World Alzheimer’s Day and the Gifts of September

This time of year has always been special to me. Typically in the Carolinas, on the first day of fall the summer heat begins to ease and we get a hint of the cooler weather that is to come.

World Alzheimer’s Day and my birthday happen to fall side by side, which somehow seems appropriate.

Tomorrow is my birthday. For the past 16 years, I’ve also had the joy of celebrating with Sydney. Motherhood for me arrived three days before my 41st birthday. My daughter couldn’t have been more welcome, especially as she was delivered in the midst of my own mother’s long descent into Alzheimer’s.

Me, Sydney and my mom.

The years before Sydney was born were tough and filled with loss. I had a series of miscarriages and every day my mother seemed to lose more of herself. There were times I forgot how to hope, which is one of the reasons I feel compelled to reach out to those who are traveling their own difficult path of caring for someone they love.

But grief passes…like the seasons.

I didn’t know that after close to a decade of infertility, I would be blessed with a beautiful daughter.

I didn’t know that six years after my mother passed away, my memoir would be released.

I didn’t know that last year, on my birthday, the eBook of Motherhood: Lost and Found would be distributed internationally by Divine Phoenix and Pegasus Books.

I didn’t know that my audiobook would come out on the day of the Kentucky Derby (this past May) where years ago Secretariat, the grandfather of my beloved horse Crimson, won the first leg of his Triple Crown.

Me with Crimson.

There was so much I didn’t know.

This September, I’m honored to be working with a group of passionate and generous women who have created AlzAuthors, a blogsite with over 100 resources for people living with Alzheimer’s and dementia.

Next week, as World Alzheimer’s Month comes to a close, AlzAuthors will be holding an eBook sale from September 27th – 30th to honor those who are living with this disease.

In memory of my sweet Mom, the eBook of Motherhood: Lost and Found will be available at its lowest price on Wednesday, Sept. 27th, and deeply discounted through Sept. 30th.

As a special package, if you buy the eBook, the audiobook is available for only $7.49, instead of $21.95, a discount of almost 70 percent.

Last, but not least, my publisher is offering a drawing for a free audiobook on Twitter. To enter, follow Laura Ponticello https://twitter.com/lauraslist and Ann Campanella https://twitter.com/authorAnnC on Twitter and follow Laura’s instructions.

I like to think of Motherhood: Lost and Found as my love letter to those who are dealing with grief. Without support, it’s a lonely road.

Please feel free to share this post with anyone who is in a season of caretaking. Sending out prayers of hope to all.

My mom, Sydney and me on my birthday 15 years ago.

Advertisements

After the Eclipse

The evening after the eclipse, Sunny and I take a walk. The sky is mostly clear, except for a few dramatic clouds hovering behind the tree line. The horses are grazing as usual, their coats covered in fine sweat that is just beginning to evaporate as the heat and humidity slowly lift. It is 8 o’clock, four hours after the sun and moon finished their dance through the sky.

Joel, Sydney and I went down to the barn and watched the eclipse from there. We did the pinhole through the cardboard trick and used eclipse glasses to take short peeks at the scooped out sun.

Sydney and I let the horses out because they seemed eager to enjoy the grass under a slightly cooler sky. The temperature gradually dropped from 91 to 87°.

At one point I brought a chair and sat in the shade under a tree. I was surrounded by the shapes of crescent moons created by the sun filtering through the leaves.

As the moon covered 97% of the sun I looked and listened for anything that might be a sign. The cicadas continued chanting, a single bird chirped behind me, the horses eagerly cropped grass. Sydney noticed that one of the cows from next door was looking at us and the herd was slowly making its way toward the neighbor’s barn. Maybe the unusual light made them think it was time to come in.

And suddenly the crescent shapes shifted from one side to the other, and the scrim over the sky seemed to lift.

I thought of all the people looking up – friends and family in the mountains, at the beach, in town, in faraway states. For that one moment, we were linked. Held together by a celestial ribbon, an awareness perhaps of the beauty of our sun – its strength and fragility.

When the eclipse was over, I was exhausted and empty, as if a part of me had been scooped out. I hadn’t expected to feel that way. Actually, I hadn’t thought about what would come after. Maybe I was picking up on the collective sigh from our country.

Tonight, I am grateful for the presence of horses grazing in the fields, the dog who walks by my side, my family and friends who share this wide world with me and the glorious colors left behind by the setting sun.

 


August Sky: Preparing for the Eclipse

Three days before the eclipse and the sky is on fire. Not in the west, like it normally is when the sun is going down, but in the east. What does it mean?

