30 hours in Greater Boston: An elder care odyssey
No one is OK. Except maybe Derek.
I began the day beaming in a Dunkies in Waltham, Massachusetts. It didn’t end nearly so good. You see, I’m on a whirlwind trip inside a whirlwind trip.
Three weeks ago, I had three different people in three different hospitals in three different states. One of those people was my husband, Matt. I spent weeks trying to wrench him back to health, so I’ll be the first to admit that the hospitalized father and father-in-law on the East Coast both got the shit end of the attention stick. So when I finally caught Friday red-eye at LAX, it was my third time booking a ticket, and the first time I actually made it on the plane.
We’ll skip the amazing post-COVID reunion with my mother in New Jersey. We’ll gloss over the visit to my dad, in yet another New York rehab facility for yet another fall. We’ll even skip over the wonderful friend reunions that filled my tank enough to brave the drive to Boston, where my husband’s parents live.
Let’s pick this shit storm up right about the time I woke up in the Westin in Waltham, Massachusetts.
“Jesus Christ, I turned you OFF!” — me, too early.
6am EST, Waltham, MA.
I whapped the alarm clock next to the bed, which despite my careful efforts the night before, was blaring at 6am. I ripped off my sleep mask, put on jean shorts, my Star Trek 2009 grey t-shirt (so comfy) and a blue bandana wrapped around my head, like we did at camp all those years. This is my “hard day ahead” outfit, complete with comfortable sneakers. Today there would be lifting. So much lifting. By 6:30am I was in line at Dunkin’ Donuts. Or at least I thought I was.
“Are…are you in line?”
The store was packed with early risers and the crowd was mostly unmasked. I was asking for the clarification from the man standing in front of me.
He turned to face me. This was a man I put in the category of “scary white.” He had a face that was both sunken and protruding. He was wearing a baseball cap— all I could see were the numbers 2020 on the side of the cap. He was a suspicious man, a man for whom the phrase “gun-toting” was invented.
“Yeah,” he said.
He didn’t just say it, though. He said yeah the way you would say yeah if you you wanted nothing more than to FUCK A BITCH UP IN A DUNKIES at 6:30am on a Thursday.
“Cool!” I squeaked. I beamed at him with all my might. He stared at me for a moment longer and turned back around. I also turned around, just to be safe. I came face to face with a young woman behind me. She and I stared at each other for a moment, and immediately began talking to each other like we’d known each other for years. She’d only managed four hours of sleep last night, she was originally from Arkansas and was on her way to her job, running a vaccination and testing site in New Hampshire.
“Everyone got their vaccines, so we’re mostly just testing now,” she said.
“I guess they decided to live free after all,” I said.
In my defense, I had spent a night in the Catskills which, can, in certain lapsed Jews, can give you delusions of vaudeville. I bought her breakfast, we talked about her job, and in the parking lot we beamed at each other before driving our separate ways.
It was a beautiful and promising start to the day.
“Everything bad happens in threes, but I don’t got no family, so it only happens to me.” — Tobacco Santa.
8am EST, Randolph, MA.
When you live in Los Angeles, but your aging parents live in New York, New Jersey and two different parts of Greater Boston, solving their problems becomes an exercise in planning, logistics and patience. But sometimes, you’re lucky enough to get a hard fucking slap that reminds you to be grateful that you still have family at all.
At 8:15am I pulled into the Envision Bank Home for Veterans in Randolph, MA. It’s brand new housing for formerly unhoused veterans, located at the end of a sleepy street in a town south of Boston — a town long known for making shoes and boots.
My father-in-law, John, had been living here for several months, until life overwhelmed him again and he ended up in a hospital and then long-term care. My goal was to get his wallet and clothes, and clean his small studio. My mother had sent me north with a broom, a bottle of bleach and several pairs of plastic gloves.
This veteran’s home is a simple, beautiful place, the kind of place you build when enough people get together and care about homeless vets in their region.
