In 1991 my then wife and I bought a building on West 11th Street because we wanted to stay in the West Village and there were no three-bedroom apartments available in those days. We lived on Bank Street in a two-bedroom, but our two kids had outstripped the space. The tenement building we bought ($100,000 down) was populated by a number of older artistic Villagers—a cabaret singer, an opera singer, a fine artist, a writer and a former member of the NYC Ballet, Edwina Fontaine. They were all 25 years or more my senior, and I was too busy raising kids, cleaning up playgrounds, and getting involved in politics to get to hear their life stories in great detail.
Over the next 23 years, death and illness came to visit, and the last of those artist-tenants was Edwina. As Edwina passed her 85th birthday, it was clear that she was not her past robust self. She was still teaching Pilates, but seemed increasingly confused and forgetful about things that had just occurred. Then one night she fell and dislocated her hip getting out of a cab. When she returned from Roosevelt Hospital, she could barely walk. I had her sign a health care proxy and power of attorney, and set about setting up her healthcare. I got her on Medicaid, got Medicare straightened out, and got two homecare agencies to send someone so she had help eight hours a day. And then I set out to get her into an assisted living setting, an apartment-like setting where residents could come and go, but which had social services and medical assistance. I got her into the Lott Residence, on 107th Street and Central Park West, but they don’t allow cats, and Edwina couldn’t live without her 17 pound orange coon. So next I tried Village Care, at 46th Street, and they took cats. With a little assist from persons with potential oomph, I got Edwina in.
In the course of getting Edwina in, I had to supply information about her life. She told me that she had changed her name while in the NYC Ballet and that it was originally Edwina Seaver. So I Googled her, and voilà—scores of astounding photos of this gorgeous 20-year-old dancer published by Time Life and others. And as I helped her pack I found dozens more, along with theater programs. She hadn’t been a great star, but she was at the center of the ballet world in 1947, a historic survivor of a cultural renaissance in New York, a student of the great George Balanchine, and a long time teacher of little girls.
But she was at Village Care only three weeks, in a beautiful, sunny studio apartment, when she fell, first breaking her leg, and then breaking her ankle in a second fall. She had her ankle pinned, set, and cast at Roosevelt Hospital, and she was sent to the DeWitt Nursing Home, on 79th Street and Second Avenue, for what was supposed to be a 3-5 week rehab.
That was in June. In late June she got C-Dif, an antibiotic-resistant bacterial infection known to spread in nursing homes. She was put in “isolation” for six weeks. It sounded like solitary confinement, but my own wife was entering the hospital for heart surgery and my daughters were 10 and under, and I had to stay away. As Edwina’s healthcare proxy, I got calls as the need arose for changes in antibiotics and other meds, and treatment for bedsores. Finally I asked if her cast had come off and found that it had not. Had she had physical therapy? They said, “not in isolation.” I screamed and the cast came off, and they took Edwina to physical therapy once the C-Dif passed.
I began to call about the physical therapy. There was no progress. I spoke to a Dr. Oren, who said, “Her dementia is too advanced. We can’t get her to walk. It will never happen.” I asked Dr. Oren how someone who taught Pilates 8 months earlier and who had come for a 3-week rehab was being condemnedby him to stay in a nursing home bed.. I got no answer. So I went for a visit and found an alert, talkative woman who re- membered everything. But they had lost her glasses and she hadn’t read in two months. No TV in her room. And she asked if I could get some yogurt, because the home wouldn’t give it to her.
Later that week, a devastating article by Nina Bernstein hit the New York Times front page about the death of a husband and wife at DeWitt, with stories of beatings and hunger and rampant infection. I called the reporter and told her about Edwina. She went to visit and they spoke for two hours about the NYC Ballet and Balanchine in the 1940s. And she printed out the series of Time Life photos and gave them to Edwina.
I came by two days later with glasses and yogurt and found a spaced-out person who could only be lifted out of bed with a hoist. I took her to the physical therapy floor and worked with the staff to get her out of her wheelchair. She was terrified to stand, afraid of the pain.
