A lot of people know Elton John’s 70’s hit “Goodbye Yellow. Brick Road.” And while I don’t necessarily associate this song with my mama, it definitely reminds me of her favorite movie: The Wizard of Oz.
Although this is one woman’s story, this blog is about facing life with a parent suffering Alzheimer’s disease. One of her caregivers very recently suggested that if we want to get any glimpse of our mother, then we’d better do it now. Pam, the sweet soul, who has brought so much comfort to our family, has worked with patients like mom for so long that she knows our time with mother—at least cognitively—is almost over.
She never really put her story into words. And while this may seem to have a melancholy undertone, it chronicles her story and the lesson she, unbeknownst to her, taught us. In your honor and for all the Alzheimer’s victims, mamma, hear your voice…
Mother would tell you to your face she felt like she never had a voice. My little sister, Robyn, and I could not begin to tell you how many times she referred to herself as a second class citizen. We always thought this was ridiculous, maybe she truly felt this way. Maybe it’s why the older she got, the angrier she became.
Born on New Year’s Day 1943 in the Rowan County, NC hospital, she was the 2nd and only surviving child born to my grandparents, Bryte Bess & Miles Alexander Carpenter. My grandparents were the first two in each of their respective families to leave country life and agricultural farm communities and earn advanced degrees. This singular fact, for better or for worse, set for mom’s life a different course. My grandmother was an R.N.; my granddaddy graduated State College (we now know it as NC State) in 1932. He made his career as an executive managing mills for Erwin Mills and Burlington Industries. This provided for mom, unbeknownst to her…and she never admitted it, a privileged childhood.
Sarah Bryte grew up in the tiny southern Davie County mill town of Cooleemee. Truly, it was and remains the proverbial “wide place in the road.” There were no stoplights. They had the first residential phone in town; their phone number was “9.”
Mama grew up Baptist and enjoyed abundant and full high school friendships that lasted most of her life. Presented with debutantes from the Lexington Charity League, she was stunning in her white Chantilly and crinoline gown. Upon graduation she headed to the hills to earn her degree at Appalachian State Teacher’s College. Mama’s college love was a Eddie. Things did not work out for them; I’m rather certain she never got over him. Eddie entered her life again in approximately 2010. I do not recall when she was ever as giddy and excited to rekindle a friendship. It turned out that newly widowed Eddie was looking for a housewife and caregiver for his old age. When this did not work out for them again…fifty years later is when the changes in mom began to surface.
(Mom & Eddie – May, 1964 in Boone)
(Appalachian State Teacher’s Collage Senior Class Photo)
Before graduation, she arrived in the “big city,” Charlotte, to pursue student teaching. This led to a job with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. It was during this time she met my dad on a blind date. There must be something about blind dates in my family; I met my bride the same way.
On June 25, 1967 mom and dad married in a highly traditional wedding in Erwin, NC. She immediately joined him at our family property (where my office remains today) continuing to build the mobile home sales, park development and property management business my paternal granddaddy began helping dad to build.
Mom’s days were characterized by collecting rent, cleaning rental homes and squeezing every penny so that they could get to the top. They had a free place to live and paid themselves $ 50 a week….a week. The first week of October, 1968 my parents brought me home to our single wide mobile home on Route 1 John Price Road. Their hard work paid off quickly. Robyn was born in May, 1971 and came home to our first house in Huntingtown Farms. Many, many people prospered over the last 5 1/2 decades because of the foundations my parents laid.
(Bringing me home from the hospital. My office is still on this same site today; different building).
(Robyn coming home from Charlotte Memorial Hospital)
Dad worked A LOT. The recession of the early 70’s ushered in problems for mom and dad. They had very different philosophies concerning financial strategy, family life and other issues. Mother realized her life, like most of us eventually realize, would not be the charmed life she’d envisioned as a young girl. Things were about the change.
When they separated Mom went back to work teaching as a Title 1 Reading teacher, then math, and after several years went back into the classrooms of elementary schools J.H. Gunn, Tuckaseegee, McAlpine, and Huntingtown Farms. Although she was the consummate professional and an excellent teacher, she truly disliked the bureaucracy involved in the education system. Our local school system recognized her as a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Teacher of the Year.
(On the steps of the James K. Polk house)
Mom dated Buzz for twelve years. He worked hard to help maintain her home in superior condition. They had a lot of fun with a group called the Charlotte Sociables. Other than one nice cruise and and one trip each to New York and Las Vegas, Buzz took her on the only major trip she ever took. In 1984 they went to Singapore and Malaysia for two weeks. I still have the jade cuff links she brought me. Although he asked, mom refused to marry Buzz. Eventually, he moved on to pursue his life. After approximately 1990 she did not see anyone seriously again.
