The single achievement of the two months Geri and I spent together at Apartment 503 was that my dear, deeply stubborn 91-year-old mom did not — for all her ailments and setbacks — have to go into a skilled nursing facility. It became an obsession that I not only honor my parents’ advance directives in terms of medical care but also their hopes for the sort of domestic comfort they’d grown to know. The first time I visited Lakewood Memory Care, it felt in keeping with the life-style Floyd and Geri Kennedy had worked with such discipline to secure.
Room 105 is a large, tasteful studio with tall ceilings, a roomy armoire, an ample bathroom with walk-in shower, a jack for satellite TV. Its wide windows look north onto a terraced lawn and, a couple hundred feet away, an assisted-living complex. Its initial selling point was that it was right outside the nurses’ station.
There is a scene in The Savages, writer-director Tamara Jenkins’s spot-on 2007 drama about siblings (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney) who move their aging, ailing father from his 55+ retirement community in Arizona to a nursing home nearer to them on the East Coast. (Incidentally, the movie spends a nice chunk of time in Sun City: Mom and Dad lived more than 25 years in nearby Sun City West.)
Most of the residents of Buffalo's Valley View Rehabilitation Center are white but not all, as becomes painfully apparent during a movie night presented by Wendy and Jon's increasingly disoriented father, Lenny (a very good Philip Bosco). On the common room screen a corked-up Al Jolson flashes his teeth in The Jazz Singer.
That scene still strikes me as genius. It teases out the genealogy and the geology of pop culture pleasures and woes: the racial disconnects and offenses that are easier to see and cop to generationally. (These days Gone With the Wind has become as wince-worthy as The Jazz Singer.) What mortification on the siblings' faces as they say "goodnight" to the nursing staff.
I’ve never run into anything quite that egregious at the senior residences where mom has lived. There have been three these last five years. I have enjoyed the stumped look on the faces of some residents’ children when they ask whom I’m visiting and I tell them I’ve come to see my mother. How they struggle to conjure a black face, to recall a single African American resident. There were times — especially during election cycles — when I worried that this sort of myopia might mean mom would get an earful of unfiltered bigotry at the dining room table, based on the assumption she’s white. She never complained but still I worried. Call me old-fashioned, but I appreciate the ways in which evolving rules of engagement and more diverse shared spaces force a “think before you speak” discipline. Civility isn’t merely a tool of the status quo. And I didn’t mind — much — when people mistook me for my mom’s caretaker. After all I have strived to be a good daughter and I’ve known some damn ace caretakers. While the resident population isn’t racially diverse at Lakewood, the care team is composed of Latinas, black folks and a few white women.
Alas, as well-appointed as it was, Room 105 didn’t herald a bounce back or a leveling of Geri’s decline.
She still fell. Sybil showed up less frequently but Geri required daily wound care due to a pressure sore that worsened during a 10-hour wait at just about the lousiest place a senior can find herself: an ER.
A couple of nights before mom died, three caregivers stopped in en masse. One was a temp I didn’t know. The other two, whom I was particularly fond of, predated Geri’s residency at Lakewood. Since mom had only been there a couple of months, that might seem silly to point out. Yet, the turnover and staffing challenges at facilities like Lakewood and nursing homes in general demand critical attention. I was thankful for constancy.
Mom slept through the visit. For the last four days that’s pretty much what she did, her legs crossed and contracted. Three of us talked in hushed tones. This visit provided one of the high points of those last low days. (The other was a visit from the on-call hospice chaplain, whose singing voice proved a gift. When she began to sing "Amazing Grace," I tensed -- I'm tired of the go-to quality of the slaver-penitent hymn -- but then she swapped "soul" for "wretch" and I felt the song anew.)
Sitting in Room 105, S. and A. looked at a portrait of our family hanging on the wall where Geri could see it. They asked what Mr. Kennedy did and weren’t surprised he had been a psychologist. They asked about Geri, who had been a legal secretary. It came up that the pair had adopted my brother and me. “What!? No way! You look like her,” S. insisted. I wish.
Early in “Little Wanderings,” I admitted to a twinge of guilt for not being a more cuddling infant to Geri, for seemingly showing a baby’s preference for dad over mom. As much as I reached out to Floyd that first encounter at the New England Home for Little Wanderers in 1961, I held on tenaciously to Geri as she took her leave at Lakewood Memory Care on June 29, 2018. She was always becoming mom. I was always becoming her daughter. I will always be hers. She will always be mom.
Art for this post: Geri C. Kennedy bewitched, bewildered, bothered by the pattern on her sheet; Mom sleeping, June 4, 2018/Yours Truly.