Too Personal: On Writing About My Mother’s Dementia

Too Personal

like the underside
of a cat’s tongue, like
someone else’s bathwater,
like bedsheets still warm, like
a spit-wet thumb flicking sleep
from the corner of your mother’s
eye, like an old hymn hummed
beneath curdled breath, like
ragged stitches pulled from
a wound. These poems are
too personal.

(Pauletta Hansel, from Palindrome, Dos Madres Press, 2017)

My greatest fear in releasing Palindrome, poems and prose about my mother’s dementia, is that no one would want to read a book this personal, a cat’s cradle woven between my mother’s life and my own.

My second greatest fear—that these personal poems might contain a universality too painful for anyone left holding dementia’s tangled skein.

“No more mother-in-nursing-home poems!” one writer friend cried out at the end of a weeklong conference of workshops and readings, though thankfully not specifically in response to my own, then unpublished book: “I can write those myself!”

And later, after its publication, a colleague influential in the local literary scene picked Palindrome up from my booth at a book fair to scan the blurbs on its back cover. “I can’t read this,” he said, practically dropping it back on the table. “It hits too close to home.”

And yet, this is what I do. I live my life and I write about it, uncovering its layers of meaning first through the act of paying attention, then through the words on the page, and finally through consideration of how the individual poems and prose pieces come together to make something new, something that is from my life, but that is not my life. Something that came through me, but that is not only mine.

I didn’t set out to write a book about being the caretaking daughter of a mother with dementia. I didn’t set out to be that daughter. But being both writer and daughter, when my mother’s dementia was what was given me, caring and writing is all that I knew to do. Had it come earlier in my life, things might have been different. But from the caring standpoint, I had been edging ever closer, playing minor roles in attending two friends in their final months and experiencing somewhat of a role reversal with my mother after my father died “suddenly” during a long illness and I helped her transition into her new life as widow and city dweller.

Writing and caring is what I did then, too. But this, the caring for and writing about my mother with dementia, required something both more and less of me: that is, it required both a new level of intimacy and a necessary distance.

The intimacy is, I think, obvious. My mother’s dementia unfettered me from certain physical and emotional boundaries between us and also from concern about what she might think of these poems about her:

My Mother Has Stopped Telling Me She Loves Me

Look at us now.
My mother finally bound
to her wheelchair (that’s how
they like it in the nursing home.)
She thinks she is walking,
one foot and then the other,
her lumbering four-wheeled
body follows and behind her
trails Miss Push-Me-Pull-Me—
that’s what she muttered at me yesterday,
a sudden spark that flew my meddling hands
down from the handles of her chair.
And even when we sit together,
fingers entwined, she pushes back away,
I pull her toward me,
memorize her face,
the folds beside her eyes,
the lips that purse now
for a kiss, a dab of oatmeal
in one corner. I say,
I love you, Mom
and then she’s off again;
we dangle one side and the other
of the teeter-totter air.

(Pauletta Hansel, from Palindrome, Dos Madres Press, 2017)

The distance is perhaps less observable. Let me name it first in metaphor. Though I am a meditation dropout, one concept that has always stayed with me is the awareness of the slight pause between inhaling and exhaling. Yes, breath is one continuous, mostly involuntary, movement. Yes, there exists a slight gap within that movement through which awareness can enter.

For me, writing is that gap. And by writing, I don’t just mean the act of putting words onto paper or screen, but the act of noticing what is, while knowing that words will someday be what I make of it. For the poems and prose that became Palindrome, the noticing and word-making occurred within smaller and smaller gaps. The poems and prose were written within the present tense of my mother’s spiral into dementia. And with that, a different kind of distance became necessary in order to not let the poems disintegrate into a kind of wail. I began for the first time in my life as a poet writing in form, first in syllabics (the limiting of syllables within lines and within the poem itself (I am especially fond of the 7×7, seven syllables within a seven line poem) and later in sonnets and palindromes (a poem which reads the same backward as forward.) These formal constructs gave me the necessary emotional distance to make poems from content in which I might have otherwise have drowned.

