The first time I went to see Paulie as an adult I brought tulips. I hadn’t seen her in more than ten years.
I was a few years out of college at the time, and living in Washington DC, but visiting my parents for the weekend in the southern stretch of Brooklyn. I took the train to her Upper East Side apartment on a Saturday. Leaning my head against the scratched glass windows I felt, at once, an airy buzz of anticipation—wouldn’t she be proud of how I’d turned out?—and tight stitches of guilt: all those years Paulie had treated me as her own, and I repay her by dropping out of her life?
At Atlantic Avenue I paced the night-dark length of the 4/5 platform and it occurred to me that I should bring something. But what? What, I wondered, is the proper etiquette for visiting a woman you used to call a third grandmother but haven’t seen in over a decade?
Between the 6 stop and her apartment, I staggered in search of a gift. Inside an upscale deli on Lexington, the colorful rack of high-end chocolates: dried orange peel, cherry almond milk, white raspberry chili. At a bodega across the street, the beverage cooler: assorted three-dollar drinks behind draping panels of translucent plastic. Inside a florist three steps below Third Avenue, shelves of large, severe-looking plants. Finally, I spotted cones of flowers floating in white buckets outside a grocer and grabbed a yellow bunch.
At Paulie’s building I recognized more than I expected: the green awning, the lobby lined with mirrors, the faint hallway odor of fried onions and meat. When the elevator doors opened I knew by instinct to turn left. From the hall I could hear my nieces’ high-pitched voices bouncing inside, my brother Rob and his wife trying to quiet them. Rob had been the one to suggest that I go see Paulie. Just come with us on our next visit, he’d said. I think she’d like it.
As the door peeled open I watched the stretch of white wall expand and her body emerge behind it. She looked, essentially, an aged version of the woman I remembered: her length a few inches less, her skin denser with lines. The same long, ash-colored cotton skirt with high elastic waist, the short white hair stiff in the shape of a single wave.
“You didn’t need to bring those.” Her eyes fixed on the flowers.
“Oh, that’s okay.” I extended my arm to offer them, but she ignored it.
“Come inside.” Her tone was flat. “I haven’t seen you in a long time.”
The most striking change to her one-room studio was the amount of Paulie’s own artwork on display: the walls and surfaces more crowded, now, with her figurative paintings and clay reliefs, sculptures of wood and stone. Her furniture hadn’t moved—the grey fabric couches lining the walls, the Murphy bed by the window.
Did I notice the portrait of Jackie? I surely would have recognized it, drawn from a photo that I used to look at when I was a kid.
It’s a photo I looked at in secret. Jackie was Paulie’s daughter, and my father’s first wife. They’d been young parents of three small boys, my older brothers, when Jackie received a diagnosis of Hodgkins’ Lymphoma, Stage Four. For the two years until her death she was in and out of the hospital, on ventilators and in pain. After she died my father was eager to start again. He met my mother, a twenty-five year old teacher, on a blind date. Before agreeing to marry, they negotiated: she wanted two more children. He didn’t. They compromised on one, me. My father had come around to the idea that a baby might make his wounded family feel whole.
I never knew that as a kid. I saw the family as fractured, not whole; and I saw myself as an outsider, not glue. I thought my brothers resented me as a symbol of their loss and yearned for the family to feel cohesive. Jackie’s image was a symbol of how I felt apart. I still wonder what exactly I searched Jackie’s face to find: traces of forgiveness? Of some connection that might make me feel less alone? With her, of course, there was nothing to be found. Jackie was gone. But her mother was more accessible to me. For the first eight years of my life, she lived upstairs.
Paulie’s house is where Jackie grew up. It’s also where Jackie and my father raised my brothers. And, it’s the house where my parents raised me.
Paulie welcomed my mother—she wanted the boys to have a mom. She’d babysit me when my parents were out, and even when they weren’t, she’d let me eat with her. Often, I yearned to—especially on the nights when I detected the scent of those skinny French-cut lamb chops that we made a ritual of picking up with our fingers and dragging through shallow bowls of mint jelly en route to our mouths. We’d make art together: still lifes of sunflowers and daisies, clay bowls filled with kiwis and apples that we’d slice up and eat later as a reward.
I must have understood that Paulie was Jackie’s mother. But did I, then, see a connection with Paulie as a surrogate for the one that eluded me with her daughter? Maybe. Or maybe that’s a motivation that only refracts back now, through the lens of adulthood.
