Behind her back, they called her the crazy lady. Poked fun at her. Didn’t bother to even whisper anymore. Even some in her family kept their distance. It was a terrible way to end what had been a dignified life. She was my mother.
It happened when she reached her 50s. Until then, she had been a feisty woman, but one who was like most mothers of her era. A mother whose first instinct was always to protect her family. She refused to believe I was anything but noble, even when I was anything but noble. There was the time when I was in first grade and had stolen a small wooden figurine of a rabbit at “Show and Tell” day. I had been caught, and instead of admitting what I had done, I’d tried to blame it on my best friend. The teacher kept me after school. I was so frightened, I wet my pants. When mom came to pick me up, I claimed the teacher had blamed me for something I didn’t do and worse, had refused to let me use the restroom, causing me to have an “accident.” Mom confronted the teacher, who understandably became very angry. Called me “a thief and a liar,” which under the circumstances was exactly what I was. Mom made an ugly scene defending me. Years later, shortly before she passed away in a nursing home, I confessed my “crime” to mom. She refused to believe it. Her son was no liar and thief. I couldn’t convince her otherwise.
Years earlier, mom had changed, into someone I barely recognized. She became a victim of manic-depression. Her emotions seemed off. She was happy — even exhilarated — for what seemed like no particular reason and sad in the same uneven way. My father loved her, but couldn’t understand what was happening. Her mood swings deepened. His first instinct was to shield her. Wouldn’t let her hear “bad news.” Dad quit his job working for then-District Attorney Arlen Specter’s task force on narcotics to care for her. When mom received medical help, my dad flushed her pills down the drain. He became convinced that the anti-depressants were the cause of her problems, not a potential source of help. He’d wait patiently for her cycle of depression to pass so they could go to the shore, gamble a little in the casinos and take a walk on the boardwalk before the next cycle of depression hit. When he died, she lost her protector. Things got worse.
She refused to live with us. The worst thing to befall any parent in their mind is to become a “burden to the kids.” And my mom would not become a burden. She moved into an apartment. Lived alone. My wife and I were nearby, so could check on her and provide her food when she was depressed. Then she met someone and fell in love.
She wanted badly to get better. Enjoy a new beginning. She checked herself into a hospital so she could get treatment. Nothing worked. Her doctor contacted me. Urged me to convince my mom to agree to electro-shock therapy. Mom had witnessed the treatment firsthand. She vehemently refused. I told the doctor, in good conscience, I could not pressure anymore to try to change her mind. In disgust, he hung up on me. And mom’s new boyfriend? Turned out he was married. That was how that ended. Her condition worsened.
It was bad enough to see mom deeply depressed for as much as six or seven weeks at a time, but it was even worse when she became manic. Her mania placed her in danger. Sometimes, she roamed South Broad Street in the early hours of the morning. She became aggressive, even angry. I began getting reports of her being involved in some worrisome incidents. She pounded on the door of a woman with whom she had developed some kind of feud. Shoved a man in front of her in line at a bank. Broke the lock of her own apartment when she forgot her key. Invited all sorts of strangers into her place. At one point, she had a stranger and his child living with her.
Mom always had a contentious relationship with my sister, who was dealing with her own demons. When mom visited my sister at her seashore home, things usually ended badly. One night, the Wildwood police called to tell me that my mom and sister had had a bad quarrel and my sister had put mom out. It appeared almost inevitable that mom’s life would end violently. Mom had become someone whom even friends and some of her family stayed away from. She was that crazy lady. It cut like a knife.
Mom also had numerous physical problems. She decided that only a risky surgery would solve her weak bladder problems. I tried to change her mind. Couldn’t. She found a doctor who agreed to perform the operation. It was a disaster.
Eventually, mom decided that she could no longer care for herself. She asked us to find her a good nursing home. As sad as we were on the day she entered, that home became the place where mom retrieved dignity in her life. With good medical care, her condition was diagnosed correctly. Medication controlled her mood swings.
In the final years of her life, she again became the wise and caring mother of my youth. A madwoman no longer mad. My mother triumphant. ••
Tom Cardella can be seen on Monday Night Kickoff with a special guest streaming at 6 p.m. on wbcbsports.com and rebroadcast on 610 ESPN radio on Tuesdays at 5 p.m.).