…Or Was My Mom Awesome? (R.I.P. Mom)

I get bored easily.

I tend to obsess over new things for a period of time, then I learn what I THINK is “everything about them” and then my attention wanders, like a hummingbird looking for a new flower.  I’m not ADHD like the dog in “Up” (SQUIRREL!), but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t GET that way after a certain amount of familiarity sets in.

It’s probably one of the reasons why I’m still single.

OK, it’s DEFINITELY the reason why I’m still single.

It’s also one of the reasons I love to learn new things and read so much (REAL books, thank YOU…I like paper.  Vellum.  Scrilla.)

But I digress (which is a side effect of my addiction to novelty).

My love of learning was something I realized as an adult.  For years I thought I HATED learning because I equated “learning” with “school.”  And I HATED school.  Well, most of school.  I liked art class and literature. But everything else was a waste of time.  For the first two years of high school, my grades reflected my disdain for formal education.  My mother, exasperated with a son she knew was capable but just didn’t (say it with me, now) “apply himself, ” finally sat me down and rocked my world:  if I didn’t improve my grades and get into a good college, that I’d “be stuck living at home with her.”

Sophomore year GPA:  2.8
Junior year GPA:  3.7

My Mom was…tough.  We argued a lot during those years, my parents freshly divorced and relocating from an upper middle class, close-knit neighborhood to a lower middle class ‘hood, where drunken couples would at times “take their show on the road” and treat the public to their brawls.  Still raw from my parents’ split and missing the (illusion of:  very much of an illusion of…) the idyllic nuclear family we had just left, I went through my adolescent years–as most of us do–testing the strength of her boundaries.

My mom’s “boundaries” for me were strong.  Cement-strong.  Battleship hull-strong “Wolverine’s adamantium claws“-strong.  As a teacher, education was her life, yet she told my sister and I that “the last thing” she wanted us to be was a teacher (“The pay is awful and I want you to do better.  You WILL do better”).  So she steered us away from her chosen profession, but she made sure we LEARNED.

Mom Kid 001

I know that mischievous look because I have that mischievous look.

My mother, Emily Carolyn Jackson Brooks Huntley Johnson (which I loved calling her during her third marriage to both rile her up and make her laugh) is a bit of a miracle:  born in the late 1930s, the youngest of 3 kids, she grew up poor family in a little town called Hope Hull, outside of Montgomery, Alabama.  Her father was a farmer and her mother, Marie, a housewife.  Her father, Felix–AKA Grandaddy–worked hard, and played harder (“never missed a day of work or a night of drinking in his life” my Granny would say), with legendary stories about moonshine stills, country parties, and the hole in the wall juke joints he used to frequent.

My theory is that that’s why she could “count the number of times on one hand” over her 60+ legal years that she imbibed alcohol: she rarely drank, never smoked, and seldom cursed:  her Dad,  character that he was, was not to be emulated in that regard.  Whether she admitted it to herself or not,  she definitely inherited his stubbornness.

My little sister and I never knew Marie, my Mom’s mom, our Grandaddy’s first wife, and our biological grandmother.  My mom’s mother passed away when she was young, but she didn’t pass that knowledge on to us until we were older and stumbled across a picture of her.

Mom Wedding 001

Her first marriage:  a practice run.

“Who’s that, Mom?”

“That’s my Mom.”

“…wait, what?”

We knew my grandfather’s second wife, Clemmie Mae, as our “Granny.”  Despite the pain of her mother’s loss to her (which I only realized the depths of years later), she had the internal drive to put herself through college and then go on to get her Master’s Degree in Education.  There was no person in her immediate family for her to model herself after, this drive to do this was just internal to HER:  the fusion power of her indomitable will.

(My father–dead for a few years now–is almost equally as much of an outlier:  HIS father–who we also never met–died in a mining accident in equally harsh Bessemer County, outside of Birmingham, Alabama, hundreds of miles away from my mother’s homestead.  Despite this, he grew up to become a skilled architect.  But I digress again, as this isn’t about him…)

Mom Adult 001

Ready for work!

