Mom had a severe stutter as a child. She struggled with the letter B, and, since her name began with it, she could never say it. While still a child, she undertook to read the entire dictionary to find synonyms for the B-words she couldn’t say. Her love for words grew. While living in Altgeld Gardens, a notorious housing project in Chicago, she skipped two grades and graduated high school at sixteen, and was the only girl in her class without a baby. My mother and her siblings were the first generation in the family to graduate high school, because they weren’t in the Mississippi cotton fields like their parents, grandparents, and those before them. When my mom left home for college, her stuttering went away for good (except when she is really tired). She graduated in 1970, cementing another family milestone, before working as a teacher for nine years in Chicago public schools. After her mother died suddenly of a heart attack, she no longer wanted to stay in Chicago, so she switched careers and moved to the East Coast. Mom began working for Lehman Brothers in New York City, and eventually became a vice president—one of the precious few women of color in leadership roles in the mid-1980s.
I always enjoyed reminding her how special she was. During one of our conversations, I proudly recounted her life achievements, and my mother listened quietly, never once looking up from the dish she was washing until she finally said, “Okay. That may be. But, no matter what, you do what you have to do. You must.”
My mother is driven and a goal-oriented person, so she waited a long time before having children. She was forty-four when I was born, and my father was fifty-one. When I entered my twenties, I could tell my mother was aging. Her stamina started decreasing, she would lose her keys or glasses from time to time, or be a little forgetful. As the years went by, these occurrences became more frequent. In early 2020, everything changed. The pandemic hit, and we were in quarantine. I was spending more time at home and grew alarmed that my mother didn’t didn’t know what COVID-19 was or understand why we were home. She had a poor concept of time, asking me what day it was every fifteen minutes. She would become agitated over the smallest things and grew increasingly paranoid about my activities and motivations. Our relationship became strained, and I felt helpless. I conferred with my mother’s best friend, and we devised a game plan to find doctors who could help us figure out what was wrong.
By late spring, my mother had a telehealth visit scheduled with a geriatrician, but she didn’t want to attend because of her extreme aggression and agitation. Yet, anytime I tried to speak to the doctor and answer questions, she would storm into the room, screaming at me. She forbade me to speak. I nearly ran out of the house, got in my car, and sped to a nearby park to take the call.
When I spoke to the physician on the phone, she assumed she was speaking to a much older person, until I answered a question in an unexpected way. The doctor asked me, “How long has your mother lived with you?” And I replied “She doesn’t. I live with her in the family home.”
She finally asked: “How old are you?”
“Oh… no. Oh, no. You are a baby, you can’t do this.”
I sobbed into the phone. The doctor told me what I knew but couldn’t face: my mother had frontotemporal dementia, consistent with her cognitive decline, memory loss, paranoia, and aggression. Before the call ended, the doctor prescribed Depakote to stabilize my mom’s mood. She couldn’t take care of herself anymore and I’d need a social worker and a lawyer. I’d have to become my mother’s legal guardian. At twenty-six.
That evening, I picked up chili from Wendy’s for Mom’s dinner and then sat in my car in the parking lot. I realized just how much I needed my sister that day. I remember that our deep talks usually took place in my sister’s car when Mom sent us out to run errands. I never had to worry about her misunderstanding; she would know exactly how I felt. I’d lost my sister six years earlier, my sole constant, my older yet petite sister, the person who endured all our family’s craziness with me, who had felt just as alienated and out-of-place as I did.
I’ve always had difficulty grieving and processing. My thoughts turned dark as I shook my head and sprinkled Depakote into the chili. In my mind, I imagined approaching my younger self: numb, steel-cold. I walked up behind her, put my hand on her shoulder, and said, “Hey. It sucks right now. It really hurts. You’ll get through it. But it’s gonna get way worse. One day, you’re going to be sitting in a Wendy’s parking lot, mixing drugs in chili for Mom.”
The sardonic humor somehow assuaged this next, difficult phase of my life.
