Laughing all the way to the end

Grand larceny, a mother’s madcap final months and the bitter truth about aging

Laughing all the way to the end

You can read Welcome to the Departure Lounge (Doubleday), Meg Federico’s account of caring for her difficult mother, Addie (and her mother’s beyond-difficult new husband, Walter) during Addie’s last 18 months, and laugh all the way through in a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God way. From its opening, when Addie, 81 and unconscious on a hospital gurney, wakes up long enough to yell, “I demand an autopsy,” to 82-year-old Walter’s fascination with mail-order sex aids, the book reads like a geriatric version of a 1930s screwball comedy. Federico is a humour columnist, and her story is skilfully told, but in the end (no pun intended), it’s no laughing matter. Flowing not very far beneath the surface humour, and made palatable by the laughs, are some dead serious issues that, one way or another, most of us will someday face.

Consider Addie’s plan, in one of her more lucid moments, to deal with her husband’s unpredictable lurches into violence as he slid deeper into dementia: “You will be pleased and surprised. My plan is that Walter will have a stroke.” That is funny, but it also allows Federico to say out loud what many in her—and her mother’s—position sometimes think, but almost always keep to themselves. “At this point in my life,” the 53-year-old author says from her Halifax home, “there’s not a lot of thought suppression going on in my mind. The thought, ‘Things will be better when she dies,’ will come to you.”

And it’s a way too for Federico to raise the vexing matter of competence. In those 18 months there was no common-sense way in which Addie (alcoholic, nearly blind and traumatized by a stroke) and Walter (alcoholic, stricken with Alzheimer’s) could be described as competent. Forbidden cartons of Scotch and a stream of TV sets (Walter, unable to work the remotes, thought each one was broken) arrived at their door in a New Jersey suburb along with the sex aids. Unscrupulous salespeople and outright criminals had a field day over the phone, and one made off with a $25,000 cheque for home renovations. Each week Addie withdrew from the bank 160 one-dollar bills via cheques Walter wrote out for her; once, he added an extra zero, and on their way home, with the car windows down, he ripped open one of the two grocery bags stuffed with 1,600 bank notes. Several hundred dollars blew into the streets. But legally it was all good. “People make lousy decisions all the time about who they marry, what they do with their money—we don’t take away their right to make these stupid choices,” Addie’s shrugging physician told Federico.

The wastage only added to a bill that, with a staff of 11 caring for the couple (often ineffectually), ran at a staggering $400,000 a year. “My mother had enough money to do whatever she wanted,” Federico carefully explains. “But if the situation had gone on long enough, especially with the markets as they are now . . . ” Their carelessness with money sparked contempt in their employees. What Federico learned of the support staff at the Florida hospital where Addie first landed—a nurse who lived with 11 children and two grandchildren in a three-bedroom apartment, an orderly working three jobs while her husband was in detox—exhibits the yawning class gulf between caregivers and cared-for. “Hospitals are full of the wounded and the damaged,” she writes, “and plenty of them just work there.” Addie’s caregivers had no qualms about demanding more cash from people who literally let money fly out the window; it was no real surprise to Federico when $100,000 worth of jewellery vanished.

But neither the financial hemorrhaging nor even losing her fundraising job much troubled Federico. (“They told me, ‘If you can’t promise you won’t always be taking off for New Jersey, we’ll have to let you go.’ ”) Her real pain came from the constant guilt she felt over neglecting her own family. “My kids were teenagers during this and I just hung them out to dry,” she says. “And it was hard on my marriage. My husband didn’t approve. I could understand his attitude—even when I wasn’t gone, I was on the phone five calls a day when the caregivers were fighting—but it was no help to me.”

Nor does Federico think better planning would have helped much: “You can make all the arrangements you want, but the facts on the ground will keep changing.” There is something, though, that we all should do: “Your kids, your spouse—anything you want to tell them, better say it now.”