I’ve been at the lake for almost a week, just enough time to slip into the rhythm of a lake dweller. Someone who has forgotten the minutiae that occupied my mind before I arrived, someone who eats meals on the deck and no longer cares about washing my hair, someone who takes note of the wind and checks the surface of the lake each time I’m outside. Someone who cools off before dinner with a swim.
Here at Lake George the weather shifts from cool and windy to warm and sunny to damp and rainy within a few hours. This year, we’ve been blessed with beautiful days where we’ve enjoyed being out on the boat, swimming to the float at the family beach, spending a morning on a dining porch or an afternoon on a dock chatting with cousins, watching the sun set over the mountains.
The first few days, we rushed to get everything in, still running on the energy of our regular lives. But today, my last day here, I want to slow down and absorb the messages this place holds.
On our first days, we took Sydney tubing with a cousin, went kayaking around the bay, swimming at the beach. We gathered with cousins for our annual family meeting and picnic. There was a flurry of activity and fun.
Midway through our time here, something slowed inside me. My daughter and I canoed to Joshua’s Rock. The wind was so strong, we hardly needed to paddle on our way out. We sat on the ledge that I’ve shared over the years with my mother, my siblings and cousins and looked out on the expanse of lake. Neither of us said much. My daughter picked wild blueberries from the bush beside her as I studied patterns of moss on the granite under my bare feet. On the way home, we had to dip our paddles deep to keep from floating backwards with the current.
Before sunset, the wind died down and we took our friend’s pontoon boat out. The water in the bay was like glass and the sky a tapestry of greys.
Today, I walked down the hill to the beach and felt the echo of my childhood footsteps, how I couldn’t stop my young legs from running, skipping over the stones that rose from the green grass like the brows of my uncles.
The sight of water behind the tall pines along the shore never fails to lift my heart. And on a day when the sky is china blue and sketched with white clouds, this place feels like a small piece of heaven.
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.
November 17th is the anniversary of my mother’s death. This year, with the recent release of my eBook, and “A Conversation about Alzheimer’s and Dementia” at Main Street Books scheduled for this same day, the date feels even more loaded than usual.
I find myself reliving my mother’s last days. Nine years ago, we had a drought similar to the one we are having now. I remember my husband and I walking the path at Jetton Park and seeing the stretches of red clay populated with dark tree trunks and boulders that were usually underwater.
As we traversed my mother’s last weeks and days, it felt like we were walking on the moon. Normal life had receded like a distant planet as caregiving took over my days. I felt like an alien in my own skin. This week, as my husband and I return to Jetton Park, we’re seeing the same strange landscapes that are usually covered by water.
Nine years ago I waited for the fall colors to blossom and fade. I kept thinking that the leaves would be gone by the time my mother died. But they hung on, flashing a kaleidoscope of gold and crimson, russet, ginger and auburn. I drove by one particular tree on my way to the nursing home, and each day it got brighter until the day of her death it was like a burning flame.
As the years have passed by, my mother’s voice seems to grow stronger. Not a nagging voice of a mother encouraging a child to do the right thing. But the loving essence of her, the joy she took in reading and writing, her delight in nature, her natural sense of nurturing, her keen desire to continue learning and her depth of connection to her family. All of this and more surrounds me as I move through my days.
I could not be more grateful that she was my mother. Perhaps I need to say this aloud, to write it over and over because I didn’t fully appreciate who she was when she was alive. The thought makes my eyes fill with tears. I wish I had done more for her. And yet, I know she understood and gave me grace. Even when I was a self-centered teenager. She never expected me to fulfill her. I pray that I can share the same kind of unconditional love with my daughter.
So I celebrate my mother this November. Who she was and how she seasoned my life so tenderly with her love.
The month of November has deep resonance for me. This year it is stronger than ever. Part of it is because it’s National Alzheimer’s Month and National Caregiver’s Month, two things I’m well acquainted with. And, the fact that my memoir, Motherhood: Lost and Found, has moved back onto center stage with the eBook being released and the audio version coming soon.
But there is more.