Our families are supposed to model how we build intimacy. But they also model how we feel alone: our experience of loneliness in our families becomes a proxy for the way we feel lonesome in the world. I grew up experiencing loneliness through the lens of Jackie. In feeling indirectly culpable for her death, I also saw myself as incapable of the kind of complete, intimate bonds I longed to share with my brothers. I’ve since come to see, intellectually, that the fact of two biological parents is no guarantee of closeness between siblings. I realize that every relationship is fluid, tinged with some uncertainty. But emotionally, I still struggle: my longing for intimacy still bound in the isolation I associate with my family role.
“You should eat.”
Paulie led me to the dining table. Remnants of lunch remained: slivers of lox, half a plate of browned bagel halves. I wasn’t hungry but eating seemed like the right thing to do, so I pulled a piece of salmon to my plate. I looked over at Paulie and waited for her to ask about my life. I wanted to tell her about my writing, that the time we’d spent together had stirred a creativity that stuck. I wanted to tell her I worked for a radio show I knew she used to listen to. I wanted her to validate that I meant as much to her as she had to me.
“Aren’t you hungry?” Paulie jutted her chin toward my food.
“Sure.” I took a bite of salmon.
“Look at this!” Paulie’s voice suddenly boomed.
She reached behind her and picked up a black box the size of a toaster. It appeared as though it should contain something precious, crystal or glass, fitted on the inside with a stiff, inlaid fabric.
“It’s this incredible thing.” Paulie trained her eyes on the box and then opened it to reveal a beige, mechanical looking device, something resembling a rotary telephone, with a coil cord fastened to the side. She pressed the receiver against her heart.
“You know, every day since I had this thing put in, I open this up and I talk to this woman. Every day, we talk!” She smiled for the first time that afternoon. “She’s such a nice lady.”
I’d assumed Paulie had health problems—she was already in her nineties. But I didn’t know about something in her heart, and couldn’t understand how the box connected with it or who it was that it made magically appear.
“We’ve gotten to be very close friends, you know. We talk about our families. She has children!”
I wondered which family Paulie meant: her daughter and husband had both been dead almost four decades, she’d been estranged from her only son and most of her extended family for almost as long. She hadn’t spoken to my parents or Jon, the youngest of my brothers, with whom she’d once been close, in years. Who did Paulie tell this woman about?
“For Christmas I sent her one of my sculptures. You should’ve heard her, she was so surprised! My goodness. She wouldn’t stop thanking me!”
Paulie shook her head. I felt the irony of the moment float, suspended, in my middle: that I’d come seeking a connection to Paulie, and instead of forging one, sat by as she spoke, rapt, about a stranger.
“We should probably get going.” Rob smacked his hands against his thighs. I got up to help him clear plates. It felt like no time had passed since I’d arrived.
“You don’t have to do that,” Paulie scolded. “I’ll take care.”
The second time I went to see Paulie I brought an apple cruller and prune Danish.
Four years had passed since my last visit. In that time, everything about Paulie—her health, her shape, her mind—had transformed. All of it, shrunk.
Rob and my oldest brother Michael had hired full-time nurses for her care. After years away, I’d returned to New York for a short time and was living just blocks from Paulie’s apartment. After years of hiding my interest in Jackie, I’d finally begun an earnest and open investigation into her life.
We tend to search the hardest for those things—people, objects, truths—most difficult to find. I’d interviewed my father and brothers along with many of Jackie’s relatives and friends. I’d collected piles of photos, diaries, school notebooks. Nothing satisfied. Because I didn’t just want a connection to Jackie, I wanted to displace the particular loneliness with which I’d grown up—a task no amount of research could complete.
At first, I didn’t think to interview Paulie. Her mind, I’d heard, was gone. But I kept hearing how oldest memories could be the last to go. Maybe, I thought, Paulie could reveal some elusive essence of Jackie, some critical information that would finally complete the puzzle, render her whole.
“Hullo?” The one word fully conveyed Debbie’s Caribbean accent and no-nonsense manner.
“Hi. Um, it’s Elizabeth? Michael and Rob’s sister? Michael said he told you I might call…”
“Okay! Well, I was thinking I’d come today.”
“Is there anything I can bring?”
“The only thing she needs right now is nightgowns.”
“Nightgowns?” I hadn’t expected an answer.
“Yeah, the kind that open up in front? It’s easier to get them on her. Don’t worry if you can’t find.”
