Tag Archives: Alzheimers

eulogy for mom

On November 14, 2017 I delivered the family remembrance at my mother’s mass of Christian burial at St Jude Church in Lincoln, RI. After the ceremony a few people asked me to post the text of my remarks; those words can be found below. They may be of interest to anyone who’s had a loved one suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, or anyone who’s had a mother who, like my mom Doris, was both the practical and spiritual heart of our family for most of our lives.

*

We grow up wanting our mothers to be proud of us.

We mostly don’t realize until we’re parents ourselves that a loving mother is always proud of her children, supportive of their varying wishes and dreams, proud of the struggle and fight regardless of the achievement. Mom was like this. Now comes the struggle, long foreseen, of being here without her.

The Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer describes the effect of a person’s death like this:

Once there was a shock
that left behind a long pale glimmering comet’s tail.
It contains us. It blurs TV images.
It deposits itself as cold drops on the power lines.

Here we are, today, still feeling the blurring impact of that comet’s tail at a wonderful life’s end. That disorientation that the poet describes can leave us feeling lost. I have felt this, in fact, for almost a decade as the family watched Alzheimer’s disease ravage the brain and body of this wife, this mother, this individual with her own life and love of God that began before any of us even knew her. Yet, time and again, when Mom smiled, you could recognize the person who in so many other ways seemed missing from our lives.

Over the last ten years, we felt the loss of her quick humor, her positive spin on even the worst days. What she missed in those years was not only the present but the past as well. Yet she recognized us as people she loved — beyond names and memory, and we recognized her, the Doris who would be there to the end, throughout that slow pulling away.

But bigger than that comet’s tail of distress is the invisible trail of lives made better by her everyday work and play. She was the mom who made our St Patrick’s day mashed potatoes a crazy bright green; the seamstress who designed and sewed us all matching pajamas one Christmas.

Floating across that long trail are her many acts of faith — as the CCD teacher, den mother, the neighborhood mom who drove us to elementary school on rainy days — in that time before seat-belts — squeezing as many of the local kids as she could fit into her gold Rambler, which she called “Goldilocks,” by having us sit alternately forward and back, like a rolling container of sardine scholars.

That invisible trail of works stretches ahead even into her retirement on Cape Cod, where she volunteered for literacy programs both for adults, at the local senior center, and for kids at Ezra Baker Elementary school. One boy was so excited to see her each week he began waking his mom up on those mornings, instead of the other way around, to make sure he got to school on time.

The invisible trail flows on, in all directions, past, present, and even drifting like stardust into the future. It’s a trail of enduring faith, in God, in love. In us.

We wanted our mom to be proud of us. As a dad now, I realize that what I want most is for my children to be proud of me, to grow up confident that they are loved. I’m sure that’s how Mom really felt, too, after all. Well, we’re proud of you.

As we wait these days out, as that shorter comet’s tail of confusion passes over us, as we may grow sad or even angry for what has been taken, it’s good to recall words from William Penn’s prayer for the deceased:

We give back to you, O God, those whom you gave to us. You did not lose them when you gave them to us, and we do not lose them by their return to you. Your dear Son has taught us that life is eternal and love cannot die. So death is only a horizon, and a horizon is only the limit of our sight.

We’ll be looking for you, Mom. Long after our blurred vision of this life and this death clears, we’ll see you even more clearly, like constellations in our mind’s night sky, brightest on the darkest evenings, navigation points for us above the horizon. Like the stars, giving light long after you’ve returned to your loving source.

 

 

 

Song Sung to The Mothers

flowermoon

Song Sung to The Mothers

You are the gate and the path leading away.
Not the nest but the many things

The nest was made from. Built of mud
And moonlight. Without you nothing

Can bond or find its way through darkness.
The mistakes of recognition were all ours:

That you are immortal and unchanging.
The nest by our feet on the path

Is the one we built of such dead twigs.
At night when I sleep it is to the song

My mother sang in the trees before
I was born as the moon pulled

My empty soul across the water

Late Winter Dream

Late Winter Dream

How long has it been since the mail has delivered your thoughts to me?
Now in a package no larger than a driver’s license I find

Hundreds of small notes pressed together into a block of paper, a sediment
Like stamps stuck together. It has been at least seven years since

I drove 700 miles to take your car keys away after you got lost driving home
From a church ten minutes from your house and beached your car

On a concrete island between lanes of traffic.Safe but too shaken to be sorry.
Pop couldn’t do it, my brother and sister couldn’t do it, they were too close.

They all stayed in RI. You would not have given those keys to anyone else
And we all knew that and it’s why I love you. Because when I asked you knew,

Some part of you, that it was the beginning of losing everything.
I remind myself that this is a dream, this package of your words, but I know that

Everything you haven’t been able to say, your language slowly leaking from you,
Is in this small block of handwriting, and I know that as I begin to cry

Surely it will wake up my wife, who will then wake me in order to pull me
Out of a nightmare, and with my waking I will leave behind that palm

Full of your words, which I will never get a chance to read.
It would not matter if they made no sense. I would understand them.

