The Sacrament of Cookies

Cookies for Arden flashed on my calendar that Friday. It was time again for the weekly rite.

IMG-3186Arden is my mother’s home. Her care home. Mom has lived there for five years, just the past week. She lives amongst sixty-some residents who experience some form of dementia or memory altering condition. Mom has outlasted at least a third of the residents who succumbed to death, departed through lack of funds and or the need for a environment more suited to a particular condition. However, it is unlikely Mom will beat out Miss M., currently careening into her hundreds.

Five years was an eternity to evaluate the relationship I had to my mother’s disease. But the span offered me the gift of not only loving and caring for Mom, but of embracing other residents and caregivers.

It was on a different Friday, a year or so ago, the notion of “Cookies for Arden” was mixed, rolled, baked, frosted, and served.

I was departing the city for the weekend. The cookies were essentially a bribe to the caregivers to watch over Mom for the weekend (as if they didn’t already do that with such care).

Regina, an older caregiver, was delighted when I produced the sweet bounty of colorful tea cookies boxed up from Busken. Jillian, Mom’s most consistent caregiver, groaned. She had been trying to lose weight, despite chasing after the ever-active residents and her obligation to feed, clothe, and bath 15 women and men.

When I held out the box, Mom’s hand aimed for one on top. She grabbed several cookies, denting the swirled frosting on each.

Another resident, B., who was charming and cunning all in one instant, beckoned me towards her. “Hey, I’ll pay you if you bring me in a full box for myself.”

“And they better be Busken. Those Servatti cookies are Italian and they’re not made with the same butter as Busken.

B. had insulted a whole forest of my family trees and was clearly wrong in her presumption that Servatti cookies were made by Italians. The bakery was named after a cafe where the cookies were sold in Munster, Germany, in a location near the Church of St. Servatii, an Italian saint. And, the cookies were made by Germans. But B. also made a point. I, too, relished in the Busken cookies over Servatii’s.

Astounded by such reception, I erratically continued the tradition of bringing in the cookies. Always on a Friday, but not every week.

When I finally typed the entry Cookies for Arden in my calendar, I found that I routinely fulfilled my duties.

The same duty my mother once fulfilled on a September day, in 1994, for my marriage to Devin. My mother baked four of my favorite varieties of her Italian cookies. Pizzelles, rolled Italian cookies, nutroll, nut horns. She obsessively placed them in old May Company shirt boxes layered with waxed paper, and transported the goods from northern Ohio to Cincinnati in the back of Dad’s suburban. My entire family relayed the cargo across Fountain Square through Oktoberfest to our wedding reception at the Banker’s Club, ten stories above.

No image better signified Mom’s dedication to cookies as consecration than that of white department store boxes filled with cookies, bouncing along the heads of siblings towards the delicacies’ eventual consumption that night.

No matter where I am in the world – at home with the dog, in Washington Park, in Oregon or northern Ohio, if its Friday, Cookies for Arden pops up on my phone screen. And I smile.

On the most recent Friday, the cue flickered on my screen while I was in the midst of a neighborhood walk through West Price Hill.

“Yes, yes,” I spoke out loud to the phone. “I got it.”

Hours after my shower, I stopped at Busken Bakery, only to find the bakery cases emptied. I was stupefied. “Where are all the tea cookies, where are the sprinkled ones?”

The clerk offered me a morsel of relief. “Oh don’t worry. They’re in the back. We got wiped out today. It was back to school week.”

In a matter of minutes, the clerk loaded up a box with piles of red, blue, white and sprinkled mounds of butter. (I do wonder who decides on the color scheme each week).

When I arrived at Arden, the receptionist spotted the gold container with a plastic window into the world of delight. “It must be Friday.”

I lifted up the box with a broad grin on my face. “You bet.”

As I entered the kitchen of Mom’s hallway, many of the women were still seated around their breakfast table, including Mom.

“Hello, girls.” I announced. “I’ve got cookies.

Miss J., the other Miss J., lit up at the word, “cookie.”

