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Duckler: While she knocked on heaven’s door, no visitors, please

  • Amber Boedeker holds a photo of she and her grandmother, Jackie Perron, at her Concord apartment on Monday before heading out to the funeral home to meet with her father. Boedeker was very close to Perron, but was unable to visit over the last six days of her grandmother’s life. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor columnist
Published: 5/16/2020 5:33:20 PM

Her routine didn’t stop, even after her grandmother died.

Amber Boedeker kept driving to the parking lot at the Harris Hill Center, an assisted living facility in Concord. That’s where her ‘Grammy,’ Jackie Perron, died alone on May 10 at 82 after fighting myeloma.

That was Boedeker’s spot, that parking lot. For six days, it was the closest she could get to Perron after visitors were no longer allowed in due to COVID-19.

She still sits in her car, lost in thought. She went last Monday, the day her family paid tribute to this matriarch. She ate her usual meal, chicken nuggets with barbecue sauce, fries with no salt. Just like Grammy used to.

The food filled her up. Her time outside in that parking lot, as her grandmother struggled to breathe and live, filled nothing.

And never will.

“When I think of her death, she was old and we knew she was passing and I was at peace with that,” Boedeker said by phone. “But when it comes to this, it makes me sick. That’s why I’m trying to avoid thinking about it. I had always told her that I will be with you up until that point at the end, and for that to be taken away is awful. We were very wronged by that.”

For Boedeker, there are good things to recall as well while sitting in her car. Those giant Sunday dinners, with all the fixin’s, when Thanksgiving was still so far away. That was No. 1 on her list of childhood memories.

But rewinding images, happy ones, in your mind takes you only so far when you’ve missed a loved one’s final days. That’s common practice now, saying goodbye to a family member, perhaps on a computer screen, not in the room.

Visits statewide have, more and more, relied on Zoom for intimate contact toward the end. Not running your fingers through someone’s hair. Not stroking someone’s hands.

Visitation rights disappear and someone you love dies alone. It’s been a pattern. This issue, part of the titanic list of issues that have surfaced since the coronavirus struck, will live for a long time in certain minds.

Forever, really, as long as the people affected by it live.

“If a family can’t be there, that means no one could be there,” Boedeker said. “Is this how we treat our loved ones? It sounds so inhumane.”

Boedeker’s last in-room visit was on May 4. As she left that night, she never dreamed that that would be it, her final goodbye. So she never said it.

She emphasized that the nurses at Harris Hill were great. They visited Perron as often as they could. They soothed her, held her hand.

But Boedeker said the policy at Harris was unclear, or even non-existent. She said staff members had told her during her final visit that Boedeker could return in the morning to see her grandmother.

Just call first, Boedeker says she was told. That, however, was not the case, she added. She insisted she was blindsided.

“I was never told this was going to be my last visit,” Boedeker said. “My impression was I could go in and out until she passed away.”

Boedeker also said that she was told someone would contact the family once it was clear that Perron didn’t have much time left. That call came five hours after she died, Boedeker said.

“Upper-level management can fail to look at the whole person,” Boedeker said. “Whoever sets up those policies, I would like to talk to them.”

Messages for comment left at Harris Hill were not returned.

But we all know times are hard. We know about the chaos and confusion and heartbreak that’s surfaced at hospitals and nursing homes the last three months.

And we know that with an unprecedented historic event such as this, tight controls are being implemented to protect the elderly, who have proven to be the most vulnerable.

That can mean little to those who have lost loved ones, and only time may lessen the feelings of frustration and mistrust, aimed at the decision-makers facing an unwinnable scenario.

That wound mixes with good memories for Boedeker. Great memories, actually. She’ll never let go of them.

Perron grew up on a farm in Pembroke and graduated from high school in 1955. She attended secretarial school and worked at Lego and Sons in Concord for years. She eventually settled in Concord.

That’s where all the fun kid stuff happened, to Boedeker and her twin, Ashley. They turned 30 a few days ago. They went to Grammy’s all the time when they were little.

“It would be Thanksgiving dinner every weekend,” Amber said. “Mashed potatoes, turkey, stuffing, veggies.”

Then Boedeker stopped herself. She was getting carried away, excited, feeling the Grammy vibe. Then she returned, bringing a sliver of reality with her. Turkey dinner? Every Sunday?

