Monday, August 6, 2012

Melisande Randall

My mom has dementia now.  I am resentful that after a life time of growing up and under my mom and her paranoid, schizophrenic delusions and mood swings, that now, we are left with the needy shell of a human being.  It is humanity and duty and respect that give me the strength to set aside my difficult childhood past as I change my mother's soiled clothes, help her to the toilet, clean her up, and cook her meals, much like she did for my sisters and me when we were kids.  I have to remind myself that Mom "wiped your butts" as southerners love to remind children of their duty to take care of the older generation.  My mom cooking and cleaning and running errands has got to count.  Her motherly duties fulfilled have got to matter.  Do I really need to think of this as being "my turn" to reciprocate the favor of being raised?  It is simply the course of life.  We do for our family regardless of who came first into existence.

But for some reason, no matter how much I count the blessings and positive things from my childhood, like mom showing me how to cook, and mom driving me to school though oftentimes fussing about life to the point I was bolting out of the car to escape her tirade, and mom treating me like a doll in college, coming to class sometimes to take notes for her half-blind matter how much I live these highlights, why do I cringe each time I walk up the street from the bus stop and reach my mom and dad's avenue?  Why do I hesitate and get resentful as I reach for my keys to open the front door?  Why do I plan in my mind just how fast I can come in and bring dad his paper and cook a meal and do my mom's medications and clean her up just in enough time to get out of there in ninety minutes or less? Why am I just going through the motions?  Why don't I feel joy in helping the two people who did more for me than any other two people did in providing and caring for me?  Why can't or won't I let my Christianity supersede my pain?  Forgiveness is letting go...but for some immature if not selfish reason, I can't be grateful that my mom is still on this planet.  I feel awful typing that.  I have friends who have lost a parent.  I could cry admitting how honest I feel in sharing this awful thought.  Why do I feel this way?

It goes further than the fact that Alzheimer's Disease leaves its victims in a vegetative state eventually.  My mom is just a step above that.  I don't like to see it now that it is getting severe.  But I think that beyond the loss of dignity as one loses control over their bodily functions, I am not happy that my mom never got treatment and that she lived life without knowing how happy she could have and should have truly been.  Undiagnosed and untreated until we learned she had dementia, here we are having gone from the transition of schizoaffective disorder, straight to dementia.  I feel like now, what is the point of it all as Mom can never be treated for the former disorder and know its benefits.  So what is the point now?  Excuse redundancy as I have to repeat things that resonate with me while I write.  I feel like we in the family have all been cheated but it is not my place to say who should or should not still be here on God's green earth.  I think God wants me to come to terms not just with the fact that my mom was ill and did some pretty awful things that she probably could not and refused to control, but now, He also wants me to accept this Alzheimer's thing.  Why do I have to accept all this stuff?  It is selfish because people have to accept all sorts of things like cancer, death, drug addiction, and abandonment. But it just seems extra cruel and challenging to subject children to the lessons of being raised by mental illness, and then have the affected parent, move right on into a state where they don't even remember all the crappy stuff they did!  Why am I having to come to terms with this?  I know it could be worse....BUT WHY WHY WHY?

So when   I stop and hesitate as I walk down the cross street perpendicular to the avenue where I grow up, I have to swallow a lump that rises in my throat each and every week that I come to my parents' to fulfill my care giving duties and I think of my care giving visits as taking yet another plunge off the deep end diving board of a pool that I do not like to jump into.  What mom and dad did for me has got to count, it has got to matter. But apparently, the negatives outweigh the positives.  My parents fought daily as I was coming up.  And their arguments were loud.  And I left for school a nervous wreck virtually every morning of my life and I returned home with this sinking feeling that there would be more fighting between them when I got home, and guess what?  I was almost always right, like 95% of the time right, maybe even 98%.  I endured a lot of unnecessary verbal and physical assaults as my mother's frustrations got the best of her.  It was unreasonable, unkind, and deep cutting.  Daddy did the best he could to protect me.  But unfortunately, it wasn't enough and it sure was not successful.

My dad is in a wheelchair now.  He still has his faculties, but he is defeated by a life where he repeated the patterns of his own upbringing by a schizophrenic mother and alcoholic father.  How did he somehow manage to marry a woman with a mood disorder, and then let himself, succumb to the powers of a bottle in order to cope just like his father did?  My mom, she is almost unable to walk and her eyes are clouded over as the medications keep her sedate so that she won't be combative each and every time we need to bathe her or sit her down to eat.  The medications are totally necessary in my mom's case but her once darting and sharp eyes, are now dull and unsettling.  I get a smile out of my mother once in a while and I think that is one of the few things that helps me turn the corner and walk four houses down to the home that I literally thought of as a prison when I lived there.  I have to bring back memories of my mother's gardening skills that brought forth colorful roses, and bountiful fruit trees, and fragrant foliage.  She channeled her energies into such wondrous creations.  But now the lawn is halfway dry and the flowers that bloom are only doing so as nature has its way without the guidance of my mother's hands and clippers.