I sauntered over to Miss R., relegated to a corner table filled with wooden abacus like toys, and she took a pink one. “Thank you,” she mumbled and her visage returned to a blank stare.

Miss M., known for crying without tears ( which may be a condition known as pseudobulbar), accepted a green one from me. However, not even cookies could stop someone from overcoming that condition.

Again, Miss B. proposed payment for the entire collection. I politely declined, though she was good for her word and the money.

FullSizeRender (60)Mom finally acknowledged my presence – and that of the cookies. She waved her hands in the air. “Hey, hey.”

I inched towards Mom and presented to her the box resplendent with rainbows. Mom fingered three of them, placed the first one wholly in her mouth, and clasped the other two, again crushing the swirl of icing between her fingers.

I stashed the remainder on top of the microwave, where all the staffers would know where to look for the prize. The hiding place was like the cookie drawer in our home on Lincoln Street. But Mom never stored her good cookies there, only the packaged ones. The good cookies were kept locked away in old Charles’ Chips cans, like the sacramental offering they were.

At the last minute, I swiped a cookie for myself, to join in the ceremony of cookies. It was the closest I came to receiving a blessing that morning.



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Organizing a Mind – Writing Our Lives as Caregivers Workshop

Writing Our Lives as Caregivers 8-2017 (1) (1)-page-001When my mother began her slow waltz with dementia, I was living in southern Ohio, dancing in new love and blending families. Mom still resided up north, near Cleveland. Each time I visited, I had witnessed various versions of a mom I didn’t recognize. Each time I drove back to Cincinnati, I was steeped in the shadows of what was soon becoming, or had already become, the darkening of her memory.

The story of how she got from there to here has been the subject of poems, blogs and novels. But the narrative of writing as a tool to forge a new relationship with my mother is a story that is boundless.

Not long after I accepted (maybe not really) Mom’s stage in life, I had been listening to a podcast about an Alzheimer’s writing circle, begun by a well-known psychologist, Dr. Alan Dienstag, and famous novelist/playwright, Don DeLillo. I was prompted to undertake the same.

One day, sipping coffee with Leigh, a good friend from Loveland, I mentioned the prospect. She dropped a hint into our conversation.” If you ever do that, let me know. I might have some time to help.”

Thus was born Found Voices, a writing circle for individuals with mild to moderate cognitive loss who lived at the Alois Alzheimer’s Center in Cincinnati, a facility renowned for their approach in caring for residents, and also renowned for their costs.

The program director not only welcomed my pilot program. She connected us to the executive director, who promptly paid us well for such work. Little did either know, at the time, I had proposed the program to alleviate guilt I was accumulating, while not traveling the miles to see Mom.

For three years, Leigh and I plotted and planned out themes for our circle: Flying and planes. Summer. School. Baseball. Home. Love.

The participants who were with us those three years became dear to us. Mary Lou, Willhemma, Betty. Dotti. We embraced their lives and their hearts. Whatever life those residents had left to give, they gave their all.

That work that propelled me forward to write about my own mother. ( That work became the seed in a relationship with Pauletta Hansel, Cincinnati’s Poet Laureate, whose own mother experienced dementia. And the two of us arrived simultaneously at the intersection of art and life. We have decided to stay there a while.

Last summer and winter, through the Alzheimer’s Association of Greater Cincinnati, we offered sessions for caregivers to write and share their musings and mutterings about their loved one experiencing Alzheimer’s or dementia. Or to write and share about the struggle in their own lives, as they contemplate a future without their loved one or a future that might closely resemble that of their mother’s, like I often do.

The poem below was excerpted from Pauletta’s blog, from our summer workshop.

The Alzheimer’s Association of Cincinnati has been enthusiastic in their support of our work. We will offer three caregiver workshops, two in coordination with the Memories in the Making program, and one trial run with professional caregivers, because they too have stories to tell, especially when they sit in for a family who can’t or won’t.

