|Winona Boulevard Solstice Sunset Copyright Marlan Warren|
If you have a friend upon
whom you think you can rely
you are a Lucky Man.
- Alan Price, O Lucky Man
"She doesn't want to die," Tom told me last month. "She's afraid."
"But she's a devout Catholic, isn't she?" I said.
I couldn't help thinking of my friend Gabrielle's last words when she finally was able to transcend the lingering cancer that had taken almost everything but her dignity, friends and family:
"This is just so perfect."
Tom first told me about Lena when we met in 2002. She was already living in the 37-unit building when he started managing it as co-owner seventeen years ago. Last Saturday at 9 a.m. as she choked on her vomit and went into convulsions, and her heart stopped, she had lived there 30 years. It was her wish to die at home and she got her wish.
For over a decade, Tom was Lena's friend and volunteer caregiver--helplessly watching her disintegrate from an undiagnosed chronic illness. Tom would describe to me Lena's midnight phone calls begging him to help her manage her pain. He's a Reiki Level III practitioner, and possesses the hottest, most healing hands in town. One time he told me about falling asleep on her couch after giving her an energetic transfer of Light to soothe away her misery. Not wanting to leave her alone.
Once he said to me in a soft voice full of guilt:
"Sometimes I wish she would just...go."
When I first moved into their building three years ago, one night during our weekly Reiki exchange, Tom's cellphone went off while I was in the midst of receiving the warmth and beauty of the Universal Energy he was transferring. He answered it and headed for the door.
"Where are you going?" I yelped.
"Lena needs me."
"I'll go with you," I offered since we had begun working together occasionally as partners giving Reiki to anyone who asked for it.
"No," he said. "I'm not ready for you to meet Lena yet." And he was gone.
The next day I read him the Riot Act: "Don't you ever ever do that again." And he never did. But he did grow distant for a while. Our sessions dropped off, and I would run into him in the coming months and ask, "How are you?"
"Can't complain," he'd shrug. Which I later learned is Japanese American for none of your business.
During this dry spell, I called him one night to check in and he said, "I'm trying to repair this stove so if you want to talk, come on over." I found him lying on his back in a vacant apartment trying to repair an oven that could not be repaired.
"What have you been up to?" I asked.
"Lena's been in the hospital for a month now..."
I had watched from my window when she was taken away. My apartment faces the street and the paramedics and fire trucks would regularly roar up in the earliest morning hours, men rushing out and inside, leaving the motors running with vibrating importance until Lena was wheeled out in a stretcher or pushed out in a wheelchair, or Tom would come out talking with the uniformed men who would jump back in their trucks and leave at last with sirens screaming.
This time the surgeon had operated on her neck by going in through her throat to "relieve pressure" on the vertebrae there. Which sounded like it could be the last straw for someone as frail as Lena was.
But she emerged after her surgery to become Queen of All She Surveyed.
"She called me and said, 'Tom! Tom! I need Diet Coke! I gotta have my Diet Coke!" he told me as he stopped working on the stove and stretched out his back. "So I buy a case of friggin' Diet Coke and hop on my bike and ride out to Santa Monica...and a couple days later, she calls me again: Tom! Tom! I need more Diet Coke!"
Every night I could hear Tom rev up his Kowasaki and head out to visit her across town. I'm the only person who can calm her down, he would say over and over. Was he unaware of what a thrill it must have been for this lady--long divorced with no family--to see this tall, strapping, relatively young man stride into her room in his motorcycle finery bringing her a case of Diet Coke under his arm (or whatever else she might desire, except of course the bloody cigarettes she continued to crave to the very end)? That's how I saw it in my mind's eye. This beautiful man probably 15 years younger coming out to visit her and bring her gifts, making her feel loved and cherished.
Did I feel resentment? Yes, of course. Was I jealous? Well, let's just say I didn't realize it until earlier this year when he called me at 7 p.m. on Valentine's Day to ask me if I could sit with Lena because none of her caregivers could show up that evening and he was renovating an apartment.
