The chemistry of memory

Though I’ve been writing professionally for nearly 30 years, there are times when I find it easier to express myself through the visual arts. Especially when I’m struggling to come to terms with a difficult or painful topic.

One of my mixed-media constructions, “What We Remember,” is a case in point.

I began working on this piece two years ago, not long after my mother was officially diagnosed with early stage dementia. My father-in-law died of Alzheimer’s last June, so the theme of “remembering” has special significance to me — aside from the fact that memoir has always been my favorite genre in creative writing.

“What We Remember” was a toy chemistry kit in its previous life. Doug and I discovered it in a Good Will thrift shop in St. Joseph. Aged and loaded with character, the kit was irresistible, even though it was missing its containers and chemicals. We knew immediately that one of us would use it for an art project.

“It’s surprising how much memory is built around things unnoticed at the time.” — Barbara Kingsolver

Over a period of several weeks, I collaged the interior of the box with vintage dress patterns, old sheet music, and photo reproductions. I added found objects that play loosely on the theme of memories and souvenirs — shells gathered from a beach; twigs and feathers from hikes in the woods.

The small glass bottle on the bottom shelf contains a tiny printed copy of the dictionary definition of “memoir,” while the wine corks on the middle shelf suggest good times that may or may not be remembered — depending, of course, on how much wine was consumed. The bird on the top shelf perches above a vintage fountain pen that could have been used for recording entries in a diary.

I was pleased to learn that “What We Remember” was accepted for the Michigan Annual XXXVII Art Competition. Detroit art critic Vince Carducci served as juror. The exhibition runs from January 28 through February 25 at the Anton Art Center in Mount Clemens, and is free to the public. — CL

— For a larger view of the artwork, please click on each photo —

Update on Mom

The human spirit is stronger than anything that can happen to it.”  ~C.C. Scott

First, a big thank you to all who’ve inquired about my mom. It really means a lot to know that she’s remembered in your thoughts and prayers, and I always pass along your messages to her.

Secondly, I apologize for not being a very good blog buddy or Facebook friend recently. Like 3D friendships, online connections should be reciprocal. But with so much going on, I haven’t kept up with friends as often as I’d like. Once things settle, I hope to change that.

Right now, Mom is in healing mode. Her pacemaker was inserted on Monday and the surgical wound looks good. The challenge for the next few weeks, in addition to rebuilding her strength after the heart failure, will be to keep her from moving her left arm too much. (It’s essential to prevent the pacemaker from being dislodged or disconnected while the tissue around it heals into place.)  This week, she’s recovering at Woodward Hills nursing center, an affiliate of William Beaumont Hospital. It’s her third time at this facility in the past 10 years, so she settled in without much fuss after Doug and I drove her there from the hospital yesterday.

If all goes well, Mom will be ready for discharge from Woodward Hills later next week. Right now, everyone is monitoring her carefully to determine if she’ll be able to care for herself again in the long run. Once she’s home, I’ll be staying with her through her recovery, working closely with a team of home-care nurses and a physical therapist. And there will be several field trips to the cardiologist as well as to the doctor who keeps the pacemaker ticking.

Meanwhile, Mom’s memory loss remains a big concern, especially since she was terribly confused during her long stay at the hospital. Crossing my fingers, I’m hoping she’ll adjust to her new heart medications and gain emotional as well as physical strength during therapy. One day at a time.

I’d be lying if I told you I was anything but pooped out and fried. But I’m fortunate to have a husband who’s right there with me at every hospital visit, and who doesn’t seem to mind hanging out in medical waiting rooms. I’m darned lucky, too, to have so many friends who care. — CL

New Year’s newsletter

Cheers to a new year and another chance for us to get it right.”  ~Oprah Winfrey

Though I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions, I’ve always loved how January nudges us toward self-improvement and encourages fresh starts. The month, after all, is named for the two-faced Roman god, Janus, who’s always depicted looking backward and forward. Janus seems to remind us that we should pause long enough to consider the events that brought us to the present moment before we start something new.

My father-in-law died of Alzheimer’s in June. As you probably recall from previous posts, the months preceding his death were especially tough on Doug. There were grueling decisions that involved finding the right nursing home for his dad as well as helping his mother with the changes in her household and finances. In retrospect, I was so involved with the upheaval in my own mother’s situation, that I don’t think I offered as much emotional support to my husband as I should have.

