Excerpt: Anna in the Afterlife

ANNA PASSES ON

Once her dying got underway, Anna could not really complain about the way the process moved along. She had waited seven years for this moment to arrive, sobbing, begging, and beseeching anyone who passed by her room in the nursing home–anyone who wasn’t a wheel chair prisoner or a babbling vegetable–to help her get out of this mess. Neither threats nor the ultimate pleading of her desperate soul had had any effect on those who held the power. They felt well. They were alive and walking around the world and were simply convinced it was the best way to be: here.

Anna knew better, her two daughters knew better. Year after year (seven years! Twenty-five hundred days!) they came like the good girls they were to visit her, chained as she was to her bed, one arm paralyzed, her legs useless, her stomach fed by a plastic tube) but they had no solution. For all those mornings and afternoons Janet and Carol had sat at her bedside, hopelessly, earnestly, attending to her, bored to be there and scared to see where they were ultimately headed, they agreed with Anna that not being anywhere would be a blissful improvement for their mother over her present existence.

Anna warned them constantly: they mustn’t do anything illegal and end up in jail. Neither one was familiar with firearms, neither one had access to heavy barbiturates and no one could figure out how to get her to a bridge railing. Ropes, razors and drinking drain cleaner did not appeal to Anna nor did a plastic bag over her head. Even so, Anna held a continuing, daily conversation with them. With the privacy curtain pulled around the bed, she whispered: “I want to die, children,” and they answered, as in a catechism, “You will, Ma, you will. We just don’t know when.”

Her roommate, The Crab #25 (they were all the same), on the other side of the curtain, would yell to them, “Jesus knows when. He’ll call you when he’s good and ready.”

“Oh drop dead,” Anna would reply.

Sometimes, for her own entertainment, she’d perform a little operatic scene, singing out her long catalog of miseries, pains, losses, deprivations and torments…or she’d invoke her need to be “quiet in the grave next to Daddy.” Sometimes she’d just stare, catatonic, at the ceiling, until her daughters thought she’d actually had the final, fatal stroke. But no, surprise, she was always there, back in business, infinitely present, never dead, never stupid, and never done with it all.

*

One month after Anna turned ninety, after she’d passed the threshold beyond which no one could logically say she had a future to live for, the substitute nurse, changing the bedclothes, coughed her Christmas bronchitis into Anna’s face, thereby transferring to Anna the precious, deeply-desired germ. Anna’s lungs embraced the bug like an egg engulfing a random sperm, nourished it into a colony, then filled slowly with poisonous fluid. Her end–at last–burgeoned in her chest like a growing fetus.

When Anna’s fever rose to 104 degrees and her pulse became erratic, it finally dawned on her daughters that an opportunity was upon them. Janet leaned close to Anna’s ear: “Ma, you’re really very sick this time. If you want us to, we’ll try to get you out of this.”

“Do it,” Anna gasped in a brief, painful exhalation. Her voice gurgled upward through fathoms of seaweed, as if she were talking underwater.

“Do you mean it? Are you absolutely sure?”

She wanted to interrogate her daughters further. How would they get her out of this? By what method? When? She knew how important the right questions were–she had been a secretary for two New York state senators from the time she was eighteen, just after her father died and she had to go to work to support her mother and sister Gert. The senators found her so clever that they urged her to go to night school and become a lawyer. However, they wanted her to continue to work for them by day, which plan would have left her no time for studying, eating or sleeping.

Now, everything she’d never done in her life flashed before her eyes. She could have been someone great and important. She could have been a famous pianist. On her bedside table, lined up to break her heart now that she could not play a note, were the busts of Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Schubert and her beloved Chopin. No more music in her paralyzed fingers. And now even her extraordinary gift of speech was done for.

*

Her daughters held a brief conference, their heads turned away from her. “Ma–” Janet said, “the truth is you probably don’t have more than six months to live. If the doctor verifies that, it will means we can legally request hospice care. A special nurse would be sent here to take care of you. She’d give you morphine, and then you’d just go to sleep. The main thing is that you wouldn’t suffer anymore.”

Not suffer? What would be left if she didn’t have suffering? But her eyes were wide open, she hoped they twinkled. She blinked agreement— Yes, yes, yes!–with all her might.

When the girls went to call the doctor, she contemplated the clock on the wall. Get me out of this, she begged the endless round of time. Could she really hope for a change? She’d go anywhere to reach the end of this existence, even to a hole in the ground. She’d ride in a hearse! Have a new view! Life was always life–this trip to death was just more of it.

