Making Poetry . . . Together

As we journey with our moms down this last leg of the journey, I find myself doing a lot of reading and research about dementia. There was a link this week to an absolutely beautiful video, a video that tells the story of an Alzheimer’s patient who began to paint lovely watercolors, whose right brain flourished even while the left brain was diminishing.

My mom used to draw occasionally, and if she had her vision, I would be loading up on artist’s supplies for her. But she can no longer see well enough to write her name, much less wield a paintbrush. So I began to wonder about words, and letting them flow when relaxed. Not words she was trying desperately to remember, but descriptive words, feeling words, reflective words.

We went to lunch yesterday, as we try to do once each week. She needs a break from the dormitory-like existence of a memory loss unit and I need time with her when she’s not focused on introducing me – yet again – to every aide, every resident. We crossed the parking lot outside her unit, rode the elevator up one floor and wandered down to the swimming pool and patio. There is small cafe where we can order lunch in a box, and after we had eaten our fill, I began to ask her some gentle questions and then to record them in my iPhone, using the notes app.

When we had finished, I read out to her what she had said, what she had noticed, what she had felt.

And it was lovely.

And uproariously funny at a couple of points, because . . . well, she has dementia, you know! And not everything connects to everything else in the usual way. 

Here, interspersed with photos from a gloriously beautiful afternoon, are my questions to her and her responses to me:

What do you see when we’re here having lunch by the pool?

I see that it’s wonderful,
that there is beauty here.

I love the tall and thin palm trees;
something about them reminds me
that I better get my hair done!

I appreciate the beauty of the day
because it is private here,
and the weather is great
And the tall trees surrounding
the swimming pool are beautiful.
I feel like putting on my shoes and walking.

I love sharing this beauty with you.

What do you hear when you’re sitting here mom?

Because I know there’s building going on,
I can hear that work.
Makes me want to take a walk
and see how far they’ve come.

I see my flag up there too.
And I stop and I think how blessed our lives are.
I’m glad that the flag is flying today.
There’s just enough wind so that it’s waving.

The flag is flying,
and it signals the comfort
of living in a good world.  

I enjoy all the green things.

I like to see the wind move
across the swimming pool.

Seeing the water makes me think that
God’s in his heaven & all’s right with the world.

And Yankee doodle is alright too.

Because she had mentioned taking a walk twice during our shared reverie, I suggested we walk by the new construction and over to the koi pond and magnificent, large magnolia tree that gives that section of the campus its name.

Sitting in the sun is good medicine, I think.

And so is making small poems together.

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  1. This was all pure blessing. What a wonderful mother she is. Her comment about getting her hair done while looking at the palm trees is priceless.

    • Wasn’t that wonderful?? Even through the blur of macular degeneration, she could see the similarity between those bushy seed pods and messy hair. And she is a wonderful mother, indeed, Susan. Thanks so much for coming by.

  2. Dianna…I absolutely love this! And I think your mom’s train of thought is adorable! I actually was thinking of some of the trees in Dr. Suess’s stories and Horton and the Whos and how they look alike .. the tree and the Who with all that hair. Bet that’s how she made the connection…and Yankee Doodle and the flag..So precious!

    • Thanks, Kelly! And that connection to Dr. Suess is a great one. She read a few of those to her grandkids back in the day, that’s for sure.

  3. Sweet story! Thank you for sharing.

  4. Your mum must feel safe and content (at least in that moment) to speak the way she did. Lovely to be able to ‘hear’ your mum!

  5. Thanks, Diane. My mother-in-law is traveling through chemo brain fog most days. Our morning walks are becoming more sporadic after thirty-three years of almost daily routine. Your mom’s poetry is an inspiration that we can talk about beauty, God’s love, and blessings rather than the immediate concerns of the day. Thanks for the encouragement!

    • Oh, yes, Sheila. Brain fog of any origin would respond to things like beauty/poetry/music/art, I think. I’m so glad you found this encouraging.

  6. Diana,
    There’s a book by Cathie Borrie called “The Long Hello” where she takes her mother’s words and hears the poetry. Reminds me so much of what you did today! It was great. And I’m sure the appreciation you showed for your mom’s words stayed with her all day, even if she didn’t remember the visit. Blessings on you both!!
    And your comment about your mom continually introducing you to the staff and other residents was so touching. She still wants to do the right thing and help people make those connections.

    • That sounds like a good book – I’m working on the latest one from poet Jeanne Murray Walker, called, “The Geography of Memory: A Pilgrimage Through Alzheimer’s.” We’re traveling soon and that will be a take-along. And yes, our afternoon of sunshine and poetry did stay with her . . . even until this evening’s phone call, so I know it was important. It turned out to be an experience that stuck. And yes, the intros are just who she is, always being polite, in hospitality mode. She is something to watch, I’ll tell you – nodding, smiling, patting folks on the back, trying to make them smile. As long as she doesn’t get anxious about it (which she can sometimes do), it’s just one of the lovely gifts of this unwinding. There’s a core that remains a long time, I think.

  7. This is so great, Diana. Elizabeth Marshall spent some time not too long ago reading poetry with her mom, also moving through phases of dementia. Fascinating idea about letting the other side of the brain do some of the heavy lifting here.

    • It was great, Lyla. She loved it and so did I. And she remembered it in our phone conversation today and was pleased that people had commented on her poetry. As long as she’s willing and interested, we’ll do this fun exercise from time to time.

  8. Sorry for any confusion there; was still logged in as admin. 🙂

  9. Your mama’s words are so dear and lovely and funny too! The palm trees do look a bit like messy hair you know.

    • Indeed, they do! We laughed hard enough at that line (and the one about Yankee Doodle) to be heard all over that part of the campus! It was sweet.

