If There’s Anything We Can Do – Joan Larkin

It seemed to Sylvia that Jake had never left, even though she’d seen how waxy and still he looked resting on the flat pillow, not like Jake at all.

She knew––of course she knew!––that the gaunt stranger who’d replaced Jake had been gently zippered into a maroon bag and wheeled out of the apartment. Workers from the NYU medical school had come right away. The competent hospice nurse, who knew all about Jake’s decision to donate his body, made the phone call herself, after saying “He’s gone, Mrs. Mirsky” in the practiced, neutral voice she used for instructing relatives of the newly dead. Still, Sylvia felt that some important fact was missing from the official story. She kept this thought to herself––whom could she tell?

Her son Sam and his pregnant wife had flown back to Toronto right after the memorial service. This new Sam was a puzzle. All those years, academic probation, stern talks, understanding talks, even family therapy, had had no impact on Sam’s sullen refusal to live up to his potential, as those in authority called it. But when Lynne entered the picture, Sam had stopped smoking pot and quit dealing it. He’d found an entry-level job in publishing and was talking about going back to school. The sober tie and slightly rumpled jacket must be Lynne’s doing, Sylvia thought, watching Sam at the lectern. He spoke about his father in a way that made people laugh and nod. At one point his voice broke. You could see he was holding back tears, and that struck just the right note.

The phrase turned out all right came to Sylvia, chagrined that Lynne had succeeded where she and Jake had failed. But it was hard to resent Lynne, who had a smile for Sylvia whenever the couple Skyped from Toronto. Skyping every other Saturday was probably Lynne’s idea too, though it was Sam who made the calls and told his mother where to scroll and click when the picture got mixed up and her face, rather than his, filled her computer screen.

“You should get an iPhone, Ma,” Sam said. “Then we could FaceTime. That would be easier for you.”

Sylvia didn’t answer. Jake can do it, she thought, but stopped herself before saying it aloud.

She hadn’t wept at the service. She thanked everyone who had come to the historic Friends meeting house in Flushing. Thankfully, no one who went up to the lectern mentioned God or the afterlife. Herb Close had worked with Jake in the early days when they wrote for the trade journals, Furniture World and the jewelry magazine whose name Sylvia always forgot. Herb, paunchy and bald, nowhere near as handsome as Jake, told the sparse crowd how he and Jake had drunk together at The Lion’s Head and how Jake could be very witty after only a few scotches. Herb concluded his rambling remarks by claiming to have been the one to introduce Jake to an attractive vocal student who needed an accompanist. Jake (Herb twinkled) had promptly fallen in love with the lovely young soprano, whose name was Syl. A few heads turned towards Sylvia, who smiled faintly in her pew.

A tall, sternly handsome woman who had served with Jake on a committee to help survivors of the earthquake in Haiti praised what she called Jake’s deep commitment to social justice, referring to him as “Jacob.” Sylvia studied the polka dots on the woman’s dress and tried to place her. Perhaps they’d met in the days before Parkinson’s had made traveling from the Bronx to Flushing for first-day services too much for Sylvia. Jake kept going without her, most Sundays, and threw himself into relief work that meant staying late for committee meetings. It seemed to Sylvia that he’d stopped looking for another job, but she wasn’t going to upset him by bringing it up. She still shrank from Jake’s anger and, worse, the hurt underneath it.

The woman in the polka-dot dress left after the memorial. Others stayed for a glass of Prosecco and ate the quiche Lorraine and strawberries, then disappeared onto Northern Boulevard after gravely shaking Sylvia’s hand and saying, “If there’s anything we can do…”

The ordeal of the service over, Sylvia felt that Jake could be back at any time. His dark topcoat still hung in the closet. The suit he wore to job interviews was ready, sheathed in its plastic dry-cleaning bag, and his neckties waited expectantly on their pegs. Sylvia left the untidy pile of papers undisturbed on the desk, next to Jake’s jar of loose change. The sickroom smell she’d grown accustomed to during his last long months in the bedroom––the combination of sweat, excrement, and something sweet and sharp she couldn’t name––still came back at unexpected moments. It was familiar now, reassuring, and she forgot that it had once repelled her.


The Steinway “small grand” took up so much space in the living room that Sylvia often bumped into it, shuffling along with her walker. One day a home health aide, the short, stout one with penciled-on eyebrows, shocked her by saying abruptly, “You should get rid of that piano, Mrs. Mirsky. Sell it. You can’t play, can you?”

“It’s my husband’s piano.”

The aide’s tongue darted out to wet her lips. “You could still get something for it.”

