If you learn from defeat, you haven’t really lost.
— Zig Ziglar
Marlene moved back to California just over two weeks ago. She lives, once again, with her son and daughter-in-law in a room the size of a nun’s austere cell. All the love, patience (and frustration, to be sure), efforts at protecting her, arguments about healthcare, meals cooked, laundry washed, gallons of gas used chauffeuring her around, soldiering through the unkind words, $120 worth of Amazon rentals alone, and money I did not earn as I took off time to care and protect her, did not make her happy and content in the end. Bitter lesson learned.
The day after my last post, Marlene walked into my office with the same bank printout that incited all of the legal protections I had initiated. She pointed at the two withdrawals totaling $4,600 and asked what they were for. I momentarily stopped breathing as little explosions detonated my sagging brain.
“That’s the money Eddie took out.” She stared blankly at me. “Marlene, this is why we went to the bank for you to open the new account. And then I changed over your income to the new account. And we saw the attorney. We’ve spent over two weeks handling things because of this withdrawal. Remember?”
“Not really,’ she said, not able to even process the litany of words and activities I had just enumerated.
Her behavior over the next few days became increasingly erratic. I attributed much of this to the rocky recovery from the MOHS procedure. Fleeting moments of clarity were interspersed with escalating bouts of confusion. After spending a day on the couch watching reruns of Reba, she asserted that she had spent the day in her room all alone reading. She acknowledged that I had served her meals and snacks as she sat cozily under the heated throw, but grew increasingly agitated with me when I reiterated she had not spent the day in isolation.
Marlene spoke fondly of the senior center, but complained about how expensive it was to go there. They charge $7 for a meal that includes salad, a hot entree, vegetable, dessert and a beverage. Marlene thinks nothing of spending $4 at Starbucks or on a milkshake, so I was confused at her suddenly fretting over $7 for the conviviality of lunch at the center. She finally decided that she wanted to go anyway. I made a reservation, then five minutes later canceled the reservation after she changed her fractured mind. Throughout that week she waxed poetic about the center, yet refused to go. She complained that she had nothing to do, even though the blinding headache from the medical procedure had truly taken a toll on her willingness to do much of anything.
Her 80th birthday was Thursday, July 13th. I had joined Ancestry.com for a month to research her family history and compile birthdates since the only birthdate she actually remembers is her own. I also gave her a desk calendar wherein I had written in the birthdates of everyone she loves to mitigate her complaints about all of that information being locked away in storage. I struggled with whether or not to go to my caregiver’s class that afternoon, but my guilt was assuaged when I had to keep reminding her that it was her birthday.
She told me she wanted to go to the bank. At the teller window she asked for $3,000.
“You mean $300,” I corrected, since that was the amount she had previously withdrawn.
“Noooo. I want $3,000,” she stated firmly to the teller, shooting me a nasty side-glance.
“Marlene, you don’t need $3,000,” I argued.
“I want $3,000—all in 20s” she restated to the teller, ignoring me.
“What do you need $3,000 for?”
“I have plans.” At this point the poor teller looked like she wished she had called in sick. I shut up and figured I would have this dispute once we were back home. The teller said she needed to get approval and scurried off. Marlene wrote down -$2,000 in her brand-new account register.
“Marlene, you just asked for $3,000,” I said, also realizing she had deducted everything incorrectly.
“I did?” she asked. “Here, you fix it,” she said shoving the register at me.
The teller came back with a large stack of $20s. “How would you like this divided up? I can put $2,000 in a band, and then $1,000 in an envelope.”
“That’s fine,” Marlene said. She threw the money into her purse and we drove through Del Taco for a quick bite and ate parked under the shade of a tree.
I had already rented the next Harry Potter movie for her to watch while I attended class. I had also written a reminder that I would be home by 5:30 and was taking her out to dinner to celebrate her birthday.
At class we were learning the important distinction between “You” statements and “I” statements. I brought up what had happened at the bank and worked through how to handle my discomfort with her exorbitant withdrawal, coming up with “I do not feel safe with that much money in my home” — a decided improvement over “You do not need that much money in your purse,” and definitely better than the circus going on in my head.
I got home early and used my carefully worded “I” statement to express how I felt about Marlene’s lavish withdrawal. I told her I wanted to take $2,700 back to the bank the next day. She said, “What money?” I felt the twinge I’d been sporting in my chest for over a week tighten.
“Marlene, you withdrew $3,000 this afternoon at the bank.”
“I did? I don’t remember.” Oh. My. God. I replayed the conversation at the bank. Nothing.
We went into her room to retrieve the money that I had last seen as she tossed it in her purse. The only thing that remained was $200 in $20s in the bank envelope and the random money she had already had in a coin purse. The banded $2,000 was gone as was $800 in $20s. She had gone from the bank to the car to the house — and had somehow managed to misplace $2,800 in a span of three hours.
