As they walked down the steep incline towards Nagel Avenue, it might have seemed to somebody watching that they were standing still as in a portrait. Yet they continued at their own pace, persistently and relentlessly, using a following wind slightly to their advantage, caring for one another, the wife using a cane, the husband apparently in some discomfort. Quite simply, they were very old; to most the wife, ten years younger, looked older, but, in fact, her health was excellent, whereas he was quite frail.
She had planned to stay at home, to give him a list of groceries to present to the Dominican man at the bodega, who was always so nice and respectful toward them, but she suffered while he was gone, fearing for his safety, especially with “drugs” in the area as well as unsavory types congregating on the Avenue. She came along so that if anything happened to him, someone would be around to call for help.
Sidney Alexander was a proud man; Nadia, a dutiful wife. He’d been a craftsman, she a homemaker; he a writer for the Daily Worker years before, she a dependable party worker; he a devoted father who made sure their son Loren had a religious education, she an executive secretary for a world-renowned cardiologist. When you last long enough, what once seemed a life’s work became a temporary incarnation, but he was to her, a hero; handsome, strong, and true. He had yet to let her down.
Now he fell on a slab of ice. She had to pick him up and drag him back up the hill, carrying him (she didn’t know how) since there was nobody around. She put him in his bed, but he was scarcely conscious and hardly moved until the ambulance came.
Next thing she knew, he was in the hospital coming to, and now her back began to kill her. She’d have it treated, mention it to the doctor at least, when Sidney was out of danger.
“I had to give him an injection,” the lady doctor told Nadia, as she waited anxiously, refusing to leave his side.
“Which means,” Nadia said.
“Which means that if you’d waited for an ambulance to get there, he might have died; he may have suffered a slight stroke. We’ll know the effects better in a while, but be sure you saved your husband’s life. You should thank God he wasn’t alone.”
“We like to go places together,” Nadia said, “but I didn’t know it made such good sense until now.”
The doctor was a sweet Jewish woman, who looked like their daughter-in-law, Sara, about to be estranged from Loren. There was an intensity in her eyes, of the kind you see in a White House reporter asking the president about his girl friends.
“How did you do it?” the doctor asked. “How did you lift him?”
“Well,” Nadia said. “You know, you do things. I was thinking about all he’d done for me over the years.”
“You couldn’t live without him?” the doctor said.
“Maybe I could, but I’d rather not,” answered Nadia.
Loren arrived within the hour.
“Where’s Sara, and our grandson?” Nadia asked him.
“We’re not on good enough terms to visit together,” Loren said. “They will be here later.”
When it became apparent that Sidney’s mind, if it had slowed at all, had done so imperceptively; and that he’d recover his mobility with the exception of lingering circulatory complications from his diabetes, Nadia thought of herself.
She’d left her cane someplace. Had it been in the ambulance? No, she’d seen it way after that, recently, in fact. Actually, she was holding it in her left hand. When she realized this, she sighed. Her life had not ended.
Loren had suggested that they move to Florida years ago. When his business was excellent, he offered to buy a condominium down there for them, but Sidney had refused. The effort had been renewed yearly; they could count on a call from Loren on the first cold day, but where were the memories down there? He would owe his life to his son. What for? He still loved New York. All he’d have to do was be careful, not to fall on a patch of ice.
“I’ll come to see you,” Loren had said. “I’d love to move down myself.”
“If it was up to me, all right,” Sidney had told him, “but you know how your mother is.”
“She always does what you want,” Loren had said. “It wouldn’t be much of a sales job.”
“You have to believe in what you’re selling,” Sidney had said. “I’d be a fish out of water down there with all of the other old Jews. The one old Jew I see in the mirror is one too many.”
“Thanks for the compliment,” Nadia had said, laughing. End of discussion.
After one more long sleep, the doctors pronounced him ready to go home. Just one thing, the doctors told him. He shouldn’t use the fall as a rehearsal, and try it again. Now Nadia realized her back was killing her.
