Today, July 11, 2017, marks a strange anniversary for me personally.
It is the day that marks the genesis of Going Gentle Into That Good Night (although it would not officially be launched until about three years later) and of the books that I have written about the dementia journey.
Seven years ago today, I got a phone call at 7:15 am that I was expecting. The eight or so months preceding this phone call had been hell for both Mama and me (not all the time, but most of it).
It became apparent in those months that something was clearly wrong. Mama knew it and it scared her, and that made her defensive, hostile, and combative. I knew it, but didn’t know exactly what it was or how and what I could do about it.
Mama lived ready to fight. I lived ready to catch her when she fell, walking on eggshells, trying to keep things as sane, as calm, and as peaceful as was within my power.
These months took their tolls on Mama and me both in very different ways.
Fortunately, that phone call I received early in the morning seven years ago today helped relieve the toll on Mama in ways that she needed. I, on the other hand, still bear a lot of open, gaping wounds that may never heal from the toll it had on me.
Dementias change everybody who is involved and many of those changes, especially for those of us directly in the war zone with our loved ones, can’t be undone.
I’ve had people who’ve never been through any of this and who have not lived my life tell me they know what it’s like and they’ve walked in my shoes. And then the “I know what’s wrong and how you need to fix it because nothing will change until you do this” follows with condemnation and criticism instead of empathy and compassion.
In my opinion, there is nothing is more insulting, insensitive, or hurtful than having this happen to a person. I have to forgive – and I have – because that’s my responsibility. But wisdom must accompany forgiveness and wisdom says that it’s not healthy to keep these kinds of people in any kind of close proximity in our lives.
I’d give my life for any of them. I’d help them with my last breath if they needed it. I love them, but to keep them near or in my life isn’t possible because it’s not healthy for me nor, frankly, is it healthy for them. That time will come, but that time is not now.
My 7:15 am phone call seven years ago today was from a psychiatrist at a local hospital. She said Mama had been transported, after she called 911, at 3:30 am to the ER. The psychiatrist was going to involuntarily commit Mama to a geriatric psychiatric hospital and wanted my permission (I was Mama’s medical power of attorney).
I gave my permission because that’s where Mama and I were in our journey through dementias. I knew that’s where she needed to be, even though it broke my heart to think about it.
The psychiatrist gave me instructions on how to change the commitment to voluntary and told me what to bring for Mama at the psychiatric facility later that afternoon.
I hung up the phone, knowing that our lives had just permanently changed forever. And I got to work immediately adapting to that change.
Within the space of the next two weeks, we had a diagnosis of mid-to-late-stage vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease (I also realized Mama had Lewy Body dementia after her release from the psychiatric hospital because I researched all the things I was seeing beyond the other two types of dementia).
The most harrowing part of all of this was the geriatric psychiatric hospital.
When I was admitted for the first time the afternoon of July 11, 2010 to change Mama’s commitment to voluntary, with me as the responsible party, and to deliver her bag, my immediate reaction was to rescue Mama and take her home (she actually wasn’t there yet and was rolled up in a wheelchair while I was completing her admission, but she didn’t see me and I don’t know, as bad as her psychosis was then, that she would have recognized me anyway).
It was Bedlam.
The stench from urinary and bowel incontinence from the people walking agitatedly or sitting and screaming in wheelchairs around me literally took my breath away.
The intense chaos and high noise level was so uncomfortable for me that I wanted to take Mama and run far, far away.
The deep compassion and empathy for these people, despite all the other stuff, made my heart break even further and it took all I had not to just melt down into a sobbing mess.
But I held it together for Mama. I was there every day at the times I was allowed to visit. I called every morning first thing and every night last thing to make sure Mama either had a good night or was in bed safely tucked away.
Two weeks of that routine and that place left its indelible mark on me. I can barely think of now without shedding tears.
But the two weeks that followed this day seven years ago got Mama on a medication regimen that alleviated many of the symptoms of her dementias and, all in all, made life more bearable and easier for her.
And for that I’m profoundly grateful. It makes everything before and after worth enduring.
Because in the end, it was always about my Mama, and never about me.