Thursday, October 16, 2014

That Which Remains

I call my mother every morning to help her launch her day. She is in her late 80s and her memory is flagging. I answer the same questions many times in the course of our phone call. She retains the answer for a nanosecond and then it is gone. I answer calmly again and again. I am often an impatient person, but I enter another zone when dealing with my mother. Impatience serves no purpose and would only distress her.

Earlier this week I reminded her that I'd be coming to visit her. She squealed with delight. Then she said, "maybe it's good that I forget things because I get to get excited all over again when I remember." Now this is optimism at its finest. There are many jokes like this about Alzheimer's, but I'm here to tell you that they are true.

Before I encountered memory loss close up, I thought of it as an on-off switch. You either had it or you didn't. Now I realize it is far more complex. We tend to think about the extremes, when a loved one no longer knows who we are or retreats into silence. I often have people express concern about my mother, projecting their experience with the disease. People who knew my mother's active curiosity about the world are most dismayed, aware of what has been lost. I want to remind them that there is still much that remains. There are many faces to Alzheimer's and they don't all need to be coupled with distress. Sometimes we get so focused on the loss that we fail to appreciate what is right in front of us.

If I only had my phone calls with my mother, perhaps I would feel the loss more deeply. They have shrunk in content. What was once a rich relationship, filled with confiding and the occasional book review, now revolves around reminders of pills and which aide will arrive when. I have found that our relationship is best conducted face to face. With a stretch of time to talk, different sides emerge.
I come to visit her every few months and stay for a week. It is a different quality of time to have a week. My sister, who lives in the same state, comes in weekly for an overnight visit. It is the highlight of my mother's week, but is filled with hair appointments, grocery shopping, the functional needs of everyday life. I have a longer stretch and it allows for things to bubble up.

I think about what I can bring on my visits that will enrich her life. It is all a bit of an experiment. On one visit we did family history collages together, on another she heard me do a talk on genealogy for a local organization. Sometimes I introduce her to a new food with mixed results. We go to museums, 3-D movies, trolley rides and botanical gardens. She doesn't have much physical energy anymore so I need to tailor what we do to her capacity, but the act of showing up seems to be deeply satisfying to her. I used to take her on rather intense trips to Europe, filled with activity and stimulation. The stimulation from what we do during my visits triggers a residual memory for her. "We have a special relationship", she says. "We understand each other. We always traveled well together."

I was the traveling daughter who exposed her to the world. My sister provided the grandchildren. We speak to different sides of my mother. We each feed different aspects of her memory about herself. I tell her, "you always enjoyed exploring new things. You just needed to be with someone you trusted who would lead the way." That feels right to her. "You know me so well," she replies.

My mother was always a reader, but can no longer retain the thread of a story. I decided to try something different with her on this visit. I've been taking an essay class so have been writing personal essays. I read her some of them, thinking perhaps a short story with some familiar elements that was read to her would be somehow more accessible. She listened intently, absorbed in story. I realize that my touchstone in this terrain is my knowledge about her and the things we shared.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Avocado Memory

You may notice some differences in this blog's layout. Since I cover a variety of topics, I've set it up so you can use the labels at the top to pull blogs by topic. I will be continuing to add to it over time as new topics develop. In addition to topics, I've also provided a link to my art/genealogy website as well as to those blog entries that seem to get the most hits. Hopefully this will make it easier to access the content you find most of interest.

I always feel a bit remiss when time goes by without me writing in my blog. It has become a ritual in my life. Often I use it to remember some detail of my life, a bit of a public journal. I have been taking an essay class and all my writing juice has gone towards the weekly essays that I write which are too long for a blog post.

I have had a few realizations in this class. One is that when one writes essays they are by their nature personal. I suspect I will know my classmates well. There is an intimacy to essay, a sharing of self. As a private person, I sometimes struggle with that and yet that is the power of essay. It allows us to connect with others through the personal which much to our surprise is often universal. I am also aware that some of my best material will never exist in the public realm as it is too raw, too revealing. In some cases I protect another person. To write of them would be a betrayal of their public self, no matter how accurate in the moment of time of which I write. It is still only a moment seen through one person's eyes. Like the blind man and the elephant, I can never capture the totality of another person, just glimpses.