“If I had a medal,” the doctor told her, “I’d pin it on your chest.”
“Medals,” she said, and laughed again in a new way. “My son used to win all the medals at summer camp.”
When they got home, Sidney seemed distant, as she tried not to notice. When he’d doze while watching Larry King, it seemed to her he wasn’t certain who the president was, though he must remember that he’d have voted for anyone against Bush.
Lucid periods seemed to be giving way, though the doctor attributed this to the slowness of his recovery and a need for extra rest. Once, he held her spellbound while talking about the old musicals and how they had been at a performance of Call Me Madam when Loren was born.
“Was that one of the favorites of the shows we’ve seen together?” she asked him.
“You mean of all time?”
“You mean, musicals, or can I count plays too?”
“You can count whatever you want to,” she said, so glad he was this animated.
“Death of a Salesman,” he said. “The original. What was that, 40 years ago?”
“There’s a new Arthur Miller play on Broadway now. Would you like to go? Loren said he’d get us tickets even if his business hasn’t been so good.”
“An Arthur Miller play.”
“Never mind,” she said, and let him go back to watching his golf show on ESPN.She was reading a novel she liked by Rosellen Brown. She’d much prefer that Sidney would pick up the mystery she’d gotten for him to read, but at least, he seemed to be energized, watching, not simply staring, which made her feel as if he were gradually fading away from her, like a man with a new mistress.
She didn’t think her eyes were going, but if she were to time the moments when she recognized her Sidney, they were seldom, and their frequency was diminishing. She noticed, too, that he’d urinate in his pants without telling her, as if she’d never detect that stench when she did the laundry at the self-service place down the hill. Rather than mention this, which would have been quite demeaning and pointless, she chose rather to ignore his plight, and forgo complaining about her back, which was causing great pain.
At her weekly check-up, she got a clean bill of health. The back pain had gone into virtual remission. He’d given her a chance to rest over the past several days so the tenderness was reduced. With the prescription pain killer the doctor had shunted to her against her will, she’d forget about it, if she didn’t suffer added strain. She noticed a certain fatigue would kick in, but if she had time to stop on her walks, and didn’t fear the unsavory boys loitering in the doorways, which tended to make her lurch away rapidly, and cause minor muscle pulls.
That night, he was complaining about Minister Farrakhan, who’d forgotten the role Jews such as themselves had played in the Civil Rights movement.
“What did anyone ever do for the Jews?” he asked. “We couldn’t get Loren into Princeton, even with his grades, remember?”
“They want to reverse past discrimination,” she said. “I can recall how they were treated in the South, not to mention the North, not to mention right under our noses.”
“When did we become the enemy, that’s all I want to know?” Sidney said, and was still.
Okay, so it wasn’t absolutely essential anymore that they agree on every little thing in politics. Mainly, she just wanted to get him to talk to her.
It was a fine April morning; they had officially made it through the winter. Now, he awakened, wanting to walk to the store, where he hadn’t been, he said, for months. She held her breath as she handed him the grocery list. He looked fine, happier than he had in some time. If he fell from then on, she wouldn’t be able to help him. She reminded him to check if the bread was fresh, and if they had strawberries to check the ones on the bottom of the box because they were paying a fortune to get them out of season. She didn’t care to be gypped as well. She warned him not to buy the liver unless it was prime calves’ because, yes, the beef liver was cheaper, but the last time he couldn’t eat it and had to leave the entire portion for the dog next door. He’d had to eat a tuna sandwich instead.
“What do you take me for, a child?” he said.
She didn’t answer.
“You don’t answer?”
“Do you want me to say you forget things you used to remember?” she said.
“And you don’t?” he responded.
“No,” she said, “to be perfectly truthful, I don’t think I do.”
“So I’m the only one getting old, so I’m the only one who you’re gonna put in a home?”
“I don’t want to think about that,” she said.
