My daughter’s taken all my money, all my stuff, all gone, and she’s up in the hills… I saw her on the TV, up in the hills, and she’s taken all my money and she’s with that guy. A scary type. She left me with nothing. I know she’s up there. I saw her on the TV.
This was the narrative about me that she recited for the first few months she was living at The Place in Hollywood. I don’t know how many times a day or how many times an hour she repeated this story, but I do know she hummed it like a mantra or a prayer or a form of introduction.
Hello, hello, yes, hello…Can you help me? Listen, my daughter’s taken everything I have…
She told Tom, the director of The Place, Helen, the activities director, all the aides (known as “pals,” ) as well as the dining room staff, the psychologist, and the table mates, Carol, whose thick perfume announced her, and Bridget, whose husband was also at the facility, though they no longer recognized one another. My mom also told the mobile physicians about my thievery and love for the hills, and she told the “real” doctor, a gerontologist, as well as the Spanish-speaking toe nail cutting lady. She informed my children, my soon-to-be ex husband, and Arlene, a friend who became her paid companion.
I got dirty looks from some of her table mates. I did. You couldn’t blame people who no longer could distinguish now from then, or here from there, for thinking I was a freckled bad apple. I imagine I had quite a reputation at The Place.
My mom believed in the narrative wholeheartedly, as she paced the hallways, reciting the story as if she were memorizing lines for one of her plays, and before landing in Tom’s office for a long cry and an attempted cigarette break. (Smoking was permitted in the fifth floor lounge and she had to be accompanied by an aid who was available to sit with her and join her for a cigarette). Since this rarely, if ever, happened, my mom found ways to sneak a cigarette in the bathroom, or in a stairwell, just as she had done when the airlines rudely forbade smoking on the transatlantic flights.
I wasn’t actually up in the hills with the loot. I was taking care of two delightful young kids and painfully separating from my husband when she moved into The Place. As I recall, with the help of an agent, I was revising a book of short stories I’d written in graduate school, transitioning from my life as a freelance journalist to a new job as part-time college writing instructor, weeping on my way to work, and trying not to fall apart.
As I was moving through my life, unsure of how to reconfigure the flow of our now diminished household, unclear whether the family had been permanently fractured, my mother was pacing the carpeted hallways for too many days and too many nights, feeling lost and confused. neglected and alone, frightened and unhinged.
And so one afternoon, a soft and sunny one I’m sure, my mother put her fine leather bag on her shoulder, dotted her lips, and entered the elevator. She walked through the first floor lounge, past the frozen figures in their lounge chairs, the grey, pregnant-bellied men, wearing saggy arches as frowns, and staring at the television. She brushed past the soft-spoken pals in their easter egg blue uniforms and their squared off nails, and the devoted sons and daughters of the residents, stopping by at lunch.
She picked up speed with her head held high, the click of her heels dulled by the carpeting, a cigarette and lighter hidden inside her fist. In the final stretch, she made it past the friendly receptionist, with the confidence she had gained from walking across runways and stages all her life.
At roughly two in the afternoon, my mother, about 75-years-old, 114 lbs, 5 foot, 6 inches tall, and suffering from early stage dementia, walked out the front door and down the paved and manicured driveway – to freedom.