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


A Day in the Life

A Swift Current A Day In the Life--the power of the calendar

Beach Heart (a discovery on an otherwise ordinary day)– Photo by Hallie Swift


Every holiday– every birthday–

every year;

my mom was giddy with excitement.

In anticipation

I’d send a reminder to

cousins and friends;

her photo with a note:

hugs and kisses welcome here!

Year after year,

flowers and cards and visitors and candy

descended on the nursing home;

just the thought of it

made me giddy too.


A Swift Current A Day in the Life--the Power of the Calendar

They Say It’s Your Birthday–Photo by Hallie Swift


Now that she’s gone,

holidays and birthdays

stare at me

from the calendar page;

each promising to deliver

its own private havoc.

Standing in a checkout line,

(is it Mother’s Day already?)

I avert my eyes from

the greeting card display

but it’s too late.

I swat away tears

fumble coins

bungle amounts;

the customer behind me


with New York impatience.

I want to tell her

(this has never happened to you?)

it doesn’t take much to rattle me–

Father’s Day-

Easter baskets-




I know

I’m not the only one

upended by the innocuous.

(Facebook reminds me)

there’s no such thing as an ordinary day;

it’s always someone’s



or even

death day,

for that matter.

And these extraordinary

ordinary dates


on the page and

in our minds;

none of us escaping

the silent struggle

no one else can see;

more of us

in mourning

than you would ever know.


an ordinary,


winter’s day


(would have been)

my mother’s 100th birthday.

I proclaim her milestone

on Facebook

–the new village square–

a photo from our cross country drive

only months after my father died;

a widow at the age

I am now.

My mother turns toward the camera

a quintessential tourist pose,

the Grand Canyon behind her;




(or do I detect a rueful shadow in her half smile?)

Happy 100, Mama!

I hit post

and discover instantly

I am not done.

Suddenly galvanized

by the facts of her life,

I continue my exploration;

one by one

photo by photo

hour by hour

I recount the twists and triumphs

of 95 years.

With each addition,

a forgotten woman emerges,

my Mama.

And I realize:

until this day,

her last decade–

the decade of dementia–

had dominated my memories and

belied her life.

I had allowed the confusion, pain and grace of our final years

to become her whole story;

our whole story.

But she was so much more.

As I unbury my dead,

a chorus of cousins and friends

cheers my revelations–

helping me strike back

at a calendar filled with dread.

Dates loom large;

on the 100th anniversary of my mother’s birth

her story challenged my grief;

my sorrow finally tempered by



and yes, even

giddy excitement.

That evening

my husband took me to dinner;

we raised our glasses high in the air

the end of an extraordinary ordinary day

Here’s to you, Mama

what a life—

happy 100!


nothing she did
or said

was quite
what she meant

but still her life
could be called a monument

shaped in a slant
of available light

and set to the movement
of possible music

(from “The Grandmother Cycle” by Judith Downing Converse Quarterly, Autumn)


A Swift Current A Day in the Life The Power of the Calendar

It’s My Birthday Too Yeah– Photo by Hallie Swift


They Say It’s Your Birthday, words and music by Lennon & McCartney, All Rights Reserved.

The excerpt from The Grandmother Cycle is from the opening pages of one of my all-time favorite books, The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields, which explores the life of an “ordinary woman”…

To Understand (and he blessed you best of all)

looking up February 7, 2014  Photo by Hallie Swift

looking up February 7, 2014 Photo by Hallie Swift

Your eyes seem from a different face

They’ve seen that much that soon

Your cheek too cold, too pale to shine

Like an old and waning moon

And there is no peace

No true release

No secret place to crawl

And there is no rest

For the ones God blessed

And He blessed you best of all

                                                          (from King of Bohemia by Richard Thompson)

On this day, thirty eight years ago,

my father died.

He was 63 years old.

In my mind,

he was not done.

My dad had anticipated his retirement years;

articles he would write;

classes he would teach;

trips he would enjoy;


When he died, his record company issued a news release:

‘…one of the very few true experts in the field of classical music…”

my very true expert;

my daddy;

gone at 63.

In his last months, he wrote to us; ideas and observations, philosophies and beliefs;

his letters, I thought, signaled the promise of things to come…

…Beethoven is not the only artist who suffered from excessive solemnity- which is a lead in to my second heretical statement.

If find the famous Sistine Chapel fresco of Michelangelo to be a bit ludicrous- I suspect the reason I regard it as a failure is that Michelangelo attempted to do too much- and found it impossible to sustain a high level of thought on the vast scale that he outlined.

Like the Ninth Symphony, the kindest words…are that it is a noble failure- but a failure nonetheless.

Several times I have been tempted to write a series of essays under a general heading like “Putting the Classics in their Place.” I have myself sometimes been annoyed by my own timidity at not speaking out against the oppressiveness of mass acceptance.

He never got a chance to write those articles; teach those classes; take those trips. My father’s retirement was brief; cancer stealing his hard-earned years of leisure; of reflection; of speaking out.

In my mind, he was cheated.

And I felt cheated too.

