In Honor of Mother's Day: Stories about moms

This week, in honor of Mother's Day, we present two stories about science and moms! 

Part 1: Marine biologist Jessica Hoey tries to keep her daughter’s belief in mermaids alive.

Jessica Hoey is the director of reef health reporting at the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. The reef forms part of her being, both in the office and in her personal life. She jumps at any chance to get her kids out on the ocean, from building forts out of drift wood on Lizard island to swimming with reef sharks.  With her overactive imagination and Peter Pan attitude she hopes her kids value coral reefs as much as she does. 

Part 2: Jamie Brickhouse begins to notice some startling changes in his mother's behavior.

Jamie Brickhouse is performing his award-winning solo show Dangerous When Wet: Booze, Sex, and My Mother based on his critically-acclaimed memoir and directed by Obie Award-winning David Drake at Capital Fringe in DC in July, Minnesota Fringe in Minneapolis in August, and San Francisco Fringe in September. For show dates, visit and follow Jamie on Instagram and Twitter @jamiebrickhouse.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Jessica Hoey

So my five-year-old daughter Kiki looked up at me with her big blue eyes with complete trust, like a puppy, and she said to me, “Mom, are mermaids real?”  Before I answered I thought about it, paused, and I thought, I could give her a semi-scientific answer and say, “Well, they are mythical creatures that sailors used to see and they actually saw dugongs, if you're in Australia, or manatees, if you're in the U.S., and they mistook them for mermaids.”

But instead, I looked down at her and in her hand was a very old, well-loved, plastic mermaid Barbie doll with hair sticking up in every which direction because it goes with her everywhere.  She was still staring at me. 

I looked at her and I said, “Yes.  Yes, mermaids are real.  In fact, your dad and I see them all the time when we dive doing research.  All the time.” 

And she just sort of nodded and said like, “Yeah, I thought so,” then walked off.  She was really happy and I realized that I just dug a hole and then made it just that little bit deeper. 

It happened when we were at Lizard Island which is in the northern part of the Great Barrier Reef on a field trip.  She wanted evidence.  So she knew we were going out on dives with underwater cameras and things like that.  Every time we would come back she would go, “So, did you catch any on film?” 

And we would say, “Look, they're really fast.  We did not see any this time but maybe next time.”

This kept happening and I could see the trust diminishing and we had to do something.  Luckily, we saw Lacey -- this is the crazy-haired Barbie doll -- one day detached from Kiara who I think was having a sleep and we took it out on a dive.  We tethered it to the coral reef with fishing line, because it’s see-through underwater, and we got down and we took this amazing photograph of Lacey on the reef. 

We got back and we were like, “Hey, Kiki, we got a photo,” and we showed her and she was stoked.  Mermaids were real and she was really, really happy.  I thought that that’s it.  We’re done.  But she needed more evidence.  That was cool but it didn’t really move. 

I went back at work.  I was heading out on a different field trip on a tourism ferry out to a pontoon, a tourist pontoon on the reef to do a site inspection because we need to make sure that facilities are up to scratch so they don’t harm the reef if there's a cyclone.  I had a camera with me at the time and I was surprised.  On the ferry with me was a professional mermaid with her videographer. 

She's from Hawaii.  She was over visiting to do a video on the reef and I asked her if I could take some footage of her.  So I got this underwater video of her swimming along.  She had the custom-made tail.  It looked legit. 

I got home and I showed her and it was fantastic.  She was like, “Right.  They're real.”  It’s done.  I was now an authority on mermaids and I was pretty happy about that.  Her faith in me was restored. 

Then she looked at me again and she said, “So what about unicorns?” 

And I was like, “Uh, I’m not really sure about unicorns, sweetie.  I’m an ocean person, but I'll check it out.”  And I thought, “What horse people do I know?  Not many.” 

It was around about the time that my husband was doing his PhD and, luckily, he was actually filming underwater.  He would put down clumps of seaweed or algae and he would film them, because what he was trying to work out was what fish came and ate the seaweed after a disturbance.  So if there's a cyclone or coral bleaching, the first thing that usually starts to grow is either the algae or the coral if it’s there, and they compete.  So he was trying to work out what are the important fish and are the herbivores all equal?  Are there any important ones? 

Jessica Hoey practices her story in our November 2017 Oceans Workshop in Washington, DC, sponsored by the Tiffany & Co. Foundation. Photo by Victoria Ruan.

Jessica Hoey practices her story in our November 2017 Oceans Workshop in Washington, DC, sponsored by the Tiffany & Co. Foundation. Photo by Victoria Ruan.

