Local author Dan Mathew’s new memoir, Like Crazy: Life with my Mother and Her Invisible Friends, opens on a cold pre-holiday December evening in Olde Town Portsmouth. With a meticulous eye for detail, he takes us on a brisk walk around Olde Town that any Hampton Roads resident will recognize: carolers swirling through the streets, the brightly lit deco Commodore Theater, and in stark contrast, the stern 1846 courthouse across the street.
We end up back at his newly-purchased, dilapidated 1870 Victorian townhouse (his Christmas playlist includes such classics as “Daddy’s Drinkin’ Up Our Christmas” and “Here Comes Fatty With His Sack Of Shit”). He’s rushing repairs in order to make his home suitable for his aging mother, Perry, who is moving in.
This is where we join Dan for a four-year descent into the relationship with his charmingly saucy, hysterically inappropriate, and sometimes inexplicably absent mother and her declining mental health.
His story could have easily devolved into a standard “taking care of my older parent” tale. What makes this memoir unique is the author’s ability to show us the love, the terror, and the ironic hilarity of his situation. This book is a rollicking journey through their lives with well-drawn and immediately recognizable characters.
And I do mean recognizable.
Many of the people, landmarks, and events he details are Hampton Roads’ fixtures. If you’ve been here for any length of time, you’ll recognize most of them such as the Rainbow Cactus, the Portsmouth Ferry, and the offices of PETA, where Dan has worked since 1985.
You’ll also meet the outlandish collection of characters that populate this world: boyfriends, both ex and current; a stripper; an ex-con; a born-again handyman; Navy sailors; and a pissed off cat.
The heart of this story is Dan’s unique relationship with Perry, who unbeknownst to him, is suffering from undiagnosed schizophrenia. As her illness unfolds, we are swept up into her unhinged, raucous, and oftentimes frightening behavior, which he details in painful and poignant slow motion.
Undeterred, Dan and Perry, along with his new beau, Jack, build a makeshift family. In fact, this is also a story of Dan’s transformation from a carefree gay bachelor into a loving son, and ultimately, a loving husband.
Along the way, we visit the threesome’s Ptown Halloween costume party, stop by for a late-night round of drinking, and join them on road trips to Richmond and North Carolina. We ride out Hurricane Irene, a paralyzing Hampton Roads’ blizzard, and the progression of Perry’s still unknown health issue.
It all comes to a head on the heartstopping stormy night his mother suffers a complete break. He struggles to load her in the car, braves the downpour, and hauls ass through the Downtown Tunnel to the Norfolk General emergency room where he is at last given the final diagnosis.
Both of my parents passed from dementia-related diseases, and I was their caretaker. Dan’s vivid recall of the stark terror he felt that night and in the subsequent weeks resonated with me so loudly that I put the book down and bawled for a few minutes.
Any adult who has ever been a caretaker for a loved one will understand.
Despite its dark subject matter, Dan weaves his story in way that touches all the heartstrings. The ultimate triumph of Like Crazy is his ability to balance the pain of losing a parent with a quirky understanding of the absurdity of life, a clarity of time and place, and ultimately the triumph of love.
LIKE CRAZY BOOK LAUNCH
WHEN: Monday, August 10, 5-7 PM
WHERE: The Commodore Theater, 421 High Street, Portsmouth, VA.
Masks required and limited capacity in their lobby. Free admission.