When I came to 410 East 57th Street that night, it was already dark, but not late. Early winter, then, it must have been, maybe about 7:30 or 8:00. A Sunday evening.
Aunt Dot, then 95 or 96, was seated facing into the living room, in one of the two 50’s-era Danish modern recliner chairs (blonde wood, cushions covered in turquoise leather; she had a fondness for turquoise, which played up her blue eyes).
Though neat, clean, and well-kept, I could see all was not well with Aunt Dot. She radiated discontent: boredom, restlessness, general discombobulation. This was unlike her usual composed and authoritative self.
For she managed to keep these attributes, as well as give off intelligence and social grace, even when she was deep in the gnarly woods of dementia, where she spent the last decade of her life.
If you are in and out of the lives of the extreme elderly, and those who care for them, you grasp very quickly that the relationship between elder and caregiver is the determining factor when it comes to ease or its opposite. That night, Aunt Dot’s regular and much-loved caregiver, Zorina, was off. A replacement aide, found by the agency, was there. I’d never seen her before and wouldn't again.
This aide was clearly competent in the physical sense: Aunt Dot was safe, well-dressed, not alone. But, the aide also had no real clue as to who Dot was and had once been, and no interest in finding out. To her, Aunt Dot was a generic, out-of-it old person, whom she would cross paths with probably once or twice, for a few days. With no affection for, connection to, or understanding of Dot, as an individual, how could and why should she possibly connect or engage? And she made no attempt to do so: that night when I came in she was sitting across the room near the window, facing away from my aunt, flipping through a US Weekly.
Understandable and unavoidable, I guess, at least sometimes, though this kind of custodial care may be, it's one of the daily tragedies in the lives of the very old.
"Aunt Dot,” I said, “What’s wrong?”
She looked at me and said, very crossly, “I don’t know who I am, I don’t know where I am, and I don’t have the slightest idea why I’m here.”
I took off my coat, hanging it over the cast iron half-railing that served to divide part of the living room from the front door, making a quasi-hallway. I squatted down on the floor next to her. She looked at me with interest, though no particular recognition that I could tell.
“Well, Aunt Dot,” I said, sitting next to her on the wall-to-wall carpet — also turqouise blue — which had seen better days, “Let me tell you what I remember about you, and let’s see if that makes any difference.”
I told her I was her niece, daughter of her sister Charlotte. I told her she was Dorothy Arnof, that she had been married to Joe Arnof and that, after Joe died, she had lived for a long time with her boyfriend Jim Cherry. I told her she had been a textbook editor at Macmillan’s for many years. I told her she had traveled all over the world with Joe when she was young. I told her she used to love reading murder mysteries. I told her she had once taken me to Disneyland, and that we had ridden on an Alice in Wonderland ride, where the cars were shaped like giant tea-cups. I told her she had owned a home in Vermont, and spent many summers there, and that I lived there now.
She listened attentively, and her agitation fell away. She looked at me with great interest, but without comment. Though at other times when I’d reiterated her life-history to her, she would ask me question after question ( “Was I married?” “Did I have any children?” “How did I make my money?” “Was I good-looking?”), this night, she was quiet.
The relief caregiver, utterly outside our circle, turned over pages.
But Aunt Dot was visibly calming, becoming happier as I told her about herself and our life together. A faint amused smile came and went around the edges of her lips. Those blue eyes, about which she had been so understandably vain, were bright and engaged.
But suddenly she did speak.
She was looking across the room, at the low coffee table in front of the fireplace. It was stacked with magazines and photographs and mail and the small knick-knacks that had been there forever (reproductions of ancient Egyptian cats from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s gift shop, a small inlaid box of colored stone brought back from Greece or Turkey as a souvenir… she had traveled the world with her by-then-long-dead husband, an importer of what were then called ‘curios’. Even after his death, she continued to adore traveling. Her favorite trip, which she had often talked about, was a Smithsonian tour to Turkey, where she worked on archeological dig. She was in her late 60’s or early 70's then.)
Among all the coffee table detritus was a bouquet of flowers in a basket. The bouquet had probably been there since her birthday three months before. It was completely dried up, and brown.
"Those flowers,” said Aunt Dot, out of the blue, very decisively, “are dead.”
I looked over at them. “You’re right, Aunt Dot, they are very dead,” I said. “Would you like me to throw them out?”
