My first Broadway show, at age 6, was Annie Get Your Gun, and over the years my mother made sure her three daughters saw at least one production a year. At our home in Pittsburgh, show tunes were the soundtrack of our lives.
“Listen!” my mother would call out as the Chicago cast recording played. “This is the part where Amos sings ‘Mr. Cellophane.’ ” The recordings were an indelible road map — she knew what was coming a nanosecond before the first note hit. I grew up feeling the heartache of Chicago’s Roxie Hart, Fantine of Les Misérables, and Christine Daaé of The Phantom of the Opera. The once-glamorous Grizabella singing “Memory” from Cats always brought my mother to tears. She asked, “Isn’t it beautiful?” or “Isn’t it tragic?” It was vitally important that I feel what she felt.
My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in her early 70s, seven years ago. It was subtle in the beginning, but we all knew it was happening. She called my sisters and me and told us the diagnosis. Soon enough, she was calling again, and again, only to share the same revelation: “Well, I have some bad news . . .”
As the disease began taking hold, what I found striking were the things she did remember. When visiting New York, she could navigate the congested streets as though she had spent her life there. Our point of origin made no difference — she made her way to any given destination with precision, her walker taking out whatever was in her path. She remembered not only how to get to TKTS for discounted tickets, but what time the booth opened and when sales began for both matinees and evening performances.
On those trips, she also had moments of lucidity, even attempting humor about her condition. “Of all the things I’ve lost, I miss my mind the most,” she said, still crediting Mark Twain. In other, more solemn moments, she said she felt like “an empty shell.” But those flashes of clarity soon became rare.
My mother now spends most of her days sleeping. She rarely talks, but she smiles when my sisters and I visit her and her husband in Florida. We take turns traveling, and we go out to dinner with them and then sit with her after he goes to bed. I have come to dread this time, because I can’t help feeling that this is not my mother. Instead, she is precisely what she described: an empty shell. Sometimes, if I dare myself to look, I see desperate eyes begging to be set free.
On my most recent visit, my stepfather was turning in. “I will leave you two to catch up,” he said, and I instantly felt that familiar dismay. I tried to will away the image of a shell and suddenly thought of Grizabella, the once-glamorous cat. Instead of making idle chitchat, I sat next to my mother on the couch and took out my iPad.
When I started a video of Phantom’s “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again,” the mother I knew but thought I had lost sprang back to life. She looked at me, gasped, and then gently reached for the device. Holding it in her hands, she watched the performance as though she were once again in the front row of the Majestic Theatre. She hummed, she cried, she tapped her foot, she oohed and aahed. I was transported back to 1988 in New York City, where together we watched Sarah Brightman perform this very solo, and I suddenly recognized the mother I had known for my first five decades.
When it was over, she set the iPad down and began clapping. She looked at me with those extraordinary blue eyes, imploring me to feel what she felt. Without hesitating, I joined in the ovation.