My Mom spent her young adult years teaching and moved to DC where she took a job instructing high schoolers in typing and work placement at a public school, Ballou.  She eventually met and married my father, James.  When I asked her “why wasn’t I just a ‘James Junior'”she explained that my dad wanted me to be named after him, but she wanted me to be named “Brian Kelsey.”  They split the difference and I got “Brian” as a middle name instead of my Dad’s “Benjamin. ”  After the divorce, she’d quip that she’d wanted some insurance that she hadn’t made “another one like my Dad.”  She said it with a laugh, since she was mostly joking.  Mostly.

My mother was a maternal crucible.  My sense of humor only occasionally worked on her:  it was like she had immunized herself to being charmed by me so that she could dispassionately keep me focused. She knew that I had inherited my father’s flights of fancy and feared I’d struggle finding direction as an adult.  I could rarely get around what she wanted, and if we had a disagreement, it went her way more often than not.  Her will was like the tide:  whether it was writing handwritten thank you notes to everyone for everything (I was recalcitrant), joining the church (I was ambivalent), or staying in DC to go to college (I was resistant).  Even my originally chosen vocation was slowly, and across across a few years, inexorably course corrected.

Family Photo Cropped

Yes.  That’s me.  I was into mob movies.  Fuck Off (sorry Mom)

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

“I think, a cartoonist!”

“…weeeeell, you can do that as a hobby, but you need to make a living, so leeeet’s not get too focused on that…”

On “Bewitched,” Darren Stevens took his artistic ability and worked in advertising, so that was our compromise, resulting in the morally flexible marketing maestro you see today.  And yet another example of how I was influenced by my third parent, pop culture.

I keep going on about how tough my Mom was, but that’s important to note, because  deep down she wasn’t a “hard” person.  Not really.  She WAS focused.  And that focus was on her kids.

She loved to dance.  I remember her showing me how to move, as a kid,  clapping as I clumsily tried to ape her graceful steps as we boogied to Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.”  She loved to shop for hours on end with her girlfriends,  dragging me along on the weekends, where my only recompense for being stuck in the women’s department of Montgomery Ward for most of a Saturday, was a book or stack of comics that would keep me from continuously mewling how “bored I was.”

And she loved to bowl.  Dear God, she LOVED to BOWL.

Her love of bowling was almost transcendent.  It was one of those things that–when she did it–you’d see her truly in her element.  There are things we do for love, and things we do for money, and things we do just for the joy of doing.  And that was bowling, for her.

And she loved my sister and me.   More than anything.

So while she had those pasttimes, those joys, those comforts in her life, the one constant on her compass was to “raise us to be good people. ”

She got her wish (well, maybe with my sister:  with me, it depends on the day I’m having).  She may have gotten it too well:  as she got older, after she had moved to New Jersey and remarrried, she’d lament to me that she may have done TOO good of a job at making us independent, since I had ended up in Los Angeles and my sister had ended up in Hawaii and couldn’t visit cross country as often as she’d like to her most recent home, New Jersey.

As I get older, I look at the choices I’ve made in life, and realize that the skills she forced me to develop have been invaluable: I get my imagination and my whimsy from my Dad, but I get my drive and my focus from my Mom.  And I’ve needed and used both equally.

Mom Cover

Retirement from teaching.

About 12 years ago, she got a breast cancer diagnosis.  After aggressive treatment with surgery and chemotherapy, it was declared “in remission.”  We celebrated the good news.  Then, within a year or two of the treatments ending, my weekly Sunday calls with her got stranger.

“How’s it going in LA?”

“Well, I think I’m getting the promotion at work, and I hope I can use the money to buy that building I told you about.”

“Oh that’s great, sweetie.  I’m so proud of you. ”

“Thanks Mom!  So what’s going on over there?”

“Oh, same old, same old.  But I meant to ask you:  whatever happened to that promotion? ”

“…Mom, we just did this.”

“We did?”

I just chalked it up to old age, or some sort of odd memory lapse, or me just not being very interesting (the latter option, I immediately dismissed – to quote Bane from “The Dark Knight Rises”:  “IMpossible“).  My mother had heard about something called “chemo brain.”  There wasnt much official literature on it, most doctors wouldn’t acknowledge it, but some people, post-chemotherapy, would post online about it, so it wasn’t her imagination.  We had all hoped that after more time had passed post-treatment, the effect on her congnition would abate. I’d joke with my sister that our Mom was becoming “10 Second Tom.”

It seemed harmless. Until it wasn’t.

