Monday, May 5, 2014

My Mother, Lisa Cunningham

I haven’t blogged about my mother since she died except mentioning her in a few posts about family, Christmas, posts on Facebook, etc. I didn’t know when I would be ready to do this.  I began writing this blog on March 23rd 2014.  I’m hoping to finish it by Mother’s Day.   

Mom began her adult life when she was still just a child herself.  If I remember right she got out of high school when she was 16 years old, married at 18, and had my brother by the time she was 19-20.  Im not real clear on those years (since I wasn't around) I know the age difference between my brother and I is 13 years.  I remember very vividly the night my mom explained to me that Bob was my half brother.  To me he had always just been my brother.  I was so upset, I was crying because he wasn't my "real" brother. I was inconsolable.  The fact he was graduating high school as I was entering kindergarten helps you understand how young I was when mom told me that news. There wasn't a day that went by that I wasn't screaming "MOM BOB'S TICKLING ME,  MOM BOB THREW ME IN THE POOL, MOM BOB AND HIS FRIENDS THREW ME AGAINST THE WALL!  (the wall was completely covered in shag carpeting patches it was the 70's after all.  I laughed so hard when they were doing it) BUT STILL!! I cant remember how soon after graduation he moved to Hawaii but I remember him moving back in and out of the house a couple of times,

Mom and I were inseparable; I was the classic definition of a mama’s boy.  It sounds clichĂ© I know but she truly was my best friend.  There were years in my childhood that I had very few friends if any at all.  Mom was always the one I would talk to about everything, the things I didn't talk to her about she already knew anyway.   My childhood was very fortunate; mom and dad owned a successful interstate trucking company with multiple locations that afforded us many luxuries.  We took great vacations, extravagant Christmases, parties, and toys like multiple boats, motorcycles, a jet ski, etc (mom even surprised Dad with a new Corvette for Christmas one year)  I was wearing designer clothes as early as middle school.  I think that had a lot to do with the bullying.

My favorite trips were during Easter vacation when mom and I would drive up to Northern California stopping at different historical places and touristy locations, then we would take the coast back home.  We would laugh and sing and sometimes stop in on business clients, I guess that meant we were able to write the trip off as a business expense.  On occasion our musical tastes would mesh.  Mom liked Adam Ant, Culture Club and of course The Go-Go’s.  But that meant I had to listen to Jimmy Reed, Engelbert Humperdinck, and Dionne Warwick.  The deal was one night we would stay at a Motel 6 type of place, but the next night we could stay in a “luxury” hotel.  Of course when we finally got to San Francisco it was luxury every night.  It was our favorite city and always the highlight of the trip. One year we found a motel in Pismo Beach that only had the “penthouse” available.  It was a conversion of a 2 bedroom apartment that was right on the beach and it was $60 per night!  That was less than half the amount of what we would spend on rooms in San Francisco.  Mom loved that place; we stayed a couple of nights each year.

If you ask my neighbors and friends from high school I had the “cool mom” Mrs. C. as most people called her.   She let me get away with EVERYTHING, again I thought I was pulling something over on her but she always knew what we were up to.  One night we took her car out and I forgot to take the pot pipe out of her car when we got home.  She came into my room the next morning where 3 of us were sleeping and woke us up holding the pipe asking what this was.  I said I don’t know someone else must have left it there.  She said well I smoked some and I found out what it was.  That was the last I heard of that and I never saw the pipe again.

Mom spoiled me rotten. I usually got everything I wanted and asked for.  Animals, artwork, tons of books, designer clothes, skin care, cologne, even having a swimming pool built in our somewhat small back yard when we lived 1/2 a  mile from the beach.    We were constantly at the mall shopping.  When I was 16 she let me go to Europe with my photography class.  So she got me a Gold American Express card in my name for “emergencies” well a Swiss watch, the Gucci store and Bulgari seemed like emergencies to me.   Years later I asked mom why she let me spend so much money, why did she give me everything I asked for?  She said you always had such a hard time at school and seemed so lonely  (due to the bullying) I just wanted you to be happy.