When her children were little, Anna used to reassure them: “Darlings, you will never be dead so don’t ever be afraid. Till the very end of your life you will be alive. You will live till the very last minute, and after that you won’t be there to care.” What she had told her precious babies was truer than even she had imagined. Alive was always alive, even when dead was better.

*

When her girls came back from the nurses’ station they were smiling as if they’d hit a jackpot: “Your doctor agreed, Ma! He’ll order the hospice nurse to come tomorrow. He never thought you would last this long. He really thinks you’re a wonder.”

Anna took considerable satisfaction in this–though of course it was not news to her that she was a superior person.

“You’ll just float away on the morphine, Ma, you’ll feel nothing at all–and that will be it,” Carol said.

Already Anna could feel relief: like the Red Sea, the ocean of pain was parting in her body. She managed one last wheezing command through the bubbles of phlegm flooding her chest: “Today!”

*

Not that it was so simple. Her daughters, bless them, were like boxers in the ring, fending off the regular nurses who still insisted upon pressing antibiotics into Anna’s feeding tube or forcing inhalators down her throat.

“No more!” her defenders said. “She’s had enough. Stop!” They fought the nursing home administrator, a man with a long black beard who came in to argue life at any cost. Her daughters stood firm: “No hospital! No respirator! Don’t even think of it!” He was an orthodox Jew who didn’t want an empty bed in the nursing home. He laid out God’s law. Jews did not take death into their own hands. Anna’s girls argued human mercy. He looked at Anna with disdain, with loathing, and left the room. So much for Jewish compassion. The Crab on the other side of the curtain kept muttering, “Only Jesus knows the time. You will go to hell for this.”

Her daughters had to–bodily– pull a pulmonary therapist from Anna’s bedside and throw her out along with her suction machine. “We’re done with all that, don’t you understand?” Janet cried. “We have the okay! My mother is leaving here!

*

This last stop, where she and everyone else on earth was headed, was what her poor Polish mother had feared every time Anna caught a cold, every time she left the house to take the trolley to school. The same terror sent her thin and nervous father to shul to pray that death would not befall his children. Worry and prayer both came to nothing as it did in all cases. Here Anna was: the great and famous moment was nearly upon her. She was about to lose the spark every tiny ant and worm wants to keep hold of, the force that makes flies evade the swatter and convulses fish off their baited hooks. It seemed a trifle now, life, all those swarming needs, disappointments, broken promises, dashed hopes–even the glorious days (if she ever had any, but she must have, mustn’t she?) –all of it was just so much exhausting ado about nothing.

Her girls were not so far from the end of the road themselves. If Anna was ninety, they must almost be old women. Her babies were moving along the treadmill, not so far behind her.

Thank God, Anna murmured, Thank You for not letting either of them die before me. Surely it was a blessing that they would outlive her. (Unless a massive earthquake struck in the next few hours, they would.) It was meant to be that children should outlive their parents.

But what was happening to her? She never allowed herself to think in terms of “blessings,” and “meant to be’s…Not for a minute had she believed Someone was Up There blessing them, that a Grand Plan existed for which mortals cannot know the reasons. Had she actually allowed “Thank God” to pass through her brain cells? Who had slipped this phrase into Anna’s mind? The reason was a lack of oxygen, of this she was certain.

*

That night, the hospice nurse, a young Chinese girl, materialized in Anna’s room like a slender angel. “You’ll have no pain anymore,” she said to Anna. “This will ease your breathing. Just relax now.” She slid a needle deftly into the vein of Anna’s left wrist and strapped it there with tape. She upturned a small glass bottle, filled a syringe with its contents and very slowly injected the fluid into Anna’s vein.

“That’s all there is to it,” the sweet girl said. “You’ll feel much better very soon.”

Instantly, Anna felt a wave of warmth and peace spread through her. She closed her eyes and that was that. Dead…or as good as. No more thinking, no more suffering. No more food. No more air. No more Santa Clauses giving out perfume to the old crones. The nurse gently removed the oxygen cannula from Anna’s nose, turned off the feeding tube pump, disconnected the tube that fed Anna’s belly. They were closing up shop. Anna was done, excused, pardoned, dismissed.

She heard the clink of glass hitting tin as the nurse disposed of the morphine container in the waste basket. She took Anna’s pulse, she brushed the hair off Anna’s forehead, she turned off the light above Anna’s head and left the room.

