The Greatest Gift

My mother was an amazing woman. Of course, she was. She was my mother. She was strong willed and stubborn and not someone you’d want to challenge, but she was also someone who loved big and loved hard and someone who was fiercely loyal and one you always wanted in your corner. There was nothing she was afraid to face or do, and not one challenge that she did not face head on. Extremely generous and giving, she was also smart and never stopped wanting to learn. She seemed perpetually young with a spry and free spirit. She took on the plight of the underdog anytime she felt the slight presence of an injustice. I am happy that I inherited those characteristics from her.

Near my mother’s sixtieth birthday, things began to change. Her personality shifted, her demeanor changed, her free and fearless spirit seemed to be having a little trouble getting off the ground. Something was wrong, and so began the long process of her diagnosis. Everything changed.

Deep In My Delta Soul
My Mother, Jonita Darling

Until you experience a loved one with Alzheimer’s, dementia, or similar conditions, it is very hard to understand just what happens to the patient, the family, and the support system surrounding this person. It is so much more than forgetfulness. It was devastating and I was in denial. My mother was smart and strong and I was mad as hell that she became this shell of herself. I just wanted her to snap out of it and bring her old self back to us. I knew she was still in there, I just wanted to bring her back out and back to those who loved her. In retrospect, I understand lots of things about her disease, the symptoms, the handling of the whole situation, and the domino effect this has on those closest to you. Sometimes life must be lived forward but understood backward. This was the case for me with my mother’s illness.

Deep In My Delta Soul
My mom and me on my wedding day, 2010

In the Spring of 2011, just before her sixty-sixth birthday, my mother’s suffering ended. Her life was much shorter than I ever thought it would be, but it was not any less full. I do feel that she was cheated from getting to know her grandchildren, taking a few more trips, and planting more flower gardens, but those are selfish reasons for me. And so, began the guilt of reliving the last few years of the long goodbye. You pray for a peaceful death for so long, it seemed like an eternity watching her suffer, and then when its finally over, it is like time flew by in the blink of an eye.

At the end of the 2012 Summer, I learned that Glen Campbell was performing with his children in the area. At this point Glen had also been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, which, of course, brought an emotional connection. Being the music lover that I am (a trait passed on to me by both parents), I was not going to miss the opportunity to see Glen in what would likely be his last live performance in this part of Arkansas. Being the proud Arkansan that I am, I was certainly not missing the opportunity to support a home boy and someone who had shaped so much of the music of my childhood.

I made my way over to the show accompanied by a friend. The venue was small and intimate. Glen and family took the stage. He was so natural and so in his element. Just as I observed with my mother during her illness, the music never left Glen. It was so easy for him to be playing and singing. He missed a few notes here and there, as well as some words and relied on the help of a teleprompter, but his children kept things smooth on the stage. A few people in the audience snickered at a blunder made, but most were kind and gracious and rolled on like nothing was wrong. Glen made fun of himself when he forgot the words at times.

There were moments in the show that seemed painful for me to watch because I had lived them, the frustration, the repetition, the slight signs of anger. I didn’t know if others in the audience recognized them, but I did. Yet each of these moments were so beautiful at the same time because of the grace and patience shown by the Campbell children, especially Ashley. Something about watching this all take place in front of me, in public, was so very therapeutic for me. I felt a huge release from the guilt and pain that I could never express while watching my mother slowly die.

After the show, I shared a few private moments with Ashley. I thanked her as a child of someone sharing the same sickness as her father. I thanked her for giving her father to the fans who loved him and for having grace and dignity in such difficult circumstances to continue to honor him in what he loved to do. I thanked her for helping me have some closure to all that I felt in this same situation with my mother. We shared a few words of comfort with each other. I told her that she and her brothers had given their dad the greatest gift by doing this tour with him. It was emotional, tearful, and load lifting and I am so thankful for those few moments with Ashley. She is an exceptional young woman.

The Campbell Family continued this journey with the documentary film I’ll Be Me. What an incredible and selfless gift to share with others the struggles of this disease. What a great way to honor Glen Campbell. Ashley, Cal, and Shannon Campbell didn’t just go on tour with their dad, they helped make the long goodbye a little lighter for themselves, for their father, and for many others. For that I thank them.

I dip my cup of soup back from a gurglin’ cracklin’ cauldron
In some train yard
My beard a rustlin’ coal pile
And a dirty hat pulled low across my face
Through cupped hands ’round a tin can
I pretend to hold you to my breast and find
That you’re waitin’ from the back roads
By the rivers of my memory
Ever smilin’, ever gentle on my mind

Deep In My Delta Soul
Photo by Ashley Campbell
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Deep In My Delta Soul

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