Saturday, December 12, 2015

Who She Was

Last week was a bad one with my mother, so much so that I felt it was time to inquire into assisted vs. independent living at Atria.  (It's done well, where she stays in her apartment and just has more people helping her with stuff.)  She also had two mild anxiety attacks that made me think it might be time for anti-anxiety meds, but it was the week I was wrapped up in eye stuff and couldn't do much for her, and I figured it would not be a problem to wait a week.

Well, this week she is much better, calm, no signs of anxiety and when I talked with her the thing she stressed over and over again is that the thing she is most proud of is that she can be independent.  It's like she knew I was thinking of getting her more help.

So I met with the patient services coordinator at Atria and we had a wonderful chat.  She said she would do a mini mental health exam on her and decide if she needed further neurological assessment.  That exam was today and she told me that "It is not too bad, however clearly there is dementia that has been masked by the routine Mildred is in. Also being so independent with activities of daily living and being quite 'recluse' has masked the ability for me to see this sooner."  I hadn't though of the word "recluse" but that describes her life quite accurately.  The coordinator sent me the form for the exam she gave her and I will forward to her doctor.

She also gave me a book on Alzheimers by their go-to expert on the subject.  I thought I had read most of the major books on Alzheimers and dementia, but had not seen this book.  The authors use the "Best Friend" approach to dealing with people with Alzheimers and dementia and there are lots of suggestions for how to interact as a best friend, not as a caregiver or relative, and draw them out to get more intellectual stimulation, none of which will work with my mother since she is so resolutely reclusive and determined not to be interested in anything.

One of the things suggested is to make a "Life Book," for caregivers, presumably for when there are many different people caring for the client so they can know what they were like before the dementia/Alzheimers struck.  As I read through it, I started thinking about my mother's life and how totally different it is today and decided to do a mini Life Book here.

She was born in Stockton, California, a home birth, delivered by her father.  She was the 9th child in a family of 11 children, though one died at age 4 long before my mother was born.  Shortly after she was born, the family moved to a ranch in nearby Valley Springs.  I'm not sure exactly how many years they lived there, but from her tales of life on the ranch, this was clearly the happiest time in her life.  

At some point, she developed a bad disease.  The doctors called it "intermittent bilious fever" and she was quarantined in the house.  She was put alone in her parents bedroom, and her parents slept on the porch right outside her window.  Sister Marge (2 years older) was jealous because people would bring special treats for my mother in her exile.

She talks about dances they had at the ranch and playing with paper dolls she cut out of the Sears Roebuck catalog while sitting on the steps to the attic.

At some point they moved into "town," the small town of Galt, where they rented a house, but there were so many kids (even though the older ones were long gone) that they also had to rent rooms in a house across the street for the older boys to stay.  They also took in boarders to help raise money and it was during this period that one of the boarders teased her by calling her Chub and Marge, always ready to adopt nicknames (she had one for everyone in the family) picked it up and for the rest of her life--even today--everyone in the family calls her Chubbie.

In high school she was quite athletic and apparently a big star on the basketball team (something I didn't find out until she moved here and I was going through her things!)

Her father worked as a handyman, but it was the depression and he did a lot of work on credit and ultimately could not make a living when his customers couldn't pay.  He was offered the opportunity of a similar job in San Francisco, so the family moved  My mother was about to start her senior year in high school and wanted to graduate with her class, so she rented a room from a family and took in ironing to pay her rent so she could live there for the last year of her high school before she moved to San Francisco with the family.

She got a job working for a book store as a bookkeeper.  I'm not sure how long she worked there, but she met my father while working there.  Her sister Betsy was an artist and was working doing caricatures at the World's Fair when she met my father and thought he would be good for my mother.  I don't know how long they dated, but they were married at St. Brigid's Church (after my mother took the required classes to learn about the Catholic church).  I don't know if she left her job when she got married, or when she became pregnant, 2 years after they were married.

Rolling quickly through the 1940s to 1960s, they ultimately rented a flat owned by friends of my paternal grandparents, intending to buy a house eventually, though it was after Jeri was born before they ever moved out of that place (interesting side note.  My father was the manager of the other flats in the complex and, because of the friendship with the landlords, in the 20+ years they lived there, they only had 1 or 2 rent raises.  When they left to move to Marin County, they were paying $47.50 a month rent and the new renters paid $250.00 ... I'm sure it would now rent for >$1,000 a month)

When I was 10 my mother decided to become a Catholic and took classes from Fr. Joe O'Looney, joining his group of followers.  She and Joe were friends until his death.  The group had lots of parties, always with Joe leading the group in sing-alongs.  When the parties were at our house my father played the piano.  My mother was a consummate hostess, always with the right food, the right atmosphere.  She sparked on those occasions.

