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Breath & Shadow

Spring 2022 - Vol. 19, Issue 2


written by

Michael Robinson Morris

The drive was familiar. The same L.A. traffic. My mom in the passenger seat, chatting away, not cheerfully, but gravely, as if to warn me about the many dangers and bad people we meet in life. Still imparting motherly advice when I was well beyond the wide-eyed youth of my childhood. Yet I still was naive to her imagined world, still only playing the role of the adult in command, the one you pretend to be when the last of your two parents is failing you. Just like the sinister person of whom she was always wary, I was plotting something. I knew where I was taking her. It was a Friday late afternoon and time was running short to make it to the hospital. Not just any hospital, but that hospital. The kind you see in movies. Where Inspector Clouseau has relegated the mad and tittering Chief Inspector Dreyfus into a padded cell, so he can etch "Kill him!" on the walls countless times using his toes to hold the red crayon. Never had a padded cell seemed so final as in that screwball comedy, 'The Pink Panther Strikes Again.'

Where else do we get our ideas of what a looney bin looks like? I had seen Howard Hawks' 'The Snake Pit' not long before this, how a woman descends into deeper madness when locked up with a female zoo of crazy women, Hollywood style.

But I really didn't know what to expect. For most of what we've never seen in real life we accept the suggestions of movies and books, often just imagined realities of artists who very often have only imagined it themselves. But as I drove up to Verdugo Hills Hospital, looking for a parking space as desperately close to the walk-in entrance as possible, I knew the time for a turning point was drawing near. Once my mom realized where I was taking her, it would be the shrieking showdown I have feared all my life.

"Where are you taking me?" she asked tentatively.

"Uh, before we go find a hotel, your doctor told me you should get a quick check-up on your hip. You know, to make sure the joint is still holding up, check your vitals and all that."

She seemed to accept that as reasonable. Despite whatever fears she had of doctors, she must have nursed her own concern about the state of her hip. Don't tell her she needs a check-up on the regular old people stuff, she'll balk at that.

After crossing the threshold of the hospital's sliding door entrance and making our way to the elevators, I pressed the button for the 7th floor.

"Is the doctor on the 7th floor? How do you know where you're going?"

I was running out of mumbling diversions. She sniffed something was afoot.

"You know I really don't need a check-up," she continued warily. "I feel fine. These doctors don't know anything. They're more likely to make things worse."

"I know, Mom. We kind of just want to get it out of the way. To get these doctors off our back."

"But I'm fine. I don't need one of these doctors to look me over."

"Okay, then here's your chance to prove it."

"Who's paying for all this? I don't want to waste my money on this."

"You're not. Medicare is paying for it. Remember? That's why we went three times to the social security office six months ago to get you some kind of health coverage. To save you money."

I had well told her how much money we spent out of pocket for the hip surgery and all its encompassing costs, from the several ambulance rides, to the anesthesiologists, the specialists, the hospital bed for her room at Mountview and everything. That's why I had made three different appointments to sit on the other side of a bulletproof window from a disinterested clerk who shuffled papers and took eons to read the computer screen. At the unsatisfying conclusion of each visit, we were cast back into the world to locate or produce some other document that would get us past the next circle of hell. The social security office ranks only a close second to Satan's Final Pit: The DMV.

When it comes to government bureaucracy and all its inefficiency and potential for corruption, Mom had a point.

At the end of that trial of the human spirit, we came away with legitimate Medicare status, one that would not activate until six months after the application date. So we had six more months of no health coverage to avoid any other trips, falls or unforeseen accidents. Just to be sure, my wife helped me enroll her for private coverage through the Affordable Care Act; i.e. "ObamaCare." Ha! The irony! I sleuthed the year she dropped off of Medicare: 2007, the year Obama was winning in the polls for the presidential election. You can bet that conservative AM talk radio was going ballistic with propaganda about how the gubmint was going to invade your home with nefarious tools like Medicare. So my mom stopped paying the scanty monthly payments and went into arrears, accruing penalties for a long delinquency of eight years.

"But doesn't everybody get Medicare after 65?" you ask.

