Working with you

“I like working with you, ” she said casually as I walked away.

Why did this make make me tear up?

We had spent a few minutes, about 60, working on the greenhouse, repotting seedlings, watering.

“I like working with you.”

But you taught me all this we do.

I tear up because she doesn’t remember.

“I like working with you.”

She’s miles into the ALZ, but when I told her I wanted to take my flailing little seedlings to the greenhouse, she put on her jacket and followed me. She knew what needed to be done.

As I shook the delicate roots of the seedlings apart and repotted them into pierced Dixie cups, she collected rat-chewed bags, pulled down dried vines, then swept away the cobwebs. She prepped the greenhouse.

“I like working with you.”

She acts amazed when I pull off moves much less complex than the ones I watched her perform over the years. I tear up because she doesn’t remember that she taught me how.

“I like working with you.”

Mom, I love working with you. You’ve trained me well.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2020
Alzheimer's

Running out of breath (not really a poem, but . . .)

It’s like running out of breath, isn’t it?

As if you’re jogging too fast.

Unable to recover your breathing.

Gasping for air.

I’m doing those blocks you gave me. They’re really good.

Blocks? I think a couple of ticks.

Oh, the puzzle books!
Yes. Books not blocks. I get mixed up. They’re good for  [gasp, gasp] . . . I do them.

Like that last pushup.

Your arms struggle to push your body from the floor.

But you just can’t.

You collapse.

Yesterday when your dad and I went to the . . .

I wait a couple of ticks, then:

Where did you go?
I don’t know. [push, push, collapse] I know I wanted to tell you.
That’s okay. You’ll remember in a minute.

Sometimes you do. More and more you don’t.

You feel weary.

I feel you slipping away.

You work the puzzles, but you’re tuckered out.

It’s like you’re dozing off,
then perk up a second when you remember something you want to tell me.

But your mind is muddled with fatigue.

The words tangle in their own descenders and beaks.

We’re working on the . . . At the . . . [Deep sigh, shoulders fall.] I don’t know, I forget . . .

Sometimes we can untangle the words together.

More and more, weary of fighting to find them, you just let them go and shuffle away.

Sometimes, it’s like waking up from a great dream you want to share.

But by the time you find me, . . .

I really wanted to tell you something, but I lost it before I got here.

When you manage to string two or three sentences together,
the words scrape across the gravel that has collected in your throat . . .

Here, have some of my water.

. . . because words travel less and less across your vocal chords.

Still . . .

You amaze me.
Ever the athlete, you’re strong in this race, even as you gasp for air.
Always the coach, you’re inspirational, even as your arms fall limp and you collapse.
Still the sage, you’re wise, even when your words dissolve, silenced, on your tongue.
Forever my mom, you’re my role model, gravel-scraped chords, diminishing gaze, and all.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2020

Just like that

And just like that, he’s spending his last night in Puerto Rico.

Isn’t it always just like that?

Just like that, you’re graduating and everyone’s I can’t believe how grown up you are!
Just like that, you’re raising a family of your own.
Just like that, your children are graduating and everyone’s like I can’t believe how grown up he/she is!
Just like that, you’re shifting from child to caretaker with a parent.

You feel like you have all the time in the world, but just like that, time’s up!

Our San Juan adventure

I’m grateful that Steven said yes to this adventure in Puerto Rico. The experience was gratifying for him professionally, and I was giddy to take trips to Puerto Rico, where we snorkeled, found the best sushi chef ever, hiked, made new friends, explored Old San Juan, found magical mountain falls, rolled down the windows to hear the coquí, and splashed in a bay of dinoflagellates. Steven loved watching the ships come into the bay. Being the endearingly annoying geek he is, of course he found the website for tracking all ships of a certain size.

Now, just like that, he’s spending his last night with that fabulous view. Harmony is docked there today. And I’m packing up to go back to our home for a couple of weeks, where we’ll work out our new normal.

