At Ozanam Hall by Julianna Marchant  My mom, dad and I gave up our usual Saturday afternoon activities to go visit my dying Aunt Jean in a nursing home in Queens. She wasn’t actually my aunt, though, and she wasn’t actually dying. She was the widow of my grandmother’s cousin, or something, related only by marriage; but countless Thanksgivings and Christmases had been spent in her stuffy Flushing apartment ever since I was little, because my dad and his two sisters visited her a lot after both their parents had died. And she wasn’t dying because illness or age threatened to take her life at any moment—in truth, she was in pretty good health for a ninety-one-year-old—she was dying in the sense that she had reached a dead end. She had gone to the nursing home for rehab for her broken hip, but she wasn’t well enough to continue living on her own, so she moved into assisted living, sentenced to spend the rest of her days there. She had no children of her own, and my dad was in the process of selling her apartment. For the past few years he had begrudgingly dealt with funeral expenses, Medicaid, inheritance of possessions, etc. Legally and financially speaking, at least, she was dying. So for simplicity’s sake, I called her my dying Aunt Jean. “God, I hate Queens,” my dad grumbled, as we drove past a bleak strip of square brick houses interspersed with gas stations and Korean restaurants. We turned into an empty parking lot behind a towering, dull brown rectangular building with ordered columns of windows that looked like the perforations on a Band-Aid. Crumbling black capital letters on the overhang in front read Ozanam Hall. My dad parked the car and we practically sprinted from the lot to the entrance, eager to escape the blustery February cold. We burst through the revolving doors into the lobby, where the chilly outside air lingered around us for just a second and then vanished. We stood motionless with rosy cheeks, regaining our circulation, while a parade of the white-haired and no-haired followed a young nurse across the marble entryway and out of the room, like a herd of sheep. Behind them, a catatonic patient on a stretcher was being slowly loaded into an elevator by a group of doctors in long white coats. It reminded me of what I imagined an Ancient Egyptian funeral procession might’ve looked like. As we walked over to the check-in desk, I nearly tumbled over a woman wheeling past me. “Must make you feel young,” I quipped, turning to my parents, but they didn’t seem to notice my comment or the scene. After we signed ourselves in, we headed over to the elevators, where the Egyptian funeral had already departed, and we were the only ones waiting to ascend. Once inside the narrow elevator, I asked, “So she’s out of rehab, right?” “Right. I think they’re still a little concerned about the pneumonia she had several months ago, but other than that she’s doing fine,” my mom replied. “They let her walk around by herself.” “She’s getting more neurotic,” said my dad. He had been driving down to Queens to visit her once or twice a month for the past year or so. “Last time I came down here, the nurse came in to the room wearing a sweater that looked like one she owned, and when she left the room, Jean had to go over to her closet to check that hers was still there. Can’t really blame her, though. This place is depressing as hell.” My mom had been several times before, and this was my first time. “Mmm. And the whole apartment thing’s been settled?” I asked my dad, tapping the heels of my boots against the granite floor. “Yeah, I think we’ve finally found a buyer, thank God.”
The elevator dinged and the doors slid open, revealing a winding, sterile white hallway, the only difference from a hospital wing being small clusters of flowers hanging on the doorknobs of the rooms and scattered pools of natural light below the few lone windows. There was no one around. “Room 519,” muttered my dad, guiding us forward, and I heard fragments of noisy television shows and nurses’ high-pitched greetings behind closed doors as we travelled down the twisting corridor. The blinds were down on almost every room window. 516, 517, 518...519. “Remember to speak up, Julianna,” my mom reminded me, as we stood outside Jean’s room. I just glared at her. The door was open a crack, releasing the muffled hum of a news broadcast and the crinkle of a plastic snack bag. We paused for a moment in the hallway before going in, putting on our Aunt Jean selves. “Hi Jean, we’re here!” My dad boomed, and my mom and I followed him into the room. She was sitting at her desk under the window, fussing with a stack of papers. She peered around and grinned foolishly at us with her little yellow Chiclet teeth smudged with red lipstick. She fidgeted in her chair for a few moments before sluggishly unfolding to a standing position. My parents and I stood in a huddle by the door. “Oh, hello! Julianna, it is so good to see you! It’s been so long,” she exclaimed, shuffling over to greet us. She had always pronounced the -anna in my name like banana, instead of Juliahna, but she had done so for so long that my parents told me it would be rude to correct her. This infuriated me. I gave