Jennifer Fendya and
Jewel Beth Davis

Jennifer Fendya

AC Is Too Expensive
By Jewel Beth Davis
Inspiration piece

I was sitting alone in the hospital ward with my Aunt Pauline. I say alone because Pauline was unconscious. She had had an implosive heart attack right on the street in Brooklyn walking to the movie theater in 99-degree weather because she didn’t have an air conditioner and she’d planned to cool off in the movie theater. I guess it didn’t occur to her that the number of times she would have paid to see a movie every summer, she could have easily purchased an air conditioner for less. I would have bought her one had I known, and I had much less money than she. I didn’t know she had no air conditioner until I received the phone call about her heart attack and by then it was too late. She was also alone until I showed up at Lenox Hill Hospital in Brooklyn, New York. I don’t know what I expected, maybe a double room but instead she lay in a ward. It was a huge room with five beds on one side of the room and five beds on the other side divided by greyish-white curtains that really afforded no privacy at all. All the beds had seemingly very ill patients in them. I thought afterwards to request she be placed in a private room. My aunt could afford it. Why didn’t I? Because I had no rights. She hadn’t named anyone to be Power of Attorney, and that was the root of so many problems to come.

Pauline had never married, and at 43, neither had I. Was this how I would end my life too? Lying alone in a bed in a crowded ward in a coma with none of my nieces and nephews wanting to mess up their schedules to be with me in the hospital. My brothers, Michael in Georgia, and Eugene in California hadn’t thought Pauline was important enough to fly in to be with her after her massive heart attack or perhaps they hadn’t cared enough about her to come. It seemed really strange to me because all her money, which was a sizable amount, was coming to the three of us. Pauline wasn’t always easy to spend time with. She habitually questioned our life choices and was so strict with post-depression frugality that she couldn’t help commenting on the way we spent our money. When we’d rarely needed help financially, she was only forthcoming once for a small amount and I had to pay her back. Also, she had treated our mother very poorly, (she didn’t want Dad to marry Mom who was pregnant with the twins). She wanted him to stay home in Brooklyn and support our grandfather whom we never met. But she was our aunt, our father’s sister, and the only member of Dad’s side of the family left.

My brothers decided that since I was geographically closest to New York and I should be the one to fly into New York since according to them, I wasn’t doing anything important. True, I was just trying to make a living and pay my bills. I was an Artist-in-Education for the State Arts Council and my work in the schools and income was sporadic. At that time, this was before Obamacare and my health insurance alone was $800 a month. My brothers decided I should be the relative to go to the hospital, talk to the doctors, make health decisions for my comatose aunt, hire a lawyer to get power of attorney, hire an accountant, find a place to stay overnight, and all the other exhausting details that must be dealt with when coming to one of the largest cities in the world that I hadn’t been to in years, to care for a sick relative. Why would they inconvenience themselves to support Pauline or me when they could easily dump this unwieldy burden on me? It wasn’t until she died and a money payout was concerned, that they immediately hopped on planes as they were desirous of taking over the job of executors since suddenly, they couldn’t trust me to do so despite my doing all the preparatory work: hired a lawyer, hired a CPA, and planned all the details of Pauline’s funeral. Apparently, they didn’t trust me enough to handle the many bank accounts Pauline had, and what my brothers were sure were fake jewelry that I found in her safe deposit. They claimed the clear sparkling stones in the platinum rings couldn’t possibly be real. One of my brothers said they were worthless and to throw them out. I sensed they were the real thing. As it turned out, I was right, and I’d found priceless family diamonds which we divided up. They insisted I pay them both extra money because I kept the most priceless ring with the largest diamond to hand down to our niece Anna, my Goddaughter. I wanted to keep it with the females in the family so it wouldn’t disappear with divorce.

