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That Tragic August Day Chapter Five

Updated on July 16, 2017

A New Home For Mama

Resa decorated Mama's room with her favorite things, like the green armchair from the living room.
Resa decorated Mama's room with her favorite things, like the green armchair from the living room.

Chapter Five - Entering Hell

It was mid-May of 2010. The call came. Resa was calling to tell me that they had a room for Mama at the facility. On Friday, right after work, she would be there and I was to bring Mama. Resa and her husband, Rick, were going to bring some things over from the house to make Mama’s room as comfortable and as like home as possible. Our plan was that I would take Mama to visit Daddy, and while Mama and I were in Daddy’s room, Resa and Rick would be decorating the room that was assigned to Mama. Mama’s favorite color was green. The house on Mountain Hill Road had green carpet in the living room, green curtains and green furniture. Resa took one of Mama’s favorite green armchairs and brought it with her. Mama had a favorite vanity and mirror. That set was now in the room, along with Mama’s favorite perfumes and accessories. Family photos were all over the wall, Mama’s favorite lamp, her favorite afghan, bed linens and night gowns...everything to make Mama feel like she had just stepped into her own room at home. And my job was to bring Mama to this room. The hard part was going to be telling her that this was the place where she would be staying “for now,” all while knowing that she would never go home again. The lies just grow, they become tools, and they just add to the guilt. Life comes at us too fast when this situation unfolds, and you feel like you’ll just wait to unpack the baggage till a later and more convenient time.

Resa Grew Up Here

Resa and our family dog, Lucky, at the top of Mountain Hill many memories.
Resa and our family dog, Lucky, at the top of Mountain Hill many memories.

Resa had had more than enough heartbreak. Just going back to Mountain Hill Road and hearing the silence in the old homestead, the complete lack of life where once the place had thrived with non-stop visitors and laughter, was painful beyond description. The very walls of that house were saturated with so many memories, and now it was all so sorrowfully quiet, as if the house knew that my mother and father were never coming back there. It had been enough for Resa to have to make the power-of-attorney decision to put Mama in this facility, it had been enough pain for her to have to pack up those few personal items belonging to the mother she dearly loved and take them out of that house, instead of bringing her mother back into it, and it would be more than she could bear to have to stand in that room at the facility and tell Mama goodnight, when she knew that there was nothing good about this night. She would sadly have to leave that to me.

Memories From Mountain Hill Road

After Phillip's funeral in 1984, family posed for a photo on the front lawn with Mama.
After Phillip's funeral in 1984, family posed for a photo on the front lawn with Mama.

More Family Times At Mountain Hill Road

Left to right - Lola, Mama's sister-in-law, Mama's brother, Bobby, Connie, Me, Nancy and her husband, James.  1984, after Phillip's funeral.
Left to right - Lola, Mama's sister-in-law, Mama's brother, Bobby, Connie, Me, Nancy and her husband, James. 1984, after Phillip's funeral.

Resa gave me the signal when the room was ready. I had Mama in Daddy’s room at the other end of the facility. I remember when I brought her into the room that night, she looked at Daddy with the eyes of an eighteen-year-old lover and smiled brightly. “There you are!” she exclaimed, as if she had been searching all over for him. Daddy smiled. She went over to the side of his bed and began fussing over him like she always did. His legs were sticking out of the blankets, and she felt them and said, “Lordy, your feet are cold. You need to keep these blankets on you.” Mama kissed him on the face, and they chatted on like always. When it came time for me to take Mama to her room, I felt like an undertaker...a lying undertaker! She had no idea what awaited her, that her children had seemingly betrayed her, because that is how we felt. The guilt never leaves you. I had to come up with a way to get her to that room, settled in, and I was all alone for this part. I think God helped a bit in this, because what happened next was almost as if someone had written the script.

