Nearly A Week

I promised to write and write and edit and write some more. So much for that. It seems the only time I actually write, it must be an un-defined, stream-of-consciousness, ramble of thoughts without any self-expectation of a theme or point. And apparently I’ve developed a penchant for hyphens. Then again, when asked what I consider myself to be last week on another random assignment, I stated, “I’m a hyphenate.” I’m also a procrastinator, falling into the frigid winter grasp on my happiness that reaches from the prematurely dark sky and encourages me to be a recluse. For many years, I wanted to get a dog to increase my interaction with the community. I expected that being forced out of my creative belfry, where I spend hours trapped away working (or procrastinating) would allow me to feel more a part of the city. Instead, I’ve become one of the Upper West Side pack of shivering dog owners, adorned in ten pounds of winter gear covering my pajamas, as I drag my obdurate pup along a cold sidewalk on which he would rather sit in protest. In lieu of my former desire to chat with other people about my sweet little Chihuahua, I would just as soon keep my eyes towards the frosty ground and keep walking as any interruption to the walk will simply delay the pooch from doing his business for another block or two.

My apartment has been frigid since this recent arctic blast has covered the city. My landlady, known to sport a thick winter sweater and puffy winter vest around the house, informed me to dress warmly because she only intends to heat the building well in times that she is sure her tenants are home. She must think that the entire building has vacated and the rent checks mysteriously appear beneath her door each month. The heat is rarely on now that it’s frigid outdoors, but when it was a balmy 55 in October, my apartment was as hot and arid as a summer in Palm Springs. 

When I first moved into this rent-stabilized “gem,” I was forewarned by the woman who held the lease: DO NOT BECOME FRIENDLY WITH THE LANDLADY. I mistook the warning as an unfair judgment, as it seemed reasonable to become friends with the landlady, a seemingly innocuous lonely widow who was full of stories of a seedier time on this city block. I felt it was important to be on her good side, as taking over this apartment without a serious rent increase required some finesse and I really enjoyed living here. At one point we bonded when my door knob broke and she came to the apartment with her 3-year-old nephew, who was keen on brushing my hair. She taught him the proper way to do so as my door knob was repaired. It was an unusual moment in a typically New York sense. Then there was the time the city was overcome with a heat wave and I returned from a trip to LA. Being late as it was on my return, I procrastinated (there’s a theme) installing my air conditioner and opened the windows. Unbeknown to me, one of the screens slipped and at three in the morning I was awoken by a pigeon-sized bat flying towards my head. My first move, after hiding under my blanket and screaming for five minutes, was to locate some article of clothing and run to my landlady on the first floor. Unfortunately, she was in a deep sleep and being hard of hearing, she tuned out my screams, door-banging, and phone calls.

The next evening, the bat was still in the apartment. I thought he had escaped, as I left the windows open and could not find a trace of him. Once the lights went out, his silhouette appeared and I summoned my landlady. She came equipped with gloves and empty paint buckets, thinking she could easily lure the flying beast into captivity. When she saw the wingspan of the bat, her first impression of “Oh, what a cute little thing,” switched to, “Oh no! We better call animal control!”

While I pretended to call animal control in the safe confines of the building’s stairwell, my five-foot tall landlady swung in circles with a broom, standing on her tippy toes and having the time of her life. Eventually she scared the little devil out the window and I slammed the screen shut. Unfortunately, while all these bonding experiences have protected my stake on this apartment, they’ve also confused the lines of financial and legal responsibilities of tenant and landlady. Though I’m treated as a family member, it’s hard to understand after six years of inhabiting an apartment, she comes and asks for two months security deposit, claiming the deposit transferred from the woman who held the lease all the years I sublet, was nonexistent. Of course, there is no paper work on her end to prove things either way. Or when my ceiling collapsed in fifty pound chunks of plaster, instead of offering a hotel or to cover expenses as I fled the city, she insisted that I come spend five days and live with her. Those days of vacancy weren’t refunded to me nor were expenses accrued in the fiasco and damage to my things. It took quite a battle to convince her to watch my cat during this time, as she’s fallen in love with my dog (the same dog she told me I could not keep one week and declared as her “godson” the following week). Not to mention that upon my return, three inches of plaster dust covered the floor and she explained, “You have a beautiful new ceiling and a lot of cleaning to do!” At the very least, she offered use of her washing machine and cleaned and folded my blankets and underwear. 