Sunny and I were heading back up to the house. But the glow was so beautiful it stopped me in my tracks. We had taken a walk, and I finished the barn chores while Sunny patiently waited for me.

I wasn’t in a rush. I had spent the day with writing friends. It was early evening and the air was still warm and humid. My skin was slick with sweat. Once you step into a barn and the dust settles on you, there’s nothing to do but surrender and enjoy being dirty.

I’d walked up to the ring to check the water for the horses. I caught Foxie rolling and Shady studied me with his ears pricked up, alert.

Earlier in the day I had read a funny strand on an equestrian site about horses and the eclipse. A woman was wondering whether she should do anything special to protect her horses during the event. Several people responded jokingly: “Buy the extra extra large eclipse glasses,” “Have you ever seen a horse look up at the sun?” I couldn’t help but laugh.

I remember a partial eclipse I witnessed back in 1984 in Charlottesville, VA. The sky darkened slightly, as if storm clouds had gathered. But they hadn’t.

William E. Schmidt, a reporter for The New York Times, described the eclipse in Atlanta, where it was close to full. “The temperature dropped six degrees, flowers closed their petals, dogs howled, pigeons tucked their heads under their wings as if to sleep and the whole city was bathed in a kind of diffused light….”

“As the light from the Sun passed through the leaves of trees,” Schmidt continued, “it projected on to the sidewalk pavement tiny wedgelike images of its own crescent silhouette.”

Thirty-three years ago I was on a farm in Virginia, and I noticed those crescent silhouettes sprinkled around in the grass under the trees. So many years later, they are still vivid in my mind.

On Monday, we will experience a 97 percent solar eclipse here on the farm in North Carolina. I don’t believe that horses need special sunglasses or that the world is coming to an end. But maybe the glow in tonight’s August sky and the coming eclipse are simply reminders. The world is full of incomprehensible beauty. The least we can do is pay attention.


The Heart of a Vet

Today we had the vet out for the horses’ annual shots. It was a routine visit, one that snuck up on me as I had scheduled it weeks ago. But what surprised me even more was the emotion that came over me after the visit.

The story actually begins back in the spring. That was when I heard the news that the large animal vet that we usually use was no longer practicing. I was sorry to hear this because he was someone we liked and respected, and (as a horse owner) it’s a big decision to find a new vet.

A few weeks later, I learned that Dr. Bob Gochanauer, a dear friend and wonderful vet,  had passed away unexpectedly. My heart ached for his family who used to have a farm just a few miles away from us. Dr. Bob had also been my primary vet for Crimson for 13 years.

Dr. Bob (photo credit: Mobile Large Animal Vet Service website)

Between the time that Crimson passed away and we purchased Foxie for Sydney, Dr. Bob and his family moved further out in the country, about 45 minutes away. He was still practicing, but because of the distance, I had decided to use a closer vet for the sake of convenience.

After our other vet left the practice, I took some time researching vets. I’d heard it said that we had a “shortage of vets” in the area.

I decided to call Dr. Mary, who is Bob’s daughter. Yes, their office was farther away, but something tugged at me.

Dr. Mary (photo credit: Mobile Large Animal Vet Service website)

She and her assistant pulled up to the farm today in their big truck. I hadn’t seen Dr. Mary since she was a kid, when I used to give her riding lessons. Her face held the same open kindness that I remembered. We embraced for a long moment, and I whispered in her ear that I was so sorry about her dad. She nodded and smiled, her eyes filling.

When she entered the barn, I was blown away by how much she reminded me of her dad. Her mannerisms around the horses were spot on. She stood like him; she asked questions; she wasn’t in a rush. He had been an old country vet with gut wisdom about animals and true kindness.

I had forgotten how deeply I felt connected with him when he worked with the horses. Shady tends to get nervous around new experiences, and Dr. Mary helped him through his rotation of shots calmly and beautifully. Then she went on to treat Foxie, who stood quietly in her stall.

Before Dr. Mary left, I gave her a copy of Motherhood: Lost and Found, and told her there was a chapter that included her dad. He had euthanized Little Bit, one of my school horses, and he did it in such a gentle and loving manner that it always chokes me up when I think of it.

I’d been wanting to give her a copy of my memoir for some time, but it was one of those things I hadn’t got around to. (She lived far away, I didn’t know her address, yada yada yada.) She held the book to her chest and her eyes filled with tears. We embraced again, and I cried with her.

