It was a beautiful day in October, 2000, in Bozeman, Montana. My three sisters and I all managed to find ourselves there at the same time, to visit our mom. Our stepfather Edward Francis and his wife Eileen also live in Bozeman, with their son (my little brother) Seth. It was a family reunion of sorts. Moira and I flew in from Los Angeles, and Tatiana from Atlanta. Erin also lived in Bozeman with her husband John Devine.
It was not exactly a happy occasion, although parts of it seemed that way. We were all getting used to a new reality–our mother was wasting away from Alzheimer’s disease. Her body and mind were slowly losing their grip. I didn’t know how far she had fallen. The previous year, I’d come to Montana for mom’s 60th birthday celebration, April 8, 1999. That celebration was held at church headquarters in Corwin Springs, and mom still seemed more or less herself. Now, 18 months later, I didn’t know what to expect.
We gathered at the Devine’s house–all the family who were in town, and a select few other friends. Mom arrived with her caregiver team. I greeted her with a hug. “And who are you?” she asked. “I’m Sean,” I said. This was my first real brush with her Alzheimer’s. I thought she was joking, or possibly playing a game with me. “You really don’t know who I am?” I asked? “No.” she replied. “I’m your son.” I said, stunned. She looked at me with no trace of emotion. I was too shocked to speak. She greeted the rest of our family.
In the 36 years I had known my mom, she did not have a lot of happiness. On that day, even though she didn’t know who we were, I sensed that at some level she knew we were family, that she was happy and “in the moment.” But it was still a shocking thing. It’s a feeling like no other. I’m sure anyone who’s ever cared for an ailing parent knows what I mean. There’s a point when the balance shifts–when a parent crosses a threshold. From being someone you relied on, who was superior, larger than life. Though it may happen gradually, especially when large distances are involved, it still seems like a moment in time. Suddenly the idol comes crashing down. What’s left is the shell of a person. Not only have they lost their power and psychological hold over you, they can’t even take care of themselves. Such is the degeneration of the human brain.
This process was made even more dramatic by the collapse of her career and ministry that had occurred over the previous 5 years. She had gradually withdrawn from public appearances, and finally she moved away from the Ranch, so she could get the full-time care she needed, and also have ready access to the local hospital.
All this had happened over a period of years, while I was busily making TV in Los Angeles. Erin had told me that mom was getting worse. But nothing could have prepared me for the shock of her question: “And, who are you?”
Some of us regrouped in a more private area and passed a pipe around. The situation couldn’t have been more surreal. I needed some introspective time. I needed to heighten my sense of reflection. The woman I’d turned to for answers for most of my life, (who thousands of people thought was the voice of fucking GOD!!) was standing outside, and could no longer recognize her own children!
We rejoined the group, and walked mom slowly through the suburban neighborhood. Erin had her dog Millie on a leash. We laughed and talked to each other, and tried to keep mom company. To an outside observer, we could have been any typical American family walking through Pleasantville. But the irony was intense. Growing up, how many times had the four of us been paraded around by our mom, shown off to her congregation? We had walked the walk and talked the talk.
Erin and I had both been ministers and board members of the church. We’d performed weddings. We’d traveled the world by our mom’s side, me with the AV crew, Erin with the writing team. We’d watched her do the impossible, keep an impossible schedule, drive people hard. But we’d always played second fiddle. In those days, we had obeyed her orders without question. At various times over the years when we all worked for her, we’d challenged her authority. She never blinked. In the end, she gave her children the proverbial two choices: Her way or the highway. All of us had taken the highway. Today, she needed our help to get around a neighborhood.