A woman in love. A woman, 75 or so, who danced at the Luau party in the arms of a stranger for the first time in how many years? A woman who held a place for love in a mind that was fast becoming a hoax, a grim repository of gangsters, monsters, hecklers, forgotten words, lost reactions, and shrunken dioramas of time and place.
Now that I’d heard the confirmation about the man she claimed was her lover, The Bear, I realized I might have to take action. She revealed the identity of The Bear as the man known as Ilian R. He was a worker, a PAL, in The Neighborhood, the lockdown unit at The Fancy Place in Hollywood. He was 35, background-checked, and a recent staff addition.
In Ilian’s arms, she cooed, “the world fell away.”
For several weeks, I admit I condoned the love affair. I put lipstick on her thinning lips, rouge on her cheeks. I complimented her on the blouses and outfits she wore. She smiled often and seemed to be tolerating the bland days in The Neighborhood, though she did have a few grudge matches over “cheating at games” and “dirty looks” with a bent-bodied resident who carried a purple unicorn on her walker.
While playing checkers in The Neighborhood, the 30-something daughter of another resident asked me if I thought they were getting good care. I said no, not at all, and that I’d happily share my experience with her. I think her name was Janet. We exchanged numbers, and I told her about my mother’s love affair with Ilian, and my mother’s escape to the freeway, and my mother’s suicidal ideation. I asked Janet to keep an eye out for anything odd while she was visiting her dad in The Neighborhood — and report back.
Janet and I did stay in touch about some crazy shit happening with her dad, a former surgeon, who was very aggressive with the staff, and who was whisked off to a mental hospital for medication adjustment. We talked a few times, and Janet revealed that she was bipolar and therefore less able to make decisions about her dad’s care than was her sister, who was a control freak but not bipolar. She asked me if I thought that was fair. I said I didn’t think it was fair, but I didn’t really have an opinion. I said, I guess it’s better to have siblings than not to have siblings.
I was an only child with an older half-brother who lived with us for three of his teenage years. Most years, all the presents under the tree were for me. My mother loved my brother like a son, and stayed up late into the night rapping with him about the establishment, grass, the sexual revolution, and anti-materialism. When I was seven, he left for college in the South.
As a result of my one-on-one status, my mother and I played together like sisters for about 17 years. When she wasn’t depressed, we sang together and did puzzles, and read books together. For my tenth birthday, we saw “Hair” on Broadway together. We often ate grilled cheese sandwiches together, went to playgrounds, art exhibitions at The Met and The Guggenheim together, went sledding on Dog Hill, went ice skating at Wollman Rink, and rode bikes in Central Park together. We confided our deepest secrets in each other, smoked her Winston’s together, and later drank and talked about men together. We cooked fettuccine alfredo and slept in the same bed when my father went on business trips. We traveled together, swam in the Atlantic ocean together, told fibs to my elementary school teachers about my missing homework assignments together, shopped at Bloomingdale’s and did living room “runway” shows together. We sometimes ganged up on my dad for being a chauvinist together, and generally knew that we were each other’s number one.
By the time she was in The Fancy Place, I had Power of Attorney and essentially had to become my mother. I had assumed all responsibility for the person formerly known as Pat. It was a heavy feeling, different from the transformation of footloose to mother of two small children. As daunting as motherhood can be, I felt prepared for it just by being myself and meeting the challenge with love. Even as we signed the papers at the attorney’s office, I resisted becoming my mother. I didn’t feel equipped and it didn’t seem right. It was as if, while I slept, the planets had surreptitiously shifted their position around the sun.
This latest turn, Pat’s heady love affair, was a tricky one. I had to do what was best for her, for me, and perhaps for other residents who might soon get bussed into The Neighborhood. I learned that elder abuse is a serious accusation. I didn’t want to damage Ilian’s life, especially if he was in some kind of odd but consensual relationship with my mother. I also didn’t want a privileged white woman to accuse a Latinx of a horrible crime he didn’t commit.
I am her story. She is mine.
I remember Tom pointedly asking me whether Pat was still talking about the boyfriend. His tone was dismissive, unkind.
“We’ve got a problem here,” I said. “I want you to start an investigation today.”