Mom and Earl 001

“Third time’s the charm!” is what I’d say to cheese her off

(this is her 3rd husband, the indefatigable Earl)

After shorter and shorter conversation “loops” combined with the history of her father contracting it years earlier, we realized it was Alzheimer’s.  From reading about the disease, while one can have a genetic predisposition, it’s often physical or psychological trauma that triggers it’s onset.  A “Saturday double-feature” of breast cancer and chemo certainly fit the bill.

A few words about Alzheimer’s:  people look at movies like “The Notebook” (a great flick, by the way), and see the memory-damaged wife who relives each day with her husband as a romance and a tragedy

In real life, Alzheimer’s is an entirely different genre:  it’s a horror movie.

The best analogy I can give to people who think it’s like a hyper-aggressive form of memory lapse, is to think of your brain as the layers of an onion.  Alzheimer’s dementia is like an extremely fine knife, ruthlessly peeling off each layer, one after the other, getting deeper and deeper over time.

On the outer layer of that onion are your disposable memories, like remembering to pick up milk in the store, or not forgetting to watch “The Big Bang Theory” at 8pm (toward the end, my Mom loved Sheldon on “The Big Bang Theory” as much as she loved the bowling she eventually had to give up…maybe a bit more). A little further in, you’ve got your kids birthdays and the address you had when you were growing up.  Even further, you forget to your OWN birthday, how to drive, how old you are, and even what you look like.

Mom Solo Main 030215

Grand Dame

For example, a few years ago when I was visiting,  my mom would complain of a “man who was watching her in the bathroom.”  I asked her to show me.  It turns out it was her own reflection in the mirror.   At first, we’d gently correct her and tell her that it was actually her (“It IS?!?” she’d say, incredulously), then we finally covered up the mirrors in the house, just to keep her from scaring herself.

And if it stopped there, it actually would  kind of be “sad but ok” – remind her of stuff,  don’t let her drive, tune into “Big Bang Theory,” got it.

But you’ve actually got more layers to go.

And that fucking (sorry, Mom) knife isn’t finished.

Once it’s gone through parts of your cerebrum, burning everything In its path, it keeps working down, down, into the “reptile space,” the cerebellum.  That’s Real Shit (sorry Mom).  Vocabulary. Motor skills. Hand eye coordination. Spacial orientation.  Speech. Swallowing.  Continence.  Vision.

It keeps going until you can’t do anything but sit and breathe.

And eventually, it takes that away too.

As the disease progresses, some victims regress to a younger age.   My mom would keep quantum leaping back to around 15 or so, we think.  In her mind, her mother had just died and she missed her terribly.

I get choked up, thinking how my mother spent much of her last few years freshly grappling with 60-year-old grief…grief she never revealed to my sister and I during our formative years.  Because she made herself NOT show it so that we could bond with her stepmother as our grandmother (which TOTALLY worked:  we loved Granny).  Because she knew that part of “raising good people” was making sure they had a strong connection with their grandparents.

As the disease worked its way deeper, she would often look around, puzzled at being in the “strange” home in New Jersey that she had shared with my stepfather,  Earl, for over 15 years.  More and more frequently, she asked to go “home,” back to the Alabama that she so wanted to get out of decades ago.

Because, again, she was around 15.

And so, not able to heal her, I at least swore we would do that:  a little over a year ago, I drove her down on one last road trip into the Deep South to see her family and friends.  It was as much for my grandmother as it was for my mother:  the former was getting increasingly frail and the latter was slipping further away.

She and I ate fast food crap, talked about her past  and car-danced to old school R&B, with high repetition of her favorite, Rick James (it IS weird that she’d sometimes forget my name but could still sing a big chunk of “Superfreak“:  I chalk it up to “The Healing Power of Funk”).  It was a ridiculous amount of fun for me, harkening back to the days when she would gather up me and my sister to make the same marathon trek to the land of heatstroke, mosquito bites, and no central air. 

While we were on the road, she sometimes “leaped” back to being married to my dad and would talk to me about her “son, Jimmy and daughter, Tonya.”  Her son was “smart” but she “was scared he wasn’t focused enough” and “didn’t try hard enough in school.”

I–the friend she was on road trip with–told her that I “knew a boy just like her son” and that I thought that he would turn out OK.