Being the good wife I said, “Yeah, sure, honey.  I'll help you analyze your underwater video.  I know how to count fish and identify them.”  I was on maternity leave, pregnant with my second child so that was cool. 

And 1100 hours later and 120,000 bites later, play-pause, play-pause, we actually worked out that one species took 80% of all the bites on this really large, fleshy macroalgae.  And it was the unicorn fish.  I thought this is gold.  It’s cool. 

I showed Kiara the footage and explained to her, “You know, daddy found a unicorn – erm - fish on the reef and it’s really important.  It eats the algae and it helps the baby corals grow because it doesn’t take out their homes.” 

She thought, “Okay, Daddy’s found sort of a unicorn fish and it’s really important for the reef that I love.”  So that was fantastic. 

I had my second child and we’re in Fiji and doing some research there.  My husband was working with the local community and my daughter and I noticed that the villagers were taking out a lot of unicorn fish to eat.  They call it sivisivi over there.  From a scientific perspective, I was quite worried for them because they were removing the insurance policy for the reef.  If something went wrong they were taking out the things that could help it recover. 

Kiki was devastated.  She was like, “How can they be taking out the unicorn fish from the reef?  It’s really important and it’s pretty and it’s got a horn.  You need to make them stop.” 

I said, “Well, sweetie, I can tell you what to do but this is their country and their culture and that fish is really important to them and they take it for reasons that are important to them.  I can’t just tell them to stop.” 

So she thought about it and stomped her little foot and said, “Well, I’m going to write a book.” 

I’m, “Okay. Good luck with that.” 

But I helped her like a good mom would.  It was a picture book.  She wasn’t that old.  And she did this amazing picture book to try and explain how important the unicorn fish was to the local kids.  She called it Super Sivisivi Saves The Reef.  It had a cape and it had a big ‘S’ on its chest and things like that, and she felt good.  She left the book there and it was great. 

I got home and I’m back at work again.  I don't know if many of you have been watching the news but in 2016/2017 the Great Barrier Reef has experienced back-to-back bleaching events, which is pretty full-on.  There was no break in the impact and the corals have suffered in some parts.  I thought to myself, right now, the unicorn fish and other fish that eat the algae are going to be really important for the Great Barrier Reef which is my home. 

I had to travel out far north part of the Great Barrier Reef coastline and speak to local fishermen in a pretty remote part of the coastline where they have sort of like I Fish and I Vote stickers on their utes, or pickup trucks as you would say here.  I thought, right.  I need to talk about the results from recent coral bleaching surveys and talk to them about the importance of what they can do to help the reef.  There's no way I’m going to be able to use a picture book with these people.  It’s just not going to go down well. 

So I get up there, I stand up in front of them, I go through the survey results on a PowerPoint, and I get to the last slide which is about what you can do.  And there's one little dot-point about protect herbivores, and I thought, yeah, I might try.  I might try something. 

Jessica Hoey shares her story at our post-workshop show in Washington, DC. Photo by Kathi Bahr.

Jessica Hoey shares her story at our post-workshop show in Washington, DC. Photo by Kathi Bahr.

I said, “Look, I know you guys love to fish.  I don't want you to stop fishing.  I know it’s part of your life.  But the reef is off.  Your mainland here is undergoing some really hard recovery time at the moment and it needs some fish to help it get back there.  So there's probably some fish you shouldn’t take.  If you could really just stop taking them for six months, that would be awesome.  Okay, bye.” 

I just wanted to get off the stage because I thought, yeah, it’s probably not going to go down well. 

As I was closing, one of the local fishermen said, “So which fish?”  I was like, “Oh, they're actually interested.  This is great.” 

And I said, “Well, there's the unicorn fish and there's some parrot fish and some rabbit fish,” and they wanted to know more.  They wanted to know what they look like, what their names were. 

I was sort of skirting around telling them please don’t take these specific species and one of the guys in the audience just said, “Bloody hell, Love.  Just tell us which fish you don’t want us to take.” 

I was amazed.  I was like, “Oh, my God.  This is actually working.” 

The crazy thing out of that meeting is the local community was so worried about what was happening they said, “Well, we need to make a poster.  We need to make a poster that shows pictures of the fish that people shouldn’t take, shouldn’t spear off off the reef.” 