After dad died when I was 16 things would never be the same.  Her heart wasn't into running a trucking company; it was just something she fell into when dad bought his first couple of semi trucks.  She kept things going for a couple of years but a woman in a trucking business wasn't taken very seriously back then, that with employees robbing her blind and taking advantage of her, but the final straw was when the building burned to the ground, after that the business was closed.  We eventually lost our beautiful home in Huntington Beach.  Mom was lost and went through a very rough patch so she moved to our property in Nevada on Lake Mojave, Cottonwood Cove.   It wasn’t as glamorous as it sounds; It was a double wide mobile home that was almost 2 hours away from Las Vegas.  She had a boyfriend back then and he worked at some factory nearby.

Mynde and I moved to Irvine and even then when mom had little herself she made sure that we had new furniture for our apartment.  I didn’t get to see mom as much then, I was in my early twenties and discovering myself and I just didn’t make enough time for her.  I was just coming out and of course mom always asked a lot of questions like what have you been doing?  Are you seeing anyone?   Mynde and I had split long before so mom was very inquisitive.

When Mynde got married Mom came for the wedding and I finally had to tell her I was gay, I was terrified.  She said she always had a feeling I was.  The next thing she said was so surprising to me.  She said “I don’t care what you do just don’t ever put on a dress” Odd at the time but it truly didn’t matter to her as you will read here later in the story.

 Mom finally moved back to San Diego and we were all together again. Our relationship continued to grow and we became even better friends than ever.  Mom loved going to the drag shows at the Brass Rail, I also dragged her to other bars including Rich’s, #1 Fifth Avenue, Hamburger Mary’s (now Urban Mo’s) and of course she loved Baja Betty’s almost as much as I did.  The shrimp Cesar salad was her favorite. I remember once I took her to the Flame which was a mostly lesbian bar.  She was both flattered and afraid when the women would try to talk to her. When I had to use the restroom I had Tootie, a local popular drag personality stand with Mom until I got back
Mom was still sort of “lost” when she moved back to San Diego living in Vista.  She still didn’t know what to do with her life.  She had a VCR she needed fixed and noticed there was only one place to go so of course she thought she should open an electronics repair shop.  Her boyfriend Greg knew enough about electronics, but basically she just put an ad in the Pennysaver looking for part time help.  She was a clever woman that Lisa Cunningham.  Her personality and her ability to charm people made them completely trust her.  She made the business somewhat of a success.  It was still very lean times for her, but she got by and had somewhere to go and something to do every day. 

Mom was in her 60s when she went to school at night while working during the day to get her real estate license.  That opened up an entire new life for her; she was VERY successful in North County real estate.  Mom was back on top earning money like she hadn’t done in a decade. Once again her generosity to her family and even to strangers began. She and her partner/significant other Jim bought a condo on the golf course in Fallbrook and completely renovated it.  We made a surprise trip to Cleveland for a family reunion and we went in style; we even rented a Jaguar when we got to the airport.  I think because mom had so little when she was growing up; getting all the hand me downs from her big sister and even some of her brothers clothes she enjoyed being able to afford luxuries she could only dream about as a child.  I remember a story of a dress that her older sister Faye had made just for my mom; it was her favorite dress because it was only hers, and she wanted to wear it every day. 

Mom made her mark in North County real estate.  She helped numerous individuals and families avoid being homeless or losing all they had. One client, dying of liver cancer, had given up and was being evicted by the bank.  Mom sold his house in four hours and with the aid of the broker and agents at Sunshine Properties, moved his belongings into a storage unit so that he was able to pass with dignity. Many first-time homeowners would not have been able to purchase a home without mom’s knowledge and huge heart.

Mom eventually came around with the whole issue of me doing drag.  She said, well at least you look good. She would come to shows and watch me perform wave to the crowd like a proud mother when she was introduced.  I was so proud to show off my mom to friends and even strangers that she was supporting me.  When I was running for Empress Mom called and asked for my gown makers phone number, they had met several times before so I thought nothing of it.  What she did blew me away, she told him she wanted him to make something for her to wear to coronation, something slimming yet elegant.  Well needless to say I think she looked better than me that night.  The proudest moment was when I was being crowned I asked for her to come on stage to witness the crowning.  SHE got a standing ovation and I was doing everything I could to hold back the tears.  She even went to the long drawn out victory brunch the next morning where she was given the obvious title of Queen Mother to the Empress.  She didn’t quite understand that but I told her when we went to Las Vegas Coronation that’s how she will be introduced.  I think she got a kick out of that.  But I truly knew she accepted it when she saw me on the news one day in drag.  I had just finished riding a bicycle down the Pride parade route and it was a little warm that day as a local news station caught me to interview me.  When I got home there was a message on the answering machine from mom saying. “Well I saw you on the news today; couldn't you have done something with that hair?”  Yup, it was official she was comfortable with the whole thing.