Supposedly. But not if you or your spouse didn't earn enough points through your work history. My mom worked a little bit at some publishing companies in the 60s, not enough to earn her own social security. My dad worked all his life as a public-school teacher, but all his dues went into a teacher retirement fund (STRS). So once we paid up on those penalties we were back on the books. Why fuss over what was past? We had to focus on crisis prevention. So for six months my mom was on Obamacare without her knowledge. We would stop paying the premium as soon as the Medicare status kicked in, July 1st. A month after that, my mom and I were in the elevator at Verdugo Hills Hospital, heading up to the 7th floor, the Geropsych Unit. Now we could finally walk through the front door.

As I watched the numbers ding above the elevator door, I sighed to myself. Up to now, I had made three attempts to relocate my mother somewhere closer to us––Foothill Retirement, Mountview and Honolulu Manor Senior Apartments––all of them each an abject failure. For some reason I had a haunting feeling this particular visit could prove to be final.

You would expect some kind of reception desk once we got out of the elevator, but no. You find locked doors and a wall-mounted call phone, the kind you lift from the handle and it automatically calls the intake desk far behind the locked doors. State who you are and they will buzz you in. I had no preparation for this.

"Hello. My name is Michael Morris. I am out here with my mother. Mr. Hightower should know who we are. There should be records."

Pause on the other end.

"Wait by the door, please," said the voice on the phone.

In the first Sean Connery James Bond movie 'Dr. No,' the title character speaks through an intercom after Mr. Bond has been trapped in a metal cell upon first visit. The disembodied words reverberate: "Sit down."

With a wide painted red line traveling across the floor from the elevators around the corner to where it disappeared beneath the locked double doors, the 7th floor hallway also reminded me of the immaculate psychiatric halls from 'A Clockwork Orange.'

My mom stood behind me, uneasy, like a little girl waiting to enter her new boarding school. She quickly gathered her truculence and started ambling back toward the elevator.

"Mom, wait. I was told they were expecting us."

"I really don't need these people, Michael. What is this all about?"

The double-door clicked and a Chinese gentleman in scrubs stepped out to look us over. His calmness and apparent lack of concern instantly infuriated me.

Don't you see what I have gone through to get my mother this far?!! I wanted to hiss at him. If you don't act quickly, she's going to walk right out of this building and I'll have to start all over again!

But instead I just muttered dull explanations about "following up" on previous "agreements" I had with Mr. Hightower. The complete absence of concern in his questioning face drove me bonkers. He calmly explained that we needed a referral from her doctor to admit her, preferably a psychologist. "Her doctor." That's a hoot. I had half a mind to get that International Grandmaster of Qigong to karate chop this guy about the face and a neck. I'm wracking my brain to think of that doctor, what's her name––the collegiate girl with the doctorate? The one I had write a capacity declaration while my mom was at Mountview.

"Even if we could admit her," the Chinese nurse continued, deciding just then to add a point that made all previous discussion moot, "we don't have any available beds."

What is this?! A youth hostel?! I wanted to blurt.

"It's a Friday," he continued. "The beds are always full at the end of the week. Why don't you come back on Monday and see if there is a bed available?"

My mom had disappeared around the corner by the elevators. The Chinese nurse lowered his voice to impart some unofficial advice.

"What you might want to do is take her to the ER on Monday. Have the doctors there examine her, and then they may refer your mother to us."

"But I have nowhere to put her. What am I supposed to do with her for the whole weekend? There is no room for her at our house."

He shrugged disinterestedly.

So my mother and I got back into my car. She was satisfied with the lack of result. I reminded her that her house was out of the question, and that "all of our beds at home were full, too." Where was she going to stay the night? Not to mention Saturday and Sunday night.

Back to Hotel Sakura for the third time. And don't be fooled by the "hotel" word. Perhaps I was being unkind when I had previously called it "flophouse-themed." Really it was just a three-story motel.

We made it through the weekend. The only wrinkle was that a few weeks later I would learn that another "some man" stole her cell phone.

"What happened to your cell phone? Didn't you have it with you?"

"I left my bag in the room when I was in the bathroom and one of the cleaning people must have come in and taken it right out of my bag." Later, the story got even more juicy, more cinematic: "While I was having my vitamin water at the table, the cleaning man just looked at me, and reached into my bag to take my phone, as if daring me to stop him."

