House of Memory Shards

“I had this friend,” mom told me on our drive today.

My ears perked up, and I wished I had brought along my recorder or at least learned the strokes to use my phone as a recorder.

Memory shards surface.

I smiled at her and focused hard. Sometimes, often on drives, she tells me stories from her childhood and youth. A couple of Novembers ago, we drove out to a Christmas-tree farm, close to where she grew up.

We had an old bike with a no chain,” that story began.

She talked about how they would walk the chainless bike up the hill on what I have to presume was a dirt road, then take turns flying down the hill on the bike.

I’m fairly certain the bike was also without brakes.

They were a single-car family. I’m not sure they had a phone yet. Maybe my grandfather was at work with the car, or maybe my grandmother had the car shopping. I don’t remember what mom told me (she doesn’t either), but there was no car. The bike had no brakes. And my wiry, red-headed mom wiped out flying down the hill.

Her brother and maybe some friends ran down the road to fetch someone to help, someone with a car or a phone. Even though I didn’t grow up with cellphones and I handled many things without one well into my forties, I can no longer wrap my head around managing a crisis, big or small, with no cellphone and no car.

“Somebody told my dad…”

She doesn’t remember how he found out, but he showed up at the hospital where they had taken her.

Was it the excitement that sheltered that memory from the Alzheimer’s storm? Why do some memories —old and new— unexpectedly stick while others are swept away?

The memory of a friend

Today, I thought I was going to get another childhood story. We were driving along rural highways on our way to visit my cousin, and while these roads don’t run close to Pine where mom grew up, they look similar.

Mom has rarely spoken about friends. I was excited.

“My friend, her man is sick. He can’t do anything. She does everything for him, makes all the food, feeds him…”

We turn into my cousin’s driveway.

“Oh, this is it! I can’t believe I get to see her again so soon. She has a such a big, big…”

“Heart?” I try to fill in the blank. She has more and more of these blanks.

“Yes! She’s a wonderful person. He doesn’t know how lucky he is to have her.”

Which memory is it?

This wasn’t a story about mom’s friend.

“We’re going to see your sister’s daughter,” I had explained several times during the thirty-minute drive, repeating my cousin’s and aunt’s names.

“Oh, I guess I’ll remember her when we get there,” she said. She usually does.

As we pulled up, I explained where we were. When my cousin came out, she seemed to remember her, but following the visit, I know it was in spurts, incomplete.

The memory shards

Half hour into our visit, my uncle joined us. He has been widowed for a year and a half now.

Mom had recently talked about him by name. “I haven’t seen him in a long time. But he seems to be doing well.”

I think my uncle is strongly tethered to her memory in that house of shattering mirrors. Losing her younger sister has compartmentalized him in the best way: the memory of him is protected. Or maybe the fear of widowing or becoming widowed keeps him clear.

Regardless, mom knew who he was today. She was happy to see him and became more engaged while he was there. We had a nice visit.

On the way home, mom said, I’m so lucky I got to see her two times in a row,” referring to my cousin. Then she added, “I didn’t remember they were brother and sister.”

A hero and her bloody memory shards

I cried inside today, but I didn’t drop tears.

Here’s the thing. I was amazed. She’s still fighting, like that hero from a familiar story who you know will lose the battle. It’s close to the end. She’s so bloody she’s hardly recognizable but the hero will battle to the bloody end.

I saw through the cracks in the mirror today, had a glimpse of mom’s battle. Mom hasn’t stopped fighting this damned disease, wrangling that stubborn bull. She battles to grip the shards she has left, even when they bloody her fists. She fights to put together the pieces of a story, the characters in her stories, and the bloody pool of memory shards at her feet.

“They’re not brother and sister. That’s her dad, Mom. She’s your sister’s daughter,” I corrected her. I shouldn’t have.

We drove in silence much of the ride home. I’m sure we were both thinking about the visit, my cousin, my aunt who died, my uncle who survived her, and mom’s struggle to remember.

Just before we turned in, mom said, “I’m so lucky to see her again. I had forgotten they’re mother and daughter.”

I’m still sorting this out.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2021.

Dear Dad, I see you.

Dear Dad,

I’m writing instead of calling, because I would fall all over myself before I managed to share these words. Today, I’m reverting to my childhood and leaving you a written message. Imagine finding this on the dining room table or taped to the fridge. Maybe on your pillow.

The message is simple:

I see you.

But I need to explain, a trait I inherited from you. So give me a minute.

When I’m there, I mostly spend time with mom, little projects to keep her afloat, errands to go through her grocery list. But, when I’m there, I see you too. I do.

When I write, I mostly write about mom and her battle. But I know, we all know, this is your battle too. She may be the warrior, but you’re her brave body guard.

And inside your armor, I see your heart. It’s breaking.

I’ve always seen you. And even from here, 90 miles away as we shelter at home, I see you.

The isolation.

Isolation suits me. Even in my childhood, sprawled in my room with notes and albums or just playing in the those upper stories of my brain, I was never lonely alone. Another gene you shared with me.

In isolation, I’m nourishing that inner artist child, finishing projects, reflecting. Even as I thrive and go back to my roots in isolation, even from this distance, I see you.