I told Mama that we were going to go now, and that we were going to let Daddy rest. Then she started into one of her agitated stages and got cross with Daddy, because he wasn’t getting up to go with us. She stood at the foot of his bed and angrily said she guessed that they would just get a divorce then. Mama was angry. Daddy was confused. He didn’t know what to say or do. A few months earlier, while he was at another facility beginning therapy, I had just come right out and asked him the difficult his frail and damaged condition, was he able to take care of her, or did he want us to intervene and have her put in a facility? Daddy and I never talked much, but when we did, it was all business. I remember that I asked Daddy this question, because I knew that he was incapable of making a decision this hard and at this time.

He did not want to seem like he had lost his love for his wife, he did not want the world to think evil of him, and with more than fifty years of pastoring a series of churches and counselling countless others on the challenges of life, he had come to a question for which he, himself, had no answer...what to do with Mama. So I asked Daddy if he needed us to intervene and take care of matters appropriately. He only said one thing, and only one thing, to me…”She’s changed.” His face was pensive as he spoke those two words, perplexed, a bit sorrowful, and his voice was full of resignation, of having to give up on trying to fight what he could no longer control—sad and inevitable destiny. The woman he so completely and dearly loved for all of these many years, the woman he had shared everything with, who helped him become who he had become, was gone. Someone had replaced her, the woman he lived with now had lost her mind, somedays here for an hour, maybe two, then gone into another world. She was uncontrollable at times, even dangerously so, especially in my father’s weakened and defenseless condition, and for once in his life, he did not have the mental or physical strength to do what needed to be done. That was all he had to say, “She’s changed,” and I knew without him having to struggle with the painful words that would have followed. No need for lengthy interrogations, no need to make him suffer through putting into words what he did not want to have to face. I’m sure that Daddy had had many days to think about this already, to face the unthinkable and undoable. Thus, when Resa received word that a room was now available for Mama, I had already resolved to take that last walk with my mother down that hallway to the locked doors, the doors through which she would pass never to return.

Good Memories For Mama

Photo from our Thanksgiving family reunion at Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia.
Photo from our Thanksgiving family reunion at Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia.

Mama was berating Daddy for not leaving with her when she was ready to leave, as if he were staying in someone else’s bedroom, not hers. “Mama,” I interrupted, “Daddy is recuperating from his injuries. That’s why he is in here.” She gave me a puzzled look. Mama trusted me to always tell her the truth. I had to use that instant trust to get what we all needed now, complete compliance from Mama in this dastardly plot. You throw your heart away, and you never look back. It’s the only way you get through such things. I thought back to all those wonderful family reunions that I had organized year after year in Colonial Williamsburg, where all of the many relatives would joyously come together for Thanksgiving and great times of sitting around the fireplace in the hotel lobby and swapping memories. Mama so looked forward to this event every year. So, I decided immediately to tell her that this was the resort where we were all staying in Colonial Williamsburg. “Mama, Daddy is getting therapy, but we are all staying here at the resort. Gill’s got a room, Resa has a room, I’ve got a room. And we have a room for you. We’re all going to stay here with Daddy while he is getting better, so you’ll see him in the morning. Don’t worry, we’re coming back in the morning. Come on, Mama, I’ll show you our rooms.” Mama looked pensive, but she knew she could always trust me to be looking out for her best interest. I had bought her a wheelchair, because even though she was ambulatory, it was a long hallway to that section of the facility, and most importantly, I wanted to be able to take her there without any sudden changes on her part. I did not want a physical struggle to erupt, for her to suddenly get out of control. Most of all, I needed Mama to make this easier for me, because it certainly was not...easy. Of all the things I have done in my life that I might regret, none are as unforgettable as having to lie to my mother at this stage of her life and to make this transition happen. But, there are no blueprints for this moment. You are left there all alone facing the dragon, and no one has even thrown you a sword. “Come on, Mama, hop in,” I said with a smile and patting the wheelchair seat, “I’ll drive you down to our rooms.” I had to keep reassuring Mama that we would see Daddy in the morning. I joked with her about driving Miss Daisy. I had even painted a glittery gold star on the back of the wheelchair above her name, “Nellie.” “See there, Mama? You’re a star!” She smiled. Her son, always the one with a joke to make her laugh. It was the only antidote for this pain. I had to keep talking, to keep her smiling, to keep myself smiling, but all the while, I knew I was not taking my mother to a happy place. I knew only one thing, that I was taking my mother to an experiment, the outcome of which none of us had any idea. We all wanted out lives back, we wanted Mama and Daddy back, we wanted Mountain Hill Road back, but childhoods end, dreams get used up, nothing ever goes back to where it was. Life is a one-way highway, no loop backs, and most people find that out too late.

