Escape From Assisted Living

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My daughter’s taken all my money, all my stuff, all gone, and she’s up in the hills… I saw her on the TV, up in the hills, and she’s taken all my money and she’s with that guy. A scary type. She left me with nothing. I know she’s up there. I saw her on the TV.        

This was the narrative about me that she recited for the first few months she was living at The Place in Hollywood. I don’t know how many times a day or how many times an hour she repeated this story, but I do know she hummed it like a mantra or a prayer or a form of introduction.

Hello, hello, yes, hello…Can you help me? Listen, my daughter’s taken everything I have… 

She told Tom, the director of The Place, Helen, the activities director, all the aides (known as “pals,” ) as well as the dining room staff, the psychologist, and the table mates, Carol, whose thick perfume announced her, and Bridget, whose husband was also at the facility, though they no longer recognized one another. My mom also told the mobile physicians about my thievery and love for the hills, and she told the “real” doctor, a gerontologist, as well as the Spanish-speaking toe nail cutting lady. She informed my children, my soon-to-be ex husband, and Arlene, a friend who became her paid companion.

I got dirty looks from some of her table mates. I did. You couldn’t blame people who no longer could distinguish now from then, or here from there, for thinking I was a freckled bad apple.  I imagine I had quite a reputation at The Place.

My mom believed in the narrative wholeheartedly, as she paced the hallways, reciting the story as if she were memorizing lines for one of her plays, and before landing in Tom’s office for a long cry and an attempted cigarette break. (Smoking was permitted in the fifth floor lounge and she had to be accompanied by an aid who was available to sit with her and join her for a cigarette). Since this rarely, if ever, happened, my mom found ways to sneak a cigarette in the bathroom, or in a stairwell, just as she had done when the airlines rudely forbade smoking on the transatlantic flights.

I wasn’t actually up in the hills with the loot. I was taking care of two delightful young kids and painfully separating from my husband when she moved into The Place. As I recall,  with the help of an agent, I was revising a book of short stories I’d written in graduate school, transitioning from my life as a freelance journalist to a new job as part-time college writing instructor, weeping on my way to work, and trying not to fall apart.

As I was moving through my life, unsure of how to reconfigure the flow of our now diminished household, unclear whether the family had been permanently fractured, my mother was pacing the carpeted hallways for too many days and too many nights, feeling lost and confused. neglected and alone, frightened and unhinged.

And so one afternoon, a soft and sunny one I’m sure, my mother put her fine leather bag on her shoulder, dotted her lips, and entered the elevator. She walked through the first floor lounge, past the frozen figures in their lounge chairs, the grey, pregnant-bellied men, wearing saggy arches as frowns, and staring at the television. She brushed past the soft-spoken pals in their easter egg blue uniforms and their squared off nails, and the devoted sons and daughters of the residents, stopping by at lunch.

She picked up speed with her head held high, the click of her heels dulled by the carpeting, a cigarette and lighter hidden inside her fist. In the final stretch, she made it past the friendly receptionist, with the confidence she had gained from walking across runways and stages all her life.

At roughly two in the afternoon, my mother, about 75-years-old, 114 lbs, 5 foot, 6 inches tall, and suffering from early stage dementia, walked out the front door and down the paved and manicured driveway –  to freedom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Assisted Living

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Year Two

1. The poor girl was so confused she thought she was moving into a New York apartment or a facsimile of one.  She thought she was leaving the two-bedroom flat in Atwater that she had sparsely but low key decorated for a doorman building with a lobby and lively people who got fully dressed during the day, a place with taxi service, restaurant-style meals and books on the shelves.

I had toured the assisted living place, we’ll call it, The Place in Hollywood, and I knew all about the activity room, the happy hour, the brain games* stationed in the hallways, the auctions and fashion shows, and best of all, the movie night. The schedule for the movie night was issued each week and taped inside the elevator with images from the upcoming films. Over the two years she lived there, my mother and I made it halfway through Big with Tom Hanks, Young Frankenstein, a favorite,  and  maybe part of North by Northwest.

You couldn’t blame them for trying. But you could blame them for a lot of other things.

I remember moving day as being heartbreaking for both of us. It was like dropping off an injured child at an overpriced wilderness experience, knowing they may  become feral. Knowing they may not recognize you the next time you see them — or worse, they may not recognize themselves. I’d convinced myself that now that she could no longer take care of herself, this was the only choice. Or somehow the best lousy one.