FullSizeRender (34)I have made a life out of my mother’s life. Not her past one, or ones, though I don’t know if she has nine or not. But the life I made has been created from her present one. It’s not the life I planned for either of us. My mother was the extraordinary organizer. She would have never tolerated an unorganized mind. But she tolerates me. And in the interim, I help others organize their mind and their love.

FREE workshops August 12, October 21 & February 10th. Sessions begin at 9 a.m. Each session is hosted at a different venue. Check the website for details.


This poem is a weaving together of snippets of writing from the participants of Cincinnati Poet Laureate Pauletta Hansel’s workshop at the Alzheimer’s Association of Greater Cincinnati on July 16, 2016. Innumerable residents of Cincinnati are caring for loved ones with dementia —mothers, fathers, husbands, wives. Their experiences of tenderness and loss are all too often untold. Credit to Pauletta Hansel for the weaving. Read more.
For As Long As We Can: Writing our Lives as Caregivers

There is much more hurting than healing
in our lives right now.
An incredible sadness.
Robbed of all this time,
many years, with my mother.
I let go of the colorful gal I once knew;
now her words cut through me like a machete,
leave a hemorrhage like no other.
All this before I even sit down.
I want so desperately to believe
God has a miracle for my dad,
for my beautiful Gina, in beautiful Bermuda—
how I would love to take her again,
away from the tiny world she knows
—and the bitterness of that impossibility.

I hold to every word, to every syllable,
to every streak of black
remaining in Mom’s soft white hair.
I know I am still her baby girl.
I cling to my old memories.
I don’t want it to change, but it does.
But then, a conversation—mother and daughter.
Mom hunched her shoulders
and walked in a silly way, making me laugh.
She doesn’t need that jacket on,
but she’ll wear it anyway,
singing “76 Trombones” and I join in.
It takes her a moment to connect
my place in her room
with my place in her life.
I know she is in there.
She looked in my eyes; I let her love me.
Mom was back,
but not for long.
The touch of your hand—unnerving,
unbounded by time.
At Mirror Lake in Eden Park
the air had cleared,
the colors of sunset filled the western sky.
Tiny blue gills swirled alone in lazy Van Gogh circles.
Heads together, giggling like conspirators
and wishing for more.
I am still comforted by your touch.
Moments—come and gone—
that would not have been
had we not been present.
Engulfing moments unborn, unknown by us.
A salve to put on the wounds part—
the baggage of the day
and my beat-up body,
the parts that broke,
under the pressure of loneliness.
I breathe deep until the next time;
I sink into the car
and think about doing it again tomorrow.
The contrast—the leaving,
the spent memories so different,
so contrary, so final.
Or maybe not final,
maybe this too will change.
I hold her strength, yet I cannot find her.
The joy we had, the hope
and promise of things to come.
I want to believe.
I cling to these prayerful words:
Relax, you are safe.
I will be here for you—not forever,
but for as long as I can.

From participants in Writing Our Lives as Caregivers
with Pauletta Hansel, Cincinnati Poet Laureate, and Annette Januzzi Wick
Alzheimer’s Association of Greater Cincinnati


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What Is a Weekend…At a Memory Care Home?

IMG_2461I missed the Luau Party date on Arden Courts’ activities calendar. So, I was surprised when at Mom’s on a Tuesday to find a luau was to occur later, complete with sweet and sour meatballs, tiki cups, hula dancing and steel drums. Sadly, I could not partake. I wished Arden would have hosted the event on a Saturday or Sunday, despite the fact I had been inconsistent in my attendance on weekends.

Arden Courts was not responsible for my social life. I handled that fairly well. But they were responsible for Mom’s, and by proxy, that meant me too.

I prided myself in my near-perfect attendance for major events that occurred at Arden Courts. With a flexible schedule and even more flexible husband, I have attended Teddy Bear teas, senior proms, Valentine’s Day dances, chili cook-offs (a risky proposition) and Catholic holiday masses.

My schedule with Mom was somewhat regular, somewhat not, and somewhat dependent on the weather. I charted my time based on if I could urge her outside or not, and how long one of us could withstand the stinky heat. Then, when winter blew in, as if Mom’s disposition was not already thrown into disarray, doors locked and Mom and I were stuck staring at a sun that clearly quit its job in December, January and February.

