K.S. in Harlem

Several years ago, sister K.S. and I made a road trip to New York City to visit family. Narrowly catching the exit off the George Washington bridge, I turned toward East Harlem. It’s tricky finding a parking spot, but we ended up around the corner from the brownstone. We unloaded suitcases, and K.S. oohed and ahhed over the two-story apartment — at the one-hundred-year-old sculpted plaster ceilings in the living and dining rooms; my son-in-law’s artwork in his studio upstairs; the sliding heavy oak closet doors eight feet high; my editor daughter’s bookcases twelve feet up with gliding ladder close-at-hand.

Their spacious apartment is an oasis in the midst of Harlem’s crowded harshness. Outside, I closed the courtyard’s iron gate. Every few blocks we passed trash bags piled high, spilling out of alleyways. Along the curb, litter swirled around knee-high fences guarding young trees, and evidence lay scattered along the sidewalk that dogs had been there before us.

K.S. and I made our way through the park toward the East River. We passed a homeless lady rummaging through her grocery cart, and K.S. commented to me that she might give her some cash on the way back. We walked the pedestrian bridge over the noisy traffic on the FDR Drive, then watched a barge steam by. A peaceful walkway, one of the nicest in the city, the Esplanade is evidently under the radar. No other tourists. We strolled and talked, as sisters do.

Back across the elevated footbridge, the homeless lady still sat on the bench. We paused, and K.S. rooted around in her coat pocket. She spoke to the woman and handed her a bill. We both noticed the shocked look on the lady’s face. As we walked away, I asked, “How much did you give her, anyway?”

“Only $5. Or maybe a ten. I couldn’t really see. I forgot my glasses.”

Back at the brownstone, K.S. called me to the bedroom. “I know we figured we had just enough gas money to get home, but…”

My left eyebrow raised in curious concern. “But what?” I asked.

“I gave her my 50-dollar bill.”

Both eyebrows shot straight up. “What? Well, of all the things to do.”

She didn’t seem upset, just interested that it happened. I shook my head, but deep down K.S. impressed me with her attitude. This fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants artist shows me, the everything-has-to-be-just-so control leader, how to hold things more loosely. There can be an element of calm to any situation. Now I had to count my cash to see how tight it would be to get back home to the sanity of green grass and fields of corn.

This past week, I drove K.S. down to Indianapolis to her final appointment before another surgery. She no longer can walk the Esplanade. After back and neck surgery, she plods, listing to the right, often needing a cane — compliments of working twenty-five years loading up to 75-pound packages at the local parcel delivery warehouse.

I wheeled her around from the front desk to the nurse’s office, and she spent an hour answering questions and signing her life away (so to speak). On the way home, we ate at our favorite barbecue joint, and I mentioned that her job had caused her physical disability. She wasn’t bitter in her response. “That job made my life possible. I was able to feed my kids.”

Rural life in east central Indiana is challenging.

Then she said, “I’m staring death in the face. I don’t think I won’t pull through surgery, but I can’t shake the real possibility. What was the best part of my life now that it could be over?”

I didn’t answer. We drove in silence for a few miles and then she said, “My entire life has been a struggle, but I have learned, and am now at peace. Maybe that’s the best part.”