My close friend Sally’s health took a nosedive after her second stroke. And like many old people – and candor demands that we ourselves could well choose this path for ourselves one day – Sally began a well-trod regimen of blood thinners, statins, and other pharmaceutical life-extenders that ultimately landed her, impaired but alive, in a “board and care” facility where she languishes today in a bedroom in front of a TV that takes up a whole wall and plays endless reruns of Grey’s Anatomy.
As her condition worsened while she was still living in her house, and with no family, Sally chose the husband of a friend of more than 50 years to be the executor of her estate. “Estate” is a bit of a stretch since she is a retired public-school teacher, though she did own a Bay Area house that, like all Bay Area houses, had appreciated obscenely over several decades. She sold that house several years ago in exchange for the several years she was able to pay for the East Bay condo she inherited right down the street from us – along with her caregivers and twice-daily dog walkers for her undisciplined, pain-in-the-ass 100-pound Labradoodle (the poodle parent was a royal standard).
But, alas, as Kevin Spacey’s character in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil so memorably stated, “The money always runs out.” Though things went along and went along for a few years, Sally’s nest egg inevitably dwindled to the point where her executor told her that she had to sell her condo and get rid of the dog, along with the dog walkers and the caregivers who, even part time and poorly paid, were burning through a hundred grand a year. Sally didn’t want to move and downshifted into denial, but she was nonetheless, in her words, “spirited away in the middle of the night” to a nearby board and care facility owned and operated by a local doctor, who drives a high-end luxury car he can doubtless easily afford given that each of the “residents” in his repurposed house pay $8,000 a month for the privilege. This is America; we warehouse our elderly according to their class. In a back-of-the-envelope calculation, I figured that the money from her condo will cover 4.1 years in that place.
That’s the background and also where this story really begins. Sally’s executor, citing his own advancing age and eager to shed this task, scheduled a lunch with me and another of Sally’s friends to enquire if we would be willing to take on his executor duties. He said there wouldn’t be much to do once her condo was sold, that it was a simple matter of keeping in touch with Sally’s attorney and accountant. This discussion is ongoing as I write this.
What floored me was the executor’s (I’ll call him Mike) disclosure that he kept careful track of the hours he spent on Sally’s behalf, and charged her savings $75 an hour for his trouble – this from a super-wealthy “close friend” of half a century who moved Sally out of her home because she was running out of money! The cherry on top was when Mike’s wife quickly piped up that they were taking all of Sally’s Asian antiques. (They had briefly served with Sally and her then-husband in Japan back in the day.)
At this point the 1964 film Zorba the Greek immediately sprang to mind. Remember the scene where the villagers ransacked the French courtesan’s house as she lay dying in Zorba’s arms? That scene appalled me at 13, and here all these decades later it was happening right down the street and right under my nose.
It gets worse. After she moved, the first thing to disappear from Sally’s condo was her birdbath, a major source of entertainment that she had watched every evening from her bedroom window as the birds frolicked in the water. Then station wagons, vans, and other vehicles disgorged caregivers (and doubtless some unidentified, opportunistic shoppers), who emerged from Sally’s patio loaded down with her lovingly collected antique books, pictures, furniture, and other items from her long and colorful life.
During my weekly visit with her this week, I asked Sally if she had given permission for the free-for-all that was going down at her house. She said that she had not. I haven’t yet asked Mike, as her executor, how he had allowed this to happen. Adding insult to injury, Mike sold her condo to an enterprising contractor for at least $150-thousand under its appraised value (presumably to avoid the hassle of realtors, appraisals, and other annoyances involved in selling property), taking a serious bite out of the last windfall Sally will see for the rest of her life.
She told me she wasn’t happy about this but all the fight has leaked out of her. After all, the executor is a kind of god in these matters and Mike had done what all gods do – he made his decisions unilaterally. There are of course regulations and standards on the books about what executors should and should not do. But as we see in so many other areas (cannabis, anyone?), regulations are only as effective as their enforcement, and who stands up to fight for an elderly stroke victim not a millionaire, especially when she won’t stand up for herself and has an executor to protect her, to boot?
I understand the temptation. I faced it myself when I served as my parents’ executor, for which I declined a fee. When everything was sold and tallied up, my half of everything was slightly more than my brother’s half. I had forgotten to account for a withdrawal I had taken to fix something in my house. For just a moment I realized guiltily that if I let it go no one would be the wiser. It would have been so easy. Appalled at myself, I did the right thing and corrected the error. But the fact that the thought even crossed my mind troubled me.
I also understand the caregiver dynamic. When my mom lay dying at home I was still working full time in San Francisco. My dad was pretty checked out in his grief. I sat with her every evening. But her caregivers were with her 24/7. Let me preface this part by acknowledging that her caregivers were poor. Their agencies might be profitable for their owners but the in-home workers they employ, at least in my experience, are largely uneducated single mothers working a miserable job for equally miserable pay. It’s hard enough to care for a dying family member when you’re part of that family. Imagine doing it for a stranger, doubtless in their eyes an entitled stranger able to pay for their care at all hours of the day and night, for minimum wage.
This is the barren ground upon which so many poor women toil. When my mom eventually died it came to our attention that much of her jewelry was missing. I’m sure that my mom, in her confusion, gave it to her caregivers in gratitude for their care as she approached the end of her life. This is where, in a perfect world, personal morality should have kicked in: they should not have accepted my vulnerable mom’s jewelry. Yet having faced down the specter of temptation in my own role as my parents’ executor, how could I fault a poor woman, a stranger to my mom, for choosing to get away with it, especially since it was undoubtedly given in gratitude?
We all recognize right from wrong. Morality is choosing to do the right thing regardless of our personal circumstances or what others choose to do. It’s nothing less than the bedrock of our individual belief system, and we follow its dictates in unheralded moments when we could easily get away with betraying them. All that stands between us and ill-gotten gain is that belief system, whether we’re taking a test, given the wrong change when we buy something, acting as executors in the best interests of another, or passing Sally’s open patio door and choosing to pass it by, empty-handed.