We got her all settled in her suite overlooking the courtyard and met the sales agent for lunch, downstairs in the dining room.  He was what my father would have called a snazzy dresser.  Good shoes,  in his 30s, drove a Porsche. Over the Cobb salad, he complimented my mother, telling her how many friends she would make, reminding her there were several former actors in the facility and assuring us both of how much there was to do!

When he spoke to her, it wasn’t condescension I heard, but a cheerful voice shared  by nurses, aides, activity directors, and caregivers. Certain positive words were exaggerated: friends, happy, comfortable, fun, active, seniors. The expression my mother held on her elegant bones was one of polite reserve. She could still smile more or less on cues from others and she checked my reactions to see when to nod or laugh. She repeated many of her stock answers, always making sure the sales agent—and everyone she spoke to—knew that she was “born and raised in New York – and  glad to be back!”

Less than 24 hours after she moved in, I arrived after work to find that she had dismantled the entire suite and had crammed a range of odd, non-packable items into her suitcases – even things she didn’t own. She put silverware on top of some silk dresses, candlesticks, knick knacks, photo albums, stuffed animals, bright plastic plates, a toaster, and a somber-covered Andrew Wyeth coffee table book.

“I’m heading out,” she said. “Back home. This place isn’t for me. Besides, they eat too early and the people are not what I’m used to. Not friendly. There’s a know-it-all down the hall.”

But she didn’t move out. Instead, the next six months were filled with paranoia, inconsolable weeping, trying new psych meds, and a steady decline of her cognitive function. Months of reading and not remembering a single line. Months of saying she was sick of bingo and salty food and having strangers wash her body and put her to bed.

Months of planning her escape

 

 

 

 

 

 

*A study by Cambridge University found that video games improved the brain function of those with early memory problems which can be a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After the Fall

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Year Ten

 

Hi Deirdre

So I am sorry to say that there have been at least 20 incident reports on your mom since she moved in.   She continues to get up on her own and keeps falling.

Also, now she is getting aggressive.  I’m so sorry that this is what happens in so many cases when they have dementia and they reach another stage of the disease and they don’t remember that they could fall, but most often do.

It’s hard to believe that she is recovering from a hip replacement and has fallen already so much. Found in the closet, by the bed, and in the bathroom.  

In a Skilled Nursing Facility  (SNF) they have alarms on the beds and in the wheelchairs.  We aren’t licensed to do this.   It is just terribly dangerous for her in this state of mind.

In order for her to stay here at        , you will have to have a 1-1 caregiver for two shifts.   At night she will need to have medicine that makes her sleep through the night.   I also would need an order for a walker.   So, can you talk to Dr. Alza?  What is she taking at nighttime for sleep?

We need to talk.  Mrs. Pink says if you cannot agree to do this that we will have to give a 30 day notice and you need to look for a Skilled Nursing Facility for her.  I’m so sorry.  We are just too liable.

a beautiful day for getting lost

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Year one.

The weather was its usual cool perfection in L.A. That’s the way I remember it and I’m probably not wrong.

A beautiful day for getting lost.

To be clear, she wasn’t roaming. Roaming is sluggish, and an excellent form of leisure. While roaming,  you hope to make discoveries. I know because I like to roam and I like to wander. She was on her way to our place on foot, she’d later explain, but she got confused.

I calculated it would take 55 minutes on foot and 9 minutes by car. This is why Angelenos drive everywhere all the time, pretty much without exception.

Pat left a message that she was walking over. I tried her back on the cellphone that she never learned to use,  but she’d was already in motion.

The sun was setting in that lazy way it does, with greys and orange and shades of pink. Hours passed. It seemed cruel to think of my mother, the once elegant lady of Chanel perfume and designer scarves, high heels and summer espadrilles now sockless, walking the streets without direction, without purpose, as if  she’d heard a calling.

My husband went out looking for her on the scooter. I drove around the neighborhood in the car with the radio turned up high, blaring out the panic that was  setting in.  She’s out there somewhere. Untethered. On the loose.

