Eleven years ago today – July 11, 2010 – which was also a Sunday, the sometimes bizarre, always unpredictable behavior that Mama had been regularly exhibiting since the fall of 2008 reached its critical mass. The week before had been very stressful. Mama’s paranoia and anger were at full-tilt and she spent the week crescendoing out of control.
I visited her every day at her apartment in the retirement community she had just up and decided to go to in late 2005. It served her well, but I can remember my surprise when she just suddenly announced to me that she was moving out from living with me to this community in town.
At least she took our pastor and his wife with her to check the place out. That surprised me too, but it also made me feel better because they were family to us and I trusted (and will always trust, no matter how far away physically we are from each other) them.
Elaine came for a brief visit just before the 4th of July. She was getting into town just before dinner on Thursday and wanted to take Mama and me out to eat. I told her I’d meet her at Mama’s place. I got to Mama’s at about 5 p.m. I was surprised to see all the lights off and Mama fast asleep – in her nightclothes – in bed.
There had been other alarming behavior over the two months prior, but this got my attention. I wondered if she had her time all mixed up and if this was what she was normally doing and then getting up and wandering – sometimes outside, not far from a very busy street – in the middle of the night.
Elaine called and said she was almost there and I woke Mama up. She put her hearing aids in and casually dressed as if nothing were amiss. We went to dinner and then spent some time back at Mama’s apartment before Elaine followed me home. She and I sat and talked about things, but I didn’t talk about the bad stuff and the odd stuff that had been happening.
Elaine left on Saturday morning. Before she left, she told me she thought Mama was doing well and things weren’t so bad (they spent most of Friday together because I was working). I took coffee and homemade muffins over to Mama’s and we had breakfast together, which was our tradition on the weekends.
I brought Mama to my place on the 4th, which was a Sunday, like this year, and then decided to take her out for a drive through Erwin and Flag Pond, TN, because the scenery on the old road was beautiful that time of year. The day went pretty well and she was in a good mood (which had been rare in recent weeks) when I dropped her off back at her place.
However, it was not to last. When I went see Mama during the week, she’d be either in her apartment or outside and she’d just glare at me when she saw me. I’d go over and hug and kiss her and I could feel her stiffen up. I’d ask how she was doing, and she’d tell me to “just leave.”
I knew there was no point in protesting because it would be like throwing gasoline on a fire, so I’d hug her and tell her I loved her. She either said nothing or said, “You don’t love me!” I’d leave. As soon as I got in my car, though, the sobs would overtake me.
I wanted so much to help Mama, and I just didn’t know what to do. I kept remembering something Deb said to me when Mama was in ICU in September 2008. I thought we were going to lose her then because she’d spent the day mostly unresponsive. But around 7 pm, Mama woke up and saw me. She started screaming at me.
“You put me in a nursing home, and you didn’t even talk to me about it! You hate me and you just want to get rid of me! Get out of here!” I tried to explain to Mama that she was in the hospital, in ICU because of her heart, and she wasn’t in a nursing home. Her response? “You’re a liar! Get out!”
I walked out into the hallway where Deb was and started sobbing. Deb put her arms around me and said, “You know, Sam, Mama would be appalled if she knew what she was doing.” I nodded because I did know that. The sobs were not hurt. They were sobs of frustration because I couldn’t fix what was broken and what was going to break further.
By Friday, July 9, Mama was full-tilt into paranoia and anger. I got to her place at about 7 am. The door to her apartment was about halfway open and when I looked in, Mama was seated in a chair directly across from the door looking like she was ready to attack. As soon as I walked in, she said, “You stole my notebook for the bank. You’re trying to steal all my money. I’ve already called the police, so you better get out of here fast.”
Of course, I hadn’t touched the notebook and I couldn’t steal all her money because I had no access, except to log in, to her bank account. I scrambled to look in every nook and cranny of her apartment for the notebook. I even called Deb, told her what was going on, and asked her where I should look. She suggested the refrigerator, the freezer, the oven, and the microwave.
I looked everywhere and couldn’t find it. I went to the front office and asked the community director if anyone had seen the notebook. She asked me to come into her private office to talk with her. She said Mama had accused me of stealing money out of her bank account and she had opened an Adult Protection Services case against me because they had to take those kinds of accusations seriously. She said I should expect the sheriff’s office to pick me up for questioning.
My mind was reeling. I told her I would give her the proof that I had not stolen any money from Mama. I was in so much shock that I just left. I called Deb when I got home and told her what was going on and she said Mama had already called her several times to give her grief. I told Deb to just ignore the calls and I told her I was getting documentation together to take back so I wouldn’t get arrested.
About the time I hung up with Deb, Mama called me. I ignored it (as I did for the rest of day while she stalker-called Deb and me). I was able to download all five years of Mama’s bank transactions and get a current balance of everything she had in a couple of hours. I printed two copies: one for me and one for the community director. I drove back to the retirement community and handed the director the paperwork.
We went into her office where she pulled Mama’s application, which had her bank balance and she compared that to what I had printed. She looked up at me and said, “I am so sorry. You clearly haven’t done anything wrong. I will close the Adult Protection Services case against you.” She called them while I was in her office to ask them to close the case.