I read those final letters countless times; desperately searching for him amid the carefully chosen words and well-reasoned opinions. I wanted to know what he would think; what he would say; what he would do.

I wanted what could never be.

And I could not let go.

Just a few years ago, my pain began to ease. I wrote an article; not about Beethoven; not about Michelangelo;

I wrote about my dad.

He had been a record producer—in the early days—back when there were long-playing albums. In his era, the producer’s name didn’t appear on the jacket. I wanted to correct that oversight; give him credit; capture his role for posterity.

Researching every accomplishment; documenting every claim;

I wrote a Wikipedia page;

the internet equivalent of scratching

I was here

into the sand.

I showed it to my best friend. I watched nervously as she read. She paused and looked at me

This is a big life.

Three simple words:

a big life;

and for the first time in all those years,

I felt relief.

I began to understand;

he had done so much in so short a time;

he could do no more;

he was done.

I no longer needed to talk to him

every time I heard a piece of music;

no longer felt tumultuous anger;

no longer wished for what would never be.

My daddy

gave me all he could;

the rest was up to me.

I Was Here  Central Park discovery as I wrote this post  Photo by Hallie Swift

I Was Here ( a Central Park discovery as I wrote this post) Photo by Hallie Swift

And then, just a few weeks ago, I was completely confounded by the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman.

I felt a sense of loss out of all proportion. I kept telling myself

…you don’t know him…he belongs to his family…to his friends…

but the news blared and I listened

…the greatest actor of his generation…

I thought films were better because he was in them; his characters illuminating,

even the smallest part searing.

I read story after story about his prodigious career, his nuanced, soul-diving performances;

done at 46.

Amid the tragedy of his death, articles repeatedly bemoaned

performances we lost;

roles he should have played;

disappointment we will never see his Lear!

I bristled;

What could have been

only undermines

the undeniable feats;

the huge accomplishments;

the impenetrable mystery


his big life.

We want to believe

the best is yet to come;

we keep telling ourselves



for any of us;

for all of us;

our best

might be have been

a long time ago;

our promise now a memory.

(But we will never know).


I understand;

the measure of a life –

any life—

my father’s life–

is not captured by

annotated references

and attributable sources.

His best

might be hidden in the margins–

a fleeting moment;

an off-hand comment;

a letter written to his daughter when

he knew he was going to die.

He tried to tell her

what matters.

Put the classics in their place.

It took me

a long time

to understand;

every life

a big life;

no small parts.

63 years; 46 years;

he gave all he could.




If tears unshed could heal your heart

If words unsaid could sway

Then watch you melt into the night

With Adieu and rue the day

Did your dreams die young

Were they too hard won

Did you reach too high and fall

And there is no rest

For the ones God blessed

And He blessed you best of all

To Understand

to understand— Corita, serigraph, 1965 Used with permission of the Corita Art Center, Immaculate Heart Community, Los Angeles “to understand is to stand under which is to look up to which is a good way to understand”…art and words by Sister Mary Corita

For more information on Corita Kent (Sister Mary Corita)

All Lyrics from King of Bohemia by Richard Thompson copyright 1994 Beeswing Music All Rights Reserved

Theme and Variations Part 1

Dad in the sand

“Dad”–writing found in the sand June 12, 2013, Photo by Hallie Swift

My Mother turned toward me:

Aren’t you disappointed that Daddy hasn’t called?

Yes, Mama, I’m disappointed.

She sighed, eyes downcast:

I never thought he would do this to us.

At the time of this conversation, my Father had been dead for thirty years.

I have written about my efforts to accommodate my Mother’s version of events, however fantastical or off beat. With the mantra do not argue, I would agree with her assertions; accentuate the positive; change the topic. With clever phrases or funny asides, I would say anything to avoid conflict; anger; recriminations.

But when it came to discussing my Dad, I faltered. I could not play the dementia game.

My Dad has been dead for 37 years but I feel his presence every day. He approached everything, from his job in classical music to the latest Dodgers game, with a fierce intelligence and unquenchable fervor. Our lives pulsated to the soundtrack of his enthusiasms and his temperament. When he liked something–and it was often– his eyes lit up and his words tumbled at a lightening pace, as if his mind were on fire.

And he wanted us to share his joy. He read George Bernard Shaw and G.K. Chesterton aloud– when we were just little girls. He surprised us with tickets to the Beatles concert or the latest Beach Boys album. He took us to see John Gielgud act; Bob Gibson pitch; the Bolshoi dance—because, he said,

you need to know there is greatness in this world.

When I was 12 years old, a local college invited him to deliver one of its “Great Man Lectures.” I remember being dazzled, primarily by the fact that Alfred Hitchcock had been the previous month’s speaker. In my mind, Alfred Hitchcock was a Great Man.

This man was my Daddy.

My Daddy, who worked hard to give me moments of wonder and excitement and grace. Without a car to traverse LA, he traveled all day on city buses in search of 4th of July fireworks. After a long day at work, he took me to the Griffith Park Observatory to see the magical Saturn. Knowing it could become a life-long memory, he awakened me to hear the final innings of Sandy Koufax’s perfect game (Hallie– are you awake? I think you need to get up…I think Sandy is going to pitch a perfect game!).

