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.
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.
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 Kindle version 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
* In honor of my horse Crimson, I’m giving away a copy of the Kindle version of Motherhood: Lost and Found. For a chance to win, leave a comment at the end of this post. Be sure to include your email address. A winner will be selected next week. Good luck!
* Two winners have been chosen. Thank you for your comments.
Motherhood: Lost and Found tells the story of my struggle to have a child at the same time I was losing my mother to Alzheimer’s. For those of you who don’t know me, the back drop of this story is my love of horses.
During this decade of loss, I was deeply involved in the horse world. Most mornings I could be found at the barn grooming or riding my horse Crimson. My afternoons were spent teaching dressage and hunter/jumper to a group of riding students who I adored.
Crimson was a very special horse. He happened to be a grandson of the great Secretariat. An Appendix Quarter Horse, I learned that Crimson had won one race before his career at the track ended. I purchased him as a green six-year-old when we lived in Houston, and trained him to jump. We transported him to North Carolina when Joel and I moved back home to be closer to my parents.
A chestnut gelding just shy of 16.2 hands, he looked a lot like Secretariat. And he had the heart of a champion. Crimson was the kindest horse I’ve ever known. When I was overwhelmed with the grief in my life, I went to him.
Some days when the sorrow was too much to bear, I would go down to the barn and watch him grazing with the other horses. Other days, I could do nothing more than lean against Crimson and rest my head against his neck. He would stand like a statue absorbing my emotions.
My mother’s illness lasted for over 10 years before she died, and for much of that time, Joel and I remained childless. Because my mother required constant care, I had to board Crimson at other farms for months at a time. It was heartbreaking to let him go. But I sensed that he understood. I was also fortunate to have wonderful horse friends who helped care for Crimson while I was away.
After my daughter was born, I was finally able to bring Crimson home. It was a gift to have him at the barn. His kind and gentle nature always lifted my heart. Each morning, I did chores – cleaning stalls and filling water buckets – while Sydney rode in a pack on my back. It was hard work taking care of a mother with Alzheimer’s, a young child and Crimson. There were long days when my mother was sick, Joel was out of town or my daughter had been teething throughout the night. But Crimson’s presence gave me strength and peace.
During those years, I didn’t have much time for riding. But occasionally I would hop on just to feel the rhythm of Crimson’s gaits, his rocking canter. I remember one day wanting to share this wonderful feeling with Sydney. She was delighted when Joel lifted her up on the horse in front of me. Crimson was a perfect gentlemen, as I knew he would be.
I’ll always be grateful for the time I spent with this wonderful horse. Crimson passed away in 2003, after a serious attack of intestinal colic. He was 19, the same age his grandfather Secretariat was when he died. We laid him to rest on the farm near the magnolia tree given to me by my friend Lyn in honor of my miscarriages.
To order a copy of Motherhood: Lost and Found, click here. I’m so thrilled that it has been No. 1 on Amazon’s Hot New Releases for Eldercare. For more information, please see my website: www.anncampanella.com.
During the same weeks as I was processing my grief and acceptance over April leaving, I was beginning to celebrate the fact that Lauren-Kate, had found a horse that seemed to suit her. I’ve been teaching Lauren-Kate riding lessons since we first brought Foxie to the farm over a year ago, last spring. And she and her mom, Karen, helped us clean up the barn and have been sharing chores with us since that time. Karen showed me the video of Lauren-Kate riding Shady, and as I heard her talk about him, I had the sense that this horse could be “the one.” They had been patient in looking for the right horse. Lauren-Kate had leased Misty, a sweet paint mare for several months last year, and she had tried out a handful of other horses. For good reasons, none of them had been quite the right fit. But Shady, this new gelding, seemed like something special. He was an elegant chestnut Quarter Horse (though he didn’t have a typical Quarter Horse build) with a sweet face and a kind temperament. He also had some dressage training in him.
I couldn’t help but take in the similarities to my old horse. Crimson, the same color, had been an Appendix Quarter Horse gelding with build of a Thoroughbred. He also had a laid-back temperament, and I had ridden him dressage for years.
