(c) Marnie Woodrow 2014
We both hated eggplant. Both loved Leonard Cohen. We were both born under the astrological sign of Aries. All this I learned in the basement laundry room of the apartment building where we both lived—imagine—on the fourth floor. She was camped out at the little café-style table: cookies, cigarettes, crossword puzzles, cane. She found it easier to just stay down there, do her laundry in one go and haul it back upstairs. I didn’t offer to help. Something about her demeanor said I am just fine thank you very much. I said I hoped we’d bump into each other again.
Outside the apartment building, on a balmy spring day two weeks later, she emerges from a taxi. Hi, Helen, I say brightly, how’ve you been? She tells me she’s been better: her husband died this morning. A woman alone in the world stands facing me on the sidewalk. I know nothing about her except that she detests eggplant as much as I do. I want to say more but there is really not much you can say to a woman alone in the world. I’m in 412 if you need anything at all, I tell her. I hear her cane tapping in the hallway, coming and going with the business of her husband’s death. Finally I write my telephone number on a Post-It note and put it on her door. I sense she is too tough a cookie to call.
The real change in our relationship came because of laundry. I offered to carry hers up one day. Her leg was bothering her. I suggested that I could save her a lot of trouble by just doing her laundry and dropping it off. I was already doing mine, after all. We then decided to go grocery shopping together, share a cab. There came a Wednesday when she wasn’t feeling up to the trek: I offered to do her shopping. All of this was infuriating for her in a quiet way. For me, skipping along the pavestones of my life on two sturdy legs, no health problems, it was no trouble at all. I felt foolish counting out exactly 22 green beans at the grocery store, but it was her way of testing to see if I would comply with her rituals. 1, 2, 3, 4…
I began calling her every morning for a little chat before I commenced work on my novel. If it was my gym day, I called her just before 9. So it was on a sunny September morning. My work out had been particularly strong and I felt wonderful as I sat down with my coffee and dialed her number. “Hi, Helen!” I said cheerfully. “TURN ON YOUR TELEVISION!” she screamed. When I tried to ask what was wrong she shouted again for me to turn on my TV and get off the phone. The second Twin Tower of the World Trade Center fell as I wept into my hands. We spent the rest of the day glued to CNN, making coffee, trying to determine, along with the rest of the world, what the hell had just happened.
Helen decided to quit smoking at the age of 74. Two major heart surgeries and severe circulatory issues were not the inspiration but rather, that she’d been ripped off by a con artist at the mall and she was disgusted with herself for having been duped. He’d offered her a carton for ten bucks cheaper than the going rate and she agreed to wait for him to return with the cigarettes. Her money disappeared with her trust in herself. I continued to smoke, amazed by her willpower. Smoking is for idiots, she reminded me, showing me the deep scar on her leg. I know, I said, I simply can’t write without smoking and I have a deadline. Hmph, she said, although she was very excited about knowing a published author. Right there in the dumpy little building where she had lived for more than thirty years.
By the time I was shopping and doing her laundry and cleaning her apartment, we were bosom buddies. Helen’s leg bothered her a lot; going out had become a painful chore. We now had Christmas dinners together as a custom, after which she contentedly slept through the original version of A Christmas Carol. We celebrated our birthdays together over Swiss Chalet or Chinese take-out, insisting we shouldn’t have bothered when it came to presents and quietly delighted that we had.
On the advice of her doctor, a nurse came to her apartment to provide foot care. The pain was severe and she had fallen using a walker, scaring her cat who then bit her. It was a rough time, during which she alternated between refusing to call for help and demanding it.
At around this time, the assumption that I was her daughter arose at appointments. I was about to correct one such query when Helen interrupted. “Honorary daughter,” she said firmly. Helen had had no children. I was it. Who knew how much a few laughs in a laundry room could change two lives?
When the necrotic gangrene was discovered we were in the Emergency ward of Toronto East General Hospital. In a whirl of examinations and grim looks from nurses Helen’s life as she knew it collapsed. She would lose her leg, the hospital diabetes specialist informed us. Arrangements for a move to a care facility would need to be made immediately.
As they wheeled her toward anesthesiology, I promised her vanilla ice cream—ONE scoop. Her fondness for chocolate and candies and ice cream and cakes would become a legendary battleground between us once she was in residential care, where hoarded sugar packets and chocolate bars posed further diabetic risks. But while they performed the removal of her leg from just above the knee, I sat in the waiting room and cried, and vowed to use my healthy legs for walks and runs, to cherish them always. I had quit smoking a few months before, cheered on by Helen, who wanted me to learn a thing or two from her mistakes. Don’t be such a tit, she told me when I started drinking again after an 18-month stint of sobriety. The gospel according to a former drunk, she added.
Now her advocate, I toured what we used to call nursing homes to see which one would be “home” for the most independent woman I knew. These places were dark, or smelly, and I knew collective dining room meals would be anathema to someone who liked eating her three squares in front of the blaring TV in her apartment. But one had to be selected and pursued, for her life depended on it. The one care facility she most wanted to consider had been the very women’s residence where she lived from age 16 until her first marriage, a house on Sherbourne Street where she had skipped out on curfews several times a week, rising fresh as a flower for work at the travel agency at Simpson’s department store each morning. She was mighty pissed off when I gently informed her that Fudger House was full, so we opted for her second choice, True Davidson. A woman she used to know had lived there and they had a resident cat on every floor, she remembered. Although no cats still resided therein, Helen was happy-ish and very well-liked at True Davidson. They were quick to spot her minor stroke in time. Tolerant of her impatient streak and amazed by her fondness for computer games. But rushed hospital visits became more frequent. I was the person to call, and though I had moved away by then, we would celebrate her 79th birthday over Swiss Chalet in the residents’ dining room, at a table set for just us two. That was the plan.
The words you should come right away never mean anything good. I drove the three snowy hours to East General hospital in silence. It was the day before Helen’s birthday; her True Davidson nurse, who knew we’d planned to have dinner, had told me I would be saying goodbye. I bought a thriller in the hospital gift shop—Helen loved trashy novels—and sat down at her bedside. “Hi, Helen,” I said, stroking her silky hand. “There’s no eggplant where you’re going,” I assured her. I began to read the thriller aloud and she immediately moved into Cheyne-Stokes respiration, a signal that death is approaching. “Oh come on, you, the writing’s not that bad,” I joked, and then her heart rate dropped, then dropped methodically to zero on the monitor. I watched in awe as she slipped away from the world. “You can sit with your mother for as long as you like,” the Emerg nurse told me through the
gently parted curtain. “Thank you,” I said.
I kissed Helen’s forehead. “Only geniuses die on their birthday,” I whispered. “Close enough, lady.”