It was always the same. Mom and Dad. The kids. They were a unit, Mom-and-Dad.
Whenever I think back to our home growing up, Mom and Dad were together. The end of the day would find them doing dishes together, and then they’d sit at the kitchen table and talk, smoke cigarettes, and laugh. In the summer, they’d relocate to the front porch, where they’d laugh. The sound of their voices, their laughter is as much the sound of my childhood as the train running by the house.
After they retired and moved to Florida, Mom started having health problems. She’d always had some; she’d contracted polio in the late 40s and got emphysema from smoking. But in the mid-1990s, Mom had a series of strokes.
Still, she never let it dampen her sense of humor.
“My dog,” she said to me during our daily 10 a.m. call, “is no help at all.”
“What do you mean, Mom?”
“Yesterday, I needed C.K. to be Lassie. He wasn’t,” she giggled.
C.K. was Mom and Dad’s golden retriever. He was sweet as are all goldens, but had no rescue training that I knew of. So I didn’t get the connection to Lassie.
“Well, yesterday when I fell and was lying on my back on the patio unable to get up, I told C.K. to …” her own laughter had interrupted her.
“When you were WHAT?”
“Well you see …” Mom went on to laughingly explain that it had been raining in her part of Florida for days. Finally, shortly after we’d talked the day before, the sun came out. And Mom decided to go outside with CK and sit in the sun.
“I thought I’d warm my bones a bit. But the gods were agin’ me” she said, laughing harder.
I was not catching on.
“Well, I climbed onto a chaise lounge and lifted my face to the sun. But things didn’t work out the way I planned.” She was now having trouble telling the story, she was laughing so hard. “I nestled back, and wouldn’t you know it, the damn chaise lounge collapsed!”
“What?” I said. “Are you OK? Did you break anything? Are you hurt?” I got that helpless feeling you get when you are hundreds of miles away and can do absolutely nothing.
“I lay there on my back until Dad got home at lunch time. I couldn’t get up. And all the while I was laughing and saying to C.K., ‘Why aren’t you Lassie? Why don’t you go get help? What good are you?’ But all C.K. would do was lick my face. It didn’t help – his breath was awful.”
Dad gave up his morning job that day. And it began several years of loving caretaking, with admirable assists from my sister Judy and my brother Bob.
“I thought for sure I’d lost her,” Dad confessed to me a few days later. “I got home and she was nowhere to be found. I looked all over the [small] house, expecting to find her on the floor. I DIDN’T expect to find her on the ground outside – she never goes there!”
My Dad was a very imperfect man. He had a temper and a sarcastic streak. But he had an incredible soft spot for Mom. He fell in love with her in the 1940s and never stopped loving her. They were inseparable.
When I think of their later years, I remember one time in particular, during a family vacation in a beach condo in Florida. During hurricane season. The winds were blowing and we were all watching the wind out on the Gulf of Mexico, out of the plate glass storm doors.
Somehow, Mom had an accident. In her pants. She pooped. In front of her whole family. Poor Mom was mortified.
It was possibly the one time she didn’t laugh at something awful that had happened to her. Instead, tears welled up in her eyes, and she headed back, head down in humiliation, to the bedroom she shared with Dad.
Nobody else knew what had happened. But Dad sensed that something was terribly wrong, and headed back to see what he could do.
Dad turned on the tap in the bathtub, and helped Mom undress. He got her into the tub. He cleaned her tenderly, and then took her soiled clothes out to the washer and started it up. He grabbed two beers out of the fridge and then went back to Mom. He sat on the toilet keeping her company, washing her back, telling her jokes and stories. Bringing back her laugh.
The two of them spent the rest of the evening together in their room. The rest of us could hear them laughing all evening.
Fast forward to 1995, and Mom really was failing. After the incident with the chaise lounge, Dad stopped working, or he worked from home. He was fortunate that my sister and brother, Judy and Bob, lived nearby and could and did help. A lot. But Dad was Mom’s caretaker. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.
All five of us visited in 1995, and then again in 1996 for Mom and Dad’s 50th wedding anniversary; we hadn’t expected Mom to make it. But she did. At the celebration, Mom was still somewhat aware of what was going on around her, but not always, and not often. That was October 1996.
Dad, Judy and Bob continued to care for Mom at home. She had more small strokes, but still her sweetness lingered. Still, Dad knew he was, as he said, fighting a loosing battle. Dad was exhausted, demoralized. He hired some outside help, but even combining resources we couldn’t afford much. But for Dad, it was a labor of love.
My 10 a.m. phone calls continued. Sometimes Mom was receptive, sometimes not. My long-distance job became keeping Dad’s spirits up as much as Mom’s.