When Mom first moved to Arden Courts, I diligently attended to her every other day. On weekends, I dropped in twice – most weekends were only two days long. Thus, I had tried out all the activities. I actually watched Cleveland Browns-Cincinnati Bengals football games, complete with popcorn, in the community room with Mom because it was less painful than to view the game with my husband and son, and their pithy Cleveland jokes running in the background.

Family members and friends struggled with ways to stay engaged with loved ones, but I didn’t. I loved singing with the Merry Moores because of their corny humor. I loved Chaplain Geoff and his booming voice. I relished in Friday mornings, because the activity was like Jazzercise, only from the seated position. I called it a Dance Party, but Arden Courts called it exercise. Mom never, NEVER, moved an inch if she didn’t want to, so swinging to Jerry Lee Lewis, just to get her heart rate up, was not going to happen. Still, I was there.

Later, I started missing days on the weekend. Then, I skipped a full weekend, but showed up Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, out of guilt, obligation and the fact that I had missed out on activities like the luau or race car simulations or Irish dancing.

And I told myself, “Its OK. You’re working too.” I secretly confessed my sins to my rearview mirror, instead of waiting for the priest to arrive at Catholic mass at Arden.

I missed one Mother’s Day. Possibly Easter. A Fourth of July (read more about why that date was important). One Christmas Eve (Try taking out an 80 something-year-old in southern Ohio sleet and see if your loved one speaks to you again.)

Mom didn’t know one day from the next. She didn’t know if she missed hula-hoop class, for which she might be thankful. Or if she skipped communion, which the Eucharist tended to stick in her throat since she had been prescribed a soft mechanical diet.

But I knew. And I knew Mom had never missed a track meet of mine. She postponed cancer treatments to travel to Oregon when Davis was born. Mom gave up weeks to help during my first husband’s cancer diagnosis and in my next days as single mother.

She had a long record of showing up. “Wherever there was the need,” she said. That included toting six-dozen, neatly-boxed Italian cookies to Cincinnati for my first wedding reception, and a repeat of that Herculean effort for reception number two. She knew how to show up. And she filled that space with who she was.

These days, Mom and I have to get creative in how we filled time. Her hourglass rotated unceasingly, as if before the sands of time ran out, the glass automatically flipped when neither of us were looking.

download-2In those moments, time became seamless and nearly weightless, as a scene from Downton Abbey with Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, played in my mind, complete with British accent.

At the dinner table, Matthew Crawley is speaking about a job.

His father-in-law, Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, is incredulous. “You do know I mean to involve you in the running of the estate?”

“There are plenty of hours in the day,” Matthew responds. “And of course, I’ll have the weekend.”

The acerbic Viola interjects. “What…is a weekend?”

It was hard to lose hours with Mom, who couldn’t comprehend the dimensions of her space and time. But the sands of time kept rotating, and it was only silly humans who attached actual schedules to our time to love.

It was a Friday. It had been three days since my last visit. Mom was seated outside, in the shade. I tugged at her sleeve and kissed her on the cheek. “Hi, beautiful.”

FullSizeRender (33)Mom shot daggers at me with her hazel eyes, as if accusing me of skipping church on Sunday and daring me to produce a church bulletin with the current date.

Maybe she still knows what is a weekend after all.

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“Baby, You’re a Firework”

IMG_1680“I’m taking Mom on picnic.” I said to my husband, Mark, who wiped his eyes and blinked at the clock.

It was six a.m. on the Fourth of July. I wasn’t envisioning red-checked cloths or fireworks. Instead, I was plagued by a feeling I couldn’t name.

“I need your help. But I’m not thinking red-checkered cloths or loud fireworks.” Instead, I was plagued by a feeling I couldn’t name.

Mark mumbled something and rolled over until the fluffy dog whacked his tail around in his crate.

