I have been offline for the past few weeks. As usual, life happens. I’ve had to move my mother, who has been in the same assisted care community for the past 12 years, to an Adult Family Care Home.
This turning point has brought up a lot of issues for me. Back in 2007, when I moved my mother into the assisted care community, there were so many hurdles that I had had to jump over during the course of the 6 months before that day.
It began in July 2007 when I made my usual phone call to my mother who still lived in the same town I was born and the same house that my father built. The phone had been disconnected. Over the course of a few days and many phone calls, I discovered that my mother had become a hoarder, who had turned the house and land into the same mayhem as her mind.
Much had changed in my life during the ten years between my leaving Pennsylvania for Seattle. I contracted at Microsoft, met a beautiful and sensitive man, gave birth to an equally beautiful and sensitive son, bought a house, and married that same man in the backyard of that house with our 4-month-old son and friends looking on. (Yes, in that order.)
During that time, in Pennsylvania, my mother’s two dogs passed. She bought another dog. Her life consisted of the same routine – walking down to the bus stop, going downtown or to the mall, listening to talk radio. And then 9/11 happened.
I think that event broke my mother. Shanksville – where American Flight 93 when down – was only an hour away from her house. To her, it did seem like planes were falling around her. Time stopped. From what the doctors told me, she entered a psychosis from which she couldn’t snap out of.
From July through December 2007, I flew back and forth across America three times. The first time to involuntarily commit my mother to a geriatric mental health unit; hire a company to begin clearing the house; hire a lawyer to petition the county court to appoint myself guardian. That first week – which extended into a second week – I discovered exactly how bad her hoarding and physical state was. She was barely 100 pounds. Her dog looked like a skeleton. She had turned off her water because there was water in the basement from what she thought was a broken pipe. That meant no toilet and no shower. I saw photos of the rooms that the cleaning supervisor took for me (since my allergies kept me from entering the house). Those photos left me crying in a heap in the middle of the street.
The second trip found my mother in a hospital room since, on the day she was to check out of the geriatric mental health unit, the doctors discovered she had a perforated colon and underwent a temporary colostomy.
On the third trip, the court finally approved me as guardian and power of attorney. But I had to wait until my mother’s temporary colostomy was reversed and airplane travel for my mother was approved by her surgeon. Finally, in December 2007, my mother traveled to Seattle and moved into a wonderful assisted care community near my house.
How did it get to this?
We believe (although can’t be certain) that my mother had been molested or rape when she was young. Of course, the time and place (’40s or ’50s in a small Pennsylvania town) meant no treatment. She married my father – a marriage that my grandmother seemed to have pushed her into. She gave birth to my sister and me. A brilliant woman relegated to homemaker and mother.
In 1986, my father died of a massive heart attack in front of my mother. She refused grief therapy so she tightly held on to the anger of all that she had lost in her life. She had always been what my father jokingly called “a pack rat”. But, when I moved to Seattle, it apparently spiraled out of control, gathering things around her, a safe padding. Never letting anything go.
Two or three times a week, I called her to check in. But as I came to learn after 2007, my mother is very good at telling you what she thinks you want to hear. Her lawyer demanded to know why I didn’t travel back to visit her – only now to swoop in to “save” her.
Good question. I can say I needed to separate myself from Pennsylvania which held overwhelmingly unhappy memories for me. I can say I was busy with my own life and family (my son was 6 years old in 2007). I can say I secretly knew in my mind that she was a hoarder but I was in deep denial. Those reasons are all true. Regardless, I have held the guilt of my mother in my heart ever since.
But what always struck me throughout all this was what the social worker at the geriatric unit told me during my first trip. As I sat crying in a chair, she consoled me and said, “Many families walk away from their family member for far less than what you are going through.” What?!
That sentence blew me away. Throughout every step of this trauma, I reminded myself that my father never would have walked away from my mother – no matter what. I also remembered something that my sister once told me, “Our family has a hard time separating from the parental units.”
And that’s true. When my paternal grandfather suffered a stroke, my father went to my grandfather’s house before and after work to help his sister take care of my grandfather’s daily morning and evening routines. He did this every day for 4 years. As we walked out of the church after my Grandpa Delserone’s funeral, I looked at my father – and saw him crying. This was the first and last time I ever saw him cry. Five seconds of tears before he pulled himself together. That old Italian “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.” Seven years later, he was dead.
Everyone tells me that I am “such a good daughter” for taking care of my mother – but that was the way my father raised me. You don’t turn your back on family. The only regret I have is that I feel I wasn’t as present with my son as he grew up because I was taking care of my mother. There is a phrase for such a person – I am part of “The Sandwich Generation”. A person sandwiched between taking care of both a child and a parent. Such an innocuous phrase. It doesn’t represent how hard it is. And how much regret I feel for both my son and my mother.
As she moves into this next phase of her life, my mother will have 24/7 care. For the first time since becoming her guardian, I can actually sit and visit. No extra apartment cleaning. No cleaning food out of her refrigerator. No shower assistance. No laundry. No reminders.
I’ll buy a jigsaw puzzle to work on with her – an activity we always did as a family during our summer trip to my father’s company camp. And as we puzzle over these pieces, I continue to sort out the puzzle that is my mother’s life. But that’s another story.