When Mom first realized something was very wrong with her health I was right there at her bedside when the doctor came in to tell her she had some tumors on/in her lungs.  It took me a few moments to truly realize what he was saying, but still we didn't know the options available yet, so no one was giving up hope.  I wasn't working so I was able to drive her back and forth to Dr Appointments, grocery shopping, etc. 

 When we finally went to the oncologist the news wasn't good at all.  He told her with treatment she could live an additional 6 months.  She asked some questions then asked him to clarify that no treatment would cure her but just prolong what she was currently going through. Pain, no energy, shortness of breath etc.  When he reaffirmed that there was nothing to save her life she looked at me and asked “what should I do?” I told her to do what she wanted to do, no one could make the choice for her and no one would judge her for her decision.  She decided to forgo treatment and hospice was brought in right away,  She was “ok” for a awhile but of course her disease progressed and she became less lucid and not the very strong, intelligent, independent woman I have always known her to be.  There would be days that she would just sit in bed looking out the window crying.  I asked what was wrong and she just said she was so scared to get any sicker.  Seeing her in moments like that was extremely difficult, but I never cried in front of her.  If she saw me get upset, Mom would worry more about me than herself and I just didn't want to add to her already huge burden

I basically moved into the house bringing Mr Kitty along, she loved feeding him treats from her bed, it was one of the few things that brought her joy.  After I got settled in I tried different things to keep her mind sharp.   I tried playing her some of her favorite music from the past, but her attention span wasn't that great.  We would wake up early and I would crawl into bed with her and watch Matlock every morning.   She also really wanted to watch Whitney Houston’s funeral, but as many of you know it was very long and she just couldn't handle sitting there to watch the entire thing.  She was mostly confined to her bedroom upstairs although there were a few occasions we successfully got her downstairs to just sit for a change of scenery, where she could look out over the golf course.  One evening she did feel up to going out on a “date” with Jim.  They were going to the Greek place where she liked their Greek chicken and milkshakes.  She started getting ready over an hour before they left.  She put on her best tracksuit, and she tried putting on some makeup so I helped her with that.  Then she started curling her hair, she was frustrated it wasn't working.  When I went to help her I saw the iron wasn't plugged in.  She knew what she wanted to do; she just wasn't always able connect the dots to get it done. 

She would see something she wanted across the room so she decided to get out of bed and get it herself, that didn't always end well.  She was starting to fall frequently.  One time I could hear her fall at the bottom of the stairs when l when I was in the kitchen making her breakfast.  I would always get so scared when she‘d fall I would run to her yelling MOMMY.  I felt like a helpless child.  One early morning she somehow got downstairs and past me while sleeping  on the couch,  The little neighbor kid came frantically knocking on the door saying Miss Lisa was down on the corner.  I found her in her pajamas hugging onto the street sign completely confused as to where she was.  All of these incidents took a huge toll on all of us.

I thought that knowing more about her ancestry might be a nice gift to her in her final days, knowing a little more about where she came from.  With so many siblings and she being one of the youngest she didn’t have a very close relationship with most of her brothers.  What I did learn is that mom’s birth name was not Lisa, but Lula Belle, or Lulabelle or some other form of that.  Thinking back now I can remember some of her oldest friends and brothers calling her “Lou.”  I’m quite sure she was named for her grandmother, Lula Ball.  Years previously we learned that mom’s birthday, January 23rd, 1938 was in fact NOT her birthday but instead it was February 4th 1937.  We learned this via the Social Security office.  My personal thoughts are that she was born in January but there was a mistake made when recording her birth.  Most of her siblings were born at home and I’m assuming she was too.  The Dr most likely confused the dates when he went to the recorder’s office.  It was a different time back then and things were done much differently than they are now.  Although in my research I have still not been able to find any records of her from her childhood however, I did learn that mom and dad were actually married 1 ½ years after I was born!   GASP!!   LOL again it was a different time back then.  Mom was 31 years old when she was pregnant with me and at that time people considered that “too old” to have a child.

