The modern light-filled entrance on First Avenue was impressive. I pulled hard on the smooth silver bar and the large glass door opened so easily it threw me off balance. Luckily I righted myself and entered Belleview hospital on my feet.
When I was a kid Bellevue was known as a decrepit hospital, so the new entrance looked to me like a high priced facelift on the aging brick complex that eats up three New York City blocks between 26th and 29th streets in Manhattan.
All sorts of elderly people, young parents with small children, heavy slow movers and hyper young men in polyester business suits were flowing in and out of the many glass doors along with me. A big ramp that curved around fed us all into the sprawling lobby that seemed to have a cafeteria of some kind, maybe it was a café, at the far end and otherwise was a large empty space with hallways and elevators funneling off of it to different areas of the hospital. There were color-coded letters to guide you, and by looking at a large directory stationed in the center of the floor I determined I needed to follow the E in a green circle for what I was after: The Department of Personal Property.
I followed the green circle E signs, one after the next, through large rooms and odd passageways far less impressive than the renovated entrance. Eventually they led me to a long dingy hallway at the end of which was a window with three people stationed behind it like a post office or bank. Over each window was a sign. Two of them read “Metro Cards” and one said “Personal Property.”
There was a rope line with stanchions but no one waiting except for a woman with a stroller and two children, who didn’t look as if she was ready. She was getting something out of her purse for the toddler so I stepped around her to stand at the front of the line.
The older black woman beneath the Personal Property window said, “Can I help you?”
I was armed with a piece of paper that had taken three days of relentless pursuit to obtain. I pulled it out and said, “I am here to pick up my uncle’s belongings.”
My uncle is eighty-three years old, just a year older than my mother would be. If she were still alive, she would have been standing at the window instead of me. When her brother ended up in the ICU, I had flown in from California to try and sort out what might be the end of his life.
The letter in my hand was my golden ticket. It consisted of just a few typed lines with a long crooked pen mark across half of it, which was my uncle’s recent attempt at a signature.
When I first arrived in NY, I went the hospital to see my uncle and found his condition was poor. He couldn’t talk and was barely awake. Two weeks earlier he had fallen in his apartment, been taken to the hospital by ambulance, and been found to have pneumonia. He was recovering from that at a rehab center/nursing home when he had a heart attack and was resuscitated. Now he had a feeding tube up his nose, a ventilator attached through a trach in his throat, and many other tubes and monitors I couldn’t understand.
I stayed with my Dad and stepmother in Brooklyn, but I was determined to keep them out of it. I knew they felt responsible but at ninety-one and eighty-three, they really are too old to be taking care of anyone but themselves. After talking with them we decided my objective was simply to get into his apartment, find his will and hopefully his Living Will.
I went to my uncle’s building determined to talk my way in. I had no idea his little apartment was part of a huge coop complex that is corporate owned and operated, and that the rules in place are steel door tight. No one gets in. The head of security made it clear I would need Power of Attorney, which no one has for my uncle, or guardianship, which requires a court date. I begged her to consider my situation: A loyal homeowner was in the ICU and needed his healthcare documents. We didn’t know of anyone who had keys to his place. Finally she agreed that a notarized letter from him, granting me permission, would do.
Meanwhile it occurred to me that my uncle might have had his keys with him when the ambulance took him to the hospital. How else would they have locked the door? I guess someone from the building could have been there, like a security guard, but I had a feeling that since he was taken to the hospital after a fall, and not something more dramatic, that he would have grabbed his wallet and his keys.
The nurses I asked at Lenox Hill hospital said his chart stated that he arrived with nothing. I had to verify that fact by tracking down the security department and they confirmed that there was nothing of his in their possession. I spent the rest of my second day in NY calling the other three hospitals, in reverse order of his arrival to each of them, trying to find his wallet and keys. It took one entire day to negotiate each institution’s particular bureaucracy, find the right department, the right person to talk to, and leave messages for people who never called back. I was a pit bull going after the information by being obnoxious and persistent, until I finally reached the right people. Of the four hospitals I had to call, Bellevue’s phone system was the worst. The computer would hang up on me every time I tried to get to the Personal Property Department. Eventually I got around the problem by insisting people transfer me directly and got to the right person and her answer was music to my ears. “Yes, we have his belongings.”
“Hallelujah!” I said on the other end.
“But I can’t just give them to you. You’re going to need a notarized letter granting you permission to pick up his things before you come down here.”
“Can you tell me what you have?”
“Getting a letter from him is going to be very difficult. I don’t want to spend a day doing that to find out all you have is some clothing.”