“Did you put it in the safe?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe.” She tried opening the safe, but it had been giving her trouble since she arrived and wouldn’t budge. I was freaking out because I knew that her son would think I had absconded with the money since he had already accused me of taking advantage of his mom (the man who took $4,600 without permission). At our go-round a couple of weeks earlier he had insisted that a check Marlene had written to Kate to cover traveling expenses had been written to and cashed by me, even though, when I pulled it up through online banking it was clearly made out to Kate and I had never seen it before.
“Did you hide the money it in a drawer?” I asked trying to fathom her squirrel-like tendencies.
“Where did you put the money?” Marlene asked of me.
“I never touched the money, Marlene.” I walked backed into the living room to calm down. About 10 minutes later she walked out with the banded two-grand that she’d apparently stashed in a drawer.
“Give me that money,” I ordered. “We’re taking it back to the bank tomorrow.”
In an effort to celebrate her birthday instead of throttling her, I asked if she was ready to go to dinner. Instead, she started complaining about how much I was working. In fact, for the first time in the four and a half years I have been freelancing, I had ZERO billable hours — because I had taken off so much time handling Marlene’s affairs and attending to her health needs. Just like the forgotten Reba marathon, she maintained that she was spending all of her time alone. She said she wanted to go live with her friend Terry in California, or move back into her condo in Las Vegas. I reminded her that she had spent a week with Terry last fall and left there saying she never wanted to see or speak to her again. I also reminded her that there were tenants in her condo and that she couldn’t live alone.
“Why not? I lived alone before.”
“Because you can’t even remember the date. How would you pay bills? How would you know when you have to take the garbage out? You don’t drive anymore. How would you get groceries, or go to the bank?”
“I’ll figure it out,” said the woman who didn’t remember any important detail of the past few weeks., OR that it was her birthday. This went on for another hour and a half.
It was nearing 7:30 pm and I said we needed to head out for dinner. We had a temporary reprieve while she enjoyed lobster and cheesecake.
When we got home, the same conversation started all over again: I work too much, she sits alone in her room all day, she wanted to go live with Terry or her condo. Finally, I said that I would phone Terry in the morning. I asked how she thought she was going to get everything back to California since she had a meltdown about movers (strangers) bringing her stuff to Idaho. She said there was a man at the senior center who liked her and would drive her to Redding. Suddenly the $3,000 in small bills made sense: she was plotting her escape and needed traveling money.
“Marlene, I am not going to allow you to drive off with some man you’ve just met,” I retorted.
“Then I’ll fly,” she said until she considered the safe. “Did I bring the safe on the plane?”
“No. Kate drove all your belongings here, remember?”
“Oh, yes.” And then she puzzled how she would get the safe through baggage.
Around 10:30 pm I said I simply could not continue the conversation. She went to get ready for bed while I turned on the TV for some mindless distraction to allow my frazzled nerves to settle. Marlene walked out a few minutes later with the nefarious bank printout and asked me about the $4,600 withdrawal from June 1st, as if for the first time (again). I considered suicide for a hot minute.
The next morning I made her breakfast and she began her refrain that I was working all of the time. She asked me when I was going to be done working.
“Do you mean, retire?” I asked.
“Yes,” she responded.
“When I drop dead,” I replied, fairly certain that the statistic I’d heard that 72% of caregivers die before their Alzheimer’s patient was likely going to be my sorry fate —particularly since, as her symptoms had dramatically risen over the past month, my health had taken a sharp downturn.
I realized just how alone I was in this battle. As her memory continued to devolve and her combative behavior escalatied, my anxiety over dealing with her was increasing. The money and the loss and confusion over the fate of the money also had me panicking. I was concerned about being able to legally curtail her wild financial endeavors. I phoned the attorney, questioning her competency to sign over Power of Attorney to me the following week as her mind was noticeably more feeble than when we’d first seen him weeks earlier. He told me it was highly likely I would have to get my own attorney to fight for guardianship. My life flashed before my eyes — and it was not pretty.
As promised, I phoned Terry — who emphatically informed me that living with her was not an option.
The doorbell rang and a bouquet of flowers arrived from her son (they had tried to deliver them the day before while we were out) The florist card enclosure stated how much Eddie loved his mother. She cried and declared the lovely, albeit modest, bouquet the most beautiful flowers she had seen in her entire life.
When I told Marlene that she couldn’t live with Terry, I offered, “You have two options: you can stay with me, or you can go back to live with Eddie.”
“I want to go back to Eddie’s,” she said, apparently forgiving all neglect, deceit and thievery.
I felt like a failure. I was frustrated that I had allowed myself to impoverish my own life and health in an effort to enrich someone else’s life for naught. I started looking at flights and phoned Eddie. When I didn’t get a response, I sent him an email detailing the increasingly erratic behavior and the money fiasco and her desire to go back to California.
We returned the banded $2,000 to the bank. I prayed the missing $800 was in her safe.
