes pop with Revlon mascara as a copywriter and Creative Director in advertising. She’s made her own stories in the form of award-winning independent films, short stories, essays and plays. She splits her time between the Montauk seashore and NYC and whatever other interesting spot on the globe calls.
Editor: Sari Botton
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Also In the Fine Lines Series:
Introducing Fine Lines
An Introduction to Death
A Woman, Tree or Not
Dress You Up in My Love
The Wrong Pair
‘Emerging’ as a Writer — After 40
Losing the Plot
A Portrait of the Mother as a Young Girl
Elegy in Times Square
Every Day I Write the Book
Johnny Rotten, My Mom, and Me
Everything is Fine
Bracing for the Silence of an Empty Nest
To Grieve Is to Carry Another Time
Game of Crones
Father’s Little Helper