In the year after we moved into our building, we never met the reclusive white-haired woman down the hall, and then she was carried away on a stretcher and didn’t come back. Some months later, Arline offered to periodically check her apartment and run the faucets. In a co-op, everyone owns the whole building, so we have a communal responsibility. I followed as Arline went on her first visit.
Arline turned the key in the lock. The wood in the door frame had splintered when the medics broke in. The door opened to a dark, aquarium-blue room, the blinds closed to the afternoon sun. A walker stood near the door, no surprise, but beyond that was a tandem Rodriguez bicycle, a high-end custom brand that is made at the bike shop down the street and sold nowhere else in the world. Suddenly, a life sprang open like a paper accordion. She was not just a frazzle-haired old woman bent over a walker; she was an adventurer bike-rider who had pedaled the city with someone on the second seat. Who was that someone?
The dim, abandoned apartment made me shiver. I wanted to quickly move through every room, flicking on each light to make sure there were no moldering bodies, which made no sense because, of course, the owner had not died here but been rescued. She was presumably resting in a place where nurses regularly checked her pulse. Still, the apartment felt haunted.
It took me awhile to figure out why. On the dining room table were bird books and a pair of binoculars. Everywhere, there were birds: a ceramic owl, a dangling mobile of mallards, a framed sheet of bird stamps. In the second bedroom, two more bikes, single-seaters, hung on a rack. In the kitchen sink were her breakfast dishes.
The apartment was haunted by a living woman. She may not have ridden one of those bicycles lately, but she had surely lifted the binoculars to her eyes and looked through the dining room window at the trees along Ravenna Boulevard. Maybe she had been doing just that when her heart or her brain seized, or whatever had happened that had drawn the medics. And in a moment, she had been carried away from this life she had spent years making.
We returned to our apartment, and a heaviness settled. It wasn’t the things themselves that made me sad, the bicycles that gave evidence of a more robust life, the dangling mallards that must have made her smile. It was the sense of her things being set down with the intention of picking them up again. She had put down her binoculars. She had set her breakfast dishes in the sink. She had closed the book of birds. Later, her hands would grip the binoculars again, would wash those dishes, would open that book. But they didn’t.
Whenever I grieve for someone, I know I’m grieving for myself and for everyone I’ve loved and lost. Age spots, like fat freckles, have appeared on the backs of my hands. They remind me of my paternal grandmother, whose early-grey hair I inherited. I used to watch her spotted hands play the baby grand piano while I sang, “Lightly row, lightly row, o’er the glassy waves we go. Smoothly glide, smoothly glide, on the silent tide.” Twenty years ago, her hands stopped moving, and someday, so will mine.
A couple of years after Arline started checking the woman’s apartment, a city caseworker was assigned to manage her affairs. People moved out the ceramic owl, the bird stamps, and the breakfast dishes. Workers painted the walls and sanded the floor. And then we got word that she had died. The apartment no longer feels haunted.
But her birds and bicycles are out there. And somewhere there is a reel-to-reel tape of my grandmother and me. My grandmother’s hands make the notes, and my little girl voice trills the words. Into eternity our music glides, on the silent tide.
So beautiful and poignant.