One day in early February, though, I heard a shrill voice shouting in the background when Dad answered my call. I had heard a voice like that during my first hospitalization for colitis in 1974 — a woman who was suffering dementia. The voice that had so terrified me when I was in the hospital at 17. An old woman who’d lost her mind, whose bed was moved into the hall so she didn’t disturb anybody (except she disturbed everybody). A woman whose voice I still hear in nightmares.
Only this time, that horrible voice was my mother’s. My sweet mother was possessed by the devil.
You’re trying to kill me so you can have my things. Mother! Help me!
That was my Mom shouting in the background. My sweet Mom. Yelling. Screaming. Terrified. Lashing out.
You want my stuff. You never loved me.
“Lease, she won’t stop yelling,” Dad said, with a voice filled with hurt. “What have I done?”
I should have listened to my mother. She told me not to marry you. That you only wanted my things.
Dad explained that Mom had started shouting at him in the middle of the night. She hadn’t stopped. She hadn’t rested since about 3 a.m. Neither had he.
“Lord, I’m tired, Lease,” he said gently, quietly.
“Let me try, Dad,” I said. “I’ll cheer her up.” I could always make her laugh. She was an easy audience.
But I didn’t. I couldn’t. She shouted at me, too.
Till Death, they say. That’s what he’s waiting for. MY Death. Then he’ll have all my stuff.
“But Mom, everything you have is Dad’s too. And what he has is yours. That’s the way it works.”
No. He wants my things. He wants me to die.
“No, Mom. Dad is right there, helping you. Come on, Mom. Everything is going to be OK.”
But I lied. Of course it wasn’t going to be.
We all tried, Dad most of all, to bring back the real Mom. But she seemed to be gone. Replaced with an abusive Banshee, who was nasty to all of us, but saved her sharpest spears for Dad.
Two days passed. Three. Then a week. Stupidly, we waited for it to pass. The five of us kids did what we could – but Judy and Bob bore the task of really helping Dad. They were there. Fred and I weren’t.
Ten days passed with no let up. Mom’s doctor told Dad that the only thing for him to do was to put Mom in a nursing home. Dad was determined not to. Adamant. No.
For a dozen days, Dad’s heart was torn out with each word Mom spoke. She was accusing him, always. Of not loving her. Of wanting her things. Of having married her for her stuff. and worst of all, of wanting her to die.
He knew that it wasn’t Mom speaking. Dementia was shouting at him. Not Mom. But it didn’t help the hurt.
For two weeks Dad was assaulted, constantly. The five of us all thought that the time had come. That Dad needed to have Mom go to a nursing home, at least for a short while, or it would kill him. It was killing him, with each word she stabbed at him. We suggested it short term, at least to let him catch his breath. He knew we were right, but still. He couldn’t do it. In sickness and in health. Till Death.
Mother! He only wants my things! He wants me to die! Mother!
Mom shouted from her recliner in the Family Room. From her bed in the night. From her wheelchair. From the bathroom.
After two weeks, Dad, exhausted, sat at the dining room table, with his head in his hands, knowing that he had to make a terrible decision. That he had to put Mom, his Doris, the love of his life, into a nursing home. That she was going to die, and it would kill him, too.
“I held my head in my hands, and looked down at the floor,” Dad said. “I was so tired. So hurt, even though I knew it wasn’t really her yelling at me. Screaming those horrible things. Not stopping – accusing me of wanting her to die.”
You never loved me.
“I couldn’t take it any more, Lease,” he said. “I lifted my head, turned towards her and said ‘Would you please be quiet for a little while and give me some peace?’ Her eyes widened, then her mouth slumped and she stopped. She stopped yelling at me! The relief was overwhelming,” he said, weeping.
I already knew what had happened. All I wanted was to be with Dad at that point. I was still so far away.
“At first, the peace was just such a relief,” he said, with a mountain of grief in his voice. “But I realized within a minute or two what had happened. Another stroke.”
Mom paralyzed by this, more powerful stroke, was never able to speak again.
Dad was broken-hearted for as long as he lived – because he’d silenced her. Because he spoke to her harshly, out of patience. Out of exhaustion. Out of hurt. Mom died a month or so after she went to live in a nursing home. Dad stayed by her side, all day, every day. Holding her hand, talking with her, wishing she would speak to him, laugh with him, just one more time.
Judy Holliday’s voice is very similar to my Mom’s. Listening, I can hear her, clinking dishes and laughing with Dad.
* * *
Mom suffered from dementia at the end of her life — that’s what turned her from being a sweet woman into a Banshee. That is what broke my Dad’s heart. It is a disease that has broken many hearts and will continue to do so as our population ages.
June is Alzheimer’s & Brain Awareness Month.