For several years, with the help of supportive siblings, I was Mom’s main caregiver as her case of Alzheimer’s progressed. I had finally convinced my mother to move closer to one of her seven kids, and she chose me. When I told my uncle that news, he asked, “Barbara, do you love your mother?” I was so stunned that he asked me that, not once, but twice.
“Of course I do!” I said. But his question caused me to sink into an existential crisis. I immediately sought grief therapy to understand my relationship with Mom. And little did I know at the time, but that question would be the trigger for a number of poems which would collect into a poetic memoir, “Three-Penny Memories”.
We had lost Dad in December 2000. After Dad died, alone in Grants Pass, Oregon, Mom wasn’t doing well. Her heart was failing, and she needed a pacemaker. A good friend called to tell me we had to go get her. Mom had never reached out to us about her health. Just as her own mother didn’t warn her family about her heart pains that caused a fatal heart attack, Mom kept her heart health to herself. I picture her prone on the couch, slowly dying. I wonder if she felt abandoned by her seven kids. I still feel a pang of anger that she didn’t contact us. Instead, a friend of hers had to, which made me feel like I had neglected her. Maybe that’s why my uncle asked me if I loved my mother.
My parents had moved from Florida to Oregon to be closer to my brother, Monty, who lived in the San Francisco area. They expected that he would see them regularly, perhaps every weekend, but Grants Pass, Oregon, was not close at all. “It’s two mountain passes away,” he would tell them. But because he was closer to Mom than I was in Missouri or our other siblings were in Colorado, the east coast and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Monty helped Mom in this emergency.
In 2002, I was grateful Mom decided to live closer to me, but because my husband and I worked full-time, it wasn’t possible for Mom to live with us. When she arrived here, I noticed she needed help during the day. Our house wasn’t safe as we had stairs. I was concerned she would be lonely all day.
She loved the independent living facility that I found for her because she was able to make friends, join in activities, and enjoy meals in the dining room there. She even volunteered to work in the facility convenience shop. I was grateful that she had a social life and that she and I were still able to spend time together. Also, my brother moved from California and bought my in-laws house, which was just down the street! (That’s another story. My husband’s mother died in January of 2002 and his father a couple of months later, so my husband’s family home was up for sale. Needless to say, 2002 was an emotional roller coaster.)
Mom was finally here and settled in, and a brother was close by. Still, I grieved. I hadn’t fully recovered from losing dad, and when Mom moved here, I could see that she had aged more since I saw her last. Also, something was “off”. She was different.
Let me explain. Recently I found photos of the time – I can’t recall the year – all of us kids raced to Oregon because Mom called to tell us that Dad was dying. We spent our days with Dad in the nursing home, where I found him withered into a curl. He was barely aware of us. It turned out that the meds were creating his condition. Once his meds were changed, he fortunately rallied. Mom was really herself back then and excited to see us all. In all the photos I found, she is beaming, like old times, the Mom who raised me.
Then in 2000, on a subsequent visit to see my parents, which I describe in my poem, “Hestia for Hire”, I was bereaved because they basically ignored me. I sensed an expanse of disconnect. A cavern of unmet want. Mom was no-doubt worn out as Dad’s caregiver and grieving Dad’s decline. Dad suffered from dementia due to strokes and congestive heart failure. While I was visiting, Mom just read romances while Dad watched the History Channel at full volume. I was expected to be their caregiver, doing the cleaning, cooking, and laundry. If they wanted something, they would snap their fingers. I often left the house to call my husband and sob. Literally, no visiting. No interest in my life. I realized they were very depressed, and it seemed they had retired from life and from me.
When dad died in December of that year, my brother went to Mom’s rescue. Because I had just seen Dad, and I was wrapped up in final exams and getting my grades in, I chose not to go to Oregon. I don’t recall if other siblings did either. I felt pressure to get the grades in as my directors needed all that data to make recommendations. I was grateful that Mom had support, and I would meet up with everyone in Colorado to do a family funeral at Christmas. (Dad would end up having several funerals. One in his church in Oregon, one with the family, and one in Michigan at his burial.)
Mom arrived in Colorado with no luggage, and she looked unkept. This was the first sign something was wrong. When we tried to help her, like get her new clothes, a haircut and a manicure, she would accuse us of not accepting her as she was. She would also sit with her back to us. We figured she was grieving and wanted to comfort her.
When Mom moved to Missouri, I felt hopeful that she would be her old self again. Not so. From then on, there we three of us – Mom, my other mother, and me – another triad that I didn’t mention in a recent blog post to explain the number “Three“ in my book title. On my way to visit with her, I would tell myself that I would be with my real Mom, not the stranger she was becoming. Then on the way home, I would cry because a stranger was masquerading as my mother. Or perhaps my real mother was shunning me because I was so disloyal, abandoning her to die alone on the couch in her Oregon home and not coming to her rescue when Dad died and not going to all his funerals.
Grief is a complex process. An emotion, yes, but multi-faceted. I started grieving the loss of my mother before she even died, and today, with my poetic memoir about me and Mom soon to launch, I feel like crying. I’m still grieving. Writing the poetry helped me to heal several layers of grief, but now new layers are uncovered. There is more to learn and process. My opening poem in my book, “Excavating the Heart Wall of Grief”, tells only a part of my self-study of loss. New poems, new shards, are appearing. You can access the post with the recording of that poem here.
Will I ever heal this grief? Some say, “You’ll get over it. That’s life. Move on. Crying won’t bring her back.”
But I dig and dig. Still looking. For the jewel.
“Three-Penny Memories: A Poetic Memoir” (EIF – Experiments in Fiction, 2022) will launch this Saturday, October 15, on Amazon. You’re invited to the Zoom launch party!
INVITATION to a VIRTUAL LAUNCH PARTY from Ingrid Wilson
To mark the launch of the book, we will be holding a Zoom Launch Event on 15 October at 17:00 BST (12:00 EDT, 11:00 CDT) in which Barbara will read some poems, and we will talk about the creation of the book. We hope you can join us! Here are the Zoom details:
Topic: Three-Penny Memories Launch Event
Time: Oct 15, 2022 05:00 PM London
Meeting ID: 826 7926 9428
Please join us! It would mean the world to me!
The featured image is of me and Mom the year we thought Dad was dying. Mom was so happy to see all of us kids even though it was a scary time. That time was my last memory of my real mom. Since then, I noticed changes, but her diagnosis of Alzheimer’s wouldn’t come until a few years later.