Friday, January 19, 2024

And Meredith

When the world shut down in 2020, I used this space to chronicle the months I spent with my aging parents, who'd moved into my basement to isolate from COVID-19. Our time together was an unexpected, tender gift. With life as we knew it on hold, we found our way through days of poems and puzzles, reacquainting--forgiving--each other 40+ years after I'd left home as an angry, stubborn teen.


My parents returned to their care center in the fall of 2020, when school resumed and I could no longer ensure their protection from the virus. Shortly after that, one of my sisters moved in to provide caregiving that allowed our parents to live together despite our mother's increasing dementia. My father died in September of 2022. The following March it became clear that our mother Meredith needed to move to the dementia unit. 

Meredith has been at "Journeys" for the past nine months. The caregivers are skilled, cheerful, and well-intentioned. Any concerns we've had (Why wasn't her clock adjusted at DST? Why is she in bed with her shoes on?) say more about us as anxious (guilty?) children than about her quality of care. 

My mother voiced a repeated wish while transitioning into memory care. She wanted to attend Sunday school and church each week. My sister who lives in Ft. Dodge manages this request with fidelity, and we other siblings fill in when needed.

Last summer, I drove to Ft. Dodge weekly with my accordion in tow. I played old-timey tunes on the patio or in the common room, and residents tapped their toes and sang along. Meredith beamed. She was making a gentle adjustment to her new living space. 

When school began in late August, I slipped back to monthly visits. This worked for a month.

Then, as life does, mine unraveled: I was needed in New Zealand, where two of my sons live. Within days of my return to the States, my mother-in-law, 94, was hospitalized for an infection that ultimately necessitated her move from her beloved farmhouse to an assisted living facility. 

A week later I headed to Utah to welcome a new grandbaby and offer a pair of hungry grandma arms.

The short of it is this: I only visited my mom once between November and January. I excused myself with the sad truth busy children of demented parents lean on: She didn't know I wasn't there.

It was the third Sunday in Advent that I was again in Ft. Dodge. My sister and I took our mom to Sunday school. Meredith only speaks when the class (usually about five people with an average age of 70) reads in unison short prayers from the study book. Her classmates are generous to our vacant mother: "You pointed this out to me once, Meredith," one says, noting a scripture.

After class, we moved into the sanctuary for the service where my sister and I sat on either side of our mom. Throughout the service, we held her hands.


Three weeks after my advent visit, my sister sent me a text:

In church today there was communion, and Mom didn't remember what that was. I had to whisper instructions to her, like "He's going to give you a little piece of bread to eat." "Drink that juice and put the cup in here." "Now we go back to where we were sitting." She literally had no idea what we were doing. It was surreal and sad. It reminded me of that day Mom forgot what commemorative stamps were. Communion and commemorative stamps are two things I thought would be in her brain forever. 

Commemorative stamps. 

Be well.


Tuesday, January 9, 2024

How Did We Get Here?

The decline of an aging parent settles as soft layers of dust: first a forgotten name, a bothersome wart, a repeated story. Each increment is barely noticed, certainly not demanding commentary. Now and again something rises to the level of an "event”: a misplaced check, a fenderbender, a broken tooth. 

As my 94-year-old mother-in-law Janet’s primary caregiver for the past several years, I visited her in the evenings, enjoying our shared accordion practice and rounding off the rough edges of her isolated days. She had lived independently a short mile from our house since her husband died in 2010. Our routine was manageable, even pleasant. Until it wasn’t. We were the proverbial frogs swimming in water heating too slowly to be noticed. 

Then one day the water was boiling. 

And that day--or more accurately, that month--Janet developed a blistering skin rash that required twice-daily application of ointment to dark crevices that she couldn’t (and I didn’t want to) reach. An added steroid to her medication list shook loose confusion that had hidden beneath years of an unchanging medication routine she'd managed herself. Her worries, always plentiful, ratcheted up to all-consuming. And then the bloody noses started. Then the UTI. Then a week in the hospital.

