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That Tragic August Day Chapter Four
Mama Would Never See Her Home Again
Chapter Four - Leaving Mountain Hill Road
We had lost the hope that the courts would show morality and justice. If ever I lost faith in the judicial system, now was such a time. Mama would have no remuneration from the State to pay for what we hoped might be some physical therapy that would restore her to us. Mama’s family doctor finally gave us the diagnosis, it looked like she was entering Alzheimer’s. All the symptoms were there, most notably her constant repetition of things she had just said. She took to calling Resa at work countless times each day, to the point that Resa was mentally stressed. Eventually, we had to take the car away. Mama was getting lost even on routes that were routine for her. She was very upset when she could not find the car. We told her that it was in the shop being repaired, and we had to repeat that innumerable times each day. Over and over, repeatedly, the same battles were flaring now. Mama’s access to her car was right up there to ownership of her home at Mountain Hill Road. That car was her escape mechanism, he connection to so many friends outside of that house, her way to get away from the boredom of just sitting still and facing the four walls. Even though her memory was disjointed, she could remember friends and loved ones, but she did not know how to get there, the path to visit them. If she had had access to a car, no telling where she would have ended up. Still, Mama desperately needed to be able to get out and drive, and to take that car away was maddening. God only knows the ordeals that each of us had to endure trying to lie to her and tell her that the car was in the shop. The looks she gave were indescribable. As well, each of us children had to take turns staying at the house now so that someone was there to keep an eye on Mama twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Adding to the ordeal, Daddy took a severe turn for the worse, and things began to go further downhill rapidly. So many years he had sat in that recliner from sunrise to bedtime, literally, and it had taken a devastating toll on his legs. Many times in the night, Mama would hear a noise and tell Daddy to check on it, to which he dutifully always responded. But now, Samson had his locks shorn, and instead of making it to the door to check out the supposed sounds, Daddy would end up on the floor unable to get back up. Usually my brother, Gill, or my sister, Resa and her husband, Rick, would have to come over in the middle of the night and help get him back up off the floor and into bed. The same with getting out of his recliner in the day, Daddy experienced countless falls. Eventually, having sustained several fractures to his vertebrae, he could no longer get out of bed. He now began to grow extremely weak, and within two weeks, he was unable to even eat. We literally began a death watch at his bedside. Up to now, he had stubbornly refused to go to a hospital, because he feared that he would die there. His mother’s death still haunted him. In her last days, Granny had become so ill, that they rushed her to the hospital expecting her not to make it through the night. I remember sitting next to my grandmother that night as she lay in her hospital bed. She had worked as a nurse for so many years that she knew the drill. The doctor was speaking silently with my father at the doorway. Granny looked pretty bad, her skin sagging terribly, as if she had lost a lot of blood, and I sat there without a clue as to her diagnosis.
But Granny was a fighter, and, in that unforgettable Carolina accent, she turned to me and said, “They think I’m gonna die, but I ain’t goin yet.” She was right. Granny hung on. She didn’t die that night. Nonetheless, she had to be moved to a nursing home immediately after, because her daughter and my father felt that it was best. That broke Granny’s heart. She loved her little apartment in Havre de Grace, and humble as it was, it was her everything, the home she had been denied all those many years when she was younger, and my grandfather had drank everything away. Granny endured a hard married life. Papaw was a scrapper who loved to go to bars and pick fights, a true hillbilly from the hills of Tennessee. He never got over his addiction to alcohol, and he would routinely physically beat my grandmother for what money she had so that he could go out and drink. Thus, he robbed her of every home she ever tried to keep. She never got to call any one of those homes hers for long. In a valiant effort to help give his mother what she never had, my father lied about his age at sixteen and enlisted in the Navy so that he could send Granny his paycheck each month. On his very first trip home from boot camp, he told my grandfather that if he ever laid a hand on Granny again, he would kill him. I think Daddy meant it. Many years later, Daddy built a home for Granny on our property at Jackson Station Road. At long last, having separated from Papaw, she had a home in view of her wonderful son, and all seemed well. But, painfully, even that was temporary. My father’s sister got between Mama and Daddy and Granny, stirred up a hornet’s nest, and Granny was forced to move back to the Carolinas with relatives. I never saw my grandmother cry so hard as the last day she stood in that house and took one final look around. Granny sobbed, as heartbroken as she could ever have been. All that she had ever wanted, a home to call her own, was gone again. So, when she sat in that hospital bed with a death sentence, the thought of her own little apartment in Havre de Grace was all the cure she needed. She just knew that she would soon be in her own home, humble as it was, and that was all she needed to sustain her. I never understand why Fate sometimes seems to select some for cruel jokes. And Fate would still be unkind to Granny...again. My father was the one who had to tell her that she would not be going home again. Her daughter, Betty, told me as she headed for the hospital elevator that day, “I don’t want to be in there when he has to tell her.” Robbed of her joy, deprived of her longed-for freedom, Granny was taken to a nursing home not even a mile from her apartment, the apartment filled with her television set, her favorite easy chair, her refrigerator with those wonderful Southern cucumber slices and onions in vinegar and sugar water. Granny had a way with that recipe. No, she would never have a home for long… even the nursing home would not be her home for long, either. Three months later, after having told me one day that she had given up, Granny passed away.
