Thursday, November 20, 2008

Squirrels in The Attic, Part 11: The Savage Women

I am an old woman living in her converted garage so I can rent my house and afford to eat and pay my bills. But getting together the money to pay property taxes gets harder every year. And every trip to the grocery store costs more to buy less. I dread leaving my house. I have a full tank of gas in my van, and it might last the winter if I'm careful.

I have no credit cards. I filed for bankruptcy the last year of my mother's life. Caring for her had made working impossible, and it made my bipolar illness worse. She was too difficult for anyone. And I was her only living relative and had the legal, as well as moral, responsibility to care for her. Then suddenly, with all money gone, she finally qualified for Medicaid. And under Medicaid's watchful eyes we got a social worker, and meals on wheels, and three days a week an aid came to our house to bathe her and take her for a walk. And for the first time I slept for an hour without fear.

Early on in her dementia she saw her brother in the house and wanted me to make him go away. He had been dead for years. She wanted to sleep with me, and I could think of not a single thing on earth I would have hated more. Once I woke in the dark of early morning to find her standing looking down on me. How odd that my mother could still strike terror in my heart. Panic and terror was what I felt at the prospect of my mother in bed with me. I thought she might kill me. It was more probably a projection of my own dark wishes.

One morning in the deep of winter I went into her room to wake her, change her diaper, dress her, fix her breakfast. She wasn't in her bed. I searched the house and worried that she'd found the hidden key, and let herself out into the snow and freezing temperatures. But the key was in its place and all the doors were still locked. Than I ran through the house again, looking everywhere calling her name, while my dog Lucy searched with me. We went down to the basement, looked in her closet, under her bed, and finally I checked the attic where squirrels were nesting in the last of the shredded insulation and torn bits of paintings, scraps of summer dresses. And there she was, bedded down on the wood floor with the walnuts and the squirrels, her nightgown hiked around her hips, curled like a fetus. Sagging diaper leaking, her wrist cold to the touch. It was freezing in there with the uninsulated ceiling. I had trouble rousing her. I was afraid she might be dead at first, and for a moment I thought of leaving her there and going back to sleep. Then the moment passed, and I did my best to scoop her up and take her to her bed. I quickly changed her diaper, put her in a warm, clean nightgown and while I changed her like a sleeping baby, her eyes slitted open and glanced sideways at me and she said, "Lucy." Not a question. Lucy was her little sister. Lucy lived in Arkansas then, but had also been diagnosed with Vascular Dementia as well. My Aunt's lifelong companion was blind, and I wanted not to think about their reality. I tried not to think about the implications of my mother and her sister and their mother and all the Savage women who had something called Malignant Hypertension which, prior to blood pressure drugs had claimed all the women in my mother's line young--all with massive strokes, or heart attacks or they just dropped dead early with no apparent cause, until the advent of the treatment of high blood pressure with diuretics. And as the drugs got better we survived the strokes to end our days in nursing homes, drooling and vacant and wearing diapers.

I remember when, after my grandmother survived her second stroke, my mother and her sister swooped in, packed her shit, sold her house, and divvied up the jewelry between themselves. They left her in a Nursing home, never to visit again. I wasn't living in Salt Lake then, and I wasn't told about any of this until months after it was accomplished. I was horrified. Two daughters, both single, and neither for a moment considered caring for their mother.

Now I know why. They were smart. They each had a strong survival instinct. And grandmother was a drooling idiot. And I was a sentimental fool, who wanted to believe in the power of love to overcome distaste. Some kind of love. But they wanted to have their lives. And she, they said, would never know the difference. But still, didn't they owe her anything?

There is probably no one more sentimental about love and its absence than a child who never felt loved. We grow up craving it and never recognizing it since it feels so unfamiliar. And we seek the familiar because, though it might be abuse, it feels like the thing daddy called love. And if mother is withholding, we give everything to try to earn her love. And eventually nothing feels like love. And if you believe the family mythology that you were never good enough, you know you don't deserve love. So you work a little harder, sacrifice a little more. Until you live alone and she now needs you at last. And just when you can really help her, you turn into her dead sister, who she always hated anyway.

So I thawed her cold body, fed her broth, and tried so hard to be the good daughter. I know now that it wasn't for my mother that I was doing all this. It was for me. I wanted to see myself as the good daughter, since no one left alive would every know what I was, but me. It was my image of myself that so needed to believe despite the lifetime of abuse and criticism, that I was a good person, and good people take care of their dying parents.

She seemed no worse for her slumber with the squirrels. She was as active and odd that day as any other. She fought with me over the shit in her diaper, just like any other day. I had a number of concerns about her running around the house with poop in her pants. She had, in the recent past, taken to removing her poop and hiding it in the most inappropriate of places--and really, is there any appropriate place to hide poop but in the toilet? I found it along with a fork behind a sofa cushion. I found it under her pillow, and have to admit that I considered for a moment leaving it there. It was only my daily stripping her sheets and washing them that made this unworkable. She hid it in the dryer as I've said before. One never thinks to look into the dryer for shit before tossing in the days laundry to dry. Do you?

