When I was a little girl, my Mom would always sing to me. A lot of hymns, nursery rhymes, songs from artists who were part of my Dad’s vast 8-track and record collections, and some songs she just made up on the fly. Two of my favourites were ‘Mandy’ (Barry Manilow version here), and ‘Amanda’ (Don Williams version here). At the time, I didn’t understand all of the lyrics, and I’m pretty sure my mom wasn’t even singing the right ones. But based on the chorus of both of these songs, I believed that I was the light of my mother’s life, and that when I cuddled up to her at night and gave her a goodnight kiss, I was stopping her from shaking. I don’t think there is anything my Mom loves more than being a Mom. She loves children even more than I do (and if you know me you know my love is in no small amount) and I’m sure if my father was willing, she would have had at least 5 more.
She is known by many names – Mom, Audrey, My Aja, Auntie Audrey, Auntie Auds, Mrs. Coolman, Momma Coolman, Mrs. C., and most recently, to her crown-jewel of delight, Grandma Auggie. My favourite nickname for her is Puppin, which is what she called my sister and I – her Trini accented version of “Poppet” (we like to believe, anyway). She is genuinely one of the friendliest and most caring people who has ever lived. And since her own kids haven’t blessed her with human grandchildren, she relishes very much in the babies her other kids have presented to her and opened up the world of Auntie Audrey (or Grandma Auggie) to a whole new generation. Someone recently joked and asked why I wasn`t jealous of all the attention my Mom had focussed on her “other” kids. But honestly, it’s never crossed my mind. My Mom has a lot of love to give and she has never made my sister or I feel less loved than all those other people she had in her life.
My Mom was never a strong disciplinarian. She would try, but usually I would laugh and run away if she tried to swat me with a wooden spoon. She’d have to threaten to tell my Dad on me for me to behave so that I would take her seriously, and even then I didn’t always listen. To be fair, she’d often hug me up right after I’d done something wicked. And she always made time for me. When my sister came along, she made time for the both of us. (To note, I didn’t always feel like I had her attention so to make sure I did I would be mean to my sister to make sure she paid attention.) My Mom would make 2 or 3 different dinner meals to make sure we all had something we liked to eat instead of forcing to us to eat the food she made for her and my Dad. I mean, there is a ridiculousness to this, since I‘m sure I’d only make one meal, but she wanted to make sure my sister and I would eat. And that we were happy. (And yes, she even did this when she was working. She and my Dad shared dinner duties back then, but on her nights, we had a variety to choose from.) She always made time for me and my sister. No matter what she was doing, if she couldn’t coax us into doing it with her, she’d drop it and spend time with us and find time to go back for herself later. (I am sure it was stressful for her to juggle everyone’s needs but her own, but I was too young to see it then.) My Dad isn’t really a touchy-feely kind of person, but my Mom is so tactile. She was always cuddling me and my sister. Even when we were in our twenties she wouldn’t think twice to just jump into bed with us and rub us down with Vick’s if we weren’t feeling well and then rub our heads or stomachs before chatting or singing us to sleep. This isn’t strange for everyone (I have several Aunties who have done the same), but for many this is… foreign. But my Mom spent a lot of time just loving the shit out of us. Life was not perfect, but I always knew I had my Mom in my corner and that she would do anything for me. There was never a time in my life where I doubted this, even in our most serious arguments. She was the light whenever I needed it.
Her first stroke certainly changed her lifestyle, but she still had some independence. She could walk with a cane, she could bathe herself, she could still cook, and most importantly, she could still talk. She still made sure to call people and catch up with them – she could still keep those connections for herself. While I worried about her, I was still around to make sure she was ok, and she only needed help with a few things. And she could still rub my back if I was having a bad day and needed to lay my head down on her lap to cry.
Her second stroke caught me off guard. Physically, it meant a total loss of her independence. But the biggest adjustments were the loss of her speech and the effects on her memory. These have been the hardest parts to deal with. To clarify, they’ve been the hardest parts for me to deal with. I can only imagine what it’s been like for her. She has aphasia, which is honestly, an asshole. There are many effects from a stroke that are assholes, and aphasia is right up there. My beautiful, chatty Mom with her lovely singsong voice and infectious laughter who would never forget anyone’s birthday, especially mine, couldn’t tell me what day of the week it was, say my name, or physically blow out candles on her cake anymore. My Mom who used to go meet ticket resellers during her lunch hour at some of the seedier addresses in Toronto so her daughters could get better seats to the New Kids on the Block concerts, wasn’t able to get out of bed on her own or tell me what her name was. These are life changes that are not easy to accept or adapt to.
Well meaning people have told me how awful they feel for me, or how sorry they are for me that my life is so shitty, or that I’m too young to have to worry about all the things I worry about when I talk about my Mom. And I usually want to tell these well meaning people to fuck off. While their hearts are in the right place, it’s insensitive and also incorrect. It is a really hard and shitty thing to deal with, but so are a lot of things. And I don’t think my life is shitty. I know I am damned lucky. I have friends who have lost parents, or have had to be caregivers to their parents at a much younger age than I have had to be. I have an amazing group of people around me who have seen me and my family through some thoroughly fucked up times – but even when it feels like it’s been forever, I know it’s only temporary. (I am looking at you too, 2020.) For every single thing my Mom has done for and given to me during our lives together, I don’t see how it can be anyone but me (or my sister) helping my Dad to look after her.
My Mom is alive. She knows who I am and while she isn’t exactly the same version of the one I grew up with (and she shouldn’t be, to be fair), there is a large part of that version still here. I can tell by how she smiles at me, by how she calls my name (or even if she calls me by her brother’s name), and most of all I can tell by the way she still hugs me and rubs my back when I’m having a bad day. Though it may not know it, the world is a much better place with Audrey Coolman in it. And I will do my best to be her light for as long as she needs it.
I’d like to say I fall into the “sandwich generation” – and while I have no children of my own to care for – I find myself falling somewhere in between caring for my mother and caring for my sanity. When I am not working, I have the honour of helping look after my amazing mother, who has suffered 2 strokes in the past 11 years. Being a caregiver is not for the faint of heart, and if I am being honest, it can be a crappy club to be a member of. I have fallen down more times than I care to count through this journey, but while channeling my incredible stubbornness, strength (both of which I come by honestly,) and several F-words (Faith, Family, Friends and Food), I keep getting back up. IG: @Coolman_Eh