An Amaryllis in Bloom
“People come here to die, don’t they?” my mother asked, as I guided her wheelchair into the lobby of her new home on a smothering Baltimore summer afternoon. She was three days short of her eighty-sixth birthday. Both of us were having trouble breathing, but it had nothing to do with the humidity. After being away from home since the age of eighteen, I was suddenly committing to responsibility for the care of my elderly mother, and she was confronting her worst nightmare. My mother blessed herself as we passed a statue of Jesus in the hallway, outside a brightly-lit library populated with silk flowers and elderly women in various stages of sleep.
“At least this place is Catholic,” she said.
It was an observation, not a joke.
These days they’re euphemized as “Senior Lifestyle Communities,” or “Loving Care Residences,” but my mother wasn’t biting, and I wasn’t going to insult her by disingenuous sugarcoating. She was being admitted to a nursing home that morning and we were both sick about it. It didn’t help that a funeral was taking place in the chapel across from our meeting in the Admissions Office. I wondered about the genius architect who put the “Entry” and “Exit” rooms right across the hall from one another.
As Terri from Admissions murmured platitudes about the facility, I watched my mother glance behind her at the casket being wheeled down the center aisle of the near-empty chapel. Our eyes met as she turned her gaze back to the conversation. I didn’t know if I saw fear or resignation; my mother was never one to share her true feelings, and there was no reason to believe she would suddenly begin then. Her hands stroked the worn leather arms of her wheelchair, as if seeking the comfort of a trusted friend. She then nodded at the easel outside the chapel, which listed the upcoming funerals like a weekly school lunch menu. She gave me a familiar, “I told you so look,” as she scanned the names of the recently departed patiently waiting their turn in the funeral queue.
Maryann Phelan, Eileen O’Brien, Julia Mannix.
“At least they’re all Irish. That’s a good sign, I guess,” she whispered, always distrustful of anything not of Gaelic descent, and ignoring Terri’s descriptions of Manicure Wednesdays and Bingo Thursdays.
“Nursing home,” were two dirty words when I was growing up, even worse than taking the Lord’s name in vain. My Grandmas Anna and Julia had both endured slow, lonely deaths in nursing homes, and my mother made her five children promise we’d never commit her to the same fate. She dangled the prospect of a larger portion of her will to the kind (or greedy) child willing to serve her a Jack Kevorkian cocktail that would save her from a similar destiny. She wasn’t kidding; Catholics don’t kid about that sort of thing. Booze and death are serious matters to the Irish.
But that July morning, as the funeral concluded and admission papers were signed, my mother remained stoic. She understood that things had changed, and that moving into this skilled nursing facility was likely to be the last stop left of her life’s journey.
What had changed was not a broken hip, a diagnosis of terminal disease or the onset of dementia, the usual suspects that render our aging loved ones infirm. No. My mother was the victim of elder abuse − physical neglect, emotional mistreatment and financial exploitation horrific enough to rob her of her once-fiercest wish to live independently until God decided otherwise. I wish I could blame the offense on the apathy and carelessness of a hired caregiver. No. My mother was abused from the very core of humanity, at the hands of her first born child − my older brother.
“Mom needs to downsize,” he’d said. “She can move to Cleveland and live in the condo next door to me here, independently, like she wants.”
He’d promised to take good care of her. Everyone had believed him, mostly my mother because he’d always been the apple of her eye, always the clear and present favorite.
I’d wanted to believe him, too, then. I’d needed to believe there was at least an ounce of goodness in him because then I could make believe that what he had done to me had never happened. What had occurred in the basement of our family home when I was a little girl could be erased, as simply as hitting the delete button. Gone would be the shame and guilt that I had brought it on myself. “Jesus, what a gift,” I thought. “Take it.” And, so I did. I’d stayed quiet, believed my brother’s promises, packed up the dark and dirty memories of my childhood, along with my mother’s unwanted furniture, and dropped them off at the Goodwill station. No receipt needed, thank you.
“Did I put my mother at risk with the false hope of saving myself?”
“It’s a reasonable question to ask, but no,” my therapist told me. “Don’t feel any guilt. You were a victim in survival mode. You wanted it to work out well for your mother. Then your brain would pull one of its special tricks and lock those traumatic memories away for a long time. Not forever, mind you, but for a long time.”
It didn’t work out well, though.
When my siblings and I first flew to Cleveland to visit my mom we were given a sanitized version of her new home − our mother freshly groomed from the beauty parlor, a full refrigerator, a clean house, and a Turner Classic Movie marathon on her new wide screen TV. “I’m very happy,” she would say.
