PART 2: ENTER HANNA
Continued from Part 1.
It was 2008. I remember riding my bike into the relentless December wind down Van Brunt Street, an absurd amount of keys jangling from my belt loop. I remember being flagged down by two pedestrians with a request for my phone number to pass along to a sick friend in need of a dog walker over the holidays. I remember the phone call with a voice straining against infection on the other end. I will never forget our first meeting. Mary was a striking woman, with chiseled features, clear blue eyes and glasses that reminded me of fashion icon Iris Apfel. She was actually a fellow pet care provider, but a bout of pneumonia had rendered her unable to care for her own dog and her holiday boarding charges. After our initial meeting, I would return to her home three times a day for the next two months, sometimes to walk as many as five dogs. Her own dog, Bux, was an Afghan hound named after a Pakistani mystic and magician with who was famous in the 1950’s. Bux was dark gray with some brindle markings on his face. He moved like a cat and indeed resembled a mystic… from Jim Henson’s “The Dark Crystal.”
As Mary recovered we struck up a friendship, and she continued to hire me as a dog walker long after it was truly necessary. I suspected that she was a little lonely and was as interested in the companionship for herself as well as her dog. Over time I learned about tidbits of her life, like how she traveled across Canada in her 1989 Land Cruiser, started an eco-fashion line long before eco was fashion and had been a painter with a massive loft in Tribeca. She was a living testament to a New York that seemed to only exist in the nostalgia of an older generation. She had moved to Red Hook after being priced out of Tribeca but still had strong ties to the neighborhood, mostly in the form of boarding clients and customers for her small batch dog food.
I learned about the dog food in much the same way I learned about every other aspect of Mary, in snippets over time. I knew that she had the food cooked in an incubator co-pack upstate. She stored it in large chest freezers at a garage space that she rented around the corner. Once a week a hired driver picked up her orders and made deliveries in Manhattan. Every few weeks she would make custom batches of food for a few private clients in two enormous lobster pots. At times she expressed interest in having me do some sort of work related to selling the food. This always seemed purely hypothetical. I was willing to help and somewhat intrigued, but outside of my dog walking business, I was also busy with painting, my newfound love of trapeze and simply being 27 in Brooklyn.
Everything changed one morning in early October. I had just returned from a month long trip out West, and was getting back into the rhythm of my work routine and running a little behind schedule. My phone rang and when I saw Mary’s number on caller ID, I assumed she was checking in to make sure I hadn’t forgotten about Bux. The halting voice on the other end struggled to slur out the words, “I think I am having a stroke.”
“Did you call 911?” She hadn’t yet. I rushed to her apartment where she sat in bed dazed and partially paralyzed. Soon after my arrival, the paramedics came and took her to the hospital; at the time no one could have predicted that she would never again be outside of a medical institutional setting. What I did know was that I felt an obligation to help in any capacity that I could.
The day became blur of hospital visits, phone calls and emails. The initial prognosis was good. There would be four to six weeks of intensive rehab, and Mary would be able to return to life as usual. With no relatives or close friends to step in, I suddenly found myself in the role of surrogate daughter—managing the mundane aspects of her life like paying rent and bills (things I barely had a handle on myself), taking care of Bux, and running her business operations. In the beginning there were others from the neighborhood helping as well, and many of her Tribeca friends and clients came to visit her in the hospital. Still, I was in a bit over my head until my friend Ethan suggested that another dog-walking client, Alison, aka Connor’s mom, might be able to both sublet Mary’s apartment during the recovery phase and use her training as a health-supportive chef to help with the business.
Alison became my client out of geographic convenience as she had lived downstairs from Ethan and his dog Bogey. I knew her dog Connor better—he was a spirited greeter, exuberantly jumping and scraping his polydactyl paws down my legs. His outgoing nature extended to strangers on walks. Once he tried to jump on a meter maid, who was not amused. In contrast, Alison was quite reserved. When she came to see Mary’s apartment and we sat down to discuss the subletting arrangements, it was the longest conversation we’d ever had.
Everything seemed settled. Alison was going to Florida for a few weeks, but upon her return would sublet for the following month while Mary was in intensive rehabilitation. I felt a sense of satisfaction in being helpful as well, until I received a call from the hospital. Mary had suffered from two more “neurological events.” She was now completely paralyzed on her right side, mostly paralyzed on her left side and unable to speak or swallow. Despite her extreme physical limitations, Mary and I were able to communicate with a placard that had the alphabet printed on it. She could use her left hand to point at letters, spelling out instructions, dog food recipes and her preferences for nursing homes (which I was tasked with touring.)
The bleeding in Mary’s brain was a riptide that had dragged her miles away from the life that she knew, and swept me up in the current—or more accurately into the vacuum, the empty space that family or close friends would otherwise have occupied. My life became indefinitely consumed with taking care of Mary’s.
Continue to Part 3, Enter Alison.