I see you and mom, over there, just two people marooned on 100 acres. Isolation isn’t kind to you.  It’s cruel, even. The distance from family and community diminishes her mind and nourishes her disease. That distance from family and community sits heavy on your already-burdened shoulders as you shepherd mom through these lonely days.

I’m grateful that you’re there with mom, and I see you. I know your heart aches under that armor. I know you’re weary from the weight of the armor.

You answer the same questions twenty times a day.

When’s Pennie coming back to take care of the garden?
Where’s my car?
How am I going to manage all that? gesturing the abundance of plants in the garden.

I see you. Patient. Feeling remorse when you lose that for a moment. It’s OK. We do the best we can.

I see you. Managing. The cooking. The money. The farm. The projects. Mom. You’re strong and smart. But some days you’re drained.

Before this, standing at mom’s side to battle the disease was already taking a toll. In isolation, the toll is great. Almost too much.

I see you, and you’re powering through. You gave me that too. Bracing shoulders, mind, whole body and armor, and powering through a tough patch or a challenging project. I see you.

I’m grateful for you.

Thank you for taking her to her neurologist this week.

Everyone in masks. The doc offered an elbow bump instead of a hand shake . . .

She may not tell you, but I know she’s grateful too. Even though the news is heavy, and perhaps a little guarded since she’s with you.

As expected, she did not score well on her test.

But I see you, dad. By her side, every step of the way. In the kitchen. At the doctor. In the grocery. In the garden.

I’m grateful.

Your world with mom is crumbling in your hands, at your feet, before your eyes, and you are there. I see you. You hold her, help her, shepherd her, encourage her.

When you finally sit alone, isolated in your office, I see you. And it’s OK.

  • When you pound an angry fist on your desk, it’s OK. I see your frustration and anger. It’s OK —it’s normal!— to feel angry now.
  • When you drop your chin to your chest and just let the tears come, I see you. It’s OK to feel sadness and grief.
  • Sometimes you find the isolation in your office comforting, and you sigh. Relieved. Alone at last. I see you. And it’s OK. It’s OK to take a break, to replenish, to be happy alone for a minute.

You shield her from your emotions, tucking the anger, the grief, and the relief, that mob of emotions, deep inside your armor. It’s OK to shield her. But I hope you know, I see you.

That’s all. I just want you to know I see love you.

Pennie

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2020.

A long row to hoe

We’re two weeks in: shelter in place. I’m not sure how much longer we’ll do this, but I think we have a long row to hoe.

Collective crisis

I see the frantic posts as friends and family settle in to work from home, not work at all, isolate with children and parents, or isolate all alone.

I read helpful posts about how to cope, how to disinfect, reminders for self-care, poetry to lift us up, naming this grief.

But honestly, I don’t feel most of it.

I do feel something because this is a collective anxiety, a collective grief and confusion. For the most part, however, the coronavirus has not changed my life.

  • I’ve shopped in bulk for thirty years so I didn’t need to make a special run for groceries or toilet paper.
  • I’ve worked from home for twenty-four years, so 1) I still have work, and 2) my workspace has not changed.
  • I’ve been stocked up on supplies for all the little projects I want to tackle, and when I don’t have something, Amazon Prime delivers.

Yet, my life is different. Not necessarily in bad ways. I’m more mindful. Mindful of my movements through public spaces, of going into public spaces, of the surfaces and clothing I touch and use, of where and how I spend my time. I’m alone less, with my partner working from home now. I stay home more. These aren’t bad things.

Staying home means staying away

The last part, staying home more, is probably hardest for me. I usually spend half my time on the farm, close to my folks, so I can help mom and dad as needed. Now I can’t risk giving this invisible enemy a ride to the farm. So I won’t go back for a while.

Last week, I made a grocery haul to the farm to make sure mom and dad have enough.

I don’t stay long.

Mom asks questions and seems to understand, but then asks again.

When are you coming back?
I’m not sure. The virus, remember? But Audrey and Jason are staying here. They’ll be safe to spend time with you soon.
What are you going to do?
I’ll stay in Baton Rouge with Steven. Work.
When are you coming back here?

Back to the garden

Before I leave, I go with mom to check on the garden and greenhouse. I remind her gently, Don’t get too close to me.

We check on the plants, decide to transplant the zucchini. I didn’t come prepared, so I hoe a new row for the zucchini in flip flops and a sundress. We water. We talk. Mom asks questions. I hold my hands up: No closer!

I planted the garden with mom hoping to give her manageable tasks that help occupy her day, help her feel useful. But some days, she tells dad How am I going to do this!? Some days it’s a little much. Especially now. The virus and isolation.

When I’m with her to help, she enjoys gardening. Tugging at the hose just so, making sure it’s straight so it won’t scrape across the plants in the neighboring row. Pulling up the weeds and rogue grasses. Muscle memory and meditation.

A long row to hoe

I watch her knowing I may not be back for weeks, months even.

When are you coming back to do something with those tomatoes?
I don’t know, but I’ll make sure Audrey helps you.