By the next morning, I still hadn’t heard a word from Eddie. I sent another email and made another phone call. Around 1:00 pm that Saturday afternoon, Marlene’s son and daughter-in-law phoned and started attacking me. I was accused of being a deadbeat and stealing her money. For the record: she had attempted to give me money a couple of times for bills, but I had refused, telling her I had everything covered.
Eddie said I was “abandoning” his mother. If it hadn’t all been so exhaustingly tragic, I would have laughed at the blatant irony. Channeling the lessons I was learning in my caregiver’s class, I finally realized that screaming and hurling accusations at one another was getting us nowhere. I said, “Let’s change our tone. We aren’t solving anything this way.” His wife continued screaming at me. I said I only wanted to speak with Eddie regarding his mother. She was undeterred. Within a few moments we had all calmed down and actually had a meaningful conversation. Eddie said he would arrive on Monday afternoon to retrieve his mom and her possessions.
Marlene and I got boxes and started packing. Sitting beside her on the bed, she softly said, “Why are we packing?”
“You said you wanted to go back to live with Eddie,” I said.
“I did? I don’t remember.” And then a moment later, “Maybe that’s for the best. There are more people there,” clearly forgetting the loneliness and hostility she felt living in that small bedroom in California.
By Sunday afternoon, her possessions were all boxed. I hadn’t sealed everything because I was creating an inventory list to lessen the unpacking frenzy once she was back in California (upon her arrival, she kept accusing her daughter-in-law of stealing things before we found each and every item). On Monday morning, I woke up to find half of the boxes empty.
“Marlene, why did you take things out of the boxes?” I asked. “Eddie is going to be here this afternoon.”
“I wanted to see my things,” she said. I left everything as it was. For some odd reason Faye Dunaway’s sad and sordid Mrs. Mulwray chimed in my head, “My daughter, my sister, my daughter, my sister.” It’s almost over, I thought, clinging to sanity.
By Monday afternoon, Marlene anxiously awaited the prodigal son. At 1:00 pm, Eddie phoned to tell me he was leaving Los Angeles in a few hours. It is an 18-hour drive without traffic or pit-stops. I was not really surprised, but returning Marlene to her errant and irresponsible family further twisted the knot in my stomach.
“I should be there by 5:00 pm tomorrow.”
“Drive safely,” I said pleasantly (not feeling pleasant, at all). “Phone me when you hit Seattle and I’ll make sure everything is sealed and ready to go.”
By Tuesday afternoon, when I had heard nary a word, I started phoning Eddie, genuinely concerned. I then started phoning his wife. At 8:00 pm Tuesday night, Marlene’s daughter-in-law phoned to inform me that Eddie was in Hood River, OR, approximately 6 hours away. He and a friend intended to reach Spokane around midnight and should arrive at my house around 10:00 am the next morning.
Eddie phoned at 10:00 am on Wednesday to say they had only made it to Kennewick, WA— about three hours away. I did three loads of laundry and started slowly clearing away the rows of folded paper towels that had been inexplicably strewn across the various surfaces Marlene had claimed as her territory.
Eddie and his friend arrived at 2:00 pm. I spent about 30 minutes going over all of the paperwork I had handled over the previous nine and half weeks. I had printed out calendars chronicling every significant appointment or bank withdrawal and the $2,000 deposit. I had a folder with wound care instructions, receipts for doctors and the jeweler, as well as the budgets I created so she could track her expenditures. I was organized.
Eddie said, “No wonder you haven’t been working. You really have been working for my mom.” Understatement. Vindication.
Eddie and his cohort loaded up her possessions. I sent the heated throw I had bought to keep her warm during the long ride back to California. Somewhere in her boxes is the memory clock I gave her and the brand-new calendar. As we hugged good-bye, I cried. Marlene seemed nonplussed.
As I shut the door I started sobbing, feeling a profound emptiness — a potent mix of loss and failure and release (oddly, not relief). I posted the following on my Facebook wall:
It would be many days before the lessons began emerging from this experience. Caring for Marlene as she disengages from memory and reality is amongst the top ten things that have shifted my DNA. Just as she is not fully the person I’ve loved for over half a century, I am no longer the person I was when she arrived on May 15th.
In the end, Marlene’s legacy to me isn’t a promised piece of jewelry (likely promised to several other people as well). The lasting legacy is far more intangible and priceless. In the beginning, she sparked the creativity in a 10-year old girl that has reached across five decades and still informs the person I am today — and some BIG plans for the future. These past months have illuminated the preciousness of our memories — they are as ethereal as an unrealized idea. Life is precariously fickle: it should be fully lived every day we are able to enjoy laughter and companionship. There is so much more, but that is for another day.
P.S. Once back in L.A., Eddie got the safe open and found the missing $800. Whatever suspicions he had toward me, evaporated like Marlene’s memory of the whole ordeal.