World Alzheimer’s Day and the Gifts of September

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

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

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

Me, Sydney and my mom.

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

But grief passes…like the seasons.

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

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

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

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

Me with Crimson.

There was so much I didn’t know.

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

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

In memory of my sweet Mom, the 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.

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

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Finding Hope in the World of Alzheimer’s

After attending the Alzheimer’s Association Dementia Education Conference here in Charlotte, I am lit from within with a fire, a desire to make things better, to provide a sense of hope for the sea of people I saw whose faces reminded me of the Sargasso Sea that I rowed on for so many years while caring for my mother who had Alzheimer’s.

Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t start out inspired. In fact, a part of me wanted to curl up and go to sleep, not face a full day of being reminded what it looks and feels like her to care for someone with dementia.

I didn’t want to go back to that emotional place. It was hard and lonely. I didn’t want to think about other people who are facing this pain. I didn’t want to think about my mother, how I had become an orphan in a sense before my time.

It was easier to simply put a lid on all those emotions and hide them somewhere in my heart.

At the conference, I was one of four writers in the Authors’ Corner. I was there to sell my book, offer people the opportunity to win a free Kindle version of Motherhood: Lost and Found, hand out flyers about AlzAuthors (a group of 100 authors who have banded together to provide resources for caregivers in need) and share pieces of my story – how my mother showed signs of Alzheimer’s when I was in my early 30s at the same time I was trying to become a mother.

The Author’s Corner

On the drive to the conference I prayed that God would lift me out of the swamp of my past emotions and use me as a vessel. I had no idea how this would happen. And to be honest, if I had followed my own feelings, I might have stayed in bed.

After all, going to the conference reminded me of my younger self. Twenty years ago, I went to this same conference, looking for help, seeking those who would understand, picking up brochures about places where my mother might one day be cared for. The landscape of caregiving is so different now — much brighter, with so many more options and offerings.

But what I remembered most from that long-ago conference was the sense of heaviness I carried within me. My mother was not the woman I grew up believing she would be, and I had no way of knowing how to move forward in this dusky night we both seemed to be trapped in.

There was a heaviness inside as I cared for my mother.

I came away from that day so many years ago wishing that I had a book to share with the other attendees. I had already begun working on mine, but it was nowhere near finished as my mother’s story continued for at least another decade. But, even then I sensed that my story was what I could share with others. It was the thing that might bring help and hope to people who were suffering, even as I was stumbling on my own path.

This year I came to the conference not as an attendee but as an author with boxes of books as my gift. My memoir was skimmed from the 14 years of pain and loss and grief, distilled in such a way that hope and life and light rose to the surface. My faith evolved over that time period. The hardships filed away certain rough edges of my personality. My heart was changed in ways I am grateful for, even though the process was torturous at times.

The 2017 conference brought some special surprises. I ended up sharing a table with a lovely, warm-hearted author and former nurse, Mary Ann Drummond, who has written Meet Me Where I Am, a compassionate guide about caring for those with Alzheimer’s. Her tender approach was exactly what I would have wanted for my mother. I also met Barbara Ivey and Carol Howell, two other wonderful authors who are supporting others through their books.

It was so inspiring to talk with Brian and Mary Ann.

Midway through the conference, Mary Ann and I were joined by Brian Kursonis, one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever known. Brian is 56 (my age), has early-onset Alzheimer’s and has become an important spokesperson for those dealing with dementia. Intelligent, soft-spoken and self-effacing, Brian is stepping up to the challenge of reaching millions of people in need.

How could I not be encouraged and deeply moved by these amazing individuals?

I wanted to grasp the hands of all the attendees who walked by whose faces were filled with sorrow, squeeze their palms, look into their eyes and say there is more…. There is hope… This is but a moment in time. I see you, but more importantly God sees you and He sees your loved one. It is okay, even good to cry. Your deep sadness is a stamp of your love. You are not alone, even if it feels that way. Each of us here at this conference has a story, each of these stories must be held preciously. Let us share them with one another and watch our burdens grow lighter. If we link hands and spirits, we will find room for hope.

 


After the Eclipse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


August Sky: Preparing for the Eclipse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Alzheimer’s Support, Part II: A Window Into Caregiving

Spending time with my sweet mom while I was yearning to have a child.

As someone who has lived through a parent’s Alzheimer’s, I have deep appreciation for AlzAuthors and the compassion of its authors. I traveled a lonely path, caring for my mother whose memory began slipping when I was in my early 30s and trying to become a mother myself. Mom’s slow dance with Alzheimer’s lasted for 14 years.

Most of my friends had no idea what I was living through and, as a writer myself, I was hungry to read about the personal experiences of others who had gone before me.

I have a memory of standing outside my barn, feeling a light breeze as I watched the horses graze. I had no idea what was ahead on my journey with my mother, but I somehow knew that it would be important for me to share my own story.

Good books have always inspired me, and I wanted and needed to know how people not only survived this disease, but thrived in the midst of the grief and exhaustion of caregiving.

I remember spending hours late at night with a laptop perched on my knees searching every site that had the word Alzheimer’s in it. Twenty years ago, there was very little information and few books available for people like me.

Thankfully, all of that has changed. At AlzAuthors, caregivers can find a wide array of supportive resources – from handbooks on caregiving to memoirs about caring for parents, grandparents, spouses and other loved ones to fictional stories with characters who suffer from dementia to books explaining Alzheimer’s to children and more.

Part of my role on the management team will be to expand the reach of AlzAuthors on Facebook and Instagram.  You’ll be able to find us here on Facebook, and I’ll keep you posted about the upcoming Instagram account.

I’m honored to help spread the news about this wonderful resource. Let me know if you have any questions or ideas that might help get the word out to those in need.

p.s.

Motherhood: Lost and Found was featured on AlzAuthors this past January. You can read the post here.

p.p.s.

You can find “Alzheimer’s Support, Part I: Spreading the Word” here.


The Heart of a Vet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


The Connecting Power of Nature

I was just chatting with a “friend” on Instagram. We were connecting about our love of animals and nature,  and our conversation suddenly took a  turn. She told me that her mother’s birthday was tomorrow. I knew that her mother had died and sensed that she felt this loss intensely.

I felt a sudden deep empathy. My mother is gone too, and her birthday was in late June.

My Instagram friend is a writer like I am and her words made me pause. “We never fully stop grieving. It is an ever evolving process, and through writing they live on with us and through nature and animals communicate to us. Never the same, but comforting.”

As a poet and a nature and animal lover, I know this to the core of my soul, though I’m not sure I’ve spoken it out loud. My mother was deeply in tune with nature. I remember her awe over the spectacular winter sunsets on the North Carolina coast, her silent reverence for the beauty of Lake George and its wildlife as we paddled her green canoe, her passion for protecting undeveloped land.

Like nature, she was never in a rush. Mom taught me to appreciate the mountains around the lake and the long stretches of damp sand along the coast. With her eyes, I take in the tall pines that line the bay, and I scan the ocean’s dark grey green waves for the fins of dolphins.

I follow her footsteps as I hike the rocky hills of the Adirondacks. Is it her feet or mine that sink in the sand as I search for shells beside the ocean as the salt air caresses my cheeks?

Each time I walk on the beach or return to my ancestral home in upstate New York, I am soothed by visions of her.

To read more about my mother and her influence on me, order a copy of The Beach Poems, a collection of poetry about the Carolina coast and the crescent of sand we called “the beach” at Lake George in Upstate New York. To receive the pre-publication discount, click here.

Also, check out my friend @meditatingwithanimals on Instagram and learn more about her lovely book here.