Here is Chapter 13 of Dreaming Out Loud, the book about my mother’s stroke.
Now that mom has returned from the nursing home, we must hire a caregiver, someone to get her ready for her day -- to feed her, clean her apartment and her bottom, and ensure that we enjoy a respite, however brief, from the responsibilities of caring for a disabled parent.
Karola Kinney comes highly recommended by the nursing staff at Parkwood. I am encouraged by her German lineage. We need some iron Prussian discipline around the place if we are to make this new situation work.
The lady who shows up at our doorstep at 9:00 one morning is almost a year older than my mother, although one would never know it to look at her. She is a squat, compact woman whose demeanor and appearance betray nothing of her interior life. If I saw her walking along the street, I would be hard-pressed to say whether she was 45, 55, or 65 years of age. She exudes a quiet confidence that speaks of a life of fulfillment, a bearing that fills me with intense curiosity.
When I hear the bell ring, I throw open the front door to find her standing on the steps.
“You must be Ms. Kinney.”
“Yes. That is right.”
“Please Ms. Kinney, come inside.” I extend my hand and she shakes it firmly.
“It is fine that you call me Karola.”
“Okay, Karola. You can call me Mike.”
“That is good.” She nods as we walk into my living room. I motion with my hand and we sit, she on the couch and me on the loveseat.
I am no expert at interviews, but I must muddle through somehow. She does not have a paper resume, but I did not ask for one when we spoke on the telephone. “I understand you have worked with the elderly before.”
“That is correct.”
She gazes at me, impassively, from behind large eyeglasses. The lenses make her eyes appear alien and frightening -- like fried eggs fixed to her face beneath thick Coke-bottle glass. I cannot read her expression. Her posture is rigid, ramrod straight, affording me no clue as to her mind. A small purse is parked on her lap.
When it is evident she does not intend to elaborate on her comment, I clear my throat. “What did you do for them?”
“I was there when the family was gone. I prepared the meals and looked after an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s disease.”
“Have you worked with stroke patients before?”
She outlines her work experience in short, choppy sentences. As she speaks, I realize she is not one to waste time or words. I interpret this characteristic as part and parcel of her German efficiency. Karola started her career working in manufacturing plants up and down the eastern seaboard. Advancing up the ranks, she amassed enough money to take an early retirement. Boredom, not pecuniary needs, has propelled her into the care-giving field.
As she weaves her narrative, I nod vigorously. I have already decided to hire her, but it is important to go through the formalities.
Karola must sense my desperation because at some point she stops trying to convince me of her worthiness and starts explaining the conditions under which she will consent to labor. She requires payment once a week, in cash, to ensure “the government is not nosing into my life.” She is a “caregiver, not a maid,” and insists that we treat her as such. Housecleaning and dirty, grimy jobs are beyond the scope of her employment. She and her long-time boyfriend, Phil, travel frequently, so we must provide her with plenty of time off. She assures me her adult daughter, Kathy, will fill in when Karola is absent. We will not be left short-handed.
“Well, that’s good. It sounds like you are exactly the kind of person we need.”
“That is to be hoped.”
“All right then.” I stand. “When can you start?”
She, too, stands. Adjusting her glasses, she consults her watch with a snap of her wrist. “I have already started. I have been working for precisely 25 minutes and 30 seconds.”
I open my mouth to protest that I had not anticipated paying her for the time she spent interviewing with me, but I stop. Confrontation is not the best way to commence a new relationship. Instead, I lead her downstairs from my house to mom’s apartment so the two can meet.
"Knock, knock." I rap my knuckles on the door as I speak.
The grand old dame’s wheelchair is parked in front of the television. “Come in.” Mom uses the remote control to mute the TV.
As Karola and I step into the bedroom, I marvel at mom’s progress. I did not believe she would ever come home, but here she is. She still has problems navigating through the room, and her wheelchair invariably smashes into walls, chairs, tables, and rolls over the toes of the inattentive, but these are small matters when considered in context. Mom might yet enjoy a good quality of life.
