"Conquer The World."
-- the caption at my placemat at my friend's bridal shower yesterday.
"Our Love is Our Art."
-- John Lennon (my favourite quote.
Hello my little blades... This is the story I recently submitted to MODERN LOVE in the New York Times.
Thought you'd all enjoy it!
I send you all LOVE... My birthday and party last night were MAGIC. I hope this finds you all smiling :):):) I send back to all of you the great waves of love you have been sending to me.
Welp, here goes:
When I was Seventeen.
“I have a job idea for you. My friend Elan’s father is a surgeon and he knows a woman who needs some help,” Lorelei moved in closer. And whispered, “I know you could use the money.” It was a few years ago at an art exhibit in West Los Angeles when my friend pulled me aside and spoke of Helen whose cancer had rendered her incapable of driving. She needed someone to take her painting in the mountains once a week. As a young woman who was taking “a break” from acting, I was looking for a way to pay the rent and, perhaps more importantly, I was looking for a way to fill my long days. This “gig” was certainly not the typical waitress thing. Nor was it an occupation in which I was destined to meet surfers with good bone structure. This was a test of my spirit. And I felt that my spirit needed some testing. Plus, I was broke.
I picked up Helen the following Tuesday at her apartment on the West Side. I pulled up in my Volkswagen Golf and there she stood: a mass of paints and brushes, a colorful scarf on her head, and a couple of collapsible chairs in her arms. We zoomed up into the mountains of Malibu, stopping at a local market to buy bag lunches and chips. It dawned on me then that I hadn’t taken a day off to be outdoors since moving to Los Angeles over a year ago. We settled into the womb of Topanga Canyon. And we each sat in one of the collapsible chairs. In the quiet of the hours, she pointed to a bird on a branch above our heads. “What kind of bird is he?” she asked. Then, “Did you hear the sound he made?” I put down my crossword puzzle and looked up. I found his sound to be graceful, melodic. We took our lunch break at a picnic table behind an old cabin. When she grew too tired to paint, I drove her home.
And so began my Tuesdays with Helen. Driving along the sinuous roads of the Pacific Coast Highway, we’d stop and plant ourselves in the cool sands where she ‘d paint the ocean. We frequented local diners and touristy restaurants. On the way home, I’d play classical music in the car as she spoke of things small and heartbreakingly big. Of her failed marriage and how she’d been absorbed with material things -- fancy cars and befriending important doctors and their well-dressed wives. Of how little she’d appreciated her husband. How he too had succumbed to cancer. And how she still mourned his death, the renowned doctor who once upon a time loved her dearly.
As the weeks stretched on, the cancer overwhelmed her painting. Beaches were replaced with Kinko’s runs for copies of her insurance plan, 7-11 for long distance phone cards, the bank for withdrawals from her feeble account, and finally, the hospital for her bi-weekly infusions. As can be expected, her moods declined with her health. Her excitement over capturing the bright colors of bird on a branch was replaced with a growing paranoia about me -- and everyone who came to her house to help her. I began to feel like the rash she couldn’t scratch hard enough. One time in a frame shop, I overheard her telling the manager that her friend was paying me to do anything she needed. She referred to me as that girl. I skulked around the store until I saw that she was ready to leave. And the way she spoke to her Mexican cleaning lady was painful to watch. She practically smacked her with her words. “Do you hear me, Maria? Go and feed the cats. Go. Helloooo Leave the room.” I told her a few days later that she’d hurt my feelings by talking down to me. She looked at me quizzically and then apologized. I felt as if I’d passed an unspoken test. From then on out, she was better to me. But I could see that she had to work at it; kindness was now an effort she seemed unwilling to embrace. She was also unwilling, it seemed, to have me work for her anymore. Accustomed to working with her a few days a week, I was surprised when I didn’t receive a phone call from her the following Monday confirming our Tuesday plan. So, I called her and was told that she didn’t need me, in fact, she was fine on her own for that week. And this back and forth continued for a few months. I’d call pretty much every week to check in and I even left a few voicemails on her answering machine. I never heard back. Finally two months later, I managed to get her on the phone and though she was friendly, and seemed happy even, she said she was busy and had to go. She was about to leave for dinner with some friends and would be in touch if she needed my