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She Was Our Everything

I still can’t believe that this is the way it ended.

When I moved to Seattle thirteen years ago to reconnect with my mom, I was sure that we’d find her a place to live, get her medicated, and somehow renew the relationship that was lost so many years ago on a muggy June day. And we did, just not the way I’d imagined it.

Now my neighborhood holds so many memories of my mother. The bus stop where she’d wait for the #5 after we had lunch together. The dingy-walled Value Village where we went shopping for baby clothes. That day she made so many Normal Mother comments, only subtly laced with paranoia. “You’ll need to remove those buttons so she doesn’t choke on them,” she noted as she held up an innocuous looking yellow sweater with the ill-fated button on the collar. “Mmmhmmm,” I murmured, as I put it in the cart; “mmmmhmmmm,” those words I said so often to my mother, glossing over the crazy in her words.

When I visited Mom at the Columbia Lutheran Home, just blocks from my house where she spent the last two years of her life, I thought about the scary future, when I would drive by and my mother would no longer be sitting inside.  That future is here. It’s been seven months since I lay asleep beside her as she gave her spirit up and her suffering ended.

Sometimes it feels like it’s been years since that last day when the sun shone and the Beatles played softly in her room. Sometimes the loss is so fresh it feels like it’s only been days.

You never really stop missing them, that’s what my friend Betsy says. You’ll never stop missing them because they were your everything.  It took Mom awhile to catch up, but Betsy was right. She was my everything.  She may have worried over the murderous Brazilians taking over the house next door, and the bazookas that were about to shoot out of the taxi in front of us. She worried about these things because her brain was fragile and broken and the worry for all of us seeped into those cracks and out of her mouth, almost without pause.  I may have wanted her to be so many different things: confidant, nurturer, mentor, guide – and I did, how I did. But instead I have new memories of her patting my back when I gave her a hug. Of her thin-lipped kisses on my cheek accompanied by a loud “mwah!” I remember the way she snuggled Spencer so tightly and the dimpled smile and delighted “Oh!” whenever she saw us.

Oh, Mommy, how we loved you. How we always will.

Thanks for reading, and for being part of her journey. It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything, and it feels good to see her face on my screen again.

 

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To My Mom On What Might Be Her Last Mother’s Day

When I crawl into bed and snuggle into her soft side, my mom smells of lavender. Each night either my sister or I spray a mist on her hands and face before we put her to bed, a ritual we have kept up since she was diagnosed with brain cancer early last year. Lying beside her is my favorite part of our nightly routine. When I walk into her room after a long day I am tired, too, but as I wheel her to the bathroom I launch into stories about my day, or the funny things my young children have done. When there is extra time I often give her a hand or foot massage, though when I ask her whether she’d prefer me to rub her hands or cuddle in bed, she always chooses the latter, like I do.

Mom (right) and her sister Wendy in Hawaii in the sixties.
Mom (right) and her sister Wendy in Hawaii in the sixties.

 

I often think of the day, several weeks before she was sent by ambulance to the hospital, when I took her calloused feet in my lap and gave her a foot massage. “Why don’t I do this every time we hang out?” I wondered aloud, and Mom just laughed. I knew why, though. My mom wasn’t fond of being touched. I rarely got a hug when she left my house after our weekly lunches. When I said, “I love you Mom,” her most common response was “Mmmhmmm” as she walked away.

 

She doesn’t say much these days, as the tumor has taken up space where her language is formed, but there was a time – not so long ago – when I couldn’t get her to stop talking. Everything got her riled up or excited to solve the puzzle of the complicated symbols and messages that swirled around her. After she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when I was sixteen, her behavior made sense but her diagnosis helped little else. She became homeless after she threatened her mother with a knife, and remained that way until eighteen years later, when a fellow resident at a woman’s shelter found her lying on the floor unable to move her right side.

 

Mom, before her diagnosis.
Mom, before her diagnosis.

