I sat beside my mother's hospital bed on the bone marrow unit, wrapped like a chrysalis in two bright yellow, cotton hospital gowns, one covering my front, the other covering my back; skin-colored latex gloves; a white paper face mask blocking my nose and mouth. All to protect Mom from an invisible army of infectious agents that could vanquish her in one dreaded invasion.
I had been Mom's bone marrow donor, but the desperate operation, given a 10 percent chance of curing her leukemia, had been a dismal failure. During these grim hospital visits, when Mom was not in pain from the chemo scourge, she would instruct me on how to distribute her most precious possessions.
"I want you to have my red fox" she commanded. My uncle Louie had been a furrier; as a child, I loved to visit his studio in lower Manhattan and leave with scraps of mink that I thought of as my little pets. My working mother, raised on the Lower East Side of New York, had a collection of mink, fox, Persian lamb and rabbit that must have rivaled that of Princess Grace. The red fox was a magnificent calf-length coat with a shawl collar and blazing, blondish red pelts.
Mom looked so fabulous in her red fox that, like other foxes, it had become a creature of legend: On one special anniversary celebration, she and my dad splurged on dinner at the Russian Tea Room, where an awestruck woman approached their table and asked my mother, in astonishment "Who are you?"
"Oh, never mind who I am. Just enjoy your dinner," Mom had answered, without missing a beat.
I carted around this oversized fur that, unlike my glamorous red-haired mother, I could never figure out how or when to wear. It accompanied me from home to home in a large plastic garment bag. Too cheap to send it out for cold storage in the spring, I kept it in closets and basements for 18 years.
I'm getting ready to move again, so I've been sorting through my possessions. When it comes to the Limoges china, original oil paintings, figurative clay sculptures, glass elephants and Lenox candy dishes—all inherited from Mom—I employ the Jewish version of the Marie Kondo method: I hold each item in my hands and ask myself whether it sparks guilt. If so, it goes in the huge and permanent pile of things to keep.
In the basement of my townhouse, I carefully remove the once-glorious fox from its plastic garment bag; its fur flies towards me like angry, reproachful arrows. I spot moth holes in its monogrammed lining. I feel guilt spread slowly throughout my cells.
In Judaic numerology, 18 is the number associated with the word "chai" which means "life." After 18 years, I want to know if there is any life left in the neglected red fox that I had never wanted. I find out, in a crude encounter, that its previously charmed life is unmistakably over.
I bring "Foxie" to a furrier on Girard Avenue and ask him what I can do with her. A fur collar? Mitten toppers? Slippers? A rug, perhaps?
This furrier cum funeral director eyes me suspiciously as I roll up the bottom of the plastic bag and, taking stock of the dried and moth-eaten pelts, says brusquely:
"Don't open that in here. It's worthless, and if anyone tells you any different, they're just trying to steal your money."
My face reddens, shame making a pernicious advance. I carry Foxie back out to the car, lay her carefully across the backseat.
I know Foxie deserves a proper send-off. I wonder what ritual would pay fitting tribute to this once lively aggregation of hides, that could turn Cinderella into a princess, within which I could never find comfort. I want Foxie to go out in a flamboyant way, that honors the best moments of her life. Maybe I'll wear her dancing in a second line in New Orleans, my hips swaying to trumpets and trombones, or leave her, as a sacrifice, at the doorstep of the Russian Tea Room.
I'm sorry, Foxie. I'm sorry, Mom. I tried—but I couldn't save either of you.