With yesterday being Father’s Day, I went digging through some old photos, and I posted the picture of my father from my wedding. I found this similar photo of my mother from the same time and realized that I have never posted it, and it got me thinking. Why?
Perhaps the emotions that this photo brings up are a bit more complicated. It was easy to smile at my father and know he was looking back at me with unadulterated pride. But my mother’s emotions were not so simple and straightforward.
Don’t get me wrong. Mom was filled with great love and tenderness, and I know she was happy for me. But she was a person who felt things deeply. I was her youngest child and I was leaving the nest. She was facing a new passage in her own life.
At times, she may have counted on me as the communicator between her and my father. I understood him in a way that she never did. And while Mom and I were similar in many ways, she and I did not always see eye to eye.
As a teenager, I was frustrated by many of her outdated ways of thinking, and I pushed against her a lot. Her emotions were always near the surface, and as I look back, it breaks my heart that I could so easily make her cry.
In this photo, I see the tender mix of emotions in my mother’s face. Her deep love for me, her awareness of past wounds and that our time together as mother and daughter was shifting.
Fifteen years later, my mother would begin showing signs of Alzheimer’s. Oddly, the disease brought us closer. Mom trusted me during those 14 years when her own mind betrayed her.
When my mother thought my father had hidden her address book, that someone was having a party without her, when she seemed inconsolable, she would listen to me. I couldn’t make everything better. But I could listen and be there for her in ways I wasn’t able to do when I was younger. We were given the gift of time to connect and heal.
I am thankful for every day I had with her.
In honor of my mother and the Alzheimer’s Association’s The Longest Day campaign, I’m excited to announce a special discount on the Ebook version of my memoir, Motherhood: Lost and Found, starting June 21st.
Thinking of my father today. He was a strong man, not perfect, but he loved me with an unconditional love that made me feel special. He knew his own mind and never wavered from his course. As an engineer, he was logical and he understood structure. He was economical and efficient. Now that I’m older, I see how my natural inclination towards editing came from him. My creativity and love of writing came from Mom. But Daddy’s influence encouraged me to be efficient with words, to understand the structure and underpinnings of a story or a collection of poems.
My father was a storyteller. In his later years, he loved nothing more than to spin tales of his years as a young man in the military, disobeying orders to wear his life jacket “because you couldn’t sleep with that thing on,” as his ship sailed through the mine-infested waters of the Baltic Sea.
When I was in high school, I was surprised when my father – who was not a reader like my mother – handed me a book and said it was his favorite. Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegman. I remember reading it and searching for my father within the pages. What was it about a wheelchair bound historian narrator who was trying to write his grandmother’s biography that appealed to my father? I wasn’t sure, and my father wasn’t one to discuss his thoughts.
Several years later, Daddy gave me a worn copy of Last of the Breed by Louis L’amour. “You should read this,” he said. “It’s a great book.” As an English major, I quietly scoffed. Louis L’amour was a popular author, not a literary one. But I read the book and found myself gripped by the plot, unable to put it down. And this time, I understood why it appealed to my father. A Native American air force pilot is shot down by the Soviets and taken prisoner. He escapes and must use his wits to survive as he moves through the Siberian landscape.
I couldn’t help but see my father as the main character. As a child, Daddy’s parents had been wealthy. But they lost everything in a house fire. My father told the story: “I was walking home from school one day, and I looked up and saw a charred square of ground where our house used to be.” After that, my father had to use his wits to survive. One of nine siblings, he helped to put food on the table by delivering papers on three routes. As he got older, he and his brothers earned spending money by winning fights in the boxing ring. During WWII, he enlisted, and he eventually finished college on the GI Bill.
Life couldn’t have been easy for my father. But he seemed to welcome every challenge. Even when my mother came down with Alzheimer’s, he wasn’t one to quit. He fought to hold onto her as long as he could. In his own way, he stood beside her.
Thank you, Daddy, for loving your family so fiercely.
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.
This weekend was my 35th college reunion. Reunions tend to throw me out of my natural rhythm. All these people from my past, the stirring of old memories, event after event where there is a LOT of socializing. Did I mention that I am an introvert and easily overstimulated?
A part of my brain is busy assimilating these new/old faces, wondering about the lives they lead, wanting to know more about their present stories, remembering (or trying to remember) interactions from long ago. I suppose it’s in my nature (as a writer) to constantly be imagining the different paths my life could have taken.
After all, when I went to Davidson, I was young and unformed, like most high school graduates. I was both bold and fearful, ready to take on the world and, at the same time, hide myself from it. I didn’t take full advantage of my Davidson education. I spent more time exploring my social life, trying to find a place where I fit in, than looking outward.
Thirty-five year later, something has changed. Some of my fears have morphed into a new awareness. The decades of living and loss have left their mark on both me and my classmates. I find myself smiling into the open faces of friends and those who I didn’t know so well, hearing words that touch my heart and remind me that we are all on this journey together.