Lauren-Kate took a couple of lessons from Jennifer Flowers, a wonderful dressage trainer at the barn where Shady was, and I went up to watch them together. Shady’s low-key and willing attitude, his previous dressage training and his steadiness seemed to be everything Lauren-Kate was looking for. The smile on her face when they were together told the story. When Karen asked me what I thought, I couldn’t help but say, “He seems like a good fit.”
Shady had been donated to Race2Ring, a rescue organization Lauren-Kate volunteers for that also matches up qualified horses with new owners. The adoption process was a smooth one, and on Tuesday, July 12th, Shady was delivered to our farm by Erica, a friend of Karen and Lauren-Kate’s and one of Race2Ring’s board members.
It was a typical warm July day. Sydney was at a basketball camp, and Lauren-Kate and I went to bring in the horses, so that Erica could pull her large truck and trailer into our big pasture to turn around. Foxie and April were grazing in their usual fashion, and I asked Lauren-Kate to lead Foxie to the barn, knowing April would follow, so that I could open the gate near the road. April followed Lauren-Kate and Foxie from the pasture into the ring, but then she paused as if she was unsure if she should continue as she watched me walk toward the gate. Typically, April sticks close to Foxie, so I couldn’t help but notice this behavior. If it had been another horse, I wouldn’t have opened the gate. But I knew April would never try to leave Foxie. Surprisingly, April waited for me, letting Foxie get out of sight. After swinging open the gate, I walked towards April, and she and I continued to the barn. In their stalls, I threw each horse a flake of hay, turned on their fans and made sure their water buckets were full.
Within a few minutes we heard the low rumble of Erica’s diesel truck. We hurried up to the big pasture to greet Shady. He was nervous as he backed off the trailer and was covered in sweat. He lifted his head high looking around to see where he was. After a few moments, Erica handed his lead rope to Lauren-Kate. She was beaming as she led him towards the barn. Erica, a friend who had driven with her, Lauren-Kate’s mom and I all followed.
As we entered the barn, there was a flurry of nickers and neighs…and I noticed that April was lying down. My first thought was, “She must be enjoying a little nap in her stall,” since she’s out most of the time. April got up quickly and stretched her neck towards Shady. Her nostrils fluttered as she nickered. Shady answered her back.
Once in his stall, Shady circled a few times, then stood with his head over the door looking towards April and Foxie. I asked some questions about Shady’s feed and turnout schedule, his shot records and other miscellaneous horse info. After a bit, everyone except me headed back to the trailer to pick up Shady’s tack that had been donated. Karen offered to give me a ride back to the trailer, but I declined wanting Lauren-Kate and Karen to have a few moments with Erica. I was also glad to have a brief moment of quiet in the barn so that I could observe the horses and begin to process some of the emotions of this transition. This was a big day. I couldn’t help but remember how excited I was when I bought Crimson many year ago and when we brought Foxie home to the farm last spring. Buying a horse is like welcoming a new member into your family. Your relationship changes. The horse becomes more than an animal you ride and groom for a few hours a week. He becomes an animal you think about on so many levels from feeding to turnout and everything in between.
The horses seemed to appreciate the moment of quiet also. I heard gentle snorting and munching sounds as they nosed through their hay. I walked over and looked at each horse. Shady was alert, dropping his head to grab a mouthful of hay, then popping it back up so as not to lose sight of the other horses. Foxie was her usual calm self, a tiny tear of sweat dripping from one eye. I noticed that April’s coat was sweaty. Without thinking much about it, I pulled her out of the stall and hosed her off. I knew the barn was warm, and the horses were used to being outside where there was a slight breeze. April’s eye had a dull look to it, but I attributed it to the heat.
A few minutes later, Karen and Lauren-Kate returned to the barn and began putting away Shady’s tack. I made another quick check of all the horses. I expected to see April looking more refreshed as she stood in front of the fan after her bath. But, instead, her head was drooping slightly and her eyes were glazed.
“April doesn’t look good,” I said, unlatching her stall and slipping on her halter. My eyes immediately went to her belly, which was distended. She’d developed a grass belly over the summer. So it was hard to tell if it was bigger than usual. But I thought it might be. I checked the color of her gums and put my hand on her flank to see if there were any distinguishable sounds. Because of their physiology, horses aren’t capable of throwing up, so there should be a constant low rumble as grass makes its way through the intestines.