My Grandmother, Elizabeth Gray
Daddy knew how Granny had died. He had been haunted by that memory ever since she died. Now it seemed like it was going to be his turn, and he adamantly would not let us call an ambulance. No, he was not going to leave his home! Day after day, Connie sat by his bedside, as each of us children came in to check on him and do what little we could. It seemed as if Daddy was determined to go. I don’t remember how many days had passed. Daddy looked horrible. Finally, Connie had had enough of his stubborn determination to die right there when help could possibly save him. She got up from her chair next to his bedside and said with exasperation, “Daddy, I am not going to sit here and watch you die. I am calling an ambulance, and we are going to get you to a hospital.” By now, Daddy was too weak to protest, and within minutes, an ambulance was whisking my father to a hospital in Belair. It was a good call on Connie’s part, because, with the intervention of good medical care, Daddy did indeed begin to show signs of improvement. Seeing this part of the equation improving, all of us began to regain some hope that maybe we could turn everything around, including Mama’s situation. But, this was to prove to be futile thinking. With Daddy not in the house, Mama had delusions that he was seeing some other woman. Where was he!? She angrily demanded answers. At times, she became violent. We now had to trick her into taking sedatives. Trick her, because asking her to take a strange pill incited her to give us a look of mistrust each and every time, a strange phenomenon for all of us, since Mama had never acted like this before. This particular period of time was especially draining on Resa, because she lived close, worked close, and Mama would call her countless times at all hours of the day. Resa was at wits end, because she could not work at her job and take care of her mother who was now needing 24/7 attention...critical attention, demanding attention, relentless attention. Pills became our only salvation for now. We hoped for relief that would come once Daddy was well and could come home from the hospital. Pills would be temporary, we thought. We all told her that it was her blood pressure pills, but even in her mentally foggy state, she still knew where her blood pressure pills were, and we would have to tell her that she had forgotten to take them. There was always that look of distrust from her, but we had no choice. Interesting how lying becomes a necessity, a pill you learn to take. We had to get her the meds that the doctor had prescribed for these moments. We would take Mama to the hospital to visit Daddy, but as soon as she was home, she insisted that she did not know where he was and demanded answers. She could not remember that she had just been there, even though it was only minutes earlier. Calling Daddy on the phone was wearing everybody out. We were newcomers to all of this, there were no blueprints, and Mama was steadily getting worse.
Christmas Eve Service With Mama
I would often take Mama with me to church on Sunday. It was a long drive all the way to Wilmington, Delaware, and it gave everybody some respite while she was with me. An hour to church, an hour or more at church, and the hour-long drive home, it seemed to do her good. Being in a church setting, mingling with people after church back in the social hall with a cup of coffee and some pastry, Mama would engage in conversation, and one would think she was normal. She was enjoying herself, talking and socializing with friendly faces. Mama had always been a “people person,” loving to chat, she could strike up a lively conversation with anyone anywhere at any time. She just genuinely loved others. But the curtains were closing on the last act of this long love story. Eventually, I would not be able to take Mama to church. She was too disoriented and required constant supervision. Around April of 2010, Daddy had been moved to a rehab center in Elkton, about twelve miles from the house. Here, we believed that he would get the final stages of therapy that would enable him to go home.
