My Grandmother Is In a Nursing Home With Coronavirus In It. This Story Is About Her.
About a year ago, after falling in her apartment in Brooklyn, my 91-year-old grandmother moved into a nursing home where, in recent weeks, there have been a number of coronavirus cases. In late April, she became feverish, so my family began preparing for the worst.
The nursing home — the name is not that important — is nominally in Brighton Beach, but is more like Manhattan Beach, and sits in a giant brick building that juts out toward the Atlantic Ocean, the water pushing right up against its shores. It is very peaceful there, quiet and serene, a sort of last stop for people before they head into the ground.
I visited the nursing home around this time last year. Why I went on the particular day, I can’t be certain, though I know that I had been looking at photographs, moved by some music I’d been listening to earlier on that specific day. It got my mind spinning, turned me emotional and such. I got to flicking through pictures and came upon one of her, setting off chain reaction.
I need to see her now, I thought, before it is too late.
She had been there a few weeks, and I hadn’t gone, just like my grandfather had been there some twelve years before, when I hadn’t gone either. Why hadn’t I gone to see him then, why hadn’t I gone and visited, said my goodbyes when I could; was I too young then, did I just not know what was at stake?
I suppose that, looking back, I spent the better part of my late twenties lost inside of myself. I did not see life and all that was around me; all I saw was what had been staring back at me in the mirror, and this, this — at least at the time that my grandfather died — I did not like.
My grandfather must have died in April or May of 2008, for if I remember correctly there is a photograph of me then, wearing a shirt that is much too large for my body, this being a period when I was losing weight rapidly, on a quest to drop a whopping 50 pounds. I don’t know what I felt at the time though I assume it was nothing, because I remember nothing, not caring whether he lived or he died because he was old and old people died and that was life.
I always remember how, when my grandfather died, there were few people, hardly any at all, at his funeral. It was myself, my brother, my father, my stepmother, my uncle, my grandmother. In sum total, six people came to mourn a man who lived until he was about seventy-something years old. An entire life had gone by and when it came to end there was nobody around to celebrate it.
Well, I guess that is one way to look at it. Another way to see it would be that the people who were truly close to him, the people he loved, were there. He was not a complex man, did not live a very vibrant or colorful life. At least not when he got older. I don’t remember him having many friends; the ones he did have, I would assume, had moved elsewhere. Maybe he kept in touch with them by phone, or maybe he wrote letters, but on the whole he did not travel a lot, he mostly stayed in the apartment.
Did my grandfather lack ambition? Maybe. Although, it is hard to say what he lacked in that department, if only because you would have to have been from his generation to understand his point of view at all. He was born at a time when young children were not told that they could live their dreams. If it was encouraged at all, I never heard about it; to the extent my grandfather had any dreams at all, I am not sure.
His generation, you see, was not a bunch of dreamers. Maybe they listened to the radio and maybe they watched the television, picked up the papers — the tabloids were big back then — and became fascinated, to whatever degree they could be, with the stories that existed out there, the people and the places and all the things that were happening, but they did not see themselves as being part of this larger narrative. Whatever was happening out there in the world, they saw themselves as here, and that there.
Their primary life goal wasn’t to leave a legacy or tell their story. Their goal was to find a hole in the world and fill it. To find a function, a way to be useful. They’d get jobs and support children, extend the family and the race — maybe the Jewish one — so that it could do something or be something that, ‘till this day, nobody is quite sure. I don’t think they really thought about any of this stuff all that much. They were alive and that was good enough.
It was not his generation but my father’s who became much more educated and began looking inward, asking themselves why they were here and what their true purpose was. But even my father’s generation, when they had kids, eventually learned to just get on with it. They got jobs and they marched on, each day, without asking questions of themselves, of others, of anything.
They saw it as their duty to make money, and with that money, to provide opportunities for their children; but then, their children were born into positions where they felt they could do anything. Instead, many of them did absolutely nothing.
Now, let me digress for a second and say that, sometimes, when I am at the grocery store, the clerk and I exchange words. The particular man I speak of is fifty-something with a little extra weight on his frame. Balding and round, with a gentle voice, he has a bad hip which leaves him, at times, limping around the store. I ask him about it and he always seems amused that I am making conversation with him, that I wonder how he is doing, how he feels. He thanks me for asking just as he thanks me for bagging the groceries, saying that most people do not bag, and I often wonder what it is about him that has put him in this place at this age.
The grocery store clerk likely could have been anything and anyone, but instead he is here, ringing up groceries for snobby people in a reasonably upscale part of town, where more money is spent in one transaction than likely makes it onto his paycheck. How he gets through the day, I don’t know, but he does it and he leaves, each night, with his dignity intact. It is rough but achievable, just as the man who picks up the garbage wades through trash. He serves a vital function — he is, in the parlance of the day, an “essential worker” — and that, in the end, may be enough for him.