“Sometimes it was just sandwiches,” Boedeker revealed. “It’s always a bigger deal when you think of it and look back. She also made mac and cheese, and we would tell her it’s the best, and all it was was butter and noodles.”

Perron often stuffed a bowl with chocolate mints and left them within reach of her grandkids. Sort of.

“We were 2 years old and we would pull up chairs,” Boedeker said. “Or we climbed on top of each other, anything we could do to get on that counter.”

There were Christmases at Grammy’s house. Perron taught the twins how to drive. Once, Perron mentioned that Ashley was driving past the Governor’s Mansion.

“My sister looks and starts steering toward it and we ended up on the dirt on the other side of the road,” Boedeker said. “(Perron) was calm.”

She continued: “We didn’t want to learn to drive at first, and mom tried and dad tried and we always ended up in tears. There was something different with Grammy and she took on the burden of teaching us to drive.”

Perron faced challenges well. She was a single mom whose husband died young.

“She grew up on a farm, churning her own butter and squeezing cow milk straight into the cats’ mouths,” Boedeker said.

Boedeker said her grandmother, “took care of the whole neighborhood. I remember her bringing dishes and desserts to her neighbors in her trailer park. She brings over freezers full of ice cream and pizzas for us kids. It was always so exciting.”

Time passed. Children and grandkids moved around, chasing careers, getting married, finding their way. Boedeker wasn’t one to sit still, either.

She earned her theology degree in Ohio, lived in California, did missionary work in Louisiana, trained in Mexico and moved from Manchester to Concord in 2017.

Perron lived in a mobile home off Fort Eddy Road for decades, and, between two and three times per week, that’s where Boedeker could be found. They’d go grocery shopping together. Perron would buy ice cream and too much deli meat. She’d make lunch. She’d talk to anyone, everyone, prompting Boedeker to say you were held “captive” if Grammy’s eyes connected to yours.

“I would stand up and say it’s time to leave and she would talk for another 10 minutes,” Boedeker said. “Then I’d stand up again and say it’s time to leave and we’d be there another 10 minutes.”

Her health faded. Fast. Over the last two years, Perron’s knees locked from arthritis, making it hard to walk. Her mind became fuzzy, making Boedeker think that her grandmother had Alzheimer’s. And she contracted myeloma, a cancer that attacks white blood cells.

A fall and a broken hip led to assisted living. She moved to Harris Hill in 2018. By May 4, Perron was dying and everyone knew it. She started talking about cats she had loved, believing they were in her room. She needed a walker, a wheelchair. It was hard to gauge how much information Perron was absorbing. The family believed she got it. She understood.

Boedeker went home on the night of the 4th, her last visit. She told me she was assured by more than one staffer that she would be welcome back the next day. First call, then come.

She never saw Grammy again, beyond a Zoom chat. Boedeker made it clear that the staff there was kind. The nurses did their best, Boedeker said, spending time with Perron and adding a tender touch.

But more was needed. Maybe Grammy was aware of her surroundings. Maybe she knew she was alone most of the time.

But rules are rules, even if they make no sense in certain scenarios. Like this one, Boedeker said.

“She’s been swabbed and doesn’t have the coronavirus and she’s not contagious,” Boedeker said. “No one else at the nursing home has it. I’ve been quarantined in my house because it’s not like there’s anywhere to go and I’m wearing a mask and she’s wearing one. My temperature was fine.”

Translation? Why in the world was Perron’s granddaughter and everyone else barred from the room?

Boedeker said this week that she’s not sure what the exact cause of death was. That bothered her as well.

But nothing could compare to the sense of helplessness and hopelessness she felt in that parking lot. When she could go no further. While eating chicken nuggets with barbecue sauce and fries with no salt.

Sometimes, Boedeker would bring Milky Ways and Cheetos, two other Grammy favorites, to the parking lot to eat. Simple things like a candy bar reminded Boedeker of Perron.

She’s gone back since Perron’s death, spending a half-hour in the lot the other day, searching for the closure she never had, recalling chocolate mints and big turkeys.

At least for a while.

“I don’t know how much Grammy knew or how lonely she felt,” Boedeker said. “Maybe she needed someone’s hand to squeeze. There should always be someone by their side when they are dying.”

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