‘Nobody Will Tell You This but Me: A True (as Told to Me) Story,’ by Bess Kalb: An Excerpt

You know the story of my zayde. He was always dead broke and in trouble with a bookie, but he made it through the pogroms and the passage to America, and he kept living until everyone he knew was dead. And you know what he said—I’ll say it again, I don’t care if you’ve heard it a thousand times. I don’t care if you can say it backward in French standing on your head. He told me, “Bobby, when the world is cracking behind your feet, you keep walking forward.”

You march forward.

January, February, March.

We thought my lungs would do it, but it was my heart that went out in the end. My lungs were always the problem. Blame the smoking, though I never did. Blame the years bringing lunch to your grandfather’s construction sites breathing in God knows what. Whatever it was, as I got older, they troubled me constantly. Your grandfather became very nervous when I’d cough in my sleep. He’d stay up at night watching me, tears in his eyes. I was intubated more times than you know. I’d call your father sometimes very late at night—thank God your mother married a pulmonologist—and he’d listen to my breathing over the phone and he’d send me to the emergency room. I had operations. We never talked about it—you’d be so far away out in California. What was I going to do, ruin your day? So I’d let my phone go to voice mail until I could say the words: “I’m fine, Bessie. I’m fine.” I’d leave enough of it out, but I wasn’t lying.

In my last few years, everyone was sure of two things: I could go at any second, and I’d live forever. I’d let it slip to you when I was very tired—I’d taunt you with it: “You know, I’m not going to be around forever.” You’d say your line: “Grandma, you’re going to walk my children to preschool. You’re going to torture them like you tortured me.” When I was humoring you, I’d say, “Fine,” and when I was feeling angry, I’d just say, “No.” You can’t say I was ever wrong.

I was always very active, as hard as it was. I’d walk every day. In Florida I’d put on my sneakers and get out of the building, and I’d walk down South Ocean Boulevard until the curve in the road, then I’d walk back. I’d walk with a friend and gossip, and when they all died, I’d walk with your grandfather. We didn’t have to say much, but we walked. I walked at my pace—fast, head low, onward. Faster than him. He’d shout, “Bob! Slow down!” and I’d say, “Hank! Speed up!”

On the Vineyard we’d drive fifteen minutes from the house to Menemsha and park at the Galley and walk the dock. We’d go all the way to the end and back—sometimes twice if I was feeling spry and there wasn’t too much wind. Before we got back to the car, I’d get a veggie burger from the take-out window and your grandfather would get the fried chicken wings. Sometimes I’d get a soft-serve ice cream or French fries and a decaf iced coffee. Or we’d get calamari and onion rings for later. We earned it.

But by the end it was an accomplishment if I walked anywhere. I walked on the treadmill in the apartment in Florida very slowly—your mother watched me do that in the last days. “Mom! Slow down!” I’d get angry. It was very upsetting becoming so slow. To be stuck. For your body to beg you to stop. For nurses to come into the house and bathe me when I couldn’t get out of bed. You can’t imagine. You can’t imagine the pain of becoming slow, of knowing it’s as fast as you’ll ever be again, of not being able to call you, of letting the phone ring until it stopped because I couldn’t tell you I was all right. In my last week, you didn’t hear from me. I didn’t have anything to say.

You mustn’t be so angry at yourself for not getting through to me in those last days. You’ll never escape the knife blade of that guilt pressed to your throat. You must move forward. You’re sorry and so am I. What are we supposed to do now? Talk about it? Ha. You can write all you want, but you’re still at a desk in a world where I don’t exist. I’m the way you think.

[ Return to the review of “Nobody Will Tell You This but Me.” ]

The article was originally published by Newyorktimes