By Barbara Leonhard, Featured Contributor
[Part 2 – Alzheimer’s: Grieving the Loss of My Mother]
I processed grief over Mom’s struggle with Alzheimer’s through poetry writing. The fact that caregivers—such as myself and many other poets—can relieve grief through poetry supports my belief that poetry is both the memoir of and the medicine for the soul. Poetry is a means to storytelling, witnessing the human condition in a personal way. What am I thinking, praying, hoping for? How am I hurting? What has happened to me? How can I understand it? How can I share it? Who will witness my pain?
Poetry provides a creative outlet for the release of pain, for healing. It explores the soul. Reading the poems of others who have gone through similar experiences as mine is reassuring because I realize that I am not alone. I could also share my experiences of loss and grief.
A Treasure Lost
In the following haiku, I address Mom’s memory loss:
Grief Seeks Treasures
Robin missing eggs,
Mother missing memory –
Grief seeks treasures.
Mother Missing Memory
Mom’s memories were slipping away, both short term and long term. We used to be able to count on her sharp mind. She was always correcting Dad on his recall. “Wrong again!” she would say. But eventually, she couldn’t count on her own memory. Sadly, I never took good notes on all the family history, making me unsure of the accuracy of her recollections. However, I knew she wasn’t always accurate with her stories, and she couldn’t claim authority in those matters anymore.
In general, memories are powerful concepts, and so those with good memories hold a position of power in a group. Because her memories were fading, her power was collapsing. She was no longer the head of the house. She used to say, in fact, “You used to walk behind me, and now I am walking behind you.”
Alzheimer’s steals the brightest memories. She sometimes forgot my birth order and had trouble recalling details of her children’s births and lives. She couldn’t even recall all her surgeries, which she would boast of frequently due to the trauma involved. She depended on me to report the details. There were also all the memories of all our moves, new houses, baking daily for seven kids and still making 100 cherry pies for an event to bring in a few dollars. The children also had their accidents and surgeries, but she would not recall them unless reminded. Long-term memories usually hold on the longest, but I heard fewer and fewer repetitions of her stories of wanderlust as a toddler, riding her tricycle to the Soo Locks.
Still, she said she traveled to places like Mexico, but she added Australia. I couldn’t remember her ever talking about Australia in the past, so there may be confusion there. Still, she insisted she went there.
Robin missing eggs
These memories were her treasures, much as eggs are to a mother Robin. The egg also represents a treasure for what it holds.
The egg itself represents creation, new birth, a new start, the birth of hidden potential. However, what was being created for my mother—a new life as a child who only lived in the present? The situation was not ideal by any means. If she had had no one to help her, she could have been taken advantage of, much as a child would. Perhaps there would be some relief for her once her memories faded away completely, for she could finally forget her life pain.
Most importantly, what potential was lost in the mother-daughter relationship? What could we have birthed in our union as mother and daughter that was aborted by a brain disease? These are issues that all children whose parents have Alzheimer’s – and all people with loved ones suffering from this disease face. Once, I wondered what would happen if she forgot me. I said, “You’ll probably say I am so much nicer than your daughter Barbara!”
She replied, “If I forget who you are, just remember that I love you and that I would never mean to hurt you.”
Grief seeks treasures
I sought the memories of the mother I once had so that I could have my mother back. My mother lost her memories and her personal power and status, so she also lost her treasures.
Road to Healing
I console myself with memories of Mom from my childhood. In my poem, “Picking Blueberries with Mom,” I am supported by her strength and resilience. But the poem may also portend her return to her childhood in her elderly years as her ravaged mind slipped back into girlhood. The poem captures a bit of Mom’s Eden as the maiden dancing and singing in her lush berry patch. Did she not see the monster lurking, that bear, ready to steal her fruit? She was enraptured by the present moment, not worrying about her mind eventually turning to bramble.
Mom feared dying. I used to try to console her by telling her about Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ audio book, in which she describes Death as a companion throughout life, worn as a radiant coat that ages with us. My poem, “A Fine Coat,” is reminiscent of this metaphor. My mother liked to listen to my poetry but didn’t understand it because of her condition. Finally, “Weeping Willow” is my way of showing gratitude to Mom and all mothers who have suffered from and were lost to Alzheimer’s Disease.
Regardless of how long ago my mother died, I am still resolving my grief. In this last poem, this is my mother speaking:
The leaves have fallen and stomped to dust
I am laid bare, exposed to wind
my limbs, brittle, still pleading
for a meal of sun
some days too short for food
nests lay bare as squirrels forage
the wind cools me to my roots
I am glass
holding on to my reflections
lest they be lost to twilight
Grace clothes me in a gown
meant for a bride embracing her heart
this pure finery sparkles as diamonds
on my icy bough
I rest with the Angel of Mercy.
Barbara Leonhard is a writer, poet, and blogger at Extraordinary Sunshine Weaver. Her podcast Poetry: The Memoir of the Soul explores universal themes such as Grief, Kindness, and Presence. She taught writing for many years at the University of Missouri and is the author of Discoveries in Academic Writing. She is also a regular contributor to Free Verse Revolution and Go Dog Go Café.
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