Christine, My Mother
Her body was betraying her in her 7th decade on this earth. Scoliosis was ravaging her back and we were told she was probably born with it, but had controlled its eventual development with her extraordinary posture required of all the young girls of her generation. Pain pills (Vicodin), pain patches (Lidocaine), too late for any surgical intervention. Her toes gnarled from pointy-toed heels she wore daily to work and evenings to political functions. And as if that weren’t enough, chronic shingles and COPD from years of smoking with just a touch of anxiety that comes on some seniors as they are left to ponder if this is the best of the Golden years. But more prescriptions for the shingles (“itch pills” as mom called the Neurontin), codeine syrup for that irritating cough and Xanax to calm the nerves was just what the doctor ordered to cure the day and night ills.
And what better way to wash down those pills than with one or two early evening chasers of Seven-Seven (for those non-drinkers, this was my parents evening cocktail for as long back as my memory can pull up images. Seven-Up and Seagram’s Seven in a tall glass chilled with ice). And this is the portrait of my mother’s retirement. With one notable exception—her kind and generous heart and enormous love for her family, her daughters, her grandchildren, her skilled baking creations, her garden, her hummingbirds and whatever wildlife that roamed the area where she had put down roots. And while these ailments were irritants, she no longer believed she was going to die young and was planning for a long life with a ‘few aches and pains.’
Her roots started in Kansas, married on April Fool’s Day at the beginning of her 17th year, had her first child 10 months, 6 days later (contraception on your wedding night was unheard of) and she is probably the only person that can tell you the date she began smoking and with my help, the day she quit. Hours after she delivered my sister, she informed the nurse she was bored and couldn’t comprehend that she would be staying at the hospital for a week (required in those days) and the nurse promptly brought her a pack of menthol cigarettes and a package of matches and told her to “learn to smoke. It will keep those hands busy.” Yes, they smoked in the hospital, around babies and with the blessing of health care providers. Those were the days.
She moved when Dad changed jobs as Chief Investigator at a sheriff’s department in Colorado. They were still very young, Mom with two daughters now and in her mid-twenties, Dad just entering his thirties. When they retired and left Colorado some thirty-plus years later, she again set up house in Nevada–Dad’s lungs needed the dry weather from all his years of smoking and they were a couple–both strong willed, stubborn and private.
We did not discuss their finances with them and one never asked salaries–this was forbidden. By the time I convinced them to move into the sunshine state, closer to my family, they had finally allowed me to know where they kept their important documents, but made sure to tell me that they were the parents and I was the child–something that would change as their lives unraveled. And even though I practiced law with a focus on medical cases, they never shared their medical information and the drug list above was information they kept between themselves and their doctors. “We are fine.” “Worry about yourselves—we can take care of our little problems.”
The problem was I had noticed changes, significant changes, in my mother over the past two years and was convinced that mom was suffering from paranoia (she thought the mail person or others were stealing mail) dementia (I found a sandwich stuffed in the silverware drawer) and possible onset Alzheimer’s as had her brother and mother before her. She had on a few occasions called and had me send her Xanax (the drug of choice for anxiety for many of us it would seem) and as I had ‘extras’ because I still take them when needed and not like Tic-Tacs and she had been ‘shorted’ or had misplaced hers; it seemed insignificant at the time but I began to see it as a possible problem. No longer. It was now a major problem along with the alcohol and the memory issues.
It was the last day of August 2007 when I received a call in the early a.m. Mom and Dad were both on the phone, one on each extension. Mom’s legs were swelling to an enormous size and she thought she needed to go to hospital to have them checked for blood clots (something she dealt with in her forties after a fall and a dislocated knee cap). Dad was proclaiming he was more than capable of taking care of her while she emphatically stated that he would wander away, was currently ‘walking in circles’ and she needed my eyes and ears. It was agreed she would call an ambulance and I dressed and three hours later was making my way down the halls of St. Mary’s Hospital. Her name was on the board–but I had to do a double check because Mom had always used her middle name, Christine, while Medicare and Social Security required her to use her given name, Shirley. When I went to the ER admissions desk, they sent me back to bed 5. Bed 5 was empty. A nurse approached me and told me that the ultrasound had found no clots, Mom sought a prescription of Xanax for her ‘nerves,’ which was ignored and they were attempting to determine the cause of the swelling when Mom announced she could take care of her own legs and she and dad left shortly thereafter.