In short, my dear mother-in-law had lived a life of physical and mental stamina well into her 95th year. And now she wasn't. November and December were a blur from hospital to assisted living, back to the hospital, back to assisted living. The experience sucked us into a swirl of measureless days.

Dan's sister flew in from Tacoma and stayed three weeks, sleeping on the hospital's pull-out bed(ish). His brother from Minneapolis drove down multiple times. Their help--and sanity--cannot be overstated. This work took many hands.


So. Now we are here.

This afternoon, Sunday, I arrived at Allen Place an hour before dinner. Walking to Janet's room, I passed the exercise nook, where I met up with Annabelle as she climbed off the Nu-Step. 

Before moving to assisted living two years ago, Annabelle had been our country neighbor for decades, which means she lived within five miles of us. My husband rents two of the family's grain bins and 230 acres of their land. We attended neighborhood corn boils in their shed. When Annabelle's husband passed away last year, he left a life-sized hole in the southeast corner of the county. Two of Annabelle's granddaughters work at my school, and I've taught several of her great-grandchildren, including one currently in my classes. Such are the tendrils of neighbors in rural Iowa.

During Janet's past six weeks of adjustment--perhaps the most daunting adjustment of her life--Annabelle has been my mother-in-law's guardian and cheerleader. Since I usually visit in the late afternoon, I often sit at the friends' table and get in on suppertime conversation.


As we walked from the gym area to Annabelle's room (across the hall from Janet's), she gave me her perceptions of the day: Janet seemed more cheerful. She had eaten all of her lunch--although after the meal she'd said "See you tomorrow!" and Annabelle had corrected her, "We'll have supper first!"


When I knocked at Janet's door, she was busy at her ironing board, cutting fabric. Sewing continues to be her most meaningful and calming work. She has been making beanbags of late, but she said she was cutting quilt squares. Small confusion.

We then practiced accordion. Yesterday she played the right hand on her small instrument through two verses of "Edelweiss," but tonight she chose to sit in her chair and encourage me to "play that section again, four or five more times." Always the music teacher.

It was then time to head to supper. As usual, Annabelle knocked on Janet's door. Residents take care of each other here. No one is left behind.

As we've done nearly every evening for weeks, Annabelle (with her cane), Janet (pushing a small wheelchair as a walker), and I headed to the dining room.

Janet then turned to me. "Allison," she said, "Do you know Annabelle?"

"Yes," I said. "I do."


Be well.


Tuesday, July 4, 2023

Accordion Lesson: Who Cares?

When I arrived at Journeys (my mom's Friendship Haven memory-care unit) last Tuesday, my mom was sitting on her bed, reading a picture book.

The black-out curtains were pulled, and I realized she'd only recently awakened from her after-lunch nap. She was happy to see me and to let me read the book aloud to her. 


As I warmed into her space, I shared my children's photos and videos of the previous week. I'd hoped she would enjoy Roger (almost 3 months) laughing, but she was unsettled. "Is he laughing or crying?" I tried to assure her he was laughing, but it seemed moving on to the next photo was our best option.

I suggested we move to the patio. I'd jammed a key on my big accordion last weekend, so I made do with my tiny 12-bass. This little Ballerini is the instrument I first bought on an E-bay auction on New Year's Eve 2000, and which I usually keep in my classroom to play "Happy Birthday" and "For He/She/They's a Jolly Good Fellow" on demand.


I am not sure any of the residents or aides that gathered in our shaded spot knew or cared that I was playing on a half-pint version of the Squeezebox I'd brought the week before. Come to think of it, no one has yet to comment on a hard-practiced diminished chord or deft jump from F to E. 

Six years into learning to play the accordion, it seems there is not a lot of difference between a song played well, so-so, or not very well. Listeners do seem to appreciate a familiar melody, but beyond that: Who cares?

On Tuesday I played: Who cares?


<3 Allison

Another good day.

Monday, June 26, 2023

The Wonder of Showing Up

I love the adage "80% of success is showing up." I wish the words had come from someone other than Woody Allen, but hey. (This leads me into a fuzzy grey area of text vs. author that I need to sort out in another blog.)

Regardless, I've used this line dozens of times to propel myself and my students forward.