“She may be colicking,” I said.
“What should we do?” asked Lauren-Kate.
“It doesn’t seem serious.” Less than an hour ago, she’d been in the field with Foxie eating grass as usual. “I’m going to walk her a little bit and see how she does.” I took her out to the field behind the barn where there was lots of shade and watched April as I walked her. She was definitely not herself. Her head was lower than usual, and she wasn’t paying any attention to the new horse. She didn’t even seem to care that she couldn’t see Foxie, something that would normally upset her. Lauren-Kate and Karen followed us. Suddenly, April’s legs buckled, a sign that she was about to lie down and roll, a dangerous move for a horse who is colicking because she could accidentally twist a gut, which could cause the blood supply to be shut off to the intestines.
My own horse, Crimson, had died from colic over a decade ago. I had found him one rainy morning just outside the barn, in the same paddock I was now walking April. Unbeknownst to me, he had colicked during the night and spent hours rolling, attempting to alleviate the pain in his gut. The vet, Dr. Strong, had treated him throughout the day, but wasn’t able to save him. Eventually, he was in too much pain, and the decision had to be made to put him down. All of this flew through my head as April’s legs buckled. I went into action, waving my hands along with the lead rope, yelling at the mare to keep her upright. My movements startled April and she quickly straightened up. We continued walking.
I made the immediate decision to call the vet and handed April off to Karen and Lauren-Kate, with instructions to keep her moving. My heart was racing as I pulled out my cell phone and looked up veterinarians in the area. Maybe I was being over cautious. After all, April had pooped in her stall and a few times while walking, another good sign that showed her system was in working order. But she still wasn’t herself. And the last thing I wanted to do was lose another horse in that paddock.
I had Dr. Strong’s number in my contact list. I called the office and texted him directly. When there was no response, I looked up other vets. With colic, early and fast treatment can be critical, so I wanted the vet who could get here the quickest. I was on the phone with a vet who was 45 minutes away when Dr. Strong texted me that he was on his way. I cancelled the other vet and felt a wave of relief flow through me.
I was due to pick up Sydney at her basketball camp as all of this was happening. Karen offered to get her, and Lauren-Kate said she would stay to help me walk April. I was so thankful for their help.
Within a short time, Dr. Strong’s truck pulled into the barn. I walked April into the aisle and he gave her a shot of banamine for pain relief and to reduce inflammation. Her vital signs were “pretty good,” and I wondered again if I was being “over cautious.” Dr. Strong put a tube down April’s nose, pumped mineral oil into her stomach and continued monitoring her vital signs. Her heart rate, which had not increased much, decreased during the treatment – another positive sign. But she had few, if any gut sounds. Basically, we had to wait until the banamine wore off to see how she was. In the meantime, I spent time on the phone with April’s owner, Kelly, updating her.
Dr. Strong’s assistant was surprised at how long April stayed under the effects of the banimine. Her head was drooping and her eyes were half-closed. I felt as if the ghost of Crimson was with me as we waited for April to wake up. I remembered clearly how he had stood, bearing the pain of his colic with a quiet strength, and my chest ached at the thought. Imagining how hard it must be for Kelly to be miles away from a horse she loved, waiting for updates, I took a few photos.
Gradually, April began to come around. The vet suggested letting her walk in the pasture, as long as she didn’t roll, to see if she wanted to eat. Even though she was still sleepy, I could see an immediate change in April. She had energy in her walk, and interest in grass. She even called softly for Foxie.
April, upon waking from the sedative, looking more like herself.
I asked the vet if I could turn the two mares out together. He said, “Sure. Whatever it takes to keep her moving.” Foxie was happy to join April, and the two horses started walking side by side, then April began trotting around the pasture. To my eyes, April looked not only good, but great! It was as if she had gone from a horse with a bellyache to a horse who was fully aware of her magnificence and grace as she pranced around the field. It was an amazing transformation.
