I’m sitting on a comfortable-enough turquoise chair in the bright expansive lobby of an assisted living-slash-memory care facility in Wellington, Florida. My mother is next to me, pretending to read a cooking magazine. I watch her turn a page and stare intently at a photograph of roasted butternut squash on a pretty blue platter.
“What is that a picture of, Mom?” I ask, pointing to the golden half-moon slices. “What are those?”
Her mouth contorts into a crooked grin. I can almost hear the slow grinding of her brain as it tries to identify what used to be one of her favorite foods. I glance over at Violette*, who is here because she’s hoping I hire her to be my mother’s part-time companion. She’s eyeing my mother with a patient smile, but she says nothing. Andy, the owner of the agency who brought Violette to meet me, is also quiet.
After a few frustrating seconds, my mother drops the magazine onto the table, slouches back against the chair and closes her eyes. She is tuckered out from all the effort.
“Now then,” I begin. “Tell me a little about yourself, Violette.”
Violette, who is from Venezuela, talks without stopping for ten minutes. I hear about her work with “little children” as well as “the old people with the dementia.” She tells me, “I am very very good at conversating with people.” At no point does she address my mother, who is now sitting upright, interested enough in the conversation that she has opened her eyes.
Violette is probably nice enough to keep company with my mother for a few hours a week but I’m concerned she won’t be forceful enough to get her to take a walk or paint a picture. “The memory care in this facility is bad,” I explain (albeit quietly, since potential residents and their family members are curiously milling about). “All the energy goes to the assisted living side. There’s no natural light in there,” I announce, gesturing toward the locked door of the memory section. “They do a lot of television watching.”
I wait for Violette to ask more questions or say, “that’s too bad,” and when she doesn’t, I continue on. “I need someone to, you know, keep her stimulated. Bring her outside where there is sunshine and other people she can talk to, or to one of the musical performances. They have a lot of live music in assisted living.”
“Yes,” Violette says. “I can do this for your mother.”
“Great.” I’m satisfied-ish, even though I know there is another woman outside waiting to be interviewed. “You can work Sundays, right? It’s totally dead here on Sundays.”
She looks at Andy and frowns. “No. I can no come here on Sundays.”
Perla* dawdles through the entrance with her head down and hands in her pockets. She’s a tiny but muscular Honduran woman in her fifties. Her black hair is cut short and she sports thick black-framed glasses. I like that she’s wearing street clothes (as opposed to Violette’s scrubs), but she looks as if she’d rather be anywhere else but here. I stand up and extend my hand. “I’m Lisa. Nice to meet you.”
She nods and looks from me to Andy to my mother. “This is my mother, Florine,” I say. Perla puts her hand on my mother’s shoulder and leans in. “Very nice to meet you, Miss Florine. I am Perla.” My mother is entranced.
I am no more than two questions into the interview when Perla interrupts me and says, “I am not here to talk about me. I am here to talk about your mother. You tell me what she needs.”
During lunch I ask my mother what she thinks of Perla.
“Because she’s going to be hanging out with you a couple times a week.”
My mother smiles. “I like her. She’s very interactive.”
This is the first polysyllabic word I’ve heard my mother utter in months. I take a bite of my salad and breathe a sigh of relief. I’ve made a good decision.
As per usual, I’m billeted at my aunt and uncle’s manicured manse in Boynton Beach. They are in California for the week so I have the place to myself. After working out in the fancy gym, I scarf down the container of now-indefinable mush which was—two hours earlier—a thoughtfully-curated collection of meat and veg gleaned from a Whole Foods’ buffet. I shower and climb into bed, exhausted.