“Hey — how you doin’?”
“I’m doing fine, mom. How are you doing?”
“I doin’ fine.”
“Good, good. Listen, I want you to meet somebody. This is Karola Kinney.”
Mom looks her over, apparently without suspicion. “Hey — how you doin’?”
“And Karola, this is my mother, Laura Martinez.”
Karola nods. “It is good to meet you, Miss Laura.”
We stand awkwardly for a moment. “Let’s go into the kitchen.” I point as Karola and mom follow me.
While mom rolls up to the table and engages her parking brake, Karola and I sit in chairs. I must raise the issue delicately. I have told mom we will hire someone to take care of her, but she does not know how soon this new arrangement will begin.
“We talked about having a caregiver come in to look after you.”
Mom nods. “That is good for your soul.”
“Yes, it’s good for your soul, too. Well, anyway, I interviewed Karola a few minutes ago and we decided that she will be your new caregiver.”
Mom whips her head around to size up the woman who suddenly and unceremoniously has been added to her life. Prior to the stroke, my mother was reserved, respectful, and mannerly to the point of insincerity. These days she cannot hide what she feels. It is written on her face.
I hurry to head off a tantrum. “I know you don’t like the idea of having someone, especially a stranger, look after you. You remember, though, it’s necessary. Paula and I cannot give you the time and attention you need every minute of every day.”
I look at Karola hoping against hope she will speak some words of comfort by way of introduction, but she does not. Her stony, impassive face stares back at me. I am on my own.
Mom’s face is anything but impassive. She looks as if she is contemplating something distasteful stuck to the bottom of her shoe. After what seems an eternity, she averts her eyes from Karola and stares in my direction. “What are you saying to me?”
“Karola comes highly recommended by Parkwood. She has lots of experience working with people who need help.” I turn to the new caregiver: Help me out here! “Isn’t that right, Karola?”
“That is right.”
“Why don’t you tell mom a little about yourself, about your experience.”
Karola launches into her narrative again. It strikes me as odd that she says it much the way she said it to me, almost verbatim. It is as though she has memorized a monologue and is merely calling it up from memory. Her line delivery is flat, perfunctory, little more than a monotone. I wince as I try to imagine what effect the speech will have on mom.
Amazingly, the brewing tempest does not erupt. Mom shrugs, rolls away from the table into her bedroom, pushes the remote control buttons to unmute the TV, and goes back to her program. If she realizes the import of what I have said, she ignores it.
Karola finally steps up to the plate. Consulting her watch, she speaks. “I have time before I must go. If you will return upstairs now, perhaps Miss Laura and I can become acquainted.”
I nod. “Okay. That's a good idea.”
Before departing, I lean into the doorway of the bedroom. “I’m gonna go upstairs and get back to work. I will leave you to get acquainted.”
The old lady is silent, so I try again. “See you later, mom.”
“Okay, ‘bye.” She does not avert her eyes from the television screen to look at me.
I quietly trundle upstairs.
Later, curious as to how the two women are getting along, I creep outside. Karola’s car is not in the driveway, so I head for mom’s apartment. She is still parked in front of the television.
“So.” I pause. “Did you like Karola?”
Without looking at me, mom shrugs. I can tell she is pouting.
Unsure of how to proceed, I fall silent and sit on the bed. We watch a TV show, “American Justice,” a documentary version of “Law & Order.”
During a commercial break, she turns to me. “She says this one and this one.”
“I don’t know her name.”
“Are you talking about the lady who was here earlier today?”
“Karola. Her name is Karola.”
“This one and this one is named Karola.”
“Something about Karola. Did you like her?”
“I hope she’s more than just okay, mom. If we’re going to make it work, we need her help.”
Mom shrugs again. “Okay.”
We are interrupted by the telephone ringing. I reach over and pick it up. “Hello.”
“Laura Martinez, please.” It is a man's voice.
I pause. It is difficult to explain the situation, but I try to do so in as few words as possible.
