mutation (mute_nation) wrote,

The Lives of Others: Rules of Sitting

The Lives of Others: Rules of Sitting - An Essay in Three Parts

Weekends would be spent in the Photo room 333 from before nine in the morning until a little before midnight, when the custodians would have to lock up. (Depending on who was closing, the group could have stayed till one, two or maybe even four in the morning.) There was a process. It started with waiting. Waiting for Wallach to skim through your negatives and contact sheets. Waiting hungry possibly for hours, out of fear of losing your chance with him. Everyone would sit around him as he went one by one through student’s work. When one student was finished, another one would immediately inhabit the vacant seat next to him. And after that long wait, it could end in disappointment and tears with criticism and the reality of nothing worthy of exhibiting or contests. If a commendable negative was found, a type of fiber paper was chosen, the better filters were distributed and you would be sent off to print in the darkroom. Printing on fiber paper is much more expensive and lengthy process (considering the dilutions of the chemicals in the majority of high school darkrooms). At the end of the first Saturday, one would be lucky to have an exhibitable print and this wasn’t common. Maybe by Sunday evening, you would have a variety of prints from one negative. Maybe one had the right amount of contrast, maybe one had good tones overall. The best prints would be saved for contests; one would go in your book and the rest to live in a box that is now possibly in storage, in Wallach’s house or missing. It would go on like this for the majority of fall semester every year.

With the change of teachers from Wallach to Molina, in two years, a few scanners and inkjet printers transformed into some of the best digital equipment that’s fathomable in NYC public high school. The analog-to-digital transition was steady but didn’t happen in a day. Some of The Process doesn’t change, even with the change of hand and technology. Come early on the weekends and have your negatives and files searched for any possibility of a hidden gem. During Molina’s first year there weren’t enough scanners and printers to accommodate all that had work. And at that point, it was a small number of students that were digitally proficient. The first weekend, all the negatives were chosen and only three or four people could be working at any time. That actually meant Molina and Wallach (he came in to help during this transition) doing half of the digital work. Caroline and I looked at each other, wondering if we should leave since there was nothing for us to physically do. At some point, Armen approached me and said that even if Wallach and Molina are doing the work, that we should stay. Sit, keep them company, see if they need anything and get them lunch. It hit me hard and it’s a sentiment I still follow. If this guy (who could be a huge asshole sometimes) knew to stay, I knew to I should stay too. I stayed, I sat and I bought them bagels for lunch. This went on until I had become part of the group that helped photoshop and print everyone’s work.

See who Wallach is in the Brooklynites project, 7th one down.

Quite honestly I started staying up late when I was really young. I don’t know if it was that one time I was doing a book report the night before it was due in the third grade (Mr. Tudor never realized), when our building filled with smoke because of a kitchen fire late one night leading me to discover late night TV with Conan or picking it up from my older sisters who would stay up late to do homework. (Maybe it really sunk in when we finally got a computer and had dial-up.) It came to a point where my mother would stay up and wait around for me to finish whatever I was doing and go to bed. I would sometimes go to bed out her frustrating presence, watching me from the couch. But there were times she just couldn’t outstay me and she’d retreat back to her bedroom. This didn’t change even when I became a young “adult.”

The summer after freshman year, my sister and I had no access to the Internet. We were okay for the most part and used the library when we really needed to. We stay up late and play The Sims together on my mac. It seriously took me awhile to remember that I had wireless on my Mac and when I did, Anita and I flipped a shit when we were able to steal someone else’s wireless. (I couldn’t believe that it took me that long to remember that modern computers have that ability.) Service would come in and out. I would move it from the top of a little end table that I had found on the street to my bed, to my parent’s bed, to my sister’s bed. It eventually found a decent signal resting on top of my mother’s sewing machine and I was not about to lose it. It was totally my command center.

I don’t know what I was doing but one night I must have found entertainment easily and it was somehow past four in the morning. (I think this is when I rediscovered my love of Friends and started googling images and videos.) It must have been creeping towards five AM and my mother started shifting about. The sun had started to rise. She was in her casual clothes but the nicer ones. She kept shifting about, being weird and telling me to go bed that eventually I caved despite not being tired. I remember the weird pale light from the sunrise keeping me up as well as my fond re-memories of Friends. Before I feel asleep I still heard her shift about. When I woke up later on she was gone. All I could do was sit across the room, watching the phone. And wait. I didn’t know where to walk to go find her, though I know my father tried a few times in the neighborhood without success. When her friends called, I would lie (in my busted Chinese) that she was shopping or at my grandparents. And when my Grandparents called I said she was shopping or sleeping. We waited a day before reporting her missing.

When they were looking for her, all I could do was sit at home. Didn’t feel right to leave at all. Maybe she would come back. I wanted to make sure I answered the phone if it rang. It could be her, it could be the police, it could be helpful. I sat and waited for the doctor as they were admitting her. I tagged along with my sister to a couple of visits, just sat and listened to them talk. I even attempted one visit by myself to keep her company but with my broken Chinese we mostly sat. She told me to go home. Even as some time past, I just stayed at home. Sat at the computer, on the couch, on the floor. With my mother still away, my dad had to return to work and Anita went to seek solace in her friends. Even though there was nothing or no one to wait for, a part of me needed to stand watch over the empty home. A part of me wanted to compensate for what I did. If I had just stayed in my seat that one early morning, maybe she would have gave up waiting for me to go to bed and retreated back to bed herself.

My grandfather has been in and out of the hospital for the past year or so. After the past couple of times my uncle and my sister asked my grandmother if she wanted him to pass at home. That if she did, that it would be the better choice not to send him to the hospital. She agreed. He was having trouble breathing a month ago and my uncle said that we just couldn’t let him suffocate. My sister asked him if he wanted to go. “Only if it will save my life.”