"I can be there by 10 o'clock to put her to bed," he said. To pick her up in those strong arms and carry her to bed. And what would I get? Um, jealous?
Since the day we met, Tom has said we are friends, we are friends, we are friends. Never mind that there are times when we act like husband and wife. Never mind that we have been more intimate with each other than probably with anyone else we've ever known.
We are "just" friends.
That Valentine's Night, I felt like killing them both. I said no thank you to Tom's request. His decision to keep us apart had finally gained traction in my head, and it felt right. Even if I hadn't felt dismay, I would have refused on the grounds that I am allergic to cigarette smoke.
That night in front of the belligerent stove, Tom told me:
"My cousin teases me that she's my girlfriend. But I say, 'No. She's my 'Baby Girl,' because you can always dump a girlfriend but you can't dump your baby, no matter how much trouble she gives you."
Lena stayed in the hospital for six weeks. "She's trading the Diet Coke with the inmates for other stuff she wants, and she's got it made. They want to move her to another facility but she don't wanna go. It's like One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest."
"And she's the Head Cuckoo," I said. He laughed. Exactly.
Some weeks later, Tom acted out a scene from Lena's Cuckoo's Nest. She had been stuck in a room with a patient who could not stop hopping around. Tom hopped on one foot to show me how the patient hopped onto Lena's bed and then hopped off again. I asked if Lena minded. He said no, she took it in stride.
Without money, you take whatever room they give you. You accept whoever is in the bed next to you, or hopping around next to you. You make do. You bargain with cans of Diet Coke.
When she returned home, it was after signing herself out--against doctor's orders. If she was going to die, it would not be in an institution. She resumed what was left of her life: Sisters of Mercy taking turns to sit all night with her....one regular paid caregiver who came with restricted hours...and Tom who administered her morphine shots with pride ("I can give you a shot, and you'd never even feel it.")
On rare occasions, I'd catch a glimpse of her sitting by the pool in her wheelchair, head twisted to the side permanently. A radio on the table. Sometimes dozing. Alone. Or with her caregiver.
I only encountered her once. It was after I first moved in and I was opening the door that led to my car parked in the underground garage as she was entering in her wheelchair. She gave me a sunny smile and said, "Thank you, dear!" I knew it was her (who else could it be?) and said hello. But I was startled to see that she was not physically lovely in any way. Instead of the Sissy Spacek waif I'd imagined from Tom's stories, she appeared more substantial, like Maureen Stapleton.
One day before her long day's journey through the hospital, Lena called Tom to say that her catheter tube had broken and she wanted him to fix it.
“I told her I don’t know nothin’ about that,” Tom said. “And she goes, ‘We can figure this out together.’”
He called the Paramedics.
“You got a problem with the pipes in your bathroom, I’m your man. I fix plumbing, but not that kind.”
One afternoon Tom was going to do me a favor, and before he would do it, he made me walk with him to Lena's apartment, and told me to wait in the hallway. He went inside, leaving the door ajar and I could hear their conversation:
"Girl! Are you crazy? Those cigarettes are bad for you. Put that cigarette out."
"I need to smoke."
"You shouldn't smoke."
"Hand me that lighter over there."
And so on. If you heard her voice, its tone could fool you with its strength and geniality. Get me this. Get me that. I need this. I need that. She ran her caregiver ragged with her demands. Tom, too, by the end was exhausted by them.
The first year that I knew Tom he gave me this report:
"She's out by the pool and my cousin says, 'Look at Lena. I look and she's falling asleep with a lit cigarette in her hand. That's how drugged she was."
Tom would often howl, "I can't believe this woman was a nurse!" I would find myself hoping that she wouldn't set the building on fire.
"If you got to know her, you'd really like her," he kept telling me. "When she first got sick, she was still able to enjoy life. She'd go around the neighborhood and bring back cuttings of flowers. She collected snails."
"I never see any snails around here," I said.
"That's because Lena got them all."
The day she passed, I was stopped on the street by my Armenian neighbor:
"Isn 't it terrible what happened to her?" he said. "She was so beautiful when I moved in. Full of life. And this disease, what it did...And it could happen to us. We have to appreciate our health and what we have, because we could end up the same way. You never know."