I first knew that I was capable of creating the book which became Palindrome when I wrote the sonnet sequence which is at the heart of its final section (the sequence itself was written two years before the book came out.) As writer, the pairing of the intimacy of the subject and the formality of craft created a balanced container for the work. As daughter, I also believe that the attentiveness I gave to the words supported the attentiveness I gave to my mother. I will write about the complimentary nature of caring and writing in a future post (read here.)

But what of those fears, that despite the craft, the subject itself limits my work? Fear, too, has its role, not to stop us, but to spur us to go deeper into our courage and our craft, asking always, and with new intensity, is this poem true, is it good enough. I offer this on the subject of the intersection of life and words:

Of What We Make Our Poems

Ink, of course, and flecks of skin
on paper remind us who we
are is hatched from who we were,
this film of self now covering
who we will be. Locks of our
mothers’ hair; whiskers plucked,
roots intact, from our fathers’ chins.

And too, our poems are like
our houses. They want more of
us than we had planned to give
them—this one begs for a new
room, a door where we’d framed a
window; another pushes against
rafters, opens us to sky.

No matter what we say, our
poems are not our children.
They quicken outside our bodies,
run from us before they speak.
One poet I knew made his
of river rock and the black
longing between stars. I’ll make

my poems of silence stitched with words.

(Pauletta Hansel, from Tangle, Dos Madres Press, 2015)

Collage © Sara Pearce

Note: this is part of a series of posts about the writing of my most recent book of poems, Palindrome. The book and most of the posts were written before my mother’s death in January 2017. 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.” Posts in this series currently available include: The Practice of Poetry: Poems as Love.

 

 

 

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Writing Image-based poems

Often we are drawn to write poetry because of an intense emotion or the need to explore our thoughts and feelings about a particular subject, person, memory… Rather than beginning with the abstract thought or feeling (anger, loneliness, it was fun, I miss him) try beginning with a concrete image that brings that internal emotion into the external world. By concrete image, I don’t mean only what we can see, though that too, but also what we can touch, taste, hear, or smell. I have heard it said that smell is the sense most connected with memory (and maybe that’s why realtors try to have cookies baking in houses they want to sell!) but other senses can also bring you back to previous times. The summer that song was always on the radio. The nubby couch in your first apartment. The French onion dip that was served at every party you attended in your twenties! Sometimes an image will move you to tears or joy before you are even conscious of the reason. Here are a few of short poems of mine that attempt to let the image do the emotional work. Read them and try one or both of the prompts offered below.

Longing

This morning’s dog,
the no-color of the lake
he circles in his snuffling search
for what he knows has been
before him, will come again
once he is gone. Mist rises,
freezes as it falls.
© Pauletta Hansel 2014
My Father’s Ghost

here, in the stretched shoulders
of this sweater requisitioned from his study closet
even before his death—my parents’ house
that late December cold
for my blood, my father’s
not yet thinned by drugs
and their diseases. Now
his bookshelves line my study walls,
my shoulders, where his shoulders were,
hunch over books
not his; he had small
use for poetry,
except for mine.
I scrawl notes along the margins
as if my hand were his.

Pauletta Hansel from The Lives We Live in Houses, Wind Publications 2011

Becoming My Mother

In dreams I wear your feet, twisted as roots,
each step a wrenching up from earth.

The morning hands that reach to smooth
the years around my eyes are more yours than mine.

When I was five your friends would ask where
I got my curly hair, knowing I’d say,

my mother made it, as you made our
matching dresses, rickrack at the collar and the hem.

Now the skin around our collarbones is
rumpled, its fabric loose against our frames.

Pauletta Hansel from The Lives We Live in Houses, Wind Publications 2011

Prompt 1.

With this prompt, you are working with image as metaphor. Take an abstract emotion (longing, love, joy) and brainstorm images that bring it to life. They can be memories from your own life, or drawn from things you have seen (heard, smelt, etc.) Try: “If (abstraction) were a taste it would be…. If a smell it would be….” Also look at Lisel Mueller’s wonderful, “Imaginary Paintings.

Prompt 2

Make a list of people in your life for whom you have strong emotions. Next to their names brainstorm specific sensorial experiences (images) associated with them. Examples:

Daddy             Bookshelf, easy chair, back of head in the car

Granny           Grease jar, chickens, hummingbirds at her trailer porch

Then start a poem with that image and see where it takes you! You may find yourself moving into metaphor here as well.