Old Aunt Doris, Alone in Queens

Written by Jonathan Ames on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.

I went out
to Queens to take my Great-Aunt Doris to the doctor. I took the G train all
the way from where I live in downtown Brooklyn to her neighborhood, Rego Park,
which is right next to Forest Hills, which must be right next to Long Island.
I always forget the exact geography, but it’s way out there. I was on the
subway a good 50 minutes, about 23 stops. I drank a coffee and read the whole

I got off at 63rd Dr. and
started walking the several blocks to my great-aunt’s building. I was a
little hungry and I remembered that in my backpack was a bagel with cream cheese
I had bought with my coffee, but had forgotten about. It was almost 1 p.m. and
I hadn’t eaten anything all day. So I started in on the bagel, especially
because I knew I’d need strength to get my great-aunt to the doctor’s.
My blood sugar is all nutty and if it dipped while I was with her I’d be
in trouble. She’s three-quarters deaf, and when she walks she teeters and
careens, even with her cane, and she makes everything worse by being stubborn.

So I chewed that life-saving
bagel and I was thinking about my great-aunt, how she’s prideful and brave,
but her body is falling apart, getting weaker, and, as I often do, I wondered
how much longer she could live alone. She won’t wear one of those alarm
bracelets and every time I call and she doesn’t answer, I fear that she’s

The city sends her a woman
now who comes Monday through Friday, from 9 to 1, which leaves my great-aunt
alone on the weekends, and so she hardly goes out of her tiny one-room apartment
until the woman, Mary, shows up again Monday morning. Then maybe together they’ll
walk to the library or to a bench or to the market. Mary, who is a sweet Haitian
woman in her early 40s, has been coming for about a month. My great-aunt needs
her very much, but pretends that the city has sent Mary only to help with the
housekeeping, that she’s a cleaning lady of some sort.

Then, as I kept walking,
I wondered who will take care of me if I manage to get old. My son whom I’ve
been a part-time dad for? He loves me now, but what if that ends? And why should
he help me? It’s like that Harry Chapin song–and it’s terrible
when songs are true–but I haven’t always had time for my son, and
so maybe later he won’t have time for me. So will there be anybody who
loves me enough to look after me? And if not, will I be able to pay for someone
to take care of me? I have no money at 36, how much will I have at 76?

And so my morbid, self-pitying
thinking went, and I was licking the cream cheese, with its fat and its fake
white color, out of the corner of my mouth, and just a few bites before this
bagel was saving my life, my sugar, but now I thought of it clogging my heart
and how I’d pay later for this bagel-with-cream-cheese when I was old and
deteriorating and in pain. I saw myself lying on the floor in an apartment in
Queens–inherited from my great-aunt? All that I’ll be able to afford,
her subsidized rent?–paralyzed by a stroke, an aneurysm, a something, just
lying there, a thousand bagels-with-cream-cheese my undoing, and I’d pass
the time on the floor by thinking how once I could chase girls–I could!–and
all the while, too, I’d be hoping that someone would come save me, knock
on the door, remember the old man in 6V.

Well, I still ate the whole
bagel–the folly of youth. And I passed a lot of old people on the sidewalk.
Queens is like one big nursing home. But I was defiant. I ate that bagel! I
won’t get old! I’ll be healthy up until the moment I die!

I rang her buzzer, 6V. The
door clicked open. I took the elevator–which often is broken, further trapping
my great-aunt in her crowded, antique-filled apartment–to the sixth floor.
Mary opened the door. She’s a handsome, kind woman. We had met once before.

"I’m glad you
could come," she said. "I don’t like the way she looks. She’s
not herself today."

My great-aunt came out of
the bathroom. She’s tiny, a little less than 5 feet now, having lost a
few inches over the years. I hugged her to my chest as I always do and stroked
her reddish-white hair. We parted and she said, repeating the symptoms she had
told me over the phone, "I have knitting needles every couple of minutes
running from neck, up my head and into my face. Knitting needles. I haven’t
slept for three days."

"Sounds terrible. We’ll
see what the doctor thinks," I said.


I shouted this time and
she caught it. I had called the doctor that morning and got her an appointment
by convincing the nurse to let us come in, even though there wasn’t an
opening until the next day.

Mary had to leave and she
and my great-aunt hugged goodbye. "She’s sugar," said my great-aunt.
I called a taxi. I helped my great-aunt on with her sweater-jacket, and her
fingers were too shaky to manage the buttons, so I leaned over her from behind
to button it, the way I used to help my son with his jackets when he was very
little. We got in the elevator and she almost tripped on the way out–the
elevator hadn’t stopped even with the floor. It was dangerous, and my vigilance
had been lacking, I didn’t have her arm.

"I almost fell,"
she said, nervously. A few years ago, she broke her ankle and she worries about
falling again.

We got in the waiting taxi
without incident. The doctor was over in Forest Hills, about eight blocks away.
It was a quick ride. While I paid the driver–a man with an odd orange-ish
wig, I only saw the back of his head–my great-aunt opened her door and
started getting out. "Wait for me," I said.

"I can manage,"
she said, obstinate.

"Famous last words,"
said the bewigged cabbie.

I got the change, raced
out my door and around the cab, and sure enough she was out; she had managed.
Disaster averted. I helped her up the curb. "How much did you tip him?"
she asked.

"A dollar," I
shouted. It had been a four-dollar fare.

"Too much," she
said. "A quarter would have been enough. Are you rich?"

I piloted her into the small,
shabby and quaint office of her doctor.

"I have knitting needles
in my head," said my great-aunt to the receptionist.