help. And that was that. About a month later on a bright spring afternoon, it seemed she did need my help. She was at the hospital and needed a ride home. When I picked her up, I tried to hide my reaction to her gaunt appearance. She’d become dangerously dehydrated from the experimental drugs she was taking. And as a result, had to be hospitalized. To make matters worse, the doctors had informed her that the drugs were not working. She’d stopped wearing a wig and instead tied a dull scarf around her head. She’d probably lost forty pounds. Once I got her home and opened the car door for her as she slowly made her uneven way out of my Volkswagen, she gave me an almost pleading look. I sensed that I was here for good this time. There was something almost teenage about her from that day on; she became lighter, funnier even, a layer of severity was peeling away. Every few days, she was munching on medical marijuana brownies that no doubt “lightened” her mood. She also seemed to have acquiesced to her illness in a way that made her more tender and less irritable. She was beginning to allow people further into her world by asking things of us, things that were deeper than Kinko’s or bagged lunches or paintbrushes or car rides. For a few hours a day three days a week, I’d sit in a chair next to her bed and read her favorite book to her. At her request. “We might as well read,” she’d sigh. A spark barely visible in her eyes. Throughout the day, I’d empty her bedpan that reeked of the foulest smells I’d known. Or I’d scurry to the kitchen to feed her cats, the cats she begrudgingly gave away. Knew she could never care for again. Or I’d bring her the coldest drink I could muster up, jamming as many ice cubes as humanly possible into her glass. And she’d beg for more. There was a palpable relief, an exhalation, when she slept. She was finally at peace. Or maybe it was I who was at peace then. They say you die as you live. I am fascinated by this theory because of my own mother who died of cancer when I was seventeen. She died with wreathes of people around her, singing at her bedside in the hospital, vacuuming the rugs in our home, taking turns cooking meals for our family, stroking her back and holding her hands, washing her wig. Her path to heaven was brightly lit and she did not walk alone. We were all holding on. Helen told me once, “People are trying to work out their stuff through me.” She had a friend whose father had died of cancer and his wife told Helen just that, he was working something out through her. Maybe by spending time with Helen, he was spending time with his father, completing a loss. And maybe I was doing the same thing. I was facing a fear, looking cancer straight in its yellowed eye, and not turning away. There were times when I was overwhelmed. I needed to take deep breaths or I thought I might disappear. And somehow amidst the nauseating smells, her dark and loveless apartment, her lack of finances – Lorelei’s friend’s father was footing my bill -- I felt a strong pull towards Helen. It was as though my mother were whispering in my ear nightly -- do for her what they did for me.
She took my hand once. I was leaving for the day and she grabbed onto it and held on. We said nothing, but I stayed until she let go. This was the only time she initiated physical contact with me. A couple of times I bought her flowers and a card. She smiled and thanked me. Most importantly though, I kept coming every Tuesday or any other day she requested. And this from a kid who could barely eat in the dining room of the local retirement home because the way old people ate unsettled me. Bed pans. “You’ve come a long way, Baby.” Not exactly what Virginia Slims was touting, but in my own way I had. I was away at summer school when she died. No family at her side. She was left alone, except for an occasional friend and the hospice nurses, their faces changing weekly. She died belittling Maria. Questioning her friends’ loyalty. Giving her precious items away to Goodwill, I’m not sure she gave a single thing to a friend or even a distant relative. She died childless. She died penniless. She died a Jewish convert, up until her last few months, she attended a private, weekly Kabbalah class at her rabbi's house. But the lightness that surfaced as her life grew closer to an end never illuminated her gnawing lack of faith in the world outside her dark bedroom. I hoped she died at peace. As for me, there was no hashing out Helen sessions on a therapist’s couch, no smoking sessions with embittered friends. No looking back at what might have made her happier, why I maybe should have left sooner. I took to studying in Oxford, England and didn’t look back. But what I found in those several months of sitting beside Helen will live in me forever. I found a way to love the seemingly loveless. To say thank you to all the people who sat beside my mother as she lay dying when I was seventeen.