My Old Neighborhood

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Mrs. Jo Yo was a very old lady with a small and terrible white dog, named Snowflake. The dog seemed to be half Lhasa apso, half pit bull, and could spring into the air as if released from a slingshot. If he didn’t actually bite you, it wasn’t because he didn’t want to.

When my first husband Tony and I moved into the neighborhood, Mrs. Yo and he went to war about where we could park our car. She felt her side of the street was hers. Tony maintained it belonged to the public at large. This battle was conducted entirely via notes stuck under windshield-wipers; her spidery right-leaning edicts on flowered notepaper, his balloony, back-slanting, unpunctuated diatribes on torn envelopes.

The way it was going, I thought they might end up shooting each other or at least take each other to court. But amazingly they came to a complex agreement, about exactly where the car would be placed, during what hours, and under which weather conditions, that satisfied them both. In fact, a few years later, I saw Tony lift a big cardboard box out of Mrs. Yo’s trunk and take it into her house as she tottered along at his side.

Not long after that, I helped Tony, who was then in the last stages of his long struggle with AIDS, end his life. Better treatments for AIDS were about a half year away, but we didn’t know that then, and nobody was giving Tony six months. Though his doctor and favorite nurse expressed sympathy with his desire to put a graceful, immediate end to the danse macabre, there was nothing either could do to help without endangering themselves. After weeks of arguments and difficulties (a pharmacist who caught wind of the plan actually called the authorities after I brought in a prescription for sedatives), Tony discharged himself from the hospital and came home to die on his own terms, in his own bed—the bed our son Vince had been born in on Tony’s birthday four years earlier. It almost felt like a victory. It was the first choice he had made about his fate in quite some time.

Though the nature of Tony’s death was far from a secret and was exactly the kind of thing one’s neighbors would begin discussing in whispered backyard conversations the minute the funeral home van pulled away, I nevertheless was surprised when, four years later, I had a series of strange messages on my answering machine. Marion, said a scratchy, ancient voice. This is Jo Yo. Come over and see me. I have to talk to you about something.

I had never spoken to Mrs. Yo, never been in her house, and couldn’t imagine what she wanted. Though I was a little afraid to find out, I crossed the street and rang her bell. Through the glass beside the door, I could see Snowflake launch himself into the air, yipping maniacally.

The scratchy voice emerged from the intercom. Is it Marion?


Let yourself in with key under the planter.

Snowflake went mad as I entered the house, where I found Mrs. Yo in her bedroom, immobile, frail, and emaciated beyond belief. Her collarbone looked like a hanger on which her body was draped like wrinkled laundry. She motioned me to sit down on the edge of her quilted, pink satin bedspread. I want you to help me the way you helped Tony, she said.

There weren’t too many things she could mean by this. I knew she didn’t want me to put her through beauty school, keep plenty of sugar in the house for her coffee, make holiday plans with her mother, or bear her children.

In what remained of her voice, she told me that she could no longer get out of bed, her son was living in England, and they were about to move her to a nursing home. With startling ferocity, she said she did not want to go. She wanted to die in her own bed. She had asked her doctor and her relatives to help her—no one would.

I was completely sympathetic to her situation, but as I told her, we really didn’t know each other well enough. I was pretty sure I’d be charged with murder if I held the plastic grocery bag she proffered over her head. I did offer to help Snowflake, if she liked. I also proposed to read aloud to her or get her a drink from the kitchen, but she rolled her eyes in frustration and sent me home.

Not long after, I saw Mrs. Yo driven away by a young man in a Buick; across the street I was packing boxes myself. She probably went to the institution she dreaded, I went to Pennsylvania, and I don’t know what happened to her dog. Maybe they helped him at the SPCA. Although I did offer my services to my second husband from time to time—perhaps it is for the best we are now divorced—no one has asked me since to assist in their suicide. This is a good thing, because I’d like to keep my amateur status. Which, as I explained to my kids during the last Olympics, is when you do something only for love.

This essay is excerpted from Above Us Only Sky (Seal, 2005.)

Marion Winik

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  1. love this love the line about her collarbone looking like a hanger for her skin something like that. very moving and real. also liked what you wrote in the sun. i wish ohi wish i would write like you or like myself if i could ever let my true self out thank u i used to be born in baltimore now i’m born where i live in oakland ellen

  2. You’re breaking your own rules again by republishing previously published material. I thought it was familiar. But- it was a joy to be reacquainted with Mrs. Yo & Snowflake. Thank you. gary

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