When we got to the South, we saw friends, we said goodbye to her sister and my grandmother, and took a ton of pictures.  She said, as we were driving back that her “side hurt” and I realized that it’s because I was making her laugh too hard – she was forgetting the joke and the laughter but still was left with the sideache.  So I stopped.  Or, rather, I rationed it.

A week after we got back, I called her that next Sunday, and she again said she wished she could “go home.”  She had forgotten the trip already.  I expected this.

But I would do it all over again.

That razor-sharp knife (that FUCKING (sorry, Mom) KNIFE) thankfully didn’t get a chance to take everything.

We think there was something wrong with her stomach but when we or the doctor would ask, she would say she was fine and not in pain, even while still absently rubbing her belly.  A physical exam of her abdomen didn’t reveal anything.  We had discussed giving her a colonoscopy, but the doctor asked a very good question:  what would we do if we found something?  After the surgery, would we take a woman who didn’t know where she was,  and somehow explain to her why she couldn’t get out of bed for weeks?   Why her stomach hurt so much from an incision she didn’t remember getting, to heal pain she wouldn’t remember having?  Why she wasn’t able to touch her belly, for fear of ripping open her stitches?

The answer was no.

Around October, she had lost her ability to use a fork and a knife.  When I would visit, I’d cut up her food feed her (and when I wasn’t there, her husband (my stepdad, Earl) would try as well), but commands like “open your mouth” or “chew” were difficult for her to follow and she began to lose weight drastically.

A week or so ago, I ritually called her on Sunday and after Earl got her situated on the phone, she chirped “Hi Jim!”  I remember being pleasantly surprised she had done that.  Her forgetting my name honestly didn’t bother me a ton (seriously), but when she remembered it, it certainly felt good.

That Monday, at the Alzheimer’s daycare that my sister had located for her, she had difficulty breathing and was weak, so they called an ambulance and took her to the hospital.  I hopped on a plane to get out there that Wednesday.  In my mind, I was taking a trip to help my stepdad, who had had the herculean task of taking care of her day-to-day, place her into a 24 hour care facility.

When I walked into her hospital room, her face lit up with surprise.  She recognized me, even though she couldn’t say anything.  She held up her hand to hold mine for a bit, and then she drifted off to sleep.

There was another minute (almost humorous) a day or two later, when the nurse was feeding her and she looked over at me, was shocked to see me, then looked away and forgot I was there.  Then she looked back again and was freshly shocked.  I laughed and said, “Yup, still here.” Then she smiled faintly and fell asleep again.

I didn’t realize that that was the last time my mother would recognize me.

Sidenote:  if you’re still reading this, when you’re done, call your folks. Tell ’em you love them.  It may not be the last time you ever say it to them, but I can guarantee at some point, you’ll wish you had said it more.

During this trip, I realized that men deal with grief as men deal with everything:  we focus on facts, plans, logistics.   Earl and I spent the week getting her Medicaid application done, and were mostly through.  We’d each have single drink with dinner each night and reminisce.  But during the day, we threw ourselves into getting the mountain of paperwork together for the nursing home,  taking time out to visit her for an hour or two or more daily, our efforts planning for her future in defiance of her looking worse and worse  each day.

The cold logic in my head (ironically, in my mother’s voice) knew what was happening, even if I tried to ignore it. My mom’s voice said that it was better this way, before the parts of her brain she lost (from that FUCKING (sorry, Mom) KNIFE) became too great…

…but part of me is Superman.

Part of me, deep down, against all reason, thought, she CAN get better.  Even with the Alzheimer’s,  if I can just get her to eat, if I can just get her to swallow.   If she can drink the milkshake I brought her and just RALLY.  And shock the shit (sorry Mom) out of everyone. Because–in case you missed it awhile back, my mother is GODDAMNED (sorry Mom) TOUGH.

Even when the doctor explained that she “probably wouldn’t make it” out of inpatient hospice, there was that flicker, that ember of unrealistic hope that flirted with a miracle.

I left their New Jersey house for the airport back to LA early so I could stop by the hospital to see her one last time.  Aside from those two brief moments I mentioned earlier,  she had slept though each of our visits.

“Maybe,” that little ember whispered,  “you’ve been going at the wrong time.  Maybe now, at 4am, she’ll open her eyes and smile a bit because her sleep cycle was off when you’ve been visiting.”

