The day Prince died, I was with my mother in her doctor’s office. It felt like the worst day of my life—partly because of its similarity to the previous worst day of my life.
It was the day after Mom’s birthday. Her dementia was making her frisky. She wanted to talk to every stranger, to visit the babies in the maternity ward, to shop in the gift shop. Taking care of my mother during frequent visits gave me a doomed, precarious feeling, like stumbling along a cliff that you suddenly realize is no longer there beneath your feet.
We settled into the waiting room, and within 30 seconds—at the exact same moment that Mom decided she wanted gum—I got the first text: Did Prince pass away? and immediately the second one, from my niece who was also a fan: Did u hear about Prince? Adrenaline blazed into the mix, my throat clutched, tears bloomed in my eyes.
Mom stood up with difficulty, and started gathering her coat and purse as my phone blew up. Is it true about Prince? You’re the first person I thought of. Did you hear Prince died? Is it a hoax? The last text I could look at came from my husband, who I knew would get the correct story before saying anything. His message said, Holy shit, I think Prince is dead.
I barely had time to turn off my ringer before Mom tried to walk away. “I’m going back down to the gift shop to get some gum,” she chirped. I knew she didn’t have any money, she would likely get lost, and when she inevitably forgot what she’d gone into the shop for, she would take out her embarrassment on anyone nearby. I couldn’t think about Prince right now. I had to convince her not to go, or things would get worse fast.
“Hang on, Mom, let’s just wait. They’re going to call us in a minute.” I dragged on her coattail until she plunked back down in her seat.
“Well, I just wanted to get some gum. That medicine makes my mouth so dry, and they never offer you water in these places. And I just don’t know what I’m supposed to do when…” Her kvetching faded out while my mind slipped back to Prince.
He was the only musician—the only pop culture figure at all—who had ever mattered to me. My awareness of Prince coincided with the beginnings of my awareness of men, especially black men. His music provided the soundtrack to my adolescence and was woven into every fantasy and inspiration. 1999 and Purple Rain in particular lent power and scope to my sexual coming of age. Every album I discovered was a revelation and an education, and a testament to what was possible from an uncompromising artistic vision.
Recently, after decades away, my husband and I had returned to the purple vault and produced several extravagant and popular live performances in celebration of Prince’s music. He couldn’t be dead—not when I had finally come back to purify myself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka! I searched my phone for confirmation, and there it was: Prince found dead at Paisley Park on April 21, 2016. He was 57.
I needed to fall down and wail. I needed someone to hug me, anyone, any of the people who had texted me, anyone who loved him, too. But I was 1,100 miles away from my people, mired in a town where most still considered Prince a weirdo and a homo, anchored in a doctor’s waiting room pretending to hold it together, wedged in beside the woman who had prevented me from seeing him perform when it mattered most.
I turned to look at my mother through fresh tears. She was struggling to stand again, her torrent of gleeful bitching still going strong, but I couldn’t hear a word. All I heard was a keening chorus in my head that said: “Prince is dead. I’ve never seen him perform live. And it’s all your fault.”
The misery I felt then was the deepest I’d felt in years. It was happening all over again: I wanted—needed—to immerse myself in thoughts of the artist whose work meant so much to me, but my mother’s needs came first. I didn’t even have the luxury of 30 seconds to grieve; that was long enough for her to get into trouble. Mercifully, a nurse called our name, and I grabbed Mom’s departing sleeve to swing her around toward the exam room before stumbling along blindly behind her.
Once we were tucked alone into a small office behind a closed door, I thought, OK, she’s contained. I took a deep breath and then dropped helplessly into my sorest memory, the one I’d walled off for decades: the moment when it all broke down between my mother and me.
Mom had always enjoyed ruining happy occasions for her family—or perhaps she was just good at it. In any case, it happened a lot. Greater in my mind than all other times combined was The Time That Mom Wouldn’t Let Me See Prince in Concert.
She had given her permission months prior, and my anticipation could not be contained. At 14, I loved Prince more than anything else in the world. Five girlfriends and I were going to Market Square Arena in Indianapolis with one of their parents, and it was all we talked about for weeks leading up to the concert: What would he play, what would he wear, what would Wendy and Lisa wear, what would WE wear, who would open, would we know any of his dance moves, oh my god, would our heads just explode with the awesomeness of it all?
