Nina Youkelson

I met Nina shortly after i moved into Coleridge Park in August, 2017 and we spoke a few times, but the friendship didn’t really get going until the following October, when she ratcheted it up.

See, my Epiphyllum Anguliger had three big flower buds that were about to open, and i decided that rather than just letting it put on its great show and perfume the room for me alone, i’d put it out on the patio table in the late afternoon so that everybody could watch the bud open as darkness fell and then see it go limp and close the next morning. A one-night show.Several people thanked me for giving them the chance to see this exotic performance, but Nina sent me a lovely note, so kind that it resided on my refrigerator door for months. So i started visiting her and we hit it off in spite of a vast cultural gulf. Let’s face it, a redneck west Texas oil camp kid descended from folks who immigrated to Texas in the early nineteenth century to seek their fortune or, in some cases, to outrun a posse, should have precious little in common with a New York Jew whose parents had immigrated to this country from Russia to escape the pogrom.

Well, except that i did graduate from high school in Odessa. No no, the Odessa in west Texas rather than Одеса, the Ukrainian port on the Black Sea.

Anyhow, we discovered mutual friends like Liz Crane, the manager of the Noe Valley Farmers’ market whose kids had gone to the legendary nursery school that Nina ran for many years. And communalities like our both having undergraduate degrees in English and being avid readers.

Consequently, we could discuss books for hours and recommend favorites to each other, a great mutual pleasure since neither of us had had enough opportunity for that in recent times. I grew to treasure her friendship, and it must have been obvious to everyone in the building that i doted on her.

For a woman five years older than i, she was doing quite well until last summer when she turned up with a blood clot on the brain that required emergency surgery. But she bounced back from that quite well and seemed to have no lasting damage except that even though she could see and speak just fine, she could no longer read. Somehow the letters just didn’t form themselves into words.

I was sitting in her living room bewailing this awful situation for a woman who loved reading, and then i said, “Why don’t i read something to you?” Her response was to grab a book off her table and hand it to me. My heart leaped because it was Keith Gessen’s A Terrible Country, and i’d recently read a review of it that made me want to read it. Nina and i were both big fans of Keith’s older sister, Masha’s articles in The New Yorker, to which we were of course both subscribers. Since i had the book in my hand, i started reading it to her immediately.

I can read with feeling rather than in a flat monotone, and Gessen thoughtfully broke the novel into short chapters, just the right size for serialization, so there was only one problem in the reading. I had to slow to a crawl when reading the Russian names of people and places, which were numerous since the novel is set in contemporary Moscow. I couldn’t fake it because while Nina’s parents didn’t teach her Russian, she was quite familiar with the sound of it from overhearing the adults speaking their secret language. Still, i got through it and we both loved it. Ahh, the companionship.

Alas, shortly after we finished it, she fractured her 8th thoracic vertebra. I’d fractured my 11th last summer and reassured her that even though it would be a very unpleasant existence for a couple of months, the pain would gradually stop as the fracture graaaadually healed. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I was in a good deal of pain at first, but mere hydrocodone was sufficient to cut it down to a tolerable level, and then after a week, i needed it only to get to sleep at night. And then after a month i didn’t need it at all.

Nina, alas, was in great pain from the beginning, and i was outraged that the doctors way too gradually gave her stronger and stronger pain meds and larger and larger doses. She didn’t get relief until finally she was on increased levels of morphine. Ohhh, did i ever have it easy.

Worse yet, she also had to deal with the loss of her primary caregiver, her son Adam who, just as she really needed him, had a relapse with a chronic medical condition and had to go back into a treatment facility.

All last winter she bounced between hospital and rehab. She’d get better and be sent to rehab, but then rehab would send her back to the hospital. Finally, she grew weaker and weaker until she cut off visitation and shortly after that went to the hospice where she died in just a few days on 7 April 2019.

I’m still crushed. And faced with the bizarre spectacle of feeling sorry for myself over losing her.

Here she is, perfectly captured last fall when her hair was growing back from the brain surgery. Alas, I didn’t take the photo. It was given me by Linda Rodriguey.

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