“It’s not clothes,” she said. “It’s valuables. But that’s all I got to say.”
As soon as she said valuables I felt a blooming in my chest, a rush of relief. Valuables. It had to be his wallet and his keys.
My uncle’s life was a mystery to me at that point. He lives, or lived, a very quiet and solitary existence in his one bedroom coop in Chelsea. All I knew was that when I visited him a few months ago, I asked if he had a will and he said yes.
My uncle never had children and outlived his wife by forty years, so his list of living relatives is short. It’s just his half-sister, my Dad, and my three siblings. None of us are close to him. None of us ever spoke to him regularly. He was agreeable, always happy and never complained. We worried as he aged and developed diabetes and gained weight, but that was about all we did.
The next morning I Googled mobile notary public and up popped Christopher Santucci, on the upper west side. I called and he agreed to meet me at the hospital. I told him my uncle couldn’t talk and didn’t have any identification with him. He said it was fine, that he just needed my uncle to make an x on the paper, and two nurses who could identify him. We made plans to meet that afternoon.
When I got to the ICU my uncle was better, more awake than the day before, but still sedated. I wasn’t sure he would be able to sign something. I tried talking to him, explaining what I was trying to do without making him anxious or stressed. He agreed to give me permission to get his belongings from Bellevue and to go to his apartment. But I didn’t think he would be able to stay awake to sign his x. I canceled the notary, hoping my uncle would be better the next day.
In the morning I went uptown early and was pleased to find my uncle more awake. I called the notary who said he had other appointments but would try to make it. I called another mobile notary service as a back up and they said something that scared me. “We don’t do that. If your uncle can’t speak we can’t notarize anything for him. It’s a liability issue.”
I had a terrible sinking feeling. All the obstacles I had overcome meant nothing if I couldn’t get the letters signed. Suddenly defeat seemed sure. My aunt had said, “They’re never going to let you into his apartment,” and I had bristled at her pessimism. But maybe she was right. Maybe this was impossible. I could hear my stepmother telling everyone how I had tried, “bless her heart,” but failed to achieve anything. I could hear myself on the plane ride home, wondering what I was thinking.
But I had too much momentum and too much at stake to give up. I called Christopher back and he said he could come at 11.
I looked at my uncle and he smiled his big bright smile. He was looking pretty good despite the stubble getting long on his chin, and all the tubes and machines pumping everything in and out of him.
I explained the two letters again: One for the hospital and one for the building. I asked if he wanted to practice signing his name, but he shook his head no.
Christopher arrived and I pulled out my two typed up letters and walked over to the bed.
“I need you to sing here okay?”
I put the pen in my uncle’s hand but he couldn’t hold onto it. He was frustrated. I felt victory slipping away again. Christopher said all he needed was an X but what if he couldn’t do that? He grimaced and gripped the pen and scrawled his crooked line like it was the declaration of independence. It seemed to have taken all his strength and after both letters were signed, he collapsed back into his pillows.
Christopher asked two nurses to witness and confirm his identity. One had no problem doing it but the second nurse wasn’t sure. She was worried about liability issues, but Christopher had a way about him. He put her at ease. “It’s nothing sweetheart,” he said, “You’re just saying you know who he is, all right?”
And she signed.
So when I slid my driver’s license and the letter for Bellevue under the glass partition it was with great satisfaction and trepidation. At the hospital, I noticed a tan line where a watch should have been on my uncle’s wrist, and it occurred to me that the “valuables” might just be his watch and some cash from his pocket.
The woman took the letter and my ID and told me to have a seat. I sat next to a large man who needed my help when it was time for him to stand. He was big and it took all my strength to get him up. I stood holding him until he was steady on his feet.
The line behind the rope and the stanchions had grown to ten people in just a few moments. I felt incredibly lucky to have gotten there when I did and lucky to have found Christopher, the best notary in Manhattan.
When she came back the woman had a manila envelope with my uncle’s name printed across the front. My heart started pounding. She opened the envelope and pulled out an inventory list, and then a plastic zip lock bag. I practically fainted. It was his wallet and his keys.
I soared out of the gargantuan building and made my way back across town to his apartment. I knew he would be so happy to have those two things back. I knew they would make him feel a sense of security, which he needed and deserved. And I knew they would get me into his apartment and I would find his will and we would all rest easier. I stopped in a little Japanese restaurant to celebrate my success. As I slurped miso soup I realized I had never felt more gratified before. There was something about helping someone else, but also how hard it had seemed, how bad the odds, that it made winning incredible. I’ve never played on a team but this was what I imagined winning a big game might feel like. I had set a goal, and I had achieved it, and that is the key to success.