During World War II we worked out of Washington DC for the OWI, Office of War Information. Then we signed up to drive ambulances in France and Italy. Later we taught English in the Soviet Union. We liked being in the same country at the same time.
From traveling and being on unfamiliar terrain, we have settled down together in our later years in Lincoln Towers in quite a nice apartment, a bedroom each, and close to Lincoln Center with its bulletin boards of events.
Before all this happened, we saw Coppelia with George Ballanchine’s choreography.
“I liked the original Petipa version,” said Irma, “that we saw at the Bolshoi.”
“Ah, Irma,” I said, “the Children’s Corps!”
There they were, in each of the five positions, their feet still intact for they were not yet au point.
We don’t have children, Irma and I. Children would have entailed husbands. Husbands would have entailed marriage and not traveling. Not traveling would have compromised us.
We are unafraid sisters. Or we were.
The wheelchairs are lined up across from the elevator. The patients want to see who gets off at their floor.
“Take me with you,” says one tiny lady to me and the other occupants of the elevator.
When we ignore her, she spews forth curses, “You nigger!” addressed to the African-American, Asian, Caucasian guests.
In the garden, an elderly man wheels his wife.
“But, darling,” he tells her slumped figure, “this is outdoors.“
I greet my sister, “Irma ma douce.”
I wheel her to the aviary on the first floor.
I say to Irma, “Look at the birds. Aren’t they pretty?”
“To my room!” says Irma.
(She doesn’t say it as clearly as I’m telling you. Her twisted mouth slurs the words.)
“Look at the parakeet,” I insist, “yellow with rouged cheeks.”
“Vulgar,” she says. “Take me to my room!”
“And the little finches with their orange beaks—”
Irma, always determined, puts her hands on the wheels and backs herself away from the aviary.
“Birds aren’t practical,” says Irma.
Getting older isn’t practical. The skin practically falls off your face. The legs stiffen so that they are goose-stepping. The arms are exaggerated in gesture, remaining in place an extra instant (reminding me of the mechanical doll in Coppelia.)
The eyes are not clear, the ears not exact in their hearing.
In the rest home, they rest to their death.
There’s something doing in the auditorium. Never give the patients a quiet moment. They might reflect. An aged African-American entertainer is tap dancing.
“Bring down the curtains!” yells Irma.
Of course there are no curtains. It’s only a platform on which the dancer is stiffly cake-walking and tapping.
“Look what’s on for tonight, Irma!” I read the notice in a bright voice. “Sophie Tucker imitations, a sing-a-long.”
She bends her head into her arms.
“Aw, kiddo,” I say, “it isn’t so bad! Don’t give in to it.”
Irma, my wicked girl, lisps, “If you like it so much, you have the throke.”
Then she strokes her pillow, stroke, stroke.
I’m here, to use winged metaphors, the early bird and hawk-eyed, watching them all, staff and patients.
The hospital staff is so careful, cheerful, friendly, more than one has a right to expect from minimum wages. None of this pleases Irma.
Before The Stroke she was a chatty, peppy woman, given to romantic impulses and World War II songs. She’d sing in the shower: “Wrap yourself in cotton wool/ save yourself for me/ eat an apple every day/ keep the doctor man away/ wrap yourself in cotton wool/ and save yourself, behave yourself for me.”
“Irma,” I try, “the pet person is here.”
“I hate animals,” says Irma.
We shared a cat once, a big guy, Sherman the Tank. It was too hard to let go when he passed.
I must have looked in the direction of the pet lady for here she comes with her toy poodles, Sheinah and Kleinah, the Pretty One and the Small One.
“Girls,” says the poodle person to her dogs, “You remember Irma?”
“Just one of the girlth,” says Irma.
Irma is not moved by the pet owner’s story of how the mother poodle passed the test for her license but the daughter failed it twice.
“Thath life,” says Irma airily.
I hurriedly ask, “Want your hair done, Irma?”
Once I could count on her vanity. She nods.
The elevator operator picks up three bouffant women from the floor, just finished at the salon.
“The Golden Girls,” the operator says indulgently, helping the wheelchairs into the elevator.
“Changed my mind,” says Irma.
We go to the garden instead.
An attendant sits at the fish pool in the garden and takes a photo of the patient with her family.
“The fish, too,” says the patient. “They’re my family.”
“Out of here,” says Irma, wheeling herself away.
On the first floor is a tropical fish tank. The patients study the fluttering fish.
“Satan is here,” says an attendant.
A long eel edges slowly out of a sea shell until its head appears. Its jaws open wide. A small tropical fish disappears.