She walked and walked and walked until her long dancer legs began to betray her. Past big rambling houses off the Boulevard. Commuter cars going somewhere west. She walked until all the signs looked foreign and all the streets looked the same. No markings. Nothing familiar, as if she’d been tricked.

She stopped for a cigarette. And another. And another. Maybe she had a few conversations, maybe none. Until, in that twilight hour, when nothing makes sense and day is confused with night, a man stopped his car and asked if she needed his help.

He was middle-aged and played in an orchestra. Or maybe that was a different driver from another day. Maybe this first one was the radiologist. There were so many lost days and so many saviors, I honestly can’t be sure. The man who picked her up was overweight and breathed heavily as his foot depressed the brakes. We’ll go with that.

The report about the man and how she ended up in his car came from my mother, an unreliable narrator. I am also, admittedly, an unreliable narrator. I can say she was delivered to our home in Los Feliz around 8 PM, after my son gave out directions by phone. I can say what I remember, about that day, that incident, but we know that memory is faulty. Memory is overrated.

Yet we assume that memory is everything. We believe in it, praise it as a record of lives lived, of things imagined and glorified,  or we curse it for a vision of the past we wish we did not own. Memory becomes the anchor of our selfhood. Our treasure chest. The container of our secrets, our lies, and our noble deeds. And when it’s lost? What happens then? What are we then? Are we lost, or are we found?

That evening, my seven-year-old stayed home alone. We told him not to open the door to anyone, except Nana. So, after giving careful directions to her driver, after being engulfed in several shows,  my son looked up to find Nana appearing in the driveway like an apparition.  When my husband and I arrived home, she was there at the door in her fitted wool jacket and her scarf tied at the neck, her good leather shoes, her blistered heels, and her handbag, always the handbag, stuffed with assortments of hairbrushes, bags of nuts, Reese’s peanut butter cups, jewelry, scraps of papers, ancient bus schedules from another city, loose change, red-hued lipsticks, expired licenses, and broken cigarettes — just in case.

She was thirsty, she was tired, she was amused. She had rebelled against all the instructions about how to be safe in this city, how to navigate, how to alert us that she needed to be picked up, how to call a taxi. Instead, she’d told herself she was going to walk from her apartment to our house. Or at least a part of her would walk and a part of her would finally arrive.

When I saw her at the door, I felt the same relief I’d felt when I’d lost track of the kids in an open space, even for a moment and then found them hiding behind a rack of sweaters or ducking down beneath the register. The adrenaline rushing, the panic like a siren, and then the calm of the crisis ending.  I wanted to scold her, tell her never to do that again, but she was already at the point where not listening had become her private rebellion. I don’t think I had harsh words for my mother. I think, I want to think, that I made her a cup of coffee and asked her if she’d like to stay for dinner. I think I showed her my love.

How to Live Without A Mother Part I

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it’s that last song on the album and you don’t get to it in time, so the needle soars off the grooves on to the part where there is no more music to be played. And then you  think, I’ll just start the record again, or I’ll just play that last song again, but then you remember that the record can’t be played again. Ever.

how to live without a mother?

you pretend that your kids and your extended family and your colleagues and the loving and compassionate best friends you’ve had for decades and your lovers and your spiritual advisors and your artist sisters and your shrinks and your 12-step people and your tennis buddies will pull you along, tow you, if necessary.  And they will.

you get to be free in a new way. yeah, independent. you get to be lonely in a new way. in fact, you soon discover a new brand of loneliness.

there’s an understanding that’s been forced on you of limitation, of ending, of finite. And it’s heavy.  You remember that you only have a certain number of precious minutes and seconds to do whatever it is before your time runs out. The countdown is on and  you are suddenly in a hurry to live. You’re told to take it easy. Be kind to yourself. Does that mean you can eat tapioca rice pudding from Gelson’s for breakfast?

how to live without a mother?

you make reasonable choices. You accomplish what you can, knowing you must leave time to be still and do nothing. In that nothingness you are still doing something. You might even connect with her in that nothingness, in that stillness, but you won’t know unless you pause. But you’re afraid to pause because we are all afraid to pause.

You believe that there is a cycle of birth and death and this is just part of it. The worst part.

One day, if you’re lucky, you’ll be a grandmother, and then your mother’s DNA will vibrate inside that new person. This revival seems impossible yet promising.  Connective tissue, energy, atoms and molecules. The new person with traces of your mother’s DNA will  be very beautiful and funny and have good skin and hair. Guaranteed.

