Upstairs, Downstairs

StairsOne of the advantages of living in a five-story house is that you don’t need a Fitbit to make sure you’re getting in your 10,000 steps a day. We’ve stayed pretty spry just taking out the trash, hauling in the groceries, and running up and downstairs retrieving little odds and ends we constantly forget like books, dirty dishes, and car keys.

The stairs are not so great for my father-in-law, though, who has reached the age where walking down the corridor to the dining hall at his assisted living facility is a big challenge. He’d hauled himself up 19 stairs from our garage to our dining room for Thanksgiving, but the prospect of a repeat performance for Christmas looked dubious. And at age 95, who knew how many Christmases he had left? Since this was the first time in five years both our daughters would be home for the holidays, it felt even more important to celebrate together in traditional style—tree, stockings, lights, decorations, and Christmas dinner with all the trimmings.

“No problem,” I said to my husband. “Surely the four of us can carry him up the stairs.”

We decided to practice by hoisting Emma, our eldest, in the safety of our living room. Staggering, we dropped her onto the rug in about ten seconds, envisioning the domino effect of three generations meeting with disaster on the stairs into the garage. It was time for Plan B.

“The important thing is that we’re all together,” my mother-in-law and I said to one another, agreeing we’d eat instead at their favorite Chinese restaurant.

Which turned out to be closed on Christmas Day.

My husband made a reservation at a Thai restaurant instead.

In the meantime, my friend Eileen told me about a friend who’d had been carried into his house by firefighters after he was discharged from the hospital with a severely fractured leg.

“You should call the fire department,” Eileen urged.

“You’re kidding! They do that?” I replied, silently thinking, “What a waste of taxpayer money!”

And even if I didn’t think so, my in-laws surely would. I could not imagine them agreeing to such special treatment. We like to joke that they hate to impose on people so much that we won’t know that they’re dead until two weeks after the fact.

Still, I couldn’t let go of the idea, debating it back and forth in my mind, even putting “Call the fire department” on my to-do list. Like most things on my to-do list, there it stayed.

“Enlisting the firemen is a crazy idea, right?” I mused to my daughter. “We’ll be fine at the Thai restaurant, right? The important thing is for all of us to be together.”

Emma nodded.

The following day, my morning walk took me on a route I don’t usually take—one that ends a half a block from our fire station.

“What the hell—no harm in asking,” I said to myself, going in.

“I have a crazy question,” I said to the man at the desk, then explained our situation.

“It’s not crazy at all. We’re a full-service fire station, and that’s what your money supports. We do this all the time.”

My in-laws were surprisingly game.

“Some people might be too embarrassed to be carted up the stairs,” my father-in-law chortled over the phone. “But not me! I think it’s marvelous!”

On Christmas Day, four firefighters met us at the base of our stairs, strapped my father-in-law into a special chair, and deposited him safely in the living room. They arrived precisely at the appointed departure time, and reversed the procedure.Firemen and Grandpa, Christmas 2015

It was the best Christmas ever. Thanks, taxpayers!Jenny and Katie with Grandma and Grandpa, Christmas 2015

And yesterday, to celebrate my father-in-law’s 96th birthday, we all went to his favorite Chinese restaurant, this time without any assistance beyond his portable walker. It was the best birthday celebration ever.Hugh's 96th at Lily Kai


A pot of flowers doesn’t seem like much. It can’t begin to compensate for the loss of rose beds, lemon trees, azaleas just coming into their glory. But at least it’s something to greet my in-laws the day they’ll cram what they can from sixty years of marriage into two tiny rooms in their new retirement home.

My husband’s parents have never much cared about material things; flowers are the one indulgence they allow themselves. A pale yellow Cecil Bruner rose foams over the entry of the Craftsman bungalow they are about to leave behind. Bluebells, daisies, holly—every season’s bounty—grace the coffee table in their living room. Now the vases, furniture, and garden tools have all been donated to charity. My father-in-law, who disapproves of brooding as a foolish waste of time, has banished all misgivings about their imminent uprooting. Still, he confessed to me a few days earlier that he felt a pang as his prized roses started to leaf out. He will want a bit of dirt to fuss over.

At the nursery, I select lemon-yellow ranunculus, blue pansies, white impatiens, and a single periwinkle to spill over the edge of a big ceramic planter the color of cream. The rich black potting soil tumbles from bag to bowl. I carefully ease the flowers out of their plastic cubes and transplant them into the readied dirt, adding soil to fill in the empty spaces. I give the pot a gentle soaking. It looks perfect.

I arrive at the retirement home an hour before the movers and my in-laws are due. Yellow caution tape, the kind used in crime scenes, blocks the path to the 4- by 6-foot concrete pad we charitably call a patio. Perhaps the dismantling of a long life is indeed a crime, but I am too rushed to appreciate the symbolism.

I inquire at the front desk about the obstruction.

“Which unit are your in-laws moving into?” asks the receptionist.

“It’s on the end, overlooking the swamp,” I say.

“We don’t call it a swamp,” she admonishes before explaining that the path is cordoned off due to high tide warnings. “We say ‘marsh.’”

Since my in-laws refer to their fellow residents as “inmates,” I imagine them bristling at the euphemisms, if not the rising waters, about to engulf them. They may be old, but they’re nobody’s fools.

Swamp or marsh, it is clear that no senior citizens will be allowed to wander off into a flood zone, so I resign myself to a treacherous detour. Bracing against the weight of the pot, I gingerly pick my way across soggy hillocks toward the patio. A few more steps and I’ll be home free on the solid concrete.

As I bend to put the pot in place, it slips out of my arms. I watch helplessly, unable to reverse the inexorable crash. Dirt and ceramic shards are everywhere. The flowers I had so tenderly transplanted now lay crushed under two cubic feet of soil.

I pull the biggest shard from the rubble, frantically combing through the dirt with my bare hands. The sweet blue faces of the pansies emerge, and here is the tattered head of the ranunculus. One after another I toss the survivors onto the shard. It is a cool, overcast day; with enough soil clinging to their roots, perhaps the flowers will pull through.

But I cannot yet tend to the shocked transplants. I still have a “Welcome” banner to install, a mess to clean up.

I shake the dirt off my jeans and sneakers as best I can, and struggle to unlock the front door. My in-laws are zealously tidy; their new home, with all the charm of a chain motel, at least makes up in spotlessness what it lacks in character. Or at least it did before I tracked in dirt. Now the traces of my good intentions are ground into the carpet.

I affix the “Welcome” banner to the blank walls. Fishing a crumpled tissue out of my pocket, I blot up the mess as much as possible before finally turning my attention to the drooping plants.

Bare handed, I scoop up some of the soil from the patio into the plastic nursery pots, sweep the rest into the grass with the side of my foot, then head home with my load of distressed flowers and dirt.

There I find an old terra cotta pot, slightly battered, with a patina of dirt and mildew. Filling it almost to the brim with the salvaged potting soil, I carefully transplant each bedraggled flower, once again troweling in dirt around the edges, gently misting off stray soil before giving everything a good drink. The blossoms are wilted from their ordeal, but are starting to perk up a little.

I hope they’ll take root in their new home.


I wrote this four years ago when my in-laws made their big move. They’ve taken root just fine, as has my father-in-law’s garden!