A Stone in a Stream
By Gina Buttafoco
As Anna fit her key into the lock of the front door of her building, a
cruel irony beset her: she and this building, to which she’d moved as a
young newlywed, were born in the same year, and though the building, built
of the solid masonry of the earlier part of the century, would go on for
several hundred years more if properly maintained, no amount of maintenance
was going to set her right ever again.
The tenement hallway was the stuff of nightmares:
long, dimly lit, and so
narrow that two people couldn’t pass each other without giving way. No
lovely patina on the tiny forlorn octagonal tiles; their once bright
marigold color had been oxidized by strong detergents to a dull mustard, and
the filmy gray grout cleansed to a mere shadow of its prime. Between two
oases of light at opposite ends of the hallway were the doors to the three
first floor apartments through which leaked out a muffled cacophony that
could be parsed into a crying baby, hip hop wails and The Jerry Springer
Show. The hall had a dank atmosphere, and smelled of something oily and
rancid, always; today’s overlay was curry and, Anna thought, perhaps lamb.
Holding her mail tightly against her body
under her right arm, a small
grocery bag swinging from that hand, Anna placed her foot on the first step
and looked up into the C-shaped stairwell, willing herself up to the third
floor. She could see all the way to the sixth floor. Above that was a
skylight, so encrusted with the city’s filth and pigeon guano that it might
easily be mistaken for a door in the ceiling to the roof. She started the
ascent. Her left arm, taking on a good portion of the climbing burden,
pulled her step-by-step along the balusters.
Entering her apartment, she heard the monotone
beep emanating from her
answering machine – a foolish gadget she’d never desired that was foisted
upon her in the form of a Christmas gift from her oldest daughter, Sofia, a
few years prior. She put her things down on the kitchen table and walked
through the railroad flat of four rooms to the telephone in the living room
at the front of the building.
There were two messages. Rosalie’s
recorded voice, degraded by the old
tape and rasping like sandpaper on glass, sprang out of the speaker. “Ma,
it’s me. Tommy and I will be there at nine tomorrow. Be ready. I’ll ring,
and you come down. It’s impossible for us to find parking. So be ready.
OK? Love you. Bye.”
Ever since her husband Dominic died, Anna’s
daughters alternated having her
stay with them one weekend a month, feeling responsible, Anna supposed, for
filling as many as they could of what they perceived to be her empty days.
Perhaps it helped alleviate whatever guilt they suffered for their
inability – whether volitional or uncontrollable – to be there at their
father’s side in his final moments. They never believed her when, against
their pleas to move near them, she said that she wasn’t lonely in the least.
She had her friends. They all went to Saturday night mass together and then
to dinner. They met on the streets while running their errands and doing
their shopping. Loneliness, she’d always believed, like boredom, was a
She played the second message. “Anna,
this is Dr. Manelli. We have to
discuss your treatment options. Call Melinda for an appointment. And bring
one of your daughters. I expect to see you next week. Don’t put this off.”
Anna didn’t want to go to Rosalie’s, and it occurred to her, as she put the
kettle on for tea, that she should call her daughter back now and let her
know she wouldn’t be coming. But she knew too that she had to get this over
with. Her daughters had to be told about the cancer. And that she didn’t
want to do on the phone.
She knew how hurt her daughters would be
if they knew how she dreaded lying
in the beds of their guest rooms from the time she awoke at five-thirty
until she heard the sounds of another soul moving about some two or three
hours later. They didn’t ask her to lie quietly; in fact, she was pretty
sure no one knew how early she actually awoke. Her daughters insisted that
she make herself at home, but Anna couldn’t impose her morning rituals on
their households. That would put her in the kitchen creating cooking smells
and noises that would rouse everyone long before their natural alarm clocks
awakened them, and that would never do. It was better that she just lie in
bed reading until someone else made the noises and smells.
Of her three sons-in-law, she liked Rosalie’s
husband, Tom, the least. It
was true, she had to admit, that all three of them avoided her to the extent
they could maneuver, and that was fine with her, but Tom was especially
ill-mannered and had a way of making her feel so unwelcome. The choice of
husband each of her daughters had made confounded Anna. Not one of them had
chosen a man with Dominic’s kindness or sense of humor. Her sons-in-law
were all fairly joyless. Anna thought it was entirely possible that her
presence cast on them a dour light. Perhaps when she wasn’t disturbing
their atmosphere, they were quite different, happy even. Could be. She
couldn’t dare ask her daughters. Only Dorothea had once intimated that her
marriage wasn’t entirely happy. And a few weeks later when Anna questioned
her how things were going, Dorothea bushed it off, acting as if Anna had
exaggerated what she’d been told. It was temporary and had blown over, but
Anna knew better. She had deep regret over whatever part she unwittingly
played in making her daughters stop confiding in her.