When I’m here I’m not there and not here when I’m there

Mom seems to be struggling with the idea that I’m leaving tonight. She came down to my house as I was packing. I turned on Netflix Anne with an E for her while I finished packing all but the computer in the car. When I walked her out, she asked if I was taking the gator (the farm vehicle mom and dad use for getting around the property).

No, I’m taking the van. You’re taking the gator.
Where are you going?
I’m going to Baton Rouge.
When?
Tonight.
Tonight!?
Yes, Steven’s coming home tomorrow.
Tomorrow?
How long will you be gone?
A couple of weeks.
What about your . . .

The words didn’t come to her, but I understood when she flapped her arms.

I have another flying lesson on Monday.
How long will you be gone?
Ten to fourteen days. But I’ll call every day.

This was about the tenth time we had this conversation, and we haven’t been around each other that much today. I added the “I’ll call every day” because her face washed out, a panic in her eyes. I truly don’t do much for her, but she feels better when I’m here.

When she drove up the field in the gator back to her house, I had a moment. I don’t cry much, ever, but I had a moment. I wish I could make her feel safe and whole. I wish I could break into the labs where they’re doing all those amazing things that seem to be fixing Alzheimer’s and take the equipment for her.

I’ll only be away ten to fourteen days, but I know, just like that, there’ll be less of her when I come back.

New normal

But let’s refocus. I’m on my way back from the farm to the suburbs to feather that nest before Steven gets home tomorrow. I’m a little sad about the things we didn’t get around to exploring in Puerto Rico (just like that, it’s over), but I’m profoundly grateful for the experiences we had and I’m looking forward to sorting out the new normal here between the suburb and the farm.

As I settle into that new normal, I’ll be a more mindful of the ticks of time, in hopes to experience less I wish I had . . . and more I’m so glad I did that! Because, just like that . . . you know.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2020

The Cane

Mom comes over sporting a cane today.

What’s wrong?
My knee.
The right one?
No, this one, pausing to wave the cane at the left knee. I wish they would finish what they’re doing.

She’s holding the cane in her right hand, which is correct, but she’s moving it with the right knee, which is wrong.

What they’re doing?
Yeah. You know . . .

Thinking . . . I don’t really know.

You mean, the exercises? The PT?
Yeah.

Today is Thursday, and it’s been gray, cloudy, humid, and foggy since we took a short road trip on Monday. I took her for PT on Wednesday. All my joints feel achy from this gray weather. Could that be the problem?

When you go back Friday, you need to tell them . . .
I don’t think I’m going back. My knee hurts.
But you’re going because your knee hurts. They’re supposed to help make it better.
Well, I don’t know, as she almost trips over an ant bed.
You need to tell them in case something you did there yesterday . . .
Oh, I won’t remember . . .

This is how our conversation goes from my house to hers, as she shuffles, her feet barely clearly the tired winter grass. This feels like downhill. I try to be careful with my words.

In case you don’t remember, I’ll tell dad to be sure they know your knee was hurting today.

Wasn’t it just yesterday, I leaned on her?

You need help with ____ [fill in the blank with the move, painting, cutting down the tree, taking down the pool, refinishing the cabinets, the kids, the wedding, school, a dress, the story, your buttons, your nap . . . lullaby, say goodnight . . .]?

Just yesterday.

Today she leans on the cane, on me, and most heavily on dad.

Today is downhill. I liked the hike uphill better.

Maybe tomorrow the clouds will break and, when we walk up the hill to her house, she won’t need the cane.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2020.

Two Grandmothers, One Disease, Three Stories

Two Grandmothers

I’ve begun to ask myself why I feel more inclined to tell the story of one grandmother versus the other. Where emotion and humor are concerned, I probably have more in common with the one I’m less inclined to story about.

So why does one story draw me more than the other?

They competed for our affections. Not openly, but every now and then it would slip out.

You like her chicken-n-dumplings better than mine.
Y’all spend more time at her house.
You always go there first.