You remember that thing they say all the time when you go to the Buddhist Center about how we must accept suffering as a part of life. We cannot have a life without suffering. Now she is no longer suffering. You are.

You often remember her imperfections but you would like to go back in time to revisit each one.

You think of random things: nine-year-old you are cueing her on her lines for a Neil Simon play that summer in Lake Placid; trying on her shoes after getting lost in her walk-in closet; finding her empty vodka glasses under the skirt of the sofa, watching her curl her hair and expertly do her makeup; watching her getting dressed, wearing only  pantyhose and a bra, and thinking she looks like a model you’ve seen in a magazine;  measuring your height against hers, back-to-back.

You think of things to tell your own daughter and son about yourself. What must they know before it’s too late? You fear the idea that you’ll live some part of your waking life in bed as she did, and someone will look into your eyes, but you’ll be gone. You hope that doesn’t happen, but you fear it will. You fear it will because you saw it happen to your mother and you were helpless and she was helpless and she never did anything to deserve getting ill.

At the luncheon on Christopher Street, my two aunts and my daughter and I remember things about Pat. Of all my mother’s sisters, petite, dark-haired Lisa looks the most like her. Lisa reaches for something at the table and  her hands look identical to my mother’s hands. At least you want them to look identical.  Hands are so important.  Eyes and hands.

My father’s sister has so many stories inside of her about my mother and my father and her late husband.  They were all best friends, and she’s the keeper of the family stories.  But you’ve noticed, now that she’s 90, she doesn’t like to relive the past. When you ask her about the trips they went on together, she repeats, we had great times. Great times.

You hope your mother would have liked the luncheon  at the Italian place, with a handsome manager from Boston and pictures of Frank Sinatra on the walls. The food was good enough: alfredo, ravioli, mussels.  The company was better. Lisa reminded us of how funny my mother was. How she used to do imitations and “bits.” She was a comedienne at heart. Laughing and crying over the trauma of her childhood.

…laughing and crying, you know it’s the same release.  

You feel smaller than a spec and large enough to be the matriarch that you’ve become overnight.  You got crowned while you were asleep, but there was no time to give a speech.

how to live without a mother?

in your dreams, your mother brushes your hair, spraying detangler and laughing about what you’ve hidden in there.  in your dreams,  you kiss her freckled cheeks again and again.

 

 

 

 

i am her story

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When I photograph her old photographs, something happens that’s hard to explain in the way that a suite of emotion is hard to express.  I  obsess over chronology– how old was she in that one? where was she living? did she know my father yet? who was behind the camera?  No reveal is forthcoming; I can only guess about her circumstance as I comb for clues in her smile, in her gestures and stylish clothes.

But the biggest surprise and strangest sensation is felt while staring out from behind my mother’s eyes. There is a synergy between us that cannot be emulated by any other pairing. I live behind her eyes in many captured moments.  I smirk and seduce and laugh as broadly as she once did.

With words and images I make a futile attempt to carry her into the future. In this retrospective realm, I meet her again in her winter coats, or with her pigtails and ballet flats, or laughing with her sisters, or on the glamorous streets of Paris, or on the stage of a downtown theatre, dressed in the costume of her character, or walking in The Village,  or holding my tiny hand as we cross the busy streets of Manhattan.

I am her story and she is mine.

Storms in the Living Room

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The Christmas tree lots were presided over by eager ruddy-faced guys, the cold turning their breath white, the orange lights on their menthol cigarettes poking from their gloved hands.  My dad made deals, slipping crisp twenties from his billfold to a palm.

We were lucky and privileged and safe. Something I took for granted, as we carried our tree home, and placed it in front of the bookcase. My mother kept a shoebox filled with aging ornaments, some of which I’ve retained for my own family tree: the tiny red sleigh with a noseless reindeer, the pink ornament with sandy sparkles, the skiier missing a ski, the soft puppy, the angel, the yellow suited Texan guy, and more.

The spirited music started days before. Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, show tunes. My mother complained that she had to “run around getting all the presents for family, friends and my father’s associates and secretaries,” while my father, who was ever generous, complained that he was the one buying all the presents. A long box, a joke present, wrapped and placed under the tree early, was a gift for my mother: a carton of Winstons. Oh, honey, you shouldn’t have, she’d say.  This saved my father  the hassle of having to go around the corner when my mother crumpled an empty soft pack in despair on Sunday morning.

