Before he dies, Dale Potter wants to be a better son.
“I did this to myself,” acknowledges Dale, 52.
The deep-voiced man looks too tall for the small, makeshift bedroom in his mother’s neatly kept Centerville home. As a 6-foot tall high school athlete in the mid-1970s, he lettered in basketball, football and baseball.
But the athlete turned drug-addict is dying of AIDS, and recently underwent his fifth cancer surgery.
“I’m a swizzle stick. And my immune system’s shot.”
Hospice is doing what they can to allow his mother, Pat Crosson, to care for him in her home.
“I don’t want to die at the hospital,” he admitted. “My mom deserves a medal. She’s 70 years old, and I’m ruining her golden years. I ask myself, ‘Dale, what drove you from the ballfields to the back alleys?’ And I still don’t know. She warned me. And every prediction came true.”
He’s not giving up, he said, but his doctors said he’d have about six months to live. That was in December. This may be the last Mother’s Day he’s alive to say thank you and to apologize for “not being a good son” for so many years.
“This is the first time in 30 years I’m out with my mom planting flowers. After all I’ve done to her, I’m finally doing what a mother and son should be doing.”
His mother said addiction seemed to run through parts of Dale’s family.
“I left his dad because of the drugs,” said Pat, who has a daughter and five other sons. “I wasn’t going to live that lifestyle.”
After a difficult divorce, she said she married a wonderful man in New Jersey. Dale’s late stepfather loved all the children, and Dale loved sports.
“No matter what baseball team [Dale] wanted to get on, they’d make room for him because he was so good.”
Maybe too good, Dale says now. When a Major League scout expressed interest, the teen felt he had it made. He increased his partying, figuring he could stop any time and go pro. Relatives who turned out for high school games, as well as his party friends, agreed. But Mom saw the writing on the wall.
“She said, ‘No, he’s chosen what he’s going to do.’ And she was right. I was headed down the wrong road.”
Dale and Pat hope a young person may hear their story and know how easy it is to fall into addiction and how ruinous a few bad choices can be, even at 17.
“If I could be with my buddies having a beer now or here, I’d rather be here with Mom; I love my my mom, and I’d give anything to plant one more flower with her,” Dale said. “I just wish [one young person could] know how important their mom is. I finally know, but I’ve broken her heart.”
“When you get in that scene, it’s an elevator to hell,” Pat said. “No more sports, no more school. Dale left home and it was drinking and drugs. He never finished high school.”
Partying with his buddies became his life. He ran away to be with more lenient family members in Centerville. He was in and out of jail and, 30 years ago, was shipped off for a stint at the state prison in Anamosa.
“I’ve broke her heart so many times, and now I’m doing this to her,” Dale said, beginning to cry. “I really get upset with myself. I had it made. Now look at me. Broken down, weak, laying in this bed ... I see the pain in her eyes.”
Before he made his worst mistakes, Mom wasn’t shy about warning him.
“Tough as nails — for all 100 pounds of her. Indestructible. And if the answer is black but she says it’s white, then it is white.”
Yet after he repeatedly messed up, she never turned her back on him.
“I think with a mother it just comes natural,” Pat said. “Your kids are your kids. And he’s always been so caring, even when he was doing wild things, he was never ruthless.”
Dale said in his younger days, she’d scrape together bail money and get him out of jail. The times he was in trouble for something he didn’t do, she’d tell him she knew he was innocent. When he faced more accurate charges, “she’d tell me, ‘Well, nobody’s perfect. We’ll get through this, Dale.’ Nobody loves me as much as she does.”
Worse than dying seems to be the guilt of feeling he’s taking years off his mom’s life.
“I see the pain in her eyes. She seems so alone. She never goes anywhere. I’d love to take her out for dinner ... for Mother’s Day, or even send her and a friend to a nice dinner. But how do I pull that off?”
Besides having rough days where he can barely move, his limited income goes toward medication plus some of the utility bills he insists on paying at the house.
“Don’t think I have my hand out. Really, all my material needs are met, but what can I do for her? My mom was always there for me.”
Dale has his own children now and an amazing grandson, he says. He loves them all. He admits his daughters haven’t had an easy life; a drug-addicted dad, their mom — Dale’s wife — died of a drug overdose when the girls were younger, and now their father is dying of AIDS.
Still, the subject of his beloved grandson, age 2, makes him smile.
“They’re at the circus in Ottumwa right now. He was wanting to see the elephants and eat what he calls ‘hopcorn.’ That’s what he says for popcorn: hopcorn!”
Pat said she’s proud when she sees the toddler and Dale interacting: “He has a loving, loving heart.”
On a recent afternoon, Pat was in the kitchen cooking; since her son moved in, she’s pushed him from a low of 116 pounds to his current 131 pounds.
So how can moms get through the hard parts?
“You say a lot of rosaries. And you never give up,” she said. “There are times you want to rip their head off and, well, just hit them with it ... but you’d be hugging them with your heart at the same time.”
Before he dies, Dale Potter wants to be a better son.
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