Both were Mama grandmas, but pronounced differently: Mama Nick (MAH-mah Nick) and Mama Wilson (MAW-Maw Wilson). Mama Wilson was average height —maybe a little tall for her generation— and stout; Mama Nick was short and, by her 60s, hunched.

Both were excellent cooks. One favored gardening. The other sewing and crafts.

Mom learned her domestic skills (cooking and gardening) from her mother-in-law. Arguably, this is because mom was the red-headed middle child and neither parents’ favorite, and she married fresh out of high school, living the first few months of marriage in a trailer next to her in-laws’ house. Whatever the reasons, mom’s chicken-n-dumplings are more like her mother-in-law’s than her own mom’s, and, while mom can sew if she puts her mind to it, she prefers the dirt, like her mother-in-law.

Why her?

I prefer the dirt, too. So, why do I feel more inclined to write about my maternal grandmother?

Mama Wilson wasn’t the “sweet” grandmother. She was wonderful, we loved her; but she was strung between sweet and stern, between doting and “don’t-do-that!” She had a bush just outside her back door that we, the grandchildren, called the stick bush. If she became cross with one of us, in an instant, she had reached through the back door without looking, snap!, and was swishing the switch that would blister our bottoms.

I remember hiding under one of the cupboards she used for storing cloth, needles, patterns, and thread. From there she might just scold us, the switch becoming more of an exclamation point on the reprimands.

Thankfully, those switch moments didn’t define our relationships with her. Even as children, we joked about the switch bush.

Skills

August 20, 1956, my four grandparents and my parents, at their nuptials. Mom is wearing the wedding gown Mama Wilson made for her.

What I remember more about mawmaw are her amazing skills. For fun, she made wall-hangings and things like mantel clocks, using molds, plaster, and paint. To supplement their income, she sewed dresses, vests, pants, pajamas, and wedding gowns for friends and neighbors. Of course, on-the-house garments for family.

She probably didn’t realize she had extraordinary skills and creativity. I remember the year we were in town, and she found out we would be shopping for clothing. I was at the grow-an-inch-each-month age. She looked at me, head to toe, toe to head, pulled out a bolt of cloth and a pattern from the cupboard. After spreading the cloth on the floor, she opened the pattern.

In my mind, she tossed the light tissue pattern in the air and let it fall perfectly on the cloth, but that would be an exaggeration. She smoothed the used pattern on the material, then went to the kitchen and came out with a fist full of butter knives and threw them (not exaggerating here) along the edges of the pattern before cutting the material. That afternoon, I had a McCall’s skirt, knickers, and vest that would fit me for more than a mere month.

My mom and I can sew okay, but we didn’t inherit those skills. Maybe that’s one reason I’m drawn to her story.

The oak tree roots

I think mostly, though, it’s the tree incident. I wasn’t witness but heard more than one first-hand account about her fall on the roots of the oak tree. That year, I began writing about her: a short story “Divinity” and a novel. The oak-tree story inspired the opening scene of the novel, and later, of my first screenplay. The oak tree probably marks when I first really started paying attention to what was happening to my grandmothers.

One disease

Did I mention that both of my grandmothers had Alzheimer’s?

The first signs of it began in their mid to late 60s. By 80, the disease had ravaged their minds. I would come to Louisiana for disheartening holidays, stories about the meek, sweet grandmother, now in a nursing home because she was too difficult to care for, swearing like a sailor, starting two kitchen fires, and running off two caretakers; the stern grandmother, now meek, fumbling with safety pins on her sweater where she’d lost buttons she could no longer sew back on, clinging to my grandfather’s every move, and painfully pleasant to everyone around her.

The stern-to-meek grandmother had developed a tendency to wander at night. On one of her wee-hour excursions, the roots of the old oak tree tripped her up, an incident that prompted the installation of door alarms.

That oak tree and the timing draw me to Mama Wilson’s story. Mama Nick died before I moved back to Louisiana. My visits with her were brief and heart-breaking, often spent trying to figure out where her dentures were and what happened to that new slip mom had brought her last time. I knew less about the day-to-day of her relationship with the disease. She had fallen while I was away.

