by Shell Saurer
The time arrived, after 15 months of living with my mother and her advanced state of dementia and declining health, I had to admit to myself that I was compromising my own health and well being by trying to care for her 24/7. I needed to put her into a full time care facility.
It was, I believe, the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make. It shattered my heart into a million pieces. I clung desperately for days on the hope that the good days would outweigh the difficult ones and somewhere in between I would find a good night’s sleep. Or a few hours uninterrupted, at least, and regain my own equilibrium, which seemed to be slipping from my grasp.
At 4:30am on September 18th, after a collective 1.75 hours of sleep and numerous interruptions due to my mother’s calls through the night of – “What time is it?” “Should I get up?” “Where is the bathroom?” “What should I be doing right now?” – my responses progressively decreasing in patience, I texted my brother:
Mom has written her ticket tonight. I can’t do this any more. I will be placing her in a home later today.
After some research a few days prior, I knew the home where my dad had spent the last six months of his life had both a private and a double occupant room available. My dad’s room was a shared room, but he never had a roommate during his stay. So, at 9 that morning, I called the owner of The Heathers Senior Care and asked Heather what time we could meet there so I could admit my mom to their care.
I snuck into Mom’s bedroom while she was peacefully sleeping the morning away and gathered a week’s worth of clothes, shoes, nighties and slippers. Shaking, I tearfully found the Rub-A-Dub laundry marker and wrote her name on her belongings and folded them as precisely as she had taught me to do all those years ago in preparation for one of my first jobs at The Broadway department store in Fashion Island.
I loaded the back of my car with the case of unused Depends as well as the chocolate and vanilla Boost nutritional drinks that hospice had provided. I prepared Mom’s breakfast and went in to wake her and help her get dressed and groomed, trying to act like this was no different than any other day. As she ate her cereal, I snuck back into her room and got her suitcase out of the cupboard above her closet. After wiping off at least a decade or two of dust, I took it into my room and packed her clothes, her toothbrush, comb, a photo of my father, and snapped it shut; adding it to her other belongings in the back of my Jeep. It was so difficult to breathe without a sob escaping, that my lungs hurt.
After breakfast, as she lay down for a nap, I told Mom I had some errands to run and swiftly headed over to meet Heather to check out her new room and fill out the paperwork for admittance before I could lose my nerve. A week shy of a year since my father’s passing within these same walls, I took a deep breath as I pulled to a stop in front. I felt it had only been days since I was going over there every day to visit my dad, and on the days my mother joined me, she would always tell me she prayed she would never have to live ‘in a place like that.’ She could think of nothing worse.
And here that day had arrived. She would be moving in and her prayers would be left unanswered because of my decision and inability to carry the weight any longer.
I steeled myself as I approached the front door. The last time I had walked out that door was with the suitcase of my father’s belongings, the day after he died in this house. I was prepared for a barrage of sadness and guilt as I entered, but instead was greeted by the bright, smiling face of Bernada, my dad’s favorite caregiver! She was happy to see me and excited to show me that the room they had available for my mother was the same room that my father had occupied during his stay. I felt as if my dad was leading me down the hall to let me know he had a hand in ensuring Mom would be taken good care of and that it was ok for me to let go.
As I headed into the kitchen to find the house manager and wait for Heather to arrive, I was again greeted by the warm, familiar face of Maria, who had been at my father’s side when he died. She was the one to call me with the news.
I had just gotten home from letting Mom say goodbye and was going to head back so I could be with him when he passed. There had been a tomato ripening on the vine outside my bedroom window. As I saw it turning red about 10 days prior, I thought to myself, “When that tomato is ready to pick, Dad will be gone.”
For some reason, before I got in the car to return to Dad’s side, I remembered that tomato and walked back to the garden to check on it. As my hand reached out, it literally fell off the vine and into my hand. I knew what it meant. I went back into the house to show Mom and she looked at me through lucid eyes and said, “Ron is gone.” The phone rang. It was Maria with the news.
This day Maria was happy to see me and share with me that she thought of my father and me often, especially when she saw fresh home-grown tomatoes at the farmer’s market. I lost it then, and was quickly enveloped in her sweet arms to cry my heartache and fatigue out of my system. I knew I had made the right decision for my mother.
An hour later, after a book’s worth of paperwork had been filled out and signed, I was told I needed to move my mom in within 90 minutes, as the mobile chest x-ray machine was scheduled to come over to check her lungs for signs of TB, a standard testing requirement in a care unit. Akin to ripping off the old proverbial bandage quickly, I had no time to waste in getting mom moved in.
