In my writing classes and in my own writing practice reading other poets’ poems and then choosing a line or more to (in jazz parlance) riff on is a very useful starting place for new poems. One of the poems in Palindrome, my book written in response to my mother’s dementia, is called “The Real Story.” Interspersed throughout there are phrases I pulled from poems in Ada Limon’s Bright Dead Things. “No one tells you the real story,” my poem begins,
No one tells you how old you’ll be someday, old enough to be mother to your mother. Your father, meanwhile, left the party early, before the need for pulling down the rafters, boxing the whole thing up—ash now in his own last box, died with his last book sliding out of his lap, and it’s come down to you to figure out the real story—did the flu shot really give her the flu that year, you away living your child-free, parent-free life, and somebody wants to know, now she’s in a nursing home, pulling off her shoes, putting them on again.
(Pauletta Hansel, from “The Real Story” in Palindrome, Dos Madres Press, 2017)
I used my poem as a prompt in a recent workshop I offer (with my colleague, the writer Annette Wick) for the Alzheimer’s Association of Greater Cincinnati called Writing Our Lives as Caregivers. I have found that my own “real story” is an ever changing one. Here is the version I wrote alongside other caregivers that day:
At the beginning, all you can think about is loss: what will be gone, what might be left, and sure, as with any grief there is bargaining. “Okay, we’ll try this drug, this doctor. Mom, you’ll need to give up a little independence, but you can stay in your house, so that’s okay, right? At least you get to stay here.” And then, “You have to leave your house, but see these big wide halls with rails on either side you can walk safely down. See, you can still walk.”
“But no, here is this wheelchair, you need to use it now, so you won’t fall again, but it’s okay, we’ll come every day and take you out from these four walls…”
And here, on the other side of the walls: “At least she still knows me. Well, at least most of the time she knows me, and if she is sleeping most of the time, well, at least she is not crying, and if she is talking about me, even when she is talking to me, well at least she is not sleeping, she is alert, see, and if she is crying, well, at least she will not remember this sadness, right? She will forget.”
And what is it I want, the asleep, or alert, the remembering or forgetting, and what I want is all of it, all of it (except for the crying) for as long as I can have it. Because when it is over, it is gone, and all that is left is a hole where my mother was, and what was all this for, this running hither and yon, this weeping, deciding and trying and loving more than I ever thought would be possible, what was it all for, when she is gone?
I wrote this on October 14, 2017, my mother’s 85th birthday, not knowing that I would mark that day as the beginning of the end: my husband and I arrived after my writing workshop to take Mom for her birthday lunch and found her and her wheelchair drenched in urine. A change in staff at her nursing home resulted in a series of toileting “accidents” that week, and the resulting urinary tract infection set the stage for what felt and still feels like a rapid demise. Mom died on January 7, 2018.
And what is the real story now? I am still living—and writing—my way into it. Palindrome was written in the present tense of my years of caring for my mother with dementia. As I have said in the Preface to that book, “Not Wordsworth’s ‘emotion recollected in tranquility’ but crafted within my ongoing experience of a mother in the midst of a devastating change.”
Once the book had been accepted for publication, it was important to me that it be released while my mother was still living. Because the poems themselves were an extension of the complex relationship of care, I wanted the book, too, to be part of that present tense, at least for a while. To not move immediately into elegy, but to be a document of the ongoing nature of familial love, and an expression of the imperative of creating art from life.
How much I will write of the sweet and difficult days of her active dying is yet unknown. Where will the process of grieving will take me and my writing? When my father died, much more suddenly, in 2006, I found that new memories opened to me, even “memories” that were not my own, in the exploration of his childhood. With my mother, much of that work—though surely not all—was done while she lived, traveling with her through dementia’s fractured time.
But the answer to the question I asked in October, on the eve that final stage of my mother’s life, “What was it all for, when she is gone?” comes clearly to me. It was for me. All that love, the grace of that particular and infinite love. It is still mine.
“If you are going to die, why don’t you do it all at once and not this little bit of dying every day.”
Participant at a Dementia Caregiver Workshop
But Mother, it is that bit of you, that stuttering spark
only those bent close enough can see, lighting
the dark around the you I never would have
known had death blazed full and hot
and gone, no charred pieces left
to quietly burn throughout
our bundled days,
the bellow of my
Pauletta Hansel © 2017
Note: this is the final of a series of posts about the writing of my most recent book of poems, Palindrome, winner of the 2017 Weatherford Award in Poetry. The book and most of the posts were written before my mother’s death in January 2018. My hope is that they might be of use to others writing about matters feared to be “too personal,” and of interest to caregivers and others concerned with (to quote Robert Gipe’s kind book jacket blurb) “what it means to be partial to someone.” Other posts: Too Personal: On Writing about My Mother’s Dementia, The Practice of Poetry: Poems as Love, The Real Story: Writing Our Lives as Caregivers, Her Words and On the Value of Literary Communities.