Show up.

Come to class.

Say yes.

Be there.


On Friday I took students to a free all-day Slam poetry workshop hosted by the NFSPS (National Federation of State Poetry Societies). The organization held its annual convention in Des Moines this year, which was only the second year they've offered the Slam workshop for teens.

I had very little idea what we were in for. My student poets had even less of an idea. 

Yet three said they'd show up.


The night before the event, two more students asked to come, and our number grew to five.

Only two of my students had written any form of spoken-word or Slam poetry before climbing into the school Suburban Friday morning. Yet by noon, all five had agreed to participate in the afternoon's Slam competition, with $1000 of prize money at stake, generously provided by the event's sponsors--including

Now here's where showing up really paid off.
1) The students were given free T-shirts.
2) They were fed the Subway orders of their choice.
3) They received personal training from nationally known Slam poets.
4) And because there were only 9 students in attendance, everyone went home with prize money in their pockets.

Three from our group earned $25 each as participants.
Another took $50 for fourth place.
Our 2nd-place poet won $250 (which the kids calculated as the equivalent of working 33 hours at Louie's Shaved Ice).

Showing up doesn't always come with a financial bonus. But on our way home, the students talked about the fellow poets they'd worked alongside, their "crushes" on the poets who had led the workshops, and their motivation to pursue more Slam opportunities: Priceless.

They even talked of hosting their own Southwest Iowa Slam competition. 

Can't wait to see who shows up!

Be well.


Friday, June 23, 2023

The Pied Piper

Oh, we had a lovely afternoon!

On Tuesday I drove to Ft. Dodge for another visit with my mom. Again, I brought my accordion and set up my music stand on the patio. The day was hot, but the east side of Journeys was well shaded and the breeze was turquoise. 

I invited Eleanor to join us, and after a few songs, our jolly group had multiplied, including two couples whose husbands are memory-care residents but whose wives live in more independent quarters on campus and visit daily. 

I played the armed services medley which always invites conversation on who served in which branch. I played "I've Been Working on the Railroad" which had been a sing-along the previous week, and old-timey favorites like "Tennessee Waltz" and "Brown Eyes." 

Each time I looked up from my music, there were more on the patio. I paused and counted 15 of us: residents, spouses, aides--spanning ages 20-95 and the entire rainbow of mental acuity. 

Between songs, one man said gruffly, "I need your attention! There has been some serious toe-tapping going on here!" He then grinned, pleased with his joke, and several of us (!!) laughed.

After I'd cased my accordion, a woman in my periphery said, "Thank you." She showed no facial expression, and for a moment I wasn't sure if the voice had come from her hunched stolid form. 

"Did you play the accordion?" I asked, not expecting a reply. But she murmured yes. And when I asked her who taught her, she said she took lessons from a teacher. 

I know that exchange is not riveting, rating about a 1.5 on the small-talk scale. Yet it moved me. This seemingly vacant, immobile woman had reached across the cobwebs of her memory to tap me on the metaphorical shoulder and say: Me too. I played the accordion. 

And then, one of the independent-living wives brought out a stack of plastic cups and a bag of cheese puffs! An aide filled the cups and I passed them about. We crunched in unexpected camaraderie: the food had transformed our spontaneous gathering into a party. 


In the transitions between songs and snacks, several of us (daughter, aides, wives) asked questions and shared memories to draw everyone in. Topics included shoes worn as children and favorite classes in school. When I asked if anyone in addition to my mom had been a teacher, a sun-dried woman curled in a chair to my right said she had taught P.E. "Did the kids play dodgeball?" I asked. She snorted with delight: of course, she said, it was a favorite. 


As patio time drew to a close, my mother and I returned to her room. She said again and again what a lovely time she had had--and I agreed completely. We laughed at how our small group had grown into what felt like a crowd. The accordion had served as the Pied Piper's flute. 

This of course inspired us to (re)read 'The Pied Piper of Hamlin" by Robert Browning together (and which you must immediately [re]read yourself)!


