Poem: Slowly

“We are all dying,
Slowly. Aren’t we?”
A resident muses,
Without existential rhetoric,
From the next table over,
In the dinning room of The Home.

“Yes, all of us”
We reply from our
Position next to our mother,
Who notes but does not
Respond as she eat
From her too-full plate.

Is dying slowly,
What most of us do
Who do not drop dead
In the store from
A heart attack 
Or stroke?

We spend so much
Time and energy
Pretending to regain
Our youth in 
Our waning years,
Waking to death too late.

Our mother has been
Giving away her past
For a decade or more,
In gifts with each visit,
Consolidating the possessions
And photo albums.

Her Norwegian Death Cleaning
Became our family joke,
As each gathering brought 
Out another box of baby items
Or jewelry from some
Distant travels.

And as the visits
Became care giving tours,
And the gifts became scarcer,
The death requests became
More frequent: 
“Just shoot me”

This is a gift we could 
Not give in return.
A plea that we could 
Listen to but not fulfill.
A demand we could
Not follow.

She outlived so many.
She outlived her
Desire to remain at home.
Her health became frail,
But did not fail her
In her time.

When asked, rhetorically,
By us, what advice
She would have given, 
But never did,
To her aging friends
Two words, “Just die”.

But few of us
Just die.  We live,
Slowly, meal by meal,
Sleeping, waking.
Sleeping, waking.
Dying slowly, aren’t we all?

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Poem: Gratitude

When you have been the independent person,
How do you learn to depend on others?

You were the go-to person,
The decider who could pull it together.

You were the one to take others in, 
When they had life crises.

You were the host who gave the 
Guest room to friends coming to visit.

You had a meal ready to prepare at
The last minute when friends arrived.

You would adjust your plans when
Someone needed a ride to an appointment.

You would organize three events of
A weekend, all timed with precision.

You would remodel and decorate your
Home with treasures across the globe.

But, now, managing the bathroom requires
Effort for basic hygiene and cleanliness.

Now, holding the spoon level to eat a
Meal has no taste nor delight.

Now, turning the page or selecting
A program is a puzzling sequence of motions.

Now, moving the correct limb in the right direction
Results in hesitation during the exercise group.

Now, staying awake during your show, or a movie,
Or a travel program results in fragmented alertness.

Now, a greeting and conversation come
In one word utterances, without grace and style.

Now, tears of frustration kindle a fire
Of emotions that smolder into sighs of resignation.

But, for all these moments of distraction
A smile and a hug melt the cold reality.

Reciprocated greetings, smiles, and hug
Say what words evade you.

Caring gestures from you to others
And from other to you connect the days.

Expressions of gratitude fill the place
Of the independence we no longer possess.

I recall an uncle who declined from dementia,
And a brother-in-law who motioned to his children:

“It’s waiting for us all.  Learn how to let
Others want to take care of you in the end.”

Unless we die young, eventually we will
Become the one cared for.

May we have the smiles, the hugs, the patience
To let other care for us with gratitude.

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Poem: Solutions

Our impulse is to solve
Problems in our culture.
Name and define the problem,
Apply a remedy.

May this be our heritage
Of the Enlightenment,
Or the Industrial Revolution,
The advances of science.

We assume that all problems
Can be addressed with some
Solution, which rights imbalances
And returns us to a norm.

Such is what I grew up with,
As my father was an engineer,
Who saw all aspect of life as
Numbers which needed arrangement.

Such is what I grew up with,
As my mother was the one
Organizing the neighborhood children,
Church library, and tour groups.

A world in which all problems
Have solutions is merely
Turning from darkness to light,
With all the Christian implications.

Yet, now we confront
A vaguely named problems,
A set of symptoms and behaviors
For which no clear solution exists.

Certainly, changing living situations
From home to The Home,
Adjusting medications,
And ordering therapy seem reasonable.

But, these only manage my mother’s
Problems.  They do not solve her
Fear, despair, and longing for
A life that faded over years.

Our visits bring on fatigue.
Phone calls with friends bring tears.
Walks remind her that she returns.
Suggestions evoke refusals.

Reminiscence is a window
Looking over a scene gone by.
Talking about tomorrow is a door
That has a passcode to go through.

All that is left is now.
I’m here.  Look at the snow.
Eggs are yellow; broccoli green.
Solutions another frustrating failure.

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Poem: Release

Half way through the sing-a-long,
My mother turns to look at me.
Did she arouse from dozing off
When “You Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog”
Became a raucous senior-living wail?

Or, is this not a familiar, happy memory,
For one who rarely listened to popular music?
Or, had she saturated from stimulation,
Regardless of how well intended the staff’s
And my desire are for Mom to connect?

