Alzheimer’s disease stole my mother from me, bit by bit, every day for ten years.
Beatrice Cothran Woodson was a force of nature. She exploded on to the planet in 1924, only to be stifled by mid-20th Century Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. With so few opportunities available to a brilliant, young Black woman, Mother channeled all of her hopes, dreams, and energy into kicking obstacles out of the way for my brother, Drexel, and me. She terrified all of our teachers. Much of Mother’s 5’2” stature was hair (She grabbed the bushy, Afrocentric 1960s hairstyle, and never let go,) but she was a little giant. I heard Mother her tell a principal, “you may have a PhD, but I’m M.O.M.”
The mantle of her expectations didn’t always rest easily on our shoulders. Although Mother and I were very close, she never imagined that I would become her clone, instead of her invention. We knocked heads as only two independent, opinionated people can, until we let our love turn strife into mutual admiration. As Mother’s boy, Drex may have had it a little easier, but in the acknowledgements for his PhD dissertation, he still felt the need to write, “For my parents, without whom this would not have been possible, or necessary.”
I was teaching Geriatric Medicine when I realized that Mother just wasn’t the same woman who raised me. Where she’d been a “jump, then look” person, she had become tentative, and actually asked permission to interfere in my life. The following years hurt so much, as I watched that powerful spirit become a shell that had forgotten me.
One night, I came home from Chicago, and Mother left me standing in the open door; she walked into the living room, and told my high school graduation picture, “Cheryl, that girl is here.” She kept talking to the picture, even though I tried to convince her that I was the real me. After a few minutes that seemed like a year, I saw Mother’s eyes clear, and she said, “Cheryl, when did you get here?” That episode told me my mother was gone. Discovering that the crack addicts had taken all of the food out of her refrigerator told me it was too dangerous for her body to stay in that house. I worried about my two year-old son, my marriage, and my job, as I felt squeezed into the Sandwich Generation of caregiving.
Several years later, Mother’s sisters came to Chicago to visit her in the nursing home. She seemed happy to see my aunts until she frowned. Pointing at each of them, she said, “That’s Laura; that’s Terri,” before turning confused eyes to me. When my mother said, “Do I know you?” I thought I was going to die. I had visited her several times every week, spending hours reading to her, dancing with her to Motown and Count Basie, doing her hair, painting her nails, helping her eat. We had shared almost forty years of parenting and seven years of caregiving, but Mother had lost those years. So had I. That day, I asked a jeweler to redesign Mother’s wedding rings into a necklace. I wear it always; it doesn’t help.
My medical training showed me Mother’s last days the minute the doctors diagnosed dementia. After ten years, I knew I was ready for her passing. Hadn’t I already grieved? I thought I was all cried out until Mother’s last hours when my tears soaked her pajama top. The great Dr. Woodson had known nothing. I felt like an abandoned toddler, wandering on a busy street, terrified because my mommy was gone.
Years have deadened the pain, but they say, as a daughter, you have “Mama Drama” until YOU die. That might be a good thing. Even though we gave each other fits while I was growing up, I will always miss my mother. I will always wish that I could crawl into her lap, bask in her love, and hear her wisdom, but more than a necklace keeps her with me. I see the shadow of Mother’s face in the mirror. Echoes of her voice come out of my mouth whenever I fuss at my kids. I also see her courage and determination when my daughter skydives, rides her motorcycle, or flies an airplane.
Mother always threatened me with her hope that I’d have a daughter test me as I did her. I can almost feel her smiling down on me, and hear her laughing because I do.