Later, with the horses turned out to graze, after their non-eventful vet visit, I found myself still full of emotion, thinking of Dr. Mary – on the road treating horse after horse, today and every day, the way her father did. I am so grateful for the kind of compassion they bring to this world.

 


As June Gives Way to July — Pausing to Give Thanks

Is it really July already? For some reason, I thought June would continue on for a while longer. It was jam packed with so many special events and days. As usual, I need to take a moment to slow down and process all that has happened. From a family trip to the beach to my 35th college reunion where I had the opportunity to gather with classmates and hear astronaut Tom Marshburn talk about space as I shared about the experience of writing my book to the week of the summer solstice when so many people affected by Alzheimer’s joined together for #TheLongestDay campaign.

During June, Motherhood: Lost and Found also reached #1 on Amazon’s Bestseller List. This happened during the week of the anniversary of my mother’s birthday and my father’s death. And just before spending the last two days of the month in a wonderful writing retreat, I got a glimpse of the cover of my new book of poetry, The Beach Poems. Is it any wonder that I feel overwhelmed with emotion and gratitude?

None of this could have happened without the support of my amazing community – my family and friends, my publishers – Laura Ponticello of Divine Phoenix and Scott Douglass of Main Street Rag, my writing friends, my Alzheimer’s connections, even my new friends on Instagram and Twitter.

It has been such a gift to make new connections and renew old ones. At my college reunion, I found myself talking with people I had hardly known at school and feeling so grateful for the opportunity to find common ground.

I’ve been wanting to write a “gratitude post” for some time now. When you have a book that reaches wider circles than you ever dreamed, it only happens because of outside support.

A year ago, when my publisher Laura said she wanted me to become active on social media, I groaned inwardly. Instagram was something for younger folks, and I had no idea what a Tweet was.

Foxie surveying her kingdom.

Little did I know I would fall in love with taking photos of our horses and posting them, and that I would find a community of others who loved horses and animals and books. When they heard I had a memoir about my mother and my beloved Crimson, a grandson of Secretariat, (to my surprise) they bought it! And not only that, they wrote reviews, shared my posts and told their friends.

A special thank you to @fabfortykindnesschallenge, @leslie.jenny, @walkingfortheloveof books, @monasheeandme, @bellasdogtrot, @shelley.b.new.zealand, @dmjohnston54, @missmayaslife @originalteddybutton and @skyes.mom. These are just a few of the wonderful folks who have supported me. I know I’m forgetting some of you, and I apologize for that. But I won’t forget your kindness.

If you have an Instagram account, check out these lovely people and their accounts.

In my next post, I’d like to give a shout out to some wonderful connections I’ve made in the Alzheimer’s world.

*And coming soon, a post about my new poetry collection….

p.s. If you enjoy horse photos, I’d love to have you join me on Instagram. My account name is @horses_2nd_time_around.


Thoughts on #TheLongestDay

Late May through June always tends to be an emotional time for me. I’m not sure if it’s because there are so many endings –  end of school year, high school and college graduations, reunions,  end of spring, my pansies are dying – and new beginnings – a new rhythm for the summer, lots of weddings and wedding posts on FB, new jobs, new summer flowers.

But I think it’s more. The trees become heavy with leaves, the temperatures begin to rise, humidity sets in and there are layers of memories. It was this time of year that my 80-year-old father fell and broke his hip. Two weeks later he died. It was an unexpected ending to a life I had counted on. He had moved into my mother’s assisted living facility a couple of years earlier. Not because he needed assistance, but because my mother did. My father’s presence grounded my mother in a sea of confusion brought about by Alzheimer’s.

My father helped ground my mother in her Alzheimer’s.

My father’s sudden departure stunned all of us, especially my mother, who asked repeatedly, “Where’s Wint?” until the answer, “He died,” given every five or ten minutes (because we couldn’t keep this news from her) became a macabre joke.

All of us shifted that summer. No longer could we count on my father’s presence to anchor my mother. Her disease became both bigger and smaller. Bigger because we as a family had to consider all of her needs. Mom no longer had her “better half” to provide a boundary for her, familiar partnership routines to contain her. She had already left part of herself behind. Now, who would she be without my father?

Her disease became smaller because in unexpected ways, my mother expanded. She stepped into the space that had previously been filled by my father. She seemed to intuitively understand that if she was going to live, she had to become more of herself.

After years of living with dementia, she began walking again; she interacted, and although it didn’t seem possible, she was more present.

