The haunting of an American family

I recently had the realization that my siblings and I are haunted. And worse, so is our mother. We feel the pain of Mama Bear, seen only through windows now at memory care. We see and hear the memories of 91 years randomly pulled from her brain’s filing cabinets and refashioned into new stories that make little sense. She sits at the window and we sit on the other side and we talk into cell phones that are the useless surrogate for the hugs and hand-holding and Mama Bear kisses that we all need but can’t have. Worse than a tease, the window displays our haunted Mama Bear who doesn’t know why we can’t take her with us. She’s abandoned. She’s confused. We wonder if she can even feel love for us, because we selfishly still need that. And can she even feel our love any more? She’s still here, isn’t she, unlike Dad who is truly gone, his little wooden box sealed into a cupboard in the military cemetery.

So the guilt haunts us. Could we have done anything differently? That is the constant: knowing that she needs professional care, knowing it is “for the best,” but still questioning, questioning, every day. And mostly every night, making sleep hard to come by. I lay restless, hearing Mama Bear asking us again and again why we can’t come and get her. When she lived independently, these calls would come from her all night long, ten or twelve or more calls. It wasn’t really her calling, it was Dementia Mom who certainly wasn’t our Mom, who was Dr. Jeckle-Mom to this nighttime Mr. Hyde-Mom. But now, it’s just the guilt ringing, at 1 am, 3 am, 5 am, hike the sleep. Haunted.

Mama Bear became haunted when each day her room changed from the day before. It was terrifying for her. It would be for anyone. Imagine waking up and knowing with full certainty that your apartment and the air in it changed overnight, every night. Something’s completely different, something’s wrong, she would tell us. It made her wail in terror. She tore her clothes off and ran through the hallways, frightening her elderly neighbors, some who probably saw their future in her raves. Mama Bear saw her apartment number turn into the headstone on her grave. She shook in fear. Her children and grandchildren made their way into her tv set, appearing in Hallmark movies, then controlling the clicker so she couldn’t change the channels any longer. Taking a shower became too terrifying to accomplish. Going to the bathroom something she couldn’t feel or control, but embarrassed about it and hiding dirtied clothing away under her bed. Her words so hard for her to grab and articulate, so they were replaced with confusion, transference, blaming, things she never did when she was The World’s Sweetest Mom, and she was.

We stayed with her during the day, caregivers came at night, but her haunting marched forward. Medications were tried and failed, and finally helped a little. She stopped crying as much. She knew she needed to go to a place where she could be cared for. But when it happened she questioned if we loved her and said we surely didn’t. How could we leave her there? Why weren’t we coming to pick her up? She knows she can live alone again, she’ll behave, she just knows it. Come and get her. Come and get her. Come and get her.

The phone calls to her in the memory care home get shorter and shorter. The window visits unfulfilling for all of us. We know little of how to respond to some of her remarks, like her telling me that my brother and his wife, in their 60s, were having another baby, ‘oh, you didn’t hear that? Yes, it’s true.’ Or there was a conspiracy and not only her money but all of our money was being stolen; ‘oh, it’s so complicated I just can’t explain it; you have to believe me.’ Or that Dad is still there, living with her, or she’s organizing a big party with her old workmates from 40 years ago coming to her house and everything has to be right and she’s sure something will go wrong and not work out.

The tragedy of COVID includes all of the seniors like Mama Bear who are moving further and further away from their lives and families, faster and faster, as the human touches that pass on and preserve being a family and feeling loved are no longer there. So what remains are the haunted children and mother on both sides of the window. We put our fingers on the panes and try to feel each other through the glass, desperation in our eyes, pain everywhere. And the guilt, the guilt. This terrible haunting of an American family.

From Lady Proverbs, somewhere on the Oregon Coast, on a Palindromic day.

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