THE WANDERER

She carried a heavy backpack everywhere she went. She could be seen walking one hour in one city and the next hour in another. It seemed she never stopped. It’s a small state so most people had seen her at one time or another.

The salon I worked in years ago faced a busy street. My workstation faced the big glass windows overlooking the street. This wasn’t so great for me because I get distracted easily. I like to say I’m just very observant. I won’t tell you what my boss said about it. I always noticed the walking woman, with what seemed to be the weight of the world on her shoulders. She walked repeatedly by the salon on certain days.  I knew somehow that she was mentally ill by her mannerisms and the repetition of her actions. I had seen this behavior before. I knew she wasn’t walking for her health because of the clothes she wore and the fact that she was smoking while walking. She also walked with a purpose. For years I watched her, she refused handouts or charity and always looked clean.

At the end of June “The Wanderer” passed away. Her family wanted everyone to know her story, so they gave interviews to the local paper. When I read it I cried for hours. I saw my mom, my Aunt, myself, my Uncle, pieces of every mentally ill person I’ve ever known.

She was 69 when she passed away. She came from a family of six children. My mom came from a family of seven. She had a mother who was unable to stand up for herself and a father who was physically and verbally abusive. My mother had the opposite situation. She was known as “The Protector” in her family and so was my mom.

“The Wanderer” dropped out of school and worked at assisted living facilities, helping mentally challenged adults. My mom dropped out of school in the 7th grade to work with my Grandmother in our only State Run “Mental Institution” called the IMH.

She married young and had four daughters. They are not sure exactly what happened except at some point their mother suffered a breakdown and left the family. They were then raised by their father. There was at one point a divorce.

Their mother remarried several years later and she tried to see her daughters more. She had three children with her new husband. One girl and two boys.

Her older daughter knew not to count on her to show up for family functions. Sometimes she would and sometimes she wouldn’t. Her older children could see that there was more going on with their mother than anyone was saying.

Unfortunately she never got diagnosed. Their mom was smart, but socially awkward, she wasn’t good with money, spent exorbitant amounts on clothes then couldn’t pay her bills, and she had issues with her body image.

She did manage to hold down dome jobs through the years. She refused state assistance. As time went by she became worse. She began to think mind controlling chemicals were being sprayed at her through her workstation. She became increasingly paranoid, thinking the company was out to get her. She quit.

She would admit to her family that she heard voices but not to anyone else. This made the family’s attempts at getting her the help she needed useless. She wasn’t a threat to herself or others so the family’s hands were tied. She began bouncing from one family member to another, all the while still walking as much as she could. If anyone asked too many questions or was too intrusive, she moved on fast.

Eventually she ran out of family members willing to take her in anymore. She stayed in homeless shelters and would disappear for months. At one point her family found her and tried to bring her to a hospital. When she realized where they were taking her she jumped out of the car while it was moving on the highway. Having been in this state’s hospitals I really can’t say I blame her.

She disappeared again and relied on the community who were friendly to her. She would stay at a 24 hour Laundromat at night. The state still couldn’t help even though she did put herself in danger by jumping out of a moving car. Elderly Affairs couldn’t help, no one could.

The family received a phone call that their mother had fallen in front of a 7-Eleven and had a severe laceration on her head. The staff knew who she was and made sure she stayed put until an ambulance arrived.

The Hospital (I won’t name it but I’ve been there and my mother died there) was going to just release her after they stitched her up until ONE DOCTOR  decided that something else was going on and ran more tests.

“The Wanderer” was diagnosed with Stage 4 Cancer in her Liver and Lungs. She had weeks to live. She went home with one of her daughters. The family had to jump through hoops trying to get Medicare and Hospice for their mom. She repeatedly kept saying she just had to “walk it off”.

Her last days were filled with grandchildren, children, and rest of her family and friends. She sat outside with her oldest daughter laughing and sneaking an occasional cigarette. Her daughters were with her when she passed and wanted people to know that she WAS LOVED.

Sometimes people who are mentally ill make the choice to live outside the system. My Uncle Jimmy did and was happy most of the time. It breaks my heart to think of him buried in Potter’s Field, no wake or funeral. It was his choice for the most part. I am scared it will happen to me and not by choice. That I’ll be alone, my family will be done with me. It’s getting close to that now. It’s the tears. No one knows how to react so they get defensive and angry.