To my surprise, The Longest Day, a day set aside by the Alzheimer’s Association to bring awareness to Alzheimer’s and dementia, has been a good day. I started thinking about it a couple of weeks ago when my publisher told me she would be offering a special discount on my memoir for five days, starting on June 21st in honor of my mom.
To my surprise and delight, Motherhood: Lost and Found has become a #1 Bestseller on Amazon. I’m humbled and honored and will say more on this in another post. For now, I want to focus on my family.
As I began preparing for #TheLongestDay, memories began to stir. Father’s Day happened to be a few days before the summer solstice, and I found myself looking at old photos, smiling at special times my husband and I experienced with my parents.
In my memoir, I focused mainly on my mother’s illness, and how I survived that 14-year period of my life. As most people who have a loved one with Alzheimer’s understand, it’s easy to “forget” the time before. Before the confusion. Before the emotional outbursts. Before the hospital visits. Before the intense caretaking.
After my mother passed away, it took time, but there was a lifting of the heaviness I carried with me. The grief and exhaustion that comes with caring for someone who has lost so much. Memories of who my mother was before she became ill gradually began to surface. I felt a lightness and a joy that I had missed for many years.
This week, as I sorted through old photos, I found a handful from the time my husband and I lived in Houston. Joel had accepted a transfer from Atlanta to Houston. We’d been married for a few years and were busy with our careers. Joel was an insurance underwriter and I was the editor of a community newspaper.
I missed my parents, who lived on the coast of North Carolina. But the old photos I found were from a visit they made to Houston. I was reminded of how much fun we had with them.
It was a window of time when the four of us thoroughly enjoyed each other. Perhaps the distance made us appreciate each other more.
We were two couples who shared a bond. Joel and my father talked golf and business, while my mother and I lapsed into our familiar conversation about relationships, writing and our love of nature and animals.
My parents enjoyed seeing us in our home, absorbing the new phase of life we were in, getting to know us as equals.
I remember rising early to attend an Easter sunrise service, Joel and Daddy playing golf, my parents taking a dip in our hot tub. At my mother’s insistence, we drove out to see the Texas bluebonnets in bloom. We even spent a joyful evening playing cards.
Memories like these help fill in the blanks that were left by my mother’s Alzheimer’s. Seeing her smile, remembering her gentle, kind and fun spirit fills me with gratitude as the seasons turn.
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. Today, on June 21st, Motherhood: Lost and Found will be available for $1.99. 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.
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.
Over the past several months, I’ve had the privilege of sharing the story of my memoir, Motherhood: Lost and Found, through personal appearances, guest posts, magazine articles, etc.
Today, I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Paula Slater for the podcast, Straight from the Horse’s Mouth. Paula interviews people in the horse world who are striving to make the world a better place through their creative work.
After living through my mother’s Alzheimer’s for many years, and then writing about it for two decades, part of me was ready to move on. I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue retelling the story.
However, I’ve found that each time I talk or sit down to write about this experience, a new facet of my history rises, giving me the opportunity to remember my mother and thoughtfully examine our relationship. I’m reminded of how my mother and I used to enjoy long conversations where we discussed the underpinnings of our family, who we were and how we became the people we thought ourselves to be.
It was rich soil for a writer’s mind…and we were both writers. Yet, when my mother’s mind began to unspool, it was difficult for me to understand and corral what was happening. How could Mom be herself if she no longer had the ability to think through issues, to probe, to verbally massage and circle ideas?
While Mom gradually lost her ability to consistently use language in this way, she still existed, and she still had feelings. And, interestingly, her intuition seemed as strong as ever.
I had to learn to look at her differently and accept that there were still many undiscovered layers beneath who I thought she was. And I was also changing. The personas I had created for both of us were stretching, evolving.
I’ve heard it said, “We don’t stop changing until we die.” I believe our relationships continue to shift and grow right up to and even beyond death. Talking with Paula today reminded me of the gift of my mother’s conversations. Thank you, Paula, for getting me thinking… in a new way… again.
I look forward to posting a link to Straight from the Horse’s Mouth where Paula and I discussed what it was like to witness my mother’s illness and many other topics related to Motherhood: Lost and Found.
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.
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.
During Misty’s recent vet exam we learned that her hocks were sore. The vet recommended a round of injections to help her feel better. He came out today and treated her. I took a series of photos so that I could share the experience with Karen and LK who are out of town. Misty was a good girl.