She arrived at The Place in the back of the squad car and was taken, not to her room, but to the lockdown facility known in assisted living parlance as “the more advanced wing.” Each facility she went to had a euphemism for the same type of secured ward. I won’t forget the piercing buzzer sound, the sound of confinement, of prisons, of institutions, of punishment, of loss.
This time she landed in The Neighborhood.
The aides were bigger, more robust than the ones on the upper residential floors. Maybe their muscles had been developed by lifting the dead weight of the male patients, whose once hard bodies had atrophied. Maybe they ate more to combat job-related anxiety. Maybe they seemed larger in my mind.
The Neighborhood, a 1600-square-foot psyche ward with an enclosed cement patio, located below the first floor lobby, was a dull, sanitized place, a place of compliance, of rules, of suffering, of time-outs and no funny business. There were dormitory style rooms for about 20 residents, with grey tiled floors and crunchy, synthetic bed pillows. There was a main dining area where meals were served on bright orange trays. There were tubs of stuffed animals, oversized playing cards, plastic puzzle pieces and sing-a-long lyrics. People carried plush toys like appendages—bears, mice, shamrocks and unicorns—on their slumped shoulders and backs, or fastened to wheelchairs or three-legged walkers.
There were women whose silence, whose stillness, whose absence was as harrowing as their distant expressions.
And there was my mother, center stage, in her stocking feet, baggy brushed corduroy pants, and crew neck sweater, pacing the floor, lipstick wiped clean, running her hand through her dark hair, muttering to herself about the dilemma of existence.
“Sit down, Mama, sit down,” said one of the aides, whose sweet voice could barely be heard above the groaning and shifting and pained exhalations of the residents. She was talking to my mother, who did not want to sit or to stand or to be.
I would later learn that she told a mobile physician hours before the escape that she wanted to “slash her wrists.”
No one called to inform me that my mother was suicidal or having suicidal ideation. No one called to say we are now punishing her for trying to elope by holding her in the lockdown ward with the high-pitched insect buzzer sound in place of a doorbell. No one said, she’s here with the people who are in an advanced stage of dementia, a stage your mother will eventually reach — so take a good long look, if you dare — but hasn’t just yet.
When I arrived at The Neighborhood, it was story and cookie hour. The aide was reading to a group of inert women, some of whom had their floppy heads down on cookie trays. I was reminded of the nights my mother read to me with her actressy voice the verses from A.A. Milne:
the king asked the queen and the queen asked the dairymaid, could we have some butter for the Royal slice of bread?
I was glad she’d been found, glad she was still alive, but nervous to approach her.
“Get me out of this fucking hellhole,” she yelled. “They’re trying to kill me.”
I spoke with one of the nurses, who was busy administering plastic cups filled with pop-colored meds. She said in a neutral tone that my mother had been uncooperative all afternoon. She said others were complaining about my mother. She said Tom, the director of the facility, wanted to speak with me.
I told her I was taking my mother to her suite upstairs. I told them she wasn’t spending the night in The Neighborhood. As I said that, my eyes landed on an older male resident who had opened his blue velvet bathrobe and was masturbating while watching Anderson Cooper on CNN.
I got my mother’s things, her broken heel and a few key items, and went upstairs in the elevator.
When the doors closed, a smile came across my mother’s tired face. She looked at me defiantly and tried to light a cigarette.
“You can’t smoke in the elevator,” I told her.
“Really,” she said. “What can you do around here?”