Walking home from school at some point last month, I called to see if my sister was still at work. She works close to my dorm and I thought maybe we could meet up. She picked up and told me that he was in the hospital again. He was in rough shape. He had pneumonia, his auto-immune disease was acting up, and she was sure his diabetes was complicating things. I immediately wanted to go. She didn’t want me to see all the tubes. She wanted me to wait until he was less infectious. (She’s still protective of my health.) After she told me all that, I was afraid. A part of me knew I wanted to photograph him. That I haven’t properly photographed him since Fall 2005. And all my previous hospital visits have never been during a time when he hasn’t been clearly lucid. He would remember the most random things. He called me by my nickname, Kelly, because Kathleen was too difficult. He remembered giving my sisters and I coffee when we were very young. He remembered how I used to count all the change in his old ashtray and vase. The pennies, the pennies. He remembered how my mother used to never hold me and that he would carry me, proposing how the years probably don’t match up (me being a rabbit and her a dragon.) “She just doesn’t like her for some reason.”

He started to improve. But to fully recover would take awhile. His last hospital stay was for a month. So it would still take awhile before I visited. He was on the respirator and couldn’t talk. But he would stir to my grandmother’s voice. At some point she requested that he be taken off the respirator and sedation for half hour so she could talk to him. “I got some questions to ask him. I just want to chat for a little bit.” Of course, its not possible. There were days and nights she was upset about all the tubes,“It’s not right, it’s not right.” In the last week October, he started to really improve. My cousin Brian updated me that he was taken off the respirator and looked much better. Maybe he’d be able to go home soon. Three days off the respirator and he was back on. The last three days of October, I was working. Covering the girl that they hired to relieve me of some of my hours, working my Thursday and covering my manager so she could prepare and be with her kids for the holiday. Thursday evening I got a text message. They are taking grandpa off life support at noon. You can be there if you want.

I arrived twenty past noon. Walked past my mother and went to see him. The tube was still in but he was off the respirator. The feeding tube was still in but wasn’t pumping. Everyone’s guess was that he wouldn’t last as long as he did the last time he was off. He didn’t look like grandpa but he was. The kicked us out of the room when they went to remove the tube from his esophagus. Winnie was really afraid they wouldn’t come get us as soon as they were done. I think we were afraid that if we took our eyes off him, he would pass away. We tried to keep watch from afar. His brother and his cousin came to say good-bye. My grandmother signed her DNR request and my sister filled out a card naming me as her health proxy. We all took turns seeing him. I was photographing him the whole time. But I kept asking my sister to ask him if it was okay, if it was okay to photograph his hands. He nodded a couple times yes. We both had that in common. We loved cameras and taking pictures. But to the majority of the questions asked of him, he shook his head. Do you remember me? No. Are you comfortable? No. Do you remember how you loved coffee? No. Do you remember how Kelly used to count the pennies? No. He kept on shaking his head.
“He really doesn’t want to go,” I said.

Winnie took care of him a lot, especially when his health deteriorated so much. After taking care of me, she recognized the same discomfort I felt stuck in bed, when he’d shift in his bed to try to get comfortable. She’d move him whichever way he wanted but realized at some point that he would never really be comfortable. I recognized through all his head shaking, that even if he wasn’t all there, he knew he didn’t want to go fully into the next place, fully into his dreams. Anything I experience when I was sick, any heighten state of separation, would only give me a drop of an idea of what he went through.
The day was long for everyone. Everyone had woken up early and by mid-afternoon everyone was exhausted. People had to leave through out the day. Some of us fell asleep in the waiting room and by the time we woke up, he was moved out of the ICU into the general floor, awaiting his hospice room. We stayed for a little bit. But eventually we left because we were so tired. I knew we had to leave but it didn’t feel right. I know I can’t do anything, I can’t even speak to him. But I knew someone should be sitting there with him. I told Winnie this.

I think we all thought we had more time with him. The next day I was going to see a play with a dorm group. I was running late, and had to take the train to catch up with them. Once on the train, I knew I should’ve gone straight to hospital. But I reassured myself, that after the play, I would get to see him in the afternoon. That he would be all right till then at least. My sister was also on the train around that time in Brooklyn and had the need to get off the stop by his hospital, but stayed on the train to meet up with her boyfriend a couple of stops over. He passed right around that time, alone, without any family. I got the voicemail during the play and I knew that was it. I just sat there in my chair, in front of the stage and cried into myself. I cursed the fact that I didn’t wake up early, just to sit with him. I can’t even sit with my grandmother and have a conversation. I feel so bad. Sometimes all you have to do, all you can do is sit.

My family does this incredible thing, obstruct the truth when possible. When my uncle burned a good portion of his body that was hard to hide because he took care of his parents all the time. They noticed his absence immediately. We are sometimes able to hide my mother’s absence from time to time, but at most a week. So the truth comes out there. When I was sick, they never told my grandparents, for fear of how they would react. Why didn’t I come to celebrate our birthdays together or come to Thanksgiving? (We used to celebrate our birthdays despite being over a month apart.) They kept on saying I was at school. My sister has to keep pretending that she’s just engaged and not married. When they asked why my hair was so short like a boy’s, Winnie responded for me, Grandma you have short hair like a boy too.

I asked Winnie that day, Did he ever know I was sick? “No but I told him afterwards.” She went to see him as soon as she got the message from the hospital of his passing. “I told him that you were really sick but that you’re all better now. And that Anita is married but that it’s okay. He’s nice and he’s going to take care of her.” Sometimes I just think you never really know what goes on in the lives of others.

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