Saturday, February 22
I got out of my car and 11:00 am. At 12:32 I put the last bag in the trunk and closed it. Just about ninety minutes to clear Anne’s things out of her room at the board and care home. I could wax poetic and say, “about one minute for every year she lived” – but this wasn’t my mother-in-law’s home. It was just the place she spent the last 13 months of her life.
When I went into the room, I didn’t know where to start. I was used to seeing Anne sitting in the recliner, reading or napping. I looked at the neatly made bed and the purple tulips I brought her for Valentine’s day, now splayed and dropping petals. Finally I opened the drawer that held underwear and socks. Everything was clean and spotless. The twelve pairs of ankle socks, carefully rolled, were whiter than some of mine. Everything smelled clean, not the caustic blast of chlorine, but fresh. I put the underwear and socks into a bag to go to Goodwill. Some of the underthings were too ragged and I put those in another bag to throw away.
Movies, novels, TV shows, even memoirs depict board and care homes – the infamous “rest home” – as filthy hell-holes staffed with sadistic Nurse Ratchet-like attendants. There probably are some like that. Anne’s wasn’t. Like any cliché, those hell-hole images mask the truth about board and care homes. Regardless of the cleanliness and hygiene (in Anne’s place, excellent), the staff (in Anne’s place, attentive, competent and caring), the activities (music days, birthday celebrations, holiday events) and the food (in Anne’s place, “all right” to “good” depending on who was cooking), there is still one terrible thing about the place Anne stayed. It was not her home.
I opened the closet. Slacks, shirts and sweatshirts hung neatly and I started taking them down. There were all going to Goodwill. There was a pale blue sweatshirt with a cardinal on it, a Christmas present from me, and a T-shirt Anne had recently ordered from a catalogue. I didn’t think either one had been worn, so I set those aside. Last, I took out her jacket and the two coats. Both coats always looked blue to me, but Anne called the heavier coat her green coat. “Get my green coat,” she’d say when we were going out, and I’d say, “This one?” She’d say, “Yes, the green one.” Finally I decided the coat, which looked blue to me, was probably teal, which is a greenish-blue; thus, we could agree on the green coat.
Anne did not want to go into board and care. Two days before she was scheduled to be moved from a post-acute care facility to this place last January, she told a nurse there, “I want to go home. To my home. If I can’t go home then I’d rather be dead.” This earned Spouse a call from the facility’s social worker, asking if he thought his mother might be suicidal. “She’s not suicidal,” he said. “She’s just angry and she wants to go home.”
The first week at the board and care, Anne was nice to the attendants. She treated the manager owners with a steel-sharp politeness. Her anger she bestowed on us. The place was a fire-trap, she told Spouse; they had too many electrical outlets and it wasn’t safe. The clean carpet, the fresh bed-linens and the sparkling kitchen were “just a front.” The monthly charge was outrageous. Nobody cared about her there. She wished she would just die.
By the second week, she decided that she needed to stay there for at least a month until she got stronger. Then she was going home.
By the second month, she said she knew they gave her good care, and felt safe. She liked most of the attendants. One, she said, was too bossy, and one was allergic to work. (The woman with the “work allergy” left a month or two later.) “I know I’m safe here,” she said to me. “I just want to go home.”
A month later she could tell me the life stories of all the other residents. She knew the attendants’ backgrounds and the names of their children. She still didn’t like that they spoke Spanish among themselves. “I feel like I’m in a foreign country,” she said. For someone who came here from Germany, speaking not a word of English, when she was six, she was not sympathetic to the immigrant experience.
In the year she was there, she converted the other residents into San Francisco Giants fans, and those who could sat together in the living room to watch the World Series on the big flat screen.
The slacks and sweaters folded up and fit easily into one of the Goodwill bags. I took those two out to the car and came back to tackle the vanity that Anne used as a desk.
Anne was an unusual resident; she managed her own finances. I brought her the checkbook from home and she paid the facility and the house-related bills herself as soon as she was able. If I bought something for her, she told me, I was to keep track and she would reimburse me. I didn’t have to bring her the receipt, she said. She knew she could trust me.
