How do you fit a life into three dresser drawers and 3 feet of closet space?
The furniture wouldn’t be able to go into the new place. Two dressers. Nightstand. The TV in all its 42-inch, flat-screen, unwatched glory. The filing cabinets filled with the meticulously preserved paperwork of life — the ancient bills; the deed for the $28,000 house in Los Altos, Calif.; the marriage certificate from Providence, R.I., and the separation agreement from Mexico; the next marriage certificate from San Jose, Calif., and the list splitting up the house contents, with a note attached, “I have tried over and over. You have a big wall around you that never, ever weakens.”
And all the pictures. So many pictures like the one held between the old man’s shaky fingers.
“That’s you,” he said.
“No. I was never in the Navy. And that’s 1950.”
“It’s your twin.”
“It’s you. That handsome bastard is you, Dad.”
I took the picture back. There he was with that self-assured smile, like he knew something you didn’t. He always seemed to carry that attitude. Not now, though. Not since that massive stroke in 2009.
Dad has been in assisted living since then, draining the money he saved for me. He wasn’t present for most of my life, but he wanted to leave me something when he died. Now that was gone too.
After a day, Dad still wasn’t sure who I was — his father, his brother, but definitely not his son. He hadn’t seen me since his mother’s funeral in 1982. He was then just younger than I am now. These days, he looks just like his dad did then. As I suppose I now look like he did then.
I got the sense that Dad’s world is stuck in the twilight between sleep and wakefulness, like he is never sure if he is dreaming.
This was early in my stay, and I had a whole week to convince Dad who I was. But in the end, it didn’t really matter who he thought I was. I just had to get him to his newest assisted living facility. In this move, we were going way down market.
The choice was between a large, tired facility in an industrial section of Long Beach near the Los Angeles International Airport. The other was a small, also-tired facility in Toluca Lake that at least felt cozy. In either case, he’d have to share a room that was smaller than the single he occupied in his Glendale facility. New owners have taken over the Glendale facility. They spruced things up and are now raising rates. It didn’t matter. Dad ran out of savings and I couldn’t afford to keep paying the spread between his income and the current monthly bill, much less the $1,700 difference with the spruced-up price.
Dad was entitled to a Veterans Administration pension called Aid and Attendance because he served during wartime. But after a year and a half, the VA rejected our application, simply because the agency had the discretion. His disabilities weren’t related to his service, so they didn’t have to grant it. Here was a guy who wanted to serve his country and became a medic because he didn’t want to kill people. This was one of the people politicians and “patriots” all saluted until their arms fell numb but ignored when they actually needed help. It was hard to blame the underfunded VA for creaking along, but it was easy to feel bitter.
The VA’s rejection letter, I waited eight months to receive, suggested another pension. I applied for that, not even bothering with the Disabled American Veterans caseworker who was supposed to be helping me. I was better off helping myself.
Someone suggested calling a congressman. After a request to Rep. Scott Perry’s office, followed up with paperwork and phone calls, the VA seemed to notice that a congressman was interested in the case. But things weren’t looking that much better — just another long ride on the merry-go-round.
We were out of time. I had arranged a mover long distance from Pennsylvania, but it looked like there would be more dumping than moving. The new place was furnished. All Dad was getting was half a dresser and half a closet. So, there I was, fresh off the plane, deciding what to take back with me and what to toss.
That was when I decided to take a break and cleared the packages of Depends undergarments and plastic bed liners off the only chair in the room that did not have wheels or a hole cut out of the middle of the seat.
I did the now-customary extraction of my iPhone and started poking at the screen. That puzzled Dad. The last time he saw me I had a smartphone, but I wasn’t yet addicted to it. The time before that, I had a flip phone. I turned the phone around to show him the weather report. It was going to be unseasonably hot. But that didn’t mean much to him. He didn’t even care who the president was. Then again, being oblivious to the whole 2016 presidential campaign is a little enviable.
As I dipped into my email, I noticed one from Tyra Wallace, Perry’s aide. She wrote, “Rec’d 15 min ago,” with an attachment.
Dear Mr. Morelli:
Congressman Scott Perry has expressed an interest in your claim and will receive a copy of this letter.
We made a decision on your claim. This letter tells you about your entitlement amount, payment start date, what we decided and how we calculated your benefit ...
There it was after nearly two years of banging my head against the VA wall. I wouldn’t have to move Dad after all.
And I thought of all the residents I had met in the other facilities I had been considering. Many of them said they didn’t have family to help them. They really didn’t know what happened to their money, their things and, really, their lives.
What will happen to the even more dispersed, vast population of boomers when they start shuffling through these doors to live out their ever-extending lives? The Medicaid fund for nursing homes in California was already closed for new cases for the fiscal year. Who will care for those people when the money runs out?
At least this is one veteran who for the foreseeable future does not have to worry about that or anything else. After I spent a few days just visiting Dad, it came time to say goodbye — for probably the last time. I pulled out my phone for the now-customary selfie. As I angled the phone to get us both in the frame, Dad pointed to his own image.
“Who is that?”
“That’s you, Dad. That handsome bastard is you.”