All her life, his mom had been a helper. Now she was growing helpless, but actor Courtney B. Vance rose to the challenge.
Posted in , Jul 26, 2016
"Do you need anything, Mom?” I asked. My mother lay in the hospital bed we’d set up when she moved into our guest house in Los Angeles three years before. She was motionless except for her eyes. She blinked to tell me no. Blinking her eyes and wiggling her foot to hit a bell have been her ways of communicating since she lost the ability to speak.
“Try to get some rest,” I said. I kissed her forehead and she blinked back at me, our code for “Good night.” I left her with her nurse and went to our house, only steps away.
My wife was in bed already, quiet but not yet asleep. The world knows her as Angela Bassett, movie star. To me, she is simply my beautiful wife.
Angela lost her own mother just two years ago. That made my mother’s deterioration even harder for her to bear. We knew the end was inevitable. Mom has ALS, and that’s not a disease you recover from.
It was heartbreaking for my mother to end up so helpless when she’d always been a helper. She was a librarian, involved in groups all over Detroit, our hometown—literacy programs, homeless shelters, Habitat for Humanity, book clubs, a recycling center, and more.
She was determined to pass that giving spirit on to my older sister, Cecilie, and me. Dad worked his way up at Chrysler from foreman to benefits administrator. He and Mom instilled their work ethic in us too.
We were a lower-middle- class family. From an early age, Cecilie and I helped out—doing chores, taking care of our dogs. My parents sacrificed to send me to Detroit Country Day School. My scholarship didn’t cover everything. I needed a job every summer to contribute.
I loved Country Day. I worked hard academically. I played football and basketball and ran track and was All State for all three. I was so grateful to have been given the opportunity to attend the school that I did everything you could volunteer for—homeroom announcements, student council, choir. I wanted to succeed so I could help my parents the way they helped me.
My goal was to go to Harvard. And I did. Sophomore year I got bitten by the acting bug and by junior year, I was a member of the Boston Shakespeare Company. I’d get up at 5:00 a.m. for my work-study job delivering newspapers in Harvard Yard. I’d go to classes, ride my bike into Boston for rehearsals, do shows at night and crash at my aunt’s house.
Then I’d get up at 5:00 a.m. again and ride back to Cambridge to pick up my papers. Growing up, I had always tried to hide my emotions and put on a good face. Through acting, all of that changed. I learned to channel my emotions into a character, a scene. It was so freeing. I’d discovered my gift.
I didn’t realize it then—I was just taking my first tentative steps toward faith, drawn to church though I didn’t quite understand why—but through acting, God would bring me an even greater gift.
A year after I graduated from Harvard, I was accepted into the master of fine arts program at the Yale School of Drama. In the spring of 1983, I went to visit the Yale campus, and there she was, Angela Evelyn Bassett.
She was graduating that May. I wouldn’t start school until fall. I had a meeting with a financial-aid officer, and then Angela and a couple of other students took me around.
She and I met again when we were touring in August Wilson’s Century Cycle plays together. She was in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and I was in Fences. We were both in serious relationships, and dating didn’t even enter our minds. We became fast friends.
Years later, when neither of us was seeing anyone, we went on a first date. It was a quiet disaster. Angela is shy, I’m shy, and now that we weren’t just hanging out as friends, we didn’t know what to say to each other. It was a relief when the evening ended.
I didn’t run into her again until more than a year later. By then, I’d given my life to the Lord. I’d gotten baptized at a historic Harlem church that I’d been going to whenever work brought me to New York. I didn’t know the Bible then, or have any spiritual tools. Yet there I was being rinsed clean, given a fresh start. Amazing!
I went to a play with a buddy. Angela was there with the mother of a mutual friend. We all chatted afterward. Our friend’s mom needed her dog walked early the next morning. I volunteered to drop by first thing and take care of the dog. That really got Angela’s attention.
The helping spirit that Mom and Dad had instilled in me Angela called a servant spirit (her great-grandfather was a preacher and her mother raised her and her sister to love God). She’d admired that spirit in her sister’s husband, but she’d never found it with anyone herself. She wasn’t used to someone doing for her the things that came naturally to me.
This time around, Angela and I connected. We talked so long on our dates that we closed restaurants down. The more time we spent together, the more it struck her that I was always asking, “What can I do? How can I help?”
When she got a cold, I went straight to her house with my bag of health food. I took over her kitchen, grated some ginger, boiled it down, added honey and lemon, then served the elixir to her.
Sometimes we would just look at each other in awe and say, “I’ve been looking for the love of my life all this time and I can’t believe it’s you!”
We were married in 1997, on a beautiful October day. The ring I slipped on Angela’s finger has ABVGODCBV engraved on the inside—to symbolize that the two of us will keep God at the center of our marriage.
That commitment helped us work through the rough patches we had early on. When my career suddenly slowed down, for instance. There were months I wasn’t working. I felt very insecure, as an actor and a man. Angela was strong for me then, just like I learned to be strong for her in her low moments.
My career picked up again. I became a series regular on Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and appeared in films and plays. Angela landed good movie and TV roles. In 2006, we became the parents of twins, a boy, Slater, and a girl, Bronwyn. A year later, our joint memoir, Friends: A Love Story, was published.
Mom came to visit often. She, Angela and I had fun competing over who could help more. “Let me do the dishes, Court.” “I’ve got it, Mom.” “You’re our guest, Mama Leslie!”—that’s what Angela calls my mother—“Relax, already!” Everything was going well.
Then Mom was diagnosed with ALS. At first her symptoms seemed manageable. Still, Angela was on her, saying, “You need to come live with us, Mama Leslie. The kids want to be with their nana.” Mom, of course, refused, not wanting to be a burden.
I was in denial. This couldn’t be happening. My dad had died 20 years earlier, yet Mom had forged on. She was so full of life, even busier in retirement, helping others, than she’d been in her working days.
We went to visit her in Detroit. Mom had started slurring her words. Angela and I didn’t want to embarrass her by mentioning it. Our six-year-old son was the one who spoke up—“Nana, why are you talking funny?” he asked—and thank God he did.
Mom moved in with us not long after that. Just in time. Soon she started to lose the ability to speak and move.
Even with around-the-clock nursing care, I needed time to help my mother, to do for her what she’d always done for me. Angela gave me that time, so the rhythm of our family wasn’t disrupted.
In fact, the kids, who are 10 years old now, are learning what it means to be a helper, just like their nana. They go sit with her, talk to her, make her laugh. She can still laugh. We try to find the joy in life so we don’t focus so much on the losses.
Still, it’s hard. It’s been three years since she stopped being able to speak, and I’ve forgotten the sound of my mother’s voice. There’s not much more that can be done for her except manage her pain.
I understood why Angela has had such difficulty witnessing my mom’s illness. Seeing her this helpless has made me fall to my knees and cry out to God. And that’s what I told Angela that night in our bedroom. I sat next to her and took her hand.
“I know it hurts because Mom’s not her old self. Spend time with her while you can. You’ll want to be able to say you saw her through to the end.”
Angela nodded. “God won’t forsake us,” she whispered, a tear winding down her cheek. I moved closer and kissed it away. The salt lingered on my tongue, reminding me that pain is part of life. The days that are rough, that I struggle, that’s when I’ve learned not to question God but to lean harder on his unchanging hand, his ever-present help.
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