"Just have a seat,
Mrs. Klein," said the woman, using my great-aunt’s married name from
the early 60s. She was divorced twice, the first one when her husband came back
loony from World War II. Besides her two marriages, she also had many "gentleman-friends"
leave their shoes under her bed, as she likes to say. For a long time, she was
a manicurist in a barbershop in one of the old men’s clubs off of Park

We sat down in the waiting
room for a few minutes. Two other patients came in–first, an ancient Jewish
man wearing a yarmulke, a stained yellow shirt and a wide black tie, and then
an old Russian woman, doubled over with osteoporosis.

The receptionist, who was
also the nurse, led us into the one consulting room, which had a little closet-like
changing area attached to it. I helped my great-aunt with her sweater and shirt
and with her back to me she removed her lopsided bra: one cup is filled with
foam padding to compensate for the breast lost to cancer 15 years ago. She put
on a blue paper smock and then the nurse and I helped her onto the examining
table. It seemed like she would slide off and break something before the doctor
got there, but she held on.

The nurse left and I sat
on a stool and looked around; the little room was crowded with boxes of insurance
forms and there was dust everywhere, the look of neglect. Then the doctor came
in: a man in his 60s with a weak chin and bald head, but clear, smart eyes,
though tired. He examined my great-aunt and he told her things, most of which
she didn’t hear, so I’d repeat crucial phrases for her; she seems
to hear me when she can’t hear others. "It’s most likely a pinched
nerve, probably caused by arthritis," he said.

"What? Did you say
a pinched nerve?"

"Yes, a pinched nerve!"
I shouted. The doctor looked at me appreciatively. He checked her lungs, holding
the stethoscope to her back and all over her were little things, brown and dry–how
uncomfortable her skin looked. And I admired this doctor, tending to the old,
tending to my great-aunt. He wrote her a prescription for anti-inflammatory
pills and gave us a sample box as well, enough for two days. He had her take
one of the pills with water. "I know she lives alone," he said to
me, and she didn’t catch a word. "So don’t worry, these won’t
make her drowsy or groggy. She won’t fall down because of them." Then
he patted her on the back and left the room.

"A nice man,"
she said.

She went to get dressed,
and called me into the little closet space to hook her bra. Then I buttoned
her shirt and helped her with her sweater. "What would I do without you,"
she said and kissed me.

We left the office and she
insisted on walking to a restaurant where she’d treat me for lunch. She
refused to let me get a cab. As we walked, about 10 minutes per block, she practiced
her Christian Science, as she likes to call it, even though she’s Jewish.
"I don’t have a problem. I don’t have a problem," she said,
and she walked a couple of steps, feeling proud of herself. "It works!"
she said. But then she had an attack of the shooting pains and was flinching
on the street, we had to stop our slow walk, and she muttered, "Damn, knitting
needles," and then she conceded, "Well, I have a pinched nerve. But
at least I don’t have arthritis. That’s one good thing." I thought
it was best not to tell her what she had missed of the doctor’s diagnosis.

It took us about 40 minutes,
but we made it to a diner on 108th St.–Rego Park’s main thoroughfare,
which my great-aunt calls "Little Moscow." In addition to being a
giant nursing home, Queens is also amazing for its United Nations diversity:
on 108th St., you see the greatest panoply of ethnicities anywhere in New York,
it’s like an Olympic village, though Russians do predominate.

So we got a booth in the
diner and she ordered a Coke and a hamburger with raw onion. She ate the whole
thing. Thinking of my heart and the cream-cheese bagel, I had tunafish salad
and lentil soup. We were there a while, she’s a slow eater, but finally
the meal was over. We hadn’t talked much since I’d have to shout,
which isn’t so good in a restaurant, but I did ask her at one point, "Who
are you going to vote for for president?"

"Democrat," she
said. "What’s his name?"


"Yes, I’ll vote
for Gore."

She gave me money to pay
and told me to leave a one-dollar tip. It was a 13-dollar bill. I let her amble
out on her own for a few steps and threw another dollar-fifty on the table,
then caught up to her. We have this problem with tipping whenever we go out.
She still tips taxis a quarter and for all meals she leaves a dollar. Her tipping
hasn’t kept up with inflation.

We went to a pharmacy and
filled her prescription. The beautiful Russian woman behind the counter asked
my great-aunt her birthday for the insurance form, and my great-aunt said, "February
22nd, 1919." I know she was born in 1912; for most of her adult life she’s
been subtracting a number of years. Even now I guess she prefers people to think
her 81 instead of 88, which is not unreasonable.

It took us another 30 minutes
to get to her building, about four blocks away, and again she refused to let
me get a cab. "Don’t make me an old lady!" she said. We stopped
on a bench halfway there, so she could rest. She kept getting the knitting needles.
I rubbed her neck and watched some 12-year-old kids play handball in a schoolyard.
They were all calling each other "nigger" and "bitch." My
great-aunt heard nothing.

We got to her apartment
and she was exhausted, trembling. Too much walking. I helped her undress and
she got into her narrow bed, which is also her couch. I put the phone on her
little night table, but even with the extra-loud ringer, she doesn’t always
hear it. And then next to the phone, I put a glass of water and the pills the
doctor prescribed. Then I kissed her on the cheek and I said, "I love you."

"I love you more than
that," she said. And then I left the apartment–I had an appointment
in the city–and I pulled the door locked behind me. It always feels cruel
to leave her. To her and to me. What if I never get to see her again? I always
think that maybe this time is the last time. But I steeled myself–you have
to walk away from the people you love–and I pushed the button for the elevator
so that I could go.