I don’t know how other people market their books. I am not and never will be a salesperson. So, instead of advertising in traditional ways, I find myself retelling my mother’s story – her descent into Alzheimer’s – along with my struggle with infertility, over and over again.
It took me 20 years to finish my memoir. That was not a typo. Twenty. Years. Of course, I didn’t spend every minute of that time writing. I set the book aside when my mother needed me. Many years into the writing process, when my daughter was born, I stepped away for large chunks of time. But I always came back. And I revised a LOT! Okay, I guess I’m a bit of a perfectionist. Still, 20 years is a long time to work on a story, especially when it’s a book about your own life. You’d think I might get bored with it.
That never happened.
Maybe it’s because relationships are endlessly fascinating to me. I didn’t have as many years as some do with their moms. My mother was 41 when she gave birth to me, so I had a lot of catching up to do on her life. And I was only 33 when she began showing signs of Alzheimer’s. That’s pretty young to begin losing your mom. Maybe working on the book was a way to feel close to her.
Even now, I treasure the hours when I am writing about her. I’ve produced press releases, magazine articles, guest blogs posts and more. I rarely send out a duplicate story. Each piece is an opportunity to relive those years with my mother, to understand her better, to reach deep into my being for the gifts she gave me.
And the life I’m currently living with my husband, daughter and animals on our farm serves to only amplify the relationship I had with my mother. My daughter and I have a similar age difference as my mother and I did. So, I find myself not only reliving my life with my mother as she slowly spiraled into Alzheimer’s. But I am also reliving my own teen years (and thinking of my mother’s response to me) as my daughter rides her horse, enters high school, gets her driving permit and stretches her wings.
At times, it’s as if I’m living in an echo chamber and the memories are reverberating like voices all around me.
* 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.
The last week and a half has been full of transitions in our little horse world, and I have been holding the tension of two opposites within me: grief over saying goodbye to April, a horse who has come to mean much to our family, and celebration over the welcoming of a new gelding for Sydney’s friend Lauren-Kate.
April played an important role in my daughter’s development as a rider, and she became a fixture in the pasture beside our beloved Foxie. April and Foxie spent this past winter together in a paddock at Runneymede, and when they returned home, it was as if they were attached at the hip. I took so many photos of these two mares, delighting in their companionship.
April was the horse whose head would lift each time I called out to the horses, and she would come walking, sometimes trotting over to see me, with Foxie lagging behind. Sydney and I noted how April and Foxie stood together under the shade trees head to tail, brushing flies off of each other’s faces and nibbling at the itchy places on each other’s backs. Foxie, with her typical Quarter Horse build, often stood next to, usually a little behind April, with her head lowered, as if she were hiding. While April, with her thoroughbred/Welsh Pony breeding raised her head with curiosity and friendly interest each time she saw us.
We first met April last July, on a 100-degree day near Charleston, SC. Our family was returning home from a beach vacation and we’d heard of this horse, a sweet mare whose “default was whoa,” according to her owner, who had worked with Jo, a dear friend of ours. Sydney had been riding Foxie and was head over heels in love with her. But Foxie was taking advantage of her inexperience and taking off at the canter with her. I figured with a little training, I could break Foxie of her habits and Sydney could gain confidence by riding a horse that she would be comfortable learning to canter on. April was that horse. I knew the first time Sydney rode her, on that 100-degree day. A couple of weeks later, Deirdra, a friend of mine from my old days as a riding instructor delivered April to our farm. Sydney began riding April several times a week, and within a few weeks, she was cantering with confidence and ease. By the end of the year, she was back riding Foxie and enjoying her again, thanks to April.
It’s always hard to board horses when you’ve been used to taking care of them yourself. But Sydney’s intense school and basketball schedule left little time for horse care in the evenings, so we knew it was the right thing to board them through the winter.
Sydney’s friend, Lauren-Kate, took over riding April when the horses moved to Runneymede, and the girls had many great lessons there together. They also had a taste of trail riding when it was clear both horses were getting bored with ring work.
In the spring, when the horses returned home, their joy was palpable. They left the winter dry lot pasture behind and discovered their familiar paddocks, lush and green with new grass. They dropped their heads to the tasty tufts and never looked back. They even seemed to love their stalls – where they could stand side by side or look out their back windows towards another field of green.