During the vet’s visit, Shady had been eating hay and watching the action unfold from his stall. We decided to turn him out to let him stretch and see how the mares would respond to him. April, who has always been submissive to Foxie, turned into Super Mare, rushing over to Shady, squealing and turning her rear to him. Foxie, patiently stepped away from April and seemed to watch the whole interaction like a wise mother.
I spent much of that afternoon and evening watching the horses – to make sure April’s colic didn’t return, to see how Shady and the mares reacted to each other and to see how Shady settled into his new environment. I had the sense that my presence was calming to the horses, almost as if I was the experienced older mare, setting a tone of quiet security for the rest of the herd. At the same time, being with the horses calmed me. I brought a chair out into the field and placed it where I could view all the horses. I needed time to simply be and breathe, to let go of my old anxiety and grief over losing Crimson and absorb the joy in seeing April recover so quickly and easily. I also wanted to observe Shady and begin to get to know him.
Later, Sydney, Karen, Lauren-Kate and I discussed what had happened. It seemed as if Shady’s arrival may have initiated a strong heat cycle in April, possibly causing her to colic. And when she came out of it, she was “another horse” for a few days. When I researched heat cycles in mares, I learned that sometimes mares who have not been around male horses for several months can go into strong heat. April had never exhibited any signs of heat throughout the year we’d had her, even when she was boarded at Runneymede, so this made sense. Mares typically only go into heat during the spring, summer and fall months, and April was boarded during the winter, the non-heat months.
We also talked about how the timing of Shady’s arrival was a blessing, in that we were able to be with April, notice her symptoms and care for her right away. If there was some reason for her colic (other than her going into a strong heat), we might not have discovered it until several hours later.
During the early evening after April colicked, Foxie and April retreated to the far end of their paddock. They stood head to tail, resting and swishing flies off of each other. I felt a little bad for Shady, who paced the fence, calling loudly to them. The mares acted as if they wanted nothing to do with him. Eventually, Shady settled down and started grazing. Perhaps (like me) the mares needed some time to process the change in their lives.
Before going to bed that night, I drove my car down to the barn to check on the horses one last time before morning. It was dark and I couldn’t see the horses at first, so I kept driving along the fence line of the paddock. The mares were no longer in the far corner. As I turned the car around, and the headlights swung across the field, I caught a glimpse of their shadowy figures. Shady was standing by the fence, his neck in an arc, as April pranced in front of him and Foxie romped close by.
I love our barn. It was built by John Black, our neighbor who sold us our land and who used to run a dairy farm. Our barn is sturdy, built with strong wood and care. Most of the wood came from June Washam’s old sawmill. June, who has a road named after him, and was recovering from open heart surgery when we knew him, came over and helped John in the building process, even though he wasn’t able to stand up straight. He has since passed away, but the quality of his wood and our barn still stands. John Black says, “Everywhere there should have been four nails, I put five.” Craftsmanship like that is a rare gift. And I am so thankful.
But ever since our tack room was built, I’ve wanted to paint the outside wall of it. It’s made of pressed particle board and has the brand stamped in black running in a diagonal line across it. I’ve always been someone who likes the idea of transforming ugliness into beauty…so, using some old paint that I had around the house and the barn, I began the process.
I enjoy painting, but I don’t consider myself a real artist. My brother Bill was the artist in our family. His watercolor scenes and portraits mesmerized and amazed me. He could perform magic with his brush. My attempts at drawing nature and wildlife were enthusiastic, but typically the trees and the animals were somewhat ill-formed and oddly shaped. But there was something exciting about the process.
These days I enjoy the idea of transforming a plain wall into something magical. Not that I have any misconceptions about my talent. I know it’s raw. Maybe more than raw. But there is joy in the process … the idea of creating something new.
So I went to work on the outside wall of the tack room. I started by painting over the particle board with a tan color. It was a hot day, close to 100, and I had to stand on a stool, then a chair to reach the top of the board. Covering the particle board in paint proved harder than I had imagined. After about an hour, I had less than a quarter of the wall painted and I was drenched in sweat. A wasp crawled out of the wall and circled around me. I held my breath and it flew away.
