(Please note: this article may be triggering for some people since it includes themes of death, suicide, depression, and dementia.)
As with many small businesses, Nature Reflections took a big hit during the pandemic. Though I was very optimistic at the start of the pandemic, I watched sales slide. Potential customers would comment on my ads, saying, "this is pretty, but I don't know when I will be able to wear it [due to the pandemic]." I struggled to stay afloat both financially as well as mentally. I was living alone, and being isolated added to the stress. I tried my best to remain optimistic and wrote some articles about looking at the pandemic as an opportunity to do things outside of the norm, but as time went on, depression settled in, and I felt like a fraud. How could I write something uplifting when I felt wrapped in a dark cloud?
There was also another added layer to the mix: my relationship with my parents. My mother had advanced dementia, and my stepfather was not in good health. He had COPD and heart disease, but he was determined to be my mother's only caregiver, refusing help from his daughter, my sister, and me. We were only allowed to see them once a month and could not go to their house. So, each month, my sister would drive down from Jacksonville to Orlando, and we would meet our parents at a park and have lunch with them. Each lunch was heartbreaking because we knew we had resources that could make their lives easier, but anytime we mentioned anything, he would rebuke us. We walked on eggshells, doing our best to keep peace and see our mother, whom both my sister and I missed dearly.
During the fall of 2020, I took a work-at-home job with the intent of still running my business. However, the job I took on was highly stressful. I was doing customer service for medical billing. Each day, I would hear about patients' medical and financial issues and take calls from family members who had lost one of their loved ones. Being an empathetic person took an additional toll on my mental health. Though I did everything possible to assist the patients I spoke with; I took their stories to heart. This "simple" job monopolized my time and energy, leaving me raw and exhausted.
My sister and I continued our monthly lunches with our parents. A few days before our lunch in February of 2021, my stepfather said to me on the phone that he had things to discuss with my sister and me at our planned lunch. I called my sister, letting her know what he said. In the past, when he did this, he would spring upon us everything that we had done wrong and pick a fight and push us away. I was a nervous wreck because I could feel that his wrath would come to us again. We met them for lunch, and at first, everything seemed OK. He told us how he had been in the hospital and that our step-sister had taken care of our mom. We said we could have been there to help, that we are always available for them. And that I when things turned dark.
He reviewed the past 40 years, telling my sister and me that he didn't trust us. He said we couldn't come to his house because we would never leave. We explained to him we have our own houses and that there would be no reason for us to go to their home and stay there and not leave. He brought up an argument with my mother when I was 15. He stewed about handiwork that he had done for both my sister and me (which we both had thanked him in the past profusely and offered him payment, which he rejected.) It was a litany of hostile attacks. My mother looked down sadly at her lap, quietly locked into her world. My heart was breaking because I knew that this probably would be the last time that I would see my stepfather; the way he was talking was as if he wanted to express his last words.
Upon leaving, both my sister and I told the two of them that we loved them. We told him that we are sad that he sees the past the way he did because we saw those same circumstances wholly different and never had any malintent. We explained that all we ever did was try our best to be good daughters and act with love and kindness. Our words must have softened him up a bit because he stated that even though he didn't trust us, he did love us.
When my sister and I left, I turned to her and told her that he would take his own life and that I was afraid that he would take my mother's life. Both my sister and I felt the urgency, and we decided to get some clarity. We knew that if anyone did a safety check on them, they would find nothing wrong since my stepfather would deny that there were any problems. Neither my sister nor I had our step-sister's contact information, and we struggled to figure out what to do- do we just let him stew for a couple of weeks and then reach out? Are we just being overreactive? Who in their neighborhood could we reach out to that would be able to be a bridge? We were so scared to take any action because we wanted our mother to not be in harm's way. The one thing we knew for sure was that he loved her immensely.
Nine days later, at home working the customer service job, I saw my phone light up with my cousin's name. She never called me, so I knew something terrible had happened. I finished my call, took a break, and called her back. She told me that my stepfather had taken his own life and my step-sister was with my mother. She was surprised that I was not shocked by the news, and I explained how things had been over the past few years. He had a lifetime of backing himself into a corner and pushing away those that could have assisted him. My concern was for my mother; she had been trapped in her house all night. I called my sister, packed up some items (since I had no clue if I would stay at their house or bring my mother to mine), and my dog and I jumped in the car and drove over there.
My mom was at the neighbor's house across the street with my step-sister. I learned that the neighbor had seen my mom pacing back and forth in front of the window. They had a feeling something was wrong and went over and discovered the scene. Learning the details, I knew that there was no way we could ever stay in that house. I called my sister, and we decided that the three of us would stay at my home until we determined where our mother would live and all of the logistics of her care. I felt like I was on autopilot and removed from what had happened.
At my house, my sister and I tended to our mom. My mother was the most amazing woman. When she was in her early 50's, she started running marathons. She always ate healthily, exercised, cared for her skin, and was just a beautiful woman. When I was a teen, my male friends from school would want to come to my house to check out my mom- they all had crushes on her. Beyond her good looks, my mother was smart and determined, and if she wanted something, she achieved it. She was my role model, and my heart ached that she went through such a tragic event. She had confessed to me that she had been lonely, which only broke my heart since there was nothing I wanted more in the past several years than to spend more time with her.