her a hug, and I stood awkwardly enveloped in her bony arms for about five seconds too long. Her hair looked whiter, more matte and wiry, than I had remembered it. She smelled like cloying lavender perfume. The leathery skin on her face sagged under her sharp cheekbones, like a deflated balloon. “Oh, I want you to tell me all about your dancing,” she said, motioning for me to come sit down next to her on her bed. I obliged, and gave her the same vague details about my dance training as I had the previous time I saw her, as if I were reciting a script. Jean shared her room with another resident, and the room was divided into two sections, each like a mirror image of the other—a wooden desk under the window, a single bed with blue linens, a small bulletin board, and a rickety armchair that looked like it belonged in a classroom instead. The walls were stark and white, except Jean had two picture frames hanging over her bed, one of her late husband, one of our whole extended family taken over Christmas. I glanced over at her roommate. She was an old Asian woman with thin black hair and tanned skin. She sat facing the television in the center of the room, but she didn’t seem to be watching. She had her head hunched over her chest, an unmoving stern look on her face, her hands folded neatly in her lap, as if someone else had placed them that way. She occasionally nodded or bobbed her head back and forth to the sound of the newscaster’s drone. “Who’s the roommate?” I whispered to my mom. “Rosie,” she mouthed back to me. We had caused quite a stir coming in to the room, but Rosie didn’t look over at us once. My dad got up from his seat. “Why don’t we go for a walk, Jean?” he said impatiently, in his “Jean voice” that my mom and I both resented. “I have to go take a look at something in the business office anyway.” “Ooh, yes, and we can visit the little kitten down the hall,” Jean said. “Whiskers. She’s very cute. A big favorite around here. Let me just grab my coat.” I hadn’t taken off mine. I got up and waited by the door, knowing that it would be another five minutes or so before we left the room, while my parents fumbled around to help get Jean up and moving. Rosie perked up a little, looking over at the commotion for just a second, before turning away and letting her head sink back down over her lap. “I’m gonna go wait by the elevators,” I mumbled to my dad. I walked outside, shutting the noise in with the door behind me. My shoes clacked against the linoleum as I strutted back towards the end of the hallway, flying past the rows of identical closed doors. Right next to the elevators, there was a sitting lounge with a large picture window and plush red armchairs circled around something I couldn’t see. Nearby I noticed the little cat home, Whiskers’ I figured, a little ways down from the lounge, so I meandered over. As I got closer I saw a white sign taped to the front, which read: Whiskers, 2001-2014. Beloved pet, dear friend. May she rest in peace. There was a picture below of the poor thing presumably in her final days looking old and emaciated. Bummer, I thought. I walked into the lounge and over to the picture window. It displayed a view of the surroundings of Bayside, which looked like a messy stitchwork of brick houses and congested roadways. It was a hazy day, and a thick cloud of fog hung over the edge of the quasi-urban landscape, obscuring the Manhattan skyline. Several residents sat in the armchairs in the lounge, faced away from the window, staring intently at what I now saw was a large rectangular fish tank in the corner of the room. A spotted yellow fish was chasing a long blue one around and around the tank, nibbling at its tail; occasionally the blue one would turn around and try to fight back, but the yellow one would make a sharp movement and scare the other back into motion. Again and again Yellow chased, and again and again Blue fought, swimming in circles, thrashing against the walls of the tank. The old people sat still and captivated, completely silent, looks of absentminded amusement plastered on their faces. I stood and watched them, watching the fish. Not once did they look up and look around, not once did they look up at each other. I grew bored, though, after a few minutes, and I walked back over to the elevators to wait for the others. Eventually, they emerged at the end of the long hallway. My dad strode briskly in his long peacoat, and my mom and Jean strolled a few feet behind him, arm in arm, steps in sync. It was a little bit spooky, almost, watching them approach me slowly down the deserted hallway; it felt, for a second, like I was looking at a mirage. Or a couple of ghosts. We all huddled into the elevator together. My mom pressed the button for the ground floor, and we lurched violently downward. My dad was asking Jean some financial questions, none of which she seemed to know the answer to. My mom then tried to engage her about movies, wondering if Jean had seen anything interesting lately? Or if they showed movies in the nursing home often? She hadn’t, and they didn’t. A long silence ensued until we returned to the lobby. “I’ll go take care of this Medicaid thing. Why don’t you guys go