Don’t underestimate the value of Doing Nothing,
of just going along,
listening to all the things you can’t hear…
~ Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne
During the last few weeks, several people have asked: Did you write this summer?
The answer is yes, and no.
I wrote– but not about my mom. Of course, I thought about her every day. Some memories brought smiles; some brought tears.
But I didn’t commit any of it to paper.
I gave myself the summer off.
When I started writing A Swift Current, I wanted to share my experience with dementia and the death of an elderly parent—personal revelations which, at the time, I hadn’t seen discussed in any other forum.
And so for the last three years and 40 essays, I have shared our story here– the ravages and grace of dementia; our renewed and strengthened bonds; my searing grief over the loss of her.
My grief shocked me. I had thought her death would be a welcome relief—she was, after all, 95 years old. She had dementia. But after her death, the numbness of the initial months blossomed into an unexpected anguish.
I missed her–dementia or no dementia.
And while the intensity of my emotions has evolved, I still stumble. Five years later, I feel an unrequited longing I never imagined. I frequently replay scenes from our lives-the teenage years; the career years; the dementia years—
I see it all so clearly now.
We have so many expectations of our parents. When we’re young, we want them to be different. When they’re old, we want them to be how they always were.
During my mom’s decade of dementia, I slowly grew in my understanding—and even acceptance– of her illness. Despite her confusion and fantasies, turmoil and anger, I still saw the core of my mother in her fading and fragmented being–even near the end of her life. I wish I hadn’t been so frightened of her disease in the early years. I wish I could have accepted who she was, and who she was becoming.
My friend Kathleen Novak captures my hard-won perspective in her poem Clarity, written when her father first began to show signs of confusion. As I resume writing future essays for A Swift Current, I offer you Kathleen’s thoughtful, generous, realistic view of an aging parent—with remarkable Clarity.
He is ninety after all, so
not everything is in bright focus, like a photo snapped mid-afternoon,
not everything looks as clear as that, for example,
he may not know whatever day it is today,
possibly a Thursday, unless that was yesterday
and today is Friday, or he may not know exactly
when he is to fly out to visit his son
though he wrote it down somewhere and he will find it
because he remembers having that piece of paper
along with the monthly bills and statements, the insurances and taxes
he has those written down too, the amounts paid and due
but there is this blur of dates and times, of numbers and facts
He is ninety after all, though
certain particulars still remain in bright focus, for example,
a great good game when he wins, the memory
of everything important that ever happened in any decade
and the way it all stacked up, the rises and falls, the girls
he left for other girls, the time he got meningitis in Africa
and later when his daughter smashed the car,
when his son became a doctor, the first time he saw his wife
and asked her to dance and the night his father-in-law died during a storm,
and years before, when he looked for the babies’ graves with his old mother,
there’s no blur when it comes to the pure blue of an afternoon sky
or the threat of snow again, those hovering white clouds,
who is true and who is not, whose heart is open and whose is not
at ninety you have a different kind of clarity
at ninety, after all that,
you know what you know.
Clarity, copyright 2011 by Kathleen Novak
Winnie the Pooh, by A. A. Milne Copyright 1961 the Disney Corporation; original copyright Dutton Books