And now, as she plopped wearily into a kitchen
chair while she waited for
the water to boil, the weekend visit to Rosalie’s loomed large and ominous.
She faced the room’s one window onto the courtyard that was made accessible
through the basements of the four mismatched five- and six-story buildings
that enclosed it. About five years earlier, a serendipitous maple tree had
broken through in the small patch of dirt at the courtyard’s center; nature
would not be thwarted, even here, by concrete restraints. The tree was now
taller than the tops of the first story windows. It was an amazing thriving
wonder that Anna could look at every day. Right here, an astonishing
seasonal transmutation, from the tender chartreuse buds of early spring to
the full fleshy green of summer, to the brilliant russet of fall, and then
the naked beseeching branches of winter. Life. It was wonderful.
The laundry Anna had done that morning billowed
in the wind on a line that
stretched from just to the right of her kitchen window to a level point on
the building opposite hers. Time was, when her girls were young and the
four buildings teemed with fresh young Italian and Irish families, that
courtyard was crisscrossed with clothes strung end to end on a web of
laundry lines from the first floor to the sixth. But now she was the only
tenant in the four buildings who still dried her clothes on the line.
Spring scented dryer sheets notwithstanding,
nothing smelled like fresh air
like fresh air. She pulled in the laundry until the kettle whistled, poured
her tea and then finished pulling in the rest, folding as she went.
She sat at the table in her stockinged feet
and sipped her tea as darkness
descended down the courtyard canyon and lights flipped on in apartments up
and down. Signs of life. She decided to make herself a potato omelet for
dinner. She chopped a bit of onion and sautéed it in olive oil. When the
onions were soft and clear, she added the leftover sliced potatoes. When
they were hot and starting to brown, she poured in the eggs she’d scrambled
in a bowl with salt and a little milk. She drank milk with her omelet, and
as she brought the first forkful to her mouth she remembered with a smile
the period in her childhood when for a few years she would eat nothing but
eggs. Her mother would try to tempt her with past favorites for supper –
chickerina soup with little meatballs, lasagna, ravioli with meat sauce,
lamb chops and escarole with olive oil and garlic, but all Anna wanted to
eat was eggs – sunnyside up or scrambled; omelets with potatoes, with
onions, with cheese, with mushrooms, with anything at all, as long as the
main event of the dish was eggs. Si sta faciendo com’ un uovo, her mother
laughed in Sicilian, you’re turning into an egg. Perhaps she had. She was
aware now of her fragility, like an egg in its shell. Her bones were weary,
achingly contained by her thin old lady skin. It was undeniable that her
body was engaged in a betrayal.
Aging wasn’t linear. And, as Bette
Davis had said, it wasn’t for sissies,
either. Anna was surprised at how cataclysmically everything fell apart
after seventy-five. Once the tipping point was reached, the velocity of
change seemed exponential year to year. In the course of a few short years,
she’d gone from looking and feeling about fifteen years younger than her
chronological age to seeing the visage of her ancient grandmother staring
back at her from the mirror. Mediterranean melanin had been a gift: no
crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes, and cheeks and a brow that were
essentially smooth. But gravity was her bane. The sagging, the drooping
were merciless. Jowls, a chin and jaw line that ran into her neck with no
discernable demarcation, and the two foulest curses of those same Italian
genes that gave her a pale olive complexion: those marionette lines that
made her lower jaw appear to be attached to the rest of her face by
invisible screws and Mario Cuomo eyes. These were the features now imposed
on her once beautiful face. It seemed an unfitting cruelty.
Forgetfulness: It was frightening. Names
eluded her, even those she’d
known for years. She’d stammer and search her brain for a name when she’d
run into a neighbor in the street, and some semblance of its sound would
form on her tongue, but like a child playing a game with her, as she dug for
the actual name it buried itself deeper into some cortextual fold. And, to
her horror, one afternoon last week, she found the orange juice carton in
the cupboard where she kept the glasses. And the next morning, when she’d
turned to the sink to begin the breakfast dishes, there atop the pan she’d
fried her egg in and the dish on which she’d eaten said egg with toast, was
the blue and white tub of butter floating in the dishwater. What next?
