Tom and Karen

Karen is coming up the stairs…except there are none…they only feel like stairs…for this is the wheelchair ramp to my apartment. And she is moving with remarkable swiftness. Hooded like a monk, she makes for my front door, spectral, her head vanishing beneath the cape as she nears. Is the lock on? Maybe I forgot the front door in last night’s preparations for bed. Which explains why Karen is now turning the knob, stepping inside, the hood of her cape revealing itself to be empty, as empty as the grim reaper’s….

A good time to wake up. Death recedes, and my bedroom forms itself into the morning. Karen. Why is Karen in my psyche? The question itself recedes, the day dominated by practicalities. There is nothing to do but take control, take charge, take action.

Tom, my landlord, seemed particularly grumpy as I was heading for Europe. Normally, whatever his mood, he gives me a warm sendoff. This time was different. His complaints…that my tenant upstairs has too much rubbish…Jane’s dogs pee on the lawn…all these gripes, always formulated to have no solution, obsessed him more than usual. Tom did not make his usual late afternoon appearance at all on the eve of departure. And I was overloaded with packing, and fed up with grumpy-old-man landlords. So, what the hell. Let him stew in his own juices. And call him on the road.

The North Atlantic isn’t much of a road for phone calls. In January, I waited until Southhampton to give Tom a call. He had asked me to phone. Just to make sure I am alive, he’d said. I did not know what to make of this. But I did call. He seemed happy to hear from me in January. Somewhat surprised, full of reassurance that everything was okay in California. No problems with the weather, in particular. Steady, Tom said. Which could also be said of him. I could rest assured that Tom was collecting my mail, watering the garden, sweeping the carport. Steady.

But on this trip, mid-July by the time I was back on land where mobile phone calls to the US cost $.10 a minute, instead of $10 a minute, a different Tom answered the phone in California. He did not want to talk to me, I could tell. Bad flu, he said. I told him I was sorry and would call back. As for the flu…Jane pointed out that it simply wasn’t flu season. When I called the next day, Tom said he was getting worse. Maybe it’s time to get some medical attention, I said. My early evening, Tom’s morning. And he was not having a good morning. He brushed off the medical advice. Tom hasn’t seen a doctor since 1973.

I got an e-mail from Dave, my tenant. We exchanged phone messages. Then e-mails and phone calls and Lorna, captain of Team Filipina, knocked on Tom’s door. He told her was too sick to water my garden, an extraordinary circumstance. For 20 years, every day, Tom has wandered back and forth across my patio with a hose. In the last 10 years, having ceded a bit of lawn for my vegetable garden, Tom has been watering there too. More calls back and forth, more e-mails…and then the news that Tom was in Stanford Hospital.

And then I was back. And naturally, holidays being what they are, my driver’s insurance was canceled while away. Oh, in the end, payments had been going to my renter’s insurance by mistake…but this would take another day to sort out. And for now I was riding the Stanford shuttle from the Caltrain station in Palo Alto, rolling off behind the hospital, and rocketing down the corridors in search of Tom.

And there he was. Looking rather good, I thought. Of course, the necessary papers were with me. The social worker took a glance. We had a talk. Tom wasn’t being much of a patient. He was not eating. Refused exercise. And then the young German cardiology resident assigned to Tom was standing by the bed and describing the medically horrifying truth. Tom had waited days to get treatment after his heart attack, two thirds of his cardiac muscle had died…and here we were. Thank you, I told the doctor. Following this with a vain effort at encouraging physical therapy.

I tried to make light of the surroundings. Told Tom the screens and tubes and monitors and pumps and lights reminded me of a 747 cockpit. It didn’t, actually. It reminded me of Intensive Care, which is where he was. Not that one could necessarily correlate this with Tom’s demeanor. He was drowsy but friendly. With a sense of resignation, but that had been standard equipment for a while. I sought the usual conversational ground. Weather. Lots of rain in the UK, I said. Tom barely reacted. Water triggered something, however. The garden. Not to worry, I told him, Lorna was watering. He nodded.

Eyes closed, Tom ran the tip of his finger over his lips. He asked me for Vaseline on his bedside table. I couldn’t find any. The nurse popped in moments later, promised to procure Vaseline and began afresh the conversation about food. Did you want this, that, the other? No, no, no. You need food to rebuild your heart, she said. And, I chimed in, a bit of activity.

That’s what it says in some book, Tom muttered. I regarded him. A handsome man, by any standard. At least in the hospital he had been shaved. Tom, as my brother pointed out, had been padding about his grounds looking like Howard Hughes. Hair uncut, fingernails lengthening, unshaved, rumpled. All was fine at home, I assured him again. But there was the matter of his apartment. If he would hand over the keys, someone could go inside and retrieve his glasses, get the keys to the mailbox…and generally see what’s what. No, Tom told me. Don’t want to hand over any keys. Karen wants to get inside my apartment real bad, he said. She wants money. I’ve got guns in there, he said.