“Really?” my internal “Mom” voice said.  “Leeeet’s not get too focused on that… .”

And as I sat there for an hour, watching her make an effort to breathe, stroking her hair, telling her how much I loved her, I forced myself to extinguish that hope and let her go.  Because while my Mom was TOUGH, she was also TIRED.  She had lived 76 years, helped people when she could, had great friendships, and been in love.

Most importantly, to her, she had raised two good people.  And she knew it. And those people will never forget her.

I had been pretty together through the whole trip, but cried most the way back to the airport.  It wasn’t so much the realization that she wouldn’t wake up or rally, but that she shouldn’t.  She wouldn’t want to.  And my wish for her to live longer, for me to feel better,  and for her to suffer more wasn’t fair to her.

And like the comic book heroes I read about so much, I am (as we all are, or will be, eventually,  if we’re “lucky”) parentless.  It is an odd feeling, to suddenly have that absence in one’s life.  A constant force like gravity just suddenly gone.  The grief comes and goes in waves:  I still feel mainly numb, but it’ll hit me out of the blue with a phrase or a thought.  Such a strange thing.  The thing that gives me solace is that–unlike my father’s death–my mom had some good years at the end.  For as long as her brain allowed her to remember it, she was loved.  And even when her brain forgot that fact, it was still true.

My sister and I, along with friends and family, laid her to rest in her hometown of Hope Hull, Alabama.  We hadn’t had serious conversations about what she had wanted to do for “arrangements” while she was well, so Tonya and I had to wing it.  We knew she wanted to be cremated but not any more than that.  We ended up finding a site near where her parents were laid to rest, across the street from her family’s church, under the shade of a huge tree. My sister (who I love, but never tell her, lol) gave a beautiful eulogy that evoked the spirit of the Selma celebration being held nearby that same weekend.  In fact, President Obama’s speech began as soon as my mother’s service had ended:  it was exactly what I needed to hear during the drive from the service.

There was a “winter storm warning” that weekend.  Strangely, on the day of her service, it cleared up.  I’m not remotely religous, but I confess – I kind of gaped up at the sky, marveling at how the frozen rain we had been expecting just…didn’t seem to make it that far south that day.

My mother knew something, I think, that she never articulated to me, at least not directly.  I read somewhere that if you look at the history of the earth and stretch it to a full 24 hour day, humans have been civilized for about .192 seconds of it.  If you look at our individual lives in that context, we’re each nanoseconds (probably less, but I’m not going to do the math on that).  The only thing that leaves an imprint on time is how we take care of those that come before us and those that come after us.  It is in this way that we become immortal, that we conquer death…at least for a time.  And the more people we can help, the more we live beyond our time on this big ole mote of stardust.  And so my mother, to me and through me, will live on.

I love you, Mom and we’ll miss you.

Mom and JimPS – I’ve made an Alzheimer’s tribute page for my mother – feel free to give, if your spirit animal moves you!



3 responses to “…Or Was My Mom Awesome? (R.I.P. Mom)

  1. She was awesome!!!!
    I think it’s genetic.

    Beautiful tribute. Although I think about how much I love my parents all the time, your thoughts and words reflect how deeply I feel knowing how much they love me and Baine.

    Love you,

  2. Jimmy, I left my obituary in Atlanta last Monday when returning to Southfield, Michigan. Today I checked the mail and my daughter-in-law had mailed the two copies that were inside the iPad that I borrowed. I am so inspired by your heart felt reflection of your mom’s (my Aunt Carolyn) final steps of her life’s journey. You and Tonya planned an incredible celebration of the life, love and legacy of your mom. I am so proud to be your 1st cousin. The week-end with my mom and dad (your uncle Felix) made me realize how important it is to grab every moment in their sunset years. Aunt Carolyn loved you and Tonya so much and always kept me current on what you all were doing in life. Thank you for sharing your true expressions and reflections of a life that touched and loved so many of us. The class act that Aunt Carolyn exemplified came through you and Tonya on Saturday. She continues to live through all of us. Her memory may have faded in the final years of her life but her love will live on forever.
    With deep respect,
    Cousin Connie

  3. Wonderful Bro! Great tribute and very eloquent writing. Thanks for all that you do for those you love in this world.

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