I Coped with Losing My Mother by Playing the Role of the Cool Kid

Being a teenager is hard enough without a parent's guidance.
Publish date:
August 16, 2016
parents, mothers and daughters, mothers, alzheimer's disease, Losing A Parent

What am I doing here?

I was standing in a group of high school juniors at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, watching a demonstration in the school's cosmetology program, one of many stops on the tour that day. If I went to college, I wasn't going here, and I was probably going for writing, so this was a waste of time.

"Wanna get out of here?" I whispered to a couple of girls from my class. They looked as bored as I felt. Plus, watching the demo reminded me too much of my mother. They nodded, and we stealthily snuck away without being noticed. One asked if we'd get into trouble.

"You're with me. You'll be fine," I said as we walked into the sunshine that May day. They both smiled, like they had just been inducted into the cool gang. I had no idea if we'd be in trouble. I didn't care. After watching my mother die the month before, a teacher's reprimand paled in comparison.

I did a good job of playing a cool kid in high school. I was a cheerleader who dated a football player. I was on the dance team. I sang in the show choir. It was all a ploy to disguise the fact that my mother didn't know me and was going to die. I was desperate to be normal.

Until this college trip, I hadn't thought much about the future. I'd been living day-to-day, in the moment, with most days being dependent on my mother's mood. Alzheimer's does that.

Before the diagnosis, I had plans. My parents — my mother, specifically — drilled into my head that I'd be the first person in our family to go to college. She'd never gone and had wanted desperately to be a hairstylist or a teacher. College was a big deal. Due to this brainwashing, I did attend college, then I planned to write.

Over the four years of my mother's disease, I watched her forget things slowly, and then all at once. By the time I was 15, she couldn't apply lipstick, let alone remember me. I was not only a full-time student, but a full-time caregiver on the side. Confined to the house, my mother would just pace and cry most days. Sometimes in the middle of the night she found her way upstairs and would whistle a lullaby outside my bedroom door. She couldn't remember me, but she remembered that lullaby.

I learned to create a new normal. I had a public life, in which I was allegedly cool, and a private life, in which I wanted to believe my mother was still proud of me even if she didn't know me or what was going on around her. I read her and my father my short stories while she stared blankly at a wall or paced the room whistling. I asked her what she thought of my outfits before dates. I decided a whistle meant it was good, silence meant I should try again. I played her favorite records and would pace with her in unison to the beat because I knew music made her happy. It wasn't a traditional normal, but it was our normal.

Even though I wasn't allowed to wear makeup until junior high, my mother started me out young because beauty was a passion of hers. She taught me to shape her eyebrows, paint her fingernails, and apply blush to her cheeks. "Just the apples, honey. Not too much; you don't want Mommy looking like a harlot," she would say. It was a tough day when I realized that our roles had been reversed.

I walked by my parents' bathroom, and when I glanced in, I noticed my mother had put blush over her entire face. Her lucidity was in and out at this stage of her disease, so this wasn't a surprise.

"Oh, Mom, remember? You don't want to look like a harlot," I said with a giggle and took a washcloth to clean her face. She nodded when I asked if she wanted me to reapply her makeup.

"This is just like old times, huh?" I said, applying her foundation. Then she put her hands on either side of my face.

"You know I love you, don't you?" she asked. "You know you're going to be OK? You're a good girl."

As I looked into her eyes, I saw the mother of my preadolescence and said, "Of course I know you love me, Mom." I felt hopeful for the first time in a long time, but the lucidity faded as quickly as it appeared. It was the last time I would get a glimmer of my mother's former self, and shortly after this day she wouldn't remember me.

My father poured all of his attention into my mother. He and I were more like roommates than father and daughter. Someone had to remember to buy the milk and get the meds. That just ended up being me.

And I was on my own.