*

In the morning, though Anna was, for all practical purposes, dead, a death watch ensued. She was glad to see the nurses move The Crab to another room, for the sake of delicacy. Janet, her husband and their eldest daughter, Bonnie, arrived (her granddaughter definitely had too much gray hair for a woman so young.) Carol came in with her son, a gorgeous young man six and a half feet tall. He had in his eyes the beautiful wild look of his crazy dead father, but he was totally sane, a miracle. Next, Anna’s sister Gert arrived, leaning on her cane, earrings dangling from her ears, necklaces from her neck, at eighty-eight still the little cockroach sister, the galling brat, and now she walked in with the cocky air of being the winner. (For this alone Anna might consider staying alive, just not to lose the game.)

“Open your eyes, Anna,” Gert said. “Say goodbye.”

Anna was already congealed as cold lead, what did her sister expect, miracles? Gert turned away, grumbling, “A negative person,” she said to Anna’s girls. “Your mother was always so negative. You father would have been happier with me.”

But even triumphing over Gert could not tempt Anna back. She was already high above them, swinging on her heavenly swing, her two pianos perched on a cloud, her music ranged around her in a semicircle like a rainbow in the sunlit heavens. Light as a bird, Anna had flown up to heaven, and all it had taken was an ounce of clear fluid. If word got out, the whole world would be doing it, all the old Chinese in their gray pajamas and black cotton shoes, all the old Jews in their skullcaps and prayer shawls, all the old Indians in their turbans and saris–there would be a run on needles and little glass bottles, someone smart could make a fortune.

Her family hung over her bed not knowing what to do or where to stand or what to say. Anna would have liked to smile sweetly and grace them with forgiveness, but Jews never had much interest in sin and redemption. Once a year they fasted, ostensibly to cleanse their sins and start the year anew, but Anna had never known a Jew who thought he had committed a sin.

Death bed scenes were historically quite moving; Melanie’s death in Gone With the Wind, for instance was heart wrenching. But then Melanie had been young and beautiful, tragically deceived and deeply forgiving, all of which Anna was not. Nor had Anna a besotted but gorgeously handsome Clark Gable crying in the hallway. Anna’s husband Abram, whose face she could no longer recall, had been dead for thirty-two years and was barely a wisp floating at the back of her mind.

*

Aside from calling out for Jesus, Anna’s many and various roommates who had died had, in their death throes, called upon their mothers: Mama, Mama, I’m afraid! Mama, hold my hand.

Fear had never been Anna’s concern; her main emotion throughout life was indignation. Even now she was thinking: whoever had designed this living business should have seen to it that the end was not so messy and miserable. Why wasn’t there a cut-off date, maybe at age eighty, at which time the subscription ended, and everyone knew it and was ready for it? A simple pill or a shock administered to the breathing center of the brain and that would be that. This arrangement was too hit-and-miss. Some were lucky and died in their sleep (no one she ever knew!) A few others had a five-second massive coronary and it was over. But look at her, seven years chained to this bed. What kind of joke was that? What kind of a joker had cocked up this arrangement? A lunatic, an imbecile.

So who could she call on for help in her last moments? Certainly not the lunatic. As for her mother, her mother had never held her hand or reassured her about anything. She tried to conjure up her mother’s face, but got an image only of a white head of hair and a voice admonishing her to wash the floor. Wash the floor, Anna! Her mother: Sophie, a Polish-Jewish washerwoman, a cook and a chicken plucker from Kutno, a peeler of potatoes in a shtetl somewhere in the wilds of eastern Europe. What would she know about comforting a child? What did she ever know? Eat! Sleep! Wash the floor! Sophie had been a great buxom beauty whose first husband had run off with a young girl, forcing her to send the children from that marriage–Sam and Ava, Anna’s half-brother and half-sister–to an orphanage. While they lived there, Sophie had become a midwife to earn her living and pay for the Jewish divorce, “the get.” What did she get afterward: she got, Moishe the tailor, the man with constipation, who fathered Anna and Gert. Anna tried to recall what she knew about her father. Almost nothing, that he worked over a sewing machine ten hours a day, that he made her take castor oil every night, that he inquired daily about the movement of her bowels.

