Tom Berger remembers his mom, Mary, as a “rock star.”
When Tom was five years old, his mom let him stay up late to watch The Ed Sullivan Show, which is where he saw The Beatles perform for the first time.
“It was the coolest thing,” he says. “I started playing guitar when I was four and never really stopped. Music is probably the one thing that has come most naturally to me in my life.”
Through his teenage years, Tom and his friends would practice at his parents’ house.
“Mom would let us move the furniture around so we could use the piano,” he says. “She’s the person who actually taught me to sing harmony. She was always a big supporter of my music.”
As Tom got older, his love for music never died down, despite his career path in the financial services industry. 23 years ago, while working to found the CBC Group at Merrill Lynch in Ballantyne, he and a few of his professional friends in the Charlotte area decided they were going to start their own band.
Now, while he still works at Merrill Lynch, Tom’s band, Kingdaddy, plays various music festivals, corporate functions, and at local charity events around Charlotte, including the Queen’s Cup Steeplechase and the Alzheimer’s Association’s Memory Gala.
Kingdaddy’s first live show was at the Come See Me Festival in Rock Hill, SC, playing in front of 20,000 people, but Tom had a special person in the audience: his mom.
“She planned a tailgate and rallied the whole family together,” says Tom’s wife, Cari. “That’s just the kind of woman she was.”
But a few years later, Cari and Tom started noticing changes in Mary. The once social butterfly began removing herself from social situations due to hearing loss, and later would get confused when trying to finish her sentences.
“Cari was probably the first person to notice some of the things mom was displaying symptomatically,” Tom says. “She was able to see it better, because my siblings and I were too close to it.”
At first, the family managed her symptoms and provided care without an official diagnosis. But now knowing what he does about the disease, Tom believes that she was living with Vascular Dementia, a decline in thinking skills caused by conditions that block or reduce blood flow to various regions of the brain, depriving them of oxygen and nutrients. In Mary’s case: a stroke.
As the disease progressed, Mary’s quality of life worsened, and she required a walker and an oxygen tank to move around, but that didn’t stop her from still showing up for her children and grandkids.
“She was the type of woman who always met you at the door with a smile. You always got a hug. She always served you goldfish and made an amazing pan of brownies,” Cari says. “She was the grandmother who would hide 100 eggs in clear sight in July for the grandchildren to go do an Easter egg hunt just because they wanted to. And that’s the memory I have of her, but the memory my kids have of her is totally different.”
She continues: “They remember her on oxygen. One of their last memories is her coming to my son’s soccer game and she needed assistance to roll her oxygen tank onto the field. I remember leaving and praying ‘God, is this really the quality of life that she would want? Thy will be done’ and we lost her the following weekend.”
Following Mary’s passing, Tom wanted to find a way to honor her. Tom joined the board of the Alzheimer’s Association in North Carolina, and Kingdaddy performed at the first annual Charlotte Memory Gala, which is now in its fourth year. This year, Tom and Cari are serving as co-chairs for the Gala, and Kingdaddy will once again provide the entertainment.
“I wanted to do something in the community and I decided to use my energy in the fight against Alzheimer’s,” Tom says. “I think I am really lucky in that I’ve always been a part-time musician, but can now use everything that I do — Merrill Lynch and Kingdaddy — to fuel this passion I have for ending Alzheimer’s.”
The fourth annual Charlotte Memory Gala taking place on Saturday, May 16, 2020, is a memorable night and a powerful way to raise funds in the fight against a disease that erases such moments. If you have not already done so, we encourage you to secure your table and tickets for this sell-out event. The reservation deadline is May 1. To learn more, visit: charlottememorygala.org.