My mom is delirious. Or demented. I don’t know which and it really doesn’t matter at this stage – it will matter in the long term, as delirium will end once the medication ends, dementia will stay and worsen, spiralling down into that darkness that no one can penetrate.
But for now the actual label is of little consequence. The issue is who she is right now and where this new person came from. Because she is herself, except that she has been compacted into only the negative parts of who she was. The sense of humour, the generosity, those things have been deleted. I don’t know if they still exist. I don’t know if maybe her personality has been concertina’d, and all the good things are locked inside the folds while all the bad things are sitting on the peaks.
And all her negativity, her anger, her aggression, her spite, are aimed at me. For some reason I am the villain. I am the one who has dumped her in hospital, where she doesn’t want to be, and I am the one who refuses to take her home because I’m a mean, nasty bitch who wants to control my dad. Seriouly. I know it sounds like an episode from ‘Days of our Lives’ or a Jackie Collins plot. But this is honestly how she sees me. And it’s bewildering and exhausting and emotionally draining.
It’s easy to stand on the outside and say let it go, don’t pay any attention, she doesn’t know what she’s doing, she won’t remember any of this. It’s very easy when it’s not your mother looking at you with so much hatred in her eyes. Sure, she’s delirious or demented or just plain nuts. But she must be accessing those emotions, those hateful words, from some deep place. They’re not just floating about her head, separate entities outside of herself. I don’t believe our dreams and slips of the tongue come from a place outside of us. To dream things and speak things, we must carry those fears, prejudices and animosity inside of us, keeping them hidden while we are conscious, because we know they are loathsome.
And so, when my mom looks at me the way she does now, and says ‘you bitch, you’re such a bitch, you’re so bitchy to me’ or when she says ‘pray this doesn’t happen to you because I’ll just leave you’ or ‘I’ll get you back for this’ I feel as if someone has just opened a trapdoor beneath my feet and I’ve fallen through space and time to land back on the worn wooden floors of our old house in Belladonna Avenue. I’m six years old, maybe younger, and she’s looking at me with that same expression, and saying, maybe not those words, but something that slices as savagely. Or I am again a teenager, having been lured into confiding in her about something, and she has woven my hurt and worry into a whip to lash back at me. I am again confused, blindsided and completely lost.
I felt, as a young girl, that she was jealous of me. Her childhood had been harsh. There wasn’t the money to make her dreams come true – dreams of nice clothes, an education, a career as a writer – and she had ended up living a very ordinary, small life; a life that she seems to have regretted. She gave me more freedom than she had as a child, and then resented it. She bought me better clothes than she was able to wear, and then resented it, saying things to make me feel guilty.
I never learnt how to respond to her when she behaved the way she did, when she stung me with her words, when she surprised me with her sharp tongue, so I just stepped away, spoke less about things that meant anything to me, rarely asked her for advice, tried not to make myself vulnerable in front of her. That worked. She couldn’t reach me – most of the time, that is. She’s my mom, so of course she still held the power to reach me at times. She could still get at my insecurities, stick the knife in, give it a little twist. Especially when I was a new mom. But mostly I just got on with my life. Found my own solutions to problems. Made mistakes and dealt with them on my own.
And so now, here I am, faced with that same woman who could slice me down when I was little, and I have no tools. Stepping out of her way taught me only avoidance. It didn’t teach me how to deal with her. True to form, she has blindsided me again. I never expected to be faced with her meanness again – not now, not at this stage of my life, when my kids are grown and I am independent of my parents. And there she is: in my face, relentlessly flinging her anger at me. I stand there quietly, my face expressionless, waiting for the storm to pass, telling myself it’s the medication, she’ll flick over to her other channel in the next few minutes. She’ll be lucid, she’ll understand she’s in hospital to get well. Sometimes she does, momentarily. Mostly, though, she doesn’t. Everything I say to try to soothe and reassure is twisted and hurled back … just like she used to do.
So how do I deflect the words flung at me by this person, how do I tell myself it’s the medication, it’s the psychosis, it’s not real, when she looks and sounds so very much like herself, when it all seems so very real?
There is no one to reach out to. No hand to hold. No one to say it’s okay, you’re not that person she thinks you are. My kids try, of course, but I look at them and feel such sadness, worrying that I will do this to them one day, worrying my terrible behavior will erase all the years of having loved them.
