A Swift Current Interlude Don't underestimate the value of Doing Nothing...

Woman in the Countryside by Vuillard 1897-1899 Private Collection

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.

      ~Kathleen Novak

A Swift Current Interlude

You Know What You Know…Madam Vuillard and Her Daughter by Edgar Vuillard 1893 Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Clarity, copyright 2011 by Kathleen Novak

Winnie the Pooh
, by A. A. Milne Copyright 1961 the Disney Corporation; original copyright Dutton Books


16 thoughts on “Interlude

    • I have missed your writing very much and look forward to more. You deserved to be free for the summer. I hope you are back and will continue to write.

      • I am back BUT I cannot promise that the next post will be anytime soon. Every essay goes through a multiple rewrites and revisions up until the final moment before posting-and every time I go through a huge anxiety-will anyone be remotely interested in this?

        And so the comments and support here keep my head above water. This summer I received a message from a reader whose close friend had just died–she wrote that my writing had helped her through the horrendous week. I am so grateful (and frankly astounded) that my efforts here have resonance.

        I will keep writing.

        This summer the acclaimed writer James Salter died. The previous year, I got to hear him speak about his most recent (and last) book- and wrote down his comment–

        It could have been written faster, but it wasn’t.

        I think that just about sums it up about the writing process…which is a nothing short of a mystery even (or especially) as I am in the midst of it…

        Thank you for welcoming me back,

    • I so appreciate your first line. It is slightly ironic-as one of my favorite Elvis Costello songs (Party Girl) has the line

      I can give you anything but time…

      And I think that is so true and such a comment about relationships…

      I gave myself the ‘summer off’ for several reasons, not the least of which was I felt the June posting was something of a euphoric culmination–that 5 years of grieving and 3 years of writing had literally led me to this moment of redemption and understanding. And so I wanted to leave that good feeling with our readers for awhile.

      But as I returned from ‘the countryside’ (and I thought the Vuillard paining was perfect, particularly in Autumn colors), I realized that, since each post takes quite a long time (and a quiet long time), it might be awhile before readers see another post–and perhaps it was a good idea to let everyone know I hadn’t disappeared or abandoned the story.

      And I love Kathleen Novak’s poem-and thought it would be good food for thought while I begin to work on my next ideas.

      In fact, I envision incorporating other writing more going forward. We shall see how that unfolds…

      Your comment that my writings “transcend a single subject…” is completely moving. Thank you and


    • Oh Julie from across the planet, thank you.

      Since you are going through this and write so eloquently, I cannot tell you how lovely it is to have you welcome me back. As I wrote in the other comment, I am writing again-but it might be some time before the next posting. That said, thoughts and phrases are swirling around my brain once more…

      They actually never left-but I didn’t dive in-I took swimming lessons instead (no fooling-I actually took swimming lessons-and now I can swim freestyle–when I remember to breathe!).

      Thank you,

  1. Since it’s my poem, I hesitate to say on the blog that I’m blown away by everything you wrote and the way the poem slips in seamlessly and fits. Your commentary about NOT writing is such fine writing, so moving. I am especially touched by your wish that you had accepted your mother’s dementia earlier – and enjoyed that time more before it was gone. It’s such an important thought.

    • Well, I was blown away by your poem from the moment I read it…and perhaps I always knew that at some point A Swift Current should expand to include other people’s experiences and revelations in coming to grips with the struggles of their aging parents.

      But I was wanted to let my mother’s story unfold first…and now I feel I am moving into a second phase of the blog.

      From the outset, I wanted to incorporate the idea that I made a lot of mistakes in my perception of my mom’s condition and how I reacted to everything that was happening for that entire decade. I perhaps was too subtle in my writing–but I really believe that until there are some sort of medical remedies available, acceptance is the only option that allows dignity and grace–for both the sufferers and the caregivers. If that is a controversial statement, so be it.

      Your poem “Clarity” is a profound rumination of your father’s state of mind. I am completely knocked out by your conclusion “at ninety, after all that, you know what you know” just as I was staggered when I found the Vuillard painting with the older woman, with her hands folded- in the center of the frame-staring straight ahead. I thought the painting completely captured your words, and my mom’s certainty, even in her bleakest hours (I started whooping and hollering when I found it!).

