In the headline above, I’ve intentionally left out Miss Gladys’s family name. No matter. Even if I’d included it, you wouldn’t find Miss Gladys on the internet or in books or newspaper archives. You can, however, find Miss Gladys deep in the hearts and memories of scores of people in the Bronx and in Harlem. And, to search these, no last names are required.
Miss Gladys passed away two years ago yesterday. As per the title of this post, her life was one of ascent through a world as stark and roughly surfaced as the stairways and alleyways of the Bronx. In it bare-bones outline, Miss Gladys’s biography was paradigmatic of many African-American women of her generation: Born in the south, traumas at a young age, a move north, single motherhood, years of hard work while studying to become a nurse, disability from an on-the-job accident, and a final earthly rise into the rarefied world of Alzheimer’s. Miss Gladys’s ascent through life was as steep, deliberate, and demanding as that of the stairways that slice through the west Bronx. Miss Gladys climbed her way upwards with outspokenness, arch humor, and energy, and with love and devotion to her daughter, a magnificent, courageous woman in her own right.
I met Miss Gladys only a few months before her death, at a party celebrating her daughter’s 50th birthday. From the rarefied heights of Alzheimer’s, Miss Gladys introduced herself to me over and again, each time explaining that it was actually her own birthday party and asking me to bring her her first slice of cake, since she hadn’t yet had one. Between a growing tally of first slices, she conversed with adult guests and passed life’s lessons and worthy admonishments to the children present.
Several weeks ago, a lengthy and extremely read-worthy article on the treatment of Alzheimer’s appeared in the New Yorker magazine. The article framed Alzheimer’s, not as an aberration, but as a higher, possibly purer form of being, in which parts of the cognitive self peel away and allow personality to shine through in a manner closer to the origin of self and of human antecedents. The article also documented a “new” and “novel” form of treatment: regarding of Alzheimer’s patients and their whims as normal and prescribing their full integration into social contexts. It seems that the author, Rebecca Mead, never searched for Miss Gladys, her daughter, fellow church-goers, or myriad of friends and former co-workers. If Ms. Mead had, she would have found to her surprise that what she called novel and innovative is simply the way life is lived within at least one tightly-knit circle of African-Americans and a sprinkling of “whites” in Harlem and the heights of the West Bronx.
What did I learn from Miss Gladys? Something quite simple: That if I live life as if I am ascending the steep steps of the west Bronx, that if I protect those who I love, remain outspoken, truly believe in the worth of things beyond the boundaries of my own self, and continue against growing odds to try to “get ahead,” I might yet find that I still have a goodly number of slices of cake in my future.