I had stopped taking my mother out of her care home. On a previous escapade, our antics resembled an Abbott and Costello routine as I revolved her body into a seated position in the car. Our arms in a tangle, I held her at the waist while lifting her leg into the seat well.

Mom fought back. “What car? This car? Why way? This way? Which way is this?” She looked at me with watery eyes graying around the edges like her temples.

Now, with my husband, Mark, and our daughter, Shannon, I drove Mom to a nearby community park. GPS guidance instructed me how to access an entrance that would not require Mom to straddle across railroad tracks amidst mountains of gravel.

Mark and I tugged Mom along a cracked asphalt path toward a picnic shelter with a roof drooping on the shady side and morning dew creeping down poles closest to the sun. We were the only park guests other than a teenager clutching a bulky picnic basket waiting for a dining companion.

We approached the long lines of picnic tables and I harkened back to my mother’s Fourth of July cookouts. When Aunt Joan arrived with baked beans, my siblings and I groaned. When my mother insisted on eating outside no matter the humidity, we groaned again. When Mom questioned my father’s grilling techniques, we excused ourselves from the table blanketed in gold-checked cloth and waited to be called later. Her meals populated an entire extra picnic table with a spread large enough to feed a team of twelve-year-olds. She topped off the meal with traditional angel food, frosted with Cool Whip and dotted with blueberries and strawberries to honor the stars and stripes, and her marriage.

My parent’s wedding anniversary fell on the Fourth of July. Legend had it, the family’s shoe store closed during the holiday which made the date perfect for a marriage ceremony. As a youngster or teen, I never recognized the Fourth of July as a special holiday for my parents. Their anniversary was overshadowed by the country’s birthday, by neighborhood bike parades, never-ending softball games, and Italian sausage with crisp fennel seeds stuck in between teeth.

Over the years, my parents celebrated by driving the winding road along the lake to buy an ice cream cone at Toft’s Dairy Ice Cream Parlor. My mother loved to observed Lake Erie. Though Mom couldn’t swim, she was soothed by the endless waves of blue.

Before we sat down for our meager picnic, Shannon wiped the table with disposable wipes from Mom’s supplies. The air was now scented with baby powder and not fresh-cut grass. We unpacked slices of cucumbers, bags of Bing cherries and cookies, and Mom’s cherished peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Mom singled out the peanut butter cookie and, by habit, picked at whatever food item was deposited on my plate.

I regaled Shannon and Mark with stories about Lorain’s International Festival and Parade. My siblings and I ate pierogies, baklava, and stromboli, in the course of an hour. One year, my older sister, Laura, was crowned an Italian princess, and soon after, Ms. Congeniality.

“How come you didn’t enter?” Mark chewed through his allotted cookie.

I shrugged. “Who wants to compete with Miss Congeniality?” Besides, I was as far from a princess as any DC Comic character.

Mom consumed her second cookie and the last cherry. Her chin dropped close to the edge and her elbows slipped off the glossy wood paint.

We returned Mom to her nest.

FullSizeRenderSettling her into an armchair with a tufted cushion in a warm corner in the sunroom, I tried to leave. But tears kept me rooted as if they were essential to watering my family tree.

Mom and I had been conjoined for five years. Five years without Dad. She and I had grown together in the way a married couple grew together except I returned to the outside world and she remained in her inner one.

I could finish Mom’s sentences by tone and not knowledge. If we were seated outside within the vicinity of the bird feeder, and dozens of wings flapped around us, Mom would point to the birds. Her voice would rise. “Well, on there is something.” I would confirm there was not one, but three cardinals and note the added yellow finch.

Mom relished in the solitude and stroked my arm. She embraced summer not for the rays but because she could feel skin. She slid her fingers up and down my legs, which was rather strange. But Mom admired the brown skin of her youth. We hugged. Our cheeks rubbed up against one another. I sniffed at her scent and detected Oil of Olay. Her skin was still more supple than mine.

In five years’ time, I had loved my parents differently. Mom was alive and her life force lived in me. But it was more, some inexplicable tie that had nothing to do with relationships or mothering or daughtering because neither of us had accomplished much in those roles our last five years, though we hadn’t lacked in trying.