For the last month my dad has been her target. She would phone me to tell me that he’s ignoring her, that she’s all alone, that she’s not even had a cup of tea, let alone something to eat. And I would get in my car and drive the 25 km to their house to make her a cup of tea. My dad would wander in, deaf, or pretending to be deaf, sullen, uncommunicative, shifty. Hands in his pockets, his cap pulled down low over his eyes he would shake his head and pretend either not to hear what I’m saying or asking or simply pretend that there is no problem – he had simply been in the garden or had gone to the shop. No, he is not doing anything wrong.
She would phone people she never speaks to or people she hadn’t spoken to in years and they, in turn, would phone me to tell me that my mom is all alone, she’s being ignored, she feels my dad is trying to kill her and she had just called them to let them know, ‘in case anything happens’.
Then my dad would call, desperate for someone to talk to. He would be outside in the garden or hiding out in the garage to get away from her. ‘I’m mentally and physically exhausted,’ he would say. ‘She doesn’t stop, not for a moment. Just when I think I can relax, there she is, shouting at me, telling me what a terrible person I am.’ She would call him all sorts of names, tell him he’s selfish and stingy. She would unlock the front door and the security gate to call out to the neighbours that he’s trying to kill her – all because he was trying to get her to take her medication.
But here’s the thing … he’s always lived in his own world, deaf or pretending to be deaf. He has always been uncommunicative, certainly when you want to discuss something with him; when he’s had a story to tell, he would be in your face, jabbing his finger at you, repeating the story so many times that you would do anything, anything, to escape. And he’s always been tight with his money. And so she has always accused him of being uncaring, selfish, inattentive, stingy. See where I’m going? The psychosis finds its expression in old resentments. The accusations and emotions aren’t new. They’re just finding louder and more frequent expression.
At some stage during the last weeks he was definitely ignoring her. Leaving her to fend for herself while he escaped to the garden or the shops for hours on end. One day I arrived at their house to find him lying on the couch, sullen, unable or unwilling to speak. After numerous ‘what’s wrong?’ and ‘are you sick?’ he finally looked at me with angry bloodshot eyes, and said ‘I’m tired’.
So one should think that he would be able to empathise now that the attention has been turned on me. He would step up and help, as I did for him. But no. True to form, he remains mute. Until I am unable to take any more of her abuse and leave the hospital ward to wait at reception. Then he laughs. He laughs!? He tells me later that she doesn’t know what she’s doing and dismisses my feelings entirely. So it was fine for him to feel wounded, physically and emotionally exhausted but I must buck up and accept that she doesn’t know what she’s doing?
To rewind … but how far should I rewind? To a month ago, when she developed this awful skin condition called bullous pemphigoid? Or further back, to about a year ago, when she walked around with a hernia that could have killed her had I not taken her to see a physician who immediately admitted her and performed an emergency operation? Or even further back, when she broke her shoulder and was left to sit in a chair, clutching a tube of Deep Heat for the ‘bruise’ while my dad drove off to Pringle Bay. Again, it was me who turned up, looked at her hanging shoulder and got her to surgery. How far do I rewind …?
Let’s just go back about a month for now.
She had been complaining of a rash for a while. Every time I saw her, she complained about the rash. And then she would say it had cleared. She had some ointment, she had some pills, it was all fine, it was just her diabetes, it was just old age, it was all fine … and then I would be told about the rash again.
Actually, let me briefly rewind a little more …
More than a year ago, concerned about the level of medical care she was getting, I made an appointment with a physician specializing in geriatrics. She refused to go. Flat-out refused to go. There was nothing wrong with her, she had a doctor, she saw a doctor every month. So I cancelled. Then I got an urgent call from my dad. They needed a doctor. I’m married to a doctor so I must know of a doctor. So we found someone in the area – another specialist physician with an interest in geriatrics. They called, didn’t like the idea that there was a two-week waiting list and went back to their usual medical routine. Then they needed a doctor again. Urgently. The rash needed to be seen to. I gave them the number of a dermatologist. I called to find out if they had made an appointment. ‘Oh, that,’ my mom said. ‘I must cancel that. The rash is gone. I’ve got some ointment. It’s fine.’
Months later my brother visited from Houston, Texas. I was summoned to a meeting to discuss my parents. My mom has a rash. She needs to see someone. I must organize it. So I find another dermatologist. A white male in the northern suburbs – exactly the demographic my parents can relate to. The diagnosis was ‘rash, undefined’ and she was given something or another to take.
Then came another urgent call from my dad – she’s come up in blisters. They’ve never seen anything like it. It’s too terrible. I must do something now. There was nothing I could do. The dermatologist wasn’t available to see her but said that it was nothing to worry about. It looked awful, horror movie awful, and she was clearly very distressed by it.