It was still early. An old white man sat on a bench under a tree — the leafy branches bowed around the bench. He had a coarse white beard that had a tobacco-yellow ring around his mouth. He had a full head of white hair and a toothless, placid face. I don’t remember his name, so I hope it’s not too disrespectful to refer to him as Tobacco Santa, T.S. for short. This was his hard-won peace — the demons were at bay, there were puffy white clouds in the summer sky, and his only job was to sit on the bench and watch the world go by. He was pretty sure he was getting moved down to John’s former room on the first floor.
I was looking for Bill, the manager of the facility, but he wasn’t in yet. T.S. suggested I talk with Derek, who was just walking out the door.
It’s rare that you meet someone in person who you are certain Oprah will interview some day. Derek Fuller is an Army and Navy veteran, a widower, and a poet. He is a Black man, the second Black Arkansan I’d met that morning. He looks 30 but is actually 53 years old. He has dreams and goals and heartbreak enough for three lifetimes. He told me twice, “It’s hard to be good.”
Derek talks about his life the way you tell a friend about a dream you’re trying to remember. He writes about his life with direct and piercing clarity. I know because I sat on a folding chair under a tree and read his notebook full of poems. When I tell you that half the town of Randolph is excited to see Derek fulfill his dream to graduate college, this is not much of an exaggeration. They’ve read his notebook too.
“I ignore all the haters,” he said.
I don’t want to tell you too much more about Derek’s life, because Oprah will do a much better job. But Derek is the one who bagged up the wreckage of my father-in-law’s life, and cleaned up the studio apartment so that I wouldn’t have to.
I walked inside and surveyed the studio. The bed was stripped, and the mattress was covered in boxes from the VA — a transfer chair, a portable toilet, a small unopened package. The groceries we’d sent were mostly uneaten in the fridge. The utensils were unused. There were nine white garbage bags in the center of the room, filled with many concerning smells. It was the heartbreaking echo of a man who has never lived alone, trying to get by for the first time at age 70.
This was the first overwhelming moment of the day.
I dragged the garbage bags out to the car, along with bags of shoes and books and the other odds and ends of a man’s life who has still not found clarity at rock bottom. Once I loaded up my rental car, I sat again with Tobacco Santa and Derek and another man named Tom. Tom was young and and tall and just the kind of project I used to enjoy. He complimented my Star Trek t-shirt, he loved Star Trek. Tobacco Santa loved to read Tolkien and other books about fishing. Tom really wanted to see the new Loki series on Disney+, but it was hard to get that subscription. Derek held his notebook reverently on his lap and talked about his family. Tobacco Santa talked about the fact that he didn’t have a family. In the distance, a young woman paced on a healing leg, her body twitching in distress. A young man with close-cropped hair sat across the way soaking up the early sun. The toll of war on human bodies and human minds is on display in Randolph, but so is the bond.
“John was well-liked here,” the manager of the facility would tell me later. “The residents all liked to talk with him.” It was not a sentence I expected to hear about a man who leaves such vile messages on my husband’s voicemail. I could have stayed under the leafy green tree for much longer, but those nine bags of laundry loomed.
“I have twenty-five years of experience fixing things...” — a man fixing a washing machine.
Me too, I thought.
9am EST, Randolph, MA.
The laundromat is a waiting and thinking place. It’s a place where not much happens, but something always could. There is a lot of process. First, you must wrangle forty dollars in quarters. Then you slowly give those quarters back to various machines with old-fashioned quarter slots. You pull knobs and turn dials and all that is before you start shoveling filthy clothing into four washers. I was wearing blue plastic gloves, a mask and wishing for safety goggles, because what exactly ARE those dried brown flecks wafting up from the bag? The coffee soured in my stomach but I kept going. I reminded myself that I saw much worse shit as a C.I.T., doing the boys side laundry.
I passed the waiting time by watching the manager of the laundromat fix a washing machine. He was originally from another country — his hands and patience reminded me of Yinsen, the character who helps Tony Stark escape and become Iron Man, portrayed by Shaun Toub. Things only make sense in Marvel movie metaphors right now, OK? He carefully examined each wire and gear until finally he solved the problem, then put the machine back together. It was clear he was a well-educated man, possibly an engineer. I congratulated him on fixing the machine. He shrugged. “Hundreds of washes a day,” he said with a kind smile. I drove away from Randolph with three huge bags of clean laundry and a peaceful feeling that would not last.