I look back on it now and I laugh and I think a picture book actually worked for these locals.  The amazing thing is that this poster is now in fish shops up and down 2.5 thousand kilometers of the Great Barrier Reef coastline.  It makes me really proud to know that we didn’t need to regulate or put in a rule.  It was just a chat, it was just pub talk, in a way, and it persuaded people to voluntarily not take these fish. 

The other thing that sticks with me is it was okay and I’m really proud that I did make my daughter understand and believe that mermaids are real and unicorns can save the reef. 

Thank you.


Part 2: Jamie Brickhouse

It was her hair that finally convinced me that things weren’t quite right with my mother, Mama Jean.  She and my father were visiting me in New York in 2008 up from Beaumont, Texas where they lived and where I grew up. 

I pulled my father aside and I said, “What’s wrong with her hair?  It looks like she did it herself.” 

He gave me this weary, exasperated look and he said, “Well, that’s because she did.  She fired her last beauty operator.  She said the gal kept screwing up her appointments.  Your mother was the one who screwed up the appointments.” 

I looked at her hair and it looked like a home perm that was left out in the rain instead of the usual raven mane coiffed into a perfect helmet which she had done once a week.  Now, my mother, Mama Jean, hadn’t done her hair herself since she was in high school.  She never left the house not being camera-ready.  The face on, hair perfectly coiffed, nails perfectly manicured.  So for her to leave Beaumont for a trip to New York City without getting her hair done was cataclysmic. 

Mama Jean, you have to also know, was always in charge.  She was always in the driver’s seat figuratively and literally behind the wheel of a red Cadillac.  She made all the money, she called all the shots, and when she was onto me about something, she could scare the shit out of me. 

So during that visit in 2008 I was a little bit worried that she might notice that things weren’t quite right with me either.  When I was in the kitchen making brunch, she walked in and I almost jumped out of my own skin.  I had a drink over on the counter in the corner which, thank God, she didn’t see. 

I’m like, what’s the big deal?  I’m having a drink while I’m making brunch.  But the big deal was that I was supposed to be sober, because I had been to rehab about a year-and-a-half earlier at her expense.  I had what we all call in the alcoholic world a low bottom.  I had overdosed on a bottle of sleeping pills, the intentional kind. 

When Mama Jean got news of that overdose, she slapped on her face and hopped on a plane, hair perfectly done, and she headed up to New York.  When I came back from detox, she was waiting for me in my apartment and she pointed a perfectly sculpted red fingernail at me, “Your drinking days are over!  And, by the way, suicide is a mortal sin, so it’s a good thing you didn’t succeed, otherwise you couldn’t spend eternity in heaven with me.” 

Then she pulled out her checkbook and off I went to rehab, so I sure as hell was not going to tell her that I had been relapsing. 

There had been other signs that things weren’t right with her that my father was noticing.  At first he thought it might be early signs of Alzheimer’s.  She was forgetting things, she was getting lost when she was driving, but he was old enough and he'd been around enough people with Alzheimer’s that it didn’t feel quite like that.

One morning, she glared at him and he said, “What?  What’s wrong?” 

And she said, “I can’t believe you let those women have sex with you in the lobby of the hotel while I’m up in the room.” 

He just looked at her and said, “That didn’t happen.”  And more of these kinds of things happened and that became a running gag with him: “It didn’t happen.” 

It was like she just couldn’t let go that these were dreams or nightmares.  She could not convince herself that they didn’t actually happen.  After that visit in fall of 2008, the following summer in 2009 things really went haywire.  She drove her red Cadillac to the beauty parlor and she drove it--backed into a line pole.  But that wasn’t the worst part.  She drove there sans pants.  Her priorities were in order but the execution was misfiring. 

Then about a week later, she called the cops and said that there were intruders in the living room and there was a little baby in the corner and a fuzzy animal under the dining room chair.  The policemen showed up, no intruders, no baby, no fuzzy animal and she was just out of her head.  My father had to hospitalize her in the local psych ward in Beaumont. 

At that point, they had seen several doctors.  He had seen her GP who specialized in geriatric patients.  They had seen a psychiatrist a couple of times and now she was in the psych ward, which actually turned out to be like bad outtakes from American Horror Story Asylum

So my father got her out of there and he got her to this fancy facility in Houston about eighty miles away, which was a geriatric facility.  Then I hopped on a plane and I did what she had done for me.  I flew down to Texas to be by her side. 

During that first visit, it was like she was tripping on acid.  She couldn’t follow her train of thought and she was seeing things that weren’t there and afraid that her worst nightmares were coming true.  Now, I don't think she's ever done acid but I have and I know what it looks like. 