And so I started taking her to her dermatologist appointments. And I organized a daily meal delivery and I organized a carer to visit them at home to make sure that she took her medication and that she had someone to talk to during the day so that she didn’t feel ignored.
This was when things suddenly spiraled out of control. Whatever craziness and lack of logic that had been bubbling under over the last years and months suddenly accelerated. It was as if the brakes on a speeding train had failed and it was just barrelling out of control towards disaster.
She was put on 12-tabs-a-day Prednisone. And she turned into a monster. The phone calls started, ‘Your dad is ignoring me.’ As soon as I arrived at the house she would tell me ‘I’m not crazy, you think I’m crazy but I’m not crazy. He completely ignores me. He doesn’t speak to me. I could die here, and he wouldn’t come to the room to look. You’re always defending him. You’ve always been on his side. But I’m telling you, he’s avoiding me.’
As soon as the carer arrived, she would tell her ‘He ignores me. He’s too cheap to send me to hospital, that’s why you have to look after me. But he has the money.’
As soon as he walked into the room, she would hurl verbal abuse at him. Snarling at him like an abused dog, accusing him of not caring, of ignoring her of thinking only of himself.
But here’s the thing: he had always done his own thing. He would get up at five in the morning, go for a run, come back, have a shower and then head out into the garden, returning at lunch time for what he called his ‘labourer’s lunch’ – his cheese and tomato sandwich with a cup of tea. Then he might head back into the garden or read the newspaper or have a nap or play soduko or watch TV. Whatever he did, it didn’t involve spending time with my mom. Then he would have his supper at around six or seven o’clock and by eight or nine he was in bed, sleeping.
This was the routine … years and years and years of exactly that. Twenty years of that, at the very least.
On Thursdays he would go shopping. On his own. If she wanted to go along, she had to tell him the day before and she had to be ready before he left. If she wasn’t ready, he would go without her. Her next opportunity for an outing would be the next Thursday.
He never took her anywhere and never spent any money on her. He never took her out for a meal at a restaurant, for a drive to the beach, a cup of coffee in a coffee shop.
In later years he wouldn’t let her drive. This is not a bad thing, entirely, as she was an appalling driver. Some of my scariest moments as a teenager were in the passenger seat of the little blue Anglia she used to drive. But it did mean that she was completely reliant on him to take her anywhere. She didn’t like any kind of physical exercise, so she didn’t walk anywhere. She just stayed at home.
He didn’t really like anybody and so didn’t encourage people to visit. So not only did she not leave home but no one came to visit either. She developed no interests to fill her days. She cooked, cleaned, watched some TV and read the You magazine. As she grew older, she did less cooking and cleaning, took to sleeping late and complaining about dizziness and old age and arthritis.
He controlled the money. If she needed or wanted anything, she would have to justify why he should spend the money. He bought the cheapest of everything. His Thursday shopping trips involved walking from one supermarket to the next, checking and comparing the prices of the coffee, toilet paper, bread, fruit. If something was a cent cheaper at the other supermarket, he would buy it there.
So, if she said, in her days of madness, that he was ignoring her … well, he wasn’t really but she wasn’t being entirely crazy or dishonest, either. He was behaving the way he always had and she was saying the same things she always had. Only now it was amplified, magnified, multiplied.
In the last few weeks, she woke up angry each morning. As soon as she opened her eyes she would shout angrily for my father, demanding her cup of coffee, demanding to be seen, demanding to be given some attention. Was it the Prednisone? Was it the horror of waking up each morning and realizing that she was still her, still alive, still in this body covered in blisters? Was it the anger of realizing she’s still in this house, in this life, with no way out but death?
Depression settled in. She didn’t wash. Her bedding was dirty. I took piles of laundry home in black bags, bought her a shower chair. She was being neglected. My dad clearly wasn’t coping. He needed to get away from her, he needed a break, but that wasn’t helping my mom. Even the carer couldn’t do enough or be there enough.
Every time I saw her during this last month, she would want to go to hospital. But the dermatologist didn’t think it was necessary and there was nothing else wrong with her, so I kept telling her she didn’t need to go until the doctor said so. And I thought he would say so.
Each time I arrived to take her to the doctor, though, she would begin packing a bag for the hospital. We would argue and struggle to get her out of the house and into the car – she couldn’t walk, she’d say, she needed a wheelchair, why didn’t I have a wheelchair for her, I told her that I had a wheelchair for her, the doctor could come to the house, doctors did housecalls, she didn’t need a doctor, what could the doctors do anyway, she needed some cash in case she wanted to buy something at the hospital.