On Friday, October 10, my own 92-year-old mom was rushed to the hospital by ambulance in tremendous pain. It turned out to be her gall bladder, and after a quick operation she was home by Tuesday the 14th. No sooner had I dropped her off at home than I got a call from DeWitt. Edwina had been rushed to Lenox Hill with breathing difficulties. I called Lenox Hill, where a super-nice staff told me that Edwina had been dumped and they had no paperwork about her at all. They said she had aspirated her own vomit, had pneumonia, and wasn’t breathing on her own.
On Sunday, the 19th, I visited her. She was sitting up, breathing on her own, but had difficulty speaking and using her swollen hands. The nurse told me that Edwina couldn’t swallow but seemed to be optimistic that she would have her feeding tube removed and would soon begin physical therapy. I told Edwina that as soon as she started walking she would get to see her cat. Her eyes welled up with tears.
I began to make plans for her transfer to a real rehab. But on Thursday, the 23rd, a doctor called: Edwina was still being fed through a tube. The doctors had concluded that her dementia was preventing her from swallowing and that she was not going to survive. I was asked whether I wanted her to have a “feeding bag” installed since it might prolong her life, or just have the feeding tube removed, and nursing care provided at a hospice to give her food on request, even if it was just for taste. I said, “You know, I am just her landlord. We’re not related.” But Edwina had no family, and the doctor explained that I had a responsibility, as her healthcare proxy, to make a decision about the manner in which Edwina would die.
On Sunday the 26th the doctor called and asked me to authorize a DNR—Do Not Resuscitate order. That means that the next time Edwina stops breathing, they will not try to bring her back. I visited twice this weekend to discuss the question with her. I found an uncommunicative person whose eyes were open but who couldn’t or wouldn’t speak. She has a raging infection, which antibiotics can’t address. The decisions are now clearly mine to make. This was a proud, tall woman, with perfect posture and grace that continued into her eighties. To the extent that her brain keeps working, being inside, confined to a bed with a tube up her nose, a catheter, and a diaper, unable to walk, would not be “living” for Edwina.
I am going to visit her again this week and talk to her the best I can. For this woman who was just my tenant and neighbor, whose life I really came to understand only after it began to slip away from her, my job as her former landlord is now to help her make her last decision – and to say goodbye.
11 thoughts on “Deciding When It Is Time to Die”
I would like to talk with Arthur Schwartz to thank him for the wonderfully generous care he has given to Edwina since he became her landlord and, especially, over the last extremely painful and difficult year.
Arthur Schwartz called us (I am married to Edwina’s cousin, Erica) I think last year to tell us about the decline in Edwina’s ability to look after herself and her affairs. We were, and are, struggling to keep ourselves in working order and could do nothing to help. Thankfully, he stepped in and did all that anyone could, and more!
At that time he gave me his phone number but I have misplaced it and so cannot call him now to thank him and to talk with him about Edwina’s current condition. Please provide me with his phone number.
Thank you from all of us in the Pilates community from all over the world, who observed her, learned from her, have crossed paths with her in this life.
Pilates Instructor from the Philippines
I too would like to thank Arthur Schwartz for stepping in to see Edwina cared for at the end of her life. Edwina was an exceptional person. She was kind to a fault & stepped in to help me build my confidence as a apprentice, and teacher of the Pilates Method. She often looked out for the apprentices, and kept an eye on those students who sought her help. She was a Senior teacher at the Pilates Studio at Drago’s Gymnasium for the afternoon shift for many years. She made certain we were up to the standards of her friend Romana, and Joe Pilates. In her own way, which was strict , down to earth and practical, her teaching was kind. She had an eagle’s eye & saw to it you understood how to develop your own. Even when I had moved away from the city & dashed in & out she would polish me up & get me set up for the next day. She never shared her private life with me, she was very much in the moment always. Edwina was someone to respect. She was honest and dedicated to her students. She was a blessing in my life, and a blessing to many others.
I am the director/producer of a documentary entitled IN BALANCHINE’S CLASSROOM for which Edwina Fontaine did two marvelous interviews. I am saddened to hear that this gracious woman struggled terribly in her last year but I’m deeply moved by your efforts to help her. In her interviews she recalled with great joy her work with George Balanchine–in both Ballet Russe and the New York City Ballet. Would you please contact me regarding any memorabilia e.g. photos and articles, which could help evoke the historic era in which Edwina participated? I would be very grateful to you.
