Birthday blues

Growing old is mandatory; growing up is optional.”  ~Chili Davis

Doug and I just returned from a long birthday weekend in St. Joe. To be perfectly honest, my birthday (Saturday) felt a bit sad this time around, as if someone had let the air