It turned out Pauline was a hoarder which, of course, we never knew, as we’d never been invited to her apartment. We all were supposed to clean out her apartment, which had not occurred to us. The way the apartment was set up was awful. Piles and piles of things, right up to the ceiling, wavered slightly as we tried to move by to other areas. There were masses of sewing materials, archaic sewing patterns, and copious boxes of yarns. Bills from decades ago were kept in boxes stacked so high they tilted precariously near the ceiling. Boxes of lightbulbs and full toothpaste tubes of yore were piled in corners with gifts and toys she was holding onto in case she needed to give them to someone. I won’t talk about the filth. There was no room for her to clean anything. And she was such a personally clean individual in dress and body. Shocking. Her face was made up every time she left the apartment. She’d always dressed in a dark skirt and crisp blouse when I saw her. Her utilitarian shoes were always polished.

The second Eugene saw the apartment, he took off in a frantic rush saying he had to make his plane. He wanted her money, but he didn’t want to work for it. I wouldn’t want people to throw out my belongings willy-nilly the way Mike and I were forced to because of the time crunch. At one point we discovered some old photos of our Dad when he was very young, and we both broke down in tears for my father long gone. Florence, the self-appointed master sergeant said, “We don’t have time for this sentimentality. Wipe your eyes and get back to work!”

But I get ahead of myself. All of that isn’t what this story is about. Still, having the context is important.

I was at the hospital with Daddy and Pauline’s first cousin, Florence, whom I’d later come to love more than anyone else in my family, but at that moment, we’d just met. So where was Florence when I sat all alone in the hospital for hours with no one speaking to me? It turned out that Florence hated hospitals and was very uncomfortable being there. After five minutes of looking at Pauline in a coma, Florence was done. She shifted in her chair back and forth. She stood up and sat down. Then she took off saying she didn’t want to stay in the hospital; she needed to get some air. She said she’d get something in the cafeteria and what did I want from the caf? That Pauline was already gone (which was probably true), and we weren’t doing anyone any good. I didn’t agree.

“If I were Pauline,” I said, “I would want someone from the family watching over me and caring for me. I wouldn’t want to be abandoned.” At that point, Flo was halfway down the hall.

Since I had applied for Power of Attorney but didn’t have it, I had no proof of how I was related to Pauline and the doctors and nurses meted out information to me like a few grains of sand at a time or a few drops of water from an empty cannister in the desert. I wasn’t able to even find out the name of her doctor. I felt like I was on a planet of faceless, nameless zombie doctors and nurses. No one there acknowledged me or spoke to me, as though I had no right to be there. Finally, a doctor spoke to me without introducing himself. He said the ambulance came as fast as it could, but Pauline was likely brain dead because she had been deprived of oxygen for too long. Later, he said, they wanted to take her off the machines because other people needed them. I told him not to do that as I was applying for Power of Attorney. The doctor, an ultra- thin man with a blond buzz cut, paid no attention, and acted like I hadn’t spoken to him. He moved briskly like a man on an electrified high wire. I knew I had to get back home in a couple of days and when I did, the doctors there would do what ever they wanted. And they did. They turned off her machines. I don’t know how long it took her to die. They never called me to speak to me about it as I still hadn’t received Power of Attorney. I didn’t just feel powerless; I was powerless as I didn’t have the law behind me.

But let me repeat. That’s not what this story is about.

I sat beside my aunt on her bed and felt her hand squeeze mine. I became very excited and I told the nurse passing by that she was reacting to my presence.

She said, “Your aunt is essentially brain dead. Patients in her circumstance have movements that are automatic contractions of the nerves. She is not reacting to you.”

I could feel the momentary hope drain from my face like water out of the tub. I sat back down heavily on the bed and took Pauline’s hand again. I wondered where this nurse had been when they gave the class on communicating difficult information to relatives.

A young woman who looked like she was in her late twenties had been visiting someone two beds down across the aisle. I noticed she had been watching me the day before and on this second day I’d come to visit. She wore her dark brown hair in a perfect shiny bob with an adorable, dark, sea blue, wool cap perched straight on her bob. She wore a matching expensive looking, tailored, blue light wool suit that fit her perfectly with a skirt that reached her ankles. I, on the other hand, was dressed in my usual tight, dark, girl about town blue jeans and a long brown turtleneck cotton sweater that set off my eyes and auburn hair.

