Paul’s sister called early last week: their 92-year-old mother had fallen at her suburban Philadelphia home. She might have a fractured pelvis; she might have broken ribs. His sister and her husband were driving from Maine to see her in the hospital ICU; they’d meet us there.

We packed and jumped in the car for the two-hour drive.

Paul, actually, did not “jump.” Two weeks before, he had been biking home from a tennis match when a small boy ran from between parked cars into his path. Paul slammed on his brakes and sailed over his handlebars. “The kid weighed maybe 40 pounds. I’m, like, 220; I’d have killed him,” he told me from a gurney in the VA emergency room. He’d missed the child, but he’d broken two ribs.

Paul can’t lift anything weighty until September. He can’t play tennis for six weeks.

He’s bored and achy.

He walks—two or three miles a day. He refuses to take pain meds, although sneezing makes him scream.

Still, when we’re in the car, he drives. Even though I’m capable and willing, and potholes make him grind his teeth.

So he drove us to Pennsylvania in our manual VW Bug (“I shift with my right hand. It’s my left side that’s screwed up.”), a pillow seat-belted to his broken ribs to ameliorate the impact from Brooklyn’s ragged pavement.

I called our daughter to tell her we were on our way.

“Dad’s driving.” she said. “Figures.”


Ev looked hale, in spite of bruises and abrasions, and staples in the back of her head. She had been moved into a private room on a med-surg floor (her hospital has only private rooms), and she was a little fuzzy from Percocet, but she’d become buddies with her nurse, her aide and the housekeeping lady. On the dry-marker board hanging on her wall, under her nurse’s name, there was a line for “Goal for the Day.”

Hers: To Get Out of Here!

The doctor arrived and told us all the Good News: the pelvic break was an old scar.

“Great,” Ev said. “Then I can go home.”


Paul’s mother is a tiny woman who lives alone in a big house. There are two entrances: the front door leads to a hill with a long tiered walk that has no railing; the back, to 13 steep, narrow stairs that lead down to her cellar garage, where she keeps her car.

Yes, she still drives.

Perhaps she’d earned that broken pelvis scar three years earlier, in the Incident of the Cellar Stairs. We learned about The Incident a year after the fact, when our grandson noticed that Ev’s finger was crooked. “Oh, that,” she said. “It got broken.” After much prompting, she confessed that she’d been hurrying down the steps when her finger caught between the handrail and the wall. Her momentum flipped her over the rail, and she landed on the cellar floor. She never told us; she didn’t want to worry us.


In truth, she didn’t want hear it—that paean to the joys of finding more appropriate housing (Don’t worry; we’ll do it all for you), a leitmotif in her life since her second husband’s death 18 years ago.

Ev knows the house is impossible. But it’s full of memories. And of stuff—three floors of stuff. Dealing with stuff—even if someone “does it all for you”—is enormous, exhausting. All those adult kids, hers and his. Those assessors, agents, auctioneers. What to keep; what to give; what to sell.

And there’s the move itself—to alien ground, surrounded by strangers.

And there’s the symbolism: House as Independence. As Self-Determination. As I’m okay.

So complicated. Easier just to stay put in a house that could kill you.


This is how Paul’s mother injured herself this time:

She had just returned from playing bridge with “the girls,” as she does several times a week. She got out of her little blue Jetta and tripped on the crack between the garage and the driveway. She fell on her recycling bin. Hard. There was a lot of blood; the pain was dizzying. But she crawled up those infamous 13 steps on her knees.

She cleaned her wounds and tossed her bloody clothes into the hamper. She changed into a fresh nightgown and called her neighbor, Peggy.

Peggy, a middle-aged teacher with a huge heart, looked at Ev and called 911.

Later, in the ICU, Ev turned her big blue eyes to her neighbor and begged her, “Please don’t tell my kids.”

The next day, the nurse convinced Paul’s mother that she really ought to contact us. Peggy had spent a sleepless night beneath the weight of her promise. She gladly made the call.

Which brought the four of us to Ev’s hospital room, where the doctor gave us the Bad News: Ev’s ribs were indeed broken or badly bruised, and would take at least six weeks to heal.

“You’re just competing with me,” Paul told her. She laughed.

