HYDRANGEAS IN NEW YORK
by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- My beloved aunt died last Thursday at the age of 92.
Sylvia loved flowers, so the evening before her funeral, I went into a friend's garden and cut a bouquet of puffy white hydrangea blooms. The next morning, at 4 a.m., I carefully wrapped the stems in wet towels and carried the flowers to New York.
Sylvia spent the last five years of her life in a cheap nursing home in Queens, N.Y. It was incredibly frustrating to reach her. It meant taking a subway to the Long Island Rail Road, then a train to Cedarhurst, L.I., and then a cab - usually driven by a surly Russian who cursed the whole way - to Rockaway.
Then up in the elevator and make a path through the little thicket of mindless old folks asleep in wheelchairs in the corridor to Sylvia's room, which was, thanks to her seniority, a corner room with light.
Sylvia was living by then in a strong body that had, in large part because she was poor, frequently been betrayed. A routine colonoscopy, bungled, left her with a colostomy bag that she detested. A series of falls - one from a defective wheelchair in the nursing home! - left her broken and in pain. She was unable to walk. At the end, she was blind.
Completely dependent, she developed a skill for having her needs met that I can only admire. Sharp-witted, teasing, bright, funny, lively and engaging, she made herself so charming to the people around her that they adored her and would do anything for her. It's a technique we could learn from.
I always carried a huge bouquet of flowers on my visits, and even when she could no longer see, they made her very happy. She would call her friends, the nurses, and they would all gather around and exclaim over how beautiful they were. Someone would rush to find a vase and fill it with water. Even months later on the phone, Sylvia would still be talking about how much she loved the flowers, which she dried so they would keep longer.
I wanted to give her one last bouquet.
I have always loved Sylvia. She was one of the few adults who offered me unconditional love. I was her brother's child and she loved me and that was that. Her kindness was something I could always count on.
Sylvia and my father were close and comfortable with each other. On the many evenings when my flamboyant mother was out at a Broadway show or taking part in a rehearsal, Sylvia would come over and sit with my father on the couch. They would talk quietly together, and the murmur of their voices lulled me to sleep.
My favorite story from Sylvia's childhood, which she told me many times, was about how, when they were little, she and my father liked to sneak out of bed at night and listen to their parents laughing together behind their closed bedroom door.
After my father died, many years ago, Sylvia became my living connection to him. The two of them spoke in the same way - using the word "really," in a dropped voice, as a conversational pause - I don't know anyone else, really, who speaks that way. Sometimes I would call Sylvia just to hear it. "Well, I'm not doing too well, but I don't know what I can do about it, really, so I'm making the best of it," she would say.
At the cemetery, I met up with Sylvia's only child, Ellen. She asked if I wanted to see my aunt one last time. The funeral directors slid the plain pine coffin partially out of the hearse and opened the top. Sylvia wasn't embalmed, but shrouded in white cloth in the old-fashioned way. Her face was the only thing left uncovered - she looked, this little Jewish woman, like a nun wearing an old-fashioned habit.
In fact, she looked less like my aunt than an artifact of her, a kind of wax sculpture. I put my fingers to my lips, bent down and pressed them to her forehead. It was cold, of course, and very hard. When we live we are made of warmth and blood and skin. Our bodies are soft and pillowy. When we die, we are only made of bone.
I've seen many of my relatives in their coffins now. And I know that what I'm seeing isn't them. It's a shell or husk of them, something they left behind. Where they go, I have no idea.
It was a graveside service. Standing there listening to the rabbi tell us that David, in his own life, had "walked through the valley of the shadow of death," I noticed that several flying insects had burrowed their way into my hydrangeas. That pleased me, because the cemetery was a parched place where only scrub trees grew, and my flowers were fresh and juicy and attractive to living things.
Ellen was the first to shovel dirt onto the coffin. Then I dropped the hydrangeas into the grave and picked up the shovel. That's a memory I will always keep with me - a bouquet of hydrangeas on a coffin, covered with a little sandy dirt.
Later on in the day it rained, and I had an irrational desire to go back to Wellwood Cemetery, where Sylvia was lying under the dirt. She was alone and I felt the need to protect her. But of course she wasn't there. Only the artifact was there - that body over which she had triumphed to the end with her cheerful, brave, indomitable and lively spirit.
I like to imagine that Sylvia is once again sitting on a comfortable couch somewhere, talking quietly with my father.
A collection of Joyce Marcel's columns, "A Thousand Words or Less," is available through joycemarcel.com. And write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.