“Jean, do you want me to lock this?”
She would stop and consider whether she was going to go downstairs to get her mail, or whether she expected a neighbor or the VNA or her cleaning person. She would carefully deliberate for a few seconds as we started to leave. We’d reach the door, call over to her, “Jean, do you want me to lock this?” – and leave her in her apartment.
As she entered her late 80s, our friend Jean took a little longer to consider every decision. How much of a contribution to give the homeless shelter or the Cancer Society (it was always the higher number). Whether to keep or toss a bag of cards from friends and relatives (always kept for another day). And whether we should lock the door to her apartment on our way out after putting away her groceries, taking out the trash and updating her checkbook.
Jean had been in the hospital since January 5, and had moved to a nursing facility three weeks later. It was now the end of March. The plan was for us to buy a bigger house in time for her to come live with us, but in any event, she wouldn’t be coming back to this apartment.
Now it was Monday morning. Over the weekend, with Jean moved from the hospital to a nursing facility, we had moved her furniture, her family photographs, and all those bags of cards and letters out of her apartment. My wife – one of Jean’s closest friends, and certainly her dearest friend younger than about 70 – had enlisted her three sons to help remove all evidence of the last 11 years from the small two-bedroom apartment.
Jean kept everything. Everything. Meticulously wrapped family photographs. Her father’s bookkeeping records from the musicians union. Her parents’ grade school records. Performance evaluations from her job at West Point and her long, glass ceiling-breaking career at IBM. Carbons of her Maryland individual tax returns from the 1960s. And, just in case, her American Express statements dating from 1961 until 2014, when she closed her account because American Express wouldn’t waive their annual fee for a kind old lady who had been their customer for half a century.
But Jean was no hoarder. Everything was in a box, or occasionally a shopping bag. Everything was in order; there were no piles. Every spring we’d look through the previous year’s bills and pack them up in carefully labeled boxes.
It was now Monday morning after the move-out (more like a load-out, from my music business days). We had finished the last run the night before, scarcely 14 hours ago, and now the place was worse than empty: it was sanitized. Maintenance had been there and gone. Jean’s name was no longer on the door. Picture hanger holes were already patched, and the place smelled like fresh paint. I had expected that it would look much bigger than it had the week before, cluttered as it had been with moving boxers and Jean’s furniture – but instead it just looked empty, as empty as it did before my wife helped her move in.
This one last time, it was immaterial whether I locked the door behind me on way out. It didn’t make a difference. It was as though neither she nor anyone else had ever lived there. I left Jean’s keys, my key, my wife’s key, the mailbox key on the kitchen counter and let the door close behind me.