Jonathan Perkins is known around town as a gifted artist who brings characters to life on stage.
As a local playwright and spoken word comedian, he has led productions at many Columbus venues, including the historic Liberty Theatre, where he once served as executive director. These days, he also runs a youth literary arts organization called Fountain City Teen Poetry Slam.
But what Jonathan didn’t fully appreciate, until recently, was the unfolding drama in the everyday struggles of life.
That changed in 2009 when Jonathan’s mother, Carmen Perkins, was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s at age 59. Prior to the diagnosis, Carmen had been an educator in the Muscogee School District for 38 years, teaching Georgia Studies to eighth-graders at Daniel and Double Churches middle schools.
“My mother was so smart and that was one of the most crushing things about it, watching that deteriorate,” he said. “She could read about three of four books in a day. She was just a book fanatic.”
But soon Carmen stopped reading, and began repeating things. She would go to Publix for laundry detergent and return the next day to purchase the same thing.
“One of the things that stuck out the most was when Obama was elected president,” Jonathan recalled. “For her generation that was not a forgettable moment. Yet, every time we talked about it, it was like we were experiencing it for the very first time.”
Jonathan also noticed that she often looked disheveled and was becoming more and more frustrated. He had to take charge.
“The person was still present so you still had to deal with that resistance,” he said. “Like you couldn’t be like, ‘Mom, we watched this already.’ So that was another difficult thing especially when you’re dealing with such a strong, intelligent person.”
Jonathan, who was the only one of Carmen’s three children still living at home, became his mother’s caregiver. Afraid to leave her alone, he took her to all his art functions and turned to his craft for comfort.
“The only way I could talk about my mother was through a poem,” he said. “That’s how my friends knew what was going on. It was at the open mic, or the No-shame Theater.”
Yet he felt like the one sitting in the audience watching a tragedy unfold.
“Being a caregiver is a front-row view of a decline,” he said. “Alzheimer’s isn’t a disease of if; it’s a disease of when. So the time that I cared for my mother was making that time of ‘when’ work and matter.”
Carmen Perkins, age 64, died February 18, 2015, at Lillian Carter Health and Rehabilitation Home in Plains, Ga. While grieving her loss, Jonathan hooked up with a national art organization called Alternate Roots. He performed some of the poems about his mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s at one of their events, and he eventually received a grant to develop a one-man show title Journey Here in his mother’s memory.
Jonathan will perform the show Saturday here in Columbus, from 6:30 to 9 p.m. at The Loft, 1032 Broadway. General admission is $16 for ages 18 and up and $14 for groups of 10 or more.
“It’s comedy, it’s drama, it’s social justice, it talks about addiction, a lot of things that are happening right here under our noses,” he said.
But most of all, it’s about his relationship with his mother and the journey they took together down one of the darkest paths in life.
“This is me using my voice, but also giving a voice to other caregivers out there,” he said. “Because, yeah, you’re watching your loved one go through this, but it also takes a toll on you.”