She stands and I hold out my hand,
Guiding her to the back door of the room,
While gesturing to the song leader in thanks
For the opportunity to participate, and
Assurance that I will return Mom to her unit.

She walks, haltingly, waving her arms,
Mouth open with silent words of distress.
I stop, then start walking again, shadowing
Her pace, balancing between pushing her
Too fast and becoming inert in the hall.

Soon, she is back to her room, where she
Sits on the edge of her bed, lowering her head,
Momentarily, like a defeated athlete between
Periods of a game.  I sit, half looking to be
Attentive, but not to stare at her agony.

Her eyes close tighter, her mouth contorts.
The silent scream with twitching lips and
Tears flowing emerges in the silent room,
As cars swish by on the damp road outside,
And voices of staff drift in from the hallway.

She does not utter a sound for some seconds,
Before the brief, punctuated inhalations
Of a young girl fill the silence.  What pain are
You experiencing?  A memory? Exhaustion?
Embarrassment? Fatigue? Failure?

I wait before asking the usual round of questions,
Guesses at words that she cannot say.
I see her head nod and shake, then “No’s” and “Yes’s”
Contradicting each other such that communication
Becomes a key locking in not opening up the door.

Five, ten, fifteen minutes pass this way
Before her lips relax, she pats the tears with
Shredded tissues, sighs that the wave of angst
Has passed, as mysteriously as it came,
The emotion released until it returns.

Release seems to be the best outcome.
Insight seems futile, for the goal to understand
Should guide to an action, but no action
Will solve the problem of realizing that she
Has become what she has feared for years.

The staff knock on the door, which I closed
For privacy at this moment, and invite
Mom to come to dinner.  I ask if she is ready.
She nods, washes her hands, and walks the hall
No longer halting, stammering, waving hands.

As she enters the dinning room, she holds out
Her arms to hug the staff, pats the other residents
On the shoulder and utters cheerful salutations.
She sits to eat.  I sigh, carrying the burden
Of her anguish, so that she may have a pleasant meal.

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Poem: The Curse

“I hate this place”
My mother growls,
The only full sentence
She utters through aphasia.

Of course, she means
The Home, senior living,
Ha, people waiting
To die, not live.

Though inarticulate,
She is aware,
Of the wandering,
Vacant staring of others.

The stammering thoughts
And the circular questions
Of her neighbors caught
In dementia’s decline.

She is aware of
Her own decline,
Moments of hesitation,
Her loss of routine.

But, can one hate
Oneself, when placing
The emphasis on
The place is easy?

When words and phrases
Become difficult,
Curses are easy.
Talking like a sailor.

“I hate this place”,
But is this place,
Her place in life?
Frustration? Fear?

She smiles at photos
And her art work,
Now hung where she
Requested items be placed.

She smiles at cards
Friends have sent,
And phone calls
With familiar voices.

But, those emotions
Are fleeting, as she
Looks down the hall
At a resident struggling.

We cannot change
The place, person,
Nor environment
Where she is now.

We head to dinner,
Or the exercise group.
She smiles and greets,
With “Hi” and a hug.

Maybe this is our
Condition, to hate
This place, while we
Find how to live.

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Poem: The Home

The American dream of home and family,
Is it just a dream? A dream punctuated
And punctured by the reality of the whim
Of circumstances we do not control?

How many generations were born and died
At home because no alternatives exited
During their lives? Hospitals, then nursing home,
Now assisted living facilities replaced the home.

These were places people dreaded because
You went there, or were sent there, to die.
Otherwise, the aging and frail were left 
To the family, more likely the women, to care for them.

There is no good way to die.  Whether physical
Or emotional pain, we either die too early or too late.
Too early, and our survivors lament the life we will miss.
Too late, we will lament the life we can no longer live.

My mother asked to live in her home as long as she
Could manage her self-care and make decisions.
My brother and I monitored this closely, as we
Took over more of the events of each day.

The time came when we accepted that one or the other
Of us must be present to have the coffee on the table,
The weather monitored for a walk, the TV tuned to her program,
The bills paid, the groceries and meals prepared.

Her threshold crossed, her criteria met, we presented
Our situations, discussed the options, negotiated a plan.
It took three of us with eight suite cases to board the plane
So that one could move to the home, a new home, a final home.

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Poem: The Hug

Every time I leave my mother’s home,
She hugs me as if she will never
See me again.  Maybe, we will not know
Until our next meeting, or not.