I stepped back every 10 minutes or so and surveyed my progress, promising myself I would stop … after I was one-third of the way done, then halfway, and finally, gradually, I only had the top left corner to finish … so I persevered.
Then the wind kicked up and the temperature dropped from 98 degrees to the mid 80s and it felt positively cool. I went up to the house as the first rain that we’d had in weeks began falling. But after a few minutes, I thought to myself…Why am I here when it’s finally cool? So I scrounged around the house for some blue craft paint that I could add to the partial can of white paint in the barn. I found some and returned to the barn to paint the sky.
It was a pleasure to paint as the wind stirred through the barn. I could hear the horses rustling behind the barn and the occasional stomping of hooves. The coat of blue went onto the particle board a bit easier.
A few days later, when I had a few hours to myself, I began painting the green that would be the pasture. It took me a while to turn the pale blue paint into green. I don’t like to waste anything, so I stirred yellow into what remained of the pale blue paint. When I tried it out, I could tell that the sky and the pasture would be almost the same color. It took a lot more yellow and some dark green craft paint to finally come up with something dark enough to pass for a pasture.
I was most excited about adding horses to the scene. My plan was to paint each of the horses that are currently on the farm…and possibly add Crimson (looking down from a cloud). I painted Foxie (a palomino), Smokey (a grey Shetland pony) and Misty (a paint) using silhouettes of horses I found on the internet as a guide. It was fun to add their distinctive coloring. I still need to add some shadowing on Smokey as he looks a bit ghost-like.
After painting the horses, I added some fluffy clouds and then… as is often the case… my time was up. I still hope to add Crimson and some trees and a Bible verse that I discovered as I was contemplating the dream of having horses back on the farm.
The mural on the tack room is still evolving. It’s a long way from perfect. But then so am I.
Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture. Psalms 37:3
For three-quarters of a decade, I have kept these dried flowers on a bureau in the hall, in a place where I could see them from my office. For a period of time they gave me comfort. They reminded me of my mother, who loved nature and the outdoors. I would glance at them as I was working on my memoir and think of her. But a year or two year ago, I began to feel like it was time to clear out the old and replace it with something new. It suddenly started feeling a bit morbid to have dead flowers from my mother’s funeral still in the house. Every week or so, I wiped away another handful of disintegrating dry petals from the surface of the bureau. My mother died in 2007.
But I didn’t want to just throw them away. I knew the flowers were a representation of my mother, not her ashes. But still I wanted to “let go” of these dried bouquets in a way that would honor her. So, during one of the cold days of winter, I came upon an idea. I held it in my mind for a while, caressing it for any rough edges. My idea was this: On Mother’s Day I would take the dried flowers to the graveyard on our property. We have several animals buried there: a beloved kitten named Spunky that wandered into our barn when it was first being built, three horses — including my beloved Crimson — and various other pets (some owned by others). At the back of the graveyard is a magnolia tree that Joel and I planted. It was a gift from my dear friend Lyn after one of my miscarriages. I imagined sprinkling dried petals around the base of this sweet tree that blooms each spring.
As the days gradually warmed, my idea evolved. I would take some of the flowers and leaves and distribute them around our farm. After all, Mom was (and is) ubiquitous in my life. I remember her walking around the property, waving her arms and exclaiming at the beauty of the woods the same way she exclaimed over the beauty of her beloved Lake George. I spent 20 years writing a memoir about her. And, yet, there is so much more to say. Her kindness, her gentleness, her tender heart are all things that bring me to tears. I missed them after she had died and still do. Even though, over 10 years before her death, she had descended deeply into Alzheimer’s, her gentle spirit was always present. But, still, it took time before I remembered the mother who had been there before the illness.
Gradually, as the weight and exhaustion of care taking lifted, the layers of who she was began fluttering through my mind like loose leaf pages. She was disorganized, but spontaneous. Ready for an adventure at a moment’s notice. She continually expressed pure awe at God’s handiwork. She was at home on the water. She loved sailing and canoeing, watching the sun set over the glistening waves. She enjoyed the occasional mountain hike or a roadside overlook, encouraging her children to pause and take in the views, listen to the birds. She was a lover of words — writing weekly feature stories for her town’s newspaper for years. As I think about it, one reason I think her stories were so appreciated by the community was that she really and truly wanted to know her subject. She found people endlessly fascinating and complex. But she approached them with no judgment whatsoever.
