Discussion → Housekeeping

  • 100_0418.thumb
    Apr 09, 09:38am


    Fernanda is almost as old as I am. “In just a few years,” she says, “I will return to my homeland to spend my remaining days with my nephew and his family.” She says this as she dismantles the toaster-oven, clucks over the melted cheese burned on to the lower tray and gives me that questioning look. – “Hmmm. Even the most simple things,” she says. “You cannot even make a sandwich without a mess!” Let me make it clear: I am not infirm; I am a man of leisure, having retired from academia, but I have never been much of a housekeeper. Hence, Fernanda.

    She is not a beautiful woman. Her skin is light coffee, amazingly un-lined for her age. She has round cheeks, jolly ones, I suppose, and dark brown eyes. Her eyebrows have been fooled with – she has a slightly surprised look. And her lips, which I am sure were once painted bright cherry, are now pink and subtle.

    Her hair is remarkable and changes with the seasons. It is always permed, but in winter it is dark and as spring arrives, the color lightens – by summer she will be blond. In the fall, red highlights appear and month after month earth tones become more prominent until the dark drown of winter again rules. (I wonder what she was like when she was young – these changing shades are more evidence of an adventurous youth.)

    Fernanda says that she goes to the Y occasionally but stays trim through her work. She says as she pushes the mop across the kitchen floor, “I hate exercise. I used to go dancing when I was a girl. Now, work is enough. I go home tired enough.”

    For a while we tried rudimentary conversation in Spanish. Fernanda enjoyed the problem of sorting out exactly what I was saying with my atrocious accent. And she, as all women I have known, enjoys correcting me.


    My symptoms were annoying but nothing to mention to the internist. I would go walking – an excellent way to maintain cardio-health, they say – and if the path were slightly inclined, my breath would shorten and arms tingle. Occasionally I would imagine that I had faint heartburn.

    All of this is easily discounted: years ago I had an athletic student who explained that you simply had to run through the pain. I took this lesson with wonder! Who would invite pain? Even more, who would “work though” pain voluntarily? The world, I thought, is filled with wise, insane people. Therefore, I reported my new walking symptoms to no one. I would practice endurance even as the Angel of Death nibbled at my fingertips.


    This neighborhood, surrounded by colleges and universities, empties in the summer with student exodus to home and summer jobs. August is especially quiet. The professionals who live here – especially the droves of psychologists, psychiatrists and the like who thrive on the over-educated, the over-moneyed and the over-sexed – are off to the Cape or Martha’s Vineyard. Only the old and the providers of indispensable services to the old remain. I actually like the city in August. And I go walking.

    On my return from this particular jaunt around town, however, Fernanda looked up from dusting the coffee table and noted, “You look terrible. Gray. Your face is gray and you look like you might die any moment. Sit down.” She disappeared into the kitchen for a moment and returned with iced tea, sweetened and with lemon. “Here,” she said, “this will make you feel better. You should not walk in the sun so much.”

    There is no question that I like being coddled. Perhaps this is because I was the youngest son of a woman who wanted a daughter very badly, but was never successful in that project. So I was the late-in-life “mistake”, a little pale and sickly and completely inundated with the loving care of my mother and her friends. The rupture with these doters was not pleasant – absolutely necessary, but not a happy divorce – but as I age I find myself enjoying the attentions lavished on the slightly infirm. Especially since the infirmity interfered little with my preferred life of leisure. If there had been cafes in my neighborhood, I would have read, played chess, chatted with my peers, but in this day and age in America, there are only Senior Citizen Centers. So I indulge myself with Fernanda’s ministrations, cool myself with her iced tea, and rest.


    Two days later – mid-August – I receive a telephone call at 8:30 AM. “Senor Litvak?” asks the caller. “Yes,” I reply. “This is Maria, Fernanda’s friend. She won’t be able to come to work today. She is sick.” “Sick? What kind of sick?” “Well, she is in the hospital and can’t work right now.” “What hospital? What’s the matter with her?” Maria says that Fernanda has had a stroke. The doctors are waiting to see just how impaired she will be, but she is not going to die just yet.