She said, “Yes!” with that same decisiveness. It must have served her well during her fifty years as an editor, and then editorial director, at Macmillan’s.
I stood, walked across the room, picked up the basket of dead flowers, and carried them to the garbage can in the small kitchen. I pushed them in; it took some shoving. I came back to sit next to her again.
"Is that better?"
“Would you like me to get you some new flowers?”
“What color flowers?”
An imperial wave of the hand. “All colors,” she said.
“Okay,” I said. I got up, put on my coat, and left the apartment.
On the way down in the elevator, lined with dark polished wood, equipped with padded leather bench and operated by a uniformed elevator man, an elevator in which I had ridden since I was an infant in my mother’s arms, here’s what I was thinking, “Food Emporium, please, have flowers, have flowers.”
The Food Emporium being the supermarket right around the corner from Dot’s. A quick run out on a Sunday night in New York? Where else was I going to get flowers?
Food Emporium, on 1st, did not let me down. Their mixed bouquets, a little the worse for wear but still presentable, and certainly far more alive than the flowers I’d disposed of, would have to do. I chose one of the cellophane-wrapped bouquets, paid for it, stood at the light, crossed, and reentered "410", as my mother and I always referred to Dot's building. Total elapsed time, maybe 6 minutes.
My aunt, in addition to her p
rofessional Macmillan letterhead, also had both casual and formal engraved stationary with her home addresses, both in New York City and in Vermont. Her casual notecards, later in life, were yellow, with red decorative print and flourishes, the words “Deductions from Dorothy” on the top. I received more than one “Deductions from Dorothy” letter from her.
My aunt, who’d been as bright as those notecards when I’d left, had not lost her alertness in the few minutes I’d been gone. I was so glad to see this. She was sitting up, still with-it, seemingly expectant. Though the disengaged caregiver could almost not have been there, Dot definitely was.
“Here are your flowers, Aunt Dot.”
“Would you like me to put them in a vase?”
Back in the kitchen, I rustled off the cone of cellophane and went to look for a vase. Having visited her in that apartment all my life, I knew in which closet, off the narrow, bookshelf-lined hall that led to her bedroom, they’d be. I knew they'd be to the right of the table-linens, above the wrapping paper, below the towels. I found a vase; this one more aqua than her typical turquoise. I returned to the kitchen, rinsed it off, filled it with water, inserted the bouquet, and brought it back, putting it on the small table next to Aunt Dot.
“What are they?” she asked.
“Flowers,” I said.
“ I know that,” she said impatiently, “But what are they called?”
"You mean, what kind of flowers are they?”
And so I began. “Well, this white one is a chrysanthemum, the big kind they used to call football mums. Maybe Jim Cherry might have brought you one when he picked you up at Wellesley in the Model T to go to football games, and you both wore raccoon coats.”
Dot gave a nod which I interpreted as, “Yes, go on.” So I continued around the bouquet.
“And these are alstroemeria, some people call them Persian lilies, they keep for a long time. There are two pink ones in this bouquet, and one yellow one.”
Another "go on" nod.
“These frilly ones over here, white with those tiny red lines, they’re carnations.”
Aunt Dot then pointed to the one huge bloom which clearly dominated the bouquet.
“And what, “ she said, pointing, “Is this pretty thing?”
“Oh,” I said, “That’s called a sunflower, Aunt Dot.”
I thought about it for a minute. “Did you know, Aunt Dot, when sunflowers are growing in a garden, their flower-heads follow the sun?”
I stood up and began to demonstrate for her, turning my face and head illustratively as I spoke, as I might tell a story to a little girl. “In the morning, the sunflower faces towards the east, where the sun rises. " I turned my face to the right. "At noon, the sunflower turns itself straight up overhead, to where the sun is. " I gazed up at the coffered white ceiling, a little dingy; God knows when it had last been painted. "And when the sun goes down in the late afternoon, the sunflower turns to the West.” And I turned my head to the left.
Aunt Dot watched this performance closely.
And then she said, with extreme skepticism,“Have you personally observed this?”
I now live, as I said, in what was Aunt Dot’s summer home, in Vermont. I am a passionate amateur gardener. In the summer of 2009 I grew an ornamental annual sold as “Mexican sunflower.” It was pretty — orange petals, yellow and brown centers — and about 3 or 4 feet high. But it was not at all what I picture when I think “sunflower.”