My Daddy.

My great man.

One of those indelible moments unfolded while we watched the movie Carousel on late night TV. At the finale, I fought tears as the entire cast began to sing the uplifting, heart wrenching

When you walk through a storm…

My teenage self could not let him see that this unabashedly sentimental story was ripping me apart. As I watched the daughter’s graduation scene, I battled every emotion; my head aching with trapped tears

And don’t be afraid of the dark…

As the voices swelled, I glanced at my father. I was astonished. Tears flowed down his face. It was the only time I ever saw him cry. His tears absolved me, and together we cried as the lyrics reverberated:

Walk on, walk on,

With hope in your heart,

And you’ll never walk alone…

I recently learned of my parents’ tremendous efforts to assure my Dad could attend my college graduation. He was battling cancer. Correction: they were battling his cancer. They strategically scheduled his chemotherapy so he would be his strongest when the day arrived. My Mom’s best friend drove them to the campus, only to discover their car would not be allowed within an easy walking distance.

They did not give up. I am told that my parents steeled themselves for a grueling trek in the hot Los Angeles sun; my dad weak but determined. They sat in the uncomfortable stands of UCLA’s outdoor track and field stadium; the unrelenting sun beating down.

And there I was; a little speck in cap and gown across the playing field among thousands of identically- dressed little specks in caps and gowns. It never occurred to me that they had made a huge sacrifice to be there. And it never occurred to me that the day was anything less than magnificent.

He died within months. Devastated, abandoned, stricken; my sorrow knew no bounds. And thirty-seven years later, while the passage of time has altered my pain,

I have never stopped missing him.

Walk on through the wind

Walk on through the rain

Though your dreams be tossed and blown…

End of Part 1

A Swift Current || Theme and Variations Part 1 || When Your Walk Through A Storm

With Hope in Your Heart Photo by Hallie Swift

You’ll Never Walk Alone, composed by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, published by R&H Music Publishing Company, an Imagem Company, All Rights Reserved

I Call Your Name

I hear my voice.  I hear my words.  I cannot stop:

“As my Mother always said…”

“My Dad thought…”

“Wouldn’t she have gotten a kick out of that?!”

I hear myself saying these words and I see my friends’ expressions. Their eyes dart quickly; they look away.

Uh oh…

She is talking about her Mom again. What will happen next? 

Will she implode…?

I see my friends look to the side; at their feet; at each other.  I know they want to change the subject.  But for me, just saying their names gives me great comfort.  It is not enough to say their names silently; to keep them secreted away.  I have to say their names out loud.  Because for just that sliver of a moment, as I say their names out loud,

They are gone;

They are not gone;

They are but a memory;

They are standing right here.

Before my mother died, I did not know that names had magical powers. A few weeks after her death, I got my first clue.

A friend had arranged for a Mass in honor of my Mother, and on a brisk Sunday morning, my husband and I walked the four blocks down Lexington Avenue to the local Catholic Church.

I had no expectations; I felt an obligation to be there. I could have ignored the buzzing alarm clock.

Or not set the alarm at all.

Even though it was weeks after her death, I was still numb; every step was difficult; every day was exhausting.

And then I heard her name.

As the Mass began, a distinct, sonorous voice filled the church: “This celebration of the Mass is in honor of the life of Louise Bonner Swift.”

And later in the prayers, the priest again proclaimed: “and for Louise whom we remember here today.”

And while I am sure the other congregants didn’t notice, the priest said it and I heard it, loud and clear.

I knew the ritual of the Mass. I had experienced this moment thousands of times before. I must have heard countless names from the altar, but they had been lost on me. Not anymore. 

I heard her name and I felt lighter.  I felt stronger.  It was inexplicable. I actually felt joy for the first time in weeks.

And later, I remembered.

I remembered that after my father died, my Mom wouldn’t stop talking about him.  It seemed like everywhere we went, she kept saying his name.

“As Mike always said…” 

“Mike thought… ” 

“Wouldn’t Mike get a kick out of that?!”

And one day, I had heard enough. I got mad at her. “Stop already.  Please.  He is dead.  Stop talking about him.”

As I think back, I cannot fathom how hurt she must have been.

She turned to me, “Don’t you miss him?  You never say anything.  Don’t you miss him?”

“Oh, Mama,” I protested, exasperated; “How do you not know?  Not a day goes by that I don’t think about him!  Not a day goes by that I don’t miss him! Not a day goes by that I don’t want him back!

“Well,” she responded,” you never say a word.”

And then she stopped saying his name, at least around me; at least not as frequently.

As I write those words today, I cannot believe how wrong I was.

And now, I know.  It must have given you so much comfort to say his name.

And now, as my friends look sideways, they must want to say to me what I said to you.

But now, I know.  It gives me so much comfort to say his name; to hear your name, out loud.

And so I promise:

I will call your name.  And I will not stop.