“When you love someone, you don’t call the police,” my father used to say. My father also used to stand inches from my mother and scream in her face. He felt betrayed every time my mother called the police on him. We lived in white suburbia and were the only Black family on a quiet street. My sister and I endured incessant questioning from annoying kids on the bus: “What happened at your house last night? What did your dad do?” Years later, well into adulthood, I’d still never dialed 911.
On a hot July day, my mom became very agitated with me. She was getting too close, yelling too loud, swearing too much, and threatening to physically harm me. She wanted to put bullets through my head—bullets she didn’t have. I didn’t want to worsen the situation, but I tried to make a run for it. She met me at the landing of the stairs, right in my face. I put my arms up, forearms intersected, bracing myself for a punch or a slap. I couldn’t bear seeing my father’s face in my mother’s. I remember the tension between them, which did not precede a kiss. I remember my father spitting in my mother’s face. I don’t know if my mother wiped away tears along with the spit.
“Are you ready to go?” my mom asked with a chill. I felt a poke at the left side of my abdomen. I looked through my arms to see two large kitchen knives poised to stab. I screamed. My brain, conditioned to condemn, said, “You are going to die. This is it. And you didn’t hide the kitchen knives. Everyone told you to hide the knives and you didn’t listen. You fool.”
Adrenaline outweighed analysis. I bolted up the stairs, slammed the door, barricaded myself in my room. I didn’t want to add to the violence that day by calling 911. I texted a family friend to call the police. My family friend told me I had to do it, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t call the police, not with Breonna Taylor and George Floyd being murdered. Not with being Black and the risks involved with calling the cops on your Black mother, who is incredibly vulnerable. Even at the risk of dying myself, I didn’t want to put my mother at risk with the police, who are hopelessly and dangerously inept at dealing with mental health crises. Yet, I had no choice. I called 911 and kept my voice low. Low like the tide, voice all muddy. That day was a new low: my mother hurt me and didn’t even know or remember doing it.
Four cop cars showed up in under five minutes. I opened my window, popped the screen, dropped it down below along with my keys. The screen-door lock was picked, and the officers gained entry to the house.
After seeking guidance from the County Prosecutor, the officers were instructed to treat this incident as a domestic violence case. Law enforcement saw me, as they saw my mother all those years ago, as a victim. My options were: arrest, a restraining order, or a mental health assessment. I knew dementia patients had the potential to be violent. According to the US National Library of Medicine, ninety percent of dementia patients have a co-occurrence of psychosis, aggression, and agitation. This is a perfect storm for physical violence. The problem, and where the danger lies, is not believing a dementia patient is capable of violence solely based on prior experiences with that individual. There was a level of violence in my mother, because she was a single Black mom. Single Black mothers carry a lot of violence, and they can act it out on their children. I can count on one hand the times my mother struck me, but there are countless examples of my mother being violent with her tongue.
There was no way I’d allow the officers to take her in handcuffs, and a restraining order was out of the question, so I picked option three: the mental health assessment. A nurse came, and my mother was taken to the hospital. As she was escorted out of the house, she looked at me. “You won—this time!” My mother was involuntarily committed later that day, and the psychiatrist at the hospital told me she could never come home.
By the end of summer, the guardianship was made permanent in (virtual) court. I was asked to raise my right hand. I edged my chair a little to the left so my hand was visible in my cell phone’s frame. The judge asked a series of questions which began with “Do you attest…” or “Do you understand…” and I punctuated everything with a “yes.” My heart felt as if it were going to seize. It felt like taking a vow. The final question: “Do you attest that you accept this guardianship of your free will, and are not being forced?” “Yes.” I replied. I felt my voice quaver. The judge may as well have asked me, “Do you love your mother?”
My mother is all I have.
I remember when I learned there is a syntax to love. Legal love isn’t touchy-feely; it’s a love which racks the nerves. My parents separated in 2003, but the divorce wasn’t finalized until 2006. My mom was pro se, negotiating the unfamiliar terrain of the court system, and fought hard for us. When my sister and I reviewed drafts of my mother’s motions, we would edit for concision and clarity. Growing weary, we would strike clause after clause, muttering under our breaths, “She said that already.” Once, when mom was disturbed by our work, she sternly schooled us on the art of legal writing: “You must repeat. You have to track your thoughts to convince the reader of the rightness of your argument.” What feels like excess in legal writing is actually a necessity. After all, is it really possible to say “I love you” too much?