“Does he remind you of someone?” asks Irma. She smiles crookedly. “That phony guy who worked for the Associated Press.”
“Come to think of it,” I say.
But I knew the gals.
Whatever you say about World War II, it was a sexy time. Even our honcho general had his driver/ mistress tooling him around in full view.
“Do you think Mamie knew?” Irma asked.
“Of course,” I said.
“Why did she take him back?”
“Being Top Lady is better than being Nobody’s Baby,” I say.
Irma had her guys and I had my share of WAACS, Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, and WAFS, the Women’s Air Force. Also met some biggy, buggy people coming through, Dorothy Thompson for one. I had a yen for her big mannish face and deep voice. But she couldn’t see it my way. I met two other eccentric ladies driving an old car with supplies for the civilians, Gertrude and Alice. Problem there was, they liked men and mocked women, except each other.
Look, the scenario for World War II was, “We liberated Europe and they showed their deep gratitude,” if you know what I mean.
“Hate my room,” Irma says suddenly.
I tried to get her a private room, though our insurance doesn’t cover. I’ve offered to supplement. When that didn’t work, I wrangled and finagled to get her the window bed.
“Thanks a bunch,” says Irma, “for this great view of the tenement.”
Then the bed next to the door.
“Now I can see into the hall at the pill dispensers.”
“Be of good cheer,” says our recent neighbor from Lincoln Towers. “It could be worse.”
“Tell me how,” says Irma.
“Irma,” I say, “You’re not even trying.”
“I’m dying,” says Irma, “and I’m not even trying.”
The oldest does not want to hear this from the youngest.
“You’re not dying, honey,” I try to tell her without blurring the words with my tears.
It does not bring comfort when she is reminded of previous roommates: the young Hispanic woman surrounded by her affectionate family, taken away daily for dialysis; another woman, a former registrar at City College, now wearing diapers; or the former athlete, a competitive cyclist, whose knees quiver when she stands.
Nothing makes Irma feel better.
“I am invaded!” she cries when she is given an enema, when the thermometer is inserted under her tongue or the blood pressure unit encircles her arm.
“I am invaded!” she cries, when her poor, inert arm is massaged by the physical therapist. And the occupational therapist tries to get her to use her hand for practical purposes, to lift a spoon, to turn a knob.
“I am invaded!” when the floor nurse arrives with her meds.
Even before I am ready to leave, after the last of the visitors, she has turned her back on me. She wants to leave first.
And yet, my dearest younger sister, even inert, structures my days. When the final visitors have left and I am the straggler, I walk the short distance to our complex. I am weary from not doing anything. I have abandoned the exercise room of our unit, the pedals on the bike turning on their own momentum. I fold bread over a slice of cheese. I drag the cashmere throw from our bed and use it for my cover on the couch. The couch with its soft pillows is not good for the back. But waiting is not good for the soul.
Sometimes Irma wants me to be Sheherazade. “Tell Thory,” she says.
More often she wants me silent. I’m not an industrious knitter or reader of glossy magazines, like the other women idly turning the pages. I sit, hands loose, and observe the scene.
I watch one lively woman, old, not unhandsome, sturdy except for her ankles. She wheels her husband to the café, stirs the milk into his coffee, asks the attendant to microwave the croissant.
“Delicious?” she asks him.
He never responds.
Sometimes she sees Irma and me there and tries to strike up a conversation. Irma doesn’t encourage it, but, having spent so much time with the news and among journalists, I find stories the interesting stuff of life.
“Mein mann,” says the woman, “Lost everything there is to lose. He lost his first wife, his children. Who could mourn enough for that? We met much later. Our expectations were modest. Someone should be nice to us. Now, take a look, he lost himself. Still,” she says, straightening his tie, “he has his pride and I try to keep him spiffy.”
“Thpiffy,” mocks Irma. I shake her wheelchair.
I have seen the woman’s husband gallant when he remembers who she is, and cruel and dismissive when he can’t place her.
“Who needs you?” he shouts.
“I,” says the woman, “I need me!”
After that, I notice that she, a regular among us, misses days.
“A week,” says Irma.
She returns. She is not the greeter of the hospital. Nor is she so helpful in keeping her husband spiffy. In the café she stares in the distance when she shares a table with him and his wheelchair.
The neighbor that visited Irma in the hospital was the one who found her near the revolving door of the Towers. She had called me on her cell phone.
“Don’t be worried,” she said, “but your sister’s here. Irma’s had a little tumble.”
I dislike underestimation more than exaggeration.
On the other hand, how could you inform your neighbor gracefully of trouble?
