It was only one month ago I wrote part two of this series thinking it to be the last. I mark this one final -a somewhat hopeful plea for 2020.
Today, I got a call from my sister who had been contacted by the care center where our mother resides telling us that she had passed away this morning. The duty nurse last saw her at 3 am when she popped her head out of her doorway and into the hall. The nurse says she told her that it wasn’t yet time to get up and mom dutifully went back to bed, where she was found having passed away in her sleep later in the morning. I can just picture her popping her head out-Hey I’m here! Perhaps she just wanted to say a final goodbye.
My mother’s story is a long and complicated one. Her life was made more arduous by a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia as a young woman in the early 60’s. I have written variously of it over the years and some of you have corresponded privately with me on the ravages that mental illness has taken in your own families. I always say that we were fairly spared the worst that it can be. She was taken in and committed to a mental institution around 1960. I can remember the day, though I was only 4 at the time. Sister was only 2, her memories of mom less clear. An ambulance arrived, mommy was escorted to the car. We were crying-we didn’t really know what it meant except that we were told she was not well. There had been instances that even as a 4 year old, I was able to discern as signs that things were not normal in our house. Apparently, it came to a point where my dad was forced to have her committed for everyone’s safety, including her own. Fortunately, in those days, there was a place for those suffering from mental illness to be housed, to get treatment, and to be safe. We were able to visit occasionally on weekends when “she was doing ok”. I recall there was a lovely garden that we would walk in during our visits. She was there for 10 years. Mental institutions at that time were known for their experimental and sometimes abusive treatment of patients. Not everyone came out the other side, she was fortunate. We never knew what she may have endured nor did she ever want to speak about her experience there.
In the intererum, my dad remarried, we gained 4 siblings, a stepmother and moved to Japan in 1965.
Upon her release into a halfway house, we had returned for a visit to the US and had a short supervised visit with her. Details I can clearly remember from that day were that she made us round ice cubes and put them in our milk. Other things from that visit blur. She had written to us at least weekly since 1965. So here she was, the woman behind the letters (always signed, “Your Very Own Loving Mother, Sharon L Carter”) in the flesh! I somewhat viewed her as a curiosity during this visit. She was not “cured” of course, just transitioning. Later during that same US visit at a friend’s house, we watched the first moon landing on TV. It was 1969. And, I was 11.
Then, back to Japan we went!
Upon returning from Japan in 1972, we passed through California and had a short visit with her in the main public square in Chico ,where she had moved to live with her mother, our Nana. Again, after reams of letters since the last meet-up, here she was again, in the park, in the flesh. Our mom, doing ok, having transitioned into small town life with her mother to look over her. She had made it through the institutional system with her health intact, her mental well being improved and a growing ability to operate within society given her subdued mental illness. I was 14 and wasn’t quite sure what to think. Mind you, we were just returning to the US after having lived in Japan since 1965. Everything was unusual to us at the time. After about an hour or two visit- we were off again-this time to Virginia!
After a stint in Virginia, it was 1975 and back to California where I stayed, ending up at UC Davis which was close enough to Chico to afford myself weekend visits to see both my Nana and mother. By this time I had read a number of books on mental illness (favorite was The Eden Express by Mark Vonnegut), I’d seen One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and had volunteered to work with UCD students who had mental illness, lived on campus and were attending college. I was a bit more aware of what she had gone through this time around. I was 17. Yet still, she was a stranger to me really and over the next 50 years of long distance communications and more frequent visits I got to know her a bit. As those who have paranoid schizophrenics in their lives know, they never really trust which proved very difficult as she aged, needed help, and couldn’t accept it.
She was able to live on her own after her mother passed away. She worked in a warehouse, cleaned houses for extra pocket money, acted as a personal aid to an elderly woman and long time friend of her mother’s, volunteered as a Foster Grandparent for the Chico schools, and went every year to Bidwell Park with her binoculars to participate in Audubon’s Great Backyard Bird Count. She had a BA in Education from Chico State and taught elementary school for a brief time before she married and had children. The Foster Grandparent program was really a pleasure for her. Plus she enjoyed the free lunches!
Over time however, as is often the case with schizophrenia, hoarding becomes an issue. Such was the case for Sharon and especially so once Nana was no longer there to keep a lid on it. My sister and I dealt with it numerous times, clearing out her house completely after having it declared uninhabitable. Eventually it became clear that she was unable to continue living on her own and we found a path forward to having her conserved and placed in a locked care unit. She was safe, cared for, and still loved from afar. Every phone conversation I had with her over the past several years since she was moved, ended with her telling me that she was “getting out of here tomorrow”. She told me she had a new cat and even a dog! (she thought) waiting for her, not sure where she gotten it from though. Ha!
She would have been 90 in January- well past the expected lifespan of those diagnosed with schizophrenia early on in their lives. She was remarkably persistent, smart, independent and she was,
-our very own loving mother.
Sharon L. Carter
passed in peace November 9, 2020
past entries… there are probably more