After I identify myself as Laura's son, the voice interrupts to ask whether I have a Power of Attorney to make decisions on Laura’s behalf. Although I have not yet executed the POA, I tell him I have it.
Suddenly, the caller’s voice changes. Previously, he sounded officious, a bit impatient, perhaps, but nothing especially alarming. When he learns I have POA, however, the assault begins.
“This is Mr. John Wise, ARS, calling about Laura’s Chase MasterCard, Account Number 8172483.”
I am familiar with the account. Mom is current on all her bills except the MasterCard, for which she owes almost $20,000. I can sell her car, stocks, and few remaining assets to satisfy the other accounts, but she does not have enough resources to pay off Chase Bank. This is a telephone call I have dreaded, but in light of her modest finances, it is unavoidable.
Carrying the telephone from mom’s bedroom — the last thing she needs is the stress of worrying about an overdue account since there is nothing she can do to rectify the situation — I attempt to talk as quietly as I can. “I thought I was handling this situation directly with Chase Bank.”
“Not no more.”
“It’s been turned over to Associated Recovery Systems for collection.”
“Okay.” Although I strongly suspect it will do no good, I nonetheless launch into my tale of woe. I can hear the drone of mom’s TV set in the distance. Hopefully, it will disguise this terrible conversation.
At the conclusion of my story, I offer to pay what I can from my own pocket — $150 a month — because mom has always taught me that a debt is a debt. Aside from the legal issues, it is a moral obligation that must be honored.
Mr. Wise interrupts before I finish my spiel. “Why are you telling me this, Mikey boy? You think this story, assuming it’s true, is supposed to excuse Laura’s debt?”
“No, but she hasn’t got any money. I wanted you to understand the circumstances.”
“The only circumstances I understand are the past due amount on the Chase MasterCard account. However, to get the matter resolved, I am authorized to reduce the balance owed to $6,650, but I must receive payment by FedEx within three business days via certified check or money order.”
I scratch my head. “I don’t really think Ms. Martinez can come up with that kind of money in three business days — or any number of business days, for that matter. As I told you, she’s suffered a stroke and has no money.”
“Oh, I think she’s got some money. What about the property in her name?”
I pause. My house is also in my mother’s name. Her excellent credit rating helped me to qualify for the loan. I will have to see if I can have her name removed from the deed to the house.
“What about that, Mr. Mike? Think you still can’t come up with the money, boy?”
“It’s my house. We’re not going to sell the house just so she can pay an unsecured debt.”
“Well, see here, Mike, what about you? Can you come up with the money?”
I am taken aback by the frontal assault, the easy familiarity, the hostile tone. Of course, that is why bill collectors come on so strong. Perhaps they can beat down their prey with a massive verbal assault. If mom had any money to send, the attack might actually work.
“I don’t have that kind of money. As I told you, I could probably come up with $150 a month.”
“That won’t cut it. The lady owes the money to Chase Bank, and she’s gonna have to pay. What makes you think your mother is so special she ain’t got to pay her bills? Hmm? Answer me that one, Mr. Mike-man.”
“I know she owes the money. If she had it, she would pay it, believe me, but there isn’t any money.”
“Then you better tell her to get an attorney. Is that what you want, Mike? Do you want us to sue your mother?”
I am indignant. “Of course not.”
“That’s what’s gonna happen, buddy, if you don’t send us the money. So you better get yourself an attorney, buddy, ‘cause we’re gonna come after your mother’s house and all of her assets. Is that what you want, buddy? Is that what you really want?”
“Obviously not. But you don't want it, either. She's judgment-proof.”
“Oh, you learned a big word, didja? Well, I ain't buyin' it."
"Whether you buy it or not, the lady has no money beyond what she can pay for bare necessities."
"This ain’t no good way to manage your mother’s accounts, if you ask me. It’s irresponsible. Now, you’re mother’s gonna have to spend money to hire an attorney. Is that what you want?”
“Well, I'm an attorney, so I don’t think she will have to hire one.”
Now it is Mr. Wise’s turn to falter. “You’re an attorney?” He recovers quickly. “Okay, buddy, if you’re an attorney, what’s your bar number?”