What hopes and what dreams does someone like that have, I don’t know, but it’s amazing the things that we think when we are provided the space to dream. It is little wonder how little people wonder when they have such little time to wonder.
Which brings me back to my grandfather. Was he that different than the grocery store clerk — probably not, he worked in the garment business, then lost his job and started driving a cab, a job he never really liked, so he was probably on par with him, and when it was all said and done, when he no longer had to work in that way, he was content to simply sit back, enjoy life, to whatever extent he was able to do that. It is not that he wasn’t ambitious; reading the paper, watching television, waking up late, these were his ambitions. He simply wanted to do nothing. He wasn’t lazy, he had worked his entire life, and now he was content to sit around and dream.
I wish though, that I’d talked to him more. I would have liked to known my grandfather, would have liked to understand him better, but I was young and didn’t care about much. I could have learned a lot about him and his generation, but instead I was so caught up in me and mine, that I never thought to ask. We lament the kids these days, say how little it is they want to know about anything that is outside of them, but in truth, that is all just the way kids are. When I was that age, I didn’t want to know anything either.
So there I was that day last April, gunning it down the New Jersey Turnpike, on my way through Staten Island, over the Verrazano Bridge, onto the Belt Parkway, into Brighton Beach. The sun was shining, it was a beautiful day. I pushed the windows down, let the wind hit my face. Being alive was so magical, why hadn’t I done more of this lately.
Well, I hadn’t any place to go, for one, and I had a kid now, who needed constant attention, so it wasn’t as if I could really leave. No matter what I did I had to return at a certain time, because she needed to come home, and this was my life, for better or worse.
The area around the nursing home is all Eastern-European inspired. It is mostly Russians and Ukranians who have settled there, come to the United States in the late 80’s and 90’s, after all the political unrest in that area, and now they have remade the neighborhood in that image. Drive down any block there and you are confronted with Soviet-style architecture, the facades blocky and ornamented with things like lions and… lions.
This is the way the new European flaunts his or her wealth, a kind of showy act of pride, as if to say, look at my house and its ostentatiousness, look and marvel at all that I’ve got. What anyone does in this neighborhood to attain that wealth if anyone’s guess. I have no idea. Being over there is like being in another country.
But I got into the nursing home eventually and tried to find my grandmother. At the front desk, I gave her name, and the guard seemed a little confused, repeating the name to another guard, as if they might all be on a first-name basis with my grandmother, of all people. It being around lunchtime, both guards seemed a little high on something, not exactly doing their job.
He looked in a big paper book for her name, asked me someone’s else’s name, to which I said that wasn’t her, and he said he didn’t have her in there, so I’d have to walk down the hall, to room 110, and ask there. I took a left and then a right and soon found that room, an office, where a few people worked behind desks.
One woman asked if she could help me and I said I was looking for my grandmother, said her name, and she turned to her computer, lifted a finger to her lip. “She’s being moved today,” she said. “That’s why they probably didn’t have her name in the book.” She wrote down a room number on a slip of paper — South 211 B — and said to take the elevator upstairs, where I’d find her new room, provided she had gotten there yet.
So I began making my way there, but first stopped at the front desk again.
“Sign the book,” the guy said, and I went to sign the book.
“She’s being moved,” I said. “That’s why you couldn’t find her.”
“Well, so long as you ain’t get mad at me,” said the guy, “Shoot, I had someone the other day, lady went nuts on me.”
“Nah, it happens,” I said.
This guy was a piece of work, but he reminded me, in ways, of people I had grown up with, people I knew then but still know now, who don’t care very much about what they do, for what they do is not even what they are. His shirt said Three Strikes Security on it, he didn’t work for the home, he worked for a security company who had a contract at the home; he could have been anywhere in the world, he just happened to be here.
He directed me to the elevator, and I went upstairs. I made my way to the room I was told she’d be in, but when I got there the room was empty, save for a bag on a table with a few clothing items and a box of chocolate sweets. So I left the room, walked out to the front, where a guy was sitting on a computer. He looked like he worked there, but said — “I’m just sitting here,” so I replied, perhaps with a little snappiness in my voice, “Well, is there anyone here who can help me.”
He said depending on what I wanted to know, perhaps he could, and I told him I was looking for my grandmother, who had been moved here today, but that she wasn’t in her room.
“You can check in the cafeteria,” he said. “It’s down the hall.”
“I can just walk around in there?” I asked.
“Well, if you’re looking for someone, yeah.”
Down the hall I went, to the cafeteria, where at the front a young woman sat in hospital scrubs. She was either keeping guard or keeping watch, I couldn’t really tell. And I stood at the front, surveying the landscape, trying to see if my grandmother was there. In a sea of old faces, it was hard to tell anyone from anyone else, and right at the front was an old lady who was muttering to herself in Russian or some language that sounded like Russian, talking to me but also seemingly talking to anyone who would listen.
