Mother-Daughter relationships. That three-word phrase is enough to send the mind running wildly. It’s hard to be neutral on the subject if you’re a mother or a daughter, or both. Even the best mother-daughter relationships become challenged when a mind-altering illness enters the equation.
In my case, Alzheimer’s presented me with a blessing inside a tragedy; with all the painful memories lost, my mom forgot her grudges and heartache. For author Ann Campanella, her mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s triggered a profound loss of footing, on two fronts. Being a poet, Ann looked inward to find the resources to cope with and understand what she was faced with, and gave voice to what so many people are feeling.
Here is her touching story behind the beautifully told “Motherhood: Lost and Found”:
I remember standing outside the barn. It was a spring day or maybe a fall afternoon. A light breeze blew my bangs across my forehead. The sun was warm, but mild, on its way up or beginning its descent. Tall grass nodded along the fence line, and I heard the grind of my horse’s molars as he snatched at fescue.
There were chores to be done, or else I had just finished them – picking stalls, scrubbing water buckets, cleaning tack, sweeping the aisle. Beyond the chores something lay in my subconscious. An uneasiness.
My mother and I were six hours apart and separated by an emotional distance I didn’t understand. Her mind was failing. She was beginning to spiral downward. There was a gnawing at the edge of my soul that wouldn’t go away.
Joel and I were ready to start a family, unaware of the challenges that lay ahead. I was friend and surrogate mom a few hours a week to my riding students, a group of young girls who reminded me of myself at that age—warm, fun loving, exuberant, fragile. On lesson days, they surrounded me on horseback, relaxing in their saddles, legs dangling beside their stirrups. Their laughter floated on the wind.
I sensed that my world was about to change in ways I could only guess. In my mid-30s, I was used to being in control. I knew what it was to be strong and competent, how it felt to set goals and achieve them. Weakness was foreign to me.
That is, until a hairline fissure appeared at the core of my life plan. At first, it was hardly noticeable. But the tiny fracture split open and widened day by day.
There was a time when things were “bad” with my mom. Bad was the word my sister and I used. “It’s bad,” we’d say, unable to articulate the changes in her. How she’d gone from a gentle, benevolent presence in my life to this unpredictable, volatile force. Bad meant Mom was upset and angry, her mouth in a thin line as she opened and slammed shut drawers and closet doors, hid notebooks, journals and checkbooks in strange places.
Years later I found an appointment book pressed between layers of sheets that were bundled up and stuffed in a bureau. I’m not sure if she was hiding these things from my father or if some unconscious part of her was hiding something from herself. Hiding the fact that she could no longer keep up with dates and times, that the structure of her life was dissolving.
As Mom was descending into her own darkness, I remember sitting on the couch in my living room sometime after midnight, my emotions catatonic, a laptop perched on my knees. I was surfing the web searching for any and every site that had the word “Alzheimer’s” in it.
I didn’t know anyone who was in my situation or at least anyone who talked about it. Most of my friends had mothers much younger than me. Some of my older friends had lost their mothers, but their own families were well intact. Mom was a word that referred to them.
I felt so alone, treading into the blackness of cyberspace, reaching out to read the words of someone, anyone, who had gone through the experience of seeing her mother disintegrate before her eyes.
I began writing Motherhood: Lost and Found as I straddled this crevice of darkness in my life. I didn’t know what was to come, only that the here and now was painful. So painful that I needed to record the minutes and hours that made me ache in journals. This way I could put some of the pain aside, take it in bit by bit, word by word, so as not to choke on it.
I didn’t know that the process of writing this experience would lead me through it. That the act of tuning into my own terrible grief would help me emerge from the pain and enlarge my heart. That I would learn to be grateful for the parts of my mother that remained and the pieces she had passed on to me. That through each difficult moment, God was gently calling me to Him.
I now have an inkling of the range of possibilities that lie within each moment. Even in my mother’s fractured state and most confused moments, she continued to teach me that family and the mother/daughter bond are treasures that reach far beyond words. And that what we think we know is only the merest hint of what can blossom into being.
Ann Campanella is the author of the award-winning memoir, Motherhood: Lost and Found, and four collections of poetry. Formerly a magazine and newspaper editor and currently a member of the AlzAuthors’ management team, Ann’s writing has appeared in literary journals, newspapers, magazines and blogs across the country. Twice, Ann has received the Poet Laureate Award from the North Carolina Poetry Society. She lives on a small horse farm in North Carolina with her family and animals.
Website: www.anncampanella.com (website)