Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A Truer and More Terrible Place

The Way to the Cats by Yehoshua Kenaz

What does it feel like to be old and helpless? What does it feel like to be old, enfeebled, and alone? While surely I have caught a glimpse of it, now and then, felt a twinge of it, if only in the seditious aching of muscles and joints, it remains hard if not impossible for me to imagine a day when my life is no longer my own.

If death is the most universal human truth, then aging—the path to get there—runs a close and certain second. Again and again my mother-in-law has wrung from my wife and me the solemn promise that we will never commit her to a nursing home, no matter what, that if one day we find her collapsed in her house we will make no effort to revive her but turn swiftly on our heels and close the door behind us. Terrible as this may sound, the specter of the nursing home looms just this largely, just this darkly, in the minds of so many elderly people today—and for good reason, as the statistics alone are grim. Once removed from familiar surroundings, once stripped of their autonomy (however impoverished it may seem or be), elderly people often lose the will to live—and quickly. Here in the U.S. the first-year morality rate of men and women moving into skilled nursing facilities is as high as 50 to 60%. In the first six months the rate is even higher.*


Kenaz’s novel The Way to the Cats, tells a story of “the isolation, pain, and terror of the aged with bold objectivity,” writes Philip Roth, “neither minimizing nor exaggerating the everyday smallness, even the banality, of a human life soon to be extinguished.” The novel’s main character, the vain and finical retired French teacher, Yolanda Moscowitz, is haunted by her own aging and helplessness, an experience exasperated, suppurated suddenly, in the Tel Aviv nursing home where she is recuperating from a fall, when a friend and fellow patient, the artist, Lazar Kagan, shows her the sketch he has done of her:

He wheeled his chair toward her, and when he was close, he turned the page with the drawing to face her. What she saw resembled a spider’s web. An infinity of fine and thick threads stretching lengthways and sideways and crosswise, straight threads and humped ones, wavy and rounded, creating in their density, as on a map, hollows and peaks, heights and slopes, and among them allusions to the features of a face, blank, empty slits of eyes, eyebrows like black bruises, the shadow of a nose and two pits of nostrils, shriveled lips, the ruins surviving a disaster, shadows gradually being eaten away and obliterated with the death of the flesh.

For all his good intentions, it is for Mrs. Moscowitz a glimpse of herself, a presentiment, she simply cannot shake:

On her way to bed, Mrs. Moscowitz went into the bathroom. In the mirror she saw the strange woman who had begun to invade her thoughts and memories, on her face a close network of fine deep wrinkles, spun out like innumerable spiders’ webs. The face of the woman in the mirror was very strange. It was swollen and trembling with effort, as if the woman wanted to say something to her but was unable to do so…

Later, in speaking to the artist himself, she despairs:

“Lately, when I look in the mirror, I see that woman with those hairs that are falling on each other, and that face, with the wrinkles. Like you made her in that picture. You know her. Not me. And she isn’t me. She’s not normal. And little by little she’s sending her thoughts into my head, what she remembers that once happened to her. And it’s nothing to do from my life. It isn’t Moscowitz Yolanda, believe me! It’s something else. I’m so ashamed…”

Yet the twist to this remarkable novel, what makes it so heartbreaking, so poignant, is the discovery that Mrs. Moscowitz had been so lonely in her existence as an elderly woman on her own in the city that, for all the abuse she suffers on the crowded ward, all the pettiness and rivalry, all the screams of terror and cries for help, she is actually reluctant to go home. 

Yehoshua Kenaz is the author of several novels and story collections. He was born in Israel in 1937 and now lives in Tel Aviv.


Peter Adam Nash

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