There were special nighttime diapers that were supposed to be able to absorb any amount of nighttime bed wetting. It's a lie--don't believe a word of that advertising. So every morning, once I managed to get her changed and dressed and fed, my next job was the daily bed stripping and sheet washing and bed making. So leaving her hidden turd under her pillow wasn't an option no matter how much it might please me to do it.

As the days went on like this, I found myself unable to remain awake in the afternoons. I set an alarm for every official moment of the day, but once the getting up and doing morning chores and the answering the door for the meals on wheels guy, after watching my mother eat her tuna sandwich with sloppy gusto, I would take us upstairs and lock us in my suite of rooms, where she could "type" on my computer for hours, while I drifted in and out of consciousness.

My mother had once been an executive secretary. There was a time when she could take dictation shorthand and type ninety words a minute with complete accuracy. Hoping for the best, I turned on the computer and pulled up an empty page. I typed a few words on the keyboard and watched her eyes light up as words appeared on the screen. She all but pushed me out of the way, eager to get to the typing. It seemed she had something to say. So for awhile I watched. Her fingers hovered over the keyboard, gnarled knuckles, ravaged nails (but festooned with gaudy rings I could not pry off her fingers). Then she dropped the little finger of her left hand upon the z and the zzzzzzzzzs flew off her finger like sparks across the screen. Line after line of small z. I tried to show her that all the other letters were there, but she briskly pushed my hands away to very deliberatley place that finger lightly upon the z and leave it there. I moved to the small room off my office that held my bed and slipped away into the sleep of the damned.

I awoke to the slap of my mother's hand across my face, and her distress as she pointed at the wall behind my head. She looked at the wall and said her first words in days, and in obvious alarm, "Can't you hear that?" It was the squirrels scrabbling in the walls.


Anonymous said...

Wow, Utah. This is an amazing piece of writing and reflection. I cannot imagine what that must have been like for you, but I'm so glad that you can write about it.

anita said...

oh my, utah. life is so ... shall i use the term? ... savage.

but you WERE a good daughter.

you were.

from what i gather, in terms of what your mother gave you, in terms of the life she gave you no support in creating ... she kind of didn't "deserve" it in the classical sense of the word.

but ... utah ... you WERE a good daughter and you ... i hope ... will benefit from that ... if not in the heaven that you do not believe exists, but in terms of yoru own moral center. your desire to do the right thing by the woman who gave you life.

Utah Savage said...

We only have one "Squirrels in the Attic episode to go, and I will give you a break in the meantime.

Stella has nominated me for a Bloggers Award in Creative Writing or Fiction or whatever, would you vote for me? Please?

Mauigirl said...

This was so sad and so gripping. You did the best you could, and as Anita said, you were a good daughter to your mother. I admire you for taking care of your mother at home. It is very hard.

Gail said...

Hi Utah-

I am humbled beyond words by your honest reflections. Humbled isn't even strong enough. Your strength and ability to write so very well about your life is so amazing. Again, not even a strong enough word.

Peace and hope and humility

simstone said...

I think I'll come to Salt Lake City and shoot every damn squirrel I see in the vicinity of your house. It'll do us both a world of good.

Randal Graves said...

I've got nothing to add that hasn't already been said.

Ingrid said...

I took care of this lady for an hour twice a week who had alzheimers (back in Canada) and the oldest daughter, being the unmarried one, had the unlucky task or 'obligation' to look after her. She had no life. She did sleep with her mother and had to hide all her knives and anything that could injure her/others and or the house. One time, this little french Canadian lady got very agitated and pointed outside and kept saying 'feu feu!' when her daughter returned, she explained that they had fire in the house once and lost one of the siblings and the changing of the leaves (colors red and yellow) in the Fall would give her images of the 'fire'.
The daughter was super exhausted but did what any 'good daughter' did even though she was very bitter to be the one saddled up with her and none of her siblings giving her a break..
to do 'good' when 'good' wasn't done to you..that's the trick isn't it?

Sherry said...

except for the dementia(my aunt has that. she doesn't even know she is alive) there are some familiar, very familiar feelings this , well.

blessings on you and you are a damn fine writer!

linda said...

darling, you have named yourself well and you're are an amazing, riveting writer! god, I bawled through it every time I read it, about 6 times now, catching bits and pieces of you I didn't catch the first time, seeing who you are between your syllables, chosen so father died last year from alzhiemer's , however you spell it , my brother lives with my failing mother...I escaped years before it all hit the fan, forever the guilty one but at least escaping the horrors you have portrayed with such power...I am in awe of your immense strength, that you still stand in the face of it all, each day another day to manage ... or your way....

take simstone up on the idea of shooting all the damned do not need the memories twitching and snarling at you, all night long...bait them with poison they will take to their nests, get a terrier and put him up there to pee everyday for a bit, GET RID OF THEM ! they are very toxic in their tenacity of never leaving you be.

I'm beginning to worry after reading-the sheer clarity of walking a knife's edge everyday of your life

what to do...

XO really

linda said...

damn, I worked hard on that "you're" so can you imagine how pissed I was to see the "are"?


Utah Savage said...

Well Sinstone, when can you get here? It seems to be unanimous that you should come here and be my squirrel killer.

Thank you dears for the kind comments. All writing is a form of exorcism for me. Since I have written much, you can imagine the demons that I needed to get rid of. Still I am not "clear." And there is Part III of Squirrels in the Attic yet to come.