I’m Not Just Losing My Mother to Dementia, I’m Losing My Biggest Ally

"If you’ve witnessed a parent suffer from dementia or Alzheimer’s, you know the gradual dread of watching that person you love slip away."

When I came out to my mother at the age of 16, her response was simple: “That’s nice, honey. Can we talk about it tomorrow? I’m exhausted.”

We were taking a walk in our suburban, conservative town in northern California. The year was 1980. Ronald Reagan had just been elected President.

She wasn’t surprised. Before I was 10, Mom was “warned” by concerned friends that my movie-musical proclivities might lead to deviance. Nevertheless, she remained a nonjudgmental single mom with four other children—my straight and older siblings—and it was their young adult problems that kept her busy.

But being gay? If anyone had a problem with who you loved, my mother would pay no mind. Though she was concerned about my future in a homophobic world— one that’d soon be engulfed by the AIDS epidemic—her only wish was that I’d be happy, honest, and live my life to the fullest.

Today, nothing has changed except my mother’s memory. If you’ve witnessed a parent suffer from dementia or Alzheimer’s, you know the gradual dread of watching that person you love slip away. I could write endless words on the experience and still do it little justice. Instead, I’ll touch on an aspect I’d never given much thought to until recently: As my 86-year-old mother slowly slips away, so does my biggest ally.

When I abandoned sports in favor of community theater and lip-synching to Barbra Streisand’s “I’m the Greatest Star,” my mother didn’t discourage my behavior. I was happy—and determined. By the time I’d turned 10, she’d already taken me to New York to see three Broadway shows—Equus, Pippin, and my absolute favorite, Chicago, with Liza Minnelli and Chita Rivera. Shortly thereafter, she drove me to my audition at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. I was accepted and the stage became my safe haven for three years.

Waring Abbott/Getty
New York City in the 1980s.

Mom’s support continued without intermission. Once I moved to New York in 1987, she became a confidante in all things gay. She hosted my first boyfriend at her house when we came to visit and was thoughtful in asking how he should be addressed—”friend, partner, something else?” I said “boyfriend,” and she laughed.

When she came to New York and met my second boyfriend, she fell in love with him and he with her. Robert, who didn’t get along with his own parents, used to call my mother when I was visiting home. If I picked up, he’d often ask, “Was Mom there?” Together, they organized my surprise 25th birthday party.

Years later, I showed her photos of that party and told her half the people in attendance had died of AIDS. She cried and felt guilty for not knowing more. She wanted to hear everything about the pandemic.

After that, we’ve developed a sort of phone pen-pal relationship. While I have plenty of support and love from family and friends, with Mom the encouragement is fireworks.

Along the way, I introduced her to Will & Grace and she was ecstatic. We started discussing it religiously the day after airtime, and she told me her favorite character was Grace because she related to a woman who loves gay men. When I asked her what she thought of Karen, she said, “No wonder she’s your favorite, you’re exactly like her.”

I talked to Mom weekly (even though we didn’t have unlimited cell phone usage then). I told her of my acting struggles, writing difficulties, man troubles, how much I loved living in New York despite the frustration and setbacks. She would always end with something like, “You’re doing the right thing” and “Congratulations for pursuing your dreams.”

She never failed to ask me for updates on Madonna, my favorite singer and someone Mom has admired since she rolled around the MTV stage in a wedding dress and crosses. “God, do they hate her,” she’d say if headlines were critical.

David Mcgough/DMI/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty
Madonna performing in 1985.

In 2004, after struggling as a writer for years, I had my first book published. It was a gay wedding book, which, at the time, was considered very controversial. The bridal magazine I worked for conveniently fired me right before publication, and with “gay” and “wedding” heading my new resume, I couldn’t get a mainstream writing job.

One relative told me I was on a government hit list and another told me my book was trivial—not nearly as important as “real” marriage and wedding struggles. The latter then boycotted my book and me. Not one person I’d worked with in publishing came to the signing. Close friends stopped calling, angry that I’d been published.

So what’d my mother do? She flew me home and threw a party!

She decorated the furniture with copies she’d bought herself and invited every friend she knew, including some who were religious Republicans. If half of them were uneasy—picking up the book as if it might explode—my mother didn’t notice or didn’t care. Later on, she told me, she’d read the book twice. And that she’d called her local bookstore to see if she could open up a booth to help sell it. (She tried that tactic again for book number two, three, and four.)

When I started writing mostly gay-themed articles for The Huffington Post, she read them all and emailed them to friends. She would tell me she didn’t understand everything, and then ask me to educate her. I opted out on explaining things like “fisting,” but was thrilled to inform her about “undetectable.”

Today, Mom doesn’t quite understand that Will & Grace is back on the air. When I tell her about it, she usually assumes it never left. She’s in a rehab center recovering from two subsequent falls and six broken bones. On some days she understands the situation, at other times she tells me she can’t wait to get home. Some days home is where she lived in Boston, some days it’s her old house in Michigan. She reminisces a lot about her glorious upbringing on a Minnesota farm.

Grant Faint

She came to visit last June, and, limited in her walking and in the midst of a heat wave, we watched new Will & Grace episodes and YouTube clips of Madonna. She saw Jane Fonda, another hero (“God, do they hate her”), on Grace & Frankie, and when the subject of a popular publication I used to write for came up, she wanted to know if they ever got smart enough to pay me for my articles. That slight is forever etched in her mind.

Later during her visit, I had to take her to the hospital because she thought she had heatstroke. When the doctor came into the room, she told him she had no idea why she was there. She was a little annoyed with him—and me.

My mother can outdo Sally Field in the perkiness department, but in the taxi back to the airport, she grew glum. “I guess I won’t be coming back to New York again,” she said. It was a heartbreaking and sobering moment, though it lasted less than a minute. Approaching the terminal, she was all hugs and thank yous and see you soons. My mother never stopped smiling.

I still call her all the time and she usually starts the conversation by asking why we haven’t spoken in so long. Her greeting sounds like the tinkling of a far-off bell after a long walk, and she inevitably wants to know the latest in my pop culture universe. She’s often quite lucid, and were I a religious man, I’d be praying for her health to deteriorate no further. Good thing she won’t be reading this because she’d want to smack me into next week at the mere suggestion of a supreme being.

She sometimes forgets which sibling she’s talking to, she often forgets why she’s in the hospital, and she rarely has any remembrance of how she fell and broke so many bones, or that she broke them at all. But at one point in, every conversation she asks, “Are you still writing, honey? I don’t know how you can still do that after all these years.”

Because of you, mom.

David Toussaint is the author of four books and has been a professional journalist since the age of 15.
@DRToussaint