restricted access The Dying Tradition
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The Dying Tradition

Long after everything, I will remember the smells: Cabbage soup and rotting lilies. Accents of indignity. Antiseptics. I will remember the smell of diapers full as udders. I will remember her signature 4711 eau de toilette and her pride in all things European. Her room I will have less trouble forgetting. It is spare, unremarkable. Today, the partition is drawn, revealing a lone, bare window that overlooks the George Washington Bridge. A barge inches along the cold, dull slate of the Hudson. The day is overcast. The radiator clicks.

“Sit on the chair.”

“Sit on the pillow.”

“Sit on the chair.”

“Sit on the pillow.”

My grandmother’s roommate is performing her morning calisthenics. Her commands spill out in a blunted, vibratory string, as if uttered from the back of the Bronx-Manhattan express bus. Her routine is undistracted by my presence, much less my grandmother’s; my grandmother remains unruffled by her. She has conked out again. I stare at the stranger. There is little else to do. My grandmother could sleep for weeks. I cannot stop staring: at this woman’s plastic ferns and array of Hallmarks, finger paintings and valentines; at the recent wedding photos on the wall, white satin gloves embracing the sloped shoulders of this woman with the far-off look, for she too is someone’s grandmother. I study her movements as she shuffles from the head of her bed to her chair; I study the trembling of her lip, her bosom consuming the entire expanse of her torso as she catches her breath and shuffles back again, her bottom flat and padded, her beige trousers harvesting crumbs, her hair like something off the rack at Ricky’s, her blue sweater in need of a bib. [End Page 103]

“Sit on the chair.”

I think of Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man.

“Sit on the pillow.”

This woman is no autistic savant.

“Sit on the chair.”

She is a resident at the Hebrew Home for the Aged. Such behavior is run-of-the-mill here, where my grandmother lives now, where she will die. It’s not bad, as places go. The campus remains true to its brochure: There are multiple wings and activity rooms, a gourmet restaurant, artwork worthy of its celebrity donors, an antique Lionel train exhibit, a tank of exotic fish; you can even spot a family of geese feeding along the river’s edge. When we moved her in on Christmas Eve, we said, “Think of it like an Ivy League university,” and she threw back her chins and winked at the orderly, “My family knows how to spoil me”—as if we were treating her to an all-expenses-paid luxury cruise vacation.

The dying starts in December:

“Can you imagine,” she tells the doctor. Bolstered by pillows, my grandmother looks as if she’s awoken from a regular afternoon nap instead of a 24-hour coma. The doctor, a third-year resident, flashes his penlight; her lids flutter in response. He’s here to collect her patient history. My grandmother is 94 years old. How much time does he have?

“I am sitting in the Corner Café, right off Johnson Avenue, on the corner of . . . You know the corner. You don’t know it? You should go. It is such a nice little café and I am sitting there with my son, Larry, my youngest, and every Sunday he comes and we go and he orders the potato pancakes, like bird nests they are, light and crispy, and the strangest thing. I have the jelly doughnuts. It was Hanukkah already, which came so early this year, don’t you know. Sufganiot, for that is tradition. He orders pancakes, but the doughnuts are the most delicious you’ve ever had, with a dusting of powdered sugar, the warmest gift of strawberry when you bite in.”

“And then what happened, Mrs. Lippmann?”

“We ate.”

He makes a note in her chart.

“Do you know why you’re here?” he asks and she shrugs. He snaps his pen and hooks it to his shirt pocket. The resident crabs around on his stool and checks her vitals...


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