The right thing to do.

I’m sitting at my desk at the university, organizing the names of undergraduate students that are coming in to volunteer for a lecture I am putting on tomorrow.  I’ve sent out emails to them telling them times and places to be.  In a few of their reply’s some have inquired as to how much credit they will receive for their services, and some have inquired as to any other compensation they may receive for the one hour of work they will do.

One hour of volunteer work.  That is all they are allowed to volunteer for at one time.  I am told those are the university’s rules regarding undergraduates.  One hour of volunteer work.  My mom’s voice keeps popping into my head, “One hour?!  You work ‘till the work is finished! “

When I was in junior high through high school we never had a snow day.   School would be closed due to snow, but Kathy DeMarco had made me get up at 6:30 or 7am regardless.  If school was closed due to snow that meant the one, or both, of the DeMarco boys were shoveling the driveways and walkways of the neighbors.  It wasn’t a kid-drive business.  It wasn’t a way to make some extra money.  It was because my Mom always “reminded” us it was the right thing to do.

“You take that money back across the street and give it right back!” She would be surprisingly awake for that early in the morning.  “You’re not doing this for money!  You’re doing this because it’s the right thing to do!  I’m watching you.”  And she would stand in the doorway and watch the money change hands.  Just to drive the point home she would occasionally open the door and tell the neighbor, “If it snows again he’ll come back and clean it again!” It would snow again later.  I would clean it again.

There was Joann, Mrs. Howell, Hiram and Dorothy, the Kelly’s house (if General hadn’t beaten me to it), Dan and Judy, Stacey, Mrs. Edworthy, Ad and Mary Jo, General and Kathleen (when General got a bit older and his son would be snowed in), and especially the Kaiser’s house.  You had to start with the Kaiser’s house.  Mr. Kaiser would drive out three times a day to eat all meals with Mrs. Kaiser in the nursing home, no matter how bad it was snowing.  I kept the Kaiser’s driveway spotless, all day long.

I can remember a couple instances my senior year of high school, and through college on winter break, waking up on snowy mornings (without my mother’s “prompting”), quietly going downstairs to not wake everyone else, putting on my boots, getting my gloves, my hat, heavy jacket, and my snow shovel.   It had become routine.   It was part of winter.

I cleaned our driveway last, after all the other driveways were clean.  It was just what you did.  It was the right thing to do.

Thank you, Mom.

May 2008 – My last memory of Mom in her home.

I recently went through a notebook from grad school and found the following scribbling.  I forgot I wrote it down.  The date has been torn and hard to read, but I know the month and the year.  I think about this memory about once a week.  It sometimes makes me sad.  It sometimes makes me feel overwhelmed.  However, it always makes me feel proud of us that my Mom is somewhere she is safe, where they like her, where she receives the medical attention she needs, and somewhere that gives us peace of mind.  We’ve come so far.


May 2008

Mom is standing in the kitchen; hands on the counter, head down, staring into the kitchen sink. She didn’t move or say anything when I walked in the front door and up the hallway.  She just stood there like she was lost in deep thought.  She didn’t move when I stood in the doorway and gently said her name.

“Mom,” I said it softly, again.  She kept staring into the kitchen sink.

“Hey, Mom, I’ve come to see you.”  I remember trying to make sure I kept my voice level, calm, quiet, and soft.

She turned her head in my direction very slowly.  The look on her face is burned in my memory.  She looked so pitiful. Her face looked so sunken, so sad, so broken, ashamed, and lost.

We just stared at each other like we were looking for the persons we remembered each other to be in our memories.

When I close my eyes and think of my mother she is early forties, dark curly hair, full face, smiling, eyes bright, and healthy.  I imagine she closes her eyes and I am child again, maybe a teenager.

We are not those people anymore.

She has aged decades due to her illness.  Living the life of a self-imposed prisoner of that house, watching it fall down around her.  Watching helplessly as it just wastes away, unable to make it change, unable to make herself change.

I am an old thirty.  I am a bit lost.  I don’t know how to care for a mentally ill parent.  I am trying to figure it out, and make it up as I go along.  I develop a routine.  Work with brother to make a plan.  Make a contingency plan.  Make a contingency plan for the contingency plan.  Do your best.  Lay awake in your bed worrying until the early hours of the morning.  Get up out of bed and do it all over again.  It has made me an old thirty.

