Growing old is not for the timid.
We've lived across the hall from Hannah for 15 years. It used to be Hannah and George, but Hannah rang our bell late one night saying something was wrong with George. We'd never been inside their apartment. Hannah slept in the living room and George slept in the back bedroom. He may have called out, but Hannah is quite hard of hearing. He was lying on the floor and already blue.
Hannah stood in the hall screaming at the ceiling. "You should have taken me, God! I'm the b----."
We discovered a terrible fact about our condo that night: The elevators aren't large enough for a gurney. Dead or not, you go out sitting up.
If Hannah was lonely without George, she never mentioned it. She continued going to temple; she closed down the business.
She must have been close to 90 when she got into the fight that consumes her. Shirley, a widow in her late 80s, lives in the penthouse on Social Security. "Trash when she moved in and trash today," Hannah says.
The two women were assigned parking spaces next to each other. Every time Shirley opened her car door, she banged Hannah's car. Hannah went upstairs to confront her. I don't know what happened, but the next day, Hannah showed up with her arm in a sling, and Shirley passed photos around the building of her bruised face.
Hannah's car was missing. She claimed Shirley had it towed out of spite, but the police found it parked downtown. Hannah may have driven somewhere, forgotten and walked home. We often saw her headed out, head bent, moving fast, a tiny figure with white curls, dressed in the same immaculately ironed skirts and blouses she'd worn since the '50s.
She got a notice from the Florida DMV to take a driving test. She claimed Shirley turned her in. For what, we did not know. But after the test, she said she was allowed to drive if another licensed driver was in the car.
The next week, she needed to go to the grocery store, and asked me to ride along. She offered to let me drive, but I said no. I wanted to protect her pride.
"Did you fail your test?" She could hear me better in the car.
"They say I don't look when I'm backing up. How crazy is that?" Hannah fixed her eyes on me and almost hit the car in front of us.
Hannah started on Shirley. Shirley and the rotund president of our building were sleeping together. He would do anything for her. When Hannah wasn't home, they broke into her apartment and took things. The Big Cheese and the Little Rat were ruining her life.
I didn't say another word. I stared at the road, held on and prayed.
One day Hannah rang our bell, hysterical. She'd lost her phone. Maybe she'd dropped it down the garbage chute. She was going downstairs to climb into the garbage to see.
"No, no," we said, and went over to search. It was the first time we'd been inside since George died. The hurricane shutters were closed. In the middle of the day, the place was inky. One lamp worked and Hannah turned it on from the breaker box. Every flat surface was piled with books and papers and thick with dust. In the kitchen, her handwashed wardrobe of blouses and skirts hung on a string between two cabinets. The pallet she slept on and a sheet-covered chair faced an ancient TV. On a table next to the chair sat the telephone, unplugged.
My husband, Les, got the phone working, but we left worried. Hannah and George were wealthy. If her memory went, anyone could take advantage of her. When she died, her money was intended for designated Jewish organizations. Hannah gave me the name of a social worker from the Jewish Federation who sometimes helped her. I called and we talked.
She said Hannah refused every offer of aid. She had plenty of money for taxis, or for someone to clean the apartment. All she wanted was her license back. Her license back? The social worker said she hadn't failed the driving test once; she'd failed it three times. She wasn't to drive with a licensed driver. She'd misread the notice, which instructed her to bring a licensed driver in case she failed the test. She wasn't to drive at all.
The social worker said she could work through the court to have a guardian appointed for Hannah, but within the confines of her small world — the grocery store (close enough to walk if she didn't buy anything heavy) and the paths she'd made in her apartment — Hannah was independent. It seemed wrong to take that away.
"I'm losing my mind," Hannah said the day before we left for California. "You are seeing a person in hell and the terrible thing is, I know it."
Norma Watkins is a frequent contributor to Sunday Journal. Her memoir, "The Last Mississippi Spa," will be published by the University of Mississippi Press in 2011. Her website is normawatkins.com.