Living in Hell

Jesus had nothing on my mother.

According to some versions of the Christian Apostles’ Creed, Jesus “descended into hell” for three days after he died on the cross. My mother lived in hell for three years before she died.

In 2004, my parents were living in the home they had owned for nearly fifty years and in which they raised ten children. As Fall approached, they agreed to sell that house to one of my siblings and move into a house the eldest sibling and her husband would purchase for investment and tax write-off purposes.

I believe my mom was reluctant about the move. One day, she pulled me aside and asked if I would still visit if they moved because the investment house was a bit further away from my home. Unaware of her hesitancy, I assured her I would bring her grandchildren to visit just as often if not more so. As I look back, I see she was trying to come up with an excuse – some support, a reason to put the kabosh on the entire plan. But, unfortunately, it went through.

The sister who purchased the house had called me earlier in 2004 to ask me questions about real estate and trust laws in Illinois as she lived in Michigan and my husband is a lawyer. During that telephone conversation, she told me that a woman at the bank she had called for advice scolded her after she shared with the banker what she was planning. According to this sister, the banker asked her, “Do your siblings know what you are doing?”

Again, I was clueless. This should have raised red flags for me but I trusted her at the time and I told her so. She is about thirteen years my elder and my earliest memories take me to a time when she was an adult and I a child. Even in my own adulthood, I didn’t feel empowered enough to so much as question her.

There was never anything formally written on the new living arrangement and financial agreement between my parents, my sister, and her husband.  Maybe that was intentional on her part, especially after the reaction from the lady at the bank.

This sister hand-wrote notes on scraps of loose-leaf paper that were, I imagine, supposed to act as some sort of contract between the parties involved. But, everything was vague, not everything was included, and nothing was signed, much less notarized. There were no lawyers involved other than maybe a conversation or two with relatives who are attorneys.

It was about as fly-by-night and secretive as arrangements can get.

One day, during a visit with my dad, he mentioned something about one of my brothers and another sister, both of whom where living with my parents in their new residence, being “caregivers” for my mom and him. That was the first I heard of such a thing, as both of my parents were pretty healthy and still independent. I found it curious but I let it pass.

Before long, I couldn’t run into that brother during a visit without seeing that he was close to having a complete breakdown, always on the verge of tears and intensely stressed out. It had always been his plan to live in that same house until he could convert an outbuilding on the property into living quarters for himself. Having lived by himself for many years, the renovation could not happen fast enough for him.

My parents weren’t difficult to live with but, as my brother soon found out, the sister-in-residence was indeed.

He’d tell me how she was constantly on his case about one thing or another. How he couldn’t do anything right and how everything he did was wrong. He said, “I’m damned if I do and I’m damned if I don’t”.

“I’m in trouble if I let the dogs out and I’m in trouble if I don’t let them out,” he went on.

After he moved out of the main house, he seemed as if he had been released from a choke-hold.

Unfortunately, all of the grief he had been getting for more than a year, began to descend upon my mother who was by that time in her late seventies. As time went on, it became more and more clear that this particular sister had some sort of  “issues”.

One brother called her a “#%&ing lunatic”, behind her back of course. A nephew turned his back on her one Christmas Eve and motioned circles around his right temple while eyeballing back toward her. Another sister said, “Let’s call a spade a spade; it’s mental illness”. A sister-in-law spent over an hour at a social function venting to me about how “not normal” this sister’s behavior was.

After I had seen enough evidence that my mother was being mistreated and after listening to the privately-shared concerns of others in the famiIy, I tried to do what I could to address the situation. When I mentioned to the brother-in-residence of a possible psychological disturbance regarding the sister in question, he wasn’t the least bit surprised. “Kate,” he said to me, “I’ve known that since high school!”

Although just about everyone in my family would admit secretly that this sister had serious issues, no one spoke of it out in the open or tried to take any action to address it. Mainly, everyone was simply trying to stay out of her range and not get caught in the crossfire.

That left my mom, who was dying of a malignant tumor that had initially been slow-growing but turned viciously aggressive with every passing day, to bear the brunt of the unpredictable rages and outbursts. Mom would say to me, softly, sadly, and helplessly, “I don’t know what’s wrong with her”.

Despite her cancer, my mother insisted she was not in pain all the way up to her death. Maybe the medications she was on were extremely effective. Or, maybe any physical pain she had felt like a tickle compared to the emotional hell she suffered day and night.

I was with my mom when she expired her last breaths. Whatever was waiting for her on the other side of life, I’m sure it was an upgrade from living with someone with an undiagnosed and untreated condition capable of tormenting even a strong and vibrant matriarch.

My hope is for our society to figure out better ways of dealing with family members who pose a threat to others than cowardly behind-the-back whisper campaigns that do nothing to address the problem.

But, maybe that’s asking for a miracle.