06/13/2013 08:24 am ET Updated Aug 13, 2013

Brush With Wealth

Deborah Batjer served as a past editor of "Puget Soundings," a bimonthly publication showcasing the Northwest's art and literary talent, regional issues and opinions. She also had a career in business writing, editing, and printing. This is her first short story.

Leaden. That's how I felt as I pulled into one of the guest slots in the care facility's parking lot. I had been here so many times in the past five years, but it was getting harder to see mother's condition deteriorating. I knew that one of these times soon, the director would tell me it was time to move her from this Assisted Living place.

I knew that moment was approaching. Colonial House did not have a dementia area. There was a new place that had just opened nearby with a special wing and great reports of programs, but I had not investigated it. My husband and I had talked about mom's next step and we were committed to situating her in the best possible place, but it had always been theoretical. We felt that discussing it behind mom's back seemed like a violation.

The disparity between what I felt in my gut to be imminent and the lack of any plan made me anxious. The last time I visited her, she didn't recognize me. When I told her my name and added that I was her daughter, she simply responded, "If you're my daughter, you should kiss me." It was heartbreaking. It was the first time she did not recognize me.

What would I find today?

As long as there was no urgency to move her, I desperately wanted the status quo to continue. Other than visiting her and watching her decline helplessly, though, there seemed little I could do. She had been such a strong, independent woman throughout my life. She would have been the loudest to decry the awfulness, the unfairness, and the first to caution us that she never wanted to get to this point. Easy to say.

My family loved her fiercely, and felt enormous loyalty and responsibility for all the years that she had unselfishly supported her entire family. I knew she wanted that devotion to be her greatest legacy. Thankfully, she was still very loving but her other once-familiar qualities, like laughter, empathy, curiosity, and wisdom, were rapidly fading, replaced by an uninhabited impassiveness.
She had always taken such pride in her appearance, getting her beautiful white hair done every week and having her nails regularly manicured. She wore tailored clothes and fashionable heeled shoes until a couple of years ago. One of the tip offs to her decline, in fact, had been a growing disinterest in her grooming. The mother I once knew was disappearing.

She was just a shell of her past, sustained with little but distant memories and constant anxieties about the next hour. It was painful to watch. At some point, my visits had morphed into perfunctory and ever shorter appointments between obligation and guilt. We had stopped taking her out for more than a few hours, because the staff told us she had returned too agitated. My husband and our kids rarely came to see her soon after she stopped recognizing them. Gradual but undeniable decline.

I entered the building and walked past the director's office with some trepidation.
"Oh, Mrs. Kimball, may I see you for a moment?"

Here it comes, I thought, as I walked into her office and took a seat in front of her desk, feigning nonchalance laced with pretend curiosity.

"Mrs. Kimball, I know you have seen your mother's decline," she paused waiting for me to respond, but I stayed silent, instead looking quizzically at her.

"Two days ago, she entered the wrong apartment on the wrong floor and frightened the resident in there. They didn't know each other, so the resident rang the panic button for help getting your mother to leave. It took two of our staff to remove your mother because she began screaming for help.

"I suspect, Mrs. Kimball, that when you visit her today she won't even remember what happened. We have sadly noticed a marked deterioration in her mental health. Surely you know what I mean." She was almost asking me to confirm her assessment.

Again, I said nothing.

"I am afraid we have reached that time when we can no longer care for your mother here at Colonial House. You will need to move your mother within a few days. I have taken the liberty of calling our full nursing care unit and there is space available there now."

There! She had said it. I did not know whether I felt relief or the many urgencies that suddenly flooded my mind, like how much I had to coordinate in the space of a few days. Five years, mother had been there! So little loyalty! They wanted her out now!

"I know you and your family have been expecting this, and we are truly sorry to be losing your mother." She went on and on about how great mother had been, how she was one of the first residents she had met when she began working there, and about her growing needs. I listened, but my mind raced. I was restless to be out of there.

On the outside, I sat motionless. The decision was not surprising, but the speediness was alarming. I clarified the timeline she mentioned and she confirmed it. No negotiation apparently.