“All hope abandon ye who enter here.” Those words are from Dante’s Inferno, and when I finally came down that hallway and saw those drab, institutional-colored doors that led into the locked Alzheimer’s ward, I felt the guilt triple. I should have said, “Here is where I am dumping your body off,” because that is clinically what you feel like you are doing. I was turning my mother over to the care, or lack thereof, of others who never knew her. Did they know that she was a preacher’s wife? Did they know that she was in love with tap dancing when she was younger? Did they know that she could sing, that she loved Cab Calloway when he came out on stage and sang “Hi Dee Hi Dee Ho?” Or that she was a great cook, made the best biscuits and gravy with Southern fried chicken that would have won awards? How about her canned grape jelly? The best. Would she get to feed the birds in the morning in here? Would they make sure that she got to make coffee in the morning and have a cup with Daddy? And what was beyond those two doors standing there like guardians of Hades? I had never been to the other side of them, either. It was just Mama and me, now, the two of us alone against the unknown. I felt like we had just stepped into the boat, I had become Charon, and I was taking my mother across the river Styx.

Seeing us enter, one of the nurses looked up from the duty station inside the ward. I explained who I was, and she told me that Resa and her husband were in the room. She pointed it out to me, and on I went, pushing Mama in that wheelchair. Mama must have been a bit bewildered, so was I, but she trusted the son who was pushing her along in that wheelchair. Wherever she was going, her son was there right behind her, so that must have been some comfort to her in these unfamiliar surroundings. At least, I like to think that. Only God knows what Mama was thinking. When I entered the room with Mama, Resa almost immediately excused herself and left. There was a somewhat frantic and frightened look on Resa’s face, and I understood. I know it was too painful for her to stay, and it would have been impossible for her to face Mama and say goodnight, knowing what this all meant. For her own sanity, Resa had to escape now. I understood, even though I didn’t know when I, myself, would be able to leave. Surveying the room, there was Mama’s favorite chair, her favorite afghan, pictures of smiling and reassuring loved ones adorned the walls, pictures of us on her nightstand, the Chanel perfume that I had bought her for Christmas, her vanity was laid out just like it had been in her bedroom...but it was not home. The look on Mama’s face was one of perplexity and concern. I will never forget what happened next as I stood there trying to think of how I was going to be able to leave and go home. Mama looked up at me from that wheelchair, and, with pleading eyes, said the most painful words that she could have said to me that night, “Please don’t leave me here alone.” Even in her confused state, something about all of this was not right. Yes, Mama, you were correct, justice was not right, fate was not right, fairness was not right...this was not anyone’s idea of how your life was supposed to end. I stood like a stunned statue trying to think of what to say next, anything to reassure Mama and make her comfortable, and I knew that I was in for a long ordeal with no end in sight.

I stood there wondering how to make this all better. At some point, she would need to sleep, and at some point, she would need to be made comfortable with sleeping in that bed, of making this her new home. God, how did we come to this?! I stood there in total disbelief at the situation I was in with my mother. As if on cue, a young man stuck his head in the door and cheerfully said, “Mrs. Gray, we’re getting ready to play bingo. Would you like to join us?” Mama looked at me, grumbled a moment as if to say that she was not interested. “Mama, that would be lots of fun,” I said, trying to match his enthusiasm and cheer. “Why don’t you do that while I get my room ready?” Miraculously, Mama looked at me, saw the convincing look on my face, said okay, and with that, the young man had commandeered Mama’s wheelchair and was heading her down the hallway. She suddenly seemed contented to go there, and the door closed as they exited. I stood there wondering what to do next. Should I wait until they came back? Confused, heavy-hearted and numb...I left.

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