I’ve found myself in the delicate balance of an unnecessarily complicated relationship between me and my landlady. It’s hard to reconcile her financial demands with the general things I’ve yet (or suffered) to see such as a warm apartment, a working oven, or a ceiling. It’s also hard to understand her cry for money when one considers how high the rent is for the other tenants and the fact she owns and has sold three buildings in New York. And did I mention while my apartment was lacking a ceiling, her renovated apartment sparkled with marble floors? I’ve never been late with my rent once in six years and the repairs I’ve done have improved the apartment. I can’t help but become tense when her shrill voice calls from the hallway, beckoning me to the roof to help clean the gutters in monsoon weather. I can all but hide in the closet, when she comes banging on the door for an unannounced inspection of the new ceiling, leaving her muddy footprints along the side of the same bathtub I’ve scrubbed five times since the repairs began. While her voice cuts through my body, causing a chill up my spine to match the chill I feel in this under-heated apartment, I think kind thoughts about how she needs understanding and companionship, as all her family and friends live far away. She spends her time fussing around the building, watching Animal Planet to drown out the loneliness of her three-floor apartment and her vacant courtyard that she refuses to use should the wind come and blow furniture or plants against her sliding glass door. She pushes through the day learning Fur Elise on her little keyboard, her knotted, arthritic fingers hammering away at the melody that she can barely hear. She fills her day with a routine of herbal remedies and supplements, wondering if she can live to 120, since her aunt lived to be 107 and her father past 100.

As I find myself feeling for her and writing this blog, my heat has finally come on. I’m not sure how long it will last, but my pup and cat have taken to their self-designated radiators, one in the main room, one in the bathroom, and I take a deep breath. It will all be okay. I’ll write more, stop procrastinating, and maybe just one day, do something of worth. And yet I wonder, is it inevitable that should we live long enough, we will all end up like a variation of my old landlady?

My Grandpa Blue

I so rarely dream of my grandfather as an adult that I can count the times on one hand. Often vivid and haunting, his dreams come as warnings to reconnect– and soon. But this time it started with images of the home he shared with my grandmother for the first eight years of my childhood. I thought she was reaching out to me from the other side, never appearing, but conjuring images of the street lamp that shone through their bedroom where I lay between them as a little girl. Then images of his old garage by the river would come to me in my sleep, where he would repair cars with his fellow buddies until the property was bought by the bank and garage tore down. I’d awaken, night after night, bound to the memories I shared with them, feeling mystical and nostalgic, and though she had not appeared in the dreams, the tone felt otherworldly. Until the final dream I would have, where I rode with my grandfather in his “toy,” a beloved cobalt blue truck, that wound it’s way down a curvy road along the Catskill Mountains. It was late and dark, and against my insistence that we were heading the wrong way, he drove down the cliff and the truck was halted before a swimming hole. Fragments of the dream were fluidly edited together, as he ran ahead and fell into the creek. Unable to swim, he was saved by these young, slim swimmers, who had been dipping their feet into the ebony waters. His lungs filled with fluid and they were able to revive him before my parents and his current wife arrived. We summoned a rescue squad and as the lights blurred into the darkness, I awoke in a panic. Something felt so incredibly wrong.

I carried the feeling of unbalance through the next day and evening with the intentions of checking in with my parents to see if they had seen my grandfather recently. But the daily grind of work and events interfered and I secretly carried the remnants of the dream, relaying their grip on me to my boyfriend. He brushed it off as another dream. Then in the middle of the following night, my phone sounded. It was my mother, calling from the same hospital she spent hours of her life pushing me into this world, explaining that my grandfather had suffered congestive heart failure. His lungs were filled with fluid and his wife had called after midnight, concerned that his cold symptoms may have worsened and that he was having a hard time walking. By the time my parents arrived, he had nearly lost consciousness and my mom insisted they go to the hospital. I explained my dream, finding confirmation of my fears in all she entailed, but she said he was being well treated.

In the days that followed, his strength improved and sense of humour stayed in tact. Although I offered to come visit over the weekend, my mom said he would be released soon and not to worry. I told her I could come up early in the week if anything changed for the worst and to keep me updated. When early Monday morning arrived, my mother called and simply stated, “You might want to come up as soon as you can.” The weather took a strange turn, as a mild morning in the city was instantly taken by sleet and hard rain. I took the earliest bus I could find to Albany, as happy memories of my grandparents targeted my mind, conjuring feelings from another lifetime. My grandparents had introduced me to the world, traveling along the eastern seaboard with my grandfather’s red truck and their camper. He was the only one left who shared those memories, the good times before my grandmother became so ill and left us behind, to never travel with his camper again. The other dreams came to mind, and I wondered if my grandmother had used them to prepare me for this moment. The further north the bus went, the rain became snow, and inches piled along the thruway, so strange to see on such an early November day. A serious accident with a tractor trailer delayed the bus, as I tried to keep my calm during the frequent updates from the hospital. He had been asking where I was, struggling to stay awake at noon, when I was supposed to arrive. 

