At last the breaths grew weaker. Finally she was making little sucking sounds and her lips were moving like the mouth of a fish kissing. Then her breathing stopped. A few moments later there was no motion in her chest or neck. She was completely still. It was 3:53 AM, February 3, 2005. It was very quiet in the room at the hospital. Earlier in the morning we had dimmed the lights.
"She's gone," said the doctor. He put his stethoscope away.
Yan Yan began to sob. She had lost her mother.
Eighteen months earlier (Sleigh Bells in August) it had been a day of triumph when we got her out of the hospital. She had been there for two weeks getting blood and fluids pumped out of her lungs. She went home with a tube running out of her back into a pouch for drainage.
Now our triumph was silenced. She looked peaceful and composed. Before her hair had been falling out and her body bloating with fluids. Now she looked at peace, her features relaxed and all pain gone. We who were alive were left with the pain and in the vacuum of her departure. There was a hole in our world. A piece had been ripped out, and it was not the same world now.
"I'm sorry I couldn't have helped her more," said Dr. Roll, a tall thin man of about fifty.
For eighteen months he had treated a woman who had cancer that started in her lungs and spread all over her body. He had sat with us all night. He had also made house calls to her tiny apartment in Chinatown. He had joined us for dinner for the final two birthdays of her life. Short of performing miracles, there was nothing more he could have done. He offered one great blessing, however. He cared.
Steve had been the tireless friend who took her to hospital appointments for eighteen months and brought her food and medicine.
Yan Yan was her seventeen-year-old daughter who had come from China to help for the last 10 months. She came with the biggest smile I have ever seen. She is not smiling so much now but with time I think the smile will be back.
"I want to know the temperature," she would ask every night when I called. She wanted to know the temperature for the next day. I would look it up on the Internet. Some days she was strong enough to go out, others not. If she knew the temperature, that gave her hope.
"76," I might say. "Sunshine with a few clouds."
"Oh, maybe I go out tomorrow."
But for the last two months she had not been able to go out at all. She could only get to the bathroom with help. Her muscles were practically gone. But she was always full of hope.
"I happy today," she would say. "No pain and you here." She would smile hugely.
But she had come to this state of "I happy, no pain today" gradually. In the beginning it had been rough. "Sometimes I feel like screaming," she said when she first got out of the hospital. "There were things I wanted to do." She looked sad as a child who can't go outside because he or she is sick. It was hard to accept in the beginning. Then I think she had learned a big truth without knowing she had.
Whenever I heard her say, "I happy, no pain today," it made me feel limited. I had no pain, I was among friends, but I was not always happy. I had "plans" that didn't always work out as planned.
On those painless days she had the pure "Infant Joy" of the William Blake poem: "I am happy, joy is my name ..."
She is gone now. We are left behind. I'm sure she's in a place of purple orchids and soft music. She liked Claude Debussy. I think she must be drifting in the clouds, looking down on us, sad for our sadness. "Death not so bad, Louis. You will like it. Very peaceful."
The next day they were burning money in her bedroom and a half dozen candles were glowing. There were bowls of fruit on the dresser with her picture in back of it. It was a young picture when she had long coal-black hair. She had just the suggestion of a smile. I think it was only later when she had come to San Francisco from Shengyang, China, that she started smiling in photographs. She is dressed in striking red and looks very serious about herself.
The last few months I never saw her out of a pair of white and red pajamas. She looked like a kid dressed for Christmas waiting for Santa. I wished I had shot a picture.
On Monday there was a memorial at the Green Street Mortuary over in North Beach. I had gone by Green Street Mortuary many times but had always hoped I could avoid going inside for a funeral. It was okay but I have my own way of remembering someone. Her last wishes, translated from the Chinese, were these:
"Please, no sadness, no tears, no calling out my name in grief ..."
I'm afraid we disobeyed most of her last wishes. Yan Yan, convulsed and sobbing, couldn't get through the text she was supposed to read. Steve took over.