I was only able to get so far on the family tree, because mom’s ancestors  were Cherokee and those records just didn't matter back then I guess.  So my trail sort of ended.  Mom didn't seem very interested by this time.  She was getting much more despondent and too sick to pay attention to most anything.

I wish I had some great story about words of wisdom or magical moments that happened between us while she was sick. But the truth is, she was just very sick and rapidly declining.  I did everything I could to make her comfortable.  She liked most of the food I cooked her, she liked the new pajamas I would pick out for her, and the occasional treat I would remember her always enjoying like Nutter Butter’s or Teddy Grahams.

I realize the greatest gift that Mom and I received was being able to spend so much time together before she died. When my Father died I hadn't seen him in a couple of days and he died in an accident late at night.  Mom left me a note saying he had an accident but I should go to school.  They pulled me out of school early to send me home.  I never got to see him, and from what I heard he was in pretty bad shape in the hospital, so its probably for the best I didn't go see him.  Sadly I couldn't bring myself to go to the viewing.

 I would take care of mom Monday through Saturday afternoon, and then one of the ladies from church would come by to sit with her for a few hours until Jim got home.  My brother Bob would cover Sundays.  One particular week I told my brother I wasn't going to leave for the weekend because I didn’t think she was going to make it through the weekend.  By this time we had a hospice nurse at the house 24/7.  I was downstairs and the nurse peeked over the railing to tell me I might want to come upstairs. A million thoughts filled my mind as I went up that flight of stairs.  When I got to her bed she was wheezing and having extremely hard time breathing.  She seemed to be staring right into my eyes as I took her hand in mine.  Her good friend (and mine) Di-Anne was in the room holding her other hand.  I just kept saying over and over, “it’s OK mom you don’t have to hold on anymore, you don’t have to hold on”  I told her everything is OK here, I’m fine, Bob is fine, you can go now.  Then she took her final breath at 9:34 on August 26th.

I didn’t know what to do, or how to react, was I going to lose it completely?  I kept trying to reach my brother via phone, but they were all asleep by then.  I went into her room to look at her a few more times, and then I realized what I needed to do.  Although Mom was being cremated, I knew she would never and had never left the house without her hair and makeup done.  So that’s what I did.   Di-Anne worked as a mortician so she knew the best way to get mom dressed, I picked out something comfortable for her, a blue colored blouse that she loved.  I had done her makeup so many times before it didn’t really seem that strange to me, however just like in the movies, I did have to shut her eyes, unfortunately her mouth was open a bit and it stayed that way.  She looked so peaceful and so beautiful; we hadn’t seen her look that great in months.  I was so glad we made her up; because that is the last vision I have of her in my mind. I took an old photo of my brother, me and mom, and I and put it in her blouse pocket, 

It was about 12:30 AM before the morticians came to pick her up, I stayed downstairs but I could  hear Di-Anne making sure they were respecting her and how she was handled.  She was giving them the bizness!  Mom was her best friend and she knew what she was doing so she made sure they handled mom and the situation with dignity.  I accidentally caught a glimpse of the gurney with mom zipped up in a blue plastic bag being brought down the stairs. I've tried to erase that out of my mind.  That night I slept in her bed, on the side she always slept.  It was comforting. 

This may sound weird to some, but perfectly normal to me.  She often comes to me in my dreams, again nothing profound or amazing she’s just there. After my dad died he never came to me in a dream until after mom died.  She was the glue that held our family together so I'm sure she made sure Dad came to check on me.  Her final wishes were to have her ashes and my dad’s ashes combined and scattered in the ocean in Huntington Beach where some of the best times of our lives were spent.

There is never a day that goes by that I don’t think of her, the times when I pick up the phone to tell her some good or bad news are fewer now.  I completely fell apart when she died; I’m finally starting to get myself back together now.  That’s what she would want.  She was a HUGE worrier and I just want her to be at peace.

Mom and Dad "pre" Kurt
A few weeks before I was born

on one of our many trips

We loved our photo booth pics

Family Portrait 1975
Mom rarely smiled for photos, so I love this one
Mine and Dad's
 my favorite photo of mom

Queen Mother to the Empress
 witnesses the crowning

At the Brass Rail for Dreamgirls

The last photo taken of us together.  December 24th 2011
At the time we didn't know she was ill, but now looking at this photo its very apparent to me.
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