Ten years after my husband, Stuart, was told he had Parkinson’s disease, he began to speak less often, and what he had to say was intriguing but not always clear. He dozed off frequently, fell down the stairs of our London home and stopped eating. “He needs to be in a nursing home,” I was told.
On hearing the news, my son, who’s in the film business, urged me to return to Los Angeles. “I can get him into the ‘motion picture home,’ ” he assured me.
Last year, when my English-born husband moved into the home, it was filled with light and brisk energy. A lively variety of wheelchairs whizzed by in the halls, the riders nodding to each other. In the activity rooms, residents watched TV, sat at tables and played word games or bingo or poker. They’d drink tea and chat, or drowse near wide windows with views of the great mountains across the Valley. When Stuart missed his London parks, I could wheel him out into the gardens, past the topiary trees, gazebos and camellia bushes.
The motion picture home was a prototype for what a nursing home should be. The people who worked there were as inventive in their care as the residents had once been in creating stories for the screen. They tailored their care to the needs of the residents. Stuart was helped to listen to his jazz CDs through the day. A woman who hated to see people without “her face” got made up every morning. Another got help with her wigs, including the curly ash blond one she saved for Sundays.
It all seemed perfect. And then in January, the residents and their families received letters saying the Motion Picture & Television Fund could no longer afford to keep the long-term unit of the home going. We suggested ideas, including a fundraising drive. But the decision was final. Now the residents are scrambling to make other arrangements.
Stuart knows (usually) that he will be leaving, and he sometimes cries and grips my hands. “You may not find me tomorrow, they’re taking me away. And you won’t know where I am.” I hold him close and try to reassure him. “I will always find you.”
People are intrigued by stories about self-absorbed celebrities, driven by a quest for fame and willing to step on anyone in their way. But at its core, Hollywood has always been a place of deep loyalty. The actors and writers and directors, the people who are the most visible and best paid, know how much they depend on the construction artisans, stunt workers, electricians, stagehands and sound technicians. The motion picture home was a pledge on the part of the industry that all its family would be taken care of. Now that pledge has been broken.
Since news of the closure broke, an air of attrition has developed at the home. When I speak to the staff, they are frightened and concerned not only for their jobs but for the people they care for. On the second floor, where Stuart is, 20 people have left; several have died. The Motion Picture & Television Fund has requested a suspension of its acute-care license from the date of final closure, which is expected to be in October. Even though no one has been given official notice, there’s a sense of urgency to get people out.
One day recently, as I was running down the hall to meet Stuart, I saw that two more rooms had been emptied. A lively red-haired woman in an electric wheelchair seemed defeated. “You can’t stop them. We’ll all have to go. It’s done.”
But some residents continue to resist. A lively electrician in a wheelchair approached me during the same visit. “They can’t make me leave. I paid my dues every month of my life to be here. I’m staying.”
The leading lady who has the room next to Stuart packed up and left a few weeks ago. But she was soon back. Her daughter hated the new place and asked for more time. The mother was happy to be back. When I saw her soon after her return, she lifted her long neck, sat up straight in her wheelchair and tossed her white page-boy hair: “I’m not going anywhere.” She has now been moved again.
Stuart likes to go down to the cafe for an ice cream bar in the middle of the afternoon. Even when it is closed, someone there always makes sure he gets his favorite Haagen-Dazs bar. On the way back to his room last week, we stopped in the lobby. A woman I know was there with her husband, Hal. During our chatting, Hal barked to his wife and to me, “Tone it down!”
Stuart liked that. As we left, he reached out and shook Hal’s hand. “I like that man. Do you think he will still be here tomorrow?”
“Yes,” I said. “Just ask to see Hal.”
I’ve realized lately that for some of us, the fight is part of a larger battle. We want the story to have a happy ending, like the movies we loved. Like the movies these people made.
To close the home is to turn our backs on our own futures. We will be that old. We will have infirmities. We will need care. And we will want it in a place that recognizes and attends to our talents, our quirks, our fears.
On one recent visit, my husband was sitting in the hall, watching the action, when I arrived at his side. He reached out for me. “Where have you been?” he asked. “I wrote a poem.” It began:
Life still owes me those years I’ve forgotten.
Years of life, experiences and learning and loving and loss.
Endgame. Joy and pain.
Where are those days ... first school days, kisses, books, terrors?
Have those days built another life/ another me/another wife?
Jill Schary Robinson is a journalist and the author of nine books. She runs writers workshops and is working on a novel about her father’s first year at the helm of MGM.