Tuesday, March 20, 2012

What's in a name

My mother was born in March of 1923 so she died just shortly before her 89th birthday. 

My mother imagines the occasion thusly:  the country doctor who attended her home birth must have asked her father: "what are you going to call this little girl" and her father responded "we're going to call her Josie T." So the little baby girl who was suppose to be named Johanna Theresa after her grandmother ended up with a birth certificate that said her name was "Josie T."

She did not discover this fact for more than fifty years until she needed her birth certificate to get a passport. In her childhood she had indeed been called Josie T by her parents, brothers, Aunts and Uncles and cousins. But she was also often told that she'd been named for her grandmother Johanna. At  college, the name she earned her certificate under was Johanna Theresa. The social security number she got before her first job was assigned to Johanna Theresa. When she married, the name on the wedding license and register was Johanna Theresa. Her children's birth certificates named their mother as Johanna. On the title to the house she'd signed Johanna.

In the 1970's when my father retired and my parents decided to do some world traveling. Mom wrote away for her birth certificate. When it arrived and she eagerly opened the envelop her first reaction was shock. Then she was angry. I think that was the most pissed off I had ever seen my mother up to that point in my life. She stormed around the house cussing at her father. She said to me that she just knew how it happened. She had this image of her dad had been joking and talking with the doctor, and when the doctor said "what are you going to call her?" he just didn't think, and told the doctor what they were going to "call" her, not what they were going to name her.

As the shock wore off, the disorientation set in. She began to wonder if everything in her life was a lie. Did she really have a teaching certificate? Was she really married? Were we really her children? Did she own the house? It was a disturbing thought. If she'd done all these things as Johanna, and she wasn't really Johanna, then had she done any of them?

The question arose - what would she do about her passport? She decided that she'd be damned if she'd travel around the world with a passport under the name Josie T. For Pete's sake she didn't even have a proper middle name, just an initial. So she did her research, consulted a lawyer and went to court, and had her name legally changed to the name she'd used all those years, so that she could have a passport that said Johanna.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

"I Remember Mama"

That was the title of one of my mother's favorite play/movie/TV shows - and the books on which those were based. I hadn't thought of these in years. There was actually two books in the fictionalized memoir by Kathryn Forbes about her Norwegian immigrant grandmother.

My mother is the one who taught me to love reading. She read to us almost every night. Unlike the photograph which my father staged, normally she would sit on a stool or in a chair in the hallway between my room and my brothers' room. We would lie in bed in the dark and she would read out-loud to us. She would read one or two chapters and leave us waiting for more the next night.

Among the books that I remember her reading to us are every single one of P. L. Travers' Mary Poppins books. The Mary Poppins of the books was nothing at all like Disney and Julie Andrews' Poppins. She was crotchety and plain and difficult, but also magical and wonderful as well. She also read us the 1950's classic Beverly Cleary series about Henry, Ramona and Beezus.

The book that my brothers and I loved the most, and the book that really transformed my life was Robert Heinlein's Red Planet. My brothers and I loved the alien "Willis" the Martian "bouncer." The book was so enchanting, that I started reading ahead of my mother during the day time (although I still enjoyed hearing her read it out-loud). That lead me to the "harder stuff" of science fiction, which I began to devour.

Before I was old enough to have an "adult" library card, I would go into the main part of the old San Mateo Library (one of those built by Carnegie of stone, marble and lots of steel), and pull down Galaxy Readers, and the Years Best Science Fiction, and read story after story in the reading room while my parents did their Saturday shopping in town.

With her nightly story time, my mother made reading a wonderful, delightful, guilty pleasure that I could not wait to embrace for myself. She initiated me into that magic world that so stimulated my intellect and imagination.

One of the saddest things about the dementia that took over my mother's life in the past three years is that it robbed her of the ability to read. She could not concentrate enough to follow the thread of even a short story. She could read the words - she'd read complicated documents out-loud to me on the phone having no trouble with any of the words, but she could not follow what she read.

Monday, March 12, 2012

In love with "Wrecking Ball"

It's been years, maybe even decades, since the last time I bought an album without having heard a single song on it. But, last week I downloaded Bruce Springsteen's new album Wrecking Ball on the strength of one's friend recommendation and a Rolling Stone review.  Now I'm deeply in love with the music.