      Thank you again for allowing me to use your words on A Swift Current,

  2. Every beginning has an end …and every end is a new beginning
    I just know that whatever you were working on this summer is going to be your new beginning

    • Interesting comment…many things are in the works. For about a year, I have been writing what I call “vignettes” based on my memories…writing exercises more or less–to see what evolves– themes, characters, scenes, etc. Memories lead to interesting places…but I don’t know (or right now particularly care) where this is going…

      Also, I am beginning a project with my artist sister…

      But I am not going to “end” this…or at least, I do not want to…


  3. I am glad you are back and I hope that you did have a good summer. I always welcome your posts as they help me truly understand what I may be facing one day soon. You rock Hallie.

    • It was a wonderful summer…and yes, I did write, albeit on different topics…the vignettes, which I referenced in another comment, as well as laying the groundwork for a project with my sister. Lots of reading too–which is a critical part of writing, at least if you read the good stuff!

      Thank you, as always, your comments are so reassuring…

  4. Thank you for your thoughts – you certainly deserve the time off but I hope you know how important your writing is – certainly to me but obviously to many others as well. You captured so eloquently a thought I have been having but hadn’t put to words…
    “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.”
    I find myself trying to explain how “Grandma used to be” to my daughter but she’ll never really understand.

    • Hello Colleen, It has taken me some time to reply–you have given me a lot of food for thought. One of the reasons I started writing these essays in the first place was I felt that I had lots of thoughts about the whole eldercare/dementia crisis that many people shared (to themselves), but simply didn’t say out loud.

      And then there are other ideas–insights that I wish had unfolded in the early years, but didn’t reveal themselves until after my mom’s death. In fact, even 5 years later (and now 15 years after our ordeal began), I am only now able to form the thoughts and find the words (like the one you cited). I appreciate your noting that idea in particular–the push/pull of the mother/child conundrum–if it had dawned on me then, I think perhaps I would have been less “hard” on my mom–less demanding, at least in the early years, that she act/think “normally.”

      But it was your last line that really stopped me in my tracks. Because I don’t have children, I didn’t have the arduous task of explaining an adult’s irrational behavior to a child, or trying to paint a picture of how she used to be. That is where you have given me a lot to think about. I don’t know your mom’s condition, but if I had to do it all over again, I would grab my phone and hit “record” on the days my mom was pretty good, especially when we talked about her family. Though my mom was stuck on certain stories from the past, what I would give to hear her tell them now!

      But I do think there are a lot of ways we can communicate who someone was…some are obvious like photos and letters and scrapbooks. Others might be less obvious, like a special ornament for a Christmas tree, or favorite recipes and music. Both my grandmothers and one of my grandfathers were deceased long before I was born, but I have to tell you that I have a certain sense of them, if only because of a handmade quilt, stories of cooking dinner, an old beat-up postcard from my grandfather to my mom- his youngest child, and most of all the wistful look in my parents eyes when they shared these things with me. While I wish I had known them, I didn’t–but my parents’ affection for them in some ways that is all I need to know.

      I actually am trying to form some of these thoughts into a future post–they haven’t quite come together. But I very much appreciate your comment here and thank you for your encouragement of my efforts. I am thinking & writing again, but as I have said many times, it is slow…

      I am grateful for your patience, H

    • Oh, I am so happy you like this one–yes, my friend Kathleen is an incisive observer and insightful writer and I think Clarity captures what I want to say about people who are elderly–it is actually a great lead-in for the next phase of the blog.

      And yes, I am back–but slow as ever–so don’t hold your breath waiting for the next post…but the thoughts are jangling around my brain (if not quite spilling out onto the page…).

      I have received two messages from readers in recent days who are reaching tough crossroads with their parents’ illness, and told me they are reading the blog from the beginning-and those original posts are helping them–so I hope other people too might turn to past entries–and maybe this is a lesson for me as well–at some point revisiting themes/observations for people who don’t know there are earlier posts…

      Again, thank you,

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