Rushing to the hospital this time, as a mother myself and as the daughter who had moved to Seattle to help Mom get medication and housing, I found myself at the last stop on a decades-long quest for peace and security: a hospital bed, a diagnosis that afforded little time, and somehow, a place to call her own, not in the way I had imagined, but at a non-profit Lutheran nursing facility that gave her a home when no one else would. When I spend time with her now I walk or drive the half-mile to her home and I know just where to find her, in room 158-W, with a view of the courtyard. She’s on a small dose of an anti-psychotic since her hospital stay, which tames the worst of her delusions. When we walk around the block, or read together, or sit and watch the kids run circles around us, it’s a much less complicated interaction. The paranoia that used to consume her and rule our conversations is at bay, and there is room for the real Judy to emerge. I see who she must have been as a teenager and a young woman: she is sweet, and funny, and she loves to laugh at herself. Her concern that we are safe is no longer all-consuming, and she has room to accept hugs and fist bumps from the young kids to whom she told outlandish stories once upon a time. The other day, when a troubling thought was racing around in her head, when she spoke of “Schwarzenneger’s race cars” and “LA police,” I helped her try to get hold of her struggling mind. “Mom, you can just say, ‘I love my children,’ over and over again if you want to stop thinking about that.” She stopped muttering and looked at me with surprise. After I leaned in to give her a goodbye hug, she motioned with her hand for me to lean in again. In a clear, strong voice – so unlike the tinny one she had used as she tried to expel her dark thoughts – she spoke words from the core of who she is. “You have blessed me with so many blessings.” She squeezed me tight and I teared up as her words filled again the empty space left when her illness took her away from us. I am awed by this woman with a will of steel who endured things that would have crushed me. And I’m so grateful that at the end of her life, she can put aside the fight to survive, and share that part of herself that eluded us all for so long.

Happy Mother’s Day Mom. I’m so glad you are mine.

A Home For The Homeless In My Neighborhood

There’s a new affordable housing facility going up in downtown Ballard less than a mile from my house. The Nyer Urness House, built by Compass Housing Alliance, will provide eighty apartments for formerly chronically homeless men and women. I received a letter the other day asking if I would help welcome my new neighbors by sponsoring an apartment for $1,000, which will be used to purchase needed supplies for one apartment and also help furnish the common rooms.

Nyer Urness opening Spring 2013
Nyer Urness opening Spring 2013

I know about this housing facility because my mother’s social worker at her current home, a shelter downtown, put her on the list to receive an apartment. My mother has lived in shelters for almost twenty years, usually in a large room with a designated bed and locker where she can keep her things as long as she shows up every night at 6PM when they open the door, and leaves early in the morning when the close the shelter for the day. Because my mother is homeless, most days she walks around downtown. If she has bus tickets she may ride around for a while, or hang out at the women’s day shelter. When she was receiving benefits before they were cut and eventually ran out (she refused to sign the papers that would continue them because of delusions about her social worker), she used to take the ferry to Bainbridge Island and peek in the shop windows. These days she complains of her knees and the cold, and I do what I can to help ease her discomfort, but her illness often prohibits her from taking the offered help.

In a few months all of this may end for my mom. She’ll still be schizophrenic, but she’ll have a roof over head, a caring community, and her family close by. I can only hope and pray she will take a gigantic leap and try something so, so new by moving away from the familiar night shelter environment. I don’t know that this will happen, but I do know that someone’s mother or father or sister or brother will be moving off the streets in a matter of months. And I want to be part of making their new homes welcoming and inviting. If everyone who was unable to give $1000 gave a small amount, we could, as a community, help bring real compassion into the lives of those who are taking  a new and perhaps scary first step into a place they can call their own. A place where they can sleep in, store their things without a padlock, watch the program they want to watch, or read a book without listening to someone else’s fight. Where they can be home.

Join me, by donating here. (And would you let me know that you did? I’d love to try to pool the amount so we can put up a plaque outside one of the apartments to acknowledge the gifts…perhaps from Ballard Moms and Dads?)  You can also donate household items through a Target registry, also available through the link.

Thank you. So much.

 

When You Want Your Mom

My daughter, Quinn, started kindergarten a few weeks ago. Like most kids making this challenging transition, we’ve had some rough days. And we’ve had some that were downright awful. Like today.

While my husband and I tried to get her dressed – forced her, really – she was kicking, screaming, hitting, crying. Finally, I just left the house – without shoes, the real sticking point – and carried her the six blocks to school. We were late, of course. Sylvia, our crossing guard, noticed. “Bad day?” she asked, as I led Quinn across the street, her arms folded tightly against her chest. When we arrived in her classroom the teacher noticed, too. “Hi Quinn!” she said, in her cheery way, and came over and put her arm around Quinn’s shoulders. As I walked home I fought tears. I know lots of people go through this, but I felt alone and at a loss. I worried that Quinn needs help I am not able to give her. I worried she will anxiously move through her day, like I did through so much of school. Walking back toward Sylvia, I determined to maintain my composure, to not let her see how hard this is.

And then, halfway home, I let the tears fall. There’s a feeling I get when things go sideways, and I didn’t push that away either. I wanted to talk to my mom, wanted hear her reassure me in a motherly way that it’s all going to be okay. Knowing I’d never be able to do that made me feel even more alone. Rather than wallowing in my misery, as I usually do, I decided to do the healthy thing instead: I called my sister. And my sister suggested something else I’d been trying to avoid: she suggested I ask for help, that I tell the teacher what’s going on and enlist her aid. So, reluctantly but hopefully, I did. Kicking and screaming, but I did.