“You the daughter in law? I need to talk to YOU.” — The Woman in Charge of Cigarettes
12p EST, Newton, MA.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that in any closed system, the people on the inside will develop a cigarette-based economy. I know this because I used to work on a radio show about the economy. I mentioned this to the Randolph veterans home manager who was asking me about my work and he got all excited. “You mean the show with Guy Ryssdal?!?”
“Yeah, I said, “I worked with Guy. He’s a nice…guy.”
I’m just kidding, by the way. I learned all that cigarette stuff watching Oz.
Bill was his name and he helped me fill in the details of what had gone wrong with John. He was a person who tried and who cared, and I’m not going to forget him, or his community.
But that was Randolph, and this is Newton. John is the second generation of his family to land there. It’s a good place but there are lots of keypads by the doors, because some of the residents wander. The first time we talked with the manager of the Newton nursing home, he told us they’d give John a Wanda bracelet. Which sounded like something you’d buy in the new Avengers Campus at Disneyland. But no, peel back the Boston accent and it is a Wander Bracelet, which is a lot less fun.
I saw my father-in-law for the first time in six years, slumped in a wheelchair at a cookout. When you walk into a nursing home where a large number of resident congregate, you might as well be an A-list celeb. The whole 30-person cookout stopped to look at the new person walking into their garden. I’m used to this. It happens when I visit my dad. There isn’t enough to look at, or do, so if you’re under 70, you’re front page news. I wave to the whole group and said, “HI, EVERYONE!”
Theater kids, amirite?
John is a Vietnam vet, but he was in the safe places, he says. He looks a lot more like Tobacco Santa than he used to. The first thing he asked me about was his wallet. The next thing he asked me about were his cigarettes.
In the long-term care facility where my father-in-law landed, you get one cigarette a day. If, like John, you have alienated most of your family, and your daughter-in-law is busy managing other family crises, you land in your new home without cigarettes, which makes it torture when the Cigarette Keeper walks the three floors of the nursing home with a white plastic Tupperware, her long braids swinging. She is also, I learned later, in charge of Bingo.
She appeared at my father-in-law’s room right after I unpacked John’s bag full of books. It is really hard to stay angry at a man who carries a huge bag of Stephen King and Lee Child’s books from shelter to shelter.
“Your dad-in-law owes cigarettes to a guy up on three,” she said, in a voice that was the verbal equivalent of smacking someone with a hymn book for talking in church.
I’ve never bought cigarettes in my entire life. The guy on three wanted Newports. John wanted Marlboro 100’s. I hate cigarettes, but it’s what they’ve got left.
It’s hot. I’m flagging. I have dragged so many bags of clothes out of places, and into a car, and into washers and dryers and up a long ramp and I even put the clothes away in tiny dressers that look like they were built for children, all in the service of a man who once made me a personalized baseball bat for Christmas, and then on a much later New Years Eve, threw a glass at his wife’s head. I do not want to buy this man cigarettes. But in a closed economy, you do not want to take on a certain kind of debt.
I left the nursing home and drove to the Shell station.
“I need Newports,” I said.
“We don’t have menthol,” said the guy behind the Plexiglass.
“I also need Marlboro 100's.”
“Regular or light?”
“What do you think?” I ask.
The guy rolls his eyes and slaps the regulars down on the counter.
This is the point at which I start grabbing Hostess baked goods. We all have our vices — mine just have frosting.
I drive back to the nursing home. I write John’s name on the Marlboro’s and give the pack to the health care aide for the Tupperware box.
“John needs his nails cut,” I say.
“Do you want to do it?” she asks.
No I do not.
I remember from my father’s experience that only a podiatrist can cut nails in a home. I’m also starting to remember that every problem in a nursing home or rehab center has two or three roadblocks before the solution. And solutions arrive at the speed of a father-in-law using his legs to power a wheelchair forward because a stroke has ravaged his left hand and he refused in-patient care when it really mattered.
Really flagging now. The urge to escape is strong, but I have a debt to settle.
