July 14, 2021

The Rose That Failed to Bloom: Memories of My Mother

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

Part III

Rose at the End

This final episode coincides with the exact 75th anniversary of my mother's marriage to my stepfather, Ray.  It was on that date, July 14, 1946, that she made the second fateful error of her life that would lead in time to her ultimate disintegration, which you will now read about in the blog to follow. 

In December, 1991, as I was preparing to take a trip to Venezuela with my then current lover, Maude, I received an urgent call from California. My stepfather had just been discovered to have an advanced and fatal form of cancer and had already been hospitalized. Because my mother was by then old and demented, and because I was her only child, there was no other choice but to cancel my holiday plans with Maude and leave for California as soon as I could purchase my tickets for the flight.

A day after Christmas, I was on my way to the Bay Area to help take care of my mother but chiefly to do whatever my stepfather needed. At that point, it was mainly a matter of filial duty; in the end, it turned out to be a journey of love.

What follows is an edited version of the diary I kept of that visit.

When I first arrive, I cannot find my mother.

I drive to my mother’s fortress -- she lives in a gated community in San Leandro. It is impenetrable from the outside.

She does not respond to my voice message.

There has been no word from my mother by 9 a.m., and I am about to discover why not.

When I was still in Connecticut, in a plangent voice, she had averred that she no longer wanted to live, that she did not know how to live without Ray. As you now know, my mother had for years been an unknowing addict to Valium and had suffered terribly as a result of having been made to withdraw from it “cold turkey.” Had she perhaps taken an overdose of her tranquillizers? Would I find her unconscious or even dead when I was finally able to enter her home? Or might she have simply wandered away, in a disoriented demented daze of grief, unable to stay in her house and too confused to be able to call anyone for help?

Fortunately, George had a set of keys to her gate and to the house, so I am able to get in at last. I pause for a moment at the door, trying to compose myself for any eventuality.

When I unlock the door, I smell the stench immediately, and then hear my mother’s raspy voice call out, “Ken? Oh, I was frightened that it might be someone else.”

She is wearing only a rumpled blouse and her underwear. Her lank hair has gone completely gray, and her lips are twisted into a grimace of pain. She shuffles down the narrow hallway and approaches me warily, like a wounded animal.

Embracing her gently, I begin to take in the dimensions of the noisome squalor that has been my mother’s home for so long. (I had not visited my parents at their home -- had not been permitted to -- some ten years. Now, in an instant, I knew why.) 

The hall mirror I am facing does not reflect me -- or anything. It is caked with grime from top to bottom. There is a large and still spongy wet strain on the carpet beneath me upon which heaps of towels have been laid in an only partially successful effort to sop up the water. The nearby bathroom is unusable, the toilet blackened with scum and smelling like the shit it was stuffed with. Clothes are strewn everywhere, helter-skelter, and great masses of wadded up tissues are scattered all over. 

Entering the kitchen, I find the linoleum floor ruined and covered with a sticky film of encrusted dirt. A carton filled with empty Sprite cans sits on one counter next to a large but empty refrigerator, which I soon determine is no longer working. (“It’s on the blink, Ken,” my mother helpfully explains.) But in the middle of the kitchen is a small working refrigerator at least. However, when I peer inside, I find it full of spoiled food, empty milk cartons and some still barely eligible food, mostly dairy products on which my mother apparently has managed to subsist. All around on the counters is discarded debris -- dirty dishes, soiled paper cups, half-empty plastic pill bottles left uncapped, piles of unopened mail -- the material detritus of years of fitful neglect. On the floor are assorted grocery bags of still undiscarded garbage.

My mother has turned into a bag lady who lives in a garbage dump of her own making.

