Last year I lived in seven houses in ten months. Some of them were roommate squabbles – I hated them or they hated me. One was a landlord issue: he hated us and we hated him. One of them hated my little five pound yorkipoo dog – the completely adorable Toni, who was clearly a menace. This whole saga was as harrowing to my friends following my adventures as it was for me. They were afraid to read their Facebook for fear of what I might have posted now.
So when my friends heard on Facebook that I was moving into the famous Battery Park Apartments, they did victory dances all over Asheville. Famous for the location – right downtown, directly across from the Grove Arcade. Famous for the amazing history of the old hotel. Famous for the year to three years it took people to get in. (I was lucky and waited only a year.) Famous for nice large remodeled 1 bedroom apartments right down town rent controlled need-based senior living charging rents that all over town would get you a studio with free cockroaches. Famous for the reputation that you could live there three months and not see anybody under sixty. Famous for the word that nobody ever moved out except on a gurney.
My friends were so relieved that I had landed there that a month later when in one of my bad moods I told one of them that I needed to move out, he said, “No you don’t.. No you fucking don’t. If you so much as attempt to move one stick of furniture out of that fucking apartment I will come down there myself and rip that chair out of your feeble old hands and sit on your fucking chest until you get your head out of your fucking ass and agree to stay put.” And then he told me what he really felt.
I have bipolar disorder that in 20 years my meds have never gotten under control. I have no middle ground – I’m up or I’m down. In the interest of fairness, my raging biochemistry tends to give me roughly the same amount of time up as down. In the really bad old days after I was first diagnosed, I once went six months up and six months down. I don’t know which mood was worse: flat on the floor or through the roof. A few years ago I was for year consistently 2-3 days up and then 2-3 days down. When I was down, I knew that in just a couple of days I would be up again – so I knew I could ride it out. But my life was total chaos. Lately I’ve been 2-3 weeks up and then 2-3 weeks down.
Some parts of my moods are relatively predictable. When I’m moving – which has been every other week lately – I gear up for the move. At four a.m. I’m throwing shit in boxes. After a move, within a week I am crashed flat on the floor. As I was moving into the Battery Park Apartments and for the next week, I loved everything. I loved the layout of my apartment, I loved the views out my fifth floor windows.
So for a week I liked most everything. OK, except my neighbors. What am I doing living with all these old people? Yeah, at 72 I cleared the bar for living there ten years ago, but I’m not like really old. I’m a young person walking around disguised in an old suit. So I kinda, in that first week, stayed clear of my neighbors.
Then, after a week of being up and mostly liking everything, I crashed and hated everything – especially my neighbors. Old – I’m not old. Or disabled, mostly crazy – I just have a little bipolar disorder. But the symbol of what I wanted to avoid in my neighbors – the woman I most wanted to avoid (she helped me to write this part – and insisted I use her real name) was the woman out in front of the building – all day every day, in overalls every day. Chain smoking all day every day. Smoking is not allowed anywhere in the building. Like light the next cigarette off the last cigarette just before it burns your fingers – all day every day. After long hard struggles over a couple of years to get off of cigarettes, I had eight years ago gotten free. Her especially I wanted to stay clear of.
So I went three weeks down. Then I had a stroke. It didn’t kill me. It didn’t leave me paralyzed – or with any long term symptoms except some balance issues, and the risk of having another.
Three days later, I checked out of the hospital a new man. I had had my brush with death and had come back from the brink. I was more than happy to be alive. My depression had passed and I was again wonderfully up. I wanted life – all of it. I wanted to embrace my new apartment – including my neighbors. So when the friend who had been caring for Toni picked me up at the hospital and dropped us off in front of Battery Park apartments with my little overnight bag there were no parking spots. “No I’ll be fine getting myself in, really”.
In front of the building, the icon of Battery Park Apartments – the woman with the overalls and the cigarettes. She looked too young to live there – and it turned out she was. She had gotten in for a disability ten years before.
“Ok, I’m gonna make friends with her first.” “Hey, how ya doin?… Nice day, huh?… Can I bum a smoke?”
From there began one of the most amazing friendships of my life. I discovered that – although her schooling, back in Mexico and here in Chicago was sparse and lousy – Diana was extremely smart – brilliant in some areas, interesting, a great communicator… able and willing to share deeply about herself as well as being a world-class listener. Extraordinarily generous.
And adored my Toni. Most everybody actually did – but Diana more than anybody. And Toni, who mostly loved everybody, especially loved Diana.