Before turning to the novel I’m reading, I open Facebook to see if anyone’s posted anything of interest and notice a colorful poster displaying a photo of a friend of mine. It’s in Spanish:
“What’s this about?” I say to the silent guest room. I click over to We Love Memoirs, the 5,000-plus-member private group where I first met my friend and find this:
It is with great sadness and anxiety that we heard today that fellow author, Facebook friend and WLM member Lindsay De Feliz has gone missing. I have shared the details here in the slight hope that somebody might know something that could help. I know all our thoughts are with her family. 😢♥️
Below the post there are more than 200 comments from people praying she is found safe and sound. I add my own comment:
We just spoke last week. I’m am devastated but will remain hopeful that she had a bit of a memory jag or something related to the head injury and got lost or…? She and I have become such good (online) friends. I have every body part crossed that she is found soon and she is found safe. This is just so shocking. Can someone who speaks Spanish not make contact with Danilo and keep us all posted???
We Love Memoirs is an aptly-named online community of readers and writers of memoirs. Its members live all over the planet and oh, but they love to share everything from daily trivia and news to stories and pictures of pets and travel adventures. Occasionally, someone will post a review of a fellow-member’s memoir. (Self-promotion of any sort is strictly verboten.)
Back in October, 2018, a writer named Lindsay de Feliz posted a link to her blog with short smart reviews of eight memoirs, mine included. When I DMed (Direct Messaged) Lindsay to thank her for her flattering critique she asked me if I had any interest in reading her memoir about being an expat in the Dominican Republic. In all honesty I didn’t want to—I had too many other books I needed to get through—but, of course, I said I’d love to.
Two months went by before I finally, guiltily, opened “What About Your Saucepans?” and I drank it down in one gulp. Lindsay’s story was as shocking as it was gripping: a successful British businesswoman leaves her husband and comfy life and moves to the Dominican Republic to become a scuba diving instructor. Soon after, she marries Danilo, a local man fourteen years her junior; more or less adopts his three sons from previous marriages (as well as a rather charming street urchin); rescues numerous homeless animals; finances Danilo’s run for mayor—becoming mired in the alarmingly corrupt and violent local government—and then, during a home robbery, gets shot in the throat and nearly dies.
I was dumbstruck. Here, I’d been chatting amicably for months with this woman about her rescue animals, Dominican food, the quality of local rum, never once realizing what she’d gone through! I DMed her immediately, frantically waving my hands around, exclaiming my shock (not that she could see me doing that); asking her a zillion follow-up questions. I wanted to know if she missed scuba diving (the bullet went into her lungs, effectively destroying her breathing capacity). I wondered how she could be so cavalier about her neighbors poisoning her dogs. I was nonplussed that Danilo planned to run for mayor again after what they’d endured during the first election.
Lindsay appreciated my sympathy but laughed at my outrage. “This is life in the DR,” she said. Sure, it could be unpredictable, even dangerous, but there was no other place she wanted to be and—to be sure—plenty of people were glad she felt that way.
Before I go to sleep I DM Lindsey. “Where are you?” I write.
Perla has agreed to meet me this morning at my mother’s facility for a two-hour “training” session. I want to make sure she understands what I expect of her before she starts working on a regular basis. I also want to learn more about her. After yesterday’s short interview, Andy said he couldn’t access her prior jobs due to confidentiality, but she was well-liked by previous agencies. Just for the heck of it I decide to google her, but before I open a new tab I check Facebook to see if Lindsay’s been found yet. Hundreds more comments about her disappearance have been posted; many of which terrify me.
Once Lindsay figured out how to navigate life in the DR, she went out of her way to help others do the same. She was particularly keen on warning single foreign women about the dangers of jumping blindly into relationships with Dominican men they’d met online or whilst on holiday in the DR. There was a good chance, according to Lindsay, the men were nothing more than a Sanky Panky, “the term used for those who go out with foreign women with the sole objective of taking their money or to use them to leave the country.” She also made it a point to draw attention to the high rate of domestic violence in her adopted country, at one point citing:
According to Oxfam, nearly a quarter of all women between the ages of 14 and 49 have suffered abuse with the number of women killed increasing each year to around 250. To put it another way, every 36 hours a woman is murdered in the DR and often by her partner, her ex partner or a jealous lover.