Looking through the kitchen toward the living room, my eyes spot a large round table stacked high with letters, bills, business cards and whatnot -- another mountain of chaotic papers and documents that appear to represent my father’s desk and working area. To its left is what used to be the living room with a couch and chairs littered with old newspapers, clothing and the apparently ubiquitous wadded-up tissues. There are some books still lying on the coffee table -- I notice one about the history of the Holocaust and other serious books, along with broken candy dishes and a pile of mildewing clothes. (I make a bad pun to myself -- “awful offal.”) An enormous television screen -- it must be nearly three feet square -- stares blankly at me.

When I enter my mother’s bedroom, I find it in darkness -- she likes to keep the lights off, she tells me, and I can soon discern why once I flip them on. On her double bed on which she is now lying, her head on a pillow, are two crumpled blankets, seemingly almost twisted into knots. To her left are masses of used up tissues. Her nightstand also has reams of tissues splayed about as well as many notes that have been scribbled nearly illegibly onto the backs of envelopes. On her dresser is an assortment of objects covered with dust and seemingly unused, including two non-functioning electric clocks. There is still another clock sitting on an ironing board facing the bed that is otherwise covered with my mother’s clothing deposits, more of which are scattered around the floor.

It was as if I have walked into a seemingly abandoned Gothic house, only to find it occupied by a demented elderly recluse. The interior of the house seems to reflect the state of its lone resident’s disordered brain. In fact, all that is missing is the fecal matter on the walls (though I may have missed that). It seems to be a nut house gone wild in which I find my mother lost in the wilderness of her own mind.

And sadly but hardly surprisingly in view of what has greeted me when I entered, I soon see that my mother is indeed demented. Although she is still capable of lucidity at times, when her attention is elsewhere she soon lapses into protracted utterances of imprecations, curses and self-blame, muttering that she isn’t crazy but in general talking like one of those street crazies that one encounters so often in New York. I have the spooky feeling of listening to my mother’s thought stream in audible form, and it is nothing other than a farrago of a rant.

She also begins to undress herself in the presence of others, as I later discover. She takes off her slacks and stands around in her underwear, and then begins to unbutton her sweater, exposing her bra. She changes her clothes very often, all in a few moments, while out of my sight. And then she shuffles around, muttering to herself, her voice rising in occasional shouts of anger while lost in her own confusion. My feeling is that every resentment she has had to suppress when living with my father is able to come out now that he is no longer there to inspire her fear.

Then she comes out of her fog, becomes sensible and coherent again and speaks rationally. However, she denies -- vehemently -- that she talks to herself. She is just thinking, she says. And she is right -- that is exactly what she is doing. She just doesn’t realize that she is vocalizing her thoughts and that I can hear them.

At this point, still not knowing in what condition I will find my stepfather, I now have deep concern about what will become of my mother after Ray’s death. She doesn’t even know (nor did I then) whether Ray owned the house or, if not, to whom the rent was paid. She is living, not unreasonably, in fear that she will soon be evicted. She does not know or cannot tell me how much money Ray has in the bank, where his checkbook is, much less what bills need to be paid. She is a fount of ignorance on all such practical matters, and I can only hope that Ray will still be able to answer those questions for me.

Standing before my mother in this state, she seems like a lost and confused child without her father-husband, and all I can do is to try to reassure her that I will take care of things, of her, and not to worry. I tell her that she certainly will not be evicted, but that I need her help in order to start helping her.

First, I make out a list, with her help, of questions I need to ask Ray. I find out the name of her bank and call it to explain the situation. Since my father has been heavily involved in veterans affairs, I am able to get in touch with some of his vet buddies who are glad to offer their assistance. I erase the answering machine with Ray’s outgoing message and substitute one of my own. Then I show my mother how to use the answering machine of which she is not only ignorant but seemingly afraid. (“All machines are inherently aggressive,” said Carlyle.) And then reassuring her that I will be back in the afternoon, I leave for the hospital wondering what more horrors may lie in store for me there….

Before leaving, I tell my mother that she will probably be moving to The Jewish Home for the Aged, and try to inform her as much as I need to about Ray’s plans for her. I have to reassure her again and again of his concern for her welfare and of his unwavering love, even as he is approaching his own death.