    This is what I found on the internet:
    The American Stroke Association says these are the warning signs of stroke:
    • Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body
    • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding
    • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
    • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
    • Sudden, severe headache with no known cause
    If you or someone with you has one or more of these signs, don't delay! Immediately call 9-1-1 or the emergency medical services (EMS) number so an ambulance (ideally with advanced life support) can be sent for you. Also, check the time so you'll know when the first symptoms appeared. It's very important to take immediate action. If given within three hours of the start of symptoms, a clot-busting drug can reduce long-term disability for the most common type of stroke.
    Could I have missed this? Did she limp and I didn’t see it? She seemed clear as a bell to me – was she blinking more? Did she seem dizzy? Jesus Christ! Did she have awful headaches and never said a word about it? How could I have been with her, depended on her day after day and not have spotted something? Am I such a self-absorbed old man that I couldn’t tell? Did she call 9-1-1 or did someone else call for her so that she was treated in time --? What the hell is going on here!!
    According to her friend, Fernanda was brought to the Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital (what an unfortunate melting pot of hospital names! Like merging Bob Jones University with Brandeis – Bob Brandeis Multiversity?) I own a car although I rarely use it, but this day warranted buttoning myself up and taking the Toyota to BIDH. It was a longer excursion than I had taken on wheels in some time. Nevertheless, it was do-able. So I drove, cautiously – which may be a mistake in this city – but I drove there, found a good parking place in the garage underneath the hospital and wended my way up to the information desk. And then I realized that I did not know Fernanda’s surname. While the information clerk was quite pleasant, there was really nothing she could do for me. I didn’t know Fernanda’s doctor – I knew nothing and was forced to return home, defeated and dejected.
    Fernanda Ines Garcia lay in her hospital bed on the fifth floor at Beth Israel. She dreamed the precious child she called her nephew and for whom she had left her family and her native land would come up from Houston and hold her hand, not the hand that had withered suddenly as she dropped a glass of water and fell to the kitchen floor. The other hand, the left one, even in her dream she moved the fingers of her good hand.

    The chart at the foot of her bed reported the data that said she would survive this first touch of the angel of death. And Manuel in Houston has paid her health insurance premium so she can lie in this bed until able again take care of herself. Maria, her friend, held her hand, though she snored lightly after a long night’s vigil.
    And for a moment, he was transported – forty years, fifty years – and he thought, I can do this, I can bring Fernanda home and care for her until she can travel. She will recover simply because of my loving attendance on her. I will make soup for her. I will help her with those exercises that enable the recovery of movement. I will hold her when she is fearful or in despair. And when she cries that she misses her parents and her brother she has not seen in so many years, then I will buy the airplane tickets and bring her back to the village she left in Dominica. I will hold her hand as she comes to her parent’s home – or to her brother’s if they have not survived – and say for her if she cannot speak, I’m home! I have missed you so much! I’m home! This is Fernanda!

    They will wonder who I am and will say that Fernanda took care of me and my home for many years and now I am trying to return her favor. They will understand that I have come to love her and that this has given me back my youth. There will be a festive dinner and she will be happy and they will honor me. I will drink wine with the family. I will be reminded of love and we will sing songs so that my minimal Spanish will not matter – we will all understand one other.


    Even while Professor Litvak sat in his chair by the window looking out on the green maple leaves that shielded his quiet street from August sun, he dreamed about the music of Dominica. Perhaps I should have tried a little harder to find out Fernanda’s surname. Perhaps I should have gone back to the hospital again. But there was really no point to it. I wouldn’t recognize her friend Maria and no one would let me walk the floors peeking into the privacy of sick people on the chance I would find her. In any case, I can’t really walk so far. And, in any case, I had to get home to arrange for a new housekeeper. The agency promised that they would find someone suitable.

  • 100_0418.thumb
    Apr 09, 09:40am

    I'm not sure if this is the way to post a story -- but here it is. If I've broken a rule or made a grievous error, please let me know!

    Anyway, this was published in Loch Raven Review, I think, about a year ago --

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