9 Kaddish
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120 9 Kaddish Now that I had had my own brush with death, I thought that perhaps I’d feel a stronger connection to the residents of St. Anthony’s. But the opposite was true. New people had moved in, none of whom was exactly a role model for anything other than self-destruction. There was Mitchell, handsome and friendly, as dark as ebony, who started hanging out with Gary, an ex-hairdresser, ex-husband, and ex-junkie who loved to buy tchotchkes at garage sales, and who made a point of mothering the more decrepit of his fellow residents, clucking and fussing over them like an old maw-maw. But one day I came to St. Anthony’s and they, along with a third resident, Danny, were gone—because they’d been doing drugs in the bathroom. A few months later, Gary died, alone, at Earl K. Long. Then Mitchell died of a drug overdose. Three young women moved in, each of them the mother of several children, moved out again, moved in again, and died within weeks of each other. A middle-aged woman whose husband had infected her moved in, moved out again, and died. Then Valerie died. This is how I learned of her death: Caroline called me one morning and said, “The queen has died.” I cried like a baby. But I wasn’t crying over Valerie alone. Valerie had been visibly failing for months, suffering cramps, gas pains, diarrhea, and utter immobility. She weighed about two hundred and eighty pounds; her legs were the size of telephone poles; tubes carried her pee to a plastic pouch suspended by the side of the bed. She’d long since lost both her eyesight and her ability to make some kind of coherent sense out of the swirl around her, in the process losing both her personal narrative, her personal story, and her grip on what most of us call reality. Her one daughter never came to visit her. Nor did her parents or any other family. I don’t know why. Perhaps they were too embroiled in their own problems to so much as find the will to visit her. Perhaps they were scared by AIDS, by the prospect that they, too, might succumb to it—or perhaps they’d merely written her off, as early as four years earlier, when Valerie had first come to St. Anthony’s. But she never did lose her sweetness, her hope, her sense of love and even enchantment with the world, and this is something I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to understand. She missed her mamma, she said. She needed to see her, and did I know that her mamma was going to take care of her now that she was moving out of St. Anthony’s, she was going home? She’d lie in her bed, the stories—or rather, the fragments of stories—just flying out of her mouth, her eyes rolling back in her head, while I held her hand, or the caregivers gave her a sponge bath or did her hair or told her to put her trust in God. “Baby, that you, Jennifer? Jennifer, how about you spend the night with me?” “Where would I sleep, Val?” “Up here, in the bed with me.” “I don’t think there’s room for both of us.” “You take the chair, then.” “What would my husband say?” “You tell him that he can sleep here too. You two do much nooky?” “What?” “He a good-looking man?” Every time I left her bedside—either to go home or to hang out with another resident, I felt guilty. Joanna always told me not to feel guilty, that guilt was a wasted emotion, and that in any event, I did enough. But I didn’t do enough, not really. And then another new resident, William, moved in, setting himself up in the room that, once upon a time, had been Gerald’s, and I’d go and sit with him, sometimes for an hour, sometimes longer. William was easy to talk to, better educated than most of the other residents, and thoughtful. In his late sixties, William had a huge, bloated stomach, and stick-thin legs elevated on pillows in an effort to ease the swelling around his joints. He wore glasses and spent most of his days propped up on his neatly made bed, his room spotless, reading the Bible. He spoke in...


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