The falls

I was around enough to watch some of Mama Wilson’s fall. Her fall wasn’t any less heart-breaking, but I was able to catch glimpses of the grandmother I remembered. We helped her with her safety pins, she fussed with my daughters’ hair, and we answered when she asked “Where’s Norman?” Before she slipped away, she held all three of my babies. She didn’t always realize they were her great-grandchildren, but that she held them was a blessing.

As Mama Wilson declined, mom wasn’t always patient. She watched her with dismay and started to say things like, “I hope you can be more patient than me . . . ” and “If I get like that . . . ” Then, mom got like that.

This time, I’m here for the whole fall. We’re blessed that mom’s fall started much later, in her late 70s, and that mom is an exemplary and compliant patient.

I started this essay years ago, before mom stumbled across the rough roots of Alzheimer’s. Some of the beginning of the essay is no longer accurate in the present tense. Mom cooked her last pot of chicken-n-dumplings on her own two or three years ago, she’s no longer able to put her mind to complex tasks like sewing, and her gardening is limited to weed-pulling now. She can’t hoe a row or organize the planting of it. This year, she wasn’t able to make any of the Christmas cookies on her own.

Three stories

I never finished writing about Mama Wilson’s fall before mom tripped on her own diseased roots. I haven’t even begun the forensic work to write about Mama Nick’s fall into the disease. I’m drawn to Mama Wilson’s story first because it was the first time I witnessed alertness spilling from the eyes, awareness and stories slowly draining until finally the gaze is vacant.

All three stories —Mama Wilson’s, Mama Nicks, and mom’s— inform my own as I stare down the triple-barreled Alzheimer’s rifle. All three stories challenge me. Like stubborn weeds, they break above the root and require more than the casual tug to be released.

My intention this year is to dig a bit deeper, to finish Mama Wilson’s story, explore Mama Nick’s, and continue to be part of mom’s. Turning over their stories with my words, my heart will break a little more, but I’ll learn more about these women I cherish, the disease I dread, and myself.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2020

Living In Between

2019 forced me to face living in between.

In between places, in between people, in between homes, in between climates.

I read a bit about the in between from a variety of perspectives: a Jewish journal, a family dealing with cancer and chemo, a parent of a fugitive son, and more. I discovered many different in betweens and ideas to chew on: the loss of clarity in that liminal space; living in the middle versus focusing on the goal; living between knowing and not-knowing.

Here are some of the lessons I am digesting as I emerge from 2019 and living in between. They aren’t unique to living in between, but these lessons became more pronounced in that threshold.

Transitions are hard.

I spent the last five to seven days before my first trips between Baton Rouge, Puerto Rico, and the farm grieving about leaving. This was particularly disturbing for those eight-day stints because I was wasting most of my stay sad about leaving and/or anxious about going.

Lesson: Be present.

Be present has become cliché because we’re reminded to do this from many corners. If it feels watered down, it’s not any less important or vital. After I recognized what I was doing, I made a mindful effort to be present up to the very last minute, wherever I was. The transition is still hard, but I learned to spend less time transitioning and more time living where I stood.

I don’t miss.

During my first trip to Puerto Rico, I experienced an aha! moment. For all the angsting I did before leaving for San Juan,

I don’t want to leave.
Will my dogs be ok?
How much more will mom decline while I’m gone?

the aha! came one evening when Steven was watching a show in which a character was expressing I miss you so much! I realized I hadn’t thought about my dogs in days. I hadn’t missed anything or anybody back home in days. My first thought was: I’m broken! How could I not miss anyone?

I started mulling over past absences and found a disturbing truth: I never miss anyone or any place. I look forward to reunions and visits to places, but I couldn’t find that yearning in me that we associate with absence.

Lesson: Be grateful.

The discussion was tricky, but I talked about this with Steven. I had to admit to him that I never miss him. I’m grateful that he didn’t fall apart and equate love with missing/yearning in absence, thankful that he helped me come round to a deeper understanding of myself. I’m grateful for Steven.