At each class some of us are asked to read our essay. This means our teacher liked our work and felt it captured the approach we were exploring. I must confess to feeling some relief when she approached me before class to ask me to read my work. I thought my essay was strong, but it is easy to be too close to your own material. Even when I read my work to my husband, I really can't get an outside perspective. He knows my stories, my way of thinking so he is not really an arms-length listener. Reading is an opportunity to test your material on a new audience. I've read poetry aloud to an audience, but never an essay of my own construction on a topic that is by its nature personal. Nothing encoded to decipher, just out there, exposed.

This essay was to take the approach of a whorl of reflection, circling, spiraling around a subject. This approach is quite true to my natural process. My mind goes in circles around a topic. I have often described it like a dog circling before settling in. I wrote an essay around memory, the topic of my current explorations. Although I wrote about my mother's experience with loss of memory, I started with the way I remember people through food and how spatial sense is so key to memory. I find I am liking the process of entering a topic, finding a doorway in through some random thread that then leads into meatier content.

Here's a brief excerpt of the lighter part of this essay, the introduction to the topic of memory.

I eat a spinach salad every day. I fill it with all of my favorite foods, toasted pecans, roasted asparagus and fennel, feta cheese and dried cherries and the coup de resistance, four slices of avocado. Every so often I find one that is perfectly ripe. It is then that I think of my friend Carol who introduced me to the avocado.

Carol was the spouse of a co-worker of my then-husband. We were young, in our 20s. They were our couple friends, a construct that seldom worked for me, much too hard to have everyone like each other, but Carol I liked. She had an intelligence about her and a curiosity.

I remember Carol holding out an avocado to me as we stood in her kitchen. "It's a perfect avocado" she said as she cut into its soft, creamy, yellow-green surface. She set the pit aside to join another in a bottle on her window, held in place with toothpicks. It was just beginning to root.

I had lost touch with her soon after we moved to Minnesota 35 years ago. My daily avocado often elicited her memory. Periodically I searched for her, but she had a common name. I assumed she'd split up with her then spouse. We were all too careless for relationships to survive, at least in their original "til death do us part" form. We still believed in second chances so were far too cavalier with life and love.

Once when I got together with my ex-husband for one of our birthday lunches, a tradition we've continued for the 30+ years since we split up, I asked him if he knew where our old friends were. He too had lost touch with them.

As it turned out I was the first to hear from them or at least from Carol. A few weeks ago she contacted me on Facebook. A different married name appended, a different location than those I had searched. We exchanged a series of messages to catch up on our 35 year separation. One of my first comments to her was "I think of you whenever I eat an avocado."

The essay then goes on to address how little we use our capacity for memory and recollections about family members who lost memory. I describe my grandmother who lost her memory early and lived with us for a time when I was a child.

I think a lot about memory these days as I watch my mother's fade. We spend the first part of our life collecting memories only to lose them at the end. My mother lived her life in fear of losing her memory. Her mother lost her's early, beginning in her 60s I think. No one was too sure of her exact age until I began researching family. She lived with us for two years when I was a child. I remember her twisting the buttons on her sweater. She had what I thought of as an old people's smell. She used to sweep our carpet with a broom. "No grandma" we'd say, gently taking the broom from her hands. She only spoke Yiddish. I remember her sitting in the kitchen polishing silver. It gave her comfort and calmed her restless hands.

When she lived with us she used to do the Sabbath blessing. It was the only time it was done in our house. Some years ago I did a painting of her doing that blessing. Memory of blessing, both hers and mine, filtered through my mother. When I worked on it, I sent it back and forth to my mother, trying to capture the image, waiting for my mother's blessing. "Her hands need to be more work-worn" my mother said. I tried yet again. Finally she replied, "Yes, I see her!" When I stood before the painting, I stood to its side, assuming my place at the table of my childhood.

I'm having fun with this. No idea what I do with these as I polish them, but the mere act of writing is richly satisfying, even more so when classmates respond so warmly to what I read.