My mother died four years ago and her spirit will never leave me. Why? Because I am my mother.
I am my mother every time I page through one of my 18 copies of The Catcher In the Rye. My mother gave me that book to read the summer after fifth grade. She was always giving me books, real classics. By the time I got to high school, I had already digested most of the novels that the Christian Brothers assigned me to read. My mom was huge on reading. If she caught me laying on the floor watching some dumb TV show, she would yell at me, “You can’t find a book to read that’s better than that crap?”
If I left the house to take the trolley downtown, she would insist that I take a book for the journey. No just sitting on the beach without a book for me. Read, read, read. We were lucky enough to live three blocks from a library and I can still see us trudging up the General Electric factory hill in the wind to borrow another Sherlock Holmes or Mark Twain novel.
My mother would actually read the dictionary to brush up on her vocabulary. She loved words and was furious when the archdiocese dropped Latin from its mandatory classes. She believed Latin was the basis of all language. Years later, I bought her a membership in a crossword puzzle club that sent you the most difficult puzzles the English-speaking world had to offer. She would breeze through them in a snap. Not bad for a South Philly girl who never went to college.
I am my mother every time I hear a Beatles song. My mother adored the Fab Four and was thrilled to death when the albums started coming with the lyrics. (Did you know that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was the first album ever to give you the words?) We would pair up on the couch and peruse the lyrics together. My mother didn’t cry often, but she wept over the lyrics to “She’s Leaving Home.”
My mother loved music. She grew up with the big bands and regaled me with stories of her as a teenager hanging and smoking Chesterfields with the musicians during breaks. Oh, I wish footage of those moments existed. We went to many concerts together. The Rolling Stones, Gladys Knight, Genesis, Stevie Wonder. We had first-row seats for Donna Summer at the Shubert and actually sat on the Academy of Music stage for Luciano Pavarotti.
I am my mother every time I text one of my daughters on a Saturday night and ask them what they are up to. If they reply “just laying around, doing nothing,” I get on their case. “It’s Saturday night for Christ’s sake. Get out there. Have fun.”
Because that’s what my mother would say to me on a rare weekend night when I wasn’t out. “What in God’s name are you doing home? You’re 17.” My mother knew you were only young once and wanted you out in the world. Going to parties. Ballgames. Concerts. Movies. And my mom had this attitude while other mothers on Elmwood Avenue were yelling at their kids for not staying home enough. She just loved to have fun. I can’t tell you how many times I’d be doing my homework and she’d squirt me with a water pistol. Dag! I miss her horribly.
So what does this South Philly-Southwest Philly-downtown Philly chick have to do with South Jersey? Because she spent the last nine years of her life at St. Mary’s Manor in Cherry Hill. She had fallen ill and dementia started in. I first moved her in to my house in Mullica Hill, but she wanted nothing to do with that. She had spent a lifetime saying “no one’s gonna take care of me.” I think she had seen others in her lifetime go out this way and she, under no circumstances, wanted to be a burden to anyone. Particularly her children. Isn’t that something? While I see nothing wrong whatsoever about wanting to stay out of a nursing home, I also thought that this was my mother, to the very end, not wanting to be a hassle to her kids. That’s brave in my opinion.
And St. Mary’s was terrific. It’s a tremendous, caring facility that I can’t recommend more highly. (Special shout out to Sharon who took particularly good care of Mom.) My sister and I were very, very lucky that my wife Debbie was able to pull some strings and get her in there.
But this is where this story doesn’t end so happily. Yet hopefully you’ll be able to pull a positive message out of it. The last five years of my mom’s life, she developed full-blown Alzheimer’s. She would have no idea it was even me sitting next to her. And that is one of the truly saddest moments anyone can ever experience. To sit next to your own mother and not be recognizable in any way? Well, it’s just horrific.
It wasn’t like I stopped visiting her. I saw my mother at least two times a week. But the visits would get shorter and shorter. I just couldn’t handle it. I would get a sickness in my stomach from the moment I would pull in the parking lot. This was not my mom. The mother who had been so vibrant, so smart, so caring, so much fun, so full of life. This couldn’t be her. Just sitting in a chair staring at the floor. It was heartbreaking. There was no winning for me. Not seeing her at all was out of the question. If I went longer than a week without a visit, I would be swept with tremendous guilt. But I also just couldn’t handle seeing her like that.
Meanwhile, my beautiful sister Liz would spend hours with her. She would wash her hair and take her for walks in the adjoining park. She was stronger than me, I guess. Or I was weaker than her. I don’t know how to explain it. I was sick and in the hospital myself when my mom passed and I remember a great sense of relief washing over me.
That feeling, however, didn’t last long. As time went by, I felt more and more ashamed over my behavior in her last years. I had never been in that situation before. What if I had it all wrong? What if, even though she never responded in any way, I was connecting with her? I used to read the Daily News to her or brag about my daughters’ accomplishments. Just because she would never look up at me or make any sound didn’t mean she wasn’t hearing me. Who really knows? What if she had known from the second I sat next to her bed that it was me? Friends and family say I’m being too hard on myself, but I don’t know. I wish I had those years back. I would have spent more time with her than I did. But every second that I did broke my heart. Not to mention, I could just hear my mom saying to me, if she could, “What the hell you doing in here on such a beautiful day?” Damn.
I guess there’s no looking back, so here’s where the “message” part arises. My daughter Keely now works full time for the Alzheimer’s Association and I couldn’t be more proud. She’s actually doing something with her life to help find a cure. I pitch in and help that great organization whenever I can.
So listen to me. If your mom ends up like my mother, be tough. Hang in there. Read. Tell stories. Sing songs. Wear a clown suit if you have to. Put the time in. Take it from me: You’ll regret it if you don’t.
And for those of you reading this and your mom is still with you, make every day Mother’s Day. Call, text, tweet, email, like her on Facebook, send smoke signals if you have to, but stay in touch with her every day. It’s a win/win for all concerned. Happy Mother’s Day!
Big Daddy Graham is a renowned stand-up comedian and overnight personality on SportsRadio 94WIP. Check out his new podcast, Big Daddy’s Classic Rock Throwdown, at BigDaddyGraham.com.
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 11, Issue 2 May, 2014).
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