I went back home and tried to get the work done I needed to finish that day. It was impossible between Mama’s calls that I ignored and Deb’s calls that I took. Finally, about 3 pm, Mama stopped calling. She finally called me around 5:30 pm and I answered.
She wasn’t angry. She said, “I just wanted to tell you I love you before I go to sleep. I am so tired.” My heart melted and I told her I loved her too and that I’d bring coffee and breakfast the next morning. We said our good nights. When I hung up, I realized that all the chaos in her mind was wearing her out. I wasn’t surprised she was tired.
When I went over the next morning, Mama was clear as a bell and cheerful. She was Mama again. We had a nice breakfast and a nice conversation before I left. When I went over later that afternoon to pick her up, I sense the darker mood as soon as she got in the car.
That was my cue to just keep quiet and not get her going. But by 6 pm, as we were going back to her place, Mama was literally raving at me. I dropped her off, and as Mama got out of the car, I said, “I love you, Mama, and I’ll see you in the morning.” She screamed, “You don’t love me, so don’t even say you do! You are a liar!” She then slammed the door and stomped off.
My stomach was in knots driving home. When I got home, I couldn’t do anything but pace. I knew we were “there,” whatever “there” meant. I prayed. A lot. About 10:30 that night, I got a call from a couple of friends in our church congregation. They’d never called me before, so my stomach tightened even more.
The wife and I spent about two hours on the phone. Mama had called them and her husband tried to calm her down. The wife’s mom had had dementia, so she was very empathetic about what Mama and I were going through. She told me to call them day or night if I need them. I said I would.
I was so tense and stressed that I paced for another two hours. Finally, around 2:30 am on Sunday, I went outside and I said, “God, I don’t know what else to do. Please help us.” I finally laid down around 3:00 am, but I slept fitfully. I was up by 5:30 am.
I was on my third cup of coffee when the phone rang at 7:15 am. I instinctively knew it was a call about Mama. When I answered, the lady on the other end identified herself as a psychologist at the local mental health facility. She said Mama had called 911 around 3:00 am and EMS had brought her to the hospital for a psych evaluation.
She said Mama was in full psychosis because of the dementias. They were going to take her to a nearby geriatric facility where she would be involuntarily committed. The lady asked me if that was okay. I said, “Absolutely.” My prayer was answered.
The lady went on to detail what I needed to do. She gave me specific instructions about what to pack for Mama for her stay there. She told me what time I needed to get there to change the involuntary commitment to a voluntary one. She said Mama would get treatment to try to tame the dementia symptoms she was experiencing while she was there.
I hung up and called my sibs – Elaine and Deb – and my niece – Rachael – to let them know what was going on. Deb and Rachael wanted to come right away and I told them to wait because we didn’t know how all this was going to play out yet. I told them I would give them the number for the psych unit as soon as I got it so they could call to check on Mama and Grandma.
I showered and dressed and went to Mama’s apartment. As I walked in, it occurred to me that everything had changed. She wouldn’t be able to live independently anymore. That made me sad.
I packed her bag. Then I went around the apartment to check things out (something I really hadn’t been able to do for a couple of weeks). I found unpaid bills that Mama had hidden. I found the notebook she accused me of stealing tucked behind the one dresser I hadn’t looked behind. I opened the refrigerator to find a lot of moldy and inedible food.
I found typed nonsensical notes that started clear and ended with letters drifting off. I found hand-written notes that were scratched out (Mama always had beautiful handwriting) and full of gibberish. That made me sad. Mama had always been a great storyteller, both orally and in writing. She leaned on that all her life to make sense of her world. Now that one dependable thing she could do was gone.
I went to the psych unit at the hospital when I was supposed to be there. I had to ring a bell and say my name before they would unlock the door to let me in. As soon as I was in, all I could think of was Bedlam. There were elderly people shuffling around everywhere.
Some were singing. Others were mumbling to themselves. A man shuffled up beside me as I was getting Mama in, and the odor of human waste was so strong that it made my eyes water. A woman sat in a wheelchair behind me and alternated between primal screaming and intense moaning.
It was an assault on every sense and my protective-daughter voice started saying, “Mama can’t be here. I can’t leave her in this place. She doesn’t belong here.” My rational you-have-to-do-the-right-and-best-thing-for-Mama voice kept overriding it, though, because I knew there was no other way. Even though I hated it.
In the space of two weeks, her trust was turned over to me because she had mid-to-late stage dementia and was not competent to handle her own affairs. With the help of Rachael and her fiance and Deb and Yvette, we managed to get Mama packed up and moved out of her apartment and into a memory care facility (I didn’t want to do that either, but I knew she couldn’t live with me until her dementia symptoms were stabilized).
In the meantime, I’d gotten all her affairs in order, and was praying for the best outcome of the psych unit stay. I visited her every day at noon and 6 pm and I called every morning to see how her night was and every evening to make sure she was tucked safely in bed. By the time Mama was released, the medications were working and she was Mama again, to some extent.
Our journey would last for two more years and one month. She would come home to live with me and that was where she died on August 14, 2012. As hard as some parts were, I’m glad I could be there for her and with her, and I’m thankful for the lessons I learned in the process.