After her first son, Paul, was born, Miriam Perrone spent nearly six decades caring for him.
Her eldest of four sons was born with Down syndrome, which comes with a litany of disabilities and special needs.
But now the need for care has come nearly full circle and Paul, 61, takes care of his 93-year-old mother. It starts with his making their coffee first thing in the morning — cream, no sugar for both — and carrying hers upstairs to her bedroom in their condominium in the St. Simons Island’s village.
Recently, Paul was reading a book, “Papa Bear: The Life and Legacy of George Halas,’’ the founder of both the NFL and Paul’s favorite team, the Chicago Bears. His favorite baseball team, the Cubs, plays across town.
It is his love of sports that prompted Miriam to splurge a little and upgrade their cable to include ESPN so he could catch more Chicago games.
“It hasn’t worked since,’’ she said of the upgrade.
That’s perhaps why the TV was dark, but Paul would probably read anyway. Miriam is one of the few mothers who could complain that her child reads too much.
That’s odd coming from a writer of articles and plays, many rooted in the civil rights movement. One of her plays was about activist and social worker Andrew Goodman, a young New York man who the Klu Klux Klan murdered in Mississippi during Freedom Summer of 1964. She invited Goodman’s mother, Dr. Carolyn Goodman, to Brunswick to watch a performance.
Dr. Goodman had to change some things on her busy calendar, but she told Miriam, “If you can do a play in Brunswick, Ga., and pay homage to my son, I’m coming.”
The house contains other illustrations of Perrone’s life, a drawing of Paul, a picture of him with then New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and picture of the first board of the International Ladies Garment Worker’s Union in which her mother poses with the other members, all men.
But Tuesday, it was something more mundane for the Perrones. They were waiting for a technician from Comcast, which reminded her of a joke that her nephew, accomplished artist David Millman told her. Millman’s art hangs on the wall. One huge vividly but fitting colored painting shows a tractor-trailer coming with Miriam at the wheel, her late husband Patrick in the passenger seat and their four sons between them, all with their happy eyes on the road.
Unlike the painting, they’re not together often. Her son Daniel recently retired from the State Department and lives in Barcelona with his wife. Mark is a systems analyst in Portland, Ore., and Matthew is an account executive with a medical firm in Madison, Wisc.
Another of Millman’s works, a striking drawing of the blues singer Bessie Smith, hangs on another wall. Smith died in September 1937 after the wood-top Packard in which she was a passenger hit a truck on a road between Memphis, Tenn., and Clarksdale, Miss., places where the blues incubated into mainstream.
Millman painted the Perrones in the semi-cab when he was in art school.
“He was really remarkable,’’ Perrone said of her nephew, but he’s given up painting for writing, which brings her to the joke.
“He said he’s done painting. He’s writing a novel on the devil holding a meeting on how they could torture people. They came up with Comcast,’’ she said.
But there was no devil in the Comcast tech who found the problem quickly — a misplaced cable by someone who installed the cable boxes for the Perrones — and went to all three of their TVs making sure they worked. He also programmed the remote controls so she needs only one per TV instead of turning it on with the ones that came with the TVs and changing channels with the Comcast model.
An altogether pleasant experience, it seemed.
As the technician worked, Paul reheated his coffee in the microwave and sat watching.
That he is still among us is a remarkable thing in itself given that the life expectancy for those with Down syndrome is well short of that of average persons. He almost didn’t make it through infancy because his parents followed the best medical advice of 60 years ago. The doctors told the Perrones to take their son to a home where he could be cared for.
One night, the nurses at the home called to tell them Paul had pneumonia. Miriam told her husband without hesitation.
“Go get Paul. Bring him home,’’ she said.
Paul recovered, grew stronger and ever since he has had to please a stern but loving taskmaster, his mother. He has had required reading and homework that she corrects and the late Bill Owens gave him guitar lessons. All of that may be why he is able now to care for himself and his mother.
“He’s such a great help,’’ she said recently as they were out grocery shopping.
She still cooks, but he cleans up, washes the dishes and cookware and puts them away.
He waters the flowers on the back patio, the roses, the geranium and all the others.
Every night, he helps her up the stairs.
And, he gets to the phone quicker than she can. Unlike many in today’s world, she still has a house phone. She also has a cellphone but it’s a flip phone because she figures smartphones have features she’ll never use. She bought a new one recently and paid good money for it. Its hinged cover broke after just a few days. Paul couldn’t help with that and she couldn’t negotiate the maze of company reps to get a new one.
That fell to Maurice Hudson, who, for four hours a day, handles things that neither she nor Paul can handle. He patiently spoke with customer service reps, learned the phone, which turned out to be rather flimsy for the price, was not insured and went through her options. His main daily chore, however, is to drive her and Paul, both to shop and Paul to his job at McDonald’s on the island every Friday and Saturday.
She had done the driving until recently. On April 13 of last year, she suffered a health scare for which Paul’s help was not sufficient, one that made Paul leery of any phone.
At 4 a.m. that day, she was awakened by a heart attack. She dialed 911, the ambulance arrived quickly and took her to Southeast Georgia Health System where a cardiologist installed a stint to clear a blockage. But there were other blockages so he sent her to St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Jacksonville for other stints.
All the while she was hospitalized, people called her home to check on her. Paul wouldn’t answer.
“He was afraid it was St. Vincent’s with bad news,’’ she said.
She worries about what will happen to Paul when she’s no longer here to care for him. Since moving to St. Simons from St. Louis, she has been an advocate for programs for the disabled for Paul and others like him.
“There are no good programs for adults Paul’s age,’’ she said.
For the time being, however, she has recovered sufficiently from her heart attack and she carries on with the help of her eldest son.
She appreciates the cleaning, his help in the kitchen and her morning coffee, but that’s not what she treasures most.
It’s his assurance.
“I think the best thing you’ve done for me is patting me on the shoulder and saying, ‘Mom. It’s going to be all right,’ ‘’ she told him. “You’re a comforter.”
Terry Dickson has been a journalist in South Carolina and Georgia for more than 40 years. He is a Glynn County resident. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.