The piano had come with them when Jake and Sylvia moved from Prospect Heights to the brick low-rise on Waring Avenue, back when moving to the Bronx was going to solve their financial problems. For a time, Jake filled the apartment with his playing. Sylvia got used to hearing the tense, restless notes of Beethoven’s Waldstein sonata. But just when it seemed to her that Jake was close to mastering its unexpected shifts, Jake stopped playing. And there were no repeats of the night he’d opened the Rodgers and Hart songbook and teased her into singing “I’ll Take Manhattan” and “It Never Entered My Mind.” She could still sing then.


Sylvia sat on the edge of the bed staring down at her left foot. She’d succeeded with the right foot, thrusting it under her thick sandal straps and pulling them taut until the Velcro teeth interlocked. But her left foot was heavy and awkward, an alien thing that had replaced the slim foot that used to be there. Studying it, she could see, even without her glasses, how much puffier it looked than it had yesterday. This time it wasn’t the Parkinson’s, she reflected––it was the arthritis that had first reared its head two years ago when she and Jake used the little windfall from her sister’s will for a trip to Prague. Sylvia winced, remembering the pain of putting her foot down on the cobblestones and the way Jake’s mouth had tightened when they’d had to take a taxi so as not to miss the concert.

They sat close to the stage of the opulently decorated Mirror Chapel. Jake, scanning the program notes, whispered to Sylvia that Mozart had once improvised on the chapel’s pipe organ, during a visit to Prague not long after he wrote the quartet they were about to hear. Sylvia forced her eyes open and gazed at the gilded stuccos and Baroque ceiling mirrors. She quietly let out a long breath, relieved to be resting her feet on the marble floor.

Applause rippled around her as the players walked onstage. As they tuned their instruments, Sylvia saw that the violist, whose black tuxedo trousers and cropped hair made her appear identical to the other three, was actually a woman. Sylvia leaned in to listen, and the D minor quartet began with a sound like a sigh.


Trying to avoid colliding with the Steinway again, Sylvia bumped into the coffee table with her walker. The room wasn’t big enough for all the furniture she and Jake had brought from their house, especially now that she needed the walker all the time.

“Sit down, Mrs. Mirsky, before you hurt yourself.”

Sylvia obeyed, half sitting, half falling into the wing chair. The worn cushion had never had much give to it, and Sylvia glanced toward the corduroy sofa, wondering if she could bring herself to get up and move. She raised herself a few inches and somehow knocked the aluminum walker over on its side. Orena set it upright again with a grim look, and Sylvia subsided back into the wing chair.

In front of her on the cluttered coffee table was the Cymbidium orchid. She stared. What had happened to it? When she’d last looked, it had had a large, creamy blossom, edged blood-red, like the flounce on a flamenco dancer’s flared skirt, and was spattered with drops of the same dark color. Above the stem rising from thick oval leaves, the flower had been like an open mouth, extravagantly sure of itself, a mouth that Sylvia had felt was about to speak to her. When had it started to shrivel and droop? It looked—but Sylvia was unwilling to think it––like a dead thing.

“What happened? It was doing so well.”

Orena followed Sylvia’s gaze and saw that Sylvia was referring to the orchid. Orena’s face wore her usual look of disapproval, her light eyes knowing, her eyebrows raised. Though they were not actually eyebrows, Sylvia reminded herself, unable to take her eyes from the arched lines Orena had drawn on bald skin. Whatever had once been there she’d plucked or shaved to smooth blankness.

“You don’t water it,” Orena accused. “Don’t you know how to take care of a plant?”

“But orchids,” Sylvia said mildly. “You’re not supposed to give them too much.” She remembered Lynne saying, “All it’s going to need is an ice cube every few weeks.”

“Imagine that,” Sylvia had murmured.

“Plants need water,” Orena said firmly.

Before Sylvia knew it, Orena had filled a glass at the kitchen sink and was already pouring water onto the orchid. She emptied the glass into the soil, and Sylvia watched, fascinated, as water began seeping out of the bottom of the clay pot, filling the saucer under it, threatening to spill over onto the dusty table.

“Not a drop remaining,” Sylvia said as if to herself. “Not a drop.”

Orena put the glass down amid the dust and clutter. Sylvia envisioned a wet circle forming under it onto the wood finish. Could Orena be right, she wondered, and tried to imagine the orchid coming to life again.

Sylvia slumped in the chair, looking down at her long yellowish toenails. Some had even begun to curl over her toes, but though she knew that nail-clipping was one of the tasks the home health aides were meant to perform, she couldn’t bring herself to mention it. She shuddered involuntarily, recalling Orena’s brusque, unpleasant touch.