I headed over to their house not the least bit happy and exhausted. Mom was sitting at the table, cigarette in one hand and an early morning cocktail in the other. Alcoholism is a funny family secret in most homes. My parents and their political and work friends all drank daily. Fully stocked bars in rec rooms were a common feature. They would tell you that they were not alcoholics, that they could quit whenever they felt like it (usually pursuant to some new diet) and could easily change from the hard stuff to beer and wine if they so decided. Children didn’t argue with their parents and they did not tell them when and where they could drink—until that morning. I was furious. Her legs were as large as tree trunks and she had electrode stickers that the hospital technician attached to her forehead, chest and legs still on her. A big white circle with a metal nipple was looking at me as if a third eye had been attached. I removed them as she continued to smoke and drink—telling me that the nurse told her that she had permission to drink to calm her nerves in lieu of Xanax. She asked Dad to confirm her story and he sadly shook his head in the negative. She was oblivious to his response.
I walked with Dad to the garage and he began to leak information that was normally sealed in their ‘personal vault’—Mom was taking her pills at all times of the day and was forgetting things more and more with a large dose of paranoia to boot. I had previously discussed her Xanax intake with him as she and I had gone around a bit on that subject in the past so while I wasn’t surprised by the information he was imparting to me, I was very concerned by his observation that it was time to help her.
As I re-entered the kitchen, I saw mom reach into her pocket, remove a pill and swallow it. “What was that, Mom?” “One of my itch pills.” I had no idea what the hell an itch pill was or did. She had no idea what it was actually called. I went to the cabinet with the vitamins and prescription medicines but there was no rhyme or reason to what or when a drug or vitamin was scheduled. I questioned what pills, besides Xanax and a pain medication she was taking. I found an empty bottle of Neurontin and was told that this was “it,” her itch pills. The prescription showed that she should have had more than half of the 30 day supply left. Yet, the bottle was empty. She claimed the pharmacy shorted her. Dad again shook his head in the negative.
I had been preparing their Medical Directives and Durable Powers of Attorney “just in case” and the documents had been ready for months in the trunk of my car. I retrieved them, called a mobile notary and signed them that hot and windy August day. If there is a God, it is the only thing he helped me handle without a hitch until the day they both died in 2010. Signed and later recorded. Done. And little did I know that it would be about two weeks later when I would be using them until they were frayed and copied more times over the next 3 years than any document I had ever prepared. Now, how to get them to lock up their hand guns that they kept for protection….
As she slept the afternoon away, I told Dad to put up the bourbon, gather all the pills that he could find and we would set up a pill chart to regulate her prescriptions pursuant to the instructions of the doctor. At this time, I had no idea of the amount of prescriptions, the quantity or dosage and never knew that she had prescription Lidocaine patches and codeine cough syrup in large bottles until much later. I was looking for pills. And she was a tricky one. Her jacket and pants’ pockets were filled with Kleenex and each tissue had a few little pills stored safely inside. Hoping we had gotten them all, I presented her with our “plan,” the pill chart and that Dad would be monitoring her prescriptions. She became extremely angry, accused me of siding with my father and accused him of stealing her pills. She accused him of being the alcoholic and the nightmare began. I knew I needed help. Professional help. I hadn’t a clue what I was dealing with and lived 3 hours away. I took down all the information about Mom’s primary caregiver and headed home knowing that a fight was brewing in the high desert.
The phone was ringing as soon as I entered the house—Mom accusing Dad of hiding her medications, refusing to give her the pills and ‘forcing’ her to drink. Hourly phone calls all through the night and the next days–screaming, crying, begging for her drugs, claiming to be a prisoner, threats of calling the police and in my head, Victorville, California, became Crazyville, California from that day forth.
I sat down and wrote this entire saga to her family physician leaving nothing sacred or secret. Embarrassed for them, for me, but knowing this was something that we needed to get a handle on immediately before she overdosed on pills and alcohol. I tried calling the physician before I sent the letter but no response. Dad encouraged me to keep trying and he set up an appointment for September 7th, a Friday. Could we survive that long? After the first letter was faxed on September 3rd, I tried calling again. And again, no response. I sent another facsimile on September 5th and again, no response. I was petrified that Dad was going to have a heart attack from all this drama. I knew I was exhausted and drained. And she was still begging, screaming and threatening—with no end in sight. I wondered whether this was hell and if this was what severe withdrawal looked like. We needed the doctor’s help—now. I informed the doctor that I thought she was going through withdrawals from her medications being regulated—there were so many.
September 7th came and my phone rang. A voice identifying herself as my parents’ family doctor was on the line. “Thank God, Doc. I am so glad to speak with you. Did you get my facsimiles?”
“What is all this jibber-jabber? Your parents are a nice older couple and I have seen nothing of anything you are blabbing about in these letters. I find that when relatives get this involved in their parents’ care, it is because they are trying to steal their house or money. Your dad and your mom are with me right now and she looks fine.”
And so began our family’s descent into hell with their physicians lighting the way.
TO BE CONTINUED: PART III Mom’s journey to the hospital, to the mental institution, to assisted living and ultimately to her death.