Mom still had Alzheimer’s. There was no way she could live on her own. But to some degree, her disease seemed to reverse itself. She made the most of the moments her family was with her. She listened. She nodded. She spoke. On occasion, I noticed the old spark. Even words of wisdom.

My daughter finished ninth grade near the end of May. A couple of weeks ago, my family returned home from an annual beach trip with my husband’s extended family. I celebrated my 35th college reunion recently. Today is the summer solstice. There are so many beginnings and endings, familiar cycles and patterns, yet each day is new.

In less than a week, it will be the anniversary of my father’s death. Daddy died the day before my mother’s birthday. This year would have been her 98th. My father has been gone 17 years, my mother almost 10. Yet their presence still echoes through my life.

Mom and Daddy on their wedding day, Dec. 1949.

***

In honor of my parents and the Alzheimer’s Association’s #TheLongestDay, the Ebook for Motherhood: Lost and Found will be offered at a deep discount for the first time. For one day only, starting at 11 a.m., E.S.T., on June 21st, Motherhood: Lost and Found will be available for $0.99. Each day after, the price will go up $1.00 until the promotion ends on June 25th.

But wait! There’s more!  You’ll be able to get the audiobook (if you purchase the Ebook, or already have it) for only $7.49. as opposed to the list price of $24.95…a savings of $17.46. So hurry and get your discounted Ebook and audiobook now.

To purchase your Ebook click here, and to purchase your audiobook click here.  Thank you for your support. A percentage of sales will be donated to the Alzheimer’s Association.


More Class Reunion Reflections: Space Travel and Alzheimer’s Intersect

What does space travel have to do with writing and Alzheimer’s? At first glance, not much. But, during my 35th reunion, I had the wonderful opportunity to do a “Coffee Talk” about my memoir, Motherhood: Lost and Found, alongside Tom Marshburn, a classmate who is an astronaut with NASA. My book tells the story of my mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s at the same time I was trying to become a mother, while Tom is one of the few people who has actually walked in space.

Sally Sharp, the organizer of the event, wanted to bring the Class of ‘82 together to give us a chance to pause in the midst of our busy lives and a full weekend of activities to talk about where we’ve been and the paths we’ve taken to get to where we are today.

Davidson College students are typically overachievers, so to sit in a circle with them can be daunting. There are doctors, lawyers and business people at the top of their fields, people of faith, artists, educators and politicians who have made an impact in their communities. Yet, one of the things I found most profound about this special time with them was that we share both a history and a common place in our lives.

Our classmates were engaged and curious. They asked questions about my experience with my mother’s Alzheimer’s and what it was like to write a memoir. Deep questions. I felt heard and appreciated as I shared a brief passage from the book about my years at Davidson and discussed the 14-year period of my life when I helped care for my mother during her illness. I talked about how the experience changed me in ways I am still discovering.

To have my personal story juxtaposed to Tom Marshburn’s exciting journey into space was fascinating. My writer’s brain was busy making connections – big and small. Each of us in that room had been on a journey. Each of us had experienced joy and loss, fear and death. We’ve all taken physical trips and undergone internal shifts. We have all been at the edge of a new world as we stepped into new phases of our life.

Tom shared about how physically challenging it was to come home and deal with the forces of gravity after being in space for an extended period of time. He said even “his lips felt heavy.” I remember times when my limbs were heavy with grief, and I felt as if I’d been on another planet as I cared for my mom.

Another classmate told us how she was involved with “Dark Skies,” an organization that works to stop light pollution in cities. We all agreed how important it was for kids to be able to see real stars, rather than only experiencing space as a virtual reality. There was a pause in the discussion as our class absorbed the impact of children growing up without ever seeing the Milky Way.

Tom had us all laughing about how it can stink in a spacecraft if people don’t practice good hygiene. Another classmate shared funny stories of her mother’s dementia and how she had made a conscious choice “to laugh instead of cry.” Her husband talked about his own mother’s bi-polar illness that he only discovered upon his father’s deathbed. Despite the gravitas of the situation, his story was infused with gentle humor.

And Tom told the poignant story of how he learned about a family member’s death while up in space. Despite the cramped quarters, the news was delivered in a thoughtful, private manner. Tom shared how work became a kind of balm.

Whether dealing with death, Alzheimer’s or a space flight, each of us in that room were human and had been touched by the fragility of life. I emerged from the event feeling as if I had been on a flight with my classmates. For a short time, we had been launched into space and had the opportunity (as Tom had) to look out our small window, view our place in the world and give thanks for each other and the beautiful, small spinning planet we call home.