Would she find the cutlery in the bathtub and her underwear in the oven?
Living alone as one got older was both good – no witnesses, and bad – no
witnesses. Who could promise you that your ultimate fate would not be that
of the senile old woman Anna saw walking in the street ahead of her last
August? The woman, to Anna’s utter amazement, simply removed her blouse and
continued walking down the street bare-breasted, swinging her blouse in her
hand. The significance of this act resonated with Anna like nothing she’d
ever witnessed before it: the ties that kept your mind bound to your body
were tenuous at best, and they could break entirely, allowing your mind to
float off untethered to earthly anchors. Propriety, conscience, ethics,
reason – these were merely notions, as capable of dying as any living thing.
Such a separation of mind and body, Anna supposed, could be quite liberating
if it weren’t so downright terrifying.
Weakness: The diminution of strength; so
frustrating. Even the simple
every-day things proved too much, like cleaning the apartment and opening
jars. A few years ago, she’d started asking the cashiers down at the
Pioneer Market to open jars for her before she left the store. Now the
checkout girls and baggers would hold up a jar of beets or similar and ask,
“Want me to pop the seal on this for you before I pack your groceries, Mrs.
LoBianco?” While Anna was happy to have the cheerful help, it was just
another reminder of how diminished she was.
Time: It was defying science and somehow
speeding up. When did it start
to take an entire day to get just one thing accomplished? If she had an
appointment to get her hair done, that act seemed to occupy the space and
time of a full day. She couldn’t also manage to run a few errands while she
was out. She simply lacked the energy to move at a quality pace, and time
just got away from her. Where did all that energy she had when her girls
were young and she was in her prime go? When her girls were young and she
was in her prime – yesterday. Her past had merged with her present and
there was no distant in her future.
Fear: It pounced on you. One day you’re
blithely walking about, so
accustomed to your surroundings that you no longer noticed them, and the
next you’re acutely aware of what tempting prey you’d be for a mugger. The
Village of Anna’s youth had been a neighborhood in the truest sense of the
word, a complete world unto itself. It was where she had been born, right
there on Barrow Street; it was where she went to school at Our Lady of
Pompeii on the corner of Carmine and Bleecker. And its blocks were filled
with her relatives, her friends and their relatives, and shopkeepers who
called her by name and sent her home with regards for her parents and an
extra pretzel rod. And she had been fearless inside its boundaries. Though
still so familiar, it was now also a place where unfamiliar, unthinkable
things could happen. Last December, Serafina Marchese had been mugged on a
Tuesday morning at ten-fifteen while she waited at the bus stop across the
street from the Waverly Theater. It wasn’t safe anywhere any time any day.
This wasn’t the Village of her childhood
and early married years when the
streets were filled with children playing, older ones watching the younger
ones, mothers collected on stoops, one eye on the children as a whole, not
just their own, talking, laughing; the men playing bocci and pinochle in
LeRoy Street Park, a Camel or Pall Mall dangling from the corner of every
mouth; and through an unbearable August heat wave, people sleeping on their
fire escapes in hopes of catching relief in the mild breezes that would
occasionally blow up their block from the Hudson. Nearly all gone were the
good Italian butchers and bakers; their sons had no use for their
businesses. When the fathers died, the stores got reinvented into fancy
boutiques with expensive, useless clothes and leather things Anna didn’t
understand. There was nobody left who knew how to make real lemon ice; all
you could get now was the overprocessed rock-hard stuff in dixie cups at the
pizzerias. The greengrocers were now Korean; the newsstands and candy
stores – even the one Dominic had once owned – were now owned by Indians.