She agreed with us when we suggested turning down the heat on the water heater at the house, and the furnace, to reduce the PG&E bill. She did not agree when I suggested discontinuing phone service to the house. She carefully reviewed her statements from Medicare and her supplemental insurance to make sure they had paid for the proper procedures. I brought her the mail twice a week. She gave us directions on when to cash in her Certificates of Deposit and move the money into her checking account.
She carefully saved every piece of wrapping paper she got. The wrapping paper thing was a holdover from living through the Great Depression of the 1930s. I found every piece,folded, the edges aligned, along with the white plastic bags with distinctive black lettering that See’s Candy came in.
I found three packets of cookies. One was half-empty. The other two were unopened. Anne had asked me for cookies because she often woke up at night and called for a pain pill. She didn’t want to take it on an empty stomach. There was another reason she had cookies tucked away though, just like she had the last box of candy I’d brought her tucked away. At nearly ninety-one, Anne had managed her own household for seventy years. She raised two boys. She planned all the meals and did all the grocery shopping. She ate when she wanted to, what she wanted to. The last year of her life, all of that autonomy was gone. She had a room, not a house. She didn’t decide what to cook or what to eat, although if she asked for something special (which she did once or twice) they got it for her. She didn’t decide when to shower. If she wanted to go out for a walk, she had to wait for an attendant, or me. Anne hid away the cookies and the candy because no one was going to dictate to her when she could have a treat.
The See’s Candy box only had one piece missing, so I gave the rest of it to Veronica and Mayra, who were working that day.
I kept all of the cards she had kept, because some of them have the return addresses of people I need to notify.
In the second drawer on the door side of the vanity, I found hundreds of return address labels from the Olympic Fund, Easter Seals, a southwestern mission school and the Nature Conservancy. I threw them away. I also threw away the wrapping paper.
This, I realized, was as dry-run for what the house will be like. Anne was at the board and care for thirteen months. She lived in the house for sixty years.
I unhooked the television we had bought her and slipped it back into the box she had kept. I took down the stuffed animal, Charlie the rabbit, that she had asked us to bring her. I carried the TV and the box with Charlie out to the car. Then I packed up the twenty-five or thirty books she had. Most of those were going to Goodwill.
Before I left, I took the two shirts out to Veronica and Mayra and asked if they knew anyone who might like them. I meant them or their friends, but they said policy was to share any clothes relatives donated or left behind with other residents who didn’t have things as nice. Mayra said she knew right away who would like the cardinal shirt.
Anne had gotten a stomach virus earlier in the week. On Sunday night, the manager drove her to the emergency room, because she was severely dehydrated and his staff could not get ahead of the symptoms. We had seen her on Sunday, so we knew she was sick, and the owner manager called to let us know he was taking her to the hospital. The hospital put her on an IV, assigned her to isolation and began doing tests. When I went to see her, I had to put on a translucent disposable gown and surgical gloves, but I didn’t need to mask up. On Monday, she was tired but looking better. We talked about my trip to San Francisco the next day. On Wednesday, when I visited her again, she was sitting up and eating solid food. “I feel better,” she said, “but I’m still tired. So tired.” I told her that was pretty common with viruses.
She asked me if I was going to the bookstore on Thursday. I said yes, and she said, “Well, be on lookout. You know what we like.” That was not the royal “we.” She meant both of us, since one interest we shared was a love of books.
“I’ll be on the lookout,” I said.
The hospital called me at the bookstore on Thursday. I was certain they were going to tell me that they were releasing her, and could I come and pick her up. Instead, they said that she had passed away at about 2:20 in the afternoon. She had been up for a walk, when she was back in bed, she dozed off, and, in the words of her doctor, “breathed her last.” It was a peaceful, pain free passing.
I put the last bag in my trunk and closed it. It was a blue-sky day with a biting cold wind. A dog barked in the house across the street and in the ornamental plum tree by the driveway, a crow scolded. Just about ninety minutes.
I drove home.