My dear, dear dad passed away. After my journey through caregiving and mourning, it was time to begin my journey through the business of dying.
First stop, my parents’ safety deposit box at the local branch of a national bank. I took my mother to retrieve my father’s life insurance policies and financial paperwork. We were greeted at the door by an employee, “Welcome to Bank of America,” he smiled and motioned us over to the counter with an available teller. I nodded to acknowledge his instructions and smiled back.
“We are here to get paperwork from my mother’s safety deposit box. My father just died,” I explained to the teller.
“Your name, please,” she replied without even the standard, “Sorry for your loss.”
“Their name is Kelleher,” I answered.
She stared at the computer screen clicking at the keyboard as she replied, “Oh, I see the box is in Robert Kelleher’s name. He will need to come in.”
Did she hear me? “That’s not happening; he’s dead,” I replied incredulous at her response.
“Does your mother have a license?”
“Mom, do you have your license with you?” I turned and asked my mother who was not following the conversation and who had not driven a car for over four years.
“Yes, it’s somewhere in my wallet,” she answered as she rifled through her purse. After nervously digging around, she handed her license over to me and I handed it to the teller.
“This license is expired,” the teller stated, “Do you have any other photo ID?”
She didn’t. “No, she doesn’t,” I explained.
“You’ll need to go to the Registry of Motor Vehicles to get an updated license.”
Had the teller ever lost a loved one? How on earth could she be instructing mourners to go to the registry? That place is hard enough to take in the best of times.
“Look, my mother’s address is the same as my dad’s and you can see from the photo that she is who she says she is. You cannot be telling me I need to go stand in line for hours at the registry with my 82-year-old mother who just lost her husband so she can collect my dad’s life insurance policies…”
“Does you mother have a valid passport? She can use that instead.”
That is was it. “No, it’s expired as well. Please let me speak to your supervisor,” I requested curtly.
I watched as the teller went over to whisper hush-hush with a man who looked up at my mother and then down at her license and then up again to study her face again before walking over to us.
“Hello, I am the branch manager and given the circumstances, today I will let you down to your safety deposit box,” he offered officiously.
Big deal, I thought…breaking policy for my mother and me is hardly what I would consider a big risk.
The teller put us on the elevator down to the vault, and took the stairway herself. She met us in the basement and asked to see my mother’s license, for the second time. It was protocol she explained.
Somehow, between the first floor and the basement, my mother had misplaced her expired license. Out she took every receipt, every credit card, insurance card, library card, her address book, appointment calendar, grandchildren’s photos, her own laminated wedding photo, keys, lipstick, mints, pillbox….
“Look in your pockets, mom,” I suggested in a calm voice, as mother rifled through the rubble. No, it wasn’t there.
I took over, as my mother’s escalating frenzy was not yielding results. Carefully and methodically wading through the contents of her purse, I found the license slipped between a couple of dollar bills in her wallet.
“OK, here you go.” I breathed deeply and handed the license over to the teller.
Expressionless, the teller led my mother and me through the heavy steel grates and into the vault. Mom proudly showed the woman the section where her box is located, as if to finally prove for once and for all that she really should have access to the box.
“Your key please,” the teller requested, as both her key and my mother’s were needed to open the box.
Ah, our next challenge. My mother was not sure which of the many keys on her chain the correct one was. The teller was not helpful on that front, either. Thankfully, after a few tries — success, we had a match.
We pulled out the drawer and our oh-so-businesslike teller escort led us to a closet-sized room with two chairs and a counter. “I am leaving for the day, so when you are ready, ring the bell around the corner and someone will come get you,” she instructed as we sat down to locate the paperwork we needed. No “May I help you with anything before I leave?” No “Good luck.” No nothing.
After a moment, it dawned on me that my mother and I really didn’t need to inspect each document in this sterile closet of a room, and worse, potentially have to come back to retrieve items if we left anything in the box that we later learned we needed. Access to this hallowed subterranean spot would necessitate a trip to the dreaded registry. “Mom, let’s take everything with us, I’ll look through all these policies and certificates at home. And, I have a safe built into the wall of my house, so I’ll keep your valuables there.”