She became a devout Catholic, reading lot of religious books and attending Mass weekly, sometimes more often.  She was still a regular Mass go-er when she moved here to Davis.

But the marriage had problems and there came a point where she was faced with an emptying nest (or at least my sister and I were both in school) and having to be home with my father was a prospect she couldn't handle, so she answered an ad for a part time typist at the Bank of America.  Because of my father's odd work schedule (it changed from week to week), she told them she could only work 2-3 days a week and they would be different days each week.  But they hired her.

She went on to work for them for 30-40 years and retired as a Trust Officer for the bank.  During that time she also belonged to a kind of toastmaster's group for women and learned how to speak in public.

Eventually she could no longer live in the flat on the hill and gave my father an ultimatum--she was going to buy a house and move and he could move with her or not.  So they left the hill and moved to a house in Marin County.  She finally had a yard to work in...she was an amazing gardener.  I always swore that she could take a dead stick and make it bloom. 

In 1968, my sister was murdered.  It was an extraordinarily bad time for my parents because my father saw it as his own personal tragedy and my mother felt she had to hide her grief from him.  It was the start of the unraveling of their marriage.

She commuted to work in San Francisco every day until she was transferred to an office in San Rafael, which was when her life changed.

They made friends with another couple and liked to go to clubs together.  My mother loved to dance, my father didn't.  Fred loved to dance, his wife (my mother's colleague at the bank) didn't.  So in the clubs, my mother and Fred would dance, my father would drink and Fred's wife would hang around the piano bar.  Eventually my mother and Fred, both of whom were in unhappy marriages, fell in love.

The divorce was ugly but ultimately it was the best thing for all of them.  My mother and Fred made it through some rough patches and were very much in love and I was happy for her.  My father hated to travel but she and Fred traveled around Europe and put many miles in their RV exploring the United States.  She also worked with Fred on construction projects, especially a house they built at the Russian River.  Somewhere there are photos of her out on a thin piece of wood helping nail in a floor.

My mother answered an ad for volunteer office helpers for the newly opened Hospice of Marin.  The Hospice program was new in the country and the only place where it was to this point was Massachusetts.  She was its first volunteer in 1976 and worked with Hospice, first in the office and then in their thrift shop for 30 years.  When she retired, she was not only their oldest volunteer, but also their longest working volunteer.

She was always a fashion plate and working at Hospice gave her access to really high end clothes at low prices.  She had a closet filled with clothes and, as shoes were her special passion, she was coming close to rivaling Imelda Marcos in that area.

During her Hospice years, she was on more committees than I could count.  Her social calendar was filled with meetings, fashion shows, luncheons, and work days.  In addition to working many jobs for Hospice, she was also active in the Bank of America retirees association, which met monthly and had occasional social events.

Her husband died of cancer nearly 20 years ago, so she has lived alone ever since then, though continued to remain active through Hospice and the BofA retirees.

The signs of dementia began to show 10 or so years ago.  When we moved her to Davis, she closed a big door on everything.  She turned her back on her old life overnight. Walt offered to take her to Mass, but she refused to go (and won't even attend communion services at Atria).  She has forgotten how to garden and plants that even I could keep alive die now. In the last two and a half years, she has worn the same 3-4 outfits every single day, though she has a closet full of clothes.  She also has boxes and boxes of shoes and wears only two different pairs, both of which are starting to fall apart. She has no desire to attend movies, concerts or other activities at Atria and I suspect that if she didn't need to eat (and if she remembered that it's possible to get all her meals in her apartment) I don't think she would even go to the dining room.  

It's what makes being her "Best Friend" so difficult because every suggestion the book gives me about how to introduce things to her just won't work.  I've tried most of them.

But in her day she was a force to be reckoned with and a person I looked up to for all of my life. 


Mary Z said...

What a lovely person your mother was! There's a reason Alzheimer's/dementia is called "The Long Goodbye". The person you knew gradually disappears. My heart goes out to you.

Unknown said...

What a tribute to your Mom. Lived an interesting life.
I imagine this piece was something you enjoyed writing and that your kids will love to read. Sally K.

Unknown said...

What a tribute to your Mom. Lived an interesting life.
I imagine this piece was something you enjoyed writing and that your kids will love to read. Sally K.