In beautiful boxes with careful wrapping, there were sweaters and records, perfume and jewelry and hardcover books. Often a holiday puzzle consumed my mother. She’d make her way through instant coffees and cigarettes, selecting and organizing in corners the cloud pieces, or the perimeter of the Jackson Pollock splatter print, or the pinks of the candy-themed stripes.

Christmas Eve parties included guests from the worlds of film, advertising, theatre, art and publishing, who joined us for a buffet feast. There were people my dad new from college in Chapel Hill, a famed beat poet from Upper West Side high school days, a judge who put away a few mafia bosses, an actress who starred in several Warhol films, and some shiny-haired younger actresses Pat new from the Actor’s Studio, who were invited mostly for the pleasure of my dad and his married male friends, who were a decade older than my mother.

There was lots of drinking and exchanges about politics, but mostly a fun, intimate evening that often included a turn at the piano, where Marvin, a songwriter of note, played his hit song, “Sonny” and several other popular hits dating back to the 1940s. I learned the lyrics to “The Lady is A Tramp” as sung by Frank Sinatra. All the guests joined in for that one.

When everyone left, if my mother had had too much to drink, there was often a fight that broke out between my parents. And though we had opened the presents, finished off the booze, and eaten the ham, the salad, and the potato souffle, there was a storm brewing in the living room, from which I had nowhere hide. No siblings to confide in. I worried that my parents would not make it through the storm, that all the tenderness I’d seen earlier in the evening had vanished and the festive mood had been replaced by rancor.

I worried always that my mother was unhappy in ways that I couldn’t understand. Triggers. Hauntings. Causes unknown.  It seemed like a soft but consistent rain began to fall on her and she hadn’t the strength to move out of the way.  I saw that when she drank it was not just to be lively but to forget.  She let a new Pat take over. Her lightly freckled face would shift throughout the evening from its glamorous, angular shape to a softer, somber version. And by the time we sat in our small wrapping paper pond,  my mother’s hazel eyes were a wistful, seaside green. She seemed to be thinking not of Christmas, but of things that made her angry or tired or defeated.

More than once I woke on Christmas Day wondering what I would find.  Would my mother still be asleep, on the living room sofa with bobbie pins in her thick dark hair,  mascara smeared from weeping, and one elegant shoe dangling from her foot? Would it still be Christmas?

 

I get too hungry, for dinner at eight
I like the theater, but never come late
I never bother, with people I hate
That’s why the lady is a tramp — Rogers + Hart

 

 

 

 

Remains

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He said people of our generation can’t handle getting old

this was days after the suicides

of two figures we  all thought we knew

i watched the way he walked down the street

a loping, arguably elegant gait

baggy pants

assertive strides

long arms swinging

an impatient walk

an athlete’s walk

i’d known that walk for thirty years

and i started to weep behind my glasses

because we once were young lovers

exploring L.A.

exploring each other

and we once were married for years and years

and we once made those gorgeous children

and because now we are on our way

to collect my mother’s remains:

salt and minerals

paper, ash, and bone

and i don’t have to walk alone

 

 

 

 

20 Things My Mother Told Me

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  1. New shoes on the table bring a policeman to the door. (Scottish superstition)
  2. Don’t you want to put a little lipstick on?
  3. For job interviews, college interviews, things that count: just be yourself.
  4. Men stopped me on the street, or on the subway, to ask for my number.
  5. I dated Steve McQueen when I was living in The Village — he was too fast for me.
  6. Growing up, I never had anyone in my corner.
  7. When I told my mother I was marrying your father, she opened the window and screamed “bloody murder!”
  8. When I sang in church as a little girl, the nuns told me to mouth the words. I always thought I was tone deaf.
  9. My sister had a thing for mobsters. Your dad did too. He always wanted to double date with M. and her guy, Budgy.  She always had a new fur coat, and they got us in to all the clubs.
  10. I’m just going to lie down for half an hour.
  11. Unfortunately, most men of my generation are male chauvinists.
  12. I never learned to treat acting as a business.
  13. Your father was the love of my life.
  14. Your father was a narcissist.
  15. Once you have kids, everything changes in the marriage. Be prepared.
  16. French women are incredibly stylish, but so are New Yorkers.
  17. I wanted more children, but your father already had a son.
  18. I loved Jed like he was my son.
  19. Things got crazy in Fire Island. Too much drinking and chasing women around.
  20. Don’t scratch the chicken pox. Instead, wear white gloves, and eat chicken noodle soup, hard boiled eggs mashed with butter and toast, or rose-colored Jell-o.