My mother is still in a confused and disoriented state, but she appears to be able to absorb most of this information. (Nevertheless, she later calls me for further reassurance, saying she is still confused about what is to happen to her.) Ro finds it difficult to keep from reverting to longstanding fears, which have plagued her entire life, it seems. She may also now have a memory deficit so that things have to be explained to her over and over….

It takes me fully five minutes just to clean the mirror in the vestibule until I can finally begin to see the glass. Coat after coat of Windex is necessary in order to scrape away the grime and encrustations of years -- who knows how many? -- of neglect. The next two hours are spent picking up litter from the carpet in the hall and adjoining corridors -- hair curlers, pink plastic pins in abundance, perhaps a hundred pennies, and countless wads of tissues -- and then sweeping clean the little cabinet underneath the mirror on which stands a small dirty vase containing a single pathetic plastic red rose. (An apt metaphor, I can’t help thinking.) After all this, I can finally vacuum the carpet itself. Two hours -- and just a small corner of the house has been liberated from its debris…

When I arrive back at my mother’s house about 2 p.m., I am distressed not to find her at home. But I soon discover her outside, a little old lady wearing a black beret, dressed in brown (at least she has clothes on!). She is slowly padding up the sidewalk toward the house whose front door, by the way, she has left open.

I endeavor to do a wash. My mother, however, is difficult to deal with in this matter. She attempts to round up her dirty clothes -- God knows this must be a difficult task for her in her disoriented state of mind -- but soon loses track of her objective and wanders off, muttering. 

I hear her loud, angry quasi-whisper: “Geez, that’s crazy! He’s going to think that’s crazy. I’m not crazy.” She repeats these statements or similar ones frequently, but when I approach her, she immediately ceases -- as if I have found her engaged in some indiscretion. When I try to confront her gently about this, she denies talking to herself and becomes defensive.

Then, when my back is turned, she starts again to undress herself down to her underwear, and when I reproach her, she claims that she is just changing her clothes, something that she does often, she says.

So goes the way of the wash, which finally, small thanks to her, gets done.

Once I get all the clothes into the washing machine, we have a little talk during which she is entirely, so far as I can tell, present. I tell her that she has to see Ray -- that it is very important to him, and why. She appears to understand and agrees to do so without resistance. I try to explain to her that she will be moving and in general how things will be from now on, and again she appears to grasp the gist of what I tell her. Throughout, I have to reassure her about her finances, that no matter what, she will be taken care of.

After that talk, I start on the kitchen beginning with cleaning the counters and the sink. Then I take on the encrusted appliances, such as the electric can opener, the toaster and orange squeezer. Meanwhile, my mother resumes her aimless parade around the house, muttering fiercely as soon as she is out of my sight and trying to appear normal when she passes through the kitchen on her rounds to nowhere.

However, despite my remonstrating with her, she has by now unbuttoned a bit of her sweater while elsewhere in the house -- a little gesture of defiance, a small assertion of her control over at least her body, which is all she retains dominion over these days.

I clean, she wanders about vacantly. So passes the afternoon.

How ironic, then, that Ray who is loved by so many of his veteran friends only really cares about receiving love from the one person who has always withheld it -- my mother. They have been married for 45 years and, as I have mentioned, never once in all that time has my mother ever explicitly said that she loved him. My stepfather, on the other hand, claims that not a day has passed when he hasn’t avowed his love for my mother. Probably an exaggeration, but still, I suspect, a substantially true statement. I don’t think I have ever known a man who has for so long and so passionately loved a woman with so little to show for it -- 45 years of a tormented unrequited love.  What could be sadder -- and for both -- but my sympathies lie largely with my stepfather. Indeed, in my final days there, I have had a kind of healing with Ray and have come truly to love him. We have had some extremely tender and loving moments together as he approaches the end of his life. I wonder whether my mother will make one last gesture and go to see him before he dies so he can tell her once more how much he loves her, and perhaps finally hear the words from her that he has waited in vain to be spoken all these years.