Mickey first, then Sophie brought “puppy love” to her life. Thank goodness for canine comradery. Honestly, mother did not either particularly do much to seek friendships or nurture existing ones. She preferred to keep to herself, somewhat, and depended tremendously on my sister and my family for social connections and activities.
Alex and Pierce, her only grandchildren, were the light of her early retired life. Mama wanted grandchildren and she loved these boys! Thaedra and I were extremely blessed to have “Mimi” as a default babysitter. She would be offended when we would ask someone else to keep the boys. It was when the boys were quite young mom built her “dream house” just a mile and a half from my house off of Providence Road. The boys loved to stay there. On the vacant lot next door they took leftover construction materials and built multiple forts. They called it “the village.” Picturing those moments marked in time as we watched through mom’s kitchen window warms my heart. Their unbounded adventure and energy was contagious; she knew great joy in those years. But, little boys grow up and going to grandma’s house doesn’t alway hold it’s appeal. Seeing them turn into young teenagers seeking their interests, while making her happy, saddened her personally because it made her feel alone.
(One of thousands of pics of Mimi & her boys from over the years; “The Village” was torn down by this point, but it was just through the window behind them.)
Mom enjoyed several trips with the boys, Thaedra, Robyn and me: New York for the Macy’s parade; Hilton Head; Atlanta, the NC Outerbanks, and a zippity do da week in Florida at Disney were among her favorites.
Sometime around 2010, Eddie- the college boyfriend, contacted mom shortly after his wife passed away. The hope of attention and potential promise for rekindled love ignited an excitement in mama I rarely, if ever, witnessed. However, as I mentioned, it did not work out. She simply did not want to talk about it; I know her heart had been broken. As an adult son this is a tough, tough thing to watch when there is nothing you can do. It made me sad.
One additional issue she faced was severe back and neck pain. Over several years seeking several specialists, pain clinics and an unsuccessful trial procedure from a visiting Mayo Clinic surgeon did not fully address the problem. I mention this as a lesson to anyone with aging parents. Mom…. OPIODS…. Lots of them…the crisis is real! We believe as many as five STRONG pills a day and she was still getting behind the wheel of her car to drive…we did not know for quite some time. Addiction occurs among the most unlikely people.
Shortly thereafter, 2013 or so, our family began to notice a marked and drastic difference in mom. Her neighbor’s even reached out to me repeatedly noting bizarre and unusual behavior. It was during a visit to a neurologist mom was diagnosed with a form of early onset dementia. It later became full blown Alzheimer’s….the most cruel and life robbing disease (I saw it with my dad’s mother as well).
The details of these last few years are not pretty.
Mama made a few pivotal choices. One was to almost always see her glass as half empty when it just as easily could have been seen as half full. The second was not to seek help when the discomfort from her ailments led her to pain suppressants. We asked the neurologist why a woman who has had no history of dementia, no history of Alzheimer’s whatsoever in her family become afflicted with this so severely at age 72? He answered that it could be circumstances, attitude, medical choices along the way. I have absolutely no doubt this is the case.
The truth is that we’ll never know the answer.
I do know the most valuable lesson she taught Robyn and me is to look at our glasses as half full…to always seek the positive. Because mom rarely felt positive thoughts and we almost always saw where this outlook led her, her example taught us as an alternative to pursue joy, to love friends, to live fully and as they say: to look for the sunny side of life.
Like Dorothy in the Wizard, mom’s life took her a long way from home, yet she was never geographically very far from her Cooleemee beginnings. She always yearned for the comfort of her small town past. She always knew there is no place like home.
Mama, thank you for taking care of us. Thank you for loving us the way you knew how. I don’t know where Alzheimer’s takes a person. To see her today is a difficult encounter. Like a typical Alzheimer’s patient she will sit and stare blankly. I wonder if the mind plays old memories over and over for these people? I hope so and I hope happy memories bring them peace and comfort even though they cannot express it in an outwardly lucid manner.
Mama, my prayer for you, as it has been for years, is that you have found home and peace like your favorite movie gal, somewhere over the rainbow.
This coming October 13th is the Charlotte Walk to End Alzheimer’s. My dear friend, Eileen, works diligently to make this walk one of the nation’s top 30. If you or anyone you know suffers or has suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, please click on the link below to go to Eileen’s “Everyday is a New Day” team page to help us raise research funds and to raise awareness.
Thank you for your consideration.