D. Kevin McNeir with his mom, Edna Baker. Submitted photo.

As Mother’s Day approached this year, I was determined to keep a stiff upper lip after having lost my mother on July 4, 2019, at the age of 91.

So, I bought cards for mothers I know, some young, some not so young, and I was ready to cook my mom’s favorite dinner in her honor: collard greens, sliced tomatoes, cornbread, candied yams, and oven-fried chicken.

But when the day came – this year falling on Sunday, May 14 – I felt as if I were paralyzed.

I could barely speak to anyone without breaking up, tearfully. And a wave of sadness and depression enveloped me like a huge, dark cloud. But as my mother always told me when things got really difficult, I made a valiant effort to “just tie a knot” and as she said, “hang on.”

It didn’t work but at least I had my two companions, my two dogs, Baby Girl, and Duchess, who, as they always do, sensed my melancholy, and hovered over me, jumping, barking playfully, and licking my tears as they fell.

But May also marked another important observance in the U.S.: Mental Health Awareness Month.

According to the latest reports associated with mental health, loneliness has become one of the leading causes in diagnoses of mental health problems. I can certainly relate. Still, after almost four years since my mother’s death, I can say that with counseling, prayer, a support team and my two dogs (of course), I am beginning to turn the corner.

I remember telling my sister I thought I would be over the pain by now. But she shared that like her, I will never completely be “over it.”

When I apologized to my former wife for not even calling her or mailing the card that I had purchased, she quickly forgave me.

Still, I must clarify that even before my mother’s death, I had already begun to lose her – at least in pieces or in stages – because of Alzheimer’s disease.

She began to exhibit signs of this horrid mental affliction in her mid-80s. As time went on, particularly after her death, I found myself identifying the stages as we experienced them together and remembering specific events when each stage manifested itself.

As her caregiver for the last five years of her life, except for the summer months (June through August) when my sister gave me a break, it was just me and Momma.

I remember five stages in particular. But there could have been more.

First, there was FORGETFULNESS. One day, while driving to visit my stepfather in their hometown of Williamsburg, Virginia, Mom suddenly could not remember how to get home. I thought she was playing at first. But then I realized she was serious. She had no idea where she was or how to steer the car back to her house. So, I took over the wheel.

Second, was a great sense of LOSS. As the baby and the only boy, I was used to getting my way with my mom. And she always cooked my favorite meals whenever I visited her. But as the disease grew with intensity, she was unable to cook. She struggled to measure ingredients. She burned dishes, leaving them in the oven too long. She lost her sense of taste and therefore could not season the food properly. Oh, how I missed her home-cooked meals.

Third, she began to REVERT toward childhood. I had taken care of my daughter during her first years of life – whenever my wife needed some help – and I knew what it was like to clean a female child. But not a woman. Suddenly, I had to change my mother and bathe my mother and take care of other feminine problems that had never been on my radar. Not to be funny but sometimes the smell was so strong I had to hold my breath. Sure, Depends helped, but it was still inadequate.

Fourth, there was ANGER. Mom sometimes had moments when she was furious and she let me know it. She didn’t want to leave her bed, or the house or the car or an event. She would have temper tantrums with little or no warning. Sometimes, I think she was just angry because she knew something was wrong but couldn’t put her finger on it.

But then, there was the final stage: ACCEPTANCE. Just a few weeks before she died on a beautiful fourth of July morning, she, without warning, became very lucid. It was one night as I was putting on her nightgown and tucking her in bed.

She told me how much she appreciated the sacrifices I had made – leaving my home in Miami, giving up my job, abandoning my friends, and moving back to Virginia to first help her with my stepfather, who by that time had been confined to a nursing home with Alzheimer’s. And then, to step up and care for her as her health quickly declined shortly after his death.

It was one of those conversations that left us both in tears, clinging to one another for dear life. But I thanked her too for everything she had ever done for me. For being my OAOM – my term I always used when sending her a note – One And Only Mom. She would add in her notes to me, OAOS – One and Only Son.

Alzheimer’s forced me to delve into a world that was foreign to me. And it was hard, painful, frustrating … and a lot of other words which I will keep to myself.

But I wouldn’t change a thing. And you know what, if she were still alive today, I’d still be cooking and cleaning and cajoling and maybe even cracking a joke or too – just to make us both laugh.

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