November: Alzheimer’s Awareness Month:
Linda Donahue, caregiver for her mother in Sacramento, shares three of her poems:
like a dusty mule
down the mountain,
now balking and braying,
I arrive at the door
to the Forbidden City
where the world hides
its demented elderly.
I don’t want to be here.
I want to stay home,
play with words all day,
finish a few refractory poems,
but, once again, postponement:
duty, guilt and mother-love
Hesitating on the threshold,
wondering who she’ll be today
and who I’ll be to her,
half hoping she won’t know me,
I open the door and
walk down the corridor
to her room.
Mom sits in her rocker,
Anxiety grips her
at the sound of my voice,
gradually giving way
to the shy hopeful smile
of a lonely child.
Are you here to see me?
she asks as I take her hand.
I nod yes, let’s go for a walk, Mom.
Comprehension blossoms in her eyes:
someone is here for her,
someone wants to walk with her.
I read the poem
of comfort and delight
on her face
and know nothing I write
could mean as much
as this moment of grace.
My poems can wait.
WORDS OF LOVE FROM THE MEMORY CARE WARD
My mother was never demonstrative.
I don’t think she ever said she loved me.
Yet she was the vital pulse in my veins,
doing what she did on the periphery of my vision
so quietly and steadily that I rarely noticed.
Her domain was the routine, the mundane,
the boring, repetitive stuff.
She did what had to be done without complaint.
My eccentric, domineering dad eclipsed my mom
until she became almost invisible.
Even today I don’t know everything she did for me,
unseen and unacknowledged.
What I do remember is her patient, unobtrusive presence,
offstage but always there.
I took so much for granted:
ironed tablecloths and matching china,
clean folded laundry smelling of sunshine,
banana bread and buttermilk cookies baking,
applesauce simmering on the stove, never store-bought,
home-sewn Halloween costumes,
vases filled with iris and peonies,
all murmuring the words of love her mouth couldn’t form
and I couldn’t hear.
Now Mom tells me every day that she loves me,
that she couldn’t manage without me,
that I’m a good girl.
I’ve waited a lifetime to hear those words.
I could have heard them so much sooner had I listened.
I hear you now, Mom. I hear you.
I WISH YOU COULD STAY
As usual at visit’s end, we walk together to the front door.
Mom’s headlong shuffling gait and flat affect
announce Alzheimer’s, stage five.
As usual I give Mom a big hug and kiss,
expecting her to turn around and march off to lunch
before I’m out the door, no memory I was there.
But today she holds me and doesn’t let go.
Tears etch briny channels down her cheek.
I ask what’s troubling her, why she’s crying.
She responds in a whisper,
This is the last time I’ll see you, isn’t it.
I wish you could stay.
Her quiet certainty sounds an alarm in my heart.
Startled, I promise her it’s not the last time,
I’ll be back tomorrow.
But Mom doesn’t hear my assurances.
She focuses her gaze on my face, intent, penetrating,
as if to fix my image in the darkroom of her heart.
As usual my brain rummages and fumbles for understanding.
Does she suspect she’s entering Alzheimer’s land of no return,
leaving behind every loved one and familiar landscape?
Can she sense it’s the last time she’ll recognize me?
Is she the one who wants to stay?
Or has anxiety written another terrifying script
and tricked her into believing it?
I’ll never know, she’ll never know, and it doesn’t matter.
Her earlier disturbing emotions are already forgotten.
As usual when I drive away, I wave with feigned cheer,
knowing there will be a last time soon, if not today.
Soon, if not tomorrow, I won’t be Mom’s daughter.
My arm around her shoulders drawing her close,
my warm hand thawing her bony blue fist,
will offer the solace of a stranger, nothing more.
As always I’ll grieve silently behind the smiling strength
I conjure for her.
And love her still, even though she doesn’t know me.
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