But Lindsay didn’t have to worry about such things: Danilo loved her and would do anything to keep her safe and happy.
As I tour Perla around the facility, pointing out the assisted living art room, their sunny spacious living room, and enormous two-story dining room, I try not to stare at her nose. Earlier, when I searched her name, I came across two articles dating back to 2002 detailing the night her drunk boyfriend—who was thirteen years her junior—smashed her head with a beer bottle before biting off half her nose. A plastic surgeon agreed to fix her face for free. “She had to pull her cheek out to open her nostril,” [the doctor] said. “She had lost 50 percent of her breathing…I was shocked that a man could do this to a woman. It’s barbaric.”
Now that I’m aware of her traumatic past, I am slightly unsettled. On one hand I suspect Perla no longer takes shit from anyone, which is a great quality in a caregiver. On the other hand, it occurs to me that not once have I seen her smile.
This past February, while Danilo and a houseguest were out for a run, a man came in through an unlocked door of Lindsay’s secluded mountain home in Moncion and attempted to kill her. I’d DMed Lindsay the moment I read about the vicious attack, but it wasn’t until some weeks later, when she was out of the hospital and on the mend, that she replied. There was a lot, she said, she didn’t want to share publicly. She told me she’d suffered a traumatic brain injury, had no feeling on one side of face, had a droopy smile, and was having memory issues. “I go to the loo and forget why I am there,” she wrote.
I knew they’d caught the suspect and asked Lindsay what happened to him. After I promised I wouldn’t freak out, she said Danilo paid the police to shoot him in the head and bury him.
“But what are you telling people who ask?”
“I just say it is in the hands of the police,” she replied. “That’s what Danilo told me to say.”
It’s my birthday today. The first birthday I’ve ever spent alone. In an act of utter selfishness and self-indulgence, I decide I will skip visiting my mother—who has no idea what birthdays are anymore—and have myself an adventure.
After Face-timing my people in Vermont, and thanking them for the cards they snuck into my suitcase, I turn my phone to DO NOT DISTURB. I do not wish to be interrupted all day by countless birthday calls and texts from friends and family. I don’t want to listen to my brothers sing to me. I take a vow not to check email or Facebook or Twitter or Instagram.
I will have a day of uninterrupted peace.
I ask the woman at the ticket counter at the Morikame Museum and Japanese Gardens if they offer rain discounts as it is, at the moment, pouring. She laughs and says no.
“What about birthday discounts? It’s my birthday today,” I beam, as if it’s a national holiday.
“Are you a senior? You save two dollars if you’re over 65.”
I gasp. “Do I look like I’m over 65?”
“No, you look like you’re, what, like 45?”
“You’re the sweetest person ever,” I say as I hand over my credit card.
With a map in my hand, I head outside, open my umbrella, and cross the bridge.
I move slowly, deliberately, as if practicing a walking meditation. Now and then I stop and take a photograph or video of a waterfall, the shimmering saffron-colored scales of the koi in the lake. Flowers.
I spend a long time watching a bamboo shishi-odoshi fill, empty, then fill again.
I am the only person strolling the gardens this morning. Whether it’s due to the incessant drizzle or because the Goddess of Birthday Wishes grants me the silence I so crave, I care not. I am happy.
Two hours later I find a table in the mostly-empty café and order a bento box. As my chopsticks gambol from the sushi square to the gyoza square and then over to the teriyaki square, I watch the rain dance on the lake.
Afterwards, my fingers laze across the myriad Japanese trinkets in the gift shop,finally coming to rest on two snow globe Buddhas. Since I cannot choose between the silver and the gold one, I leave empty-handed, $18 richer.
I drive to the ocean where I spread a towel across the wet sand. I watch the waves the trees the birds. Other than the lifeguard in his tower behind me, there is no one else around.
I drive to a taco truck and buy enough food to feed a Mormon family. I get it to go.