hang out in the waiting lounge, and I’ll meet you there in a bit,” said my dad, as the elevator doors slid open and we walked back out into the marble entryway. My mom led me and Jean over to the sitting area beside the check-in desk, and we sat down in leather armchairs facing one another. She gave me a look that said “time to start talking to your Aunt Jean,” but I knew this already. “So, Jean,” I began, “what do you normally do on a Saturday afternoon like this one?” “Oh, it depends, dear,” she said, in her creaky drawl, beaming as she talked. I couldn’t look directly into her wide and eager eyes, whose gaze was fixed sharply on my face. “Sometimes I like to go talk to my friend Sarah, she’s just down the hall from me. Oh, she’s quite fun. We like to gossip,” she giggled. “That’s nice. Do you get along with Rosie?” “Oh, you know, she can be very difficult,” she remarked, her smile changing abruptly into a rather exaggerated look of perturbation. “I don’t think she speaks much English. I always try to start a conversation with her, but she mostly just sits and watches the television. I think I might be moved to a new room soon, though. Yeah, I remember the nurses talking about that. I’ll have to ask the next time they come by.” Jean kept blabbering about her room situation, and I glanced at the people seated around us. The elderly sat with their children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, listening contently to the lively anecdotes spewing from the mouths of their progeny. Seated right beside us were two old women, one with a wispy plume of white hair and a veiny face like a tree trunk, the other with a full head of short black hair and dewy, smooth skin. The second woman looked like she could have been the daughter of the first. But from the way they talked, they seemed like old friends, animatedly reminiscing about the days when they shared an apartment together, from what I gathered from the bits of conversation I heard. Jean and my mom had started chatting about the Triple Crown horse races, Jean’s favorite subject, which weren’t for another few months, and which I had no interest in. The two women beside us got up and embraced, exchanging cheerful farewells. Then, the younger-looking woman sat back down in her seat while the white-haired, veiny-skinned one put on her jacket and scarf and set off to leave, ambling towards the entrance, where she was whisked away in the revolving doors and out of my sight. There’s no way she’s the patient, I thought, looking back to the dark-haired woman, who now was being led by a nurse out of the sitting area and towards the elevators. She couldn’t have been much older than my parents. My dad came back around ten minutes later and plopped down next us, looking frustrated. “More trouble with your Medicaid, Jean,” he groused. “Anyways, I hate to say it, but we can only stay until three today. I want to beat the traffic.” Jean didn’t seem to hear; she looked lost in thought. My mom had asked her a question about the horse races, but instead she said, solemnly, “A nursing home is a terrible place to end up in, you know.” My parents didn’t say anything, and neither did I. Her comment hung over our heads like the fog outside. I thought about the two women while we sat there. I wondered where the white-haired one was off to, if it was a house like mine, maybe, with open doors and floods of natural light. If she had a family there. I wondered how long the dark-haired one had been here at Ozanam Hall, how long she was going to stay here. She probably had early Alzheimer’s or something. Something concealed behind a deceptive cloak of youth and wellbeing—something beyond the reductive appearance of fleshly decay I figured had pretty much been the sentence into this place. I wondered whether Jean would’ve still ended up here if she hadn’t broken her hip. I thought about the last time we had gone to visit her at her apartment, or all of the times, since they kind of blurred together into one hazy, nonspecific memory. She never liked going out, not because she couldn’t but because she saw no need to, so we always ate her mediocre cooking in her cramped little dining room. Her apartment was filled with pictures, colored and black and white both, framed and hung on every wall. Some were of our family, some were of her old friends and relatives. We always used to spend time looking at them together after we ate, watching Jean as she tried so eagerly to immerse herself in her past. My parents and I left about an hour later tired, irritated and craving Korean food. Once we were through the revolving doors and thrown back into the icy air, my dad turned to me and said, “Thanks for doing this, Julianna. You know it means a lot to Jean.” “Yeah, of course.” Truthfully, I felt guilty. I had been terrible company—I just sulked around the whole time. But I did know how much it meant to her. I knew she would brag about me and my successes in adolescence to all of her girlfriends after we had left, as if I were a horse in one of her beloved races. I knew my momentum was enough to keep her going in that dreary dead end of a place, Ozanam Hall, so I’d give her that. It was a fair trade, I suppose.