On Sunday, August 13th, after years in a nursing home on Staten Island suffering from Alzheimer’s, a treasured family Gerda (though her real name was Anna) died. My son, Thor, and I each wrote a remembrance to be read at the service/mass being arranged for August 25th at The Esplanade Assisted Living facility, the second of two Staten Island nursing home at which she’d resided. Following: these eulogies:
Over around fifty years ago I became friends with a young woman who had white skin, a choppy haircut, lively dark green. She spoke with a beguiling Irish lilt. Like me, she was in her twenties and, also, like me, full of fun, even a bit wild. We were cut from the same cloth – danced at discos until dawn, drank many Irish whiskies, smoked thousands of cigarettes, laughed ourselves silly, and never tired of partying. Her name: Anna Gerda Kennedy.
Anna was born in Dublin, Ireland, a city with cabbage-green busses and had studied at convent schools run by nuns. She went to nursing school in the London of red double-decker busses and, when she graduated, brazenly traveled to far-away New York City whose busses were Parakeet-green at the time. By then both parents were dead and she was without family except for a remote older brother who was studying law in England, an aunt in Canada, and a few distant relatives still in Ireland.
Quickly she became part of my family which consisted of myself and my small son. Later when she landed a rent-controlled apartment on Bleecker Street, that happened to be across the street from my where my mother and father lived, they opened their arms to her too because she was funny, generous, and very good company.
Early on Anna worked nights on the kidney unit at New York hospital. A tireless worker who loved nursing, she later cared for drug addicts, and still later, the mentally ill. Through the many years of our friendship, almost anywhere we went in New York city, she would run into former patients, even on the Bowery. These folks would greet her with a smile – “Hi Nurse Kennedy! Do you remember me?” – and mostly she did remember.
As years, then decades passed, though our paths zigzagged in many diverse directions, our friendship continued on.
One night Anna, and another nurse friend, Andrea – from Belfast, also a nurse and life-long friend – and I were finishing a meal at my apartment. Once Anna had finished off a glass of red wine, she told us that she’d just been diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer by her doctor. Later on, as she and Andrea were leaving, after Andrea had gone down the hall to ring for the elevator, Gerda and I stood face to face at the threshold; we fiercely embraced. When we drew apart, our hands remained tightly clasped. She looked into my wet eyes and said in that Irish lilt that hadn’t gone away, “Be assured … I won’t forget you!” and I replied in my ‘New Yawk’ way “Nor … will … I … forget … you!”
I have no reason to think that the promise we made to each other that night hasn’t been kept, in the deepest part of our souls.
When the time came, Gerda went to live at a small, cozy nursing home on Staten Island where she was very happy. When we could, Andrea and I would take the ferry and bus to visit. Each time we visited Gerda seemed to be a little worse. This is where we first met a beautiful woman with an alive, friendly face named Dalia. Because Dalia always treated Anna with tenderness, patience, and wisdom, Andrea and I would leave knowing she was in very good hands, were especially grateful to her as our friend’s condition slowly worsened
One spring day before that decline accelerated, we walked outside into the garden after lunch and sat together in the gazebo-style arbor enjoying the sunny day. Anna had taken a bread roll and several packets of Saltine crackers from the breadbasket, and soon began pinching off bits of roll, tossing them into the air, laughing and smiling as she did so. As if out of nowhere, one small sparrow, then two, flew down to feast on the bread. These birds were brown and pale grey. Quickly, more birds joined in and scurried, gorged, hopped, and squabbled to get at the food.
When the roll was gone, crumbled Saltines were strewn about. At one point I took a bite from one of the salty, dry Saltines and realized that it tasted exactly as those in my mother’s pantry had when I was a small child. I don’t know why I was surprised that the taste was the same, but I was!
We noticed a trail of ants had joined the feeding frenzy, were carrying away crumbs larger than themselves, Gerda scoffed, sang out, “American ants … join the Union!”
Just then, a cinnamon-colored squirrel cautiously stepped out from under a shrub, its nose and front legs trembled. Hoping the squirrel wouldn’t scare the birds away, Gerda shook her finger at it, sternly admonished, “Rub along!” and the squirrel dashed back into the shrub.
Spellbound, I watched while my precious old friend fed the happy birds: Here was the same woman whose visits to roulette or bridge tables went on around the clock, who had ridden a bicycle to work rain, snow or sunshine almost until she retired, who had driven anywhere and everywhere whenever she had the whim in her trusty blue Toyota.
This was the woman whose skill with cat-gut sutures had staunched the flow of the brightest red blood I’d ever seen late one winter night after I was stabbed in the throat with a broken bottle by a nutty drunk; this was the same friend who, when I was suffering from a dangerous illness that I didn’t recognize, did realize and figured out how to save my life.
Yes, it’s true. Had it not been for Anna Gerda Kennedy, I would have died before my 30th birthday. Instead: I was saved, became a writer, and managed to publish many books and live to be an old, white-haired lady.
As I think about my eternal gratitude, I am reminded of Anna’s many years of nursing and realize she helped many thousands of beings, not just me. Remembering how hard she worked, how much tender kindness and compassion she freely gave away, my decades of solitary writing seem in comparison to be selfish and pale.
This goes for Andrea too, here today. Andrea was Anna’s life-long friend, also from Ireland, who was also a skilled and dedicated nurse.
It also goes for dearest Dalia, whom most of you know, who gave Anna tenderness, care, and devotion above and beyond the call of duty. In my mind Dalia, you are a saint. I realize that the gods must have loved Anna very much because she brought and kept you, Dalia, by her side until the end.
I, and all who loved Anna, thank you Dalia from the bottom of our hearts.