Then at one point she looked at me and she said, “With your pretty red hair, you almost remind me of…” and then she trailed off.  Everything she said that day lacked the one thing she never lacked, conviction. 

But if you’ve ever been around someone who has dementia or some kind of disease where they're slipping away, there are those moments when flashes of their real personality pop out.  One of those moments happened during that visit, which I'll get back to you in a minute. 

So we still weren’t getting any answers.  This geriatric facility. . . they weren’t telling us anything.  They were happy to take her insurance money and take good care of her. And none of those doctors that we had seen before were coming up with anything.  It wasn’t until a friend of the family reached out to my father and she said that she heard what was going on with Jean (this was a small town) and it sounded like she had what her husband had had, which was Lewy Body Dementia. 

Lewy what?  We’d never heard of it.  Then we quickly looked into it and turns out it’s not a rare disease, even though no one’s ever heard of it.  An estimated 1.4 million people in America alone are affected by it and yet none of those doctors, geriatric specialists had even heard of it or even mentioned the name to us. 

It’s a neurological condition, a type of progressive dementia that causes deterioration in critical and analytical thinking and motor movements and memory.  Lewy bodies are proteins in the brain that when they accumulate as neurons that’s when the craziness starts to happen.  They're named after the doctor who discovered them, Dr. Frederic Lewy, a German neurologist who discovered them in 1912. 

When we started going through the symptoms, our hearts started to sink because we were checking each one of them.  There was wild hallucinations, delusions, memory loss, aphasia.  She had that.  She was having problems finding words.  I remember one time she was saying, “What’s that stuff you put on your face to make yourself look pretty?”  Makeup.  Our hearts just really kind of plummeted. 

Then we hustled and we found a really good neurologist in Houston.  We took her to that first appointment with him and there was another flash of pure Mama Jean.  When he tested her reflexes and he pulled out that little rubber hammer and he hit her knee, she screamed, “God dammit,” and punched him. 

The doctor reared back and looked at my father and he said, “I've never had a patient do that to me before,” and my father said proudly, “Well, you've never met Jean Brickhouse.” 

Jamie Brickhouse tells his story at Caveat in New York City In December 2017. Photo by Nicholas Santasier.

Jamie Brickhouse tells his story at Caveat in New York City In December 2017. Photo by Nicholas Santasier.

And he took a brain scan and when he got it back, and when we saw it, it looked like. . . you remember those round glass plasma balls that when you touched them their electricity in there they go crazy like a Texas electrical storm?  That’s what her brain scan looked like.  And the answer was, yes, she had Lewy body dementia. 

There is no cure for Lewy body dementia.  It’s a progressive disease, as I said earlier.  Like alcoholism, it’s a progressive disease.  But unlike alcoholism, it can’t be arrested and a lot of people can live with it for a very long time, and not live well. 

Fortunately for her, although we didn’t see it that way at the time, her decline was rapid fire.  From the time she got that diagnosis in September she was already on her deathbed in December.  She had stopped responding, she had stopped talking, she had stopped opening her eyes, she stopped eating and then her body kind of curved into this arthritic ball near the end. 

When I was down there in Beaumont standing by her deathbed I thought about that first visit when I saw her in that geriatric facility in Houston.  Remember I said there was that moment, that flash of Mama Jean? 

I was about to say goodbye to her and my mind was trying to erase what I had just seen, a mad woman in my mother’s body, wearing a nightgown that needed changing, no makeup and a crushed bouffant.  Then she grabbed my arm in a vise grip and turned around and she was pointing a red fingernail at me and she said, “You've been drinking!” 

The nail polish was chipped.  “No, I haven't.” 

“Don’t lie to me.” 

And I wasn’t.  I said I'd been relapsing, as I told you before, but I wasn’t at that moment.  I had seven months sober and was trying to finally get a year.  But how could she know that? 

“You better not be lying.” 

“Remember, Mama, that’s all behind us.  You took care of that.  I have you to thank.” 

And I thought to myself who would blame me if I drank over my mother losing her mind?  But there was another way to look at it.  If you can’t stay sober for yourself, do it for her. 

I looked her in the eye, “You don’t have to worry anymore.” 

“Okay.  But promise me.  Promise.” 

“I promise.” 

And then I saw her as I knew her best, dressed for a party, face on, nails manicured, hair perfectly coiffed.  It was the last time she was Mama Jean. 

She died December 14.  Two weeks later, I finally got a year sober.  I've been sober ever since.  So she died having known that I was sober with her help but never knowing that she saved me one last time. 

Thank you.