What does one do in such a case, upon hearing of disaster at the door? I rush for my purse. But I grab it up upside-down, spilling the contents. Lipstick, chapstick, eyebrow pencil roll under tables, couches as I waste valuable time, crawling around, gathering them.
An EMS is there, Emergency Medical Service.
“It’s all right,” says the driver as he and his partner lift Irma onto the gurney. “I don’t think she’s hurt. It’s just a precaution.”
One can never be too precautious.
I have nightmares of that first night in Emergency, awaiting doctors’ reports, x-rays.
Near us, also on a gurney, is a young man awaiting his turn.
“Read to me,” whispers Irma, coming to briefly.
I always have a thin book of stories in my jacket pocket. I retrieve it to read to Irma, though she is mostly out of it.
“Young man,” I ask the person waiting behind us, “Are we disturbing you?”
“No,” says the fellow. “I love narrative.”
Irma is wheeled into the lab tech’s x-ray room and I am barred.
“You sure we didn’t disturb you?” I ask the fellow.
“Oh, no,” says the fellow, with almond shaped eyes, thinner than he had seemed wrapped in the sheets.
“What are you here for?” I ask. “Something break?”
“I’m dying,” he says. “Four months left to live. It’s my liver. I had hepatitis and now I have cancer of the liver.”
I am not normally an affectionate person but I caress him, first his hand, then his sweet face.
“The hard part is,” he says, “I have a two-year-old daughter at home.”
He instructs me to open his knapsack for the picture of his daughter. The photo is stuck into a notebook with lyrics, with drawings.
“You do all this?” I ask, “The art, the music notation?”
“Yes,” he says. “I’m a musician, an artist, and a poet. And now I don’t have time enough to find out which.”
Irma is wheeled out. We pass the young man who will now have his turn. He stretches out his arms.
“Mama!” he cries to me, “Don’t leave me!”
In the hospital the caretakers smooth the sheets, plump up the pillows, get their patients in the shower, hold them as they’re seated. The caretakers stick their heads into the room to tease the occupants. They take care to notice the unnoticed.
Irma’s voice always had an edge, a blurry, slurry one. But she has slowed down. Her response is so measured that I’m running out of patience, out of time.
I respond or make an innocent comment.
“Why are you alwayth talking?” she asks.
When the other bed is empty and Irma’s in her strange separate space, the room is so silent. She sleeps or stares at the perforated, soundproofed ceiling. The phone seldom rings. I realize we’ve outlived our history. Irma cannot reach the phone anyway. My own voice, from under-use, is raw, a roar, a breaking up of the space. All I can do is surrender and back out.
“It isn’t fair,” says Irma. “You get to go, I get to stay.”
When we were children on the see-saw, Irma complained: “It isn’t fair. You get the up-side and I the down.”
We cast ourselves in opposition. Now, if she is depressed, it is my duty to be cheerful. If she is hopeless, I am hopeful.
An irresponsible thing happens one day. Irma has ignored me for hours. Suddenly I take off and return two hours later, after seeing a light mystery. I mention none of this but, behind my eyes, are spies and chases and love scenes. Luckily, it has a World War II setting, my favorite. The heroine is breaking the Axis code. The Allies are shooting Germans. All is as it should be.
The hospital is only another movie set.
“I am invaded!” Irma cries.
There is no one here.
She points. The nurses have brought in a vase of “used” flowers for her to enjoy. By the time the first patient cast it off, they were browning, the buds drooping
“That’s me,” says Irma.
Maybe it was the independence of the earlier hours, but I’m short-tempered.
She swallows. It’s hard to talk with your tongue flopping and your mouth misshapen.
“You, you’re a nag. An old horse. Neigh! Neigh!”
I rise straight up from the chair. My leg muscles do all the work.
“Neigh!” She’s laughing me down the corridor. “Thend in the neigh-bor.”
I do movie again. Another mystery. Only mysteries, with justice meted out at the end, bring me comfort. This one isn’t so mysterious and it’s too long. There’s a surfeit of hetero love and I get restless sitting for two hours of it.
I have a bit of walk to the hospital but suddenly become anxious and flag a cab. The driver’s lazy and the cab stops far from the curb.
“Were you trying to find a passenger in the middle of Broadway?” I ask, slamming the door too hard.
“F. you, lady,” he says conversationally.
Upstairs, Irma’s door is closed. I try to open it. Someone’s standing there holding it closed.
“Code Blue!” I hear.
The techs, the nurses, the aides, the MDs from the whole floor come running. They open and shut Irma’s door.
I pound. “I’m her sister!” I yell.
The desk nurse calls, “So, sister, why weren’t you here before?”
