What’s A Little Stealing, Among Family?: By SUSAN PARKER

Tuesday November 09, 2004

After my husband’s accident, when he was transferred to Kaiser’s Redwood City Neurology Department, I was told not to leave valuables in his room. I was warned again when Ralph was sent to Kaiser’s Vallejo Rehabilitation Center. 

I’ve heard it many times since, in and around the dozens of hospital rooms Ralph has occupied in the past 10 years. “Remove all personal belongings,” a nurse will advise. “You never know who might come in and take from the sick and suffering.” 

But pilfering has not been a problem during our hospitals stays. It’s when we come home that the trouble begins. Lost, missing, and unaccounted for items and cash have become the norm in our daily life. It started with the first person we hired to help with Ralph’s care. A middle-aged man answered our ad for a live-in attendant. 

He arrived by bus carrying a small paper bag filled with his belongings and a resume that claimed he was a theology student. Back then, I relied on things like work histories and references to make hiring decisions. It was before I realized that recommendations from “friends” of the applicant meant virtually nothing, and a resume was simply a piece of paper with words on it. 

The “theologist” lasted three days in our employment before it became evident that he could not make a sandwich for himself, let alone help Ralph out of bed. I sent him packing with his belongings, too stressed to notice that he left with three paper bags instead of his original one.  

But I didn’t care. What importance were possessions when my husband was wrestling with the fact that he would never use his arms or legs again? 

That first experience of theft under our roof was only the beginning of a long, painful indoctrination into what I have decided is the fine line between stealing and sharing, the trade-off I am willing to make in order to get care for my husband, and respite for me.  

I’ve lost count of how many helpers we have had in the past 10 years, and I refuse to inventory the missing items, or count up the amount of vanished cash. It would only serve to make me depressed and question my sanity. Others who have been in our position will understand the dilemma, and those who do not, well, bless you for being so lucky.  

One of the after effects of a traumatic accident like Ralph’s is adjusting ones values and morals to a different set of codes in order to survive. We now exist on the marginal edges of society. It’s where we fit in best. Ralph and I have learned to compromise, modify, concede and negotiate for his right to get up in the morning, for my right to get out of the house. It has not been easy, but it has worked. 

When my deceased grandmother’s gold watch went missing, I blamed myself for leaving it on a bureau, in plain sight of anyone who might walk by. When money disappeared from my purse, I knew I needed to be more careful. When checks were cashed that we didn’t write, I had to have them canceled. 

I once caught an attendant with his hand in my wallet. “What are you doing?” I asked. “Your money was falling out,” he said. “I’m putting it back for you.” “Thank you,” I answered. 

Recently a credit card company called to warn that unusual purchases had been made with my Chevron card. “Like what?” I asked. “Two full tanks of gas were purchased at the same time about an hour ago,” they said. “And twelve BabyRuth candy bars were also bought with the card.” 

“Don’t cancel the card,” I said. “It’s a family kind of thing.”  

When our employee/housemate returned home in time to help me get Ralph ready for an appointment, I asked him if he had gotten gas for our car.  

“Of course,” he said. “You left it empty.”  

“You wouldn’t happen to have a BabyRuth on you, would you?” I asked.  

“Why yes,” he said, pulling one from his pocket to share with me. “How’d you guess?” 

“No reason,” I said. “But if you’ve got more, I’d like two.”