Two months ago, Lena's suffering had ratcheted up beyond what any mortal should be asked to endure. Her morphine no longer had any effect. And in tandem, Tom's suffering increased beyond what he felt he could tolerate. I heard brief but awful reports of how she was incontinent, and he found himself helping her go to the bathroom. She'd lost use of her arms as well as her legs by then.
Tom is the kind of person who admires a spotless apartment. And there he was helping his dear friend wipe herself. "There was nobody else to do it," he explained.
When Tom pulled strings with his family who co-own the building to let me live there, I told him that it had occurred to me that he is an angel on Earth. (And this year, he has come forward to put his money where other people would never dare even put their mouths to support me and keep me afloat during some very trying times.) He answered:
"Maybe that's true. A few years ago, I was skating at night and I didn't clear a curb. I fell face forward onto the pavement, and then I felt my skin for the road rash I knew would be there....but there was nothing. It was like angels had held my face up or something."
Last September we ran into troubles. My crashing finances were weighing on him. He looked haggard and wouldn't make eye contact when I came over to talk with him. I had been out of town and wanted to catch up.
"She lies in her own shit at 3 a.m. and screaming, 'HELP ME! HELP ME! HELP ME!" he said. "I closed all the windows and went back to bed."
But there were other recent stories about getting called at 2 a.m. by a nun who said Lena was delirious. And a funny story about them leaning forward trying to decipher what she was saying.
"She's saying, 'St-'...'St-'... and we're like, 'What is she saying? 'Stan'? Is there someone named 'Stan'?..." Until they finally figure out in her delirium she is saying, "Sis-tah...Sis-tah."
Another time recently, he sat with her all night watching her--sure she was going to leave the planet. She was calling him "Sister" and he was devastated. "She didn't even know who I was!" But after hours and hours, he finally called the Paramedics who hauled her off. And the resulting diagnosis:
I asked how he couldn't know she had a urinary infection. Couldn't she tell him her symptoms? "Well, you know..." he said. "That might be kind of embarassing for her to talk about."
A couple weeks ago, he told me that she had told him that she had lost her fear of death. He had told her a story about proof of afterlife, and she had been thinking about it. Her strong religious beliefs forbade suicide, but she had a "DNR" -- DO NOT RESUSCITATE -- instruction for paramedics and nurses. But somehow whenever she was in respiratory arrest, they revived her.
Last Saturday, this was not the case.
That morning I was up at 4 a.m. to work on my laptop in the building's entrance because they have a table and chairs there, right outside Tom's office where he put in Wi-Fi for me, but won't allow me into the office to use it. The Wi-Fi doesn't reach to my apartment so if I need to use it, I must sit just outside the office.
So I'm there typing away when a nun comes by. She tells me her name is Sister Rosa and she's from a convent near USC. And she keeps questioning me with suspicion:
"You live here?"
"Yes" Then I explain. But then she asks:
"What apartment?" I tell her.
"You don't come from outside? You live here?"
In between the interrogation, Sister Rosa says she's been up all night with Lena: "She never sleep. She talk all night."
At last it seems that the Sister has decided that I am not an intruder and she asks me to look up her convent on the computer. And then she invites me to visit her sometime.
It's rather surreal. The Sister in white. Like an angel on Earth. And the darkness of the Autumn morning around us. Tom's white Christmas lights that he leaves up all year round were still twinkling just outside the lobby doors.
Then her ride came and she left.
By 8 a.m., I was at my Debtors Anonymous meeting (praying to God that I can pay Tom back every cent). Then I gave a fellow member a ride to Trader Joe's so we could both go shopping. Standing in line with her, I was tempted to take her home in the opposite direction from where I live. But then I told myself not to overdo. I had a busy Saturday planned.
So I just went home to drop off my groceries. Getting off the elevator, I could hear Tom's voice: formal as if he was talking to a stranger.
"I'm sorry? I didn't catch what you said."