This was sad, I thought, a sad scene that suggested a sad truth: that no matter what you did in life, no matter who you were, what you accomplished, if you were kind or unkind, if you had children or you had none, if you had made money or lost money, if you were the leader of the free world or just some bum on the street — here, inside these walls, with a hundred others just like you, but mostly alone, alone with yourself and your thoughts, as the mind slowed and the body slowed, as the world as it once spun on its axis came grinding to a halt, here is where you ended up.
I did not see my grandmother.
So I went back out the cafeteria and into the hallway, back to the front desk area, where the man who was sitting at the desk, who clearly worked there and got paid a salary told me he couldn’t really help me, that he was just sitting there, had been sitting, and who was now gone. It was there, in fact, in a wheelchair, with her head slumped down, that I saw my grandmother, the life once inside her mostly gone.
She had been moved to this floor, seemingly within minutes of me having arrived, and they had just left her here, in this spot, with a few other patients. I tapped her and she lifted her head.
“Hi, nanny, I said. “It’s Paul.”
“Paul, she said, Paul. And A. Paul and A. You have a wife.”
“A,” I said. “A is my wife.”
“You are married, you have a daughter.”
I said I did and I took my phone from my pocket, pulled up some photographs that we had taken some weeks back, when we visited her in the apartment. That was before she had fallen, before she had come here.
“That’s her,” I said, showing her a photo of my daughter in her arms.
Then I showed her another one. In this one she had my daughter in her arms, but pictured too were me, my father, and uncle.
“Do you have one of A,” she asked, and I showed her one of A and our daughter. Then I showed her a video of our daughter, a video I’d taken just days before. In the video, she was rolling in the bed, making little baby noises, her first real sounds, finding her voice.
I wish I could say that at this she came alive, but in truth she really did not. This wasn’t a movie or a fairy tale, this was life, and as I stood there in the middle of this floor, in this nursing home, in this place where my grandfather had died and my father had gotten stuck with the bill, and where we had talked of putting my grandmother long before she had fallen in the apartment that night some weeks ago, after she had tried getting up and could not and was content to lay on the floor until the breath had left her lungs, but found — somehow, someway — the strength to get up, or at least reach for the phone that was next to her bed, I felt the tears come to me in ways in which, when my grandfather was alive they had not.
Just then, a nurse came over.
“Miss, what’s your name?”
Since she had just arrived on this floor they hadn’t really much information on who she was, so they looked at a tag that sat tied to the back of her wheelchair.
“That’s my name. I have a son, and a grandson, Paul. This is my grandson. Isn’t he handsome.”
She looked at me.
“And he has a beautiful wife, and a daughter.”
“Yes, he is very handsome,” the nurse said, with a Russian accent.
“Thank you,” I said.
She turned again to my grandmother. “What time do you want to get up?
To which my grandmother replied: “Oh whenever. It doesn’t matter.”
The nurse stood there for a moment, unsure.
“I lived a modest life, I didn’t ask for much, but I was happy.
“So, when do you want to get up?”
That day, my grandmother and I spoke for what seemed to me about fifteen minutes. I wish I could remember all that she said, but I cannot, not because I didn’t want to or wasn’t trying, but only because it wasn’t as if I saw this a thing I would one day write about.
My grandmother was, after all, the person from who my father was born, and who — through my mother — gave life to me, and who, through my wife, gave life to my daughter, the circle of life completing itself, being seen from one generation to the next, names changing and bloodlines mixing, but always retaining some sense that there was a passing of who one was onto the young version of that person. In my father I saw my grandmother, parts of her at least, and I wished I had gotten to know her better, but that just wasn’t the way our lives shook out.
My grandparents — on both sides — were in my life until my parents got divorced, but after that my relationship with both sets of grandparents cooled. After the divorce, I had very little parental oversight; if I saw my grandparents every few months, that was an achievement.
I didn’t think this was unique. I thought all kids were like this. When you are young you have less freedom. Your first ten years your parents can seemingly force you to visit your grandparents, or your grandparents make an effort to visit you, and there is a closeness. But when age ten becomes age eleven and eleven becomes twelve, you attain a certain kind of freedom. Maybe you are not actually free, but you are developing a sense of self. You have a life with your parents, but then you also have a life without them. You make new friends, develop your own interests, start shaping an identity that is uniquely yours. The teenage self has no time for grandparents.
And so it was with me, though the split happened much earlier, because my parents separated when I was 9, and it was hard for my mother to corral my brother and I as we sort of went our own ways. My dad, who I lived with, was on his own journey of sorts, trying to find a new partner, remarry, get his life back together. My mother took my brother and I twice a week — evenings on Wednesdays and all day on Saturdays, but this only lasted, at least for me, a few years.
