I was Mom’s caregiver in the last years of her life, responsible for her care and safety. She was still living in her apartment in Milwaukee in early 1998 when our good friend Joanne, who would look in on Mom and receive her frantic phone calls – more frequent – when she was disturbed about something, let me know that Mom couldn’t live alone anymore. Her short term memory was affecting her ability to be independent.
In August of 1998 Jeff and I, along with a group of faithful friends and relatives, met in Milwaukee to pack up Mom’s apartment, to move her to Oakland, California, where we lived.
This story has a prelude, more interesting than the move itself. I had spent months preparing a place for Mom to live in the Bay Area. As a pastor, I’d visited lots of folks in assisted living homes. Often these homes were single family homes in residential neighborhoods, reconfigured to accommodate a few elderly folks who needed some level of personal care. I’d also discovered, and had had Mary Bahlert, my mom, named the recipient, of a grant – $1,000,000 – for a person who needed a retirement home and did not have the resources, at a wonderful continuing care facility in Oakland. Still, I needed a back-up plan. I kept looking.
Just in case.
I walked through many of the local assisted living homes, growing more and more distressed at how shoddy the rooms were, how meager the furnishings. The search was disheartening. One day, as I was getting ready for the day, I said a frantic prayer: “God, you’ve got to come through!”
Within a few minutes, as I made final preparations to leave the house, I decided to check the yellow pages once again, under “assisted living” – just in case. That day, when I opened the book, its pages fell open and my eyes set on a place I had not noticed before: Matilda Brown Home, Oakland. I called the place immediately; within a few minutes, Jeff and I were on our way over for a look.
Matilda Brown Home was a beautiful building with beautiful gardens, a beautiful room set for the next meal, an activity center on the second floor, and a few empty rooms, waiting for new occupants – women only. There was a well-appointed parlor with a grand piano, with windows that looked out on the gardens. The staff changed infrequently. I talked to the director and learned that Mom, with her limited resources, would be able to afford a room there. I left that day with some hope in my belly.
When we moved Mom to Oakland, I did try to have her live at the large continuing care facility where I’d received the generous grant. After 3 or 4 nights, the director called me in for a meeting to tell me that it didn’t look as if Mom was able to come in as independent, a requirement for the grant. Jeff and I sat in the meeting; the director and Jeff waited for my answer. I said: “let’s go over to Mathilda Brown.”
Within the hour, we’d secured Mom a small room with a shared bath on the first floor, the single window overlooking the driveway and the back of Oakland Tech, at Mathilda Brown Home. Within days we moved Mom into that little room, which we furnished with a few of her furnishings, and where she would die.
During her first weeks, I visited Mom often. I didn’t know what I was waiting for, but now I know that I was waiting for the place to be a fit – for her – and for me. During each visit, at some point, she’d look at me and say: “I’m trying, Mary Elyn.” We didn’t say anything else about it, although I knew it was my last hope for her to have a nice place to stay. I expect that she knew it, too.
One day, we sat in the garden, enjoying the afternoon together. Mom turned to me and asked: “How did you find this place, Mary Elyn?” “God found it,” I said.
Mom lived at Mathilda Brown for another 2-1/2 years before she was diagnosed with inoperable cancer and put on hospice care – which she received at Mathilda Brown Home. Each time I would visit, at some point, Mom would look at me and ask: “How did you find this place, Mary Elyn?” “God found it,” I would say. Her question assured me of her happiness.
During one of our last visits, when Mom could no longer get out of bed, I sat on her bed and we chatted. We talked about ordinary things, as we usually did. Then, Mom looked at me and asked: “How did you find this place, Mary Elyn?” Before I could answer, her face lit up and she said: “I know! God found it!”