Burdens are often self-inflicted.

I’m especially grateful for Steven for taking this deployment to Puerto Rico. We’ve had a year of adventures.

Steven’s gig in Puerto Rico meant, however, being apart anywhere from a week to six weeks, together eight to fourteen days. My I don’t miss you was pretty damn handy for this. As a couple we experienced odd moments of relearning each other and settling territory (the Puerto Rico condo was his, not mine; the farm house was mine, not his; the house in Baton Rouge was no longer either of ours). The absences were hard on Steven, my pets, and my mom.

The hard part for me? I felt pulled in opposite directions, overwhelmed at times because wherever I showed up, someone needed something from me. Some days, I felt crushed by responsibilities. I held a couple of pity parties for myself, sharing them mainly with Steven and my daughter who was keeping the fort down at our main home.

I don’t want to [insert domestic tasks] everywhere I go!
Why can’t you [insert domestic tasks]?

Fussing never feels great and it certainly wasn’t how I wanted to spend the time I had with my people. One day I was sulking about this pattern, and then, the aha! No one was demanding anything from me. I was choosing to take on tasks.

Lesson: Be mindful.

Being mindful helped me set comfortable boundaries around the domestic tedium and tasks. Once I stopped blaming people I was doing things for and owning the responsibility of my choices, I was able to navigate to a more comfortable balance. In some instances, I didn’t change what I did. Understanding that it was my choice made the task less burdensome. In other instances, I chose differently and no one was less for it.

Relationships are a gift.

For each moment I spent with/between my parents, Steven, my friends, and my children, I spent much more time alone.

In solitude, I explored the wall around my heart. It’s not unrelated to why I don’t miss people. I’ve written about this wall before. I’m clearer now on what that wall is, why it’s there, even why I may have needed it at some point in my life. With mom’s health declining and my dad’s scary heart episodes, I’m motivated to keep the wall fortified. Who wants to be vulnerable at times like these?

The wall protects me from things I fear but that protection comes at a cost. I know it’s time to bring the wall down, but awareness doesn’t make that any easier or any less frightening.

Lesson: Let love.

I know that I love, but I have never loved with abandon. Years ago, when I first began exploring this and admitted that I thought I’d never have a soul mate, Steven begged to differ. (So grateful for him.)

I’m grateful for the love I have allowed in —my family, my friends, Steven— and I’m grateful for Steven’s patience and trust as I’ve discovered my wall, fortified it from time to time, defended it. I’m taking baby a-brick-at-a-time steps, but that wall is coming down. In this liminal space, I feel anxious and afraid, but even in the uncertainty of this threshold, I sense opportunity and new beginnings. It’s a beautiful thing to peek over my wall and discover a sea of love.

Emerging from living in between (or into a new one?)

In 2019, I lived in between the suburbs, the island, and the farm, an experience that was a gift of travel adventures, self-awareness, healing, and mindfulness. The experience was also a microcosm of life because don’t we all always live in the in between?

On the largest scale, in between birth and death.
On smaller scales: in between milestones and celebrations, in between semesters and jobs, in between Mondays and Fridays, Fridays and Sundays, in between appointments and dates, in between waking and sleeping.

We are all living in between something.

As we enter a new year, my wish is that we find peace in that in between. Be present, be grateful, be mindful, and be love. Best of everything to you in 2020.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2019

Don’t give up

Don't give upI had a moment when I first saw her.

Don’t give up.

María ravaged her park. Fountains, benches, arbors, and trees were bent, broken, flattened. Trees more ancient than this tree succumbed to the winds, roots releasing their grip.

Her roots clutched the soil.

Don’t give up.

She broke. She lost limbs, thick trunk limbs. But she clung to her place in the Bosquesito of the Parque Luis Muñoz Rivera.Don't give up

In María’s aftermath, crews carried away broken benches, dead limbs, and tree debris. Chainsaws finished what winds could not, cutting through thick five-foot trunks in anticipation of removing the roots.