As the horses grew accustomed to the grass and were eased into 24/7 turnout, I delighted in seeing them each day as I walked. They were always in close range of each other, always moving in time; if one started walking, the other lifted her head and began walking too. There was never a scratch on either horse…they watched out for each other, never fought, always enjoyed the other’s presence. Having been around horses for most of my life, I know how rare this is. But I believe these two horses genuinely loved each other.
We often joked that April was a person inside a horse body because she was so curious and interested in people. Every day she greeted whoever came to the barn – whether it was a person or Foxie – with a whinny or a nicker. She was truly present. And how she loved food! She never left a speck of hay in her stall, even if she’d spent the last 24 hours eating grass. If she didn’t want to do something she’d let you know…stopping on a hot day, after a longer-than-usual lesson, turning around to look at you if you tried to urge her to go, as if to ask, “Are you serious?” then capitulating if you meant business and brought out the whip.
Sydney and I had discussed how April would be leaving the barn sometime during the summer because our year lease was ending. About a month before our lease was up, we learned that Lauren-Kate had found a potential horse for herself. I was in communication with April’s owner and knew that she felt that the mare had more good years in her as a school horse, and I agreed that she would be a benefit to the right program. But I knew it would be hard to say goodbye. I went down to the barn to talk with April. I told her what was going on, that she would not be staying with us, but that I loved her and hoped we would find a special home for her where she could help other students gain confidence in their riding. To my surprise, I had a sense that April, though deeply connected to Foxie and appreciative of our farm, was aware of her role and ready to accept whatever her new assignment might be. She met my gaze with her perpetual friendly and open curiosity and what felt like a sense of trust. I believe this sense of trust came from her owner’s firm belief in her talents and a sense that our family would oversee this transition.
A week or two later, April had her hooves trimmed, and I remember watching her blissful face as the farrier worked on her. It was as if she was enjoying to the fullest every last experience with us on the farm.
It’s been a wonderful year with April. Thank you, Kelly, for sharing her with us. We will always have a warm spot in our hearts for this sweet mare. I’ll finish this post with some of the lovely sights we were blessed with during this past year.
Coming soon: Transitions at the Farm, Part II: Welcoming Shady
It’s a beautiful fall day, crisp and cool, and the sun shines brightly through amber, maroon and burnt orange leaves. I suddenly had to grab my camera and take photos of the horses with this new scenery. The horses are beautiful all the time, in all weather and with every background…but the changing seasons reminds me of the glory of these animals, the natural setting they inhabit, the farm we are blessed to call home.
Fall is a time of change, the outer world is shedding itself, leaves that are no longer living flutter brightly through the air. Remember me! Remember me! they seem to call out, the way my own memories flash and twirl through my mind. My mother’s awe at the water-colored sunsets on the coast, the winking of gold and silver in the waves, the bleeding of peach into lavender cloud. My daughter’s glee at turning five, the birthday she’d dreamed about for a year, asked every afternoon after preschool, Is it here yet? Yes, my sweet one, it’s here and gone…and here again as the leaves of memory circle and float.
I will cherish these memories and loved ones as long as possible, yet, at the same time, I must open my hands, release my grasp on things that are not mine to hold. Eight years ago next month, my mother stepped beyond my reach into a golden glow. That same day, my sweet girl rained flower petals down the aisle of a church, paving a path of fragrance for Emily, the bride.
Yesterday, Sydney slipped behind the wheel of my car to practice driving up the dirt road to our house. When she was a flower girl, I never dreamed her feet would reach the pedals. But they did. And the years have passed. She stepped tentatively on the gas, braked when necessary. Her long, golden hair flowed gently over her shoulders.
My own hair is greying…and the days keep moving. One day soon the branches will be bare and the frost of winter will set in. But today it is late October and the woods are glowing. The muzzles of horses are buried in emerald grass. They don’t look ahead or worry, just simply feel the warmth of autumn through their coats. And the sun shines brighter each day through the shedding forest.