She would sneak phone calls to my brother in Houston, waking him up at one in the morning, and again at four in the morning, and again at six, to tell him that she’s being ignored, no one is taking care of her, she needs a doctor, she needs a hospital, and no one will take her. And then he would call me to ask what’s going on.
She resisted the medication, hiding the pills in jugs and jars around the house and so her condition never improved, while her mind continued to whirl about. One morning I arrived to take her to the doctor. A three-hour battle to get her ready ensued. ‘I don’t know why you hate my guts,’ she shouted at me. ‘He made me take a whole handful of pills and now I have to go to the doctor – and you allowed him do it!’ she screamed.
Last week I took her to a specialist physician. I had waited about a month for the appointment but it had finally arrived. My faith in the dermatologist was nonexistent. He didn’t even walk around the desk to look at her. She needed a full series of blood tests to exclude any other ailment. She needed her sugar controlled – it was crazily out of whack – and her blood pressure checked.
That morning, before I took her to see the physician, she looked at me, clear-eyed, lucid and desperate and said ‘Please can I go to hospital? The old man isn’t taking care of me. I just need someone to take care of me.’
By now I was quite desperate for her to in hospital too. She clearly needed better medical attention than the dermatologist, the carer and my dad could give her on a daily basis. So I told her that I would ask the doctor if he could put her in hospital.
And he did. He took a careful and thorough history, examined her and put her in hospital on a drip. And at the moment he said she should stay in hospital for a few days was the moment she turned on me. She didn’t want to be in hospital. She wanted to go home.
And there I stood – bewildered as always when faced with my mom.
She needs to be in hospital. She is getting the best care. She is looking so much better.
But she hates me. I tell her that she wanted to be in hospital and she sneers at me. ‘Oh no, I didn’t,’ she says, as if I’m making this up.
‘But you told me dad wasn’t taking care of you, that he was ignoring you. At least here the nurses are looking after you.’
‘How can you say that,’ she said, looking at me in utter disgust. ‘My whole life your father has been good to me. Why would he turn nasty now?’
What?! Good to her? She has spent most of her married life telling me how miserable she is. What a waste her life has been, what a rotter my dad is, how she should have divorced him. And this is what she said during the good time! Let alone what she had been saying about him this last month!
‘Why can’t I go home? There’s nothing wrong with me! At home I can go and sit in the garden. Now I have to lie here.’
Sit in the garden? She never sat in the garden. She never showed any interest in the garden. If anything, she resented the garden because that’s where my dad spent all his time. She wouldn’t even step outside to see what he was doing – unless she noticed something she could criticise.
And so there I am, each day driving to my parents’ house to fetch my dad to take him to the hospital so that he can visit his wife, then driving him back home and then coming back to my family, my work, my chores. On a good day the trip takes three hours. If I stop to water the plants, collect some laundry, clear the fridge of science experiments, it takes longer. And in exchange for this I am told that she ‘will get me for this’ that I am a bitch. My brother, who is way out of this, is the king. He is untouchable. He will be ‘coming tomorrow’, like the Messiah, to save her.
‘Now you have your dad just where you want him,’ she said yesterday, her lips curled down into a sneer, ‘under your thumb.’
‘You’ve always taken his side,’ she keeps saying. She says this to the doctors and the nurses. ‘The girl always takes the father’s side,’ she says, as if she’s being very witty. ‘The son takes the mother’s side. But my son is hundreds of miles away. He can’t help me.’
My mother was always a great believer in astrology. She would search our personality types and read them out loud. Capricorn, Aries, Taurus, Scorpio – we were textbook types, matching Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs descriptions perfectly. She most liked to emphasise the negative aspects of Taurus, my dad, proving that he’s a stubborn bastard. And her sign, Scorpio, has the sting in the tail – she was rather proud of that. Whether you believe in astrology or not, you couldn’t miss my mother’s scorpion sting. Mercurial and unexpected, it could zap you at any time.
So, is she delirious? Is she demented? Or is she being manipulative, sneaky, playing the victim, whipping out her poisonous scorpion’s tail to paralyze her victims? I don’t know. She is so very much herself, just more. If the words she flings about now are drawn from old hurts and resentments, has she always hated me? Or at least disliked me? Or been annoyed and irritated by me? Has she always thought I am a bitch who wants to control my father? Did she use my younger brother as a human shield on purpose, to keep me away from her?
And now I have to get ready to do my three-hour round trip to the hospital and back. It’s her birthday today. She is 85. And I don’t want to see her. But you turn up. You do your duty. And you hope it doesn’t happen to you and, if it does, that you have loved well enough, lived with enough passion, that some goodness remains when your mind is shredded.