I pass through the security gates, drop the food at the house and walk over to the lap pool. There must be a live show tonight in the clubhouse because the enormous parking lot is full and all three pools are humanless. I swim for about twenty minutes, keeping my eyes fixed on the black line running along the pool’s bottom. I hear nothing but the sounds of my hands slapping the surface, the quickening of my breaths. I wrap a large white towel around my body and settle on a lounge chair. The rain has stopped and the dusk sky is fraught with bulging purple clouds.
I eat three tacos (chorizo, al pastor, carne asada) and half the container of greasy cheesy beans in front of the television. Because no birthday should ever go without a birthday wish, I rummage around my aunt’s drawers until I find a pack of candles. There are no cakes or cookies or sweets to be found anywhere so I improvise.
At last I settle my most contented self into the comfy bed, prop a pillow against the wall and grab my laptop and phone. I’ve spent the day completely—blissfully—alone. Now, though, I intend to drown in human attention. First, I open yahoo and read about a dozen birthday emails from friends who don’t use social media (good for them), and delete a few sent from PR desks (thank you, Queen Mary).
ACX has just informed me that RASH’s audiobook was approved and is now on sale. What a lovely present, I think.
I move on to Facebook and bask in the many adoring birthday posts and cute gifs from my pals around the world: some old, some new. Some I’ve met in person; lots I only know virtually. I am probably blushing from all the love being shared, but there’s no one here to tell me if I am.
I open We Love Memoirs, where I know I will find no fewer than fifty salutations, because that’s how they roll over there in WLM. Okay, so there are only forty-one strangers wishing me a happy day, but I am beyond touched. I scroll a bit to see if there’s been any news about Lindsay. I find
And just like that, my full heart shatters into a thousand million pieces.
I’m sitting in the back of the living room in my mother’s memory care facility. A middle-aged man with a guitar is singing Jewish-ish songs in front of the residents who are arranged in a semi-circle. Most of them, including my mother, are asleep. “Shabbat Shalom” I hear and realize it’s the Jewish Sabbath. We never actually observed Shabbat in our household, but my mother took pride in being Jewish, especially after we moved to southern California and knew no other Jews. I believe my mother’s benumbed mind might find some connection, some solace, in her spiritual past so I go up to her and nudge her awake. “Mama, listen to the music,” I whisper. “He’s playing Jewish songs.”
She nods, and then closes her eyes once more.
I go back to my chair and open my laptop so I can continue combing through the hundreds of news articles, social media posts, and Dominican new videos, about Lindsay’s murder. Since last night I’ve been sleep-walking through a fog of devastation. I am, simply put, gutted.
I am also very angry. Who could possibly want to hurt a woman who did nothing but help others? A woman who was one of the most benevolent people I knew.
I’m in the Atlanta airport aggressively DMing a bunch of commenters who knew Lindsay personally. My rage is infinite and I am obsessed with finding out all I can about her heinous murder. I ask Dorean* to tell me what she believes happened. She writes:
I think we are beginning to believe that Danilo, his two sons and a third person who had her phone are the culprits. Someone is sending me DR news reports, 4 now arrested. I have been chatting with a couple of other women who also both believe it was Danilo and his sons. I now believe that Danilo was behind the two previous attacks. I think he thought he was marrying a rich English woman and thereby swept aside the age difference but it soon became obvious she was not wealthy and she became the income earner. The more I read the more I am coming to believe she also knew more than she was letting on. Those of us who have been in a bad marriage are very good at keeping our concerns to ourselves and I think Lindsay worked hard to have wonderful friends as a foil to her concerns about Danilo. I keep waking up at night thinking about what they did to her, and have been trying to make sense of it all day.
I write to Suze* after I see one of her comments. She says:
Hey Lisa, Lindsay was an absolute angel who helped anyone she could at any time. The amount of people who she has helped who have messaged me is insane I don’t know how she had the time to help so many people.