The fun thing about psycho killer movies is that you can get the shit creeped out of you for two hours and then you leave. But my mom lived in this movie all her life.

I spent the weekend doing anything that had nothing to do with her. They call that recharging the batteries. At the end of the weekend, I picked her up and, as promised, brought her to the Verdugo Hills Hospital ER. God help the person who must visit this place on a regular basis. Pencil yourself in to sit and spend interminable hours in the waiting room watching Jerry Springer, Ricki Lake or whatever daytime TV inheritors who strive to assume such a throne.

I knew even before signing her name in at the front window to have my speech prepared (Mr. Hightower prepped me on this) to get the proper attention paid to our visit, all out of her earshot:

"My mother has a partial hip replacement and has a history of mental illness. Would you like to see her capacity declaration?"

On the sign-in form I could have just answered under the problem/ailment section: "The works."

And the not knowing! The not knowing how long you will be there. If the salient members of our race have strived to achieve Heaven on Earth, well somebody over in this camp has managed to achieve Limbo on Earth.

"I really don't need to be here, Michael. I can take care of myself."

I could barely keep the word "Apparently" from flopping out of my mouth.

Not only must we sit in Limbo for an indefinite period, I also have to keep my mom talking and distracted long enough for them to call her name. Otherwise I could have another walkout on my hands. Will I have to shout and grab her by the wrist to keep her from shambling out of the building?

So I tried something to forestall the above: I got down on my hands and knees and crawled into the kiddie playhouse they had installed for children––and invited my mom in. Surprise to normal people with normal moms but not to me, she accepted and came into the little kiddie house. If she strained or broke her hip replacement, well, at least we were in the right venue.

With my mother and me crouched in the little plastic house, we actually had a charming few minutes together. She was a little girl again. In fact, she'd always been a little girl inside that aging, collapsing body. All her grievances in life were borne unto that little girl. And there I was too. The little boy who never wanted to grow up, the very thing I intoned to myself on the balcony of our family home at age nine. Yes, two grown-up children pretending to be adults crouched in the plastic kiddie playhouse hiding from Daddy Springer.

Eventually her name was called and I did most of the talking.

They have a system––several tiers of authority before you actually get to the decision makers. You have to repeat the same stuff over and over again as you move on up the ranks, made all the worse for me because for most of it my mom is sitting right next to me. I had learned to speak in a kind of code of gentle euphemisms, like "forgets things a lot," or "lives in an unsafe house." Of course, my mom is still sharp as a tack when it comes to paranoia and her persecution complex. She knew all I was saying, but being out of her element she was powerless to protest. I did not represent her well––at least, not in the way she would have liked. It's no wonder she never found a good lawyer to represent her in any one of her potential legal standoffs––nobody could represent her to her satisfaction.

She aced the basic questions, like What year is it? and Who's the president of the United States? She knew when she was under the hot lights. She could deliver when pressed.

Soon she was brought to an emergency room bed where they began the basic physical check-ups, then to be followed by a cursory mental evaluation. They relieved me of duty, and I took off to go find a sandwich. Four hours later, they told me they have an available bed for the night. Seventy-two hours after that, they said they were going to keep her.

Bam! That was it.

In line with Joseph Campbell's compendium of hero mythology, my mother and I had just passed a threshold––the kind where you blink, and suddenly you realize you can't go back. Kind of like the security gate at an international airport terminal. Sorry if you left your cell phone in the car.

If you know your 72-hour holds, it means if you are deemed a danger to yourself or others, you can be physically restrained by the police and/or a hospital and held against your will. Well I can say, with some droll regret, my mom passed that 72-hour hold with flying colors.

What this means is…

They wouldn't give me my mom back.

At 48 years old, I was still only nine, a child lost without his mother. But how could this child have known that Verdugo Hills Hospital would legally hold her for an interminable 40 days before he would be allowed to see her again?

After working for years in Hollywood story development, Michael began writing more personal stories which have appeared in Maudlin House, The Lowestoft Chronicle, Adelaide, Down in the Dirt, Misery Tourism and other publications, including excerpts from his 'momoir' that won grand prize at Eyelands Book Awards. His mother was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder shortly before her passing. He now lives and writes with the challenges of early MS.

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