I started out from my office, a bleak windowless space close to Macy’s. I’d planned to stop there to look for nightgowns on my way. But the afternoon crowds triggered a claustrophobic anxiety that sometimes surfaces. I panicked: the thought of crowded escalators and cavernous floors too much to bear. I kept walking.
“Do you have, like, nightgowns?” A few blocks later I stopped into a Victoria’s Secret instead, where a young Hispanic woman wielded an iPad and thick red lipstick. “The kind that older women wear? Cotton?” She sprung her index finger up.
“Not here, but I bet Kmart would have! There’s one close by. Let’s check.”
She dispatched me to the street. Again, the crowds surged my insides with a turmoil of nerves, and I descended to the 34th street station. I’d tell Debbie I’d failed—she’d already given me an out. Near the apartment I ducked into a bakery for the pastries; somewhere in my brain lurked a memory that Paulie liked sweets.
“Are you a nurse?” The doorman was smiling and apple-shaped.
“No,” I said. “I’m family.”
“Oh!” He feigned recognition. “Sorry, it’s just—no one comes to see Mrs. Ring.” He flapped his arm toward the elevators. “Please. Go ahead.”
Debbie held the door open: curvy and cute, with a button nose and big, round eyes. She emanated an authority that put me at ease.
“Elizabeth. Come in.”
Paulie looked like a mental patient. The apartment was emptied: half the furniture gone along with almost all the art. She sat belted into a wheelchair, facing a bare wall. Her skin literally hung on bone. A thin hospital gown barely covered the tops of her legs. The image evoked a hideous emblem of our disregard for the elderly, one of those discomfiting cultural aspects, like our premium on thinness or material wealth, that many of us tend to tolerate with intermittent shows of disdain but little real resistance, such that they become a kind of sordid, stubborn cultural wallpaper.
“Do you know who this is?” Debbie made slow strides in Paulie’s direction. Paulie rolled her neck around but kept staring at the wall. She smiled; the knot in my throat sank a little.
“What’s her name?” Debbie hovered, now, above the wheelchair, her torso folded forward.
“I know it,” she said, insistent. “I know it.”
“It’s okay,” I walked closer. “I think she remembers me.”
I pulled out the brown paper bag. “I brought treats!”
“Oh good!” Debbie grinned. “Pauline loves sweets. Don’t you, Pauline?” A band of satisfaction circled my ribs: perhaps I really did know Paulie as well as I’d hoped! Maybe I really had meant as much to her as I wanted to believe!
I have no clear memory of when Paulie slipped out of my life.
She moved out in 1991, after selling my father the house. But she stayed on good terms with my parents for years after that. They’d bring me to visit her at her apartment, where we’d make art like we’d always done. Go to movies with her sister. Take water aerobics classes at the Y: a thatch of elderly women pushing limbs against water in a staccato sequence of off-synch lifts. But at some point those visits stopped. She no longer came to holiday dinners at my parents’ house, Rosh Hoshanah and Thanksgiving and Passover. I never understood why. And until recently, I never asked.
My mother and I were getting manicures near Gramercy Park. We both looked down at the black plastic dryers as she explained how Paulie and my father fell out. My brother Jon was five when his mother died, just three when she got sick. When he was a kid he would sit with Paulie in her apartment and listen to stories about Jackie. He’d tell Paulie that wherever Jackie went, it was like he had been there too—because he was a seed in her belly, there all along. And as Jon got older, and struggled to stay in school and find a vocation, she tried to help. A disagreement eventually fractured their relationship permanently; he hasn’t talked to her in years. At one point Paulie and my father disagreed about how to help him; a phone call ended in someone hanging up on someone else and my father deciding that he was done—he no longer needed Paulie in his life.
When I pieced this together, I realized that by that point I was in high school. It wasn’t that anyone stopped me from seeing Paulie. It was that I grew out of my interest in her. I became a teenager, and instead of sleepovers with my grandmothers I was interested in smoking pot on Park Slope stoops and Upper West Side rooftops with my friends.
I asked my mother if she ever worried about the effect their estrangement from Paulie would have on me.
Her gaze was on the pale pink tops of her palms.
“I was worried about the boys,” she said. “But no, I didn’t think about you. She wasn’t your grandmother.”
“That’s not my daughter.”
Paulie shook her ahead. I was sitting across from her on the couch, holding up an array of pictures of Jackie.
