I woke early to the raucous sounds of birds and the early morning light filtering through the pines and into the windows of the Owl’s Nest, my great great grandfather’s home. It’s always a bit disorienting to wake here, after the flurry of packing, a long day on the road and the rush of unpacking, checking the house, settling the dog and so on.
Suddenly, all is quiet … except for the birds. Actually, it’s more like time has stopped … or I’ve entered a place where time has new meaning … it loops back on itself, reveals spirals, reinterprets the life I thought I knew.
I am deeply attached to this place, and yet I don’t always like it. Maybe it’s the fact that the layers of memory are so deep. It’s never a simple vacation … a place where we can “get away from it all.” Rather, it’s a place where the old returns.
Sometimes that is a gift and a deeply comforting one. My mother is near to me here. I see her making beds, walking up and down the creaking stairs of this old house, sitting on the stone porch. And I feel her love of place and family. It is so ingrained in who I am.
But this place also holds memories of losses – the years when my mother’s mind was slipping away, her confusion, the hurts she held onto. Things I don’t want to see.
Yet, it also reminds me that these things are like the rings on a tree. Passing phases in the life of a family. Last night when I walked down to our dock, I took a photo of the waning sun and studied what used to be my grandparents’ boathouse.
I remembered making my way as a child through spider webs to climb into the old teak motorboat. For years, the boathouse was dilapidated, until a cousin recently did a major renovation on it. Now it has new life, yet its image still holds the past within it.
Perhaps some of what is difficult about being in this place is the jumble of old and new all mixed together, like the chaotic blend of birdsong this morning. A part of me is busy sorting, sorting through the amalgam … trying to understand the different songs and figure out where I fit.
Late May through June always tends to be an emotional time for me. I’m not sure if it’s because there are so many endings – end of school year, high school and college graduations, reunions, end of spring, my pansies are dying – and new beginnings – a new rhythm for the summer, lots of weddings and wedding posts on FB, new jobs, new summer flowers.
But I think it’s more. The trees become heavy with leaves, the temperatures begin to rise, humidity sets in and there are layers of memories. It was this time of year that my 80-year-old father fell and broke his hip. Two weeks later he died. It was an unexpected ending to a life I had counted on. He had moved into my mother’s assisted living facility a couple of years earlier. Not because he needed assistance, but because my mother did. My father’s presence grounded my mother in a sea of confusion brought about by Alzheimer’s.
My father’s sudden departure stunned all of us, especially my mother, who asked repeatedly, “Where’s Wint?” until the answer, “He died,” given every five or ten minutes (because we couldn’t keep this news from her) became a macabre joke.
All of us shifted that summer. No longer could we count on my father’s presence to anchor my mother. Her disease became both bigger and smaller. Bigger because we as a family had to consider all of her needs. Mom no longer had her “better half” to provide a boundary for her, familiar partnership routines to contain her. She had already left part of herself behind. Now, who would she be without my father?
Her disease became smaller because in unexpected ways, my mother expanded. She stepped into the space that had previously been filled by my father. She seemed to intuitively understand that if she was going to live, she had to become more of herself.
After years of living with dementia, she began walking again; she interacted, and although it didn’t seem possible, she was more present.
Mom still had Alzheimer’s. There was no way she could live on her own. But to some degree, her disease seemed to reverse itself. She made the most of the moments her family was with her. She listened. She nodded. She spoke. On occasion, I noticed the old spark. Even words of wisdom.
My daughter finished ninth grade near the end of May. A couple of weeks ago, my family returned home from an annual beach trip with my husband’s extended family. I celebrated my 35th college reunion recently. Today is the summer solstice. There are so many beginnings and endings, familiar cycles and patterns, yet each day is new.
In less than a week, it will be the anniversary of my father’s death. Daddy died the day before my mother’s birthday. This year would have been her 98th. My father has been gone 17 years, my mother almost 10. Yet their presence still echoes through my life.
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. For one day only, starting at 11 a.m., E.S.T., on June 21st, Motherhood: Lost and Found will be available for $0.99. 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.
With yesterday being Father’s Day, I went digging through some old photos, and I posted the picture of my father from my wedding. I found this similar photo of my mother from the same time and realized that I have never posted it, and it got me thinking. Why?
Perhaps the emotions that this photo brings up are a bit more complicated. It was easy to smile at my father and know he was looking back at me with unadulterated pride. But my mother’s emotions were not so simple and straightforward.
Don’t get me wrong. Mom was filled with great love and tenderness, and I know she was happy for me. But she was a person who felt things deeply. I was her youngest child and I was leaving the nest. She was facing a new passage in her own life.
At times, she may have counted on me as the communicator between her and my father. I understood him in a way that she never did. And while Mom and I were similar in many ways, she and I did not always see eye to eye.
As a teenager, I was frustrated by many of her outdated ways of thinking, and I pushed against her a lot. Her emotions were always near the surface, and as I look back, it breaks my heart that I could so easily make her cry.
In this photo, I see the tender mix of emotions in my mother’s face. Her deep love for me, her awareness of past wounds and that our time together as mother and daughter was shifting.
Fifteen years later, my mother would begin showing signs of Alzheimer’s. Oddly, the disease brought us closer. Mom trusted me during those 14 years when her own mind betrayed her.