The mortician did a fine job but it wasn't the friend I knew. It was too composed, like the photograph in the bedroom. The woman I knew had learned to loosen up. The woman I knew was wearing pajamas and laughing. Still, I think she would have liked her final image on earth and the bowls of fruit and flowers.
After the ceremony I split down to Enrico's on Broadway. Ward was tending bar.
"What do you suggest after a memorial service?" I asked.
I nodded instead of choking up and looking stupid. Ward's a tough guy and might not put up with that.
He looked serious.
"Vodka Martini," he said softly. "Big one."
I got my composure back and we discussed fountain pens. Ward sells 'em; I love 'em. I show him my collection of three gold and silver Parker Sonnets.
He's not impressed.
"What you want is a calligraphy pen," he says. He pulls out a $500 "Churchill." It's a beaut.
"But what if I lost it?" I asked. "I'd feel terrible ..."
There are those who ask little of the world and are happy with what they get. That was my late friend. "No pain, I'm happy." Infant joy and wonder. Then there are those who can never get enough. The blood suckers.
We have a new landlord up on Nob Hill. Maybe you know the name Lembi; maybe you have heard of CitiApartments. They own a lot of rental property around the City, most of it not in the best neighborhoods. They have code violations all over the City and a relaxed attitude about them. "Don't tell us what to do," seems to be their motto. If they were surfers their attitude might be admirable. As it is, however, their violations affect a lot of people.
A year ago they decided to buy something nice. They spotted Nob Hill Tower, then known as the "crown jewel of Nob Hill," and made an offer. Horrors! It was accepted. They now saw themselves as having "class." Know the Aesop fable about the ass in the lion's skin? I don't think they do.
"Ladies and Gentlemen ..." came the announcement to the tenants, along with a "new" contract. That was their first illegal act. The old contract is the contract. San Francisco is a city of lawyers, most of them right down the hill from Nob Hill Tower, and our newly retained lawyers saw through that.
But worse: They started applying the standard strategy to increase revenues. They reduced services.
First they fired the doormen, who were long-time employees. They did this just before Christmas. Even Ebenezer Scrooge would have waited till after Christmas. They were replaced with security guards, shaving costs and increasing revenues slightly. Some of the security guards spoke English and knew how to call the fire department in the event of a fire; others did not.
Then they tried to tack on a $300 parking fee. That did not go over well, as Free Parking was written into the old contract.
Having failed at that, they tried to save money by not cleaning the building. That went over for awhile. Eventually, however, some of the older female residents rebelled. "Clean this place up, you bastards."
Then some of us noticed that the recyclables were going straight into the trash. A call to the "bastards" informed us that recycling was not a legal requirement. "Yes, but decent people do it." You can be the judge of our new landlord's decency. The whole building was separating bottles, cans, and paper for a year before someone looked into the dumpster and saw what was going on.
And then there was the question of elevator permits. "Who, us, get elevator permits? We're the Lembis and CitiApartments. Elevator permits apply to other landlords not so shrewd in making money—the stupid guys."
And there was fire-alarm testing. Again, that is for stupid guys who don't know how to make money.
And illegal storage. So what if the Fire Marshall says to move it? We're the Lembis and CitiApartments. "We reserve the right to ..." Heard that one? A polite way to tell you to get fucked. Or "Sorry for the inconvenience." Hah, if you were sorry you would not be doing it, right?
Then there was the Great Flood. When they bought the building there was ongoing repair work to fix defective pipes. That stopped with the purchase. Ten months later the lower six floors of the building were flooded. Did they pick up the tab for destroyed personal property? "Your problem" was the response. They did, however, invade every damaged apartment for two weeks fixing their damage.
Shortly afterwards the first cockroach was spotted at Nob Hill Tower. Congratulations, Lembi and CitiApartments. You have brought the Tenderloin all the way up Jones Street to Nob Hill!
The list goes on. These guys are intrepid. I'm sure they would be sucking our blood at night if there were a way to insert little tubes into each apartment and stick them in our veins while we slept.