I disengaged my fingers from the ageless and authentic beauty in front of me. But Mom grasped my tan arms as if she could feel the warmth that once emanated from off my skin.

I straightened up and cradled Mom’s head as she leaned into my soft tank dress and again wove her fingers through mine. My husband and daughter stood behind me and waited. I didn’t care. Mom and I had shuffled along too many corridors together for me to rush our goodbye.

In a flash, I became a conduit for a presence I could not name. The Fourth of July burst through and filled the moment with fireworks neither Mom nor I could see. But we felt them. Yeah, we felt them.


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Her Superhero Power

IMG_1220“Jeannie’s got strong hands,” Randy said. He gazed down at my mother’s uncanny hold on my wrist while she and I strolled the halls of Arden Courts. Randy was the son of another resident at Arden.

“One day, I helped her outside because she was pushing on the door, and she had an amazing grip on my hands.” Randy grinned and shook his head.

I gawked at Randy’s hands. They were sturdy. They had been built for football.

“I know what you mean.” Helpless, I cringed and disengaged my twisted fingers from Mom’s hands. “Her hands are her superhero strength.”

My mother’s hands had always held my imagination sway. She was a magician with her cookies as her hands flew across the mixing bowl or dough to cut and roll or press and dust. Mom demonstrated a sleight of hand on par with Houdini in turning flour, sugar, and egg into memories I could not live without.

Her fingers were longer than mine. I verified that fact on numerous occasions. And often, I used that excuse when my cookies, ravioli, and meatballs didn’t measure up to hers. In truth, Mom spent a lifetime perfecting her feats, thus qualifying them as superhuman.

Mom’s superhero power did not mean she could close off a teenage mouth with a force field. She was not a shapeshifter unless you counted her six pregnancies. Nor did she move at great speeds unless she was caught in the rain after her hair appointment.

Mom’s superhero power had always been in her hands.

When she spanked us, or worse, wielded the wooden spoon. When she circled our mistakes on homework. When she hemmed or altered suit pants or communion dresses. When she neatly penned the names of every person on her Christmas card list, and it was a long list. When she dusted or mopped or rubbed Pledge on her coffee tables to shine the furniture.

And when she spoke or sang.

These days, Mom implemented “the death grip” as we walked in circles down the corridors of her home. She owned a walker, and following a fall or seizure, her therapist put that walker into practice. Mom no sooner wheeled it front of her, wondered off, and grasped the nearest set of hands or the handles of someone else’s wheelchair as a counterbalance to her toddling self.

IMG_0580Mom and I parted ways with Randy. As she sat on green wrought iron bench, Mom reached for my hand, rubbed the soft hairs on my arms, and refused to release me to the outside world.

All Mom’s actions were tied up in her hands. When she avoided the mumbling resident by pushing her away. When, in anger, she squeezed my hand while I combed her hair because squeezing was her means of communication. When she pinched at clothes with sparkles or cookies sprinkled with colored sugar.

Even her baby doll was not immune to Mom’s grasp. Honestly, I often sought out Baby Doll to replace my own hands when my fingers ached from her crush.

For countless years, Mom used her hands to change the world through her baking and cooking and cuddling of grandchildren. She held on around life’s curves and now, clutched the hands of those who cared for her or could maneuver her in and out of the sun.

When Mom finally lets go, she will liberate what she has prized for many decades. That is her super hero power. To hold on to whatever life has thrown at her, including a sometimes intransigent daughter, and still cling to love.




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Still Life

Carolina Marches

My life with Mom was not always about Mom’s life.

The day after Memorial Day, she and I strolled outdoors while she was arguably distraught with the landscapers who had left a mess of mulch spread across the sidewalk while sprucing up the garden beds of Arden Courts.

She simultaneously scowled at the young men, while also brandishing her trademark, I’m so sweet, smile.

Then, her eyes locked in on the benches. She marched straight for one in the sun and sat down.