And isn’t that always the case when we are preoccupied with our own stuff? We turn inward and neglect others who need us — especially when the others who need us appear to be handling things well enough on their own. That’s something I need to remember and work on in the year ahead. Because people who have strong arms sometimes need a helping hand, too.

Meanwhile, this week, we completed the last of four appointments for my mom at the Beaumont Geriatric Evaluation Clinic. Offering health-care and lifestyle consultation for the elderly and their caregivers, the Clinic put my mother through a series of tests (including a neuro-psychological interview) in addition to a complete physical. The good news: My mother’s memory loss was re-diagnosed as vascular dementia, not Alzheimer’s. Regardless, dementia is dementia, no matter which label you paste on it.

My mother is in the milder stage, and still capable of caring for herself in her condo with minimal assistance. Even so, I’ve been told that putting Mom in an assisted living facility would make things much easier for me. But Mom loves her home — it remains one of few things she’s genuinely enthused about — so I’m honoring her wish to stay there as long as possible.

The bad news: Once a patient is officially diagnosed with any type of dementia, there are serious liability issues when it comes to allowing that patient to drive. So, early in the evaluation process last year, the doctors suspended my mother’s driving privileges. She never drove very far, anyway, but she’s nonetheless freaked about having her wings clipped. The final verdict will come after Mom completes an official driving test to be conducted at another Beaumont Hospital facility in a couple of weeks. Ah yes, more appointments.

Even when we’re adults with kids of our own, and even when we uphold our most noble intentions, most of us secretly struggle with the idea of becoming parents to our parents. For the past two years, Mom’s doctors have asked me to show up at her appointments, oversee her medications, and supervise her health-care decisions. I haven’t minded that half as much as I’ve mourned the loss of my real mother — the strong, capable woman she used to be. These days she’s like a surly teenager riddled with anxiety. It all makes me sad and angry and, mostly, emotionally drained … which is another thing I need to work on this year.

It does get better, though …

When I tally up some of the year’s happiest moments, I recall the good friends who’ve been at the ready with a listening ear and a willingness to meet for lunch, dinner, or drinks. Or heartfelt conversations on the phone. As an only child, I don’t have much of an extended family to speak of, so having longtime friends who function like a true family has been more valuable than I can express in words.

And in the fun department, Doug and I continued the recreational foray into background acting we began in September of 2009. Between the two of us, we’ve been in 14 different film and television productions to date. We continue to support the film industry in Michigan, and hope our new Michigan governor will see the benefits of hosting Hollywood here.

Writing-wise, I didn’t start many new projects. Like the dormant plants under the snow in my garden, my muse was sleepy, or maybe she was deliberately giving me extra time to focus on my mom’s health care. I did manage to get a new essay published in Victoria, and several of my previously published essays were chosen for national anthologies. Guideposts gift books, for instance, published a Christmas piece (from Writing Home) in The Heart of Christmas. It was a thrill and an honor to see my work in a collection containing writings by Sue Monk Kidd, Pearl S. Buck, Marjorie Holmes, and others whose work I’ve admired. And in the fall, I was hired to write a weekly column for Royal Oak Patch, one of AOL’s hyper-local online newspapers.

After a long day with my mom earlier this week, I came home and crashed with a book in one of the big chairs in the living room. Doug and I had taken down the Christmas decorations the day before, and it was a relief to see the mantel and tabletops cleared of elves, angels, pine boughs, and other holiday doodads. I was reminded once again that, when life gets more complicated than usual, the sanest thing you can do is to clear some space, cut back where you can, and focus only on the essentials.

Wishing you all a wonderful, healthy New Year. — Cindy La Ferle

— Winter garden photos by Cindy La Ferle —

Flushing out the holiday

A good vacation is over when you begin to yearn for your work.” — Morris Fishbein

So, how did you spend your Christmas vacation? Did you visit out-of-town relatives, take a trip to a warmer climate, or did you gather ’round the fireplace at home? True confessions: Our family’s Christmas holiday was intense, to say the least. You can read more about it in this week’s “Our Town” column on Royal Oak Patch. Wishing you a happy — and healthy — New Year! — CL