Role Models: Jonatha Brooke

jonatha brooke
Jonatha Brooke’s new album My Mother Has 4 Noses is due in February. She’ll launch her one-woman Off Broadway show of the same name at the Duke Theater in New York on February 20. 

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Role model? My mother. I’m a little heartbroken that it took so long to see it. She rose above so much. Never lost her sense of humor. Instilled in me an unshakeable sense of possibility, self-worth, of being absolutely and unconditionally loved.

I don’t have children, but I am lucky that in the end, I was able to mother my mother. Return her unshakeable love. Even as dementia crowded in on her ability to think clearly, she was funny, she was loving, she was generous. She worried that there was enough ice cream for everyone. She wanted to make sure her “doggums” (stuffed animals that truly came to life for her) were warm enough. She would tell me I was getting more and more beautiful…and then with a mirthy glimmer say, “But don’t get all conceited about it.”

I am going through her papers. Scanning old photos. Marveling at my inheritance. A new year’s’ taking stock. She passed away on January 31, 2012. But her inspiration is ongoing. It’s there even in her last margin scribbles. On one crumpled page, “It never is too late to love someone.” On another, “I feel as if I have 100 years of talking with you and coming and going. How do I get back to London?” Finally, one I’d missed until today: “Every house can be a home, unless true love is seldom shown.” How did she do it?

I try to imagine what she must have felt, her capacities diminishing. I know she was convinced that it would pass, that this was something to rise above. She was too proud to talk about it. It was not her way EVER to complain. She grew up during the depression — everyone sacrificed. You just “keep on keeping on!” (She LOVED saying that.)

We never spoke about dementia. I had always hoped for that warm deep reckoning. But her denial ran deep. Our reckoning, when it was finally time, was unspoken.

Mom was in an “Independent Living” facility in Boston. I’d spent much of August 2010 with her. I was very worried, trying to figure out what to do.

Usually she would try to hurry me out after I’d spent the day with her. She knew she couldn’t keep up the performance of valiant, funny mom for much longer. I’m sure she was also embarrassed that she was becoming incontinent. So she would say, “You must be so very busy, don’t let me keep you…. And I don’t want you worrying about me. I am FINE. I promise I would tell you if there were anything serious going on. Now go. I love you, GO!”

On this particular evening she was exhausted. She’d fallen that morning  — just to her knees — she was able to soften her collapse by crashing on to the bed. But she still needed a nurse to come help her up. And she was scared. When I arrived with muffins and scrambled eggs, she was more demonstrative than usual. “Oh you spoil me so. You shouldn’t…. But I LOVE it!”

And then, tears.

“You know, Boolie,” (my nickname) “this room really is plenty big for the two of us. Even if you didn’t want to be in my bed, we could put pillows on the floor and you could just stay here.”

This was new. A still, very small voice. Something animal reared in me. The entire night sky seemed to join us in her tiny room. The electricity that’s always run between us was crackling. This was the call: “Love is all there is. There is nothing else. She is your mother.”

I moved my mom in with me that September 4th.

I was finally able to start the conversation. I didn’t name it. She didn’t want to hear it, but I just kept reassuring her in the most basic ways. “Mom, something new is happening, but I am here for you, I always will be. I love you, and I will keep you safe.”

There were awful times, and transcendent times. There were times when I thought I would die first. And then she would bowl me over with some exquisite laser-like recognition: “Boolie, I love you so very much. I never could have done this without you.”

Dementia’s one advantage is a complete presence in the moment. She taught me to join her there. She made it fun. We’d read poems. Make up silly rhymes, she’d play the clown, a dramatic impressario, a little girl. Then she’d insist, “Boolie, that’s GOOD!! Are you getting this down? We should make a play out of it!!”

On one particularly rollercoaster day, after many tears, and a long struggle to figure out what was really wrong, mom rallied. “Boolie! Write this down: Darren Stone, the famous writer, and the famous laugher, and the famous lover said these things! Now I am serious. We have to get on with becoming a better person and help other people! It’s not all about us. It’s aboutthe little boy across the street. And some day we might have to help him cross the street.”

It is as simple as that. Role model? Mom.

Jonatha Brooke

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