  10. Oh. Oh, oh, oh. This made we weep, friend. Your mother is so beautiful. I wish I could sit with her. But I feel like I have today. Her words are funny and beautiful and, and it all makes such a sweet and touching poem. I feel like I just wandered into an artist’s playdate, and I think you should link this up with Laura– and with Tweetspeak’s next artist’s day post.

    This makes me want to go through all those posts I wrote when my mom was in hospice. I wonder what poetry I could find there…

    Love you big!

    • I wish you could sit with her, too, Sandy. I think you would like each other a lot. She was really pleased with the finished product – it took a little bit for her to relax enough to just let come what came, but once she did that, we both had fun with it. I will link it with Laura on Monday (or Sunday night) – it’s a good fit there, you’re right. I tweeted this to Tweetspeak and they MT’d it. And Lyla came by.

  11. Oh, this is just so beautiful, what a great Mom you have and what a wonderful daughter you are! You are making a bouquet of memories here…..thank you so much for sharing this with us. It’s all too familiar since I have been going through this with my best friend and her Mom for years.

  12. Diana, these are lovely! The snapshots of your time with your mom are so tender. They remind me of my grandma who also suffered from dementia. Grandma’s outlet was singing. She could hardly remember any words, but she figured out sounds to make instead and the melody was right in tune.

    My mother, a gerontologist, sent me a link to an article about poetry written by people with dementia in the UK: I love this affirmation of people whom our culture in general undervalues.

    • Thanks so much for the link, Elena. I’m on my way over to check it out. My mom also loves to sing and surprises me with the words she pulls from her buried memory bank. I wrote about an old hymn she loves (one that I didn’t know) a couple of weeks ago. So far, my mom remembers words but her voice is harder for her – she’s in tune, but struggles with quaveriness (is there such a word??)

  13. Jennifer Lee recommended this post. I really enjoyed it. My mother-in-law has dementia and she is hard to talk to. Maybe this is something we can try. Walking this road with her is like going somewhere without a map. We’re not always sure where we are or where we’re going.

    • Thank you, Angie. If your MIL still has the ability to communicate at all, I highly recommend an exercise like this. My mom is still able to maintain some kind of conversation. It’s often repetitive, but who cares? My MIL, on the other hand, has been able to say more than a single word or short phrase for nearly two years, so this is not something we can do together. And I SO Know that feeling of being without a road map. I do recommend this website – it’s called the Alzheimer’s Reading Room and posts every day with a series of writers (one mostly) plus reports on various aspects of the whole field of study, which is how I found the video that inspired this poetry-making session. I put the link in the sentence that is blue at the beginning of this post, but I’ll but it here, too:

  14. This was truly beautiful, Diana, and so honoring of your mother.I’m so glad you responded to the inspiration to ask her these questions. What a gift–being able to glimpse the grace and loveliness that lingers in your dear mother even after Alzheimer’s has taken so much away.

    Thank you for sharing this. May it be an inspiration to many whose loved ones are suffering from memory loss. May we be encouraged to dig deeper for the treasure troves of beauty which remain.

    • It was a gift, Nancy – and it was also a lot of fun, by the time we were done with it. Something about asking simple, reflective questions helped her to sort of center in and any trace of anxiety just sort of melted away. And there were two reasons I decided to post about this – 1.) I told her I would and she was pleased by that (at least as much as she is able to grasp the idea of a ‘blog’ at all), and 2.) I hoped maybe it might help someone else searching for conversational topics and/or a way to reach their still-conversant elderly loved ones. I pray that it proves to be a gift for someone else, like it was for us.

  15. I’m smiling big time, Diana. Thank you so much for sharing this idea. Getting away from routine, sunshine, and unpressured time… that’s all it takes for us to really hear sometimes. What a beautiful reminder to take the time. I’m sharing this with coworkers… = ) Hugs.

    • EXACTLY – “getting away from routine, sunshine, and unpressured time. . .” that’s what we had and that’s what we enjoyed for a small block of time. Hope someone(s) of those you work with find this helpful. Thanks for coming by, Pat – I always love to see your pretty face.

  16. I am one of Pat’s co-workers and I found this to be very comforting to me as my husband is struggling right now with memory lost and confusion mixed with anxiety. We are not sure yet if it is early stage Dementia, have an appointment with his doctor soon. What a lovely way to look at the big picture of memory lost. Thank you so much for your post.

    • Oh, Linda. I am so sorry you are dealing with this in your primary relationship in life! Praying with you that there will be help found after his consultation with the doctor! And you are more than welcome for this post and I’m so glad you found it comforting. Blessings of peace and grace to you.

  17. Ohhh Diana, I am sooo glad you had such a beautiful day with your mother–I call them making “treasure box Memories.” You will have them forever to pull out of your treasure test and reflect over in the coming day’s ahead–What a beautiful tribute!!

    • Thanks so much, Beth – for reading and leaving such kind words. I will treasure this day and hope to repeat it after we get back from a two week trip. Actually flying as I type, if you can believe it.

  18. You ARE doing it! I think this is so wonderful, Diana. Her responses are so lovely–how they must nourish you, my friend. (I love the hair comment too :). Beautiful.

    • Yes, that’s a perfect word for this experience – nourishing. It was good and fun and felt for a few minutes a little bit like how things used to be and at the same time, reminded me of the beauty of the way things are now. And yes – the hair comment and the Yankee Doodle comment made us both laugh out loud!!

  19. Delightful!