Meanwhile, she continues to pad around the house like a zombie. Out of my sight she mumbles harsh curses and sometimes shouts angry phrases. Seeing me, she stops and attempts to act normal. She is always “changing her clothes,” i.e., undressing. I try again to reassure her that she will be taken care of, but I’m not sure how much sinks into that softened brain of hers.

Truthfully, I am finding Ro to be a bother and a nuisance, and my patience sometimes wears thin. Of course, I don’t want anything bad to happen to her, but I’m aware that all my feelings of love and care are going to my stepfather while toward my mother, I am all duty. How different it was for most of my life when I only cared about my mother while ignoring my stepfather. Life is full of ironies -- and unexpected reverses of affection.

She never does go to see Ray. She balks, refuses to go.

After Ray’s death, my mother was a basket case. My then girlfriend Lucienne and I drove her down to Los Angeles so that she might stay with an older sister. That didn’t work out, so I had to fly out there again and drive her back to the Bay Area where I was finally able to place her in a “board and care” home in Berkeley where residents are still ambulatory. At least they would look after her there. (I could not afford to place her in The Jewish Home for the Aged, as my stepfather had wanted, because she was now indigent. The house did have a lien on it and was lost.) 

Some of my women friends sometimes joke that they fear that when they become old, they will turn into bag ladies. Unfortunately, that’s what became of my mother. She would wander off, with permission, on the local streets and poke her nose into garbage bins. But she could do some surprising things, too. Once when I was visiting her, the staff told me that they -- and the other residents -- really enjoyed hearing my mother play the piano. I never even knew that my mother played the piano!

Sometimes Lucienne and I would fly out there in order to see my mother and take her out to a local restaurant, Edy’s, that she had liked to frequent when she was younger and lived in Berkeley. She was impossible and would eat nothing.

Eventually, she developed “contractures” and could no longer walk. At that point, she had to be moved to a nursing home in Berkeley, which was her final home. She shared a room with three other women, all but one demented, though by that time my mother had recovered most of her faculties. She always recognized me and was able to carry on coherent conversations.

During her first years there, I was still living and teaching at the University of Connecticut, and though I explored the possibility of flying my mother out there so she could live near me, for various reasons this was impossible. (Indeed my mother had never flown in her life, and never would.) So I could only visit her whenever I could arrange to get out to California, about a half dozen times a year.

But in 1996, I moved back to the Bay Area and once I arrived, I saw her regularly, usually once a week. When the weather was clement I would push her around the neighborhood in her wheelchair and try to keep up a certain level of chatter. She complained that I talked too much.

Here’s a photograph that was taken around that time.

Otherwise, we would sometimes sit out in the backyard at a table and play cards (usually gin). Or sometimes I would read to her. She was particularly fond of stories by Chekhov. I read quite a bit to her. She seemed to like that better than to listen to me natter on.

By then, although her mind had pretty much recovered, she was becoming hard of hearing and had developed glaucoma as well. But she was largely uncomplaining unlike her son who frets whenever he has a pimple. I’m sure my mother never read Montaigne, but she was a model stoic all the same. I hated to leave her, seeing her in her bed, surrounded by women who would be crying out in lunatic fashion, unable to move and uninterested to listen to the radio I had bought for her or to watch TV. She didn’t even like to be touched.

Once, when I thought she might not have long to live, I spent five minutes or so telling her about my work on near-death experiences. Finally, I asked her, “So, mom, what do you expect will happen when you die?”

She narrowed her eyes and replied in a flat voice: “Nothing. I expect to be dead.”

On another occasion when we were outside, as I was pushing her wheelchair along, I asked her to name some things that had really made her happy in her life. She took a while to answer.

“You,” she said.

She lived until she was almost 89 and died on June 30, 2001. She is buried next to her beloved sister, and my aunt, Mary. Never separated in life, now forever together in death.