Helping to Pass the Time

| March 21, 2011 | Comments (3)


The decline of my friend, Jack, in the final months of his life was  depressing, comical,  poignant and, most of all,  filled with mail. Stacks of it.

Jack was 89 when he died on 11 September 2010. As I fell into the role of care-giver and friend, I ran the gamut of emotions, dealing with his moods. Normally an even-keeled, intelligent person, his final chapter was marked by vicissitudes of dementia which were at first hard to detect, given his laid-back easy-going nature.

And,  as if dealing with his sinking vessel was  not enough, there were maddening challenges presented by the outside world, in particular Jack’s mail.

Over several years, I noticed a quantum leap in the amount of post Jack was receiving. Not wishing to appear over-inquisitive, I commented obliquely that he seemed to be receiving lots of mail. He laughed and told me that I hadn’t seen the half of it, and proceeded to  produce several large plastic bags of unopened envelopes. Leafing through these communications, I realized that he had become a target for solicitation from a ton of so-called charities.

Jack had jokingly told me one of the secrets to his professional success as a librarian was that he could “never say no”; that he could never refuse requests for research assistance or cataloguing or whatever it is that librarians do. Now his helpful nature came to haunt and plague him in the form of mountains of requests for money from all manner of “causes” which had been triggered by  donations he had made because he could never say “no!”

As the months and years rolled by, Jack’s formerly apple-pie neat apartment,  lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and populated by giant plants and out-sized statues of Japanese Happy Gods and graceful Kwan Yin goddesses, gave way to  Kafka-esque stacks of junk mail.

Jack’s two cardinal sins were being old and generous. Already a target for unsolicited mailing as a senior citizen, by sending checks to outstretched hands which emerged from envelopes, he compounded the rush by hungry philanthropies to get even more.

When my role in Jack’s financial affairs became more intrusive and I began helping him pay bills – one day I discovered  he was four months beyond in sending his rent checks – I advised him to pick a few charities he liked and ignore the other requests. At this point mail soliticitations were joined by a barrage of phone calls reaching a frenzied frequency around dinner time.

 The telephone marketing  calls were often rude, overly familiar and sometime even threatening, designed in my view, to intimidate seniors who answered their phones. One tactic was to first-name the person called and pretend to be a friend; another method involved  barking into the phone: “your ‘subscription’ is about to expire!”; then there was always the clincher “if we don’t receive your payment within two weeks, we will be forced to take ‘appropriate action’ to correct this matter of delinquency!”

Once such an offending message was being spoken when I walked into Jack’s office and picked up the phone. I asked what “appropriate action” would be taken  if the magazine subscription expired and was not renewed. I was told that the delinquent subscriber’s name would be “put on a list.” When I pressed for more details asking what kind of list, I was told, “a list for internal consumption.” How many helpless seniors, I wondered, would have thought that their “delinquency” would be reported to law enforcement authorities and in a panic pay for something they neither wanted nor needed.

Try as I did, I could not get Jack to whittle down his donations to a select few recipients. He also began to object to my looking at his mail. “What are you  doing? Why are you going through my mail? Are you trying to take over?”  It was at this point that I came to realize the frustration faced by a well-intended caretaker trying to operate in an open, consensual manner.

 I began to feel myself stuck between a rock and a hard place. If I surreptitiously disposed of the junk mail thereby  cutting down on what were becoming unlimited donations by a person of  very limited income, would I be committing an illegal action? Tampering with mail ? I consulted my lawyer on the matter and, assured that disposal of such “mail” would not be a crime, I began Operation Heave Ho. What Jack didn’t see, he didn’t miss.

Now  he is gone and his ashes scattered in the sea as  he wished. But because of legal technicalities connected to what is becoming a drawn-out probate process, Jack’s mail needs to keep  coming to my address. Most of the junk mail I toss out with mean-spirited glee. But there is one mailing I respect and read with care – the 28-cent postcards from HHV – Help Hospitalized Veterans.

HHV seeks donations for craft kits and sends out postcards with personal, hand-written thank-you notes from vets who have received kits. Today I received two postcards from HHV “penpals.” One card was from Angela in a hospital in Wyoming. With her kit she had built a bird house. She expressed her appreciation to me saying, “Thank you for the bird house. The wild birds will love it.” I thought of Angela, bed-bound, dreaming that she could fly free as a bird.

The second card was from Karen, hospitalized at a Navy Medical Center in Utah. “Thank you for the craft kit. It helps to pass the time.”

Still in my prime, although a rather “mature” prime, I must admit,  my hours fly by all too quickly. But  I know the day will come when I too will need help passing the time. A craft kit will come in handy.

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Comments (3)

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  1. DIck says:

    Enjoy, enjoy samoglesby’s blogs, and there’s a meaningful message in every one.

  2. Roger Cranse says:

    Sam, yes a sad and puzzling phenom. You describe it well; happened in my family too, in very much the same way. These bums who exploit and threaten seniors are right up there in my estimate with traffickers and Ponzi schemers. I think they’re sociopaths – no remorse DNA. Will I ever fall prey? I doubt it; I’m meaner than your sweet friend. RC

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