Thursday, June 16, 2016

A Cautionary Tale

Some years ago, after her husband passed away, my mother-in-law booked a cruise through the funeral home that handled his arrangements. It's a service many funeral homes provide -- vacation packages for the recently bereaved. The idea is simple and well-intended: people who suddenly are alone can meet others who also are alone. Friendships might evolve and all those people might find themselves a little bit less lonely. It didn't hurt that Mom was a diamond-level priority member with Royal Caribbean.

The thing you might not know about these bereavement vacation packages is that unfilled spots are sometimes sold to the general public. Such was the case with the cruise my mother-in-law booked. Some people on the cruise were clients of the funeral home while others were not. When she returned from her trip, we heard all about two new non-client friends she had made while away. Let's call them D and J.

Suspicions were immediately aroused in our household when we heard how they met on the bus to the airport. Mom had raised her hand in response to a question asked by the group leader.

J, a short man of roughly 60 years, noticed the rings on her fingers and later said he simply had to meet a woman with such exquisite taste in jewelry. I've never been emotionally stirred by another person's bling, but I realize some people are that superficial. Mom, of course, took it as a compliment and was flattered by the attention she received from J and his lady friend D, a strange woman I initially and incorrectly assumed was J's wife.

Very quickly, D and J were socializing with Mom at every opportunity. They met for lunch several times a week. They became regular fixtures at family dinners and poolside lounge sessions on hot summer days. They ferried her to and from medical appointments. The fawning and praise they showered upon Mom were excessive, and they seemed to be at her beck and call, available at a moment's notice should she be in need of anything.

Their helpfulness wasn't limited to my mother-in-law, either. They repeatedly offered to help us on busy days should we need someone to pick up the kids from school. The day we moved into our new house, J offered to take our sons over to see his collection of military medals while D helped unpack boxes. Every time I recall his offer, and the fact those two ever crossed our threshhold, I cringe.

The friendship between my mother-in-law and this odd couple ended abruptly on Easter weekend of 2007. While at our house for Easter dinner, Mom called D and J to wish them a happy holiday and ask if they could, as they had done many times, pick her up from dialysis the following day. That was all it took. Mom later received a harsh email from them stating how offened they were at not being good enough to invite to dinner, yet they were good enough to shuttle her home from a medical appointment. If I recall correctly, Mom had no further communication from the couple and passed away later that year still as confused as the rest of us.

Several theories have since crossed my mind regarding D and J. The one I believe most likely is that they were opportunists hoping to worm their way into a lonely woman's life and, through legal maneuverings or other chicanery, take what they wanted from her estate. It wouldn't be the first time something like that happened to an elderly, emotionally vulnerable person. I suspect they cut their losses and moved on after realizing Mom's bonds with her family were too tight break. Call me paranoid, but that's what I believe.

The worst part of it all is we learned, several months after Mom died, that J was a registered sex offender who had spent 12 years in prison for aggravated felonious sexual assault involving forced penetration of a child under 13 years of age. He was on the registry by the time we learned this, but not for very long. It seems he spent at least a year secretly living with his girlfriend in North Carolina while maintaining registration on another state's sex offender list. When I called our county Sheriff's office to tell them he had been in the state for a much longer period of time than his registration date would suggest, my concern was dismissed and I was told to be content that he was now registered.

The man had been in my home. This potential sexual predator repeatedly offered to pick up our children from school, take them off our hands when we were busy, even entertain them at his house. Exactly how was I supposed to feel content about that, other than from knowing he never was alone with our children?

The takeaway lesson from our brush with D and J is to guard your elders just as you do your toddlers. Give them room enough to lead their own lives and be their own people, but bear in mind their weaknesses and help them steer clear of those who might do them harm.

I hate to seem like the kind of person who casts a suspicious eye at every new aquaintance, but in the words of Stephen King: "The trust of the innocent is the liar's most useful tool."

© 2016 Mark Feggeler

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