Gert had a gold mine of stories about their father. She always took Anna by surprise in that sly way she had, when she came up behind her and said, “Do you remember the time…?” Anna never remembered Gert’s memories; she was sure her sister made them up. This one was a dirty story. Their father, with all his straining and trying to move his bowels, had terrible hemorrhoids. One night the doctor sent Anna’s mother to the drugstore with a little slip of paper. “My husband is so sick,” she told the druggist. “He can’t stand the pain. The doctor said I have to get this…” and she handed him the scrap of paper.

“Oh, you can’t want that!” the druggist said. “You must be mistaken.”
“Yes, we have to have it, the doctor said we have to use it tonight!”
“If you use it tonight, you could end up killing him,” the druggist said. The instructions given Anna’s mother by the doctor were to bring home what the druggist gave her, fill it with ice and apply it to her husband’s private parts.

“You know what it was?” Gert challenged Anna. “It was a condom, Anna! Isn’t that a laugh? She was supposed to put ice in the condom! But the druggist thought it was for…you know what!”

Very funny, Anna thought now, Gert with her condoms. Anna hadn’t even known the name for those things till a few years ago, from the talk shows talking about condoms all the time and should they be passed out to little children in schools. Even Abram, in all his years of being married to Anna, kept a box of them hidden under his socks and didn’t once say the word to her face.

Now Gert was stroking the cheek of Anna’s handsome grandson, saying “Smooth, like a baby’s tushy.” Gert with her dirty mind–even at the side of a deathbed.

Anna’s granddaughter, Bonnie, was holding Anna’s hand and singing to her, a beautiful song about white sands and gray sands. Danny, Janet’s husband, was standing over by the wall, reading the letter pasted up there from the mayor, congratulating Anna on reaching her ninetieth birthday. She noticed no one in the room was actually crying. Her family had no idea how long this death would take–it could test a person’s patience. Anna could see that her breath was coming in short, shallow gasps, with long intervals between. Her chest heaved, and then rested for many seconds. When the hospice nurse came in to check, she whispered to Anna’s family, “She’s having agonal breathing now.
Agonal, Anna thought. The last agony.

But suddenly, Anna had a shock! The stage hands were wheeling in the tunnel, the famous tunnel she’d heard about on Oprah, the tunnel filled with all the people from the past who would be there to guide Anna into the next world. It looked a little like the Holland tunnel, a long arc of white tiles (quite a few missing), and filled with stinking car exhaust. But it also had a McDonald’s in it, and a replica of P. S. 9, Anna’s elementary school, as well as the Ferris wheel from Coney Island. This was a major production. Anna was surprised anyone would go to so much trouble for her. She saw her first grade teacher wearing a big white feather in her hat (now maybe Anna could make up for an unforgivable grammatical error she had once made when meeting her teacher on the street), and there was her sister Ava carrying an Ebinger’s cake (to make up for all the unkindnesses she’d done Anna.)

That light at the end of the tunnel was too bright–and also in her eyes. But who was that tall figure with the unruly head of hair ambling toward her, who was that sweet-faced man, smiling that loving smile, holding out his hand to Anna? Her husband’s face materialized after all these lost years, his wonderful brow, his blue-green eyes, the smile that took her in and wrapped itself around her. She could feel her heart stopping at the sight of him.

At her bedside the nurse was urging her family to say goodbye and leave. A good idea–Anna had so many last minute things to think about now.

The nurse counseled them: “You know, the dying find it hard to die while the family is here. She feels your energy and that’s what’s holding her back. But hearing is the last sense to go–so you could all say a few words of farewell to her.”

“Happy New Year, Mom-Mom,” her granddaughter whispered in her ear, shocking Anna with the news. New Year’s Eve! What a convenient night upon which to die! How fitting. How economical! She wouldn’t have to pay even for one minute of the new year, not one minute of the new month, in this hellhole. If she could exit before midnight, even her tax liability would end here.

There was a flurry of all the heads of her beloved people bending over her bed, some tentatively stroking her good hand, her forehead. It was an ordeal for them, she understood this. She was wasted, emaciated, hollow, a bag of bones. Her eyes had rolled up into her head, her mouth hung open, her bony chest heaved with irregular gasps.

Don’t worry, she wanted to say. I’m up here already, I have my beautiful auburn hair falling full down my back, all my fingers are ready for Mozart, my heart is open to Chopin. My beloved Abram is going to kiss me at the stroke of midnight. Go home, children. This is nothing at all, this getting of wings. Go home and live a while longer. Welcome the New Year. No one ever dies, it’s just a fairy tale.

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