I pass him in the lobby with my grocery bags and as I get to my front door, I hear him say that Lena has "expired" at 9 a.m. and the Coroner needs to come.
It is not the first time he has called for a dead tenant. But it is the first time that the tenant is Lena. His Baby Girl.
I leave the bags outside the door and go to where he is still on the phone. I sit down in the same chair that I was in at 4 a.m. that same morning. And I watch him talk in flat official tones to the "authorities." This must be done and that must be done.
There is no way to hug him after he is off the cellphone. No way to say, "I am so so sorry for your loss!" He is the "manager" busy managing. Tom the Fixer has left the building. The time for that is over. At last.
He tells me the details quickly
"Sister Rosa was with her..."
"I met Sister Rosa at 4 a.m. she came out and said Lena didn't sleep."
"Lena was very cantankerous with Sister Rosa."
Another Sister came to relieve Sister Rosa, but for some reason Sister Rosa had to come back and keep the vigil until the regular caregiver could take her shift. Then the caretaker's report of how Lena became delirious and vomited.
"She cleaned Lena up as best she could, and she called me to say Lena wasn't breathing. So I came over and she took Lena's blood pressure and there was nothing."
Do not resuscitate.
How long did they wait? I don't know. But I had heard him on the phone saying, "She has a DNR." In case they got to wondering.
"Reiki tonight?" I ask. We had planned to do it the night before but he called at 9:30 p.m. to say he had "irritable bowel" and was exhausted so we postponed the Reiki session that would have been our first in many months. Since I landed a part-time job last week, he's been more relaxed and eager to get back to our friendship. Let's not worry 'bout the money.
He knocks on my door an hour earlier than expected. Still dressed for the cold outside and smelling of smoke.
"I just got back from hiking up to the Observatory."
"In the dark."
"Yeah, it's no big deal."
"So did you want to do Reiki now?"
"Yeah sure. I'll change and be back."
"Um, have you been smoking?"
"Cigar. You can smell it?"
He doesn't come inside but crouches on the floor in the hallway, as he sometimes does when he is on the border. I crouch too, and then sit.
"I hiked up to the top and sat on a cliff looking out over the city. It's such a clear night. Really beautiful. And I smoked a cigar. Towards the end I heard people laughing. And I thought, 'Life goes on.'"
He goes to shower and change. Returns with a plate of various whole fruits that looked like an offering for a Buddhist altar. I show him the shrine I've made for Lena. I didn't know her but that doesn't mean she doesn't deserve to be remembered for the good person that she was and the good friend she was to my good friend.
"See? I picked some flowers from the neighborhood and put them in this little vase."
"That's what Lena used to do."
"Yes, you told me and I was surprised that she had the nerve to take other people's flowers from their yard..."
"Oh are these our flowers out front?"
"That bush needed pruning."
I'd placed the purple sage flowers in a small delicate Japanese vase next to a glass of water to help Lena's spirit with its transition.
It was a night to remember, as they say.
Tom was like someone who had just had a "skin peel" for the soul. As if he'd just emerged from a vat of acid that had burned away his previous uptight persona to reveal a "new man" underneath.
"Let's celebrate," he said. "Lena would have wanted a celebration."
And so we did. For me, it was like returning to the place where you had once been loved--like a childhood home--and now felt loved all over again as if it was the first time, with the twist that what was making it so intensely intimate was the fact that it was not the first time at all. But a place you arrived at with someone else because you had journeyed there together, even if you had lost sight of one another from time to time.
Many boundaries and barriers that had been so solid for so long now were crossed as if they'd never existed in the first place.
I felt energized and renewed after our session, and we sat together with the fruit between us until 1:30 a.m. laughing and talking. From my repertoire, I managed to pull out some very funny stories that he had never heard and we laughed hysterically over them.
We only spoke of Lena once.
I asked, "Will there be a memorial service? A funeral? Will she be buried or cremated?" He answered, "She will be buried in a Pauper's Grave." He explained that this is a mass grave that poor people are buried in if they can't afford anything else.
"But will there be a marker?" I wanted to know.
"It's only her body."