The day of the show rolled around and, about an hour after I started getting ready for the show, Mom told me that she’d changed her mind; she wasn’t letting me go, after all. Incredulous demands to know why were met with an impenetrable wall. She would give me no reasons—not You’re too young; not I don’t trust these friends of yours; not He’s too dirty for a 14-year-old to see—just no explanation at all. I called one of my friends, hysterical, and told her to come get my ticket. Two of them came over and assured me, with tears in their own eyes, that they would bring me souvenirs and tell me everything afterward.
I cried in my room for eight hours, day into night, storms of grief building and dissipating and building again. Sometime during the fourth hour, I heard my parents’ low, worried voices conversing in the hallway outside my room. I fell asleep, woke up, remembered what I was missing, cried again.
Around hour seven, there was a knock. My friends had come straight to my house after the concert, bearing programs and bandanas and a few of the freaking carnations that had actually rained from the ceiling into the audience during Purple Rain! Their enthusiastic high fueled my angst, and each thrilling revelation was a fresh dagger in my teenage heart. Finally I cried so hard that I hyperventilated, and my friends left, feeling weird.
Soon after, my mom came into my room, looking truly unsure of herself for the first time I could ever remember, and said the words I will never forget: “Ellen, if I had known it meant this much to you, I would’ve let you go.”
Maybe she thought she was being kind by admitting she’d made a mistake, but to me, this was the final act of betrayal. As if I could have made her see how important it was, if only I had argued harder? Or if she’d paid more attention to what I was saying? It didn’t matter now. I cried for another hour and then shut off the valve, knowing I could never trust my mother again.
A shower of cotton balls snapped me back to the present. My mom was opening the doors of the exam cabinets, scattering medical supplies and looking for gum. I jumped up, grabbed her and sat her back down beside me. For a brief second, clarity returned. She looked me in the eye and said, “Are you all right? What’s the matter?” I almost laughed. I figured, what the hell, I’ll tell her.
“OK, you remember Prince, that musician I like so much?” I asked.
She said, “Yeah, I think so.”
“Well, he died today. I just found out while we were in the waiting room.” My voice started to tremble again.
“Oh, honey, I’m so sorry,” she said. “You did a bunch of shows with him, right?”
This time I did laugh. “Well, we used his music. He’s way too famous to work with us.”
“Oh.” I could see her brain searching. “But you were friends, right?”
It was no use to explain reality, and she would forget immediately, I knew. I said, “Well, I loved him a lot.”
She held my hand and patted it. “I know you did, sweetheart.” Then a switch clicked, her face changed, and she spat out, “Where is that damned doctor, anyway?!”
The damned doctor eventually appeared to examine my mother and tell us things we already knew about her deteriorating physical and mental state. While he was talking, my mind slipped away again. I dimly remembered that a few years before, I’d asked Mom about the concert incident, and she had no recollection of it. Now I wondered just how early her dementia had set in.
Afterward I dropped Mom off, then drove to a park to cry. The redbud trees had bloomed that week into a lavender explosion, and I had to stop and laugh when I noticed purple rain running down the windshield. I laughed again when I realized that I’d ignored 25 intervening years’ worth of opportunities to see Prince play live.
I flew home just in time to join a wake and dance party thrown by fellow fans, and we shared our grief with what felt like the entire city. Most of the cars that drove by were bumping Prince; local DJs dedicated shows to him. I sat on my husband’s lap and we sobbed during Sometimes It Snows in April, and I finally felt something like whole again. A few weeks later, Mom fell and broke her hip, sending her to the hospital and ultimately landing her in a nursing home.
I continued to fly back and forth repeatedly to visit and help, watching Mom’s mind and body recede further and further from the rest of us. Endless hours of sitting—on airplanes, in her room at the nursing home and during hospital stays—helped me assimilate the new layers entwining Prince, my mother and myself.
A few months after Prince died, my mother successfully starved herself to death. My father and I spent the last hours at her bedside, and our family was there to see her off. I closed her eyes myself, and I’ll always be grateful for that last, intimate experience with her.
A few days later, we held a wake, simple and full of laughter. Afterward, we sat around telling stories. My eldest brother asked me, “Hey, were you friends with Prince?”
I was taken aback. “Uh, no, he was a huge rock star. I never got to meet him. Why?”
“Well, I didn’t think so,” he said, “but that’s what Mom told me a few weeks ago. She said, ‘When Prince died, your sister was really torn up. They were pretty good friends.’ ”
And I had to laugh again.