Her hugs are spontaneous, slow,
Deliberate, and broad.
She pauses, her motions, her arms
Spread as a mother bird over her nest,

She looks up, smiles or cries,
And embracing her aged fledgeling 
She whispers, “I love you”, one phrase 
Her expressive aphasia has not touched.

I wonder if she will be able to hug
And recite this sentence longer
Than she will be able to recall my name,
Or recognize my face? We hug.

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Poem: Ellipsis of Silence

As I cross the threshold
of my sixth decade
I offer to my mother
a walk in her community.

A neighborhood
of retirees
on small, neat lots
with enough space

For those who
enjoy a garden
but not the burden
of the suburban home.

A few blocks this way
with a couple of linking
streets and pathways
to the clubhouse and pool,

Which have always
seems symbols
of a good life,
but lifeless

Every time I have
passed by on one
of our walks,
regardless of the season.

We walk the streets
empty except for us,
a delivery truck
(“Driving too fast”),

And constructions crews,
taking down or putting up
finishing details
for remodeled homes,

Which await new
residents, with
For Sale and
Offer Pending signs.

My mother gestures,
and starts a sentence,
a subject and verb
without a predicate or noun

To complete the thought
which I see
registered in her hand
and face.

This woman lived
alone, gone…
His wife died…
he was a basket case…

Their son came
and took them
with him, or
sent them off…

Her thoughts are
an ellipsis, unfinished
as the business
of living has become.

Home after home
stand empty,
yards still growing
unkempt or tended

The bushes budding
with spring, roses
forgotten last Fall,
unplanted seeds sprouting.

House after house
she points at,
wondering which needed

And, yet I hear
the silence…
the unspoken words,
phrases, stories…

As her eye sight
dims, friendships
flicker, days pass,
more memory

Than present,
I hear the words
she cannot
form, and the words

She does not speak…
of my father,
her husband,
gone. Silence.

We walk those
streets, with gardens
growing, regardless
if the homes are occupied.

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Poem: The Word

My mother’s eyes dim and her mind struggles
To keep pace with books, letters, and pictures
Which used to engage her free time.

She anticipated these changes years ago, 
Seeking suggestions for larger print, better light,
Magnification, and audio-books.

But, the complexity of modern literature,
Along with “Too violent”, “Too much sex”,
Limits her tolerance for the selections mailed to her.

The news is worse yet, with political conflict, wars,
Killings, fires, floods, famines, corruptions broadcast
Every afternoon; personal tragedies as national traumas.

At times, she turns off the audio-books, 
Darkens the TV monitor, eliminates the sounds
Of destress.  And, she looks at nothing.

But sitting silently was never her skill.
Such moments compel impulses to organize
A closet, or drawer, or cabinet of dishes.

I sought comforting words, which eluded topics
That brought cries of “Fascist” or stories of
Past pains which she could no longer articulate.

Former interests evoked more anxiety for
The realization that she could no longer usher
At the opera, symphony, and ballet.

Attempts at reminiscing conversations
Elicited frustration at her inability to relate
The details she wanted to describe.

With some trial and errors, I tapped a memory,
Stories from her childhood, engaging without
Complication. I began to read. She listened.

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Poem: My Martha, My Mary

Luke * (10:38-42) tells of Martha preparing for
Jesus and his companions, while her sister
Mary sits and listens.  When caring for an aging
Mother, we can be both Martha and Mary
Serving and sitting at the table throughout the day.

My Martha is busy with arranging the bathroom
And setting the morning coffee, half a cup at a time,
And serving up hot cereal, with just enough blueberries,
Flake cereal, and sunflower seeds to elicit a smile,
Before setting my own across the table.

My Mary knows from childhood to not ask questions
Before the first cup of coffee has been consumed
And the wrinkles of worry smooth to a satisfactory
State of wakefulness.  Nothing has changed over
Eighty-nine years of life.  My Mary waits.

My Martha intrudes with a review of the day,
Appointments, visitors, options, weather report,
And a reminder to take the medications and vitamins;
Before My Mary returns to talk about east coast
E-mails or text messages that came in earlier.

My Martha is fussing about the morning routine,
Shower, dressing, stripping the bed and gathering
The laundry, and washing the dishes such that
All will be finished and put away before the appointments,
Or visitors, discretionary tasks begin.

While My Mary waits, patiently, to settle into
The living room to read a magazine article, or
Chapter of a book, or letter that arrived in the mail,
Before My Martha is up to move the laundry
To the dryer, to clank the dishes away in the cabinets.

And, so the day goes between My Martha and My Mary,
With naps, walks in the neighborhood, lunch and dinner
Alternating between service to the physical needs,
And service to the social, emotional, and spiritual needs.
Does anyone know what My Mary worries herself with?

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