“What is this place?”

I’ve been wanting to post this all week, but haven’t wanted to think about it again. But I might as well think about it, because I have to face it again tomorrow.
My mom has a friend she’s known since college named Mary Anne (little tidbit that I find funny- her “group” in college was 4 women; Mary Alice (my mom) Mary Anne, Mary Aline and Mary Eileen). Mary Anne is my sister’s Godmother, and she’s been a reasonably active part of our lives for as long as I can remember- closer than many family members in fact. Now that I’m older I realize that she has always had this young girl air about her. She’s 65 now, has never been married, and has some pretty antiquated ideas of what “proper behavior” is. She wore this outfit to my sister’s wedding- that she made herself- that I don’t think I’ve ever seen on anyone older than four. (I’m not knocking her, I’m just giving some background). Sometimes I feel like I don’t like her very much because I don’t understand her, but her presence in my life is a part of me, and for that I will always love her.
She’s always had health problems, and in March of this year she went into the hospital. She doesn’t have any health insurance, so she was in San Francisco General. It’s a city run hospital, and is actually a pretty scary place. There are three locked wards there, and one of those is a jail. But, it’s where you go when you can’t pay for a private hospital. My mom is the executor of her estate, and while Mary Anne has been in the hospital she has had financial power of attorney. Basically what that means is that my mom can cash Mary Anne’s pension and social security and use that money to pay the rent on her apartment, and her related bills so that she’ll have a place to come home to. My mom and 2 other friends (not the Marys from college) have been doing what they can to take care of things for her.
In July Mary Anne was transferred to Laguna Honda Hospital, a long term care facility that is also run by the city. People with no insurance and no one to take care of them go there for, well, long term care. They said she’d be there for at least six months, and now it’s looking like it might be closer to a year. I’m not sure what is wrong with her that she has to stay that long, but I hate that she is there at all.
My mom has been to visit her a lot. I went for the first time last Saturday, and I never want to see that place again. I will of course, at least a few times, but I will hate every moment. My mom and I pulled into the parking lot last Saturday, which is at the back of the building, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. 20 or so people were milling around the doors, including a black woman in a peach robe and a shower cap, sitting in a wheelchair with a cast from hip to ankle on one leg. She’s the only one that stands out in my mind from the crowd.
“Mom… What is this place?”
“It’s Laguna Honda Hospital,” she said. I’ve never seen anything like it. When we walked in we had to sign our names in a book and the guard gave us visitor tags that said K5 on them, which was the ward Mary Anne is in. When we got to K5 we had to sign in again in another book. It did not escape my notice that the last five entries in the book were either my mom or Paula, another friend of Mary Anne’s. Those five entries spanned a 10 day period. There had been no other visitors to this ward in that long.
We entered the ward and I fought to keep my emotions down. I tried to figure out what sort of nightmare I had walked into. There were 30 beds in this large room. All of them were full. Nothing separated these beds but a curtain and a few feet. I tried not to stare but it’s hard. Most had their own tv’s, which were on. All seemed to have visitor chairs, piled with things because there was never anyone to sit in them. Who were these people? Where were their families, thier friends? Why did only one person in this room of thirty have people to visit them? There were brightly colored afghans on almost every bed, but rather than making the room cheerful they seemed to make the pale gray-green walls sadder. Our visit lasted about an hour but I could not enjoy it.
If you’re in Laguna Honda more than two months you have to sign over any and all income to them to pay for your care. Thusly there is no longer money for my mom to keep her apartment for her. Tomorrow and Sunday I will go with my mother and some other friends to clean out the last stuff in her apartment. She’s lived alone for a long time, and she’s a major packrat. She has a two bedroom apartment in San Francisco (in Noe Valley! $700 a month! God Bless rent control) that is so full of stuff that there were pathways to get through and around it all. My mom and two friends have spent the last month in there packing, and it’s still not all packed. Mary Anne will probably never live alone again, and my mom says even if she does she’ll never be able climb the two flights of stairs to that apartment so moving her out would have happened eventually anyway.
Of course I will help. Of course I will visit. There are a million things I’d rather do, because the emotion in this situation is so heavy that all I want to do is run from it. This situation makes me sad, and angry, and afraid to grow old. Her life and her situation are things I won’t even try to understand. But I can’t make my mom do this on her own. I can’t not be there for a woman who has always been there for me. Doing things you don’t always like is part of being an adult. You do them because they need to be done. And I won’t let Mary Anne be just another person in that place with no one to visit her.

One thought on ““What is this place?”

  1. Brad

    That’s a terrible situation… but one that I understand. Even in a private facility, the visit is usually with someone on their last stretch of life, and it’s not a pretty stretch.
    Best of luck to her, and to you. I will say that I don’t blame you for limiting your visits, but that when she is long gone, you will always remember them and feel a bit of pride in bringing some light to her life, and for doing “the adult thing”.

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