By the time I was in seventh or eighth grade I no longer wanted my Wednesday nights to be consumed with doing things that on an ordinary day would have been unnatural. Because in theory, when two parents are happy and love each other, when they are both in the home, the child and the parent do not make any explicit attempt to visit one another, there is no strained effort to connect over what happened that week and how the child is feeling. This goes by the wayside simply because you are there. There is no attempt to connect. You are always connected because you are a family.
But then we were not. And my grandparents became victims in all of this. They could not see us much. We had no real relationship. We spoke, only occasionally, and they sent money on holidays and birthdays, but they were getting older too, wanting to do whatever it is that people do when they get old.
My grandparents wanted to travel or simply relax, retirement being a thing that their generation experienced. Who knew they’d be the last ones to do so.
A week after that visit with my grandmother, I went to see her again. This time I brought my wife, and where the Alzheimer’s had, in the previous visit, seemed to have robbed her of everything, she was now dramatically better.
She was more alert and present, cracking the occasional joke and seeming, in a way, more cognizant of her reality. She knew she was in a nursing home, that she had grown old and unwell and that now she was here. But her body and skin, which had grown old and frail, looked revitalized. She had color in her face and in her hands there was a moisture where previously there had been none.
Perhaps it was that she was eating better now, no longer subsisting on a diet of ice cream and candy, like she’d previously done, living alone in her south Brooklyn apartment, on Avenue X — an Avenue so renowned they once named a musical after it, back when people were into writing those sorts of things — in Gravesend, the same apartment she’d lived in since the 70's.
She remembered me. She remembered my wife. But it was the baby which brought her tremendous joy. I wondered, as she held her in her arms, what she felt, what she thought, what emotions pulsated through her.
“When your dad was born,” she said, “I remember just sitting there looking at him. We brought him home from the hospital. I said — you’re only 5 days old, how can I love you so much?”
She smiled and looked at L. L looked back at her. She looked again at L. “How can I love you so much?” It was the same face, only generations removed. L smiled and they hugged each other.
“She is a good baby, just like your father was,” she said. “See, when your father was a baby, we would be alone in the apartment all day, because your grandfather had to work. I couldn’t really leave, he was so small, but in the apartment we had a mirror. So to keep him calm, I would sit across from the mirror and talk to it, pretending there was another person in the room. That way, your father wouldn’t feel so alone.”
She paused. Looked again at L. Then at us.
“And wouldn’t you know it — he never did. He never did.”
Not long after becoming feverish, my grandmother became very weak. Because there had been coronavirus cases and subsequent deaths in the nursing home, she was isolated, made to spend most of her days alone.
I struggle to imagine what the experience of that isolation was like. A 90-something-year-old woman who is already battling Alzheimer’s, unable to remember much of what happened five minutes ago, let alone that there was a pandemic raging, that the stock market had crashed, that white supremacists were brandishing guns inside of state capitols, that a black man had been lynched in Georgia, that the government, which her generation put so much trust in, had betrayed us.
She didn’t know that the world was falling apart.
But she’d been through a lot. When she was born, in 1928, the Empire State Building hadn’t even been built yet. Barely a year old, the stock market crashed in ’29 and the country entered the Great Depression. Then there was World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam. The Cold War. The Bomb.
This shaped her life, the person she became.
Yet she survived. She married my grandfather and together they had two children. When New York hit the skids in the 70’s and 80’s, they did not flee to the suburbs or, like many Jews in retirement, to Florida. They stayed right in the place they called home — Brooklyn.
This was not the new Brooklyn but the old Brooklyn, the Brooklyn of weekends at Coney Island, takeout kosher delis on every corner and where, if you worked hard enough, you could have a decent little life for yourself doing an honest day’s work, like driving a cab, as my grandfather did, or stacking books at the Brooklyn College Library, like my grandmother.
I wondered if, in isolation, she had thought about any of this or if, at this advanced age, she really remembered much at all. My father spoke to her once or twice but she had little to say. She was terribly fatigued.
They said he could come to visit — he was one of a handful who, in this time of quarantine — they would allow this for. He’d get an hour. He had to keep his distance. He could not hug her or touch her. He had to wear a mask, the whole rigamarole.
But he didn’t go. He was afraid of getting the virus himself.
“I could die,” he told me. “I don’t want to get this thing.”
The weeks passed and then it was the second week in May. By then, somehow, someway, she’d gotten a test. The fever had subsided. She was still weak, but stronger than before. She was negative.
She was alive. Living through this as she lived through so much else. And she still is, thankfully.
“I lived a modest life, I didn’t ask for much, but I was happy.”