I have never had an accurate sense of time. It took me somewhere between 15 minutes and two hours to read the poem to my mother. (The Internet tells me it takes 43 minutes to read it at 300 wpm.)

But what I want you to know is that my mother sat rapt as I read. She chuckled at the roiling internal rhymes. Her eyes lit up as Browning tugged us toward the Piper's nefarious intentions...then into the opening cavern. 


My visits with my mother are healing years of misunderstanding. There is a tragedy in that our healing is coming in my mother's final, addled years. 

We could have done better.

We should have done better.

I am ashamed. 

And also grateful for our belated love.

Be well.


Sunday, June 18, 2023


Wednesday afternoon I pulled up to Journeys, the memory-care unit at Friendship Haven where my 92-year-old mother has been living for the past two months. 

One of my sisters refuses to call it "memory care." She says our mom has no memory left to care for and prefers to use the term "dementia care." 

Semantics. As an English teacher, I love a good word squabble as much as anyone. But I don't think the words are truly the issue here. My sister is expressing the deep anguish she feels at watching our mother lose cognition. Euphemisms intending to soften the difficulty of dementia (and there are many) make her angrier. Any sugarcoating denies the hard but true reality: our mother's agile mind, once her most salient trait, is now more chaff than grain. 

Each of my four siblings and I are experiencing our mother's transition into memory/dementia care differently. I'll let them tell their own stories. 

This is mine, for Wednesday, June 14, 2023.

I arrived when my mom was napping after lunch. I entered her room, and it took her only a moment to shift from confused annoyance (I had woken her up) to happy recognition. 

I'd brought a bottle of bubbles with me, and Mom was eager to head out for bubble-blowing. But as we readied to leave, she placed a wastebasket on her walker, indicating she (also? instead?) planned to go for a trash walk.


I've written about this before, but my mom has been a recycler long before Iowa paid 5 cents per can. Her desire to pick up trash seems to have only accelerated as her memory declines. She delights in spotting a bit of trash as if she'd found an Easter egg!


I swear I felt her adrenaline surge as she pushed her walker-wastebasket forward. After a short circle on the immaculate campus, we'd managed to collect a few bits of tinfoil, two or three cigarette butts, and a couple of twigs and leaves that looked a little like trash. My mom accepted my insistence that I be the one to pluck trash spotted far from our path; when she bent for the nearby bits, I held her arm firmly and flung a confetti of prayers to the gods of balance. 

Near the end of our walk, we met a woman who lives in the most independent units of Friendship Haven, the condominiums my parents first moved to nearly 20 years ago, when they were considered to be the vibrant young blood of the community. DeAnn greeted me by name, but I stammered hello as I blurred her identity into a sea of nameless "old people." 

After we'd passed, I said to my mom, "I hate it when someone recognizes me and I can't remember who they are." 

My mom laughed and said, "I've been practicing that for years."

Back at Journeys, we sat in the shade and an aide brought out water. My mother's room-neighbor Eleanor joined us on the patio and I played accordion favorites both women sang along to. After I'd played "Blue Skirt Waltz," Eleanor told us about her husband who had loved dancing. I reminded my mom that her first husband, Chuck, had been a square-dance caller. She beamed: "I haven't thought about that for years!"

At least in that moment, we cared not for dementia, but for memory.

Be well.


Thursday, June 15, 2023

Here and Now

An update: 

My dad died last September. 

We siblings moved our mom into memory care a month ago. 

Two of the four English teachers in my school resigned this spring, leaving us (again) with frenetic hopes to find a Red-Green solution to cover our classes in the coming year. 

Let's not talk (for now) about what the Iowa legislature did this past spring to children, teachers, public schools, books, and humanity. 

------------ Life is heavy.

and yet...

I ran four miles today. Not everyone would call it "running," but I did it.

I washed windows while listening to the final chapters of the David Copperfield audiobook after reading Demon Copperhead. Ahhhh.

My youngest grandchild, Roger, had his first swim today. Here he is, held by his mother and enjoyed by his laughing aunt who is visiting North Carolina from Denver. (Yes, I'm babysitting her dog.)

We have some tough months ahead.
Be well.