We stare at each other across the kitchen.  Some of the tile on the floor between us is cracked.  Some had chipped and come up.  There is a three foot oval hole in the ceiling plaster above us.  I don’t know why.  I’m not sure if the stove works.  Two of the burners are gone.  She just leans against the counter.

We stare at each other.  Maybe we are both wondering how we got here.  How did life turn out to be like this?  Where did we take the wrong turn?

She looks so broken, so pitiful.  The sick woman who was my Mom for so long just stands there breathing in the dusty air.

My mother got tears in her eyes, and then she finally spoke.  Her voice was like a raspy whisper. “I don’t want to live like this, Joey.  I….I don’t know how to make this right.”

She turned her head back down.  She stared at the sink again.  My heart broke.  I cried, silently.

The next day she would be admitted into a mental illness ward of a hospital.  It would be her second time in four months.  She would be discharged 30 days later.  I would drive her from the hospital to an assisted living facility.  As per instructions from the doctor at the hospital we would not stop at her home on the way.    Two weeks later I would move to Charleston for the summer and begin cleaning the house so repairs could begin.

It’s been almost two months and I now realize I saw my Mom in her house, in the home I grew up, for the last time.  She won’t be allowed to go back there again.  I am so sad for her, for all of us.

Say it. Say it again. Say it again, Kathy. Say it again.

It was our turn to order.  She was rocking back and forth.  My mom Kathy shuffled up to the counter.  She stood there rocking.

The young lady behind the counter greeted us.  She took our hot chocolate order and pressed all the buttons on the register.  The young lady looked at me and smiled brightly.  She looked at my mom and asked, “Is there anything else I can get you?”

“Hey!” Kathy said in her monotone voice looking at the young girl.

“Yes maam?” the young girl said sweetly, smiling back.

“Hey.” Kathy was rocking back and forth.  Her cheeks were sunken and lips pursed where she was sucking in her cheeks against her teeth.  “Hey.  I farted.”

The young lady stopped smiling.

“I farted.  I farted, Kathy.  I farted.”  She just kept repeating it, over and over and over and over again.

The young lady looked at me slightly red faced, slightly nervous.  I straightened up.  I smiled.  I was a bit embarrassed.  Not as embarrassed as I used to get, but a small twinge in the belly.  I handed my money to the young lady.  “Umm, she farted and we’ll just take the hot chocolates.  Thanks.”  I didn’t know what else to say.  Kathy was still repeating, “I farted” behind me.  I got my change, smiled again and gave her the standard, “Have a nice day.  Thanks, again.” The monotone “I farted” was like a skipping record still playing as we stepped to the side to wait for our order.

We drank our hot chocolates in the car.

My mom repeats things.  She repeats things quite a bit. My mom can’t initiate conversation anymore.  I imagine this is her way of having a conversation in the only way she can now.

Sometimes she adds a name at the end of the sentence, sometimes not.  “Speed limit 35.  Speed limit 35, Kathy.  Speed limit 35.  Speed limit 35, Joey.  Speed limit 35.”

Occasionally I can redirect her, sometimes not.  You can ask her a question in the middle of her echoing, she’ll stop, answer, and then repeat her answer.  I don’t mind it.  I know it is the only conversation we can have now.  I sometimes think her repeating is her way of having that conversation, the heart-to-heart, if she could.  Every once in a while you get a “farting” episode in the McDonalds.  Once she repeatedly called someone in the Big Lots “heavy” (not her exact words).  But usually she just helpfully reminds you of the speed limit, or what you are ordering in the drive through.  It’s Kathy’s conversation.

To reenact this experience for yourself, to get a first person point of view, please follow these  steps:

1) Go anywhere in public (McDonald’s will do)

2) Pass gas (the decibel level is up to your own talents)

3) Look at the nearest stranger and with a blank, matter-of-fact tone say “Hey.”

4) Say “I farted”

5) Repeat “I farted”

6) Repeat “I farted” and add anyone’s name at the end (Example: I farted, Joey.)

7) Repeat steps 4-6

8) Repeat steps 4-6