I drove home feeling numb. I arrived to find Mom sound asleep in her room and thought it best to just get her jacket and shoes on her as quickly as possible, before she was awake enough to put up a fight. She hated leaving the house for any reason. Doctor visits, hair appointments, even a trip to the frozen yogurt shop – everything was a fight. She was always petrified I was taking her somewhere to get rid of her, and here this time she wasn’t too far off base.
I tried to cheerily say it was a gorgeous day outside and we were just going for a ride. When she grew suspicious of that I said I was going to look at another house to live in and thought it would be fun for her to come along. I am a horrible liar and somehow this woman who no longer understands mundane things such as going to the beauty parlor or out for fro-yo, knew something was up. Acknowledging to myself these would be Mom’s last moments in the house she had lived and loved in for so long broke my heart for her even more.
It was like taking a puppy to the pound. And the puppy could talk and let me know it was aware of what my plan was. And the puppy was not happy about it.
Although my mom had no memory of visiting my father at this house, she knew she didn’t want to be there. She cried. She screamed. She told her nurse that she had a gun and everyone better back off (she’s always had a flair for the dramatic side and this situation brought it out ten-fold)! She tried to get up and run down the hall, yelling, “You can’t leave me here! I’m going to get in the car! PLEEEEEEASE DON’T LEAVE ME HERE!!!!!!! PLLLLLEAAAAAASE!!!!!!!!!!!”
I had to leave. My being there was only making matters worse. Letting Bernie and Maria hold her gently back while I turned and walked down that hallway and out the door without her as she carried on with her begging was the hardest thing I have ever done. In my life.
Thankfully the next day she was fine! Bernie, Maria and another sweet caregiver, Stephanie, were excited to announce Mom had slept through the night and eaten the biggest breakfast they had ever seen anyone eat! This woman, who had all but given up eating anything at home without a fight had eaten an omelet, fruit AND oatmeal!
It’s been two weeks and she’s doing fine there. Some days are filled with pain and not wanting to eat, but most days are pretty good. She has accepted this place as her home and sometimes thinks I live there too. I visit every day, hold her hand, give her a couple Gummy Bear treats and we talk. We have two-way conversations – something we rarely had while I was taking care of her.
She knows who I am, and that I am her daughter. For too long I have been ‘That Lady’ to her, but I am her daughter again. And we tell each other that we love each other. Every day. Something she could never say, even when her health and mind were intact. Especially then.
She is making some friends there. My mother, who had few friends and no social life to speak of in all the years I’ve known her, has made new friends. The other day, I walked in to find her and another resident sharing a blanket on the couch, holding hands and singing Amazing Grace. It warmed my heart.
I think I’m having a harder time with this than she is. I live in a house that is not mine, amongst my parents’ memories. I want to redecorate, get my things out of storage and make it my own for now, but I can’t. It’s like giving up on my mother. I know she’s not coming home to this house ever again, but I’m not ready to let go of ‘maybe someday.’
I feel rudderless. I can come and go as I please, yet I am not comfortable doing that yet. I would like to get out of town for a day or two, but I’m not able to let go of my co-dependency. In case she needs me.
A devout Christian who had never been baptized, my mother was christened today. Leah, a minister from St Andrews Presbyterian Church, visited her this afternoon where they spoke of her beliefs and made it official. Mom seemed pleased, except for the part of getting her forehead wet. I had to laugh. Some things don’t change.
I feel at peace for her. This house feels more content. I know she’s in good hands now, spiritually and physically, and I can begin to prepare myself for my next chapter; whatever, wherever that will be. And as much as I was dreaming of this freedom throughout the frustration of caregiving, it’s not as sweet a feeling as I thought it would be.
I’m thankful my last words to her will not be “PLEASE GO TO SLEEP!!!” Followed by a slamming door and muttered swear words. I’m relieved she’s well taken care of by the angels that work there. I love that she knows who I am again and that we talk kindly to each other daily. I’m sleeping like a rock and regaining my sanity.
But these are all steps towards the inevitable and the whole situation makes me sad. I miss my mom already. This house misses her and I think my pets miss her, too. In fact, I know they do. A lot.
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Shell Saurer is an event producer, production coordinator, office manager and family caregiver based in Newport Beach, CA.