My mother had two sisters, my mom being the youngest. The sister, who was two years older than her, also had dementia. The eldest sister contacted my sister and me with the idea that maybe it would be good for them to be roommates in an assisted living memory care facility. We reached out to our other cousin taking care of our aunt with dementia. Since my aunt, sister and cousin lived in Jacksonville, it seemed like the best solution was to find a place for my mom and her sister. My mother was always a very social person, and we thought that maybe the facility would be a good place for her. We brought the idea up to my mother, and at first, she was not happy about the idea. But within a few days, she wanted to try it out. After five weeks of being with me, I drove my mom to Jacksonville and her new home. It was one of the most gut-wrenching things I have ever done; I was questioning the decision and had to reassure myself that we had a plan B and C and so forth if it didn't work out.
My sister's work was 5 minutes away from my mom's new home, and she would visit every day after work. I would drive up each weekend to visit my mother. My aunt became my mother's roommate a few days after she moved in. The first weekend that both of them were there, my cousin, sister, and I went to the memory care home to have lunch with the two of them. When the staff brought my mother and aunt to the reception area, their hair was wet, and they both laughed hysterically. They had discovered the shower and decided to bathe each other, flooding their bathroom and creating a mess. It was funny because the two of them giggled like little girls as they explained what they were doing. I knew then that my mom was happy being there. When I would visit over the next few months, my mom would tell me about her "boyfriends" and stories of her and the other residents. Keep in mind, with her dementia, these stories had a unique perspective, but she would tell me how happy she was and for a while, it seemed like her dementia was reversing. The stimulation of having other people around and all of the activities was helping her.
My aunt had a fall within a couple of months of living in memory care, and unfortunately, she had to go to a nursing home. My mom missed my aunt, but she was still thriving at the memory care facility. I would see her every weekend, and with the loosening restrictions due to covid in June, I was able to take her on drives, which was something she loved doing. We would have conversations, and sometimes, she would have lucid moments and recall specific situations in life or discuss her current life with clarity. I took her shopping a few times, and before we would go back to her place, I would take her to Dairy Queen for a dairy-free Dilly Bar, which she excitedly devoured.
Then, at the end of July and back in Orlando, I got the call that my mom had a bad fall and was in the hospital. Again, I called out at work and went to Jacksonville to be with my mom. She couldn't stand being in a hospital, so either my sister or I stayed with her throughout the day. They did several CAT scans and a couple of MRIs and determined that my mother had three brain bleeds. A couple of years prior, my mom was most likely misdiagnosed with Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus as the root cause of her dementia and had a shunt put in. But according to the doctors at the hospital, she had White Matter Disease, also known as Cerebral Small Vessel Disease. Hearing the diagnosis, I was devastated. Though it made sense since her sister was diagnosed with the same disease and that it is hereditary, I knew then that we did not have much time left with my mom.
When I got back home, I put in my notice at my job and decided that I would refocus back on my business. By this point, I had pretty much completely neglected Nature Reflections. With vaccination occurring, I felt like it was time to restart and refocus. Leaving my job gave me more flexibility with my schedule. Instead of just seeing my mom on the weekends, I could go up to Jacksonville during the week, work from my sister's home and visit my mom. My mom was now in a wheelchair; I would walk her through the neighborhood around the memory care facility. My visits increased in duration, and I did my best to keep her entertained.
My aunt passed away at the beginning of October, and with each visit to Jacksonville, I would see more and more of a decline in my mom. She was losing strength, and her usual restless squirmy self was disappearing. I knew Thanksgiving and Christmas would be our last ones together. Shortly after Christmas, I told one of my mother's caregivers that I felt she only had about two months or so left to live. The caregiver was surprised since my mom has a big personality. But I had this feeling that a stroke-like incident would happen in the next few months. I spent much time as I could there. On my final visit, while driving, I kept getting the message internally that the next few weeks would be difficult for my sister and me. I felt doom underneath the dark cloudy sky.
The first two days I was there, my mom seemed more with it mentally, but I could feel something was off. Then the following day, I got the call; my mom had a stroke/seizure-like event. My mom was already on hospice, so I called them to come out and evaluate her. The hospice nurse told me that she didn't have much longer, maybe a week. I called my son to come out and see her and give his final goodbyes. Since my mom was in pain, we moved her to a hospice facility. I stayed with her each day, and my sister was there. On the morning of March 4th, when I arrived at the hospice, I asked about her vitals at the nursing station. I could tell this would be the last few hours of her life. I called my sister and told her to come down. We held my mom's hand and were there as she took her last breath. (By the way, I am crying as I type this, the pain and loss linger.)
I know this is a sad story to read, and I am sorry. I do plan on writing more uplifting content in the future. I didn't feel like anything I would write right now would be genuine until I relayed what occurred the past year and a half. The thing is, we all go through periods that are brutally painful and excruciatingly difficult. It would be false of me not to recognize this. And I want to be honest that life isn't perfect. Even if you are spiritual and believe in things like the law of attraction, certain life events are not avoidable. It is essential to know that it is OK to feel the pain of life. It is standard to go through dark, sad, or depressing periods. And most of all, grief is necessary when there is loss.