By Tom Cardella
My wife and I were riding home in a cab late on a Saturday night when we saw her. The familiar short blonde hair. Slight figure. Quick, hurried steps that belied her age. Scurrying along South Broad Street in the quiet, dangerous darkness. A wraith, blown along by the merest suggestion of a summer breeze. Their fears were realized. It was my Mom. Eleanor.
Eleanor was bipolar. Would spend as much as six or seven weeks at a time in her apartment laying on her living room couch in total darkness. Unable to tend to herself, my wife would cook her meals. I’d deliver them. They’d sustain her until she would emerge, a moth turned into a butterfly. Dressed in gaudy colors. Chatty. Self-confident. The darkness replaced by garish light. And for the next six or seven weeks, her life was diametrically opposite of when she was depressed. Had South Broad Street funeral directors as friends. Hung out at a local coffee shop. After her policeman-husband died, she had a love affair. It didn’t end happily.
During the “up” times, it was if her brain were on speed. Her thoughts like a fireworks show exploding in a summer sky. She hardly slept. I once picked her up at the hospital. She’d just had gall bladder surgery. I brought her home. Minutes later, I discovered she’d sneaked out the back way to return to her familiar haunts.
She recognized no danger. South Broad Street in the wee hours of the morning was just another playground for her entertainment. She took strangers into her apartment to live with her — because she was desperate for companionship. No stranger ever scared her, no matter how disreputable they turned out to be. I was horrified one day to learn that she’d given food and refuge to a former criminal. A man who’d once been locked up by my father. At one point I found a strange man with a small child in her apartment. The man had been regularly dropping off his youngster for safekeeping with Mom. It became apparent to me that the man was planning to leave his son one day and not return for him. Away from Mom, I had to explain her illness to the stranger. She would not always be as he saw her now. Not eternally perky and able to provide for the boy. Soon, she would enter her dark world again and the apartment would become a dark prison. Not a place for the stranger’s son. In that way, I was able to convince the man to take his boy, leave and not return.
Why didn’t she seek medical attention, you might ask? She did. But there is an insidious side to being bipolar. In her mania, Eleanor felt as if she could conquer the world. She felt a sort of adrenaline rush that melted away her physical infirmities. Why should she take medication that would diminish those feelings? The disease had tricked her into thinking that her mania was normal, not part of her illness.
In her manic phase, Eleanor felt loved. Normally quiet and reserved, she became extroverted, funny, and engaging. The night I took her and my aunt to a mystery theater dinner theater, she bluntly asked the actor playing the part of a priest if he was gay. Told the waiter the pasta was lousy. Upon leaving, offered the manager her services as an actress in his next production. There was no resemblance between the woman lying in a dark apartment for six weeks and the peacock who strutted her stuff the rest of the time.
Sometimes her humor was at my expense and could be a bit unsettling. As I sat beside her one afternoon, she explained to her doctor the problem with me was that I was a puppet controlled by my wife. Another time on a trip to the ER, she told the social worker that my wife and I didn’t go to church on Sundays. We sat there and smiled at the social worker.
After unsuccessful bladder surgery, Mom asked me to find her a good nursing home. She was adamant that she didn’t want my wife and I being forced to change her soiled underclothes. It turned out to be a good decision. Under expert care of the hospital physician and with the help of medication, her mood swings leveled out. She retained her feisty sense of humor.
On one memorable occasion, she couldn’t get the staff to take her seriously when she claimed that she had $25 stolen. So, she decided to call the police. Told them she’d been raped. That’s the only way you can get their attention, she explained to us. She got their attention. While she was asleep, I slipped $25 into the drawer of her night table.
The nursing home held current events discussions. Most of the residents were too ill to offer much in the way of discussion. Not Mom. She’d always been politically opinionated. When Dad was alive, she loved to tweak his staunch loyalty to the Republican Party. Mom could get after Democrats too. Like then-Mayor Wilson Goode (Mom called him “Goodie”).
Anyway, Mom didn’t keep quiet during the nursing home’s current events discussions. Each time something favorable might be offered about then-President George W. Bush, she’d shout out, “Bull poop.”
Only she didn’t say, “poop.”
(You can view or listen to Tom Cardella on Monday Night Kickoff at 6PM streaming on wbcb1490 and Facebook or broadcast on 610AM. Or follow Tom daily on Facebook).