“Where’s Michelle?” I could hear him say, as I updated my mother on my travel status. Upon arrival in the often gritty, and now snowy white bus terminal, I tried to maintain my balance through the slush and snow, rallying my strength to face the sadness. My brother and sister met me and I felt the bawdiness take hold, conjuring the spirit of my grandmother, as I complained of the snow and nearly falling on my ass. My brother told stories that our grandfather had been asking for a Bud and steak and I hoped he would still be joking when I arrived. 

When I walked into the room, my mother cheerfully told him that I had arrived. He laid on his side, appearing much heavier than I had last seen him, swaddled in wires and iv’s, barely coherent. He gave a nod before falling into a restless sleep, clutching the bed rail that seemed to barely support his weight and grip. His system was shutting down and blood results had shown a silent heart attack had occurred. There was internal bleeding that could not be located, his lungs were still filled with fluid, and with every cough came a shout of “oh shit!” or “Jesus” intermittently and the bedpan would be summoned. As he became conscious he crankily shouted, “I bet you’d never see me like this, did ya?”

“Of course, I did. You’re older,” I teasingly replied. I showed him photos of my new puppy, hoping he would meet the little guy, after he suffered the staggering loss of his dachshund this year, which still brought him to tears. “I hope I live long enough to meet him,” he responded.

The rest of the day we rotated shifts in the room, my mother who was as hands on as a nurse and my father, his son, who stayed in the shadows. His wife held his hand and I felt so moved by their love, how my grandfather had been blessed with two long marriages in this life. I thought of how she had already buried her first husband and son, and how hard it must be to watch another one ail. When she left the room, he insisted that we take care of her, worrying for her health and stress level. He repeatedly asked my sister if she needed money, worried of the costs incurred to her. He was a man of another era, in pain and near death, humiliated that for the first time in 79 years, he had no control over his body but was overcome with the concern that everyone else was taken care of first. 

Seeing someone so ill, in what could be his final moments, the selfish concerns took hold, hoping we could reminisce on the good days or say something poignant. Those moments were replaced with coughing fits and bedpans and tears and shouts of anguish. The humour found its place from time to time, such as evacuating the room so my kid brother could be left with bed pan duty. Towards the end of the day, a few other visitors came and went and it was time for us to leave. His hand gripped my arm as he stated, “I love you, Michelle.” Those words, so rarely spoken in our adult world, struck me and I couldn’t speak. The tears hammered behind my eyes, my voice caught and paralyzed in the painful lock in my throat. I kissed his cheek and walked away. Everyone else said good bye and I took a few deep breaths before saying approaching him once more. Again, he urgently shouted, “I love you, Michelle” and I was able to find the words and tell him the same. I left the room just as a terrible coughing jag began and had to return to give him yet another hideously mauve bucket and tissues. As soon as he was situated and my mom came into the room, I had to leave and find a reclusive place to release the block on my contained sadness. 

My brother, often filled with premonitions himself, wasn’t convinced we would lose our Grandpa Blue that evening. Every family member we lost was on a terribly rainy day. When the rain turned to snow, he took it as an omen. I returned to the city late that night and time felt fluid and unmeasured; anxiety over the travel time replaced with grief and awareness. I thought of how many jobs I turned down the next day, receiving an unusually high amount of bookings while I was in the waiting room. And suddenly the money, the work, the everyday stresses became so trite and meaningless. The following days came, awash with memories and premature grieving, as my mother called and said they had controlled the bleeding and identified the problems. Although his heart could not be treated surgically just yet, the medications were doing enough. He was not ready to give up. Another week and they would release him.

I returned upstate the weekend he was released, bringing Jack, my little puppy to visit. He sat in the dining room, playing solitaire and issuing complaints about his experience. Whether or not it was intentional, he had forgotten that he was so ill. He blamed the hospital for making him sick, for giving him such terrible food and an uncomfortable bed. He showed me his half-cans of soda and the exercises he was required to do with them. And the deep emotional exchange in the hospital had become muted, the subtleties of our interaction revealing the love and familial bond. And though his heart damage has still not been assessed or cured, we return with optimism and uncertainty of how much time anyone of us has left. We only can make the most of things as we go. I can only hope that when he does leave us, it will be without the agony and pain and humiliation he suffered that day in the hospital. I can only hope that he enjoys the rest of his time here and is able to go out with the dignity he deserves. And in the meantime, we have all been blessed to still have him around through the holidays.