On the day that the hospital was to send Daddy to the rehab center, Resa immediately decorated his room with things from home, items that would make him feel like he was still partially at Mountain Hill Road. She worked tirelessly and endlessly making sure that Daddy had everything, pampering him to the point that an uninformed observer might have thought that she was the private nurse. With each passing day, Daddy was making improvements. The therapists were great, not letting Daddy just lay in bed and be stubborn. They ordered him out of bed, never taking no for an answer, and with a lot of prodding, they got my stubborn father down to the therapy room each and every day. The exercises may not have seemed like much for someone much younger, but Daddy was just shy of his 83rd birthday, had four fractured vertebrae in his lower back, so even though those exercises didn’t seem like much, they had a very positive effect. One of the exercises was just having him increase the distance he walked, adding a few feet each day, until they finally had him walk out the door at one end of the therapy room, go into the hallway, walk down the length of the hallway and come in the other door at the other end of the therapy room, a distance of maybe fifty feet. But it was adding up. The nearly weightless dumbbells, the pulls and stretches with rubber bands, all these tiny exercises were giving my father his life back. I remember one day while I was sitting there visiting in his room, that Daddy got up out of his bed, without a walker, and made it all the way to the bathroom across the room and back to his bed with apparent ease. “Daddy, you’re doing great! It won’t be long now before you can check out of here and head home. You’re almost ready.” I know he liked hearing that, because he desperately wanted to go home, and what I told him was true. He was healing fast, he was looking 100% better, and we all thought he was on his way home. Every day, we would also bring Mama to visit and sit with him while he was doing his therapy. He would be sitting there in the physical therapy room lifting those light weights and going through his routines, Mama admiring and encouraging her strong he-man. To her, he was still that handsome sailor that she had met so many years ago. When she was with him, the entire time she was there, she was fine, but once she was home, the nightmare returned.
The routine of taking her to her home and not having her loving protector there with her, the man she loved more than anything, it all just did her in. Within minutes she was wondering where he was, unable to remember that she had just spent hours with him. It was a viciously draining cycle that was taking all of us down with it. By the end of May, Resa, who had power of attorney for Mama and Daddy, had run out of solutions for Mama. There was an Alzheimer’s ward in the same facility. If Mama were to be placed in there, she would be safely and carefully monitored twenty-four hours a day, she would be safe from harming herself, from wandering away and getting lost, and Daddy could come down to her section of the center and visit with her on a daily basis. Perfect as it sounded, it was beyond heartbreaking to even consider. In this situation, with no prior experience, those who reach this point want desperately to look away, to deny the inevitable, hoping that a miracle, someone with answers and a cure, comes knocking on the door...and it never comes! With each passing day, we were finding ourselves up against a wall with no way out but facing that brick wall and going through it. We had never been here before, and we did not know what we were getting into. It was a very troubling time for all of us, a very sadly troubling time. We felt like we were sentencing our mother to death, literally, and it is a sickening feeling. The painful, yet inevitable, decision had finally come to be the only solution left. After much second-guessing ourselves, seemingly resolved only to procrastinate, hoping for an interrupting miracle that was never to come, the temporary dulling of the pain brought by procrastination was interrupted when Resa called me to tell me that they had an opening for a room for Mama. Further, if we did not take it right now, we might have to wait a very long time until another one came open. In these situations, you eventually come to learn that Death is the gatekeeper, the hotel concierge, and when he comes for one, there is suddenly room for another at the inn. Such are the facts of life, the sad, dark, abrupt, and unwelcome facts. Someone at this institute had passed away, a room was available. It would not stay available for long, such is the constant demand for this service. By now, we had no other choice. I reassured Resa that I was with her on the decision and would help her move Mama into the facility, because this would not be something that she could do on her own. It had sadly and painfully finally come to this moment. Helplessly, this was all we could do, we had no other choice, and we would have to put Mama in the caring hands of the people at this facility...and trust God that we were doing the right thing.
I don’t think there is a greater pain than putting a loved one in such a facility for such a reason as Alzheimer’s. Someone once aptly called this “the long good-bye.” God in Heaven, is it ever! And I don’t care how old you are when you have to go through this, nothing prepares you for this slow death. It is as if you have just personally signed and endorsed a death decree for your loved one, and you have turned them over to a compassionless death machine that takes your loved one slowly and painfully away from you. It is a long, dark hallway, and you watch as they just get farther and farther away from your touch. You so desperately want to take them back home with you, to change your mind and tell the “soul robbers” that they cannot have your loved one... and even if you don’t cry openly, your heart will. But there is no escape. Like water flowing toward a waterfall, the day came like any other, but this day would be one I will never forget. Today, we would be committing my mother to a locked ward in an Alzheimer’s unit.
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