Thankfully, my mother was fine with my plan. Relief. These days my mother’s need to hold on to vestiges of the past often distort good ideas into bad ones. So, I gladly placed the safety deposit box contents into my big purse and walked out of the room into the hall to find the call button.
There below a melamine etched sign, “Push for assistance,” was a hard, red illuminated button.
I pushed, but the button didn’t budge. Odd, I thought, and waited. I pushed again. Waited again. No one came. Pushed again, waited again…Doing the same thing over and over again without desired results I knew was the definition of insanity, but I couldn’t come up with a better idea.
Now, I was the one getting anxious. I had already pushed the elevator button, but it didn’t work without a security code, which of course, we didn’t know. “Mom, I don’t understand why no one is coming to get us.” It had been over ten minutes.
“Let’s take the stairs like the teller did,” suggested my suddenly level-headed mother.
Mom turned the handle of the door, which unlike the elevator, actually opened. She started up the stairs. I followed. The heavy door shut behind me. I bounded up the stairs past my mother, only to find the heavy metal door at the top locked. I sprinted back down past her, only to find the bottom door locked behind us, as well.
Here my mother and I were, stuck in a grey cement stairwell, life insurance policies in hand. I should have listened to that little voice inside my head who said, “You stay where you are and let Mom go up,” but I didn’t. Blame my lack of sound judgment on my grieving state.
I joined my mother who had finally made her way up to the top of the stairs. Pounding my fists on the door, I yelled, “We’re stuck in the stairway.” No one answered. I could hear the buzz of voices and machinery. I yelled again. No one answered. I pounded again and again.
My heretofore-undiagnosed claustrophobia began to overtake me. What if they don’t find us until morning? I have to go to the bathroom. I am supposed to pick my daughter up from school in an hour… Luckily, amidst all my spiraling anxiety, my mother remained calm and I thought of the obvious. Pulling my cell phone out of my purse, I prayed I would get reception from within the cement stairwell. My prayer was answered. Promptly pushing 4-1-1, I carefully replied to the automated prompts. State: “Massachusetts.” City: “Newton Center.” Name of Business: “Bank of America.” I was connected. In fact, I could hear the phone ring…and ring…and ring.
Finally a voice, but a recorded one. “If you’d like dadadada, press 1. If you’d like tatatata, press 2. If you’d like falalala, press 3”…on and on…but no, “If you’d like to be released from a locked stairwell, press 4.” No “Press 5 to speak to a human.” I was in the dreaded, never-ending phone mail loop.
Somehow, I reached a live human being. Specifically, Susan at the Bank of America Customer Service Center. “Hello this is Susan, how may I help you?”
“I am stuck in the stairwell,” I shouted in the phone, “Come get me and my mother. We’re the ones who were led down to the safety deposit boxes.”
“Mam, I am located in New Mexico. Where are you?”
New Mexico. I panicked. “Please don’t hang up.” I was afraid I’d never get another connection to a human who could rescue us. “We’re in Newton, Massachusetts,” I answered.
“OK, I am going to find the number for the branch and call for you. Don’t worry, I won’t lose you.” Susan must have been trained in panic management. Or maybe, I was a welcome diversion from her typical daily calls from irate customers.
Silence as Susan located the number. She came back on the phone to inform me that she was calling the branch from another line. In fact, I could hear the phone ring…and ring…and ring.
Susan spoke up, “I’m in a phone mail loop.” She forgot the adjectives “dreaded, never-ending,” and let me add, “totally customer UNfriendly.”
“Please call the Newton police,” I pleaded. Just as the words came out of my mouth, the door opened and an employee was headed downstairs to look for my mother and me.
“Where have you been?” I barked at the young man.
“We thought you had been down for a long time, but since we knew your father had just died, we didn’t want to bother you,” he explained.
Despite this employee’s good intentions, step two on my journey through the business of dying is to find a truly local, little bank.
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