This was when Matt, one of my thirtysomething neighbors, wandered in. It could not be doing Tom any harm to have this outflowing of support. It could not do anyone harm. Matt was also relieving me of any further need to talk, or even be there. I had done my best, jet lag being what it was. By the time I got the shuttle bus, then the train, then rolled home…well, I would know it. Done my best. Tom may, or may not, have heard what I was saying about discharge…it was going to happen. We had to prepare. He couldn’t be living upstairs anymore. But plans were afoot, my brother and sister-in-law already committed to help, and we knew he didn’t want to go to a nursing home…. I had said it. Jetlagged waves of exhaustion were hitting me, a warning sign. One thing about quadriplegia, alertness is essential. I pushed my wheelchair joystick all the way forward, hurtled through the emergency room and out the back door.

Sleep. Still a few details floating around, so I didn’t get to bed all that early. But slept hard when I did. And being back from the UK only a couple of days, not surprising that some fool was calling me at 1 AM. Naturally, I couldn’t get to the phone in time. Just lay there listening to the answering machine pick up the call from…Dr. Somebody at Stanford Hospital. Tom had died. It was shocking, but not surprising. Dead. Death. And what was left but Tom’s warning about Karen?

True enough, I was handed a note someone had found on Tom’s apartment door. From Karen. Incoherent in style, but clear enough in purpose. It was that $300 Tom had left her in his apartment. In a little black box – her description.

And my description of Karen…a druggie ghost of a person. In recent years she has lost most of her teeth. Her gaze is vacant. Speech slow as motor oil. She has the wrinkles of someone in her 60s, or someone a bit younger who has ridden life too hard without a saddle. She frightens me. One evening, working my exercycle alone in the winter carport, Karen approached through the dark. She shuffles through now and then. She is Tom’s friend, someone who has done herself a lot of harm, as he described it. So as I worked my legs to their frantic, anaerobic maximum, Karen wandered my way. Straight, fairly short hair. Eyes that always move and never focus. And now she was standing opposite my pumping legs.

‘Stop that,’ she said, ‘you’re making me tired.’

In a grounded and less brain-fried human, this would pass for mildly amusing. But Karen being on the edge of madness, my principal response was fear. But of what precisely? Nothing I could put my finger on, except the general notion that I was in the presence of someone of weak presence. She wasn’t all there, and my fear was of what might have replaced the empty spaces. My own particular anxiety, perhaps partly the result of life with a disturbed mother. ‘Stop that,’ Karen said. I desperately, so desperately, wanted her to go away.

I suppose I was anticipating the moment when I would have to get off the exercycle, fearing that she might still be hanging around. The worst fear being that she might help. Try to balance me, assist in my precarious-looking disentanglement from seat and pedals. Or perhaps I had a generalized sense of helplessness, my feet locked into their metal clips…bike shoes and a bike clips being the secret of the quadriplegic’s exercycle. Trapped, in other words, feet going around and around. And I wasn’t stopping, as this might open up some unpleasant possibilities. Sorry, Karen, can’t talk. Jane was inside. I was outside alone with this madwoman. Eventually she went away. Upstairs to visit Tom. Although apparently he sent her away. I watched her leave.

Most recently, Karen has dropped by my apartment. Hello, she says, I am wondering when all the commotion will start. Sorry, I say, feigning ignorance. Well, she says, you know, the people going in and clearing everything up…. I am glad that Tom warned me that she wanted to get into his apartment. I have warned all the neighbors. There are some nice things in Tom’s place. A gold pocket watch, reportedly. His apartment is upstairs, after all. I may rise from my wheelchair and schlep up there once, just to see. Otherwise, the place is off-limits.

Jane has assured me that Karen is no one to fear. Her balance is so minimal that a small bump from my wheelchair would send her flying. I don’t know what happened to her teeth. I don’t know what happened to my sense of compassion regarding this person, but it is difficult to find. And the fear? That dissolution, the thing that happens when humans give up, abandon the organizing principle…that this is death. But it isn’t, I believe. Death is what happens after this. Death is the mystery that follows. The giving up prematurely, unnecessarily, that is just sad. Sometimes tragic. Sometimes infuriating. Mostly sad.

Whatever did Tom see in her? Something. That is the point. The point Karen has reached seems a humiliating one. I look at the notes she keeps leaving on Tom’s front door. Gimme, they say, for I am scrambling and scrabbling and have nothing left, particularly nothing of me.

Where is love for such a person? And after a while one can ask, where is the person? I think that each of my parents got to such a low point. I have been close to this, whatever ‘this’ is. Wise people of the Earth have always seen wisdom shimmering at the juncture of life and death. It is a place to go for knowledge. And to come away convinced that we may die, but love doesn’t.

On what proved to be my last visit, I sought the right words for Tom. He was my landlord all those years, and our relationship always had that power dynamic. Tom, I will stand by you. You have stood by me, after all, for years. Tom closed his eyes, waved his hand at me, dismissively I thought. But, no, just saying goodbye.

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