I did write them a letter. You can read it if you want: Severe Reduction of Services at Nob Hill Tower. Just about everyone in the City has experienced this kind of thing at least once. Few, unfortunately, have the time or resources to do anything about it.
It's sad because these guys are predators hiding behind a limited liability corporation. I called the City Tax Collector to find out who actually owns Nob Hill Tower. The owner is a business entity called "DE LLC." Watch out for DE LLC; it may be coming your way. Unfortunately, these guys are expanding their grip on city real estate and have just purchased another building across the street from Nob Hill Tower. Pretty soon they'll be trying to attend opera. Hopefully some usher will recognize them as dogs dressed up like men and throw them out.
Towards the end my late friend experienced confusion. "Mind broken," she would say to me sometimes when she could not think of a word. No wonder. She was like a potted plant that had been poisoned by four separate rounds of chemotherapy and three rounds of radiation. Somehow after each session her hair would start to grow back. She was a persistent garden. I think her hair, if she has any now, must be thick as horse hair and her mind sharp as a razor. She died in winter but I see her surrounded now in the flowers of spring.
She was a funny person with some contradictions. Great people are always like that. She was happy eating either in the best restaurants in the City or at home. Anything else and she said ma ma hu hu (so so). At home she liked one thing: Fish and vegetables, the fish cooked as it was in her home town of Shengyang. Always she cooked the fish in a rich brown soy sauce with little black beans. She was very picky about the fish. It had to fresh.
Once I took her to Louie's California Kitchen. Louie himself came to the table to take the order. We list him in the San Francisco Restaurant and Dinning Guide and I think he knew who I was. They discussed the order for a long time, then suddenly he turned and left the table. I thought maybe she had gone too far with her pickiness. But, no, Louie returned shortly with a live fish. She looked it over and said it would be okay. It was of course magnificent.
When she cooked she always picked little pieces of fish out of the serving plate for me. I do not have the skill with bony fish as the Chinese do. I have watched my friend Steve Han take a huge piece of fish into his mouth, work it around, then spit out a neat little pile of bones. That is a skill that is learned as a child. It is like language. For me it is too late.
I am told that my friend was highly intelligent. I had not noticed that. It was the sweetness of her nature that had caught my attention. But her daughter tells me that it is so. Her daughter came from China speaking only limited English, enrolled herself at Balboa High School, and got straight As the first quarter. I asked her where she got her brains. "Mother, " she said. Now if my friend had been a nasty person, a regular Lembi, maybe I would have noticed. Maybe I would have caught her trying to cheat me or steal something when I was not looking.
Before she got sick she worked at an underground bar in Chinatown called L'Amour. It's a karaoke place. Guys come down, buy a girl a drink, and she is like a girlfriend for awhile. She sings a couple of songs, sits close, maybe even puts a hand on his leg to simulate intimacy. She has regular "customers." It was about the only job she could get without a green card. I don't think she will be doing that kind of job where she is going. She is a better person than that.
On my "rounds" about town I would stop by sometimes at L'Amour. It was a curious place. On Saturday nights I used to go to Cafe Prague to catch the jam session with B. J. Pappa. L'Amour is just down the street on Kearny. I would go down to the basement, buy her a drink, and she would teach me Chinese. Bizi (nose) was one of the first words she taught me. I didn't know much about the toning of the syllables then, but she made me do it. The word was not right unless the tones were correct. It opened up another world of language sounds to me. She taught me the word for lips (zuiba), pointing to hers, and when I tried to kiss her she giggled. She was a very healthy women back then.
She came from a poor city in China to San Francisco and maybe that was a big move up. But it seems sad now. She gained little and lost what she gained.
But maybe my viewpoint is the the real poverty. She didn't think like a banker. There is so much I don't understand.
I kind of understand old rascals and bastards, however. Or think I do. Maybe greed is God's way of poisoning them. An overdose? Why not! Liability strictly limited by divine order.