The summer before her ninety-seventh birthday, Nana was living in a home off Burton Way. My aunt Denise called it “The House of Death” with morbid sarcasm, and I agreed. This move to her final home occurred after she tripped on another one of her area rugs and fell. Those innocuous flopsy things she liked to decorate with were quite hazardous.
Nana snagged her foot under a four-by-five faux Turkish rug by her bedside and took a spill. It landed her in the hospital with a broken hip. After that, she had to move out of Barrington Place, her last one-bedroom apartment. Nana insisted on her independence and liked to live alone. She didn’t stop zipping around Los Angeles in her silver Toyota until she turned ninety. Assisted living seemed a much safer option. After the broken hip incident, she moved into the finest Jewish senior living in the 90210 zip code — The Beverly Hills Carmel.
You’d think a lady as bright as Nana would have learned to give up area rugs, but she didn’t. A few more of these decorative schmattas placed over the worn carpeting in her assisted living apartment spruced it up. A year or so later, she tripped and fell again. My legs got wobbly, she explained, as if it had nothing to do with the area rug. This time, Nana smashed her face on the treacherous coffee table during the tumble and got a bloody nose. Her face bruised up and nose bandaged over. What a mess, what a bloody awful mess, she moaned. Oh, how stupid of me. As much as I tried to console her, she knew the dreaded time was coming. Nana could no longer live semi-independently anymore.
At first glance, with its rose bushes and charming entrance, The House of Death fit in with the other houses along the street. But like most senior care homes, it had a funereal stench. A pungent odor of canned spaghetti with a note of mothballs wafted at the entrance. This smacked you right in the sniffer upon arrival. Maybe a dash of arsenic while you’re at it? A pinch of cyanide?
Three old ladies sat catatonic on the tattered sofa in front of the television. One had oxygen tubes in her nose, another clung to her walker. The other zoned into her own abyss. Nana refused to join them and kept to herself in a private bedroom with her own television. She didn’t like being around those old people. This was not the luxury assisted living of The Carmel anymore. Nothing was happening, not even a game of Go Fish. It was like a zombie waiting room as her medicated roommates spaced out in front of Wheel of Fortune. No more yoga, tai chi, or Zumba classes to refuse. Not a spot of afternoon tea served with fruit and pastries. Instead of the home-cooked meals offered in the “beautifully appointed” dining rooms of the luxurious Carmel, the home served up microwaved slop on a tray.
Besides, the food at The Carmel wasn’t bad, but every so often, Nana escaped on her walker to go for a plate-sized waffle with a side of some crispy bacon! and a strong cup of coffee like her men! at her favorite breakfast spot a few blocks away. On visits, I’d encourage her to socialize, take a yoga class, or play cards. Yoga? At ten o’clock? Pshh, that’s too early, she waved the idea away with a manicured hand. She still wore her wedding ring, though she divorced my grandfather half a lifetime ago in 1983.
One time, Mr. Fischberg in 202 across the hall asked her to join him in his room for a drink, but she declined. Oh, gimme a break! What do I need an alter cocker for? Did I tell you he wanted me to watch him take a bath? She laughed, I laughed at her laughing. We both got hysterical, doubling over into cry-laughing snorts about the likes of an eighty-year-old man bathed by two assistants as his big come-on. Next thing you know, he’ll offer to rub you down with Vicks VapoRub and show off his new Depends, I chortled between gasps. Oh dear, I certainly hope not, Nana snickered as she put the electric kettle on. What a flirt, she shook her head with a smirk. Well, gooo Fisch, I giggled in reply. Was that the last time we laughed until we cried together?
I woke from a dream with an impulse to call Nana, but it’s dark and too early to phone. I had to wake the girls up for school and pack lunches anyway, yet I lay there between dream state and daylight. Then I popped up and checked my phone. No urgent messages. I made cheese sandwiches, and packed each lunchbox with grapes, cashews, potato chips, and a napkin. Off to school, backpacks equipped with finished homework and water bottles.
As I pulled up to the crosswalk, my youngest daughter slammed the door in a rush to get to the school gate. The seven fifty-five bell clanged. You’d think we would get there early since the school is so close, yet every morning we make it by a fraction of a minute. We came to call this drop off act parachuting — flying out the car door to the schoolyard. That annoying woman who pulls up to the curb at the crosswalk during the morning rush — not the designated dropoff line — is me.
As I parked back in our driveway, I redialed Nana’s number. It rang and rang. I imagined the phone startling her awake like a fire alarm. Maybe a caregiver was forcing her to swallow that daily Dixie cup dose of poison pills?
I look at my puffy eyes in the bathroom mirror and notice this whirring sound by the window. Some small yet powerful creature keeps bashing into the glass pane. My first guess: it’s one of those bumbling Japanese beetles that dive bomb me in the backyard. But as I push open the window, I’m eye to eye with a hummingbird. What does it want? I’ve never had a face-off with a hummingbird in all the years I’ve lived in my house. It hovers for a solid minute at least. I stare at the hummingbird in awe, and it stares back. We’re both eye locked together in an old-fashioned staring contest.
It’s not yet ten o’clock. I can’t stop thinking about Nana. I felt agitated, like I’ve forgotten something, was it an appointment, or did I say I’d visit? I called again, no answer. So I do the thing that I thought I would never do. I gave in and called Aunt Denise. It was going on four years since we last spoke. I didn’t know why she was angry, but Nana often pushed the sore subject in my direction. No, I wouldn’t call. I was too indignant. Why should I, was my constant reply, she can contact me if she wants to talk, I mean, do I have to call to ask why she’s holding a grudge? This unspoken wall of silence grew bigger between us. I didn’t understand how some people in my family could cut you off like you didn’t exist. “How did you know,” Denise said solemnly through the receiver. “Nana died early this morning.”
That hummingbird kept coming back to my window. I searched Google and found this: If a hummingbird visits your home after the death of a loved one, it’s a sign that the departed soul is trying to reconnect with you in the form of a hummingbird.
Well, whether you believe in the afterlife, one thing I knew for sure: I’d never had a pesky hummingbird bang against my window like that. For several days after her death, this hummingbird downright insisted on a visitation. It bumped and thumped into the window until I finally opened it, then we took a minute to notice each other. I kept the window open so it met the more forgiving screen. It felt surreal and otherworldly. So did the next few weeks.
I wasn’t sure how I was processing Nana’s death because she was so much more than a grandma to me. I’m thrown into limbo somewhere between numb withdrawal and gut-wrenching sorrow. Huh, I said out loud as I made eye contact with the hummingbird. You would come back as a hummingbird. That makes sense. Now it’s the kids and me all alone in this next chapter, or at least that’s how I saw it.