But the crews and the saws let her be.

Don't give up
Don’t give up.

Crooked. Broken. Determined. She watched as they planted saplings in her shadow. Sometimes leaning against her as they took a break. Maybe they understood she wasn’t done. Shoots of green reaching through her weathered bark towards the sun. The promise of new limbs, new blooms, new seeds, new life.

Don’t give up.

Changes and loss are hard. It’s right that we make room for the new. New energy. New ideas. New vibes. New saplings. It’s also beautiful to stand strong, even if broken, and finish what you came to do.

Don’t give up.

I had a moment when I met this tree. Awe. Hope. Bliss. She’ll be my spirit plant as I wind through the remaining days of this year and make plans for 2020. I’m a little broken, perhaps bent and crooked. But I’m not done. And I won’t give up.

©Pennie Nichols All Rights Reserved 2019

What if in the end

What if we fall like leaves,
released,
sometimes pulled by a gust,
sometimes pushed by our tree because it’s time?
Slow somersaults through air
cushioned landing and a tumble across the brown grasses,
until, in stillness and decay, we break down,
sinking to the roots,
feeding the tree that held us for a season.
In the end,
would that not be beautiful?
Would that not be enough?

What if we shoot like stars,
sometimes dust, sometimes rock,
bursting through the atmosphere,
falling in streaks of wonder,
Wow, look!! Did you see that?
echoing in waves, cheering our final brilliance,
our trail of light,
as we burn away in the dark sky
or plummet heavily into the soft earth.
In the end,
would that not be beautiful?
Would that not be enough?

What if we’re more than we can understand,
more than words and creeds,
more than books can teach?
What if we’re both
ancient and young,
timeless and transient,
connected to the trees and earth,
the stars and the milky way?
What if in the end
we’re everything and everywhere?
Or maybe just this once, this place?
Would that not be beautiful?
Would that not be enough?

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2019

Eulogies for living

I did a thing. I wrote five eulogies for living friends.

Why I speak

This eulogy thing started in 1994, the year my son was born and my grandmother died.

In April, my grandmother went down quickly and unexpectedly. For many in our family, the timing was awkward. Awkward for me because my parents were out of the country; my husband out of state; and I was alone with three young children. We were all caught off-guard. Unready.

Just like that, we were all gathered for my grandmother’s funeral. The minister, who had never met her, stumbled through some niceties (good Christian woman), maybe one other speaker read her very traditional obit: survived by all these people sitting here. I felt a strong desire to bolt to the podium : “I have a few things to say . . . ” but I sat, stewing between my daughters on the pew, holding my baby.

How did we let this happen? The service didn’t honor her memory. No one talked about her mad sewing skills. Not a peep about her chicken and dumplings or biscuits and gravy. No reference to her heart-warming smile. Not a single story about her terrifying switch bush. No one who spoke at her service knew her, ate her food, wore an outfit she had made, or lurched in a circle around her as she gripped an arm with one hand and swatted a switch with the other. I was furious, I was sad, and I walked out of that experience determined.

Feeling determined: Part 1

Less than a decade later, my grandfather died. I asked my family who would speak at his service and answered my own question: I will.

At his service, I shared tiny memories: the coins he rattled in his pockets, the rubber bands he kept handy to snap playfully at a grandchild, the VO5 hairstyle, and the long-sleeved shirts.

Nine months later, my cousin died. I spoke again, reading memories and messages from all the cousins. We remembered our youngest cousin well, with sad but warmed hearts.

Giving voice to the memories felt right, necessary, so I continued to speak at services of family, especially if no one else was delivering a personal message.

Almost nine years ago, I eulogized a friend. My friend Dela was dear, complicated, brave. She was a beautiful mess. Her brothers and some friends judged her for the mess: the piles of interests in her home, the messy relationship, the untidy career. But as I watched her battle leukemia for ten years, I grew to appreciate her messes and spoke about it at her service.

