PEABODY — The window slid open, and it was all the three sisters could do not to run forward at once, to take the risk and break the rules for the simple joy of being close to their mother again.
Instead, as 86-year-old Jean Follett appeared from inside her assisted living home in a burst of pink sweater and surprised smile on Saturday morning, they stood still on the lawn in the chilly air, and let their voices close the distance between them.
“Mom, hi!” “Mom, how are you?” “We love you, Mom!”
“My goodness,” Follett said, laughing the way she used to, before the veil of dementia had begun to drop over her life. Her daughters asked about her petal-pink nail polish, how she was eating, if she was cold, if she was watching the news. They promised that all this would be over soon. They promised to take her out when it was.
“I can’t wait,” Follett said, and blew them kisses through the screen.
As the coronavirus has spread with terrifying speed, Follett’s daughters — 65-year-old Charlene Follett, 62-year-old Elaine Simonelli, and 58-year-old Lynne Forgione — have grappled with the same questions confronting anyone with a loved one in an assisted living facility or nursing home, many of which have shut their doors to visitors and sequestered residents inside their rooms.
Should they take their mother out to protect her from a virus that hits the aging and sick with particular ferocity, or is she safest in a place that can close its doors and monitor her health? If she stays, how do they make sure she doesn’t feel abandoned? And how do they explain a worldwide pandemic when she struggles to remember what she’s doing each day?
“I just don’t want her to wither away,” said Charlene Follett, who until Saturday hadn’t been able to visit the Harriett and Ralph Kaplan Estates assisted living facility in Peabody for more than two weeks. She has been making do by calling her every day and waving to her in her fourth-floor bedroom window. But recently, her mom said she didn’t want to talk by phone.
“I want to see you, see you,” Jean Follett said.
Charlene and her sisters had struggled with the decision to put their parents in an assisted living facility in the first place. Growing up in Everett, they had always admired how hard their mom and dad worked to build a good life — how they had relied on themselves and their love for each other.
Their dad, who was named Charles but went by “Flash,” spent days working for an electronics company, nights sorting mail for the post office, and weekends running a TV repair business. Their mom proudly took a job as a medical secretary, even though their friends’ mothers stayed at home.
It was a scramble, but the girls were never lonely. Jean Follett was always happy to abandon a sinkful of dishes or a half-mopped floor to color with sidewalk chalk, play a board game, or bake her famous oatmeal cookies. When she took her daughters on walks through drab city streets, she had a gift for finding the dandelion peeking through the sidewalk cracks, or a bird swooping out of a spindly tree.
But a little more than two years ago, Jean Follett fainted and needed an emergency pacemaker. Charles, stricken with Alzheimer’s, didn’t think to call for help. The sisters knew it was time to move them to a home. Charles Follett died shortly afterwards. In the last days of his life, his daughters promised him they would take care of their mom.
Until the pandemic struck, they felt they had found a good rhythm. Kaplan Estates was a wonderful facility, with concerts and movies, trivia and bingo, and arts and crafts. The sisters visited all the time, bringing husbands, kids, grandkids, and dogs. They took Jean out for drives along the beach so she could smell the salty air; they took her to live shows like “A Christmas Carol” and movies like “Little Women” — happy stories to lift her spirits.
Then, a little more than two weeks ago, as fears of the virus grew, Kaplan Estates shut its doors to visitors. The sisters decided not to bring their mom home, because at Kaplan Estates she would have constant medical attention. But they worried about how to keep her from sinking into depression and loneliness. They had explained the virus, and Jean watched the news. She seemed to understand that something was going on. But she had begun to ask how much longer she would have to be stuck inside.
On Saturday, they could tell she was having a good day. Her eyes were clear and sharp, focused on them. As the sisters stood arrayed on the lawn and porch, she beamed out, serene and proud.
“So nice to see you,” Jean Follett said. “My beautiful daughters.”
Before the dementia, the sisters had loved their mother’s quick wit and her wry, raised eyebrow. These days, she repeated her questions, got confused. They explained they were here to see her, and that they loved her. She said they had made her day, and blew them kiss after kiss. She said she was getting cold and shut the window. A minute later, she opened it and peered out, grinning.
“What is this all about?” she asked.
It was so hard to stand so close, and not be able to touch her. It was so hard to talk to her, and not be able to reach her. But the sisters had found a new way to show their mother they loved her. They answered her same questions again and again, patiently, gently teasing her about how she’d always wanted to know everything that was going on.
For almost an hour, Jean Follett opened and shut her window, asking what was happening and telling her daughters she was happy to see them. For almost an hour, they greeted every round of questions like it was new, and talked about the trips they would take when all this was over.
Just before Jean disappeared back inside, she looked each of her daughters in the eye, one at a time to make sure they were watching. She touched a finger to her eye, a finger to her heart, and then pointed. At Charlene, at Lynne, at Elaine. I love you.
For a moment, the dementia was gone, the pandemic was gone. The six feet between them collapsed.
There was Jean Follett. There were her beautiful daughters.