Then he left. She couldn’t help it. She practically couldn’t breathe for an hour until he buzzed up. She unpacked everything. It was exactly right. Everything was fine. The slice of liver was really nice so she came back to the chair to kiss him.
“Where’s our change?” she said. “I used to put it away until next time.”
“What change?” he said.
“You had a twenty dollar bill; you should have gotten something back.”
He reached in his pockets and managed to pull out a five dollar bill and forty-four cents. “I’m right on top of things,” he said, and she laughed out of relief.
When, for the third time, he fell from the sofa, she didn’t try to lift him, just simply suggested he make himself comfortable on the floor until others showed up to assist him. She couldn’t take it anymore, she thought. It was time to leave things in the hands of professionals. She was depressed herself, and couldn’t help realizing, above all, that she didn’t want to become a patient again herself.
The EMS people came quickly and Nadia told the woman in charge that if she didn’t lift him carefully he was still capable of putting up a fuss. He was like an old Egyptian king on a burnished throne, but, in fact, he gave them no trouble, possibly because he didn’t care to argue with gentiles.
At Mt. Sinai Hospital, they called her in and told her he’d done little more than bruise his hip, that they couldn’t find anything physically wrong which would have prevented him from getting up. Maybe he’d just been seeking attention.
Loren was there shortly, and he spoke to the doctors. When he confronted his mother, there were tears in his eyes, as if all were lost.
“They suggest that you put him in a long-term care facility,” Loren said.
“It wouldn’t be right,” Nadia said. “I couldn’t do it unless I had to. I mean, 58 years is a long time. If he went, I’d have to go too, and I don’t wish to give up my freedom.”
“You’re considerably younger, Mother,” Loren said. “Almost ten years, but if you have to care for Daddy, you might both deteriorate more rapidly.”
“He made my life,” she said. “Before I met your father, I walked around like a little girl.”
The most important thing, Loren had told her, was to have a clear conscience.
There was, of course, a good deal more at stake. She sometimes felt she was being selfish by denying him superior care. Loren would have to put him in an expensive facility, where he might be waited on hand and foot. He might even meet another woman if he could figure out what to do with her. She was being selfish because it was, after all, she who couldn’t live without him. What would her life be without him? Yes, she could make friends at the Temple, or at Bingo night on Bennett Avenue, but nobody would need her. She didn’t think Loren would make her a grandmother again, not with this new young actress girl friend.
“At times,” Loren had told her, “selfishness becomes a virtue. There’s a place close enough where you could visit him practically every day.”
“Do you want that?” she asked him.
“No,” Loren said. “I want him to be my Little League coach again, but the fact is, he’s over 85 years old and you’re not.”
She didn’t see it like that; they were a team. In his lucid moments, Sidney would talk about the past, and she’d tell him about Scot, their grandson, whom Sara had told her won a prize for his ability as a broadcaster on the college radio station. Nights, when Sidney lay next to her, his presence was all that mattered, until the next crisis took place, which she’d have to learn to deal with.
They went to the store together on the first anniversary of his near-death experience. It was sunny, a day in the forties, and they could avoid the little snow that remained on the ground.
“It’s nice to be out again,” Sidney said, sounding like his old self of, say, three or four years ago. He seemed to be feeling fine, but she was wary now. She’d come to understand that it’s such times when crises would come.
“What do you want for dinner?” she asked him.
“A nice chicken.”
“Is there something good on television?” she asked.
“A play about those two skaters who hate each other,” he said.
On the way home from the store, the wind came up. Powerful as it was, it might have been hard for somebody who was trying to figure out why this old couple had chosen to venture out to the market at this time. If anything, Sidney was walking more adeptly than she, who had to be particularly careful lest her cane slide on a lingering icy spot. Now she was thinking, not about muggers, but simply making it back home, together, in one piece. If he couldn’t hold up his end this time, she knew what to do. Ssh! Who was going to find out?