This is What It’s Like (The Mom Chronicles, Part 3)

This is what it’s like.

The dog is barking.  The doorbell is ringing.  I’m asleep – or trying to be – on a Sunday morning at nine.  Roughly roused from slumber by the sounds of Izzy and doorbell, I finally emerge to find my mother mounting the hardwood stairs.

“I was ringing the doorbell.  I finally used my key – and here I am!”

“Oh.”  I’m tired and grumpy in my flimsy nightgown – my hair needs washing and I feel taken over by the ground invasion that is my mother.

She has stuff.  Stuff to give me.  All from the dollar store.  Excited, she sits down and begins to hand me things from her bag – a book for my husband to read, another book full of recipes from the Special K folks (so it’s about dieting, gee, thanks), another straw hat, family memorabilia from my Aunt B, a magazine called “South Bay”, a long indecipherable letter about all the stuff, and a check.

“I wrote to the magazine and told them that their magazine was too expensive.  It needs to be less.”

I don’t doubt she wrote them.  In her handwriting that only a doctor would love, I imagine they will tack her letter up on a board somewhere and chortle as they puzzle out the scratchings from a gray-haired Roseanne Rosannadanna.

In case it wasn’t obvious, my mother is manic right now.  It happens every few months.  She is bipolar, type I.

She has probably been bipolar most of her life and now, at just under 80, it’s no better.

She lives about three quarters of a mile away from us, and this morning has probably been up since four or five am so by nine, she’s had three cups of coffee (“the coffee at Rod’s is terrible!”) and wants more, wants a cigarette, and is just gearing up to say more and faster.  Her emotions are raw and  mostly annoyed – at everything and everybody.

“So I was pissed when you pooh-poohed getting the couch reupholstered.  I might live to be 90.  I can do what I want.  I’ve got the money.”

She does.  She has a great pension, courtesy of the people of the County of Los Angeles.  Our tax dollars at work – but I’m grateful, of course.  I don’t want her to be living in near poverty, but her buying ramps up significantly when she’s manic.  A lot of stuff she buys she ends up giving away or throwing away.  When she’s not manic she is full of financial fear and self opprobrium, paying off credit cards and hunkering down in depression.

But now, with the inflation and grandiosity in full swing, she’s exhausting.

This is what it’s like.

She doesn’t drive anymore.  But she wants to maintain as much independence as possible, so she’s learned to take Dial-a-Ride and even the LA County transportation for elders and disabled folks called Access.

Usually this works pretty well, but minor disaster seems to follow her when she’s manic.

It starts as many of the minor disasters do  – with her having had no sleep for a day or more.

She was at Albertson’s when they opened and got money out of her bank ATM at the store.  She got $400, the maximum allowed, and bought a carton of cigarettes.

She also left her wallet at the store.

Not realizing this, of course, she walked home and was picked up by Access a few hours later.  Taken to the mall in Torrance, she realized the wallet was gone when she went to pay the driver.  She asked (or demanded) to be taken back to the grocery store so she could retrieve it.

Now, it helps to pause and realize a few things.  Some of which I only learned after this whole thing had blown up.  One, Access is a service that you have to qualify for – they have a procedure and member number and a whole host of things for the population they serve.  Dial-a-Ride only serves people within the city, but Access takes them further.  Where we live, there are about five communities that are nearby each other, but each are separate cities.  So even though Torrance isn’t that far, Dial-A-Ride won’t take her there.  Both services are inexpensive to seniors and usually have regular drivers, some of whom even know my mom by name.

What I didn’t know but learn after the calls and waiting and being hung up on, is that when Access is low on drivers, they contract with local cab companies to do the pick-ups and deliveries of people.  Which means that the alternate drivers may not be at the same quality as their regular drivers – that is, in dealing with a cranky elderly woman with a mental disorder and a grandiose sense of entitlement.

But whether it’s a regular driver, or a contracted cabbie – Access is supposed to just pick up the person at the appointed time and deliver them where they have agreed to go, not just drive them hither and zither.

So the perfect storm – she couldn’t pay and wanted to go back and the driver didn’t have good English language skills to boot.  He didn’t understand what she was asking for and wasn’t supposed to do this anyway.

So, being manic, she got pissy and loud and slow, trying to enunciate her words as if he was deaf, not just unable to understand English very well.  He finally understood what she was asking and after pleading that he wasn’t supposed to do this, he relented.

Amazing what a sense of entitlement will do to buffalo those around you.

So he drove her back to the Albertson’s in Redondo Beach and parked.  She managed to toddle in to get her wallet (of course missing the money! but debit and credit cards left untouched), and when she left the store and crab walked out – the driver was gone.

With her walker in his trunk.

A few hours later, after I’d picked her up and delivered her home, after I’d made numerous calls and been on hold a few times, after I’d made a formal complaint about abandoning an elderly person and without her walker – after I’d talked to the cab company directly, all without having eaten and just gotten out of my shower, with dripping hair, I realized that –

This is what it’s like.

This was also my life growing up.

And nothing much has changed.

Well, that’s not entirely true.  She’s older and more vulnerable now, and some of the symptoms of manic behavior have moderated.  No longer the indiscriminate sexuality, for example.