There are “love languages” which translate how we express and receive love, and that includes a legal language and terminology. My lawyer had to submit “certifications” in my name. To “certify” is to attest as true. When we express our love, it is expressed as truth. To obtain legal guardianship of my mother, I had to outline her deficits and involuntary commitments. But I also outlined what I was prepared to do for my mother, and what I had already done for her. I certified that I love my mother and would never abandon her. My mom’s attorney wrote a moving certification, an account of his interactions with my mother, myself, and family friends, summarizing the key points from different physicians’ evaluations. He concluded his report this way:
“Unfortunately, at the present time, there is no cure for B.’s condition, and she will require care, supervision, and love for the rest of her life. For all the foregoing reasons, it is my recommendation that B.’s daughter, Sarah Kersey, should be appointed to serve as the General and Plenary Guardian…”
All my life, when I’ve introduced myself, I’ve casually said: “Hi, my name is Sarah. I’m B.’s daughter.” Now, it’s “My name is Sarah Kersey, I’m B.T.’s legal guardian.” I’m not used to this, and I don’t know when, or if, I will get used to it. I can feel a hiccup and short-circuit in my brain. I feel the words get caught in my throat, and I wonder if the person on the other end of the phone call notices my stammer as I quickly compensate with: “—and I’m her daughter.”
Guardianship changes power dynamics in a relationship with unification, as opposed to divorce. This comes with new responsibilities. It means the guardian lives under the microscope of legal and financial entities for as long as the vulnerable adult is alive, making sure any money and assets are not misused. It means quickly establishing mutual respect from a revolving door of medical and legal professionals. It means spending many days on the phone and faxing, scanning, and emailing documents. It means having to learn and think on my feet while also embracing the miracle of the power nap—how a mere twenty minutes does wonders for the body and brain. It means being independent while having a dependent. It means learning to mother myself while missing my mother. It means learning to love myself, as myself, in ways my mother didn’t love me. It means processing guilt and regret, borne out of not wanting to speak to my mother because the conversations really aren’t conversations. The guilt over being too task-oriented and not calling the care team often enough. The guilt over being too tired, and sometimes not doing anything I set out to do. When my mother lived at home, my guilt would translate into overcompensation and (wrongly) trying to manage her emotions; I put my own needs on the back burner. Now that I’m alone, I have trouble managing my emotions, and I have trouble knowing which ones I can comfortably express to others—friends, family, and even my lawyer.
One autumn night, the tears returned like rain after a drought. My first foray into independence is in my own home, a familiar shelter because I grew up in this house—yet it’s also ghostly. Very often, a father will leave home. Sometimes, a sister will get into her car and never come back. And, occasionally, a mother might be involuntarily committed. It’s all quiet now when I come home from work. The silence is absence; the peace has a purpose. I grieve. I am learning how to be alone. I never left my family. My family left me. In a few months, I will move out. I will have to put my house on the market and sell it. I will earmark everything I will need with a pink sticky tab. I will have to clear my house of thirty-plus years of stuff. Those items will scream things at me I want to forget.
I opened the envelope with my official guardianship letters, which came in the mail the day before.
I ran my hand over the golden seal. I work so hard on behalf of the memories of my mom— the woman I knew her to be, the woman who gave me the tools and skills to even say yes to such a task. My mother and I are bound in the same legal system, in the same county, in the same courthouse. As my mother has a record of her love for her children from childhood to young adulthood, I now have a record of the sacrifices I’ve made for my mother in her vulnerable state. In a way, it’s better than having a family tree, or even an oral history. Anyone who knows the docket numbers can read about us, from 2003-2020, and beyond.
There are times when I don’t know who my mom is. Dementia is a sort of death. Taking guardianship is claiming the body before it ever gets to the morgue.
Rumpus original art by Lauren Kaelin.