I bolted. Ran out the door. Down three flights of stairs. 3am. Screaming. For a Brooklyn street it was eerie quiet. Dark. Street lights out. A desperate sprint. In pajamas. To the only pay phone close by. Would it be working? It had to be the most vandalized pay phone in the city. Odds weren’t good.
Directly across the avenue from Harold’s Pharmacy.
It was a shabby three-room apartment in a pre-WWII three-story walk up. But it was shelter. That’s all I cared about. It was my world for a time and to me it felt big when things were good and amazingly small and cloying when things were bad.
Lately it felt as if I was living on a pin and the head was about to run out of room. For an old building, the steam heat worked amazingly well. New York cold was occasionally harsh, so I was grateful. Turn the valve for the first time and the radiator clanked and clunked loud like an old car starting up after a long hibernation. Steam heat smelled good to me. Like a change of season coming. Only because there were summers. Rough summers. Rough seasons overall. This summer was a scorcher. Hotter than usual. It was ready to crescendo to one of the most memorable electrical blackouts in New York City history.
Two weeks before it felt as if I leaped from the heat right into the fire. A life or death decision flare up. A three alarmer. I wasn’t mentally ready to play God, but God didn’t seem to give a shit. I was in the intense heat of a crossroad on fire. I needed to make a move. Otherwise someone was gonna die. I remember thinking: “I’m too young to be dealing with this shit.”
Mom & I alternated use of the only bedroom (for sleeping. Me anyway.) One night couch (no sleep), next night bed (sleep). There was this full-length mirror. I recall dad cursing, fighting to secure the clunky structure to the hall-closet door. It was his good deed. Got mom off his back. And he wasn’t very good at chores around the house. If the closet door was open just right, I could get a full view of the kitchen as it reflected into my line of sight. From the bedroom. Since mom always seemed to gravitate to the kitchen especially late, the reflection in the mirror of her her pacing back and forth would always wake me. Prevent me from staying asleep. My habit was to wake, look in the mirror, turn over. Eventually, I was forced to get up and close the door so I couldn’t see what was going on. Back to precious sleep time. It was my turn to have the bed, dammit! The night before she destroyed the red trimline phone. The entire phone right down to the wall. And beyond. R.I.P. trimline.
10pm: Wake up. Look in mirror. See kitchen. Fridge door open. More beer I was sure. Midnight: Wake up. Look in mirror. See kitchen. Fridge door open. Heavy drinking binge. Turn over. 2:30am: Wake up. Turn over. Look in mirror. See kitchen. Fridge door open. Again? Or Still? Weird.
I was mad. So mad. Until I saw. Mom on the floor. On her side. Tangled in the phone cord. Her head literally inside the bottom shelf of the fridge. I picked her up from the shoulders. She was so cold. Her joints were stiff. She was a 100-pound human accordian who wouldn’t unfold. I thought this was how rigor mortis started. Yet she was alive. How could that be? Stll breathing. Her breath was far from normal. Shallow. Her tongue shriveled. Mouth open wide. Lips colorless, perhaps light blue. I was in a panic. Half asleep. My mind reeling.
Then suddenly, I was overcome with calm. I sat on the floor. Staring at her. Thinking. I watched mom’s small chest closely as it went still for longer on the exhale. Then her machine started up again. I was waiting for stillness. Perhaps hoping for it. I was at a crossroad. I knew I was. It was the power to make a decision that would change everything. An inside voice was talking. One I never heard before. It kept asking. Slightly teasing. The repetition of the query felt forbidden. But it continued.
Does she live or die? Choose.
Would it be humane but inhuman just for me to return to bed? She had lived such a horrible life so far. Mom was 35 but looked twice that age. Especially now. On the floor. I sort of understood the weight of what was unfolding in front of me.
I knew my path, my karma, my thought process would be shaped, or changed forever perhaps in a way I wasn’t sure I could live with.
I rose. Moved strangely calm, to the hall mirror. Stood there. Staring at myself. So many questions rolled through my head.
Would I look the same in this damn mirror tomorrow if I decided just to leave her there? She would most likely be dead in a few minutes. Was I supposed to find her? Was there a higher power guiding me? Was the mirror the conduit for the message?
What if I woke up just 5 minutes later? Then I wouldn’t need to deal with a choice like this. And why was this even a choice for me?
Was the phone, now ripped from the wall, dead, a sign? Why was I given the responsibility of dealing with this situation? I never asked for this challenge.
1). Seek Out Your Mirrors. When up against the wall, at a crossroad, what decisions will you make? Would you be able to live with them? How would you go on? I’ve trained myself to ask tough questions and imagine how I would respond. What if I had a life-threatening illness, lost a leg, lost a loved one to tragedy? How would I appear in the mirror. My actions would shape my image.
2). Be Open to Reflection. Never question why a challenge, a person, an illness, an opportunity, a setback gets thrown in your life path. It was placed there from an energy source you’ll never be able to explain or fully understand. Signs are all around you if you just let go of skepticism. Stay open minded. What does your life mirror reflect upon? Whose life remains in the balance once you open your eyes, mind and heart to the signs?
3). Own the Decision of Life or Death. Don’t let family members, children, parents, friends, be forced to make a decision that concludes your life. Who would make healthcare decisions for you when you can’t make them? What kind of medical treatment would you want, or don’t want if faced with a terminal illness? It’s not fair to place this burden on others, especially without notice. Go to www.agingwithdignity.org and complete the Five Wishes exercise. Five Wishes is changing the way America talks about and plans for care at the end of life. More than 18 million copies of Five Wishes are in circulation across the nation, distributed by more than 35,000 organizations. Five Wishes meets the legal requirements in 42 states and is useful in all 50.
Five Wishes has become America’s most popular living will because it is written in everyday language and helps start and structure important conversations about care in times of serious illness. I was required to make the life or death decision for close family. It’s not a good feeling-It will change forever who you see in the mirror.
I ran. I bolted. The pay phone was working (a sign I made the right choice at least to me). I called 911.
It took mom 6 months to recover. I stayed out of school nursing her back to health. And then one day she noticed. Puzzled.
“What happened to the mirror?”
“Don’t you remember? You broke it the night you fought with what’s-his-name?”
She didn’t remember. I didn’t share the truth. I never did.
The hall mirror and its reflections were best left buried.
I wonder if it’s still in the ground?
I’ll never share the location.
That’s a decision I can live with.