I take the elevator up to three. The Cigarette Keeper is running Bingo. I hold out the Newports.
“Rip them up and throw them out,” says an old man in the corner. Amen, brother.
“I don’t know who these go to,” I tell The Cigarette Keeper.
“They go to me,” says a voice in the corner. I turn and look.
There is a certain kind of movie about Boston, usually directed by Ben Affleck, that loves to cast the “real Boston people” as background actors. The guy sitting at the corner of the bingo table could just as easily been hanging out a window in Gone Baby Gone. He looked like the kid in the back of the class. all grown up and doing low-level enforcement for the Irish mob.
“They go to me,” he says again. “I helped John out.”
He says it again. “I helped John.”
“Well, thank you for THAT!” I say, beaming once again. He nods. Repaying a favor does not always mean the favor is fully repaid.
I go back downstairs. There was still so much left to do — get name tags on John’s clothes, talk to someone about commissary money, clean the sticky fruit juice off the book cover stuck to the floor. But I was done in every way a person can be done. John was lying on his bed already changed into his new clothes that his daughter had sent him, despite the voicemails he likes to leave her.
“We’ll be back in August or September,” I said.
“Beautiful,” he said, “beautiful.”
At the very least, this is someone who maybe, finally, has learned the value of the safety and security he experienced for the first six decades of his life. I wish once more that he could have made it at the Veteran’s home in Randolph. I think the reader and the writer could have helped each other out.
“Who’s ya sista in lawr?” — The young woman who broke me at the sub place.
5p EST, Waltham, MA.
We’ll skip the part where I fled the nursing home for my mother-in-law’s tiny apartment, because it was a very necessary retreat, but also because I ended up meeting a ninety-year old Soviet emigre, teaching my mother-in-law to use a Chromebook and carrying a microwave down the stairs. Each of these events are their own epic Medium post. Many hugs later, I was done with the in-laws, and I was toast.
My friend Molly warns me often about the danger of becoming “Bunnicula’s tomato.” (You can tell someone’s age by whether they get this reference.) For the rest of you, Bunnicula is a children’s novel series about a vampire rabbit who sucks the juice out of vegetables. You can tell when Bunnicula has struck because all the vegetable are white and drained of their essence. That’s me this month, this year, this decade.
My sister-in-law, who has been the “gal in the chair” for this Boston escapade, told me I couldn’t leave the area without going to Carl’s Steak Subs in Waltham. So I marshaled the very last of my energy and parked a few blocks away and walked into the tiny store to order.
After some deliberation with the young guy behind the counter I ordered a large cheesesteak with peppers and onions, a Greek salad, and a Ginger Ale to go. Crucially, the guy didn’t punch in the order. That honor went to a young woman with a ponytail who wanted nothing to do with me, the sub shop and possibly the universe.
I sat outside as directed in wrought-iron chair, trying not to think about anything. I think if you had been driving down Prospect Street at that moment and seen me, you would have taken one look at my thousand yard stare and thought, “who the fack is that haughty bitch?!?”
The girl brought my Greek salad out right away. Then I waited about 15 minutes, getting hungrier. People flowed in an out of the shop with subs. The guy who is clearly really in charge (it was the apron) came outside for a smoke, then walked back in. Finally I walked inside. The girl stared at me.
“I’m just checking,” I said, in what I now understand to be imprecise language.
“Yeah?” she said. No follow up. Defeated, I went back outside and sat down. The stare advanced another yard. More people flowed in and out of the shop.
Five minutes later, the guy who cooks the subs came back out and said, “You waitin’ on something?”
“Large cheesesteak, peppers onions American cheese, I’ve been waiting for twenty minutes,” I said.
The guy stormed inside. There was much yelling. At one point the girl yelled, “SHE DIDN’T ORDER ANY SUB!”
This was the moment I was all the way done. I popped my head inside the store and yelled:
“I KNOW I DIDN’T PAY FORTY-SEVEN DOLLARS FOR A FUCKING GREEK SALAD!”
Five minutes later the guy in charge brought me my sub.
“This is what happens when I’m not up front,” he said.
Yeah, I thought. Me too.