The aide had arrived late this morning, complaining as she walked though the door about the packed 2 train to Pelham Parkway. Sylvia had lain in bed until almost 9:00, torn between her need to lessen the pressure on her bladder and her fear of falling if she got out of bed without help. She’d been relieved to hear Orena’s key turn in the lock. It had been Orena’s idea to copy the key, and though Sylvia had been reluctant at first––it was against agency rules––she’d agreed that it would be safer if Orena were there when she got out of bed.

Now Orena sat opposite Sylvia, turning the pages of a magazine. As usual, she was wearing what Sylvia supposed were medical scrubs, though the polyester smock had a brown and purple pattern that looked like owls or dolls’ heads.

“Did you think about what I told you?” Orena said.

“What do you mean?”

Orena thrust her chin in the direction of the Steinway. She smoothed some strands of hair that had escaped her pony tail. “The piano––you should sell it.”

Numbly, Sylvia repeated what she’d said the first time. “It’s my husband’s.”

“He passed, though, right? Who’s gonna play it? You’re not gonna play it.” She didn’t say “Parkinson’s only gets worse,” but the unspoken threat hung in the air like a toxic cloud.

“No,” Sylvia said. “No.”

Orena made a scornful sound at the back of her throat. Her eyes stared coldly until Sylvia lowered her gaze.  One long nail curled downward over her second toe, almost touching the terrycloth scuff.

“I’m going back to Florida,” Orena said. Thursday’s my last day. You better call the office, make sure they send someone.  It’s a mess over there. Those girls don’ know what they’re doing.”

Sylvia looked up in confusion. “Florida?”

“I’m still state certified. I won’t go back to Miami, though. Too many Jews.” Orena shook her head in disgust.


Sylvia’s appointment with the neurologist was over in minutes, after more than an hour in the waiting room––really just a hallway with plastic seats and a loud TV monitor no one was looking at. Sylvia had turned her face away from the lurid image of red sauce swallowing glistening lumps of something. What was the name of that dish?

“We’ll see you in six months for the next follow-up, Mrs. Mirsky.” Dr. Ehrlich raised her eyes from her laptop. “You can set a date for the appointment in reception on your way out.”

“Access-A-Ride is already out there,” Orena said, steering Sylvia into the elevator with a forceful grip on her shoulder.

It was 4:30 when Orena pushed the apartment door open and followed Sylvia inside. “You better lie down,” she said. “You’re tired.”

Still wearing her coat, Orena deposited a tuna sandwich and a cup half full of milk on the nightstand. “You won’t have to get out of bed to have your supper,” she said. “Just be careful with the cup.” She raised her coat collar so that it stood up, framing her short neck. “All right, Mrs. Mirsky. You be good now.”

Sylvia woke at midnight in the silent apartment, still holding the remote Orena had placed in her hand. She fell back to sleep feeling the smooth plastic against her palm.

In the morning, she managed to walk to the kitchen barefoot and push the uneaten sandwich through the swing lid of the trash can. Good, she said to herself. It was a while after that before she noticed the empty space where the piano had stood.


Tina brought her inflatable mattress and stowed it in the bedroom closet to use on the nights she was on. She’d always been a light sleeper but didn’t want to take any chances. It was better to sleep in the bedroom near Sylvia, just in case. She’d brought the pink Himalayan salt lamp, too––it made a good night light. “She needs it more than we do,” she told her boyfriend, knowing Joey wouldn’t object. He’d have done the same thing.

What woke Tina this time was Sylvia’s voice faintly repeating “Help…help…help….”

Tina sat up and saw the strain in Sylvia’s jaw. “What do you need help with, Sylvia?”

“The trees are in the way.  I need…push them out of the way. Jake is….”

Tina nodded. “Is Jake there?”

Sylvia’s worry lines deepened. “Trees…in the way.”

“Okay,” Tina said easily. She knelt on the bed, facing forward, and held her palms up as Sylvia was doing. Together, the two women pushed against the air.

After a while, Sylvia’s face relaxed. She let her hands drop.

“Is it all right now?”

Sylvia sighed and lay back on the pillow. “Jake”––her lips soundlessly formed the name. Tina saw the little smile and smiled back. She watched until Sylvia’s breathing slowed as she drifted to sleep.


Joan Larkin has published five poetry collections, including Blue Hanuman and My Body: New and Selected Poems (Hanging Loose Press). Her honors include the Lambda, NEA, and Shelley Memorial awards. She has been a lifelong teacher.

2 thoughts on “If There’s Anything We Can Do – Joan Larkin

  1. Lisa Martin

    You had me all the way through, Joan Larkin. Sylvia, and the iffy care and bigoted aide she is dealing with, is so sadly typical of what is out there with elder care. You bring her to life even as her story travels swiftly toward a final sleep.


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