In January, 2010, Aunt Dot, by then having lived to 100 years and nine months, died.
Her feet were growing gangrenous from lack of circulation; it was important that she leave this world before she was put into a hospital and the system — which would have begun by amputating her feet — could get hold of her. Her doctor told me as much, saying, “What am I going to do about your aunt?”
I asked him not to hospitalize her. I got hospice in. By then she was unconscious, but would stir every four hours or so, when the painkillers wore off. When they wore off and Dorothy would awaken, moaning, the caregiver — by now a lovely woman, Dita, who had been a doctor in Romania — would adminster the medicine and offer her food or beverage.
Aunt Dot fought fiercely against so much as a swallow, turning her head angrily. The second or third time it happened, Dita turned to me. “Do you want me to stop trying to feed her? Unless she asks for food, or shows us she wants it in some way? ”
I knew what she was asking me.
I thought of the friend, ironically a chef and fellow cookbook author, who had told me that when she stopped forcing her dying father to eat, he had stopped needing painkillers, and a kind of high, she said, kicked in. At the time I thought, "Yeah, right. That's some nice fairytale to tell yourself."
But now, I said to Dita, “Yes. Yes. "
Dita turned and left the room with the spoon and the small can of Ensure she'd been trying to put into Dot. I remember noting the Ensure's flavor, "Chai Latte."
I stayed with Dot. And that was the point — that final round of pain medicine, that last spit-away, resisted spoonful of Chai Latte Ensure — when she stopped waking up, moaning and in pain. Four hours later, six, twelve, she had not stirred, or moaned or cried out; the signs which we had taken to gave her painkillers. With that decision, less than 24 hours after hospice had arrived, Aunt Dot seemed to cross a border.
Yet, though now unagitated and out of pain, unconscious, calm, peaceful, she was still here.
Later that afternoon I stood beside her. When I put my hand on hers she grasped it, with astonishing strength, though seemingly without waking. "Oh," I thought, "This is what's meant by 'death grip'.”
First I told her how much I loved her, and how much her sister loved her. How much Joe and Jim, and “Mom and Dad” had loved her. And her friends the Locallios. And her other friends, among them Beryl, and … there was quite a list.
Of course, I was wiping away tears with my free hand. Of course, I kept going. You do what you have to do, sometimes, because it's clear that it's needed and there's no one else to do it. You can't duck some things, not when they have your name on them. Not when they are as much priviledge as burden. Not when you understand that life, and love, and being born into a body, has a price tag which is always much greater than you imagined you could or would have to pay, and yet, which you pay willingly.
Finally I said, “Aunt Dot, I want you to know that your passport’s been renewed, and it has all the visas stamped in it. Your tickets are in order. The suitcases are packed. Everything’s taken care of. When you’re ready to go, you can go. ”
She maintained her tight grip. Her eyes remained closed, her breathing was regular. But as she heard this, or at least, as I said its, her eyebrows raised slightly, and lowered.
I said, “I’m not sure exactly where you’ll be going. I don’t think you’ll be on an archeological dig. But you never know. I just know that when you’re ready to leave for your next trip, you can.”
At about 11:30 the next night, she did.
When David and I had packed up her apartment, given away much, boxed what we wanted to keep, we went over to the west side to rent a U-Haul. Standing outside the U-Haul place under a sky striated in shades of gray, the air bristling with a cold, hostile wind that blew the raindrops into something sharp and stinging, I watched David and the U-Haul guy check the van for dings. And I noticed the company slogan, painted on the side: "Where will U go next?"
I looked up at that sky and thought, "Yeah, Aunt Dot, where?"
In the summer of 2010,the summer after Dot's death, I bought a package of seeds called Mammoth Sunflowers, and I planted them in the garden. With great satisfaction, I watched them get taller and taller.
Their hairy, woody stalks shot up: 4 feet, 6 feet, 12 feet. Their flowerheads, much larger than the ones in that mixed bouquet or those of the Mexican sunflowers, were almost as big as a dinner plate.
Though I used some of the sunflowers as cut flowers, most I left standing. When they died back, the flower head was left, diamonded in the middle with seeds. Finches, jays, and chickadees came and went, feasting on them with great enthusiasm.
And all summer long, I watched the flowerheads turn, attentive to the constant revolution of the sun. A turning that never stops.
I have personally observed this.
This year's sunflowers are planted and now up, beginning their brief season on this turning earth.