We've had two family members with dementia, possibly Alzheimer's, in the last few years. My father died a year and a half ago from it, and his wife now has it. Having been appointed her conservator, I feel as if I've now acquired a new, ninety-year-old child. Her well-being is my responsibility. While she dazes off into the eternal present, I pay bills and handle legal matters, locate doctors and confer with geriatric specialists. Thank God my brother is co-conservator and can share all this! I wrote a lot of poems about my father's condition and how it was to lose him inch by inch. This morning, I'm thoughtful about losing her the same way. Here's one of the poems that made me change my attitude toward the whole adventure. (Included in the wonderful anthology Beyond Forgetting):
At the Easel with Alzheimer's
My father is painting in the basement: blue,
green, yellow. The cinderblock wall’s white-
wash is tanned with dust and the ocean view
obscured by a flapping sheet of vinyl. It fights
the wind. He says he's inspired to blue. My phone call
came to his studio and I was greeted: I know you.
You’re the pharmacist, right? The pall
on his memory has not dimmed his bad taste
in jokes or how at the easel he’s always affable
over the scribble of boar’s bristle, the give
of canvas to brush. I skip over laughable
lapses, as when he asks me where I live
and then pretends he was kidding. Name-
dropping, his mind grows patches, nicks
and spores like the salt on his aluminum
windows that will eventually make them stick.
Painting down there, his panes always closed
to keep it warm and dry, not a hint of sea
outside. What are you working on? His nose
nearly on the canvas, he can only say,
It’s getting better, going somewhere. It’s green,
blue, and not as grim as it sounds. His brain
grows lacy and colors squirm like the skeins
of yarn above the basement washing machine.
I’m frightened of how much he forgets,
this new breeze that unzips our history,
but I say, Don’t fight the wind. Be a net.
Catch the world by letting the knots slip.