My life hasn’t changed much because of the virus. I still spend about sixty hours a week in front of my two computer screens, working, writing, paying bills. I still cook most of my meals, go to the garage for paper towels when I use the last towel from the roll in the kitchen, plant seeds in my garden, pull weeds, move rocks, dig holes. My life is pretty much the same, except I wear gloves to the grocery and disinfect the containers when I come home.

Mom’s isn’t the same. She’s more isolated than ever. Little doors are closing in her brain. No church. No grocery runs. No PT.

When are you coming back?
We have a long row to hoe, Mom. But we’ll be okay. And I’ll meet you on the other side of this. I promise.

©Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2020.

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

Life Lessons: Mom and a Song

There’s a song I’m not crazy about but I can’t get it out of my head.

I had mostly succeeded. Then Spotify played it again and now the ear bug.

Since I haven’t been writing about anything, I decided I’d write about this song and a lesson I learned from my mom.

The song starts:

Like the moon in the sky in the afternoon in July

From the get-go, anyone who knows me might ask: “What’s your problem? The moon? You love it more than ice cream. July? Your birthday month!”

But if you know me, you’re also asking: “Why haven’t you been writing?”

So many answers:

  • Something personal I can’t get my head around.
  • Don’t want to hurt people I love.
  • Travel.
  • Life’s complicated.
  • I’m busy.
  • I’m thinking.

But mostly,

  • I’m a coward.

The song goes on:

A little darkness hangs there above me.

We all have a little darkness. I’m not unique. But sometimes that darkness falls heavy, tangles up around our ankles making it hard to move forward.

Although my current circumstances are dreamy (hopping from island to farm), my ankles kick at the dark blanket, looking for release. Was it this song?

I don’t like it but I don’t hate it. It goes:

I know you hate to see me cry
Don’t wanna look you in the eye

There it is. Don’t wanna look you in the eye.

Writers often (if not always) feel undressed when we put our words out there, stumbling graceless through our darkness. Don’t wanna look you in the eye.

I set out to write vigorously about the journey my parents are on, the Alzheimer’s bullfight they’re in. From a distance that seemed easy. Just write about the changes and challenges.

I wasn’t prepared. That’s a legit excuse.

Closer to the truth? I’m a coward.

As you watch someone you love diminish, unexpected things go on inside yourself. Regrets. Lost chances. Helplessness.

It’s natural to want to do the big thing. If we can’t save the person, we want to do that thing that makes an emotional, qualitative, quantitative difference.

Failure? Not the most tasty writing topic for me. But who are we talking about?

  • Mom? The ideal ALZ patient, facing her bull knowingly and hopefully, compliant to treatments, aware even as she’s losing, some days more than others.
  • Me? Supposedly here to help, but what do I do? Feels like little. Am I cowering in the corner?

That was a trick question. This is about a lesson from mom and a song.

I’m not crazy about this song but I love it. Maybe it struck a chord because I first heard it one day when I took mom to visit her baby sister, who has lung cancer.

Mom and her two siblings (this is where I smother my coward and say some things) are independent, DO for themselves, workaholics. They are the best but sometimes the most challenging. Don’t expect to kick back and just relax on vacation with them! Gotta DO something! And they have hard edges. This quirk may be one reason mom has faced her bull with open eyes, because she is determined to DO things. Take medications and supplements, work puzzles, stay active, move.

My aunt too. She’s done all the things they’ve told her to fight her disease.

But it’s not working. That magic thing that they did all of their lives is not working. It’s not working for mom. It’s not working for her sister. There is nothing they can DO.

Earlier this summer, when my mom and I arrived to visit, my aunt wasn’t in a good way. She fussed about her frustrations. I could see mom becoming more and more agitated, wanting to DO something to soothe her. Thinking that wouldn’t be possible, I announced: “We should go so you can rest.” But mom ignored me. Instead, she asked her sister:

Do you want me to rub some lotion on your legs?

My aunt:

I don’t care!

I didn’t want to include the exclamation mark, but it’s more accurate than not including it. And she said it more than once.

I don’t care!

This was both true and untrue. As mom and I looked for the lotion, my aunt continued to protest:

Don’t worry about it. I don’t care. It doesn’t matter.

Mom didn’t relent. She found the lotion, sent me to fetch a towel, and began rubbing my aunt’s feet and legs. Mom, hardly able to remember what we discussed two minutes ago, was attentive, asking “is this good?”, arranging the towel under her sister’s legs.

I teared up as my aunt relaxed, sank deeper into the recliner, and sighed: “That feels so good.”

I learned.

On that same day, I heard this verse:

I don’t need you to solve any problem at all.
I just need you to sit here and love me.

My mom is diminishing. My aunt is diminishing. Nothing I can DO will change the enormity of their diminishing. I can’t fix it. I can’t solve that problem.

But I’ll sit.

And I’ll love.

I also have the DO gene, so this is challenging.

[deep breath]

I’ll honor the lesson I learned from my mom and a song.

I’ll be brave. I’ll just sit here and love them.

©Pennie Nichols All Rights Reserved 2019

The song is “Sit here and love me” by Caroline Spence. I say “I don’t like it” but, really, I love it. Thanks, Caroline.