But then the warning signs started, beginning with my brother’s refusal to communicate with us about our mother (“I’m too busy”), followed by our inability to reach our mother for days (“She didn’t charge her cell phone battery”), and finally, my brother leaving our mother unsupervised for a week without telling us while he vacationed (“I have a life, too”).
Soon after, I got the call. I heard something in my mother’s voice, what none of my siblings could ever hear. It was helplessness, that same utter despair that I felt as a young child at the hands of the same abuser. After much prodding, my mother finally admitted that my brother had mocked, belittled and mistreated her for months, threatening to “dump her in a nursing home” if she didn’t show more appreciation for the sacrifices he was making on her behalf. I remembered how he had spoken to me, with that calm and detached voice that made me realize evil had a sound all its own. The only difference was that now I could do something about it, not like when my older brother had touched me and made me touch him, over and over again in the basement of our family home.
There was no time to ponder the consequences of what I was about to do. This was a rescue. I just told my mother it was time to leave Cleveland and move to Baltimore, and she didn’t hesitate. There were no questions about why, what would happen to her condo, or who would pack her belongings. She simply said, “Okay,” and in doing so confirmed all my darkest suspicions. I understood all too well that, despite my brother’s actions, my mother would never talk about it again because it would force her to confront the unthinkable. Her own child was abusing her. It was for this same reason that I vowed to protect my mother from knowing what my brother did to me. It would serve no purpose other than to fatally crush the spirit of an already deeply wounded woman.
Terri escorted us to my mother’s private room on 3 South. Two floor nurses and my mother’s primary aide, Claudia, were already waiting. My mother reached for my hand from her wheelchair.
“How about you go get a cup of coffee so your mom has some time to meet her aides and settle into her new home?” Terri said.
“It’s okay, Mom. Claudia will take great care of you.” I squeezed her hand, kissed her pale cheek and surrendered my wheelchair rights to Claudia.
“That’s right, Miss Irene. May I call you Irene? We’re all friends here. Everyone’s on a first name basis,” Claudia said.
My agony was tempered by what I saw: committed caregivers who understood the power of compassion and respect to remove fear and anxiety among the helpless. As the door closed between us, my mother glanced at me with the same resigned expression as when she’d watched the funeral earlier. But then she whispered the words, “Thank you” and smiled, and the door clicked shut.
I sat with my coffee in the dining hall watching families visit with their grandmothers, mothers, and aunts (all women, sadly), and reflected on what I had just done. Were my actions motivated by love for my mother, guilt over keeping quiet and thus empowering my brother to abuse again, or the angry desire to finally confront him for what he was, once and for all?
These are questions I still ask myself, a year and a half later. I understand now that there are no clear answers, because there’s never clarity in the dark and murky waters of abuse. What I do know is that in rescuing my mother I finally rescued myself because, despite the burden of taking on responsibility for her care, by confronting my brother and holding him accountable I have been unburdened of the much heavier secret that I suffered under for decades.
We never speak about him and there are no pictures of my brother in my mother’s room. He’s been removed from all her legal documents, erased by the attorneys as if he never existed. She tells me she has no memory of her time in Cleveland, other than the loneliness. A defense mechanism perhaps? Or, age-related dementia? I don’t care. What matters now is the sweetness and intimacy that has grown out of this time with my mother, like the red Amaryllis bulb patiently blossoming towards perfection on her window shelf. My mother tells me it’s the first thing she looks at each morning when she opens her eyes, and that the aides come by to check on it every day. My mom or the bloom? I wonder.
“How can you not believe in God,” my mother asks, “when you feast your eyes on an Amaryllis in bloom?”
I know that one day soon my mother’s name will be listed on the easel. We talk a lot about death. She tells me she’s looking forward to being with Dad again. I smile and tell her I want whatever will make her happy although, while it brings me peace to know my mother is ready to embrace the end of her life, I’m not ready yet to embrace her turn in the near-empty chapel.
I visit my mom on Thursdays so we can receive communion together from Faith, the volunteer minister who travels from room to room − yes, her real name. After we bless ourselves and say a short prayer, my mom and I settle into our ritual, a movie and a bowl of ice cream. As we watch “From Here to Eternity” on the TNT channel, my mother pats my hand and whispers she has a secret.
“I was terribly disappointed to learn that Montgomery Clift was gay. I had such a crush on him,” she says, before diving into the salted caramel ice cream I brought for her.
Her new favorite.
About the Author: Clare Breen is a former award winning advertising executive and speech writer, currently enrolled in the Johns Hopkins MA Writing program. She lives in Owings Mills, Maryland, with her husband and two sons.