February 22, 2007
My December visit with ‘lady’
"Agha isn't here," Khanum says as soon as I walk in through the door. "I don't know when he'll be back."
Agha is her husband -- dead for 35 years and buried in Iran -- but she speaks about him as if he were just out running an errand.
"No point waiting around for him," she tells me with characteristic bluntness. "Go home and do something useful."
We're in her room on the third floor of the Ocean Towers Convalescent Home in Santa Monica. Khanum has lived here for nearly 10 years, ever since she broke her hip and had to have it replaced by a young Iranian doctor who called all his female patients "Khanum" (Lady), because they were old, and he meant to show respect -- and because this way, he didn't have to remember their names.
Depending on whom you ask, Khanum is somewhere between 97 and 104 years old. She has bad eyes and trouble walking -- what with the hip replacement and all -- and she gets tired easily, but she's otherwise in fine health.
She needs constant care, which she resents wholeheartedly and refuses often. Her mind is in good shape most of the time, but lately her short-term memory has been lapsing for hours at a time. When this happens, she can tell you about all the people she knew and places she had been to in her 20s and 30s, but she won't recall when she last ate, or what day it is, or what the person she's been talking to has just said.
She becomes young again, a new bride in her husband's house, unwavering in her love and her loyalty to him.
"I'm not here to see Agha," I tell her. "I've come to see you."
I realize she has confused me with one of the many callers who used to knock at her door day or night in Tehran in the years before her husband died. They never called ahead of time, or asked permission to visit, because they knew they would not be welcome: they were either selling something, asking for money, collecting a bribe or hoping to enlist her husband's support in some decades' old feud with a family member.
I kiss her on both cheeks and ask how she's doing.
"Why do you want to know?" she responds, still suspicious.
To my embarrassment, I feel relieved that Khanum hasn't recognized me yet, that she doesn't remember how long it has been since my last visit. So we sit -- Khanum in her wheelchair, I on the edge of her hospital bed -- for a while without speaking. The small television that hangs from the ceiling is tuned to one of the many Farsi-language satellite stations based in Los Angeles. Persian music blares from someone's radio next door.
It's only 6 p.m., but the December sky has been dark for nearly an hour.
"No self-respecting woman would be out on the street so late at night," Khanum chides me.
Ocean Towers is one of many establishments of its kind in Santa Monica -- a gray, seven-story box of a building with cement walls and a flat roof, situated, for practical reasons, within a 10-block radius of St. John's Hospital.
We're only 12 blocks away from Third Street Promenade with its trendy shops and overly aggressive street performers, but we might as well be in Tehran: There are three Iranian restaurants within walking distance of this building, three grocery stores, an Iranian kosher butcher shop. There is an Iranian bakery around the corner, two hair salons and an electronics store that promises -- in big, bold letters painted on the windows -- to crush any competitor's price anywhere.
On the third floor, all the residents are Iranian. So are some of the doctors and nurses, the nutrition experts and physical therapists. The arrangement seems to be as much by design as by coincidence, but it suits everyone just fine. Most of the residents here know each other from the years in Iran -- before the revolution forced them out of the country and sent them to a place where youth and beauty are revered above wisdom and tradition; where children are allowed to disobey their parents, or dishonor them by marrying out of their faith, or divorcing their spouses or entrust the care of their elders to strangers in bright purple uniforms who come and go every eight hours.
The visitors, too, know most of the patients. They come often, and bring Iranian food and magazines and candy. They arrive early and leave late, sometimes staying all day with a spouse or a parent because they can't bear the guilt of what they have done to their loved ones, because they remember what it was like back in Iran, how the elderly were cared for at home, how they used to look down on people in the West -- the way they tossed their parents away when they were of no more use, locked them up in nursing homes and forgot where they had put the key.
Dinner is at 5:30 p.m., and after that the latest hold-outs go home. The nurses' shift changes, and dusk settles onto the bare hallways and narrow beds with plastic mattresses. Then the ghosts come out.
"Do you miss Agha?" I ask Khanum.
When I first started writing, I sat with Khanum for hours at a time, asking questions. I was 21 and on leave of absence from law school. I had no idea what I was going to do with my life, but I knew some stories from Iran, and had begun to write them. They were scattered pieces of people's lives, bits of conversations I had overheard through the years, rumors that had been whispered too many times and taken on a reality that may or may not have been deserved.
Almost all the stories, however, were about my own family: we were -- still are -- unusually open, among Iranian Jews, about our past. Others are more guarded, more aware of the consequences of revealing themselves in a society built as much on appearances as on facts, a society where truth will, far from setting you free, most likely close a thousand doors and come back to haunt you for good. So I went to Khanum and others like her, asking questions they were often reluctant to answer, that they found pointless and annoying.
"What is it with you and these questions?" Khanum would ask instead of answering. She was in her 80s, living alone in an apartment in the flats of Beverly Hills. She took the bus from one end of town to the other, shopped in the Persian grocery stores, took long walks along Wilshire Boulvard and watched the well-dressed women who went into and out of Saks and I. Magnin.
"Don't you have something more useful to do than to ask about the past?"
I told her I wanted to write a book about the Jews of Iran.
"What for?" she asked. "Who wants to know?"
I didn't know the answer to this, but I kept writing anyway. I kept writing because I thought they were good stories, because I liked to see Khanum and the other Iranians her age as they had been before they came to America, before they became old, homebound and dependent on the kindness of others. Or maybe, too, I wanted to give permanence to lives that were fleeting and short, even if some do live to be 100, because I hoped to thwart the ravages of time, to save us all -- myself and the people I write about -- from fading too soon into the dark.
"What is it with you and these stories?" she asks. "Don't you know it's all in the past, we've all moved on, covered up our scars and counted our losses and besides, what makes you think anyone out there will want to read your book? Who died and gave you permission to make public lives that have been lived in private, to make 300 pages out of 300 years?"
She's still looking at me when I see a shadow in her eyes. She's deep in thought, nodding her head as if in response to some bad news she has just received.
"Do you miss Agha?" I ask again.
She nods softly and looks down.
"He died, you know," she says, and her voice is naked and soft, devoid of its earlier combativeness.
"I know," I tell her.
I know because I've asked, because I've written the story already, made myself a living out of the lives of others and, in my own way, abandoned the characters to the dusk of a December afternoon in a place haunted by young ghosts who strut the halls, confident and unafraid and still untouched, all these years later, by the knowledge of what awaits them in old age.
"It's a shame," Khanum whispers -- resigned but devastated. She looks suddenly heartbroken, as if she has learned of her husband's passing for the first time, read the story all the way through and discovered loss at the end.
"A great, big shame."
Gina B. Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her new novel, "Caspian Rain," will be published this fall. Starting with this issue, Gina Nahai's column will appear monthly in The Journal.