Swimming In The Kiddie Pool

Last week, my mom came over as usual on Friday afternoon. It had been beautiful all week and really warm. There was even an excessive heat advisory that will make you Midwesterners laugh: it was going to be 94 degrees for two days in a row. Mom, being the smart lady that she is, brought three swimming suits with her in a small black embroidered purse. She knows we have an alligator pool we like to inflate when the temperature rises.

Mom headed outside after lunch and pulled the pool toward the middle of the yard, next to the adirondack chairs. Mom is not one to make her needs or desires known so when she asked where the pump was so she could fill it up with air and then with water I moved quickly, smiling all the while. Like any woman who hasn’t worn a suit in years, or even a season, she tried on all three before she settled on a cornflower blue. We sat out together in the hot sun while the kids played with cups in the cool water. Within minutes my 20-month old gave up on splashing his sister and came over with cupfuls that he poured down my legs. “Mommy turn, Mommy turn,” he said, in his husky voice, as the chilly water ran down my knee and over my foot.

It only took a few minutes to get hot enough to want to stand in the pool. When the kids exited to play on the slide Mom stood and then quickly sat down and dunked her body in the pool that was just a few inches deep. It was enough for her. It had been at least 15 years since she’d put on a bathing suit and sat around in the backyard on a hot afternoon.

Mentally Ill More Often Victims of Violence Than Perpetrators

To follow up on last week’s post about gun violence at the hands of the mentally ill, I’d like to draw your attention to a recent meta-analysis published in The Lancet. The analysis, which compiled 21 studies between 1990 – 2010, found that the mentally ill are more likely to be victims of violence than the rest of the population. The report finds that one in four people with mental illness experiences violence of some type in a given year, as reported by the BBC.

E. Fuller Torrey, prominent researcher and writer on mental illness, had this to say: “It is a sad commentary on the nature of public interest that the estimated 1% of individuals with untreated severe mental illness who commit acts of violence grabs so many headlines while the 25% of those who fall victim to violence generate so few. It is equally difficult to fathom how critics can find involuntary treatment more unacceptable for those in need of treatment than the high chance they’ll become victims of violence.”

We All Want to Belong

Mom has been coming over to my house on Fridays for awhile now. She usually she just sits on the couch and sips her tea and writes inscrutable things in magazines and catalogs while the kids play. Every now and then she’ll pipe up. “I bought Spencer a potty. He’s old enough to use one now.” Or, “The gluten free pasta is really what he needs. I’ll send some.” Sometimes she’ll take a bath or a nap.  And she always empties the bathroom trash.

A few weeks ago the sun was shining, and when that happens in the Pacific Northwest, you get outside, stat. Quinn and Spencer and I were weeding while Mom sat on the couch. Quinn was filling up her watering can and watering the flowers and the weeds both. Spencer had a child-sized rake that he pulled along behind him as he followed me from one garden bed to another. Mom came out the door while we were working on the strawberry patch. First she sat in one of the Adirondack chairs with her eyes closed. Then she got up and walked around the perimeter of the yard. After watching for a few minutes I went back to work, building my pile of those blasted shot-weeds that are trying to conquer everything. Next thing I knew Mom had made her way to the shed, found the aerator, and started working on the lower section of the lawn. After a few rows she took off her sweater, and it was just the family, doing yard work together.

For some reason, I couldn’t keep my eyes off her. Besides the  professional looking white blouse, she looked like anyone doing yard work in her jeans and the rain boots. Wisps of hair fell out of her ponytail and into her face, and she kept tucking them behind her ear in between the step and pull of the aerator. She was totally devoted to her task and she wasn’t going to stop no matter how many times I told her she didn’t have to do it. She wouldn’t stop because she wanted to help, just like she wants to take out the trash and “buy” us food. She wants to be part of our lives, to make a contribution. To feel valued and part of something bigger than herself. Just like everyone.

As I watched Mom working alongside us, smiling in the sun, I was struck by what a crucial difference these Fridays make in her life.  I though about my decision not to go back to India but to come here and start to rebuild our relationship. For so many years after making the choice to move to Seattle I berated myself for being cowardly, for choosing the “easy” life over the sacrificial life in the slums of Kolkata. Even though I felt guilty about it for years, times like these cement the thought that maybe it wasn’t a mistake. Maybe it wasn’t my fear or selfishness. Maybe it was just the right thing to do, out of many good options. Maybe it’s what I needed. And what Mom needed too.