Beyond Forgetting: Poetry and Prose about Alzheimer's Disease
Memory says, Guess again:Which hand? Then switcheswhatever it's holding.
It scrambles her recipes,teaspoon & tablespoon,pinch & cup,
steals salt from the shaker,leaves sugar in its placeAn April fool waiting for her to taste
Loss is the starting place of many of the poems in this collection. Loss of memory. Loss of personality and identity. Roles lost to the effects of disease: mothers and fathers have forgotten the children who now care for them. Poems such as She Falls for It Over & Over by Joseph Green (excerpted above) are carefully observed records of declining abilities. Taken together, they are a testament to the varieties of decline. Alzheimer's erodes personality, but each person seems to be worn away a little differently in these poems. Bruce Berger marvels that his father can still work crosswords (Across, Down), while Candace Pearson imagines her mother's life with less and less language in Another Country:
She had thought nouns might be the last
to go, naming carried that much weight.
No doubt surprised to find she had crossed over
to another country, one with no road signs, towns
without title, maps merely lines and elevations.
Most of the poems (indeed, the collection as a whole) move past descriptions of what is lost toward accounts of living with less. Some find humor, or at least irony, in the situation. Sheryl L. Nelms' short poem, Early Alzheimer's, falls into this category:
Emma set herkitchen onfire
she forgotshe was cooking
but the water
gushing throughthe ceiling
for the bath
she forgotshe was taking
The best poems in the collection help explore what cannot be expressed by platitudes and cliches. They offer freedom from the relentless positivity family and friends may require even in the face of terminal illness. They do not indulge in nostalgia for tidy, loving relationships that may never have existed between parent and child, or demand perverse loyalty to parents who have betrayed their children. John Grey concludes The Strangers in Your Room, for example, with a bitter reflection about a family history of Alzheimer's:
You stare at me like I could be familiar,but then you turn away.I'm just one more flower in a vase, one morephotograph you shake your head at, one morehalf-eaten cinnamon roll on a plate.Or maybe I'm your father, the onewho didn't know you from a quilt patternin his last days.You told me once how cruel that was.So I'm cruelty.Glad to know you. Glad you don't know me.
A persistent theme in the collection is accommodation, as the writers explore what love means when everything else is forgotten. Some poets describe attempts to find new ways to communicate with ailing parents; attempts that are sometimes futile but also sometimes joyful discoveries of what remains of the relationship between parent and child even after shared memories are lost. In We All Fall Down, Nancy Dahlberg describes her efforts as:
trying to show my mother how love is feltthrough the flesh; as if by caressing her feetI could demonstrate the way to love a child.
Relationships between parents and children can improve in unexpected ways once the child befriends the person their parent has become. In the introduction to Recognition, for example, Kate Bernadette Benedict describes her frustration with well-meaning caregivers who tried to prompt her mother to recognizer her. She isn't trying to bring the past back. Indeed, some of what has been lost wasn't worth keeping. Now, she can take comfort is simple pleasures, like brushing her mother's white hair or listening to her sing:
She does not remember her marriage of forty years.She does not mourn the husband she cannot name.The drunken struggles, the blaming, the carping--nothing of severity remains.
Benedict concludes her poem:
How restful it is, lying here this August daywith my witless mother,this mother I prize and do not recognize.
HollyJ. Hughes describes a similar journey toward accommodation of her mother as she is, rather than how she was. In doing so, however, Hughes rediscovers herself in the role of daughter. The Bath recounts first the difficulty of bathing her mother and then the author's wise decision to turn from persuasion to pleasure, as she strips and enters the bath herself. By abandoning her role as caregiver for a moment, she acknowledges that she needs care, too. She stops trying give her mother unwanted help and asks for mother's help, instead:
So much is gone, but let thisstill be there. She bends overto dip the washcloth in the stillwarm water, squeezes it,lets it dribble down my back,leans over to rub the butter patof soap, swiping each armpit,then rinses off the suds with longpracticed strokes. I turn aroundto thank her, catch her smiling,lips pursed, humming,still a mother with a daughterwhose back needs washing.
Not all of the poems in this collection are crafted with equal success. The intensely personal nature of some poems suggest they might have been written more for the benefit of the writer than the reader, but even these may have utility. In the introduction to her own poem, Tess Gallagher explains:
“Maybe those who have met the full unreasonableness endured when a loved one suffers the effects of Alzheimer's are the best comforters of each other...Often there is no way to make the situation less painful or to change the outcome for our loved ones. The pain just has to be acknowledged and even ritualized ...”
In Where We Have Come, Susan Ludvigson says it a different way:
...to see lossblack on whiteis to be comforteda momentin the early hours,not left aloneto mourn a minddropping its historylike Gretel's bread,birds swooping behind.
Beyond Forgetting is a thoughtful gift for anyone with a family member living with Alzheimer's disease, and a helpful resource for social workers, doctors, nurses, and caregivers. It can be ordered through the Kent State University Press.