Roller Coaster Reflections on Mother’s Day
“Hey, let’s go to Six Flags today,” my mother suggested one Saturday morning in early June of 1980 as she hovered over the shabby sofa on which I sprawled. “We shouldn’t waste such a gorgeous day, and you don’t have to work, right?”
“Huh?” I peered up from the juicy novel I’d planned to devour first over summer break.
“Come on, it’ll be fun!” In one swift move, Mom confiscated the paperback and hoisted me from my cozy nest. “You can read in the car on the way there and back, okay?”
“What about the twins?” I asked about my sisters. “They’ll be ticked to be left out.”
“Yeah, right, aren’t you funny! And besides, they’re working today. This is our special treat … on me.”
My older siblings had entered the “it’s-not-cool-to-hang-with-Mom” stage of adolescence. At fourteen, I was headed in that direction too, testing my independence with my first job at McDonald’s and spreading my wings with activities away from home. The mood-swing-inducing hormones that would distance me from my mother for the better part of the next decade were already running through my veins.
Nevertheless, my transformation to unrecognizable human being wasn’t complete yet, the inevitable rite of passage still a few years off. As the baby of the family, I shared a special bond with my overworked mother. A single parent pushing fifty, she rarely showed so much spontaneous enthusiasm. So, with only minor resistance, I agreed to her excursion only a few hours away by car.
A thrill seeker at heart, I got a kick out of theme parks and knew the ins and outs of every ride worth a sixty-minute-plus wait at Six Flags. Navigating this terrain alone with my mother for the first time, we compromised to hit each of our favorite attractions and wound our way from one end of the park to the other. My mother insisted on the live performances and stage shows, the Chevy Show number one on her list. The arctic blast of air conditioning in the theaters was a welcome reprieve from the sun baking us to a crisp as we crisscrossed through the teeming queues of popular rides.
Bring On the Roller Coaster
I longed for the stomach-dropping buzz of the roller coaster, which my mother tolerated only for my benefit. She was rattled by the Screamin’ Eagle, a massive white mountain and one of the world’s fastest coasters at the time, clenching her teeth and the handrails for a one-hundred-foot drop followed by jolting twists and turns as we were hurled around the wooden track at sixty miles per hour.
Our preferences matched perfectly on the Log Flume however, a river rafting ride along a water course that Mom enjoyed for the cooling drench and I liked for the final waterfall plunge. Spinning rides were out of the question because they made my mother sick to her stomach, so we steered clear of Tom’s Twister and the like. We wanted to avoid any trouble with the treats we guzzled without remorse to stay cool: lemon shake-ups, soft-serve ice cream, and cherry slushies to the rescue.
In hindsight, and especially when Mother’s Day rolls around each year, my reflections on this special trip are bittersweet. I was on the brink of growing up and away from my mother, soon to become the typical teenager hiding secrets and resenting her for all the times she said “no” with good reason. But that day at Six Flags, we shared our love of life and laughter as accomplices on a secret mission of pure amusement.
That spur-of-the-moment splurge turned out to be my last childhood adventure with my mother before I headed off to college, got married, and started my career and family. Sixteen years later as I welcomed my first child into the world, my mother was already struggling with serious memory impairments and confusion at the age of sixty-two. Just when I’d matured enough to respect her experience and value her friendship and advice, she was no longer willing or able to give it because she was consumed by a crippling anxiety and fear that made each day harder and harder to live. In another four years, I found myself sandwiched between the care of my two little ones and my mother, forcing her placement into a memory care facility when irrational behavior threatened her safety and that of others around her.
Stop the Roller Coaster
My family rode an Alzheimer’s roller coaster against our will, tossed about an uncertain and frightening track that threw us for loops with each progressing stage and faculty lost. Just as my mother once endured the Screamin’ Eagle for me, I persevered through the infrequent highs and numerous lows of dementia for her, doing my best to make the right decisions on her behalf along the bumpy route.
We stayed the course through a wild dementia ride until the bitter end, thirteen long years of heartbreak and sadness watching an inhumane disease slowly strip my mother of everything that made her recognizable. On Mother’s Day each year, my heart breaks anew for the beautiful woman taken too soon from her children and grandchildren in such tragic fashion.
Now I’m an advocate raising awareness for Alzheimer’s disease through my writing and volunteer work. No one’s life should end this way, whether age 40 or 90, and no one should have to endure a loved one suffering this cruel demise from a killer in slow motion. A cure must be found for this devastating illness because dementia is a roller coaster ride you never want to take.
Award-winning author Kathleen H. Wheeler writes stories that sing because she cannot. Her debut novel Brought To Our Senses was named a 2017 Next Generation Indie Book Awards Finalist for First Novel. A marketing communications professional, she is also a music enthusiast and lifelong fan of a British musician known by a one-syllable nickname. Along with her husband and two children, Wheeler calls the Land of Lincoln home.