 

Things That Need Repeating

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Days of the week, if it’s night or day, reasons to get out of bed, reasons to go to bed, how to butter toast, the names of my children, my name, your name, your ex-husband’s name, the caregivers’ names, why to say hello to someone you’ve known for fifty years, when to laugh at a joke, where the bed is located in the room, what to do with a hairbrush, why there’s noise coming from the television, who the people are in the photos on the bedside table, where I live, where you live and why you live there, how to wash your hands, how to put on socks, how to cross a threshold from one room to the next, how to light a cigarette, how to get up from sitting, and how to take off your pants.

I thought about not telling my mother that after living together for more than 20 years, my husband and I were calling it quits.  Then I thought of telling her casually to see if she still understood familial connections, to see if she could feel my pain vibrating, radiating, imbedded in my bones. Maybe if she knew, she’d say something, anything, to assuage it.

I was visiting her at the place in West Hollywood and I remember we were sitting on the lawn chairs just outside her door. There was a kind of urban patio with a gazebo and some trash cans hidden behind withering plants. There was local chatter and  the noise of fast cars from Fairfax.

She was still smoking back then, so she lit one up and exhaled. She asked me for the third or fourth time that day if I’d been working. Yes, I assured her, I work every day. I’m a college professor.

She was always very excited by that idea. “Your father would be so proud,” she’d say, smiling on his behalf.  A few minutes later, she’d ask, “Are you working at all?”

“Still writing?”

Yes, I would nod.

“Terrific!” she’d say.

This all happened around the time she was sure she could see my son across a concrete parking lot. She was certain she could see him playing soccer “in those fields over there.”  Hallucinations became frequent. The TV was communicating with her about some fires and other disasters that “weren’t a volcano.” This took place shortly before the evil Russian psychiatrist put her on a drug that ruined everything.

But that’s for another time.

This was my window in which to tell her about the fracture in my life. So, I began explaining that my husband and I had grown apart. I think that was the phrase I used. That’s often code for we wanted to kill each other.  But it was, in our case, the truth. We had grown apart and decided to separate. We didn’t want it to happen, but it happened.

So, I said all that and then waited for her response.

Finally, Pat said, “So, he’s not around anymore.”

“No,” I said. “He’s moving on. We’re hoping to end up friends.  He still comes by to  see the kids. He’ll visit you.”

“Oh,” Pat said. “I’m sorry to hear that. And you can’t see a counselor or something?”

“No, no… We’re probably going to get divorced.”

She didn’t look too upset, more confused by this confession.

“You okay?” she asked, smoothing my hair.

“Sort of. Not really, mom.”

“Marriage is really something,” she said, as she pat me gently.

She reached to hug me and I could smell her maternal scent. It was the smell of my childhood, the smell of safe and of home.  I held back tears.

We’d left the door to her room open and the neighbor, who wore a bubblegum pink T-shirt and matching Gilligan’s Island-style hat, popped her head in. Each time I’d spoken with this neighbor she had announced some relationship she had with Flea and The Chili Peppers. Her daughter might’ve been married to Flea, or mothered a baby with one of them. It wasn’t clear.

“Dinner time!” the Bubblegum Lady yelled and kept walking towards the dining room.

“Ready to eat?” I asked my mom, feeling relieved to finally share my news.

By now she’d finished her cigarette and was about to hide the stub in the pocket of her jeans. “Sure,” she said. “The food here is the pits. Sure.”

“I can walk you down the hall, get you settled with your table mates and then I’ll go make dinner for the kids,” I said.

My mom nodded, and gave herself a dab of lipstick before I placed the bright green elastic bracelet with her room key on her wrist.

Then she turned to me with a familiar grin.  “Where’s your husband? The big guy? I haven’t seen him in a while.”