. . . there was beauty, openness, acceptance, and love in her chaos. The mess, really, was reverence for the moment. There was presence when she was present.

After the service, another friend approached me.

That was beautiful. I want you to write my eulogy when I die.

Feeling determined: Part 2

That request haunted me for several years. Losing friends is hard, sorting through who might go first is unpleasant, but the notion that haunted me most was why do we wait until the person is gone to find those beautiful memory crystals?

After gnawing on the question for a few years, I decided to write pre-eulogies (I call them preulogies) for a handful of friends and give them as birthday presents. These were unannounced and I asked each recipient not to say anything to future recipients until I made the cycle through the birthdays, closing the circle with the friend who initially requested: write my eulogy.

Writing a regular eulogy can be challenging, not only because the moment is packed with emotion and loss, but also, the eulogist struggles to capture a lifetime, a personality, the giant journey of a person in a few well-strung words. I discovered that preulogies are no less challenging.

Crystals remembered

To find the words, I dragged my mind into the grief of the friend’s absence, across the experiences we shared, and also through the myriad of ways she may have touched others as a parent, friend, child, or co-worker. I struggled to crystalize a friendship in three or four sentences.

Here are a few of the crystals I dug up in this process:

Kathy: I felt a peace wash over me every time I watched her draw in a deep breath after listening to me, lift her hands out and forward as if opening a giant instruction manual, “Here’s what you need to do . . . “

Patti: Sometimes it seemed she was drifting, but she always seemed anchored. [. . .] Wishy washy? An anchored drifter? Hardly. All along, she’s been the anchor. The glue. The strength of the bonds.

Mim: Mim is to blame for many joyful occasions. Girl Scout trips to transplant sea grasses and dance around in medieval attire. Krewe meetings, workdays, and parades. Excursions to hear live music, splash around in shallow streams, explore the flip side, dig our toes in the sand, and paddle across a lake. Latke parties, dinner parties, and girls’ gatherings . . . my house at 6!

Jackie: That act of friendship, that model of taking control of chaos, changed me. It wasn’t about the furniture. She also modeled this for me as an artist, as a scorned lover, and as an explorer. But moving the furniture drove it home for me: take what’s before you, make it yours, make your peace in it, make it work for you.

Betsy: I always felt small next to Betsy. Not in a bad way, in fact, I loved being next to her because I felt complicit, like maybe I could get a little cred when she made the room roar with laughter or when the audience joyfully rattled and shook along as she played her music.

The crystals that capture the friend as I know her are only half of the story with preulogies. I also needed to project: where would my friend go from today, how would she die, who would she be.

Crystals imagined

This might be the trickiest part for me. What if I imagine it wrong, that is, what if she has a totally different outlook for her future? Will this made-up death upset her? What if she hates me for this?

Thankfully, I’m still friends with all of them. Maybe their futures were full of the plausible joys and rewards. Kathy went up in flames in the elbow of the effigy at Burning Man. Patti passed at her beach home, draped across her favorite beach towel, head resting on a thick novel. Mim took her final slumber at a campsite by a lake, Scrappy nearby, a photo of Skip in her hand. Jackie took her last breath drifting through the bayou on her paddle board. And Betsy . . . I didn’t include the details of her death in the preulogy. Maybe because she’ll actually outlive me? Or maybe because we’re so focused on her three long overdue Grammies.

Find the words

Not everyone wants to stand in the absence of a friend to find the words. And not everyone needs to. I certainly couldn’t do this for everyone in my life because the process can be gut-wrenching. But I move forward from this experience mindful of what my family and friends mean to me and open to opportunities to share that with them.

Your friend should know why you’re drawn to her company, why you feel inclined to call and catch up, what memory of her makes you giggle. Maybe stand for a moment in these questions: What will I most miss about her? What well of sorrow will her absence leave?