Sestina, with Christmas Lights [from Vanishing Tracks]

Sestina, with Christmas Lights [from Vanishing Tracks]

Through the graves of trees comes a quiet that is almost conscious.
A memory in search of its strength, like blood racing to the heart
To be replenished with oxygen. In that quiet is our quick
Reinvention, and we have forgotten already who we were, what our stories
Were about, in the way that the clump of unplugged Christmas lights
Has nothing to do with Christmas. I had a similar feeling in a hotel

Once, where I did not recognize my story as being set in a hotel
But there I was. I was home in a way I was not even conscious
Of acknowledging, as Christmas is not acknowledged by Christmas lights
But by acknowledging the birth of something brand new in our hearts
That just might save us if we can forget all the stories
That have come before it, if our sense of eternity’s quick

Enough to follow tracks time’s flurries are so quick
To fill. It’s too cold outside: back to memory’s mansion or is it a hotel
Of the same room comfortably over and over, the same stories
In generic bedrooms we’re nearly content in without us being conscious
Of not having slept there before? The past is leading my heart
To a place the past cannot be, but like one short in Christmas lights

May darken an entire string, most of which would still light if the Christmas lights
Were wired differently. But we can’t change the way we’re wired or how quick
Darkness in one triggers a darkness in many. Right now your heart
Just pumped a liter of blood in one beat, like checkout time at a hotel
Where everybody knows they’re coming back but are conscious
They will get a different room that will be familiar as the stories

They grew up with are different from the stories
They tell. And still nobody has invented better Christmas lights.
When I speak to my mother about Christmas she is no longer conscious
Of memory as memory, it is the tree her speech lands on like the quick
Accumulation of snow on branches. It is like she is wandering in a hotel
Where her key opens every door and every room touches her heart

Though she’s no longer talking about Christmas. I don’t have the heart
To correct her, or maybe I have heart enough to know her stories
Are closer to being correct, they’re all there in the same hotel
Like a convention of amnesiacs, and either the Christmas lights
Are lit or they are not, but their keys fit all the doors now, and quick
As a wink there’s a mint beside the bed of all that is conscious.

Boxing up ornaments and taking down the tree, the family was suddenly conscious
Of disconcerted movement: two weeks in warmth, and hatched hungry to the quick,
Hundreds of praying mantis glittered like unexpected Christmas lights.

Vanishing Tracks (II)

Vanishing Tracks (II)

What is resilient in us is resistant to memory
When the memory goes she will be some other self
Still resilient to the sailing light and shadow
And hungers and exhaustions of love
Made maybe even more immediate

When the resilience goes what is that then

When the resistance goes what is that

Just outside her heart she hears a sound in the night
I am out there knocking on the dusty porch
I have brought a friend with me
When she opens the door will she see herself
Holding my hand?

Do you remember when the car door opened up
As you drove and I hung out there clinging to it
Legs dangling and hollering your name?

Do you remember hollering my name
In encouragement
As you sat in the bleachers to watch
The smallest second baseman ever?

Do you remember the rides on rainy days to school
In the golden Rambler you called Goldilocks
Your children and their friends sitting forward
And backward like sardines to fit more of us into the back seat?

You spent so much time doing these things you have the right
Not to remember

Nothing can change what you have done
What it has made in me
I will remember these things
For you and when I can no longer remember
Nothing can change what you have done

Everything I can remember makes up only a small part of your life
The rest of it now becomes more you to me I see that now
You become your childhood your mother in that picture
Is you now as you look at it which is not
A bad thing as you tell me laughing
Your nephew becomes your father in that picture
Standing beside you younger than you somehow
It doesn’t matter
He has always stood beside you
From the moment he died when you were thirteen he was there
And you grew older as he remained a young father
I only understand now
how you see that picture

The mind’s tide’s becalmed
The beach endless
These memories now rise
Or settle
With little difference in depth
To the step of the moment that splashes

*

Vanishing Tracks (I)

Vanishing Tracks (I)

On my journey home
the clouds obscure the one road up the mountain
like gods who long
since forgetting what they have made
come this way again
recognizing nothing

A hundred hazard lights blinking
of strangers slowing through that veil
could be seen from a distance
as some kind of worship

A half hour later
the clouds will be gone the road will not remember
they were ever here

On the mountain’s other side
I see them again
three heads on the sky’s coins
all looking away
and then again above the valley floor ahead of me
a tail of a giant sea creature twelve miles long
diving into the horizon

I can bear the gods forgetting all they have made
until they no longer exist
even in memory
and have made nothing
how much heavier though is your forgetting
because I know you
did what the gods could not

Still I will follow these vanishing tracks

*

Note: The three title poems from my 2011 book Vanishing Tracks, and another poem entitled “Sestina, with Christmas Lights,” were written in honor of my mother, who at the time of their composition had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s but was still living with my father. These poems, of course, are about memory, family, the sacred nature of motherhood, loss, and loss suffered across a family in a manner that is keenly unique but which impacts the rest of your life’s views on everything, from identity to suffering to love.