“That’s not my daughter, that’s Alice.”
Earlier in the day I’d typed “how to talk to someone with dementia” into Google. Experts suggested showing pictures. They said you shouldn’t argue with them, no matter how absurd the things they said. And, tell them you loved them. This gave me pause. Did I love Paulie? Was it possible to love someone you’d barely thought of in ten years, someone you’d so easily let slip from your life? What would it mean to love her? To love anyone? This sounds rhetorical, but it isn’t. Despite our cultural fixation on the idea of love, we have shockingly little consensus about the word: what does it mean? Is it a noun or a verb? What does it look like to love another?
Paulie started to speak to the floor, her words disconnected and slurred.
Alice called just the other day…Esther…We’re going for a walk…building…they’re coming to get me…outside…
Debbie sat a few feet away from me on the couch, her elbows resting on her knees.
“Her sisters,” she said. “She talks about them a lot. I think they’re gone.”
I tried to redirect her, still determined to ask her about Jackie. I pointed to Paulie’s portrait of her on the wall. “That’s Jackie.”
Paulie shook her head.
Debbie went into the kitchen and came back with the Danish, cut up and laid out on a white plate.
“Paulie, look what Elizabeth brought for you! Danish! You love Danish!”
“Comb!” Paulie started to rock herself back and forth, as if performing the role of a mentally sick person. She clasped her fingers on her head. “Comb!”
“Not now, Pauline. Here, try the Danish!”
Paulie looked down at the Danish, and then lifted it, thoughtfully, to her head, where she tried to use it to brush her hair.
The third time I went to see Paulie I brought a plastic container of Munchkins and a box of garbage bags. It had been one week.
The Munchkins came from the Dunkin Donuts on First Avenue. Debbie had texted that afternoon about the bags.
“The little ones,” she’d instructed. “You know, like for the bathroom. Not big.”
Why did I go back? My mother asked. Friends asked. I asked myself. And I struggled to answer. To others, I stammered about some vague, sudden sense of obligation: all that time Paulie spent with me as a girl, wasn’t it the least I could do? I didn’t mention convenience, or a new, irrational loyalty to her severely underpaid nurse, or the dimming hope that she’d offer some seminal information about Jackie, all motivations attended by shame. Slightly useful gestures, like picking up trash bags, helped.
Obediently, Paulie ate two of the chocolate Munchkins. Debbie ate the vanilla.
I’d brought pictures of Jackie again, in case, but at the sight of them Paulie flicked her hand with contempt. I pulled a magazine from my bag and handed it to her instead. She took it, and licked her index finger, her face locked in a sour expression, as she methodically flipped through.
Suddenly, she threw the magazine on the floor and began trying to hoist herself out of the wheelchair.
“Sit still!” Debbie lurched toward her. “Just wait. We’re going to help you.”
Even when chiding, I noted a warmth in Debbie’s voice—an effortless humanity that I could barely fathom the will to summon with a loved one, much less a person whose healthy mind I never knew.
She turned to me. “Do me a favor and grab a few diapers? They’re in the closet by the kitchen.” She began to move purposefully around the apartment. “But we don’t call them Pampers—we call them panties!”
She smiled toward Paulie, still grasping at the bars of her wheelchair. Together, Debbie and I lifted her and held her limbs upright as we crawled the small but seemingly infinite space toward the bathroom. Paulie resisted our aid.
“I can do it!” she screamed. But she couldn’t. It took ten minutes to get her that many feet. We set her down on the toilet.
“I’ll be right back,” Debbie said. “Can you make sure she doesn’t fall? She’ll go. But it might take her a while.”
I hovered in the foyer outside the bathroom, the door open partway. I stared at the bookshelves, mostly empty. Only a few classical records remained, and a short stack of art books: ones Paulie had collected during trips to places like China, Egypt, Kenya and France. Their hard bindings emitted a cruel indifference: a small, painful portrait of life’s mortal arc, and of Paulie’s brutal, final solitude. She didn’t have family visiting. She didn’t have the dignity of being surrounded by her life’s art, or the full collection of books and music she’d worked to collect—only the few items no one wanted. I kept shifting my weight. Vague bodily noises trickled to the hall. I felt useless, doused with a surreal film of guilt: how had I transitioned from being an estranged relative of Paulie’s to someone helping her go to the bathroom? It felt accidental, arbitrary. I thought of the scene from Philip Roth’s Patrimony in which he scrubs walls clean of his father’s shit and disgust morphs into clarity:
This, too, was right and as it should be. You clean up your father’s shit because it has to be cleaned it up, but in the aftermath of cleaning it up, everything that’s there to feel is felt as it never was before.