Remembering Betsy, I wrote:

What I wouldn’t give to hear her tell one more Marie and Boudreaux joke. Right? I’m sure everyone has a favorite. Mine? Marie, the coffee, the oatmeal, and the hot flashes. Ha! You’ve all heard it. Your laughter, that joy that just rose up in you as you remembered her tell that joke, that’s the gift, that’s what we take with us today. That’s the joy in this well of tears.

Friendship is a gift. Take a moment while your friend is living and find that joy, share the words.

©Pennie Nichols All Rights Reserved 2019

Alzheimer’s and Bumper Cars

With each new day, the vacancy in her facial expression seems to widen a bit, her gate is less assured, her voice weaker. I feel like the physical “absence” mirrors the mental.

On becoming a bumper car

She’s still pretty good. But she fights hard for that. She continues to understand what’s happening to her, the Alzheimer’s. She remembers basic routines and she knows her people. The names come out like lottery tickets from a barrel, sorted mainly by gender, no longer by age, relation, or even death. Nearly every time she talks to me about her sister, who died in September, she refers to her as Pennie.

You mean your sister Norma, don’t you?
Oh yes! Norma.

I think family and friends expect less of her when they come to visit. She perks up a bit when she has company. It’s part of her fight, solving the puzzles, sorting the names, following the stories, washing dishes. And, without dwelling on it, she’s open about her battle. When she has a load of company that she wasn’t expecting, she does very well, she seems improved even. But the not expecting part is the key. If she’s not expecting something, she’s not in charge.

My dad and I have learned, not gracefully, that when there will be an event, company for the holidays, or a trip, the anticipation undoes mom. An anxious wheel spins out of control in her head and she becomes frantic with worry about getting ready because . . . she’s in charge of getting things ready.

Who’s in charge?

My mom is from stock that takes charge. We weren’t military families but there was something militant about the tasks and projects, practical approaches, no nonsense. You could count on mom, as well as her siblings and parents, to swoop in, make things easier, get things done.

That’s the wicked twist now. The thing she was known for, good at, sought out for—that gift she had—sends her into a nasty, out of control spiral. A bumper car, bouncing off the edges of her world. The bigger the upcoming occasion, the steeper the disorientation, the more severe the loss of sleep.

What are you looking for?
I don’t know.

My dad and I try to include her in as many activities as possible, especially the ones that make her feel useful. She wants to contribute. But it’s hard to know where the edges fray.

How can I help?

Mom has been refinishing a few small pieces of furniture for me. She’s always been an excellent painter, whether furniture, inside walls, exterior trim and walls. Not just good, excellent. I gave her the first small table.

I’ll come up in a bit and help you with this.

But a bit later, she had already sanded it. She didn’t remember I had also given her the paint.

What color do you want me to paint it?
Remember, I gave you the paint.
No.

But she did all the prep work without me coaching her.

More recently, she has needed more help collecting things for the task. The sander. The brushes. It’s hard to know from day to day how much help she’ll need.

Dad invited her to paint a shed he recently built. Her face lit up and she was off to collect her things. But bumper cars and being in charge.

What are you looking for?
I don’t know.

The anxiety escalated quickly, and dad wasn’t sure she would be able to handle the task at all. As he collected the brushes and trays, and removed the stress of being in charge, she was able to move comfortably into the task. Her work was excellent.

She fights for it. She wants to be in charge, but she also she doesn’t want to be a burden. Who knew the two impulses would collide? Bumper car.

Knowing her limits

Dad and I want mom to feel at ease, to find purpose in her day, and we’re learning what her shifting limits are. We’re learning how to be present for her.

Mom comes down to my house three or four times a week to see what she can do for me. She likes to wash my dishes, take out the compost. When she arrives, I’ll look out and see her bent over a walkway pulling up weeds. That’s useful. Then, as she walks to the door, I watch her move. Sometimes I know by her steps or her gaze: bumper car.

I should know where this goes but . . .
Here, let me help. I’ll put the clean dishes away for you so you can wash the dirty ones.  

©Pennie Nichols 2019 All Rights Reserved