Yes, she’s medicated.  Yes, she has a psychiatrist.  I have a hard time remembering what it was like before she was medicated (I think I’ve blocked a lot of that out), but images come:

  • a naked man and woman asleep downstairs in our townhouse – yes, that’s my naked mother, but who’s the guy?  my eight-year-old self wonders;
  • the vacuum cleaner running at 2 and 3 in the morning;
  • my room never my own as she comes in and cleans and reorganizes it for me, instead of making me do it myself because I do a bad job (hey, I’m not too proud to admit I learned to use this for my own ends);
  • her anger flaring at my minor indiscretions so I learn to be careful around her at some times versus other times when I can easily get my way;
  • her crumpled body on the landing from falling asleep at the top of the stairs and taking a tumble.  This results in stitches from cracking her skull; and
  • spending a week at my aunt and uncle’s after she makes a suicide attempt (again, I was about eight years old.)

This is what it’s like.

Her depression is not exhausting, except to her, but it is, in some ways, more frightening.  Last year she contacted the State of Oregon to find out if she could just take the train up there and utilize their assisted suicide law (the answer is probably no, as she is not a resident of the state.)  But apparently nobody she talked to had any clue what she was asking, she told me with disgust.

Maybe she was disgusted, but I was horrified.

Not that she wanted to commit suicide.  When she’s not manic, when she’s depressed, she’s severely depressed.  Of course she thinks about suicide.

No, my horror was that she took the action of trying to figure out a more socially acceptable way to end her life, and her matter-of-factness about it.  As if she was just ordering a pizza.

This is what it’s like.

When manic, she always asks for a computer.  This is something we try to deter by foot dragging and just not talking about it.  My husband makes a good point that her, with a computer, would be possibly lethal.  Not that the computer would reach out and strangle her, but that she would be vulnerable to phishers and online scammers, to spending money even more profligately than she already does, and frankly that her various demands on me would amp up if she had email.  It’s frightening what damage she could do with a computer.

Once she downshifts in her mood, talk of a computer is over and we breathe a sigh of relief.

Of course her learning how to use a computer, or anything that is electronic, is an ongoing issue.  We recently got her a DVD player and my husband patiently got it all set up, going over the instructions on how to use it.  A week later she announced that it was broken and that my husband needed to fix it.

This is, by the bye, how a lot of her stuff ends up being great pickings for folks going through her trash.  We ended up with a compact stereo system this way, slated for goodwill, but rescued by my husband.

Of course she’d forgotten the instructions.  So this time, I annoy my tech-savvy husband by having him go through each painstaking step and I write down instructions and then re-write them to make them as simple and mom-proof as possible.  We’ll see how this works – I expect she’ll throw away the written instructions in a cleaning frenzy at some point, and we’ll have to go through this exercise once again.

This is what it’s like.

Being manic is, at first, a welcome relief from the despair of depression.  She revels in it.  She gets things done – many things that she’s put off for the past few months.

She gets out more and can be quite charming.  Everybody along Artesia Blvd. knows my mom.  She’s on a first-name basis at the local eateries, and the dollar store and the used book store, and definitely at Albertson’s.  She even has favorite checkers there.  All of this makes my duty a bit easier, as there are others looking out for her.

But her charm and friendliness also has the hard edge to it, too.  She gets in people’s faces more – she’s aggressive and pushy in her pronouncements.  She tells Manny, a recent widower where she lives that he should shave every day to be presentable.  She’s mad at the management company at her apartment complex (one for seniors) about all sorts of things that they are, or are not, doing.

She tells my Aunt B that she should be more assertive with her son (my cousin), and she’s mad at my son for not being grateful enough at a birthday check he received.  And she’s perpetually mad at me for not answering my phone more often, but hey, do you blame me?

Last week I had something every single day focused around my mother and her needs.

Everything from a mid-day medical appointment, to a lunch with her, me and Aunt B which took up half a day, to the fiasco with the missing walker and the abandoned senior citizen.  Which meant not only figuring out where it was, but the next day, my driving to an industrial area to retrieve the walker.  And yes, ordering a second walker from (just in case something like this were to happen again.)

Yes, this is what it’s like.

And it will be like this until my mother is no more.

I love her.  And I get annoyed by her.  And I am grateful that, even with her smoking and her unsteadiness and her mental condition, that she’s out every day, walking and living her life and is still peppy and interested in the world.  She’s interesting.

I am supremely grateful that I have a husband who, because it’s not his parent, can laugh at her shenanigans, help with driving and fixing and instructing, listen patiently, and even mix her favorite drink, Smirnoff vodka over ice, two olives.

She’s not your average grandmotherly type, that’s for sure.  At this stage of her life, her pluck and verve are mostly welcome traits, as long as she’s not your mother.

She just hired a personal trainer who will be arriving to do a session with her in the pool tomorrow.  And she found her passport and is planning a trip to Cuba – why Cuba I have no idea.  Perhaps it’s those cars from the 1950’s that attract her.  Or maybe she plans on smoking a good cigar, or just being in a society where smoking cigarettes is more socially acceptable.

When I think of the childhood I had with her as a mother, it wasn’t pretty a lot of the time.  But that’s ancient personal history and now is my time to be there for her to the best of my ability.  Not that it’s easy, but I know it’s time limited.

And I suspect, even with all the aggravation, I will miss her terribly.  I suspect for years after her death we will tell “Susan” stories.

And sigh and remember –

This is what it was like.