And these narrow streets, some still cobblestoned, lined with their
magnificent and coveted brownstones and limestones – built at the turn of
the century by men like her grandfather and his brothers and cousins,
artisans of an immortalized ilk – belonged to others now. Anna and Serafina
and Avelina and Assunta – the old widows who, when they needed to talk sub
rosa, would slip into the Sicilian dialect they’d spoken in their childhood
homes – were interlopers now, wending their way among shirtless boys with
pierced nipples, young girls with rods through their eyebrows and rings in
their navels and lips and noses, and everyone with more skin exposed than
was decent at any age, and tattoos big as you please across shoulders,
around necks, upper arms, lower legs, anywhere one wanted to put a message:
The Tribalization of America. A new beige race of exotic-featured children
had been birthed of amalgamated parentage. Gay men and women flaunted their
passion in public, kissing heatedly on stoops and benches in Father Demo
Square, and even in restaurants where she and the girls would go for dinner
after five o’clock mass on Saturday. It was the open lewdness, the
unabashed effrontery of it, that offended her more than the fact that they
were gay. No matter how liberal of mind, there was no getting around how
powerful their presence was here in this little enclave below the grid.
No, this was no longer the Village of her
youth. It had become alien to
her. It had moved on. Life moved on. The building, the tree, her
daughters – all would be here long after her, like she was here long after
Dominic. She was like a stone in a stream, standing still while life rushed
at her, parted at her implacability, and found its way around her
And her tumor was like that too: almost
colloidal, like an egg – a hard
mass within the soft flesh of her body; of her tissue, but alien to it at
the same time.
. . . . .
Through the silent car ride, Anna closed her eyes, her head against the seat’s
back, face turned toward the window, enjoying the hallucinating effect
that played against her eyelids: pulsating bursts of brilliant orange
sunlight punctuated by quick dark gray blotches as they passed buildings
along the Long Island Expressway. This was preferable to actually seeing
the sights of Queens. When they arrived at Rosalie’s in Mineola, Tom spoke
for the first time since he had nominally greeted Anna that morning. He was
going to play golf. As soon as his car was at the end of the driveway, Anna
asked Rosalie to invite her two sisters over.
“I don’t know, Ma,” Rosalie
said warily, “Dot’s taking Ian to a little
league game, I think. She probably can’t come. Not right now, anyway.
Maybe later. I don’t know what Sofia’s doing, but I’ll call her.”
“No,” Anna said firmly, “I
would like them both to be here. Ask Dorothea
if Jim can take Ian to the game. Tell them both I would like to see the
three of you together. OK? It’s important, Rosalie.”
Her voice starting to shake, Rosalie asked,
“What is it, Ma?” She didn’t
hide her anxiety very well. She had been the nervous Nellie from birth,
always expecting the worst, always needing the most reassurance, always
demanding more from Anna than her fair share.
Anna grabbed her pocketbook off the table
and started rummaging through it
so she didn’t have to look Rosalie in the eye. “Just invite your sisters
over like I asked you to. OK?”
“What’s the big mystery?”
“Jesus, Rosalie. Can’t you just
do what I ask?” Anna instantly regretted
the unintentional edge of anger she heard in her own voice. How easily they
slipped into old patterns of exasperated mother and trying child.
When Dorothea finally arrived and the four
of them were sitting at Rosalie's
kitchen table over tea, Anna broke the news to them without much preamble.
They pushed her for details she didn’t have or wouldn’t give.
They promised her the best of care, the best oncologist in New York.
They have made amazing strides against cancer, one of them said.
At her age these things move slowly, one of them said.
There are alternative treatments to consider,
one of them said to the other
The three of them argued about who had the
best connections at Sloan
Kettering, about who could get her in there within the week.
The three of them talked of the possibility
of radiation therapy in lieu of
chemotherapy, or in combination with chemotherapy.
“I’m not doing any of that,”
Anna announced in a gentle voice to the
stunned silence of the three of them. “This is what I want: I want no
treatment. You know there’s no point. You don’t win against this thing.”
“But, Ma…” Sophia began.
“No,” Anna interrupted. “I
accept that this is my time.” She looked down
into her teacup. She could barely handle the emotion that was welling up.
She hadn’t thought it would go this way. She had expected more courage from
herself. She had wanted to be an example to her daughters of how to go out
with grace and dignity, not fighting like an animal like her own mother had.
What was the point in hanging on, attached to a respirator that forced your
body to breathe beyond its own will, a tube that wound its way through your
nose into your stomach to feed you; machines that monitored your vital
signs? For what? Signs of life that had in reality already flickered out?
It was better her way. But still… Discussing it with her daughters was
entirely different, she realized, than thinking about it abstractly. The
sound of the words lay on the table between them with shape and form, like
the tumor itself.