I go to the desk.
“Probably another sudden, severe attack.”
My sister has feared invasion since she came here.
“There may be a blockage or rupture of a blood vessel to the brain.”
A doctor comes out the door.
The nurse nods. “The doctor will explain it.”
“You’re the nearest relative?” the doctor asks.
I don’t recognize him. My heart sinks. In every TV show you know what follows that remark.
“She’s had an accident, a cerebrovascular accident.”
I go to the movie and she, as a consequence, has an accident. Irma, the Boogy Woogy Drummer Girl of Company B, felled by an accident!
“This is the same stroke?”
“A more severe one.”
“The poor thing!”
“We’re moving her into ICU now.”
She’s wheeled out and I follow alongside.
“People recover from strokes. You read it all the time,” I say.
“On ER,” says the transport worker wheeling Irma’s narrow gurney.
He is the only one speaking to me.
“A stiff arm, a bit of stutter is all that shows,” I tell him.
“Sure, lady,” he says.
His white jacket is comforting.
“You see it all the time, don’t you?” I ask this new expert.
“Not all the time, to tell the truth, Miss Sister. Not near that.”
By the time the proper hospital elevator comes, I’m out of the scene while she, my baby girl, is shrinking by the minute.
Outside the ICU there are relatives sleeping on air mattresses. It’s like the old Youth Hostels when Irma and I went hitching around Europe.
I present myself. “One member of the family at a time,” the nurse says severely.
“There is only one member of this family,” I tell her.
“Five minutes max,” she says.
Irma is a receptacle for tubes – her mouth held open, tubes in her nose, her arms are connected to IVs. When did they have time to shave her head? If she thought it was invasion before, this is D-Day.
“I’m here, Sis,” I say.
She can’t answer with that damned thing stuck in her mouth, holding the mouth open. I hear a groan or a grunt.
“She’s saying something,” I tell her.
The nurse looks in.
“She’s not,’ the nurse says.
“I heard her. I’m telling you I heard her.”
“You wanted to hear her,” says the nurse.
My five minutes are up.
I take up two chairs, with my feet over the arm of one. Families are whispering to one another. A few people have struck up friendships. All of us are stuck in this time warp of “who shall live and who shall die?”
The inhabitants of the ICU waiting room change every so often. A call from the medical staff to a family or one person. Muffled reaction from inside. One family rolls up their air mattresses and leaves. Another family, related to an aged patriarch, hear of his demise, pray together in a corner.
My sister is in another, a deeper coma!
“Is she in pain?” I ask the attending nurse.
“No. That’s the nature of coma. ‘Incapable of responding to external stimuli or internal needs,’” she quotes from a text.
I sit in the waiting room.
“And you?” a total stranger asks.
One is instantly intimate here.
“Sister in coma,” I say.
“That means ‘deep sleep’,” says the stranger.
“Doesn’t sound so bad that way,” I say gratefully.
Irma was a deep sleeper. Especially after love. I’d have to ring her up on the phone and let it ring. Or pound on her door if it were urgent.
Maybe she made love to someone in her sleep.
I sleep dreamlessly on my two chairs. No one invades to comfort, disturb, or love me.
Until my name is called.
I sit up, pulling my legs down from the arm piece.
The nurse speaks quietly to me. The doctor speaks quietly to me. They gently lead me back to see Irma. Her mouth has been closed. She has some kind of shower cap on to give her head privacy.
“Did you say she is out of the coma?” I ask groggily.
“No. She’s passed on.”
The social worker comes in. She doesn’t want me to leave until I sign papers that it’s not the hospital’s responsibility (whose then?). And that I’m not about to sue. And my insurance policy—
”Do you need help contacting your burial agent?”
I think of Irma. “Ashes, ashes,” she once said, “We all fall down.”
“Cremated,” I say.
A fine piece of ceramics, I think for my hot little sister. We have collected treasures on our travels, from Portugal, from Spain, and in the East, from China.
I turn from all the helping hands. The old before the young? It’s a no go!
I’ve been home some weeks.
The intercom buzzes.
“Will you see your neighbor?” asks the man on night duty.
Before I say anything, she’s knocking.
“A decent time has gone,” she says. “You’ve been on your own—”
”Own and lonely,” I say.
“That’s what I mean,” she says.
Without asking, or a by-your-leave, she sits on my couch. The lovely cashmere spread covers it. I still haven’t used the bed.
She lights up a cigarette. She doesn’t ask permission.
She looks me in the eye. She doesn’t ask permission.
Well, neigh, neigh, neighbor!
In amusement, Irma rattles in the Ming vase.