In a little while, Jack wheeled outside to join us. Jack was younger than Mom, was afflicted with Parkinson’s, but recalled Mom’s name and remembered I was her daughter.

We filled our minutes with talk about what constituted the perfect summer day, and also, how to be on the lookout for sunburn. He told a story about his mother, seated on boat for eight hours, who never once considered she might have needed sunscreen and, only later, screeched at the mere touch of her arm.

The activities director joined us, and produced earphones and iShuffles for both Jack and Mom. The implements were part of the Music and Memory program recently instituted at Arden Courts. Mom’s playlist was crammed full of Sinatra, while Jack’s contained Simon and Garfunkel, and there the age difference was apparent.

After the director departed, Jack realized his iShuffle wasn’t working, so he struck up a conversation with me again. Mom’s headphones had been connected to my iPhone, so I let her mind spin on to the tunes on my player while Jack and I conversed.

I must admit to the difficulty of sitting with someone with Parkinson’s. While Jack stumbled over his words, I wanted to jump in and finish his sentence, despite knowing that was wrong, and also frustrating for him. Numerous times, I held back, held my breath and waited for just the right word to come from his mouth and not mine.

FullSizeRender-102The sun’s intensity that morning had been too much for all to bear. I escorted Mom inside to the join the resident cat, and Jack came along, courtesy of the activities director.

As I tried to part ways with both Mom and Jack, Jack asked if I could stay a few more minutes. He had something he wanted to show me. I was already late and promised to track him down when I returned. In hindsight….there was always hindsight.

Jack had been an avid photographer when he was younger and less afflicted. Of all the reasons he offered for his passion, the last two stanzas of the poem stayed with me. Now, Jack and I were forever linked by art.


Still Life

He once shot photographs
of marshes in the Carolinas
– before the shaking
and stuttering –
when his hands were steady
and he could capture a still life
instead of leading one.

We are outside
on a sky blue day
breeze whispering in our ears
and the wheels of his chair
roll backwards
into a bed of irises
where the tires are stuck
in a triangular rut.

He asks, Please, help,
and for an instant
his life is immobile
caught in that moment
between harsh cold concrete
and soft landscape green.

Later, I show him a book,
The Art of Ages,
a photographic journey
in black and white
through the 20th century
of people and how they lived,
sometimes in filth,
sometimes in stealth.

I only photograph still life,
he repeats.

He wants his camera back,
won’t mess with a new, old Polaroid,
and wants his computer too.
Maybe his brother will bring it,
but not his son
who he sees every six months.

He wants to know
if I have photos of my mother
when she was younger,
as Mom’s head bobs into her chest
and she snores away
the perfect silence of a summer day.

Some, I tell him. I have some.

I keep mine altogether.
The words sputter from his mouth
as he pushes off toes
and his chair rolls
backwards in time.

I take photographs,
he stammers,
because I get to keep
the life I lived.


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The Rear Window Revisited

FullSizeRenderSometimes, the window is open a crack.

The neighbor, herein the observer, has lived there for five years, or at least, a Bengals and a Reds flag have been flying as long as such.

Glancing up at that window, one is reminded of The Rear Window, where the lead character, played by James Stewart, is wheelchair bound and spends his days looking out the glass panes, suspecting he has witnessed a murder.

Rear_Window_film_posterNothing nefarious happens at Mom’s home of Arden Courts, but there is a life worth watching from above, difficult to define, and best framed by the casement of a second-story window.

That window is one of two windows and they comprise of the only set of panes that lords over the bushy gardens and sparse courtyards contained within white fencing all four seasons of the year.

During fall, many maple and magnolia leaves will have floated through the air, such that the observer would have heard my mother cuss at the crisps and twigs that flutter to the ground and swirl around her feet, causing confusion and also, because of the nature of her perfection, some consternation too.

The winter watch would be particularly solitary, and possibly painful. All alone, the observer would be seated and studying from above, with no signs of life inside the white perimeter, other than the occasional caregiver slipping outside to catch a breath of fresh air or speak quickly on the phone, or the maintenance man undertaking another of his never-ending projects.