That quality of “wanting to know” may be what I most miss about her. To have a parent truly “want to know” you is a gift. My mother listened intently, cared deeply. She did not always “get” me. I suppose that is not unusual, maybe even a necessary stage in the mother/daughter relationship. And I realize, all these years later, that I was not exactly someone who was easy to know. But she tried, and she was always present to whatever was going on between us. Is it any wonder that I tend to idealize my mom? Maybe it’s no wonder that I kept the dried bouquets from her funeral on my bureau for seven and a half years.
So, finally Mother’s Day arrived. I looked at the dried flowers half dreading, half thrilled to be getting rid of them. I had told Joel a few days earlier that I wanted to save the pink contoured vase holding one of the collections of dried flowers. Both the color of it and the curves delighted my eyes. I also loved knowing that caring friends or family members had bought this particular vase filled with flowers and given it to us during the time of my mother’s death.
Joel presented me with a beautiful bouquet on Mother’s Day morning, and the roses would look gorgeous inside the vase. Our family went to church that morning, then Joel and I spent a leisurely afternoon — napping and taking a walk. Sydney, who wasn’t feeling well, went to bed early. The sun was just beginning to go down when I remembered that this was the day I wanted to dispense with the dried flowers. I smiled to myself, thinking that my mom — who rarely followed a plan that was laid out — would understand. Still, I didn’t want to wait another year!
So, I quickly emptied the bouquets into two plastic grocery bags. Then I had to put the flowers Joel had given me into the pink vase. Voila! They looked as beautiful as I had imagined.
As I stepped out of the house, I wandered around the foliage in our yard, placing a dried bud here, some disintegrating leaves there. I walked down the driveway in the gradually fading light. I dropped a few flowers into the woods, knowing I’d forget where they were, but liking the idea that they were there…or at least the remnants of them would finish decaying on my well-worn path.
I paused at the creek and sent a few dried petals floating to wherever the creek empties, knowing my mother, although tied down with a military husband and four children, also enjoyed her freedom.
I stopped by the barn and placed a dried flower in the door of Foxie’s stall, thinking of how my mother had loved my pony Cochise and that she must be smiling down on Sydney and her horse. I continued on, stopping here and there, including at the big rock we jokingly call “Joshua’s Rock South” in honor of the place “up north” deeply connected to my mother’s family’s heritage.
Eventually, I got to the graveyard. I had forgotten that Joel had not yet mowed it this year. I was in shorts, and prickers and Poison Ivy were everywhere. Once again, I remembered how my mother would toss her head when coming to an obstacle and light-heartedly move in another direction. She would understand, I thought, as I left a small bouquet at the entrance of the graveyard.
On the way back to the house, I paused at the places I had been, smiling and sighing. It felt good to relieve myself of these dead flowers, to spread their husks into the world, allowing them to be remade over time into something new. As I was approaching the big creek, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. It was a bird. Not just any bird. A robin.
The bird was dusky with a definite tint of orange on her breast. My mother loved all birds and would exclaim over every cardinal or blue jay or purple martin that she saw. But robins were what I considered “our birds.” My middle name is Robin. And each time she spotted one, she said it was “Little Robin Red Breast,” and mom would look at me tenderly, as if the bird and I were one. Over the years we spotted many robins during our spring, summer and fall walks, or my mother would call to me when she noticed one outside her kitchen window. There were many sightings.
This little robin on the driveway was a messenger, a gift, a reminder of my mother’s love and the fact that her spirit can not be contained in a few bouquets of dried flowers. I needn’t feel bad that I was letting this tangible reminder of her go. Reminders were everywhere. The woods were full of them. And somehow setting myself free from the burden of holding on, allows me to feel the joy of her life. In the darkening light, the robin stayed with me, never more than a few yards ahead, as I walked. I thanked God silently for this amazing little bird and for my mother, all that she was and always will be. When I reached the house, the robin flitted towards a tree (for safety or to build a nest?) as the dog came running up to greet me the same way life rushes in.