Every song on this album is just right. This is a case of a songwriter/singers vision fitting exactly into my present mind set.  I've been writing a series of pieces on my sociology blog Sociological Stew called "Zombie America." In Wrecking Ball Springsteen wrote the perfect sound track for "Zombie America." The lively melodies of songs like "We Take Care of Own," "Death to My Home Town," and "American Land" (which remind often remind me of Irish immigrant jigs) and catchy choruses of Wrecking Ball are the perfect contra-punctual to the images of anger, despair, and desolation that peek through the verses.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Bulletins from the Land of Dementia

It has been two months and six days since my brother settled my mother into a pleasant, small home-based care home near him in San Diego.

My mother likes the people who work in the home and she has made friends among the other residents. She likes the warmer weather in San Diego and never complains any more of being too cold. She says she sleeps well, which was one of the biggest problems with her living alone as she imagined all types of dangers and anxiety and cold often interfered with her sleep. She loves the food (simple, home cooking with fresh ingredients).

Yet despite all this she has made herself almost frantic at times with the absolute conviction that she MUST leave and go somewhere else. She is not sure where, she knows she can't care for herself, and knows there is no family members who can take over her full-time care. Like all dementia patients my mother has developed elaborate delusions utterly divorced from reality, that have convinced her that she cannot remain in this care home.

She cannot help this, it is a symptom of the disease that is destroying her mental abilities. There is no way to fight the delusions of a person with dementia; there is no reason, no evidence that can dissuade the person to let go of their delusions. Any attempts often serve to strengthen the obsessions rather than enlighten. It is extraordinarily frustrating to Charlie and myself to see her struggle with these totally imagined demons, and know that there really is nothing we can do. In fact, the best thing seems to be for us to take some steps back away from her, fewer and shorter visits by Charlie, fewer and shorter phone calls by me.

The thing that strikes me about my mother's delusions, however, is that they are woven from the habits and attitudes of her entire life time. My mother always was a control freak. She always had to know what was going on - not only with her children and family members, but with her friends and neighbors. Then not content merely to know, she had to solve everyone's  problems - frequently when such help was neither desired nor helpful.

She trained us children early to stop telling her our concerns, if we didn't want her to bulldoze into our lives with her ten point action plans for how to solve our problems. Since her life as a housewife gave her no experience or insight at all into the work and social lives of me and my brothers her action plans were generally worse than useless, they were highly judgemental and intrusively critical. Her obsessive controlling actually drove my youngest brother to completely abandon her and our entire family, disappearing from all our lives.

My mother's delusion is that she is responsible for what happens to everyone at the care home; she believes that she is responsible for all the other people's safety and health and welfare. She believes that she that she was brought to the home for a trial "job" of working at helping to run the home. But that she did not do a very good job of it, because as she told me today - it is a very, very hard job and she can't do it. It is because she can't do the job of running the care home that she says she must leave.

She also believes that as nice as the people who work there are, that they are not really competent (she's never thought anyone was competent in her whole life - certainly none of her children or neighbors or friends). Her evidence of this lack of competence is that they do not do anything about the dire situations that are total fabrications of her demented mind. She naps during the daytime (as most of the residents do) and often has vivid dreams that are completely real to her. She reports the most fantastical events to me when I call.

She reported to me Saturday that a man died sitting on a bench in front of the house and that the people in the house wouldn't do anything about it for hours and hours, and that they didn't take care of the problem properly at all. While deaths in elderly care homes do certainly occur, no one died on the bench in front of the care home on that day. It was entirely a fiction.

Charlie and I try to tell her that she does not need to work, that the people are there to care for her, and that cost of her food and lodging and care is already paid. None of these things change her view. She tells me that the people there are not competent to take care of her. Sometimes she says there is no money to pay for her care, sometimes she accuses Charlie of stealing it all. But she refuses to believe that she can relax and enjoy and just be there.

I am fascinated by both the distortion of thinking and reasoning that dementia produces, and by the continuity that there is between the patterns of personality and behavior from the past - the obsessive control freak, who has to solve others problems for them whether or not such assistance is desired. The sum of our lives, our attitudes and our actions do seem to matter even in dementia.