When my mother thought my father had hidden her address book, that someone was having a party without her, when she seemed inconsolable, she would listen to me. I couldn’t make everything better. But I could listen and be there for her in ways I wasn’t able to do when I was younger. We were given the gift of time to connect and heal.
I am thankful for every day I had with her.
In honor of my mother and the Alzheimer’s Association’s The Longest Day campaign, I’m excited to announce a special discount on the Ebook version of my memoir, Motherhood: Lost and Found, starting June 21st.
What does space travel have to do with writing and Alzheimer’s? At first glance, not much. But, during my 35th reunion, I had the wonderful opportunity to do a “Coffee Talk” about my memoir, Motherhood: Lost and Found, alongside Tom Marshburn, a classmate who is an astronaut with NASA. My book tells the story of my mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s at the same time I was trying to become a mother, while Tom is one of the few people who has actually walked in space.
Sally Sharp, the organizer of the event, wanted to bring the Class of ‘82 together to give us a chance to pause in the midst of our busy lives and a full weekend of activities to talk about where we’ve been and the paths we’ve taken to get to where we are today.
Davidson College students are typically overachievers, so to sit in a circle with them can be daunting. There are doctors, lawyers and business people at the top of their fields, people of faith, artists, educators and politicians who have made an impact in their communities. Yet, one of the things I found most profound about this special time with them was that we share both a history and a common place in our lives.
Our classmates were engaged and curious. They asked questions about my experience with my mother’s Alzheimer’s and what it was like to write a memoir. Deep questions. I felt heard and appreciated as I shared a brief passage from the book about my years at Davidson and discussed the 14-year period of my life when I helped care for my mother during her illness. I talked about how the experience changed me in ways I am still discovering.
To have my personal story juxtaposed to Tom Marshburn’s exciting journey into space was fascinating. My writer’s brain was busy making connections – big and small. Each of us in that room had been on a journey. Each of us had experienced joy and loss, fear and death. We’ve all taken physical trips and undergone internal shifts. We have all been at the edge of a new world as we stepped into new phases of our life.
Tom shared about how physically challenging it was to come home and deal with the forces of gravity after being in space for an extended period of time. He said even “his lips felt heavy.” I remember times when my limbs were heavy with grief, and I felt as if I’d been on another planet as I cared for my mom.
Another classmate told us how she was involved with “Dark Skies,” an organization that works to stop light pollution in cities. We all agreed how important it was for kids to be able to see real stars, rather than only experiencing space as a virtual reality. There was a pause in the discussion as our class absorbed the impact of children growing up without ever seeing the Milky Way.
Tom had us all laughing about how it can stink in a spacecraft if people don’t practice good hygiene. Another classmate shared funny stories of her mother’s dementia and how she had made a conscious choice “to laugh instead of cry.” Her husband talked about his own mother’s bi-polar illness that he only discovered upon his father’s deathbed. Despite the gravitas of the situation, his story was infused with gentle humor.
And Tom told the poignant story of how he learned about a family member’s death while up in space. Despite the cramped quarters, the news was delivered in a thoughtful, private manner. Tom shared how work became a kind of balm.
Whether dealing with death, Alzheimer’s or a space flight, each of us in that room were human and had been touched by the fragility of life. I emerged from the event feeling as if I had been on a flight with my classmates. For a short time, we had been launched into space and had the opportunity (as Tom had) to look out our small window, view our place in the world and give thanks for each other and the beautiful, small spinning planet we call home.
This weekend was my 35th college reunion. Reunions tend to throw me out of my natural rhythm. All these people from my past, the stirring of old memories, event after event where there is a LOT of socializing. Did I mention that I am an introvert and easily overstimulated?
A part of my brain is busy assimilating these new/old faces, wondering about the lives they lead, wanting to know more about their present stories, remembering (or trying to remember) interactions from long ago. I suppose it’s in my nature (as a writer) to constantly be imagining the different paths my life could have taken.
After all, when I went to Davidson, I was young and unformed, like most high school graduates. I was both bold and fearful, ready to take on the world and, at the same time, hide myself from it. I didn’t take full advantage of my Davidson education. I spent more time exploring my social life, trying to find a place where I fit in, than looking outward.
Thirty-five year later, something has changed. Some of my fears have morphed into a new awareness. The decades of living and loss have left their mark on both me and my classmates. I find myself smiling into the open faces of friends and those who I didn’t know so well, hearing words that touch my heart and remind me that we are all on this journey together.
One fellow alumni made the pronouncement that here at our class reunions, he has found “his people.” He lives a few states away and has a wonderful home and community, yet he spoke what I presume many of us were feeling.
We are no longer the disparate group of students who came together back in the fall of 1978. But over the four years we were together, and the ensuing three decades and a half, we somehow became a cohesive group, a group that shares a history and a perspective, a group that folded in a mix of personalities and experienced an evolution together. An evolution of both the outer world – our political and socio-economic culture – and our own inner worlds as together we have weathered the ups and downs of a career life, families, broken relationships, aging parents, health issues and joys and heartaches of all sizes. We are no longer the wide-eyed, insecure innocents we once were.
The experience of sharing not just four years together, but a succession of life lessons, has uncovered a sense of appreciation. Not just for what was…but for what is. Who we were and who we have become. The threads of commonality have pulled us together, created a net of friendship and community, a sweet spot where each of us can land as we reunite.
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!
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To order a copy of Motherhood: Lost and Found, click here.
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.