I think of the smell of fried chicken and boiling greens and baking corn bread when coming home as a child....but now, when I open the door to the back porch, I am overcome by the fumes of piss and garbage.  I remember my mom wiping down walls when I now clean and wipe up what she no longer can.  And so I know my mom kept a clean home when I see things in disrepair.  She prided herself in holding that house together and keeping it spotless.

Sometimes a blog has a really distinct message or a really thought provoking story to relay.  But today, for me, I just needed to vent a little bit because for the past two years or so, I have forfeited church on Sunday mornings to pitch in at my mom and dad's house because they are in failing health.  I am needed two mornings a week and that really isn't that much, but for me, it is so draining and it is so hard for me to turn that corner as I am walking towards the home of my childhood.  I have to hold on to memories of normal things like plants in the yard and Mom's meals being prepared...that aroma which  neighbors could smell cooking up and down the avenue.  If I don't remember the things that gave me a sense of normalcy, then I won't be able to do what I do.  I have told family members that it is not out of love, being a parental care giver.  It is as I have already admitted, out of a sense of human need and respect, and maybe even appreciation for how I was cared for in the ways my parents only knew how.  But I have a hard time bringing love into it.  Nonetheless, I still hope that humanity and respect and duty count for something.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Dispatches from Dreamland

On finding—and not finding—my mother
by Marin Sardy

29 July:
Outside the air is thick with mist, a mist that winds through the low green islands across the channel. The town of Ketchikan, Alaska, is wrapped in a light rain that doesn’t fall so much as it materializes out of the air, making the place feel a bit like the inside of a snow globe. I have a sense that this is its own world, separate, secret. It is easy to see why it might appeal to my mother, who lives here now.

Two days ago I arrived in Ketchikan, which is remote and accessible only by boat or plane, hoping to find her. I hadn’t seen her in about twenty months, and hadn’t spoken to her since Memorial Day of last year. Now I was coming to visit her and I hadn’t heard back from the letters I’d sent. I could only assume she had received them and was waiting for me. For weeks before I flew in, I fretted about her silence. Since she has no phone, I sent her four letters in three months telling her I was coming to see her, providing all the information I could think to hurl at her. Flight number, arrival time, hotel location, departure date. Mom, I’m coming. Mom, I’m coming

But no response came for any of them. As the time grew closer, I told myself it didn’t mean she wouldn’t be here when I arrived; most likely she was getting ready for me and looking forward to it. This is her way. I can’t count how many times I’ve prepared to go see her, whether in the same town or not, when the closer the time came, the more she backpedaled. “I’m not sure it’s a good idea to come over now,” she’d tell me. “It’s getting awfully late in the day.” Or, “Are you sure you aren’t too tired? Maybe it’s better to just skip it.”

I’ve made a habit of dodging or just pushing past these objections, knowing that she’d be happy in the end if I just stayed with it. Still, the ritual touches a deep, old fear. As a child I often had a sense that she forgot about me when I wasn’t physically present, that she lived just a step away from deciding not to bother with this whole mother-daughter thing. I suspected that even if she enjoyed being a mother, maybe she just didn’t quite enjoy it enough. She always seemed liable to slip through my grasp. Her mind was perpetually somewhere else, and often she followed these thoughts to distant places she barely spoke about when she returned. North Africa, Europe, New Orleans, Hawaii. I sensed she could flee at any moment, be gone. And that’s how it was whenever she left town—usually for only a week or two while we were staying with our father, but once for six long months. She wouldn’t mention she was going anywhere and then would call from someplace far away. She could evaporate like that. And I, her nervous second child, was never certain she would still be here tomorrow.

Now, as an adult, it’s obvious to me that she was devoted to us, and that being a good mother was by far the most important thing in her life. But it wasn’t obvious then. I took for granted the million small ways she cared for us, however haphazardly.

But despite my mistrust, she always came back, so I knew it was unlikely that I would come to Ketchikan and find her gone. Yet the possibility, and the absence of any response letters, ate at me. I would be stuck here alone for four days if she wasn’t here. The hundreds of dollars it cost to get here would be wasted. I was too anxious even to get angry at my mother for making it so hard.

