In 1971 my mother retired after 40 years of teaching. "What will I do now," she asked. It didn't take long for her to find out. She bought a new car when she felt like it, founded a male choir at her church, flew to Africa for the United Methodist Church, sailed on the Queen Elizabeth II, cruised the Western Caribbean, visited me in Trinidad and found her way to more than a few of the 50 states. Add in her 1965 European tour and she had seen more of the world than many.
In the early '90s my mother suffered a stroke from which she made a full recovery. "One day a light bulb went off in my head," she told me. Soon she was at home, resuming the life she led before the bleed in her brain.
A few years later, a second stroke changed both our lives in ways that neither of us could have imagined. This time, I sold my furniture, packed up my family and moved back home. I had it all figured out - both of us were only children and had always been close. Now I'd be her caregiver and we would exist in the mother/daughter nirvana I'd created in my mind. Talk about unprepared for reality! Soon I wondered who she had become. Had her illness brought out resentments that she'd harbored for years? It didn't help that, even at my age, her opinion of me mattered greatly. Intellectually, I understood what was happening. My mother had gone from a life of total independence to wearing Depends and requiring the use of a walker. And what about me? The evil twins of resentment and guilt became my newest, closest companions. And when they came, they helped themselves to my hair. It fell out, grew back and fell out again. Emotionally, I was hurting. But so was she.
One day I came across an article written by a woman who found herself in my same position. Caring for the woman who gave her life was this daughter's greatest honor. I was ashamed, called myself a witch and vowed to do better. It lasted two days.
In spite of our challenges, there were times when our old relationship surfaced. My mother would talk about her childhood and mine. She spoke often of her love for history. "I should have been a history teacher," she would often say. We spent time researching the ancestry of her maternal grandmother. We laughed together, remembering my father and his fishing obsession. We were happy. Those days were golden. Even now, when I'm in her old bedroom, I can still feel their rare sweetness.
Sometimes in her dementia, she was just plain funny. At 2:00 am one morning, I found her dressed in a nightgown, clutching her purse and wearing a Baltimore Orioles ball cap perched on her head. "I'm ready to go to the game," she announced. When I recovered from shock, I laughed until I cried, listening to my genteel and proper mother let out a stream of cursing. Or tell me that her frail and wheelchair-bound nursing home roommate was a drug dealer.
Eventually she became too much for me to handle. I had to put up the adult version of a child-proof gate to prevent her from wandering, especially after she found her way into the living room and lay down in front of the open front door.
At first, I placed her in a nursing home until I discovered an assisted living center. There were doilies resting on the arms of each big, comfortable chair, a kitchen that smelled like home, and a dining room table for the five or six women residents to share their meals. Some of her former students were aides. It was the best for both of us, although I still vacillated between relief and guilt. Some days she would be the woman I remembered. Other days she would refuse to get out of bed. I was afraid to bring her home for Christmas for fear that I'd have to force her to return. I was let off the hook - that day she stayed under the covers in her night gown even when we arrived to wish her Merry Christmas.
Our last visit was wonderful. It was a warm, sunny day in early spring. Instead of confused and combative, my mother was her sweet and gentle self. We sat out on the porch with her housemates and one of her former students. Everyone shared stories - of the days when she was a teacher, about old-fashioned homemade remedies and the school bus that ran charter excursions to the beach during the summers of the 1950s and 60s. A couple of days later, my mother suffered a third stroke. She passed away a week later at the age of 91. I consider that last visit as a gift. We were the mother and daughter we had hoped to be through the turmoil of her illness. When I left her on the porch with her friends, "I love you" were the last words we shared.
Meet the author Niambi Brown Davis
Niambi was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and raised on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She and her family lived for many years in Washington, DC and for three and a half years, made the Republic of Trinidad & Tobago their home.