Sunrise Senior Living, reads the sign over the ancient metal gate. My car seems to know its way up the crooked driveway and into the closest spot marked Visitor. I come every day during my lunch hour to visit her. I work as a speech therapist at the local elementary school, so the commute is nice and easy for me. Every time I walk through those doors, I wonder when she won’t remember me. So many other things are gone from her now and every day is new, since there is no memory of the one before. I will cross that bridge when I come to it. In many ways, each day is new for me, too, since Mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
“Good morning, Miss Sue,” calls Bertha, the large and friendly woman who supervises the day shift at Sunrise. “Miss Ellen is looking for you already, ‘cause you know she don’t know what time it is!”
It’s as nice as it can be here, considering the mission. There is always a fresh floral arrangement and cookies on the welcome desk. Amazingly, it doesn’t smell bad. The wonders of chemicals, I think to myself. And it doesn’t have a scary hospital feel, either. The only dread is in my heart.
My mom always knew everything, and she knew how to take care of the big stuff. She cooked meals and healed heartache. She never seemed to tire of caring for me and my younger brothers after Dad passed away. She didn’t date, and I don’t remember her ever looking at other men. My God, she was a young widow. She was only 35, two years older than I am now and with three kids under 5, when the policeman knocked at the door that fateful night. It was a freak car accident. They told her that Dad had died instantly.
I’m not sure exactly if the accident was when I started to stutter. But I do remember that school was a nightmare, and when you have a traumatic childhood event, everything is measured in “before” and “after.” My therapist tells me this is normal. My memories of that time are painful. No words came out as I intended, and then the laughing would start. The elementary years run together. I got good grades but struggled to participate for fear of ridicule. Mom shared my pain. I knew I was loved, but kids really can be mean.
My Uncle Chris bought us a digital TV and DVR the summer before junior high school, and that opened my eyes to a whole new world. I was a bit of a loner, and I watched a lot of movies, especially musicals. Nothing was as amazing as A Chorus Line. I could have had that music on all day, and actually I often did. Something magical happened when I heard the lyrics to “What I Did for Love.” Diana sang so convincingly and I wished I could have that power.
Fast forward to the beginning of seventh grade. I was apoplectic about going to junior high school and still tripping over my words. And there was a new complication: mandatory choir for seventh grade girls! We had the class three times a week and participation was required. I started practicing in the shower so I would have privacy. Since mom was a great mom, turns out I really didn’t have privacy after all.
Seems that many times when people who stutter try to sing, their impediment disappears. And honestly I hadn’t noticed, but my mother certainly had. She went into action and called around to find me a voice coach, and my new hobby was born. My voice coach, Jane, was amazing, and I found out that I actually had a little talent. Tuesdays were now my favorite day of the week and, every other day, I went over my drills and scales but I lived to sing “What I Did for Love” whenever I could. Life was looking up. Mandatory choir was now mandatory fun.
The announcement of auditions for the school musical circulated right before Thanksgiving. There must have been God’s hand on the choice: an adaptation of A Chorus Line. I signed up immediately and flew home, elated to share the great news. The afternoon of the tryouts, I was nervous yet excited. Mom had given me a beautiful new red sweater to wear. She said it would help me stand out onstage. I believed her, and it must have worked. The role of Diana was mine and “What I Did for Love” was a 24/7 project.
The performance was glorious. My mom was in the front row, and the gleam of love in her eyes was unmistakable as I began: “Kiss today goodbye, the sweetness and the sorrow. Wish me luck the same to you. But I can’t regret what I did for love, what I did for love.”
“Is that you, Suzanne? Are you finally here? I’ve been looking for you all day! Can you sing for me?”
“Of course, Mom, of course.”
And today, like every day, I begin, “Kiss today goodbye.…”