I wished for that kind of lucidity, intimacy even. Instead, I felt like an intruder—burdened by the same sensation I’d felt looking at Jackie’s picture as a girl: like Paulie wasn’t my grandmother to care for—and if her own relatives weren’t helping her, why should I? But then, why shouldn’t I? We live in a society that expects you to help a stranger on the street, but permits entrusting your ailing parents to perfect strangers. At what proximity do we hold ourselves accountable to other people’s suffering?
To distract from such questions I cast myself as a distant observer, witnessing the scene from a vantage of ten or thirty years, describing the absurd events to some faceless audience: and then I helped change her diaper.
The fourth time I went to see Paulie I brought a Tupperware of homemade chili, a six-pack of chocolate-flavored Ensure, and a Hershey bar. Two weeks had passed.
The chili was for Debbie; I had extra from the big pot I’d made for my book club gathering that night. By then Debbie had taken to texting me periodically to ask about my love life or writing. At the end of my last visit she’d kept me an extra twenty minutes, folded awkwardly above the couch, as she scrolled through an endless Facebook photo album from the West Indian Parade and another of her latest Underwear Party in Crown Heights. (Next time you have to come!)
“Ha can u bring her ensure,” she’d texted that morning.
I recognized Ensure as the name of some geriatric accessory but wasn’t sure what kind.
“How much?” I wrote back, hoping for a clue. Debbie didn’t respond.
At Duane Reade I studied the signs above the aisles: Health Supplements? Hygiene? Natural Products? A taciturn employee finally directed me.
“I think we only have Plus in chocolate.”
“Perfect!” I triumphed with my twin achievements: buying a superior product that happened to be Paulie’s favorite.
“Drink this.” Debbie set the small bottle beside Paulie.
“Thank you.” Paulie’s voice barely leaked out.
“Can we walk? Through the building?” She looked up at Debbie with slow eyes.
“No. Drink your milk. Elizabeth brought you the milk. Tell Elizabeth thank you for bringing the milk.”
“Okay, okay.” Paulie took a sip. She looked sadder and more vulnerable today, a layer of strength visibly shorn.
Debbie went into the kitchen and emerged with the chili and a spoon. Both of us faced Paulie.
“Do you want more milk?” I asked her.
She shook her head as indecipherable phrases began to stream out.
I don’t know who the fact that this has been…A romance right now…This man…In the building…
While she talked I gossiped with Debbie about the man I was dating, a Jewish doctor with great taste in music and terrible fear of commitment. She showed me a picture of her new boyfriend. I glanced intermittently at Paulie, who was talking to the floor.
He’s going to come I told you walking building outside Alice I told you…I remember that they meet like that…The fact is this right now this guy an extra…See if you can catch…see if you can catch…something shiny…maybe they have those things…
I felt guilty for not engaging her, but I didn’t know how. Debbie turned to her intermittently to chide her about pronouns.
“There’s no he!” She kept saying. “Why can’t you carry on a conversation today?” She shook her head. “She’s puzzled today. Pauline, why are you puzzled today? Take your time and speak.”
Yes but he’s gonna be here…
Paulie’s chest fell forward.
“There’s no he! It’s you, me and Elizabeth! There’s no one else here!”
I felt like my insides might leap from the creases of my skin, the kind of anxiety that begs escape.
“I should go, anyhow,” I said. “Book club starts soon.”
“Okay,” Debbie said, unfazed. “We’ll see you soon! Pauline, say goodbye to Elizabeth. She’ll be back next week.”
In the mirror-lined hallway I shook my head at my reflection. The elevator couldn’t come quick enough.
It was too late, I thought. I had waited too long. Paulie’s body lived, but her mind had left, and nothing I could bring would make it come back. Which wouldn’t matter, I thought, if I truly loved her. If all I wanted was to give her love. But what I really wanted was for her to prove her love for me, to assure me that I was really family. That Jackie’s death wasn’t my fault. I wanted to take.
It was the thought of Debbie, not Paulie, that made me feel guilty when I didn’t return the next week, or the week after that, or the week after that.
“No one comes for Pauline.” I imagined her saying, shaking her head. “She’s all alone.”