I knew that we did not want to move mom into the full-care unit of Colonial House. We were less than impressed when we had visited someone we knew there. The smell was a mix of disinfectant and urine with dozing, disheveled people strapped into wheelchairs that lined the hallway. In no way could we visualize mom here.

I found mom sitting in her wingback chair looking blankly out her window. Her white purse was on the table next to her, so stuffed with money that it couldn't be clasped.

"Hi, Mom! It's Rebecca, your daughter." I kissed her and asked her what she was doing.

"Oh, I was just going to take a taxi to the bank."

"Really? It looks like you just came from there with so much money sticking out of your purse. Why do you want to go to the bank, mom?"

"That's what I can't remember. I know I need some money."

"What for, Mom?"

"Well, I need it in case I want to buy something. You never know!"

"Mom, every time I've seen you lately, you have lots of cash in your purse. Last week, remember, we counted $80 in there. Where'd it go?"

"I need to give some to that nice taxi driver!" Then she leaned in and conspiratorially continued, "I put the rest in my hiding place. I don't want to pay taxes on it. So you can't tell anyone."

"Hiding place? Your apartment isn't locked, Mom, so where can you hide it?"

"I'm not telling!" Her tone ended any further discussion.

If I had had doubts before, I left mom's that day convinced I had to find a more secure place for her to live. If she was hiding money and paying undetermined amounts to taxi drivers, we needed to be more aggressive about her care and financial health.

When mother first moved there several years before we had been advised to remove any jewelry of value. Reluctant to take her wedding ring because it seemed like the ultimate indignity, we had left it on Mother's hand where it had been for more than fifty years. Within a year it was gone. We reported it and asked mother about it, but she didn't know. Because we had been advised to safeguard it, there was not much sympathy.

That was five years ago! I banished any thought that Mother may have needed more care than Colonial House could provide even then. I consoled myself by repeating what was, was. It had been a good move at the time. Period.

There was no denying, though, that she was clearly at a point now where she needed more help, probably including all of her meals, assistance with dressing and hygiene, more stimulation, and no financial concerns. My conversation with the director was a wake-up call. I cursed my complacency for not moving her sooner.

That afternoon, I called Greenwood, the place that had just opened, and scheduled an appointment for the next day. Then I lay awake all night sequencing logistics. Beside finding a new place and relocating mom, moving all her things, and taking care of her interim care, the "hiding place" Mother had mentioned nagged. I knew that in the moving process, we would surely uncover it, but what if we didn't? What if Mom, in her innocence, just happened to tell an unscrupulous someone about the money and it was then stolen? What if she was hurt in the process? Older people were ripe to exploit. I worried about Mother as I fretted until dawn. I got up with a renewed resolve.

The next morning I returned to Mom's apartment loaded with packing materials. Mom did not have much to move besides her familiar pieces of furniture. She would come to our home until we found her a better place, and her furniture could be transferred to storage after she had vacated the apartment. It seemed like the least disruptive plan.

"Good morning, Mom." I found her in a pair of sweats that I didn't recognize. "I'm your daughter, Rebecca."

"I KNOW who you are, Rebecca! I'm not crazy, you know!" She flashed, impatiently. "Have you come to take me to the bank?"

"No, Mom. I've come to help you clean out your apartment. This place is closing," I lied. "And we need to move you today."

"I don't want to move!" She began wailing.

"I know you don't, but I think you'll like this other place lots more. It's new, closer to us so we can visit more, and it has all kinds of activities for its residents." Not yet certain where this replacement would be, I needed to re-focus her attention quickly. I knew she would perk up if I mentioned specifics, though, so I added, "They have bridge groups and dancing programs. " Hell awaits liars.

But that did it.

"Well, OK," she agreed. "But we can't forget my money!"


"Of course not! Why don't you go get it now, Mom, and I'll put it safely away."

"I don't want to pay any taxes, you know. So we have to hide it."

Mom shuffled off to her bedroom and I heard her sliding open her closet door. I went to the doorway, as she bent over to pick something up on the floor. When she turned, I saw it was the old brass box we had had in the family for as long as I could remember. I entered the room and sat on her single bed, as she brought the box over to me and set it on my lap. She sat down beside me. Turning the key, it flew open like a jack-in-the-box and we were showered with money, like 52-Pick Up with Monopoly money instead of cards! I was shocked, but in hindsight, it must have been hysterical to see.