The doctor then gave us the Worst News: Ev would be discharged to a Rehab facility for physical and occupational therapy.

“Rehab,” I said. “How fashionable! You’ll be just like those Hollywood celebs.”

She did not laugh. “I want to go home,” she said.


At the Rehab facility, Ev surveyed her room, then grabbed Paul. “Did you know I would have a roommate?” she demanded, her voice lowered to avoid offending the woman in question (who would, by the next day, be her new best friend).

“I want to go home,” she added.


Over dinner, we children and children-in-law discussed Ev’s options.

Rehab would never send her home if they knew what her home was like.

But: what if we arranged a month’s respite at an Assisted Living facility?

Someplace bright, spacious and homey. Three meals a day with menus and waiters; laundry done for her; freedom to come and go as she pleased, even to drive. A library, where she could indulge her passion for reading. A room with HDTV that was reserved for sports, where she could watch her beloved Phillies, her golf, her tennis. In-house Physical Therapy, charged to her insurance.


We could give her a month as a gift. Free. A month to recover in a simpler environment. No strings. No pressure.

Although…who could say? Maybe she’d like it so much…

Ev had talked about a friend who’d lived in a great Assisted Living place. We toured it the next morning. It was All That. We put a hold on a lovely studio apartment and set off for Rehab.

Ev folded her arms over her damaged chest. “I’m going home,” she said. “The sooner, the better.”

We appealed to her sense of logic. Her dislike of cooking and cleaning and laundry.

No luck.

So we tried guilt. Did she want to drive us crazy, worrying about her navigating that deadly house before she fully recovered?

She caved.

The Rehab facility’s social worker agreed Paul’s mother could be released on Friday, if she was going to Assisted Living. So we bid Ev goodbye on Monday and promised to return Friday to drive her to her temporary home away from home.

I sent our daughter a text message update from the road. I told her I’d grown to understand a bit more about her father in dealing with Ev.

“Yep. The control freak doesn’t fall far from the tree,” she wrote.


We got the call at home Thursday morning. “Just listen, and don’t argue with me,” Ev told my husband. “I’m going home tomorrow. My home. My therapy people said I’m ready.”

Paul listened to his mother, his face gathering thunder. When he hung up, we packed. His mother was irrational; we were leaving to get to the bottom of this in person.

Paul drove in deadly silence, pillow seat-belted to his side. I sent a text to my daughter, lamenting the stubbornness of my beloved mother-in-law.

“Ugh. I can kinda see how she feels,” Kym wrote. “Time in a facility would probably kill her faster than living on her own.”

Two hours later, we pulled into the Assisted Living home. It was late afternoon; the residents were playing Bingo. I watched them. They were old. I couldn’t see Ev there. Kym was right.

They had made her room up to look comfy and welcoming. The head of the place told us they’d assessed Ev that very morning, and she told them she looked forward to coming.

We called the Rehab social worker. She, too, was puzzled. She called the physical therapist, then called us back.

“Your mother’s a wonderful woman,” she told my husband. “And a determined one. I’m afraid she’s definitely going home; PT has released her.”

That morning, after her assessment, Ev had a therapy session. She asked the therapist what she’d have to do to go home. The therapist listed goals involving stairs and walking the hallway and weight bearing. Paul’s mother gritted her teeth and accomplished them.


We picked her up Friday morning and brought her home. We shopped for her, cooked, did her laundry. She flitted about, demonstrating for our benefit that she could do just fine on her own. But her pallor by nightfall, the new stoop in her already bent back and the late-day limp she couldn’t hide made us uneasy.

The home health nurse evaluated her on Sunday morning. She noted the throw rugs and the stairs and the front walk with astonishment not unmixed with dismay. She scheduled PT and OT and a home health aide for two weeks, and warned her that she couldn’t drive or she wouldn’t qualify for home-based care.

We left afterward, our hearts heavy with misgiving.


Ev called tonight. She was in high spirits. She went to see her doctor today; he said she’s doing very well. She’s found a woman who will drive her and do odd jobs and light housekeeping for $15/hour. Ev loves her; I suspect they’ll soon be fast friends.

She walked downstairs to get to the woman’s car.

“Listen, it was fine,” she told us. “I went slowly and used the handrail. What else could I do? I can’t fly.”