“I understand that this must be overwhelming
for you, Ma,” Dorothea said,
reaching across the table and taking her mother’s hand. “Really, I do get
that. I think we all do.” She looked at her sisters for confirmation but
saw only perplexed anxiety in both pairs of eyes. “But no treatment at all?
What if it hasn’t spread and they can remove the tumor with surgery? And
all you need after is just radiation, no chemo? Maybe you wouldn’t even
need that. Shouldn’t we talk to an oncologist and see what he has to say
first, Ma, before we decide something so drastic?”
Dorothea had missed her true calling. Because
she could always anticipate
her opponent’s objections, she stayed a step ahead and prevailed with
persuasive logic, somehow making her adversary believe that the genesis of
the idea had been their own. She would have made a fine lawyer.
But Anna, more than anyone, knew where Dorothea’s
talent came from, and she
chose her words carefully. “No. It would be drastic to drag it out.”
“But Dot’s right, Ma,”
Rosalie said. “Please, just think about going to a
doctor. You don’t have to decide right now. Sleep on it. We can discuss
it more tomorrow. I think you shouldn’t make a decision right now.”
“But I’ve already decided.”
Her voice seemed to echo inside her head, as
if over a vast canyon.
Sofia looked at her mother from under hooded,
angry eyes. “Why are you
being so stubborn? Can’t you find out first what a specialist has to say,
then decide whether you want to reject treatment?”
The other two sat silently. Sofia had the
most explosive arguments with
everyone. Anna shook her head before she started speaking. “Sofia, I’m not
being stubborn. We all know what the doctor would say. That I need chemo.
And what would that change? Buy me a couple more months? I don’t want more
time. They can’t cure cancer. All they want to do is experiment on sick
people. Try out new concoctions. I’m too old to even be of use to them as
a lab rat. And, believe me, if I thought I could be cured, I’d go.”
“How do you know unless you find out,”
Dorothea said fighting back tears.
The daughters were losing their ground.
There was silence for what seemed an hour.
Then Sofia proclaimed loudly,
“This is selfish of you. What are we supposed to tell your grandkids? That
their grandmother wants to die?”
“Sofia!” Rosalie exclaimed. “Don’t talk to Ma that way.”
“Sorry, Ma,” Sofia said, as
the whites of her eyes reddened and the blue
intensified under the effect of quick tears.
Anna was at first stung by Sofia’s
harsh accusation – selfish? How was she
being selfish? She was trying to spare them an unimaginable, prolonged
grief. But she softened her response with the realization that none of them
saw this coming. They never felt the signals her body was sending her; they
never sensed her intuition. They’d been ambushed by this news. And they
were understandably confused and angry.
“Sofia.” Anna drew in a breath
and continued in a gentle voice. “We all
die. You will too, one day. God willing, not soon. But you will. And
your children will bury you… as mine will me.”
Her mother’s bluntness jerked Rosalie’s
head up. They’d never discussed
such things before and it was a revelation – if a shocking one – to hear her
mother articulate these sentiments. So sensible, and yet so impossible to
hear. “Please don’t talk about it that way,” she choked out.
Anna looked at each of her daughters in
turn. “I want to die in my house,”
she appealed in a quiet, firm voice. She raised a hand as if to ward off
the interruptions she knew would come. “If I have to go somewhere, it’ll be
to a hospice where I know they’ll give me pain medication and they won’t
plug me into anything. I’m not going into any hospital. I’m not having any
chemotherapy. I’m not having radiation; surgery; none of it. I’m not going
to Sloan Kettering. I’m an old woman. I’m tired of living. Some day you
might understand what I’m saying."
The three of them knew so little about her.
She had deep regret over
whatever part she unwittingly played in keeping herself from her daughters.
They cried, the four of them.
. . . . .
Back in her apartment on Sunday evening, Anna made tea as soon as she got
in. She sat facing the window. Although it was well after seven, darkness
was only just beginning its descent into the courtyard. Signs of life were
flipping on up and down.
The clocks had been pushed ahead just the
night before. Spring was
officially here. Soon the maple tree’s chartreuse buds would stand in quiet
relief against the backdrop of the tan and gray buildings, and soon it would
have a full crown of lush deep green, and soon its brilliant orange leaves
would be blowing in the sweet wind of autumn, and soon it would be naked
It all came rushing at her so fast. So fast.
And she was standing still
against the current; fragile, alone; loving what had been; wishing for the
strength to do it all again; but ready and unafraid of what was to come.
She wished this for her daughters.