The old woman was dying, and I was the aide on her floor. I spent most of the time filling the needs of the large family in her room: Did I have ice water, a moist compress, a CD player? I brought a cart from the kitchen filled with cookies and crackers, soda and coffee, and they devoured everything in 20 minutes.
The family was dark and good looking, quiet but for the eldest siblings. The son was 60-something, heavy with cologne and a New York accent. He called her “Mar” instead of “Ma.” He was on his cell phone most of the time, talking to many people, giving the workings of medicine as he understood them.
The daughter had lots of dyed-black hair, heavy gold chains and bracelets. Her breasts were large beneath her tight sweaters and she used them to herd people around the room. She would also use them as pillows for her mother’s bruised, gauze-wrapped arms. Her face was always inches from her mother’s. “Is that hurting your nose, Mar? Do we need the Vicks?”
The mother was Ann Serpico, aged 95, former ballerina. Besides the other problems, she couldn’t speak, due to a stroke.
They kept her hair in a bun, so she looked like her photos around the room. Her fine skin was transparent, and you could see the blue and green veins, some still the size of an athlete’s. Her long neck curved with arthritis. When we cleaned her up it was sad to see the ribcage, although hers might have always been like that. Her corded thighs still looked strong enough for a plié, but her knees and ankles were swollen. And the feet, of course, toes bent and stubbed. For years they had carried a shining star and now kept their pact with the devil. She clutched rosary beads in one hand to ward off this devil and there were cards with Jesus around the room next to her pictures, and a few statues.
The nurse and I moved Ann from the chair to the bed, and it was a big deal. She gasped for air—we had to put a mask on her. “Oh my god, Mar! Is that in your eyes?” Ann had a killer grip on my arm: make them die.
* * *
One granddaughter was striking in her resemblance to the young Ann. She had the black hair in a bun, the slightly hooked nose, long neck. “I trip over my own feet,” she told me. “A klutz. And tone deaf.”
I wanted to tell her she didn’t need any of that. My mouth hung open. She waved me over. I had to open Ann’s hand from my arm. Her name was Rita, and she said, “This is Maman,” in a French way. She showed me YouTube videos of Ann in Swan Lake. “Maman played both the white and the black swans. She was fearless. She is not afraid to die.”
“Rita!” This was her mother speaking, one of the quiet ones who drank all the coffee.
“Well, it’s true.”
“We don’t have to talk about it.”
Ann waved me back with her fingertips. We had a language. She squeezed my arm lightly, three times. I think it meant she liked Rita. And Rita said, “Robert, she loves you.” And I blushed.
* * *
At the end of my shift Rita met me in the hall. Her lids were heavy, and she smelled like pot. “I’m at the Holiday Inn. Can you come and help me with something?”
“Are you going to be a doctor?”
We walked across the street to the Holiday Inn.
“I’m afraid of dying,” she said.
“You didn’t get the bravery from Ann?”
“I only got her looks. No talent. No ability to suffer for art. She’s died a hundred times on stage.”
“You don’t need to be afraid now. You are young. It’s a waste of time.”
She took my hand and we went into the bar. We sat in a back booth and ordered alcoholic iced teas.
“Have your aunt and uncle always been this way?”
“They’ve had to compete for her attention since they were little. She was always working. Always for that perfection. If I had one ounce of that perfection. Anyway, now they jockey to see how close they can get while she’s going downhill. It’s so weird.”
“I think she wants to die alone.”
“Can we not talk about it? Come to my room. I’m afraid.”
The alcohol had not done its job. We were nervous. I had an arm around her shoulder and she was trembling. I knew that her real trouble was self-esteem. The crazy family had done it to her: How can you look like the famous Ann and lack talent?
She was the black swan in bed. We were close to death many times and she laughed in its face. Afterward she said, “Now you have slept with Maman, fulfilling your fantasy.”
* * *
The next day when I came in, no one was in Ann’s room. It was nice. Ann squeezed my arm and looked deeply into my eyes. In her eyes I saw a scene in which she was dancing, leaping, and so free at last. I moved with her, lifting and spinning and holding her. We were excited, and I breathed deeply with her. She covered a black stage so quickly it turned white, dazzling. Then at the peak of her power she deflated and turned blue. There was the Do Not Resuscitate band. She fell to the stage, hands open. I grabbed them, tried to get her up. She started to melt into the dazzling white and I wanted to go with her. Take me. But I was not allowed. She was gone that fast, had chosen that window to elope with her Jesus, into a peace and quiet until she reached her next stage of glory.
I warmed her hands in mine, waiting for the real world to return.
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