And we smoked together. What started as sharing a smoke, then a couple, became a full-fledged habit. Two days after having that first cigarette, I went to the smoke shop to buy one pack so I wouldn’t be mooching off of Diana, who clearly was of modest means. (I had no idea.) When it was my turn at the counter, I totally shocked myself by ordering three packs. “Who is that voice?” When I got outside, I talked to that voice. “What are you doing? I just want a few cigarettes.” The voice said back, “Who are you trying to kid? You’re in it now.”
Soon Diana became Aunt Diana for Toni. Diana sat for her when I went out. Toni, who for some reason had stopped sleeping in my bed, napped with Diana. Toni, who never really cuddled with me, with Diana would sleep here – up against the side of her head.
Diana then went from Aunt Diana to christening herself “Mama”. It accurately reflected her relationship with Toni. We became co-parents. Never a hint of romance on either side: We have checked in with each other a couple of times. We are blessedly clear of that. But we had become an ersatz family. When I announced to our smoking posse – all spokes in the wheel to Diana’s hub, people love to be with her – in front of the building that I had to leave to take Toni to the vet, to find out why she was walking even less than usual, Diana asked “Can I go?” She dropped everything and didn’t smoke until we got out of the vet’s office. After running a lot of expensive tests, the vet said, “She has congestive heart failure. Like people with heart disease, she could have a relatively long life or she could die of a heart attack tomorrow.’
Diana and I digested the news together, we grieved together. Our baby might not make it. Our little angelic being – who had always seemed to inhabit a rarified atmosphere, above this earthly plane – now seemed more precious than ever.
Then came the liver disease.
Diana: “I still have a good feeling. I think she will live a long life.” Me: “Her liver is shot, Diana – she’s not going to be here much longer.”
I still thought we might have her a few weeks longer. When two days later my friends Karen and Lisa convinced me that she was looking terrible, that it was time to let her go, i realized how much denial I also was living in. As I grieved, I feared what this conversation with Diana would be like. Perhaps, finally, this would be our first big fight. When I told Diana it was time to let Toni go, she was amazing, astonishing. “Hey, you’re the real parent. You know her better than I. You hear her labored breathing all night long. You’ve got to make the call.” And she really, truly, totally fell in behind the plan.
I arranged for the Four Paws mobile euthanasia group to come to my apartment the next morning, Monday morning at ten a.m. I called a few of Toni’s favorite people to come be with us. Amazingly, four of five were free – and each loved Toni so much that there was no question of them coming.
At the releasing ceremony, Diana was as strong as I thought she would be. She held her baby tenderly. At one point, one of my friends gently said to her, “Maybe you could let Majo hold her now.” I had not even noticed that she might be taking too long a turn. The next day, we wheeled Toni in the stroller she loved three blocks over to Montford, to bury her in Amanda’s back yard, which she also loved. I dug the grave, we together laid Toni in it. We cried.
A week later, i shocked everyone by saying that – still clearly grieving over Toni – I was going to quit smoking. I had tried several times lately and failed bitterly. “I’m going to do it the right way this time – get lots of support from the state ‘Quit Line’ help resources.” Toni’s death made me want life more than ever. “These things are killing me. I can’t breathe right any more.”
Diana and I had the conversation. We no longer had our baby to pull us together. Toni died on October 1. If i stop smoking on my quit date of October 29, what about us? I was very clear that there would be no more children to pull us together. “I won’t be ready to let another dog into my life and my heart for a minimum of one to two years.” Diana said, “I’m afraid I’m going to lose you.” And in some ways she has. We no longer start our days with that first smoke of the day at 7 a.m. I no longer make several trips a day out to the front stoop. If there are more than two smokers out there at a time, my sobriety feels threatened and I stay away. I hate the cold, while – even with her Mexican blood – Diana endures it out there most of the day.
But we both crave and continue this friendship. I will leave the building by the front door even when my car is in the parking lot out back. I will endure the cold for a while to talk with her. Her smoking for some reason never threatens my sobriety. We go down to World Coffee on a warm sunny day and sit outside and she has six cigarettes. We wrote this story together.
We are soul friends and we know it. We will never let each other go – until one of us goes out on a gurney.
I have been totally clean of cigarettes since October 26 and have not had a craving. The Quit Line counselor the other day asked me the two questions: “How much do you want to stay off of cigarettes – 1 to 10?” “Ten, no question.” “How sure are you that you will stay off them?” “Eight.” I could weep.
Hey, if you have any time after the show, you could walk with me the three blocks back to Battery Park to meet Diana. Diana hates crowds and knew this was not for her. She was my first audience for the finished story the other night and gave the whole thing her blessing. She’s sitting for Panchita aka Pancho – a five year old adorable female chihuahua, my totally loyal Mexican sidekick that I adopted two months ago.