I first met her on dr1.com. It’s a website for expats for the DR type thing. We started talking and she made me read her first book she said I would love it. I wasn’t a big reader so it took months and months of her telling me to read it when I finally did I couldn’t put it down and finished it in one sitting.
We talked online a lot. My opinion is they 100% have the right people in custody. I would bet my life on it. It’s absolutely horrific what happened and I am trying to digest wtf just happened.
Just as I’m getting dressed to go see Loy’s Vermont Youth Orchestra concert my phone rings. I see Perla’s name and instantly pick up. It’s her first day on the job and I’m hoping she’s merely calling to check in. “Hi there,” I say nonchalantly, even as a knot of concern tightens around my chest.
“Lisa. I can no longer be here in this place. The people, I don’t understand them.”
I hold my finger up to Victor, who is motioning to me that it’s time to leave. “What? What people?”
“Your mother. We were outside and she says she’s not feeling so good in her belly so I bring her inside but her door is locked, you see, and so I cannot bring her to the bathroom and I make her wait and I go looking for someone to open her door, but Lisa, there is no one!”
I nod. One of my biggest complaints about the facility is their inadequate ratio of caregivers to residents. Even though the salespeople boast to prospective families that it’s 1:9, that’s a bold lie. There are never enough uniformed people around, which is part of the reason I hired Perla in the first place. “So what happened?”
Before Perla could get her to a bathroom, my mother started throwing up into her own hands. Perla spent the next hour cleaning her. “I cannot stay here, Lisa. It is too much.” I find it hard to believe one accident is enough to make her quit. I suspect there is more to the story, but I have to get to the concert so I thank her for her time, tell her to say hi to my mother, and hang up, defeated.
I call Andy to get the lowdown and he’s as stunned as I am by Perla’s departure. She hasn’t returned any of his calls or texts. “Maybe she got a better job offer,” I suggest.
“I hope you don’t take this the wrong way,” he replies carefully, “but, she did say that um, when you toured her around last week you, ah, you were…”
“I was what?”
“She said you were very demanding. I think maybe you scared her.”
I spend half of my 45-minute therapy session talking about Lindsay’s murder allegedly at the hands of her husband and stepson, and the other half whining about how hard it is to be a long-distance caretaker. I try not to cry because these 45 minutes are precious and I don’t want to waste any of them blowing my nose.
When I get home, instead of working, I read through the endless stream of comments from Lindsay’s friends and acquaintances in the R.I.P.: Lindsay De Feliz is missing (Matilda) thread on dr1.com (Matilda was Lindsay’s sobriquet). I do not understand this obsessive need I have to gather every word, every sentiment, every memory relevant to Lindsay’s life, but I am desperate to find something.
I find it on page 68 where someone has copied an old post of Lindsay’s:
In a very past life I used to interview students who wanted to do an MBA. As well as all the usual questions, to try and find out a bit more about them I would ask: ‘What do you want on your tombstone?’ and ‘What do you think of, first thing in the morning as soon as you wake up?’. The answers can be very revealing!!! So I will kick off.
On my tombstone I want: ‘She made a difference.’ and first thing I think of in the morning is: “must feed the cats” as there are 9 of them miaowing at the side of the bed for breakfast.
Ok over to you guys…… Matilda
Andy texts me and asks if I am available right now to interview Pamela* I close my laptop and call his office. Pamela is from Jamaica and her accent is so thick I am having a hard time understanding her through the phone’s muffled speaker, but I get the sense, without having any idea what she looks like, that she is kind. Yes, she can work Sundays, she readily concedes, and yes, she would like very much to help my mother.
I do not ask her if she’s married or if she’s patient with old folks who pee in their own pants. I don’t push or prod or insist or demand. Instead I tell her how happy I am that Andy has found her. “Even if you just sit with her and hold her hand while she listens to music,” I say. “Even that will make a difference.”
*Name has been changed