One fellow alumni made the pronouncement that here at our class reunions, he has found “his people.” He lives a few states away and has a wonderful home and community, yet he spoke what I presume many of us were feeling.
We are no longer the disparate group of students who came together back in the fall of 1978. But over the four years we were together, and the ensuing three decades and a half, we somehow became a cohesive group, a group that shares a history and a perspective, a group that folded in a mix of personalities and experienced an evolution together. An evolution of both the outer world – our political and socio-economic culture – and our own inner worlds as together we have weathered the ups and downs of a career life, families, broken relationships, aging parents, health issues and joys and heartaches of all sizes. We are no longer the wide-eyed, insecure innocents we once were.
The experience of sharing not just four years together, but a succession of life lessons, has uncovered a sense of appreciation. Not just for what was…but for what is. Who we were and who we have become. The threads of commonality have pulled us together, created a net of friendship and community, a sweet spot where each of us can land as we reunite.
It was my pleasure to hang out at Scribbler’s Ink for Write Life Wednesday today. Thank you to Bobbi Lerman for the opportunity to connect with readers from the Boston area and beyond. Check out my blog post: “The Rhythm Within Me: the Experience of Recording an Audiobook” here.
Last spring, I was blessed with the incredible opportunity of recording an audiobook version of my memoir, Motherhood: Lost and Found. I spent an exciting, fun and intense week up in Syracuse, NY, in early June. In order to prepare my voice for the marathon recording sessions, I practiced reading my book for hours. I wanted to be sure I knew every word, every nuance of each line.
Reading a book aloud is obviously different from writing a book. While you might “hear your voice in your head” while you are writing, to read the words aloud takes breath and awareness and presence. I wanted to inhabit each scene, not rush through them. I wanted to remember what it felt like not just to write the words, but to live the experience.
Since Motherhood: Lost and Found is a memoir about the loss of my mother to Alzheimer’s and my desire to have a child, it was easy for me to slide back in time and feel the tenderness of those years. I could feel the vibrations of my mother’s voice as she wondered why my father would no longer let her drive. I could almost inhale her familiar scent as I pressed against her, hoping to calm her as she waited (in her confused state) to be admitted into the hospital.
Certain experiences seem to create chords within us, a deep resounding that is old and familiar. The heartache of a miscarriage, whispered words of comfort, a mother’s hug, the touch of a loved one who is slipping away. I found it healing to relive my memoir this way, even if a part of me wanted to turn away.
Giving voice to a story adds a richness to it, a quality for which I wasn’t fully prepared. At the end of my week in Syracuse, I felt both wrung out and new. The days had been full as I recorded 75- plus pages each session, taking small breaks to sip lemon water and ease my throat. I remember emerging from the basement where we recorded, being amazed at the sun and wind and light. I had forgotten there was another day going on around me as I had tumbled back through time, reliving my own version of some of the most intense moments in my life.
I felt I had given something more through this reading. Not just an account of my losses, but a full-bodied expression of my love for the people and animals in my memoir. My parents who struggled through their final days, my husband who stood firm beside me, despite his own callings, the horses and families who filled our barn, my siblings who linked hands and hearts with me, and my precious daughter whose unexpected birth brought light and life to Joel and me.
It’s been said that writers write to discover who they are. Reading aloud Motherhood: Lost and Found was also a discovery process. Through the experience of giving voice to my own words, perhaps I understood a little bit more about what had drawn me to spend a significant part of my life crafting this story. And putting a voice to it somehow claimed it as mine.
To listen to a sample of Motherhood: Lost and Found, click here. This audiobook was just released TODAY on Audible, Amazon and iTunes. Motherhood: Lost and Found is also available on Kindle or in hard copy here.
In last week’s post, I talked about how the process of marketing Motherhood: Lost and Found has added new layers to my story. Each time I prepare for a presentation, sit down to write a press release or have an interview about my memoir, I have the opportunity to look at my relationships anew.
I treasure this time spent in contemplation about my mother and the depth of her influence on my life. While Alzheimer’s shifted the course of our relationship in unexpected, painful and challenging ways, it also taught me to slow down, release expectations and open myself to the gifts within each moment.
My perspective has changed, of course, with my mother gone. It is much easier to see that while the care taking and the grieving seemed endless at the time, it was but for a season. I am reminded that all of us lead lives that are a series of seasons, seasons that in the conglomerate make up who we are, seasons that lead to our final act.
I have transitioned from a childless woman in her early 30s to a mother in her mid 50s who has laid her own parents to rest. Time has evaporated. The reason I continue to share the story about my mother’s Alzheimer’s and my own infertility is to provide a message for those who have suddenly become stranded on their own island of grief. My hope is to reach out a hand, to let my readers know they are not alone.
I hope you find meaning in this podcast. Thanks for reading and listening!
Click here to listen to the podcast.
To order a copy of Motherhood: Lost and Found, click here.