“My bar number?”
“Yeah. If you’re an attorney, as you claim, you must have a bar number. Surely you have a bar number there, buddy. Unless you're lying.”
“Yeah. It’s the Georgia State Bar, Number 474758.”
“I don’t know. That don’t sound right.”
“It, uh, doesn’t? What doesn’t sound right about it?”
“It sounds made up.”
“It does? What sounds made up about it?”
“What firm do you work for there, Mikey boy?”
“I don’t work for a firm. I’m in-house counsel.”
“In-house counsel? That means you don’t practice law. That means you ain’t even a real attorney. You ain’t really practicing law.”
I feel my temper slipping. Up until this point, I have felt embarrassed at mom’s lack of financial resources, stroke or no stroke. The assault on my professionalism seems unnecessary. “Assuming I'm an incompetent attorney, as you suggest, what’s that got to do with Laura Martinez’s MasterCard account?”
“What’s the matter, Mike? Did you attend an unaccredited law school? Is that why you can’t get no real job as an attorney?”
“How is denigrating me getting you your money?”
“I just want to hear what some big shot lawyer says when he won’t pay his bills. That’s assuming you’re even a lawyer, which I doubt. You don’t sound smart enough to be no real lawyer.”
“First of all, I never said I was a big shot, and second, they are not my bills.”
“Oh, you think you’re a big shot, Mikey boy, but you can’t even get into no accredited law school. No wonder you can’t get no real job. No wonder you charge up bills on your mother’s MasterCard. That’s pretty low, there, Mikey boy. Pretty low.”
He has me against the ropes, and he knows it. The staccato way he fires his comments, the booming voice, the hostile tone, the mangled grammar, the insistence that I am a man of low morals and questionable character leave me stumbling and off balance. Perhaps if I had known I would be verbally assaulted I might have prepared myself, but his brutal attack is without warning. I am the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor and he is the Japanese air force.
“Are you saying I used her credit card?”
“We know what you done. We ain’t dumb. You say she’s had a stroke, but then we see all these charges on the account after that date. Somebody done ran up some debt there, buddy.”
“So, what are you saying? Are you saying I charged up things on my mother’s MasterCard?”
“I think we both know what happened, Mikey boy.” His voice drips with menace and sarcasm. I had thought this would be a quiet day, a day for easing mom into her new relationship with Karola, but Mr. Wise has other plans for my time.
“You can’t just make up these things and say them to people.”
“C’mon, buddy, whatcha gonna do? You gonna turn me in to the California attorney general’s office? You gonna call the Better Business Bureau? You gonna file suit under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act? Please! They ain’t gonna do squat. They ain’t gonna protect some two-bit, no account little hack who can’t get into no accredited law school, can’t get no real job, and charges up things on his mama’s account. Then you leave her holding the bag. Is that the manly thing to do there, Mikey boy? Does that make you a man to stick it to your own mother? I gotta say, that’s pretty pathetic. That’s real nice, leaving your mother holding the bag. Way to go, buddy. Way to go. That’s all I gotta say.”
“All I gotta say is fuck you!” I slam the phone down so quickly and with such force that it rings again in protest. Behind me I hear a noise, so I turn on my heels.
Mom looks at me with something akin to horror etched on her face. Although I am not an especially squeamish fellow, I normally do not scream epithets into the phone before slamming it down. Apparently, mom’s stroke has caused changes in her behavior — and in mine. Nursing home administrators and bill collectors have transformed me into a bad-tempered potty mouth.
"You can say this one to this one?"
“It’s okay.” My voice sounds strange and hollow. I am still shaking in semi-fury. Whoever this John Wise really is, he leaves me rattled, my heart racing, my pulse pounding.
I force my grimace into a smile. “Everything. Everything is okay. Now, what else is on TV?”
Quietly, in one quick motion that mom cannot see as she wheels back toward the television set, I reach down and slide the phone cord out of the wall jack. We will not accept additional calls today.