I looked for her in the airport and my stomach dropped a little when she wasn’t there. So I made my way to the hotel and, as I was waiting to check in, I turned and saw her through the large plate glass window, walking on the other side of the parking lot. She walked toward me, not seeing me, then veered into a coffee shop. I started bouncing around in agitation, and she popped back out and turned toward my hotel, but then stopped and headed in the opposite direction. Afraid I was about to lose her, I asked the boy at the front desk to watch my backpack before bolting outside, calling out to her and hopping the landscaped traffic berm to get to her.

“Oh Marin!” she said, turning back toward me and looking flustered a moment before breaking into a smile and opening her arms wide for a hug. “I was just trying to decide what to do.”

* * *

30 July:
Over the three days my mother and I have spent together, walking the streets in rain jackets, pausing at gift shops and totem poles and whatever strikes us as interesting, I’ve begun to feel that she has slipped further away from me in the time she’s been alone here. In more than a year she has had no visitors, made no friends. Inside her own head uninterruptedly for so long, her delusions have pushed out more memories than ever. 

Earlier, as we sat together in my hotel room, intermittently chatting and watching TV, she said to me, “Marin, where did you grow up?” I stared, feeling something rising in me. When I answered, my voice was demanding and maybe a little bit pleading. “I grew up in Anchorage,” I said, and in the pause before she replied I felt all the bafflement and unknowability of schizophrenia pressing into me, compressing the air. “Hmm,” she answered. “Well I guess I knew that.”

I have rarely spoken with my mother about my childhood. The main reason, I think, is that her illness, unacknowledged by her, was the force behind most of its miseries, and for many years I couldn’t see past that. But on this trip I brought some old photos I found in my father’s house, images of my Alaskan youth with my siblings and with her. There was a small square photo of my younger sister and brother in the driveway by their tricycles, looking about four and five, standing together as if powwowing. There was a picture of the four of us in winter hats and puffy coats, leaning into each other in the white yard, our jeans caked with snow. There was a shot of my mother and the four of us, all quite young, on a white front porch. We were dressed in red and she stood behind us, slim and grinning. When I showed her this one she studied it for a few moments before declaring in utter surprise, “Oh, that’s me!”

“And there you all are,” she continued, “Alicia, Marin, Adrienne …” It was as if the existence of that whole world had suddenly reasserted itself in her mind, after a long slumber. I realized how rarely she thinks of our origins, and the fact that I came from her. Perhaps, it strikes me now, she doesn’t know all the time that she raised me.

Looking around her little apartment, I notice there is nothing in here that is more than a few years old—if that. She so regularly purges her belongings that in her life now she comes across no real evidence of her past. Everything is bright and novel, the reflection of this moment’s fascination. Right now it is Alaska: She’s got a stuffed bald eagle, socks stitched with forget-me-not flowers, and a salmon refrigerator magnet. In her daily life she sees no artworks her mother gave her, no mementos from old travels, no dishes used for decades, no baby pictures of me or anyone.

I call to mind that several years ago she began telling me I was “a good friend,” and asking me if I might call her by the new name she’d chosen for herself, Mara. “I’m just gonna call you Mom,” I said, annoyed. Only now does it hit me that maybe this was the beginning of a process through which our mutual past—the one in which she was my mother and I was a child; the one in which she brought me up and protected me as best she could—came to be shrouded in a foggy landscape in which only occasionally does the truth peek through.

Off and on for more than an hour, she describes some of the things she thinks about in her free time. Her delusions are as elaborate as ever, and as hard to pin down. Listening to them is like following along as someone recounts a long, meandering dream. The details don’t stick, I find. Without the laws of physics, or often any hint of metaphorical significance, I have no organizing principle to which to attach them and hold them in my head. My mind begins to wander after a few minutes. It’s hard to pay attention, to engage with them and their mysterious logic.

I sometimes resent her delusions for pushing out the story of our past—for supplanting the days in which she stuffed me into a snowsuit and propped me on a sled, and the many times she repeated this ritual over the years. The richness of our life back then. But I would resent her delusions much more fiercely if they weren’t what provides the richness of her life in the present.

“A glacier,” she tells me on a walk, “is an animus that reaches out to the things that belong to it—like ice tunnels.” She points to a long cement traffic tunnel through a gray cliff, saying, “That’s an ice tunnel. It looks like cement, but…” She goes on to explain that this tunnel is actually made not only of ice, but also quartz. I consider this. Then I picture what I know to exist: huge glaciers, ice fields, slowly churning down their chasms, poking tongues into mountain valleys, claiming their space in the world and reshaping what they touch. In a way it seems entirely true that a glacier is an animus. I step into the fog of the delusion, get lost in it for a moment, step out again. And in the space between the sense it makes and the nonsense it is, I think, Yes. Okay.