Arthur,wonderful story,and you my friend are a wonderful person.
Thank you for your kindness,
I am both deeply saddened and delighted to read this article. Edwina lived down the hall from me until the time she went to the nursing home. She was indeed a proud, smart, kind, creative woman as everyone attests. I got to know her better at the time she was recovering from her broken hip as she would frequently do her exercises up and down in the hallway. She was determined to get better and did. It was at hat time she regaled me with her stories of having been a dancer and someone who studied with Joe Pilates. As a ballet fan, I sure was impressed. Edwina recovered and I believe she continued to work traching Pilates. In her recent year or two, as she continued to reside solo with her much-loved cat, iit became obvious that Edwina was aging and needed enhanced care. She exemplifies a proud, strong woman well ahead if her times who wanted her independence until she could no longer cope. RIP Edwina — you have inspired many.
You are a magnificent human being. How many people would take the time to defend an elder going through so many debilitating life changes? Not even family members demonstrate the kind of perseverance and steadfastness you gave in helping Edwina. You deserve a medal of honor and a purple heart. I was primary advocate and caregiver for both of my parents, and dealing with hospitals and care facilities frequently turned into my worst nightmare. Bravo to you.
Many blessings to you, my friend.
I have not met you but I heard from Edwina that you were looking after her and her beloved cat. I know Edwina from Pilates. I spent many an afternoon observing her knowledgeable teaching, quiet manner and ‘on the spot’ cues. I learned a lot from her. I always made sure I had a lesson with her (or 2!) every time I visited New York. We had many conversations about her ballet past but mostly she loved to show me pictures of her cat and tell me about all of his foibles. I will truly miss Edwina…I visited her in her rehab facility on 79th St. last August after she had broken her ankle. The situation you described is accurate. She was in pain but she was lucid, watching a ball game on TV, told me stories about her cat and requested that I ask an old friend and colleague to visit. My friend and I were concerned she was not getting physical therapy and that she was drifting way because she was confined to her bed which would be so unnatural for such an active person. Of course when we questioned whether she was getting physic the staff we were not allowed to give us any information because we were not family. Nevertheless, thanks to your article I feel assured that good people were looking out for Edwina..she deserved it. I hope you were able to find a place for her cat…I know that would have been very important to her. Rest in peace Edwina…you will not be forgotten …..Martha
True humanity, Mr. Schwartz. Thank you for who you are.
I was one of Edwina’s last students at Dragos, later True Pilates, and I heard her speak of you often. I remember when she left the brownstone for Horatio Street. I visited her there several times, took pictures of and played with her cat, whose name I never could remember! Mine were the pictures she showed everyone. I always sent her something for Christmas and her birthday in June. I saw her ballet photos. She must have been a beautiful dancer.
Traitor me, I left Pilates for Gyrotonics, but still visited her several times at Horatio. She called me when the move from Horatio street to assisted living was being discussed. I was worried because I knew she couldn’t leave her cat….
After that, I never heard from her and I worried about her, knowing her only family were elderly cousins in New Jersey.
I found out in December that she had died, and then today a friend, and Pilates teacher, told me that there was information on the Internet.
So now I know about her last days. Makes me sad in so many ways, but I think everything you did for her was magnificent. Thank goodness she had you in her life.
She had a fascinating life, and thanks to your efforts, her death was as humane as it good have been. I’m so glad you wrote this piece. Thank you.
[…] Edwina woonde in The West Village in New York. In de laatste maanden van haar leven was haar gezondheid niet al te best. Ze viel regelmatig, ontwrichtte haar heup ernstig, brak een been, brak een enkel. Het herstelde niet meer goed. Om dat ze zo achteruit ging in haar gezondheid het laatste jaar, kon ze niet meer voor zichzelf zorgen. Haar huisbaas, Albert Schwartz, trad op als een vertegenwoordiger van de familie en deed heel veel voor haar. Lees hier meer over in dit artikel. […]