The woman approached me. What could she possibly want? As she came closer, something clicked in my brain, and I realized she was part of an ultra-orthodox or Hasidic community. Her shiny bob was actually an expensive wig as the women had to completely cover their hair once married. Really, who else would be wearing a skirt down to her ankles? My stomach and shoulders tensed. They were not supposed to approach non-religious Jews whom they considered non-Jews, goyim. She either saw my Jewish star pendant from afar or she sussed out my Jewishness from my face. I usually get mistaken for French. So, what did she want?

“Hello,” she said. “Are you here visiting your mother?”

“No. I’m here with my Aunt Pauline. She had a major heart attack.”

“I noticed,” she said, “you were very loving and attentive.”

“Well, thank you,” I said. “According to the doctor, she is brain dead. I want her to know she is not alone.”

“You are such a good niece.” She took a breath. “Are you married?”

I was shocked by her intrusiveness. I could feel my jaw tighten and my lips purse. The question was a sore area with me. I didn’t want to answer her. What could it matter to her?

I paused for a moment thinking about how I’d respond. “No,” I said finally.

“So, you have no children,” the stranger said. It was a statement, though it should have been a question. Her assumption was that I couldn’t possibly have children if I weren’t married, which isn’t true of course.

All her questions and statements were targeting me in my sore spot, as I very much longed to be married and have children, or at least be in a long-term meaningful relationship with a man. She was pouring salt on my wound. I felt the pain in my solar plexus.

“No,” I said. “No children.” I wondered how many children she had. It must have been a lot. Hasidic women started young.

“But don’t you think it’s important for you to follow what Adonai meant for your life? To be married and have a family?”

I thought for a moment. How would I answer? I wasn’t even sure I believed in God although I attended synagogue fairly regularly. We were very much in the public eye with visitors and staff surrounding us and moving in and out of the space. “I lead a very different life that I believe also serves God. I teach children to be creative. I write scripts. I perform on the stage,” I said, working hard to remain neutral. I don’t like to make a scene in public and I didn’t want to be as rude as she was being. In fact, she was just ignorant and knew very little of the world.

Her eyes reflected a degree of shock. “Well,” she said, stepping back, “I wish you a future full of children and happiness.” I was forty-three so there wasn’t much chance of that. I just looked younger. My skin was flawless and once, when I went into a middle school, I was threatened with a detention for being out of class!

“Thank you,” I said and smiled, a smile I was sure didn’t reach my eyes. What else could I say? She meant well. She believed she was trying to help me. She could see I wasn’t going to argue this point with her. She must have realized I was a lost cause. I wasn’t going to join her community where women had few choices and garnered very little respect for their opinions from the men of the community. I wasn’t going to be part of her misogynistic lifestyle. I thought perhaps she came over to me in hopes of converting me. I watched her return to her relative she was visiting. In truth, I would have been happy to be pregnant but not with an Orthodox Jew. It turns out I’d only had one chance at pregnancy much earlier and because of my circumstances, I ended that pregnancy. I never had the good fortune to marry or to become pregnant again. So, often I wonder how my life would have evolved if I’d made a different choice.

I flew home to New Hampshire the next day and never saw the ultra-orthodox woman or my Aunt Pauline again. I didn’t get Power of Attorney in time and within days of my visit, the doctors turned off the machines without consulting with her family. As I said, I don’t know how long it took her to die. I wish I’d been there when they did that. Her death began a five and a half-year struggle with the State of New York as she had no will and no attorney.

What stays with me most about that experience with Aunt Pauline’s death is the doctors turning off her machines without calling me and the conversation with the pretty young woman in the blue wool suit, the cap, and the shiny bob. In my mind, I stand in the hospital ward listening to this young ultra-orthodox matron, a ballebusta, advise me. She is so ultimately sure of herself and her chosen way of life. But really, she never made any choices. She was born into a family who, for generations, led this way of life. I was the one who made choices, who took risks throughout my life. I didn’t choose a lifestyle in which every move was laid out before me. Some of my choices were fruitful, some were not. But I am glad that I took the hard way around. And I’m glad I cared enough about myself to purchase an air conditioner. The cost of living without one is too high.


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