Felice Blair knew two things for certain about the man she met that December day in Tel Aviv — he looked good in a red sweater and he was quite late.
After apologizing profusely for having gotten lost, her blind date, Bernard, a friend of her cousin, suggested they grab something “cheap and cheerful,” a phrase revealing his British roots. Want to get Chinese food, he suggested.
“I’m in love!” she blurted, telling him that it was her favorite.
He flashed her a baffled look and laughed and soon they were swapping stories about divorce and children over orange chicken and lo mein. They met up a couple more times before Felice’s weeklong trip ended and she returned home to Woodland Hills.
“That was it,” Felice said, recalling the fateful trip in 1986. “It really was a fairy tale story.”
Now 74, Felice has had a lot of time recently to reflect on her and Bernard’s life together — on those early memories and all the hard and happy ones since then. Even before the coronavirus outbreak and its unprecedented shutdowns, which have kept her from visiting Bernard’s skilled nursing facility in Reseda, Felice had begun to consider the end.
“It’s part of my long goodbye,” she says of her husband, 77, who has advanced Alzheimer’s.
For Felice, like countless other spouses and children in her situation across the country, the quarantine has compounded the feelings of guilt and helplessness that sometimes come with moving a loved one into a nursing home.
Now, faced with the possibility of a months-long lockdown, Felice has begun to confront the painful possibility that Bernard could die without her in the room to hug him or whisper assurances.
Her husband’s eyes no longer glimmer with recognition, but when she kibitzes with him he still smiles at times. She finds herself thinking about when, if ever, she might see that smile again and about the life she and Bernard built together.
When the couple met, Bernard, then in his early 40s, worked for now-defunct Trans World Airlines and started flying standby to LAX to visit Felice, then 40 and working as a first-grade teacher. The couple wed at the Marriott in Woodland Hills in the spring of 1988, but Bernard stayed in Israel until the summer of 1991, when he moved into the condominium Felice shared with her mother and two teenage daughters.
She thinks about the walks by the pond near their home, the trips to London, where Bernard grew up, the way her husband, a quiet romantic, liked to keep a candle lighted in the home. She reread old anniversary cards — “I love you more than you will ever know,” he told her — and laughed about how her singing annoyed Bernard, who is tone-deaf.
“Put a sock in it!” he’d say.
She’s been reflecting, too, on how Bernard supported her during hard times.
In the early 2000s, Felice’s journal started to fill up with troubling details about how her mother had again left the stove on or how she’d forgotten her keys. After her mother was diagnosed with dementia, Bernard helped constantly, taking her on walks by the pond and reading aloud from her Danielle Steel novels or the Jewish Journal. He was gentle and compassionate, Felice said, but he told his wife that if he was ever in such a condition, he wouldn’t want to live.
That memory crushes Felice, because years after her mother’s sickness, she realized that Bernard’s mind was slipping too.
She sobbed herself to sleep for a month. Bernard couldn’t remember how to get to Trader Joe’s, she wrote in her journal. As the disease progressed, she learned small tricks that helped ease frustrating situations. A See’s lollipop would keep him preoccupied for 37 minutes, she learned, which was especially helpful on trips to the doctor’s office.
She sometimes coaxed him into the shower with chocolate chips or Monopoly money, and when it was time to change clothes, she’d mimic pulling at her pants and repeat a short command.
“Down, down, down.”
During challenging moments, she reverted to a habit from her childhood: finding a melody mantra. As a girl, when she walked alone to piano class in New York City, she soothed herself by singing “I Whistle a Happy Tune” from “The King and I.” Years later, she picked the Beatles.
“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” she’d sing, when her husband refused to change clothes or shower. “Life goes on.”
Bernard didn’t seem to mind the singing as much. Maybe he could sense how much she needed it.
About six months before he moved into the L.A. Jewish Home, where he’s lived for the last year and a half, Felice was washing dishes in their split-level condominium.
“You OK?” she shouted down the stairs.
When she asked again two minutes later and heard silence, she ran outside, shouted his name and rushed to a nearby park. A neighbor checked the pond. Nothing. What if he got hit by a car? Felice feared. After 35 minutes, another neighbor found Bernard at a different pond. Back at home, Felice called Alzheimer’s LA, which helped her install special locks.
Whenever she thought about moving Bernard into a facility, she felt pangs of guilt. She reflected on their loving marriage and how she didn’t want to live apart from him, but she also reminded herself that she could still visit him as often as she wanted.
Indeed, before the lockdown, she visited every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday, walking with Bernard around the facility and feeding him dinner.
But life at the Jewish Home looks different now.
It involves a lot of testing, including of asymptomatic staffers, at least one of whom was sent home to self-quarantine after testing positive. Nearly all visitors, including community groups that come to entertain residents, have been barred from the facility.
Instead of eating in the dining room, Felice said, Bernard is now fed in his room, which he shares with another resident.
It’s been more than a month since her last visit — a stretch that included his birthday, her birthday and their anniversary. A handful of patients and staff at the Jewish Home have tested positive for COVID-19, and although Felice says the facility has handled it well and taken extreme precautions, she knows what the virus is capable of.
“It brings finality close to mind,” she says.
FaceTiming would confuse Bernard, she says, so she writes him notes and replays her memory of her last visit, sitting by his side in the lounge, reading aloud from the Jewish Journal.
She almost never leaves home, but she has driven to the guard shack at the facility twice, once to leave fiber bars, since Bernard wasn’t having regular bowel movements, and again to drop off a card and a plate of brownies decorated with a ribbon.
“I left it at the guard station and drove off,” she said, tearing up at the memory of her husband’s 77th birthday.
Talking on the phone with Tori Boyer — a care counselor with Alzheimer’s LA, who often calls her to check in — has been a huge encouragement during the pandemic. She tells Boyer about how she misses Bernard’s smile and about how helpless she feels knowing that she’s not there to walk with him. Boyer listens patiently, validating her feelings.
“It’s been pretty devastating,” said Boyer, who regularly checks in with dozens of people who have a loved one with Alzheimer’s. Anxiety and fear seem especially high, Boyer said, among people with loved ones in facilities.
The pandemic has spread with devastating and deadly precision through many nursing homes, where confined, elderly residents with underlying health issues are especially vulnerable.
At a facility in Kirkland, Wash., one of the first hot spots in the nation, nearly two-thirds of the staff and residents got sick and 37 people died. In California, officials confirmed last week that more than 575 nursing home residents have died after contracting the virus — nearly 40% of the state’s death toll.
Felice also finds solace in slow walks around the pond and glimpses of the geraniums in her garden, in long sips of chai tea and each savored bite of Trader Joe’s Cocoa Meringue cookies.
And, of course, when she’s craving familiarity, she calls the Chinese spot in the strip mall near her home and orders takeout orange chicken.