We both giggled. It seemed like the first time in years we had shared any semblance of closeness. Strange to squeeze humor out of something so unreal. How low my expectations had fallen!

As we looked down at the full box, I gently asked, "How much is in here, Mom?"

"I don't know, but I have to hide it so I don't pay taxes."

We gathered the spilled bills, stuffed them back into the box, locked it again, and carefully placed it in the bottom of one of the packing boxes. I did not have time to weep or laugh at the image of Mom every time she opened the brass boxful of money. Would she be startled? She was clearly scared. Where did it come from? Why this fear of paying taxes? It was all simply too surreal.

Mom put some clothes from her drawers on top of it. We added more personal belongings, then filled all the boxes until we had cleared everything. I packed a little duffle bag with her nightie, toothbrush, underwear and a clean set of clothes. I explained to her multiple times that her new quarters were not quite ready, so she would be staying with us until then. I do not think this registered, though.

Finally I stacked everything in her bedroom, so the living room still looked familiar. By noon, we were done, exhausted but energized. Everything had gone as I had planned during my wakeful night.

I don't think Mom realized her transfer had been the cause of this flurry of activity, but she was clearly delighted with the attention. Like a homing pigeon, she mechanically then went downstairs to lunch, so I notified the director of our departure and loaded everything into my car. I grabbed the few minutes before Mom returned to rest in her wingback and to make a few calls from my cell. Uncere-moniously, I then escorted her, clutching her purse, to my car and she left Colonial House, forever.

Greenwood proved to be the perfect blend of services between assisted living and full-care nursing, offering exactly what Mom needed for this stage in her decline. The staff and director had built dignity and respect into all their practices, and, of course, I was also much wiser in the questions I asked. We had to pay a premium for this level of care, but Mom would be getting lots more help than she had previously had in assisted living. I signed the papers, and because of its newness, got an immediate move-in date. I returned home at peace for the first time in many months.

At dinner that night, Mom was agitated and confused. The setting was unfamiliar to her and she was not sure who we all were. No matter how much we assisted her or reminded her where she was and who we were, she kept saying she wanted to "go home." She was ready for Greenwood.
After we helped her into bed, we pulled the brass box from the carton. Unlike most time, we did not have to threaten or plead with our sons to join us. They joined willingly. As a family we gathered around the coffee table in the living room. This was hardly a Norman Rockwell scene, however, for we were gathered not to talk or pray together, but to count money! Mom's. My husband and I explained to our kids the goal and procedures.

What followed was one of the funniest evenings in family memory.

It began when I carefully unlocked and opened the box, immediately shoving my hand in to keep the contents from flying all over the living room. This prompted a funny remark from our oldest. As they do when they get going, the boys exchanged a series of quips. Comments continued throughout the evening, including those about the car one of our teenagers could buy, the vacations another might take, the job I could quit, the tuition that might be paid. Despite the gallows humor and hearty laughs, we were all painfully aware that we were on an earnest mission. This was Mom's money. We did not know where it had come from, but suspected my parents' lifelong investments. We did not know what it would be used for beyond Mom's care needs. We all somehow believed that this was Mom's final hurrah, her Gotcha! surprise. We counted and recounted. The final tally was over $28,000!

I was anxious to get it out of the house, so the next day, I called the manager of our local bank and explained the story. He advised me to convert it all to cashier's checks in increments of less than $10,000, so as not "to trigger an IRS inquiry. " He suggested we set up an account for Mom's care with the deposit. I remember his peppering his dialogue with phrases like "drug money" and "money laundering."

That is when I went straight to our stash of brown grocery sacks in the utility closet and filled each of three with $9,420 in $20s and $10s. The following day before taking Mom to Greenwood, I took a spacey matriarch and the sacksful of her money to two other banks with their soft-spoken managers, backroom offices and discreet currency-counting machines before ending at our own bank.

So began the day of Mom's new life in a dementia center and of my career as a money launderer.