I reach over to feel the cup. The coffee has cooled down enough for Tzila to drink.
“Would you like your coffee now?”
She nods and opens her mouth slightly. I lift the cup to her lips carefully. A bit spills over her mouth and onto her apron. I give her a napkin. Her hands shake as she dabs the corners of her lips.
We sit quietly for a few moments.
Suddenly she turns to me.
Her eyes meet mine.
Her mouth opens to speak and I lean in to hear.
I jump back in confusion. I don’t know what she needs. I try to give her more coffee, I offer her some of her sandwich, but her hands are shaking even more now.
“Help me!” she cries again, her wobbly voice pushing the words past her thin lips.
I take her hand. It is so cold. I gently press her fingers and rub her wrinkled palm. Within a few moments the shaking subsides and she takes another sip of coffee.
I wave another volunteer over.
“Tzila is asking for help. She keeps crying ‘help me.’ What should I do?”
The woman, a retiree who spends her mornings here, looks at me with sad eyes.
“That’s what Alzheimer patients do. It’s normal.”
She leans over the wheelchair. “It’s ok Mrs. M., we’re all here to help you. Don’t you worry about a thing.”
The woman turns back to me with a wistful expression.
“I knew her when I was a teenager. That’s why I can’t say her first name. It just doesn’t feel right. She’ll always be Mrs. M. to me.”
I have gone numb inside. I look over at my husband, trying to find some reassurance. He is sitting with the baby on his lap, talking with the men. They are laughing. One man pushes away his plate of salad and loudly proclaims his desire for bagels and lox. Everyone smiles. He still has some life left in him.
I turn back to my table and give Tzila another sip of coffee.
I am quiet on the way home. I am thinking of Aunt Susie.
My grandmother, the youngest of ten children, grew up on the Lower East Side with life, laughter and love. The siblings, although very different, had a deep connection with each other. They communicated mostly through letters, and usually sent a copy to everyone. When World War Two broke out, the boys enlisted in the army and the letters that were sent back and forth have been kept in the family as a testament to the deep love and devotion that flowed between them all.
I used to sit for hours going through letter after letter. It was my family history coming alive. I got to really understand who they were through their hopes, dreams and aspirations from when they were young. The one letter writer I loved the most was my great aunt, Susie. She wrote extremely matter-of-factly. with sprinklings of humor and depth. I related to her style and her personality. I also had a great relationship with her and loved visiting her.
When my grandmother was in a coma, Susie spent almost all her time in the hospital at her bedside. She meticulously wrote of her progress and, despite the desperate situation, firmly believed my grandmother would wake up.
After sixteen long weeks, my grandmother opened her eyes. The doctors called it a miracle. Susie was not surprised.
Throughout my grandmother’s rehabilitation, Susie kept track of every triumph. By the time my Grandmother had sufficient strength to be on her own, Susie had compiled a thick packet of papers that she bound together and distributed to the rest of the family. She called it Rip Van Ruthie.
My grandmother passed away nine years later. At her funeral, Susie became hysterical when someone offered her a shovel of dirt to put in the grave. She said she would never, EVER, throw dirt at her sister. I watched her fall apart. It was the first time I thought of her as old.
When my sister got married, I saw Susie again. She walked in the doors, supported by two of her sisters. I ran over to give her a kiss. She looked at me, the same smiling face I had always known, and exclaimed, “And here’s the lovely Kallah!”
I was taken aback. I didn’t know her to be this sort of humorous, but I smiled softly and turned towards the others.
The expression on their faces told me what I hadn’t understood.
“Susie, honey. This is Bracha. You know her. The kallah is Yocheved. Besides, which kallah wears all black? Kallahs wear white, remember?”
Susie’s eyes went far away for a moment. Then she looked at me again.
“Of course I know that. Hiya Bracha. I know who you are.”
She laughed a nervous laugh.
Later, as I accompanied her to her table, she told me about her week. As she finished a story about her trying to get into her apartment, she stopped. Her hands made the motion of a key going into a lock. Her eyes teared up a bit. She looked at me fearfully. She started muttering. I listened closely. “You know, that thing, the thing, the thing for doors…to use to open doors…you put it in and turn it…what is that thing?”
My heart shattered. I took her hands. I couldn’t speak. My mind was too full of understanding. My chest was tight with sobs that I would not allow to escape.
“A key, Susie. It’s a key.”
That was the last time I saw Susie. I couldn’t stand to see someone, so full of words, forget what makes her who she is.
“She kept asking me for help,” I say softly.
“Who?” my husband asks.
“Tzila, the woman I was sitting with. She kept looking at me and asking for help. Like she was trapped. In her head…trapped in her head with no way out…”
My husband is silent for a moment.
“How frightening.” he says. “How incredibly frightening.”
And I think of Susie, and the words locked away forever, and I shiver.
Originally published in Ami magazine.