The doors are locked from the inside, and no resident slips through those doors lest they slip on the ice and snow and whatever the deluge of rains bring. The winter watch must certainly be a lonely one, where the observer can only contemplate the life inside Arden based on the plethora of switches whose lights flicker on and off through the windows. The observer would know the rooms that were occupied and thus, whose life is still illuminated, whose life has been turned off.

And there were many lives turned off this past winter, many more than in recent past. Did the observer feel my grief for those hardly known, because of the cumulative nature of the deaths, the open-spaced silences and picture boxes next to their door and empty name plates that were left behind? As if sometimes, the number of loved ones left to carry in the external energy, to bring in the fresh pop of People magazines or Busken tea cookies from outside the secure doors were also in decline.

Should the observer examine the course of activities from above, surely spring is the best of times, when the sun blossoms and the irises shine. And slowly, one lone woman emerges, cradling in her arms a small pet bed with a worn stuffed animal. Then, a diminutive man, cheeks sunken in, but still traipsing, still traipsing.

From above, there might be only two residents spotted all day. It is like watching for the rare birds, the colorful ones whose broken legs and hips and wings can still maneuver, but their minds cannot. And to listen for them too, for the rare speech the species might make, marveling at a hue of blue that they don’t remember ever witnessing, only because it was months ago when that blue could have shimmered so bright.

But the doors lock and unlock on the whims of Mother Nature during spring. And in past months, the observer would attest to even seeing Mom pushing at the locked doors, waiting for Spring to say yes, its time to let her back out into the real world. When the doors refuse to budge, Mom stands in the skylights anyhow, feeling the warmth with her hands pressed up against the glass.

And the observer would silently wish for the portals to be unlocked, pleading the maintenance or staff to open the doors. Let today be the day.

As recent temperatures climb, the Black-eyed Susans will soon spread their swath of happiness across an entire patch of garden and welcome summer with all its glory. And that’s when the observer would have counted more rare sightings.

IMG_0857On this day, the observer would have seen Mom and I walk “all the way around” and “all the way back”, less than three-tenths of a mile. But as Mom ages, it’s the movement of her feet the observer counts, and not the number of feet in her movement.

The observer would have also seen Mom with her Dr. “J” beats on, her head nodding to the noise thrumming through her soul. The noise which could only be Sinatra, or she would rather remove the headphones instead.

But this day is difficult, as one favorite resident, “Elaine”, has let go. And observer would also attest, so many lives let go over winter.


“to live in this world

you must be able

to do three things

to love what is mortal;

to hold it

against your bones knowing

your own life depends on it;

and, when the time comes to let it go,

to let it go”

― Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems, Vol. 1

Lovingly, the observer would have noted how the husband tended to his wife’s every need, fed her meals, sometimes twice a day. And the husband made countless jokes with Mom.

“Wow, I didn’t think it would be this hard,” the observer would have heard the husband utter as “Elaine” entered her final stages.

And the observer would have also been privy to the conversation followed.

Mom and I are seated outside, on a heavenly blue day. Tears stream down my face.

My mother looks at me with her trademark furrowed brow.

“Mom, I have a friend who is dying.”

“Oh, well, I think that’s okay.” She pats my knee and smiles.

The neighbor, who could gaze out over the courtyard on any given day and see life, envision a snapshot of the residents’ life to come, would have said the same thing.

For the observer is uniquely positioned to see all that transpires, all the heartache and challenges of loving someone with dementia, of escorting someone on the journey to their death. Absorb all the self-recrimination and self-examination that fight for space inside the heads of loved ones. Check all the movements of the chess pieces that make up this life inside the perimeter of the fenced-in chessboard.

Perhaps the observer, the knower of all things, knew before anyone else that it was “Elaine’s” time.

Did the observer weep, as I did, when Elaine died?

When I am not with Mom, and she is outside, sometimes munching on flowers, or attempting to eat a rock, does the observer understand this too? And creating a crevice between window and sill, does the observer applaud at the music of Mom, a rare songbird, and implore her, silently, to sing on?


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