Jonatha Brooke is a singer, a songwriter, and a caretaker. For the past couple of years her music career has taken a backseat to caring for her mother, a poet who is in the final stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Brooke has been writing about it with signature candor in the journal on her website. We spoke on the phone recently during a lull in the action.
Q: I know things are kind of crazy right now. Is this still a good time to talk?
A: This is actually good timing, because we just finished up this morning’s poop drama with mom.
Q: Poop drama? That’s a good place to start.
A: I am a poop expert. I could write a thesis on poop management for the elderly.
Q: Give me a snapshot of the situation. Where is your mom living?
A: Mom lives on three and I live on seven. A year ago August I moved her from her supposedly independent living facility in Boston to an apartment that happened to be open in my building, She was at this very lovely Christian Science manor called The Benevolent Association, but she was not independent or really living. I mean, it was a mess, and she was falling, and everyone was in denial about the reality of her physical needs. So I kind of rode in and told everyone to fuck off and said, “I’m taking it from here.”
Q: That’s not the typical trajectory.
A: I think mom has no idea how lucky she is, and yet it’s a real gift to be able to do this.
Q: How and where does music fit in?
A: My career has been on hold, and there are times when I want to just jump off the roof, but she’s giving back in these crazy, deep ways that are very important. I will never regret this.
Q: When was she diagnosed?
A: Well, she’s a Christian Scientist.
Q: So she wasn’t diagnosed.
A: There’s no such thing as diagnosis or illness or pain. You know, that’s a very long story, and there’s great, great theater in all of this.
Q: Was she a Christian Scientist when you were growing up?
A: Oh yeah. I grew up Christian Scientist, so now some of this is dealing with the remnants of her faith and my adamant non-Christian Scientism.
Q: OK, let’s me rephrase the question. When did she start slipping away?
A: I’d say starting 2006, 2007 it wasn’t just wacky mom anymore, it was “she only has 10 things she can talk about and she has to put a list by the phone to remind herself what to say to us when we call.” We took the keys away in 2008, then we moved her to a smaller house in Maine, and she moved to this Christian Science place in the fall of 2009. I stole her away from there in 2010. So it’s been pretty steady.
Q: And this is a woman who was a poet and a teacher. Communication was the center of her life.
A: Yeah, and that’s what’s so remarkable about her now. I mean, every person’s dementia is different. And hers happens to be very verbal. So as much as she’s completely losing her vocabulary, she’ll just come up with the wildest words that mean nothing like what she means to say, but it’s very colorful because she just loves words. So if she can’t find the word for “ice cream” she’ll say “George Washington.” She’ll just sort of fish until she finds something that feels good in her mouth.
Q: As traumatic as this experience must be, you seem to be engaged in a really spirited way. You mentioned that she’s giving back to you. Can you talk about that?
A: Yeah. Even when I was up in Boston, really tearing my hair out, figuring what the hell I was going to do, I was writing it down. My dad was a journalist, so I would just document these conversations that I was having with her. I would sit with her and just write and observe. And then I started photographing her. And then I started filming her. I don’t know if it’s just me trying to salvage some kind of creative life out of this very difficult task, or it’s just that there is a great story to be told here. And she’s absolutely complicit in this theater that she’s kind of created.
Q: How do you know she’s complicit?
A: One of the ironic things is that my mother’s whole life has been this quest for identity. I don’t think she’s ever felt like she knew who she was. And she was emotional and moody and probably always depressed. So she changed her name a million times. She became a clown at one point. She’d go to parades dressed up as this clown persona that she adopted. I was 12 at the time and mortified that my mother was this fucking clown. My brothers and I would just roll our eyes, year after year, when mom would come up with some other thing she wanted to be or try. And now, in this sort of enclosed environment, in her little apartment downstairs, she has this rapt audience. She’s very funny. She loves making us laugh, even though it’s completely nonsensical. Since I brought her here she will say, almost daily, “Are you getting this down? That’s very funny. We could make a play out of this.”
A: So there’s this weird kind of electrical thing between us, like on some level she knows that I’m creating something out of it. I don’t know if it’s a book, an e-book, a theater piece, maybe all of the above. She’s absolutely willing and contributing.