By Shellie Miller-Farrugia
She has been the most influential and positive female force in my life. She nurtured and encouraged me in an age when single mothers endured the unhidden whispers and disdain of fellow neighbors, parishioners, and even auto mechanics. The recounting of those hurts is not mine to tell, but I have a story of my own about that wonderful woman. The story of an only child who watches a once vibrant, beautiful and independent woman become a shadow of her former self…..one day, month and year at a time.
When Mom was widowed at age 49, my husband and I took notice of her propensity to be very set in her ways. Everything in her day was always scheduled just so. Lunch at Noon, dinner at 6, bedtime at 10, without variation. When visiting, we noted that her knick-knacks were taped in place, and if one should be moved by a grandchild or well-meaning daughter (that would be me), she became flustered. After almost two years, she mentioned depression, so I took her to a psychiatrist and our lives took a fateful turn. After 5 minutes alone with her, the Doctor called me into his office and very pointedly said, “You mother’s short-term memory is practically non-existent,” and then proved his point. “Mrs. Miller,” he said, “Who is the President of the United States?” My beautiful mother, who had everything together on the outside, who read the newspaper every day from cover to cover, who had a sweet demeanor and assured attitude, boldly stated, “Well, you know, his wife really runs the country.” The doctor said, “But Mrs. Miller, what is the President’s name?” And he and my mother parried back and forth for five minutes before she paused for what seemed like an eternity and said, “Carter?” (It was Clinton)
Without reliving the following weeks of tests, MRIs, neurological exams and all of the devastating truths they revealed, I will tell you that my mother was diagnosed with brain atrophy and dementia before her 51st birthday. As long as her routine wasn’t put off track too much, she could get by. Tests showed that if she limited her driving to the three places she frequented most (the mall, Publix and her hair salon), she would be safe on the road. We were told to be mindful of any changes. She continued to live on her schedule, with daily visits from my family of six. My oldest son was about 7 years old when he called me in the middle of the night from “Nanny’s” house (150 yards from ours). She had suffered her first seizure and, following 5 weeks of recovery and rehab, lost her driving privileges for at least a year. We gave her unconditional love and care, taking her shopping and including her in almost all of our activities, but she still valued her privacy and freer life. She didn’t understand why we’d taken her car. She didn’t believe what we told her, didn’t accept her ailment, and soon told anyone who would listen that her family had stolen her car and jewelry (moved to a combination safe because she continued to lose things). She became a woman with two personalities. One, her usual positive, cheery and encouraging self; the other a frustrated, paranoid and angry person that none of us knew.
She kept endless lists; reminders to herself of what she’d done each day. When we’d take her for lunch or dinner, she’d take a business card to, “Remember the name of this place.” I’d notice our names and the restaurant’s written neatly in the square for the corresponding day on her calendar. Her calendars were diaries of her life, and she kept them all stacked in a drawer….decades of memories. Sometimes she would call me in a tiff, saying, “You probably don’t care, but I’m still alive. You never have time for me anymore.” When this first happened, I was unnerved, retorting, “What are you talking about? We just took you to lunch at (name of the restaurant)! With four kids and a business, I’m sorry, but I can’t be with you every moment of the day!” After many of these recurring events, I realized that the days she was angry were days that she’d forgotten to write our outings on her calendar. A blank day on paper told her that we’d neglected her. She took it as an insult.
Eighteen years after her diagnosis, things happened that I’d rather not recount, but suffice to say that Mom became a danger to herself. Wandering, falling, stitches and more hospital visits made it clear that we couldn’t manage her 24/7 even though we lived at the same address. Her move to a large facility for the memory disabled was a blessing, and the staff there taught us how to better respond to her inability to comprehend a variety of situations. Two and a half years after that, we moved her to a lovely small group ranch (6 residents) with horses, a cat, a dog, and a staff that treated her with love and kindness. She tells everyone that she’s lived there for 25 years, though it’s only been a short while. Moving Mom to an assisted living facility has given her more dignity and all of us greater peace of mind. We still take her out, reminisce, share photos and talk about our growing family with laughter and ease we haven’t known in years.
With full disclosure, you should know that this is truly my story. Making hard choices to give Mom a safer environment has made an overwhelming and positive difference for every member of our family, especially my mother.
“For everything, there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.” Ecclesiastes 3:1