October 14, 2010

Uncle John's Story

We took a somewhat urgent trip to PA last week. My husband has recently been court appointed as personal and legal guardian of his 95-year-old uncle. John was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic back in the early 1950's. He lived in PA at the time, then John's family had him committed to an institution in CA, and basically never looked back. We found papers in his files that revealed that he had attempted to sue the FBI for his "unlawful kidnapping from PA". It doesn't take much imagination to picture what that whole scene must have been like. My husband was a senior in high school before he ever knew that John existed. There were a few relatives in touch with him over the years, but for the most part, John was a ghost. In August of this year, John was found in his PA public housing apartment, suffering from heat exhaustion. He had no air conditioning, and apparently no one who was looking in on him.

John told authorities that he had no family - who can blame him for that. He was about to be declared mentally incapacitated and become the ward of a stranger, who is literally in the business of becoming guardian to people who have no one else. By God's grace, the lawyer presenting the case to the court, found the name of John's sister and contacted her children. Emails were then passed on to other family members until it reached us. No one else before us was either able or willing to take on guardianship. Maybe our sadness over what happened to John and the fact that we had neglected to be in touch with him for a number of years made us decide that we wanted to do this for him. The legal actions already in motion came to a halt, and those in charge were all very pleased that a family member was coming forward to oversee John's needs. They surely must also have wondered what kind of jerks we all were to have let things come to this point.

We decided to drive out and get things taken care of in person - meet with the business manager of the nursing home where he now resides to get mountains of paperwork started, meet with his social worker and nurse to get and give some information, meet with the housing authorities to try and get a handle on the status of his apartment and belongings, go to the SS office to get his checks forwarded to the account we set up for him, forward his mail, and finally we intended to clean out his apartment and deal with his belongings, including taking some personal items and clothing to him.

Now the story takes another uglier turn. We should have guessed that a surprise was in store for us when the housing agent showed us to the door and then made a beeline back to her office, turning and saying over her shoulder - "Good luck". Hmm? My husband had to shove the door open because in the 3x3 entryway, was a mountain of mail that had been pushed through the mail slot. The first thought was simply that it had accumulated while he'd been hospitalized, but then the rest of the apartment comes into view, and you see the shocking truth that John had become a hoarder. It would not be an exaggeration to say that all the mail he has received since moving in there 6 years ago, is all still there. Piles, upon piles, upon piles of mail fill his first floor. There are other collections as well, like plastic bags, but mostly it's mail...and a complete infestation of roaches - big ones, little ones, living and dead. It's hard to imagine the last time there was any cleaning done. Miraculously there was no smell - and I think I really do mean miraculously, or in other words by the grace of God, or we would not have been able to go in at all. After taking it all in, it appears that when John was moved into this two-story apartment at age 89, his belongings were moved in for him and placed mostly in the front room - boxes of books, empty shelves, six large file cabinets, three metal lockers, and a large stack of his own oil paintings, which were still packaged up and leaning against a wall. Apparently John either couldn't or wouldn't unpack and settle in to this new place. John had lived in his previous apartment since 1973, and that is where we last visited him. Our daughter was 3 at the time and she even has memory of his cozy little set-up there. He was a fine host and had gone to his local health food store for nuts and fruits and other healthy snacks for our visit. We may never understand the reasons for moving an 89-year-old man from that apartment to a two-story home, with his bathroom and bedroom on the second floor. Had any of us been in touch with him, maybe we could have read between the lines of his incoherent rambling letters, and figured out what was going on?? But then the next question is would we have done something about it? I'm not trying to drive home that his family are horrible people - not at all. I am trying to drive home that we are all guilty of living in our own self-absorbed little worlds and easily casting off responsibility for one another. Not really my problem - right?

Donning gloves and masks, we went back to the apartment the next day to retrieve banking records and any other papers that could help us comply with court orders and the requirements of the nursing home. We were able to retrieve a few personal belongings, and sort through enough mail to be satisfied that we had the most current information. My husband discovered in one of the file cabinets, that John had saved all of our correspondence with him in a folder with our name. Included were Valentines that our daughter had made for him in her elementary years - the red construction paper and purple crayon type of Valentine, the kind that make you shed a tear no matter where you uncover them, but particularly when you find them carefully filed away in the possessions of a lonely, isolated, 95-year-old uncle.

In the end, because of the horrible condition of his apartment and everything in it, we needed to buy him an entirely new wardrobe, from socks to winter coat. He had nothing with him at the nursing home outside of a belt, and he was wearing a hospital gown. We were able to take two of his paintings to him to be hung in his room, and we gave him a bright blanket for his bed and a bulletin board to hang pictures and cards that WILL be coming to him from here on out. Now that we're back home, my husband has been diligently filing paperwork, faxing forms, and basically jumping through countless hoops so that we can properly look after John's affairs. It does not feel like a burden in any way though, it is a privilege to help him. We've already gotten one phone call from the nursing home to let us know that he scraped up his knee in an attempt to move himself around in his room. It is strangely comforting to know that John now has my husband to take these phone calls, and will now be less invisible in the world.

Uncle John's story as told here is what we know from our trip, what we've been told in the past, and what we've experienced in our contact with him. There are likely other versions and other facts that we don't know. Over the years, John has certainly had family that cared about him even though it may have been from a distance, but mostly we entrusted John's care to "the system", which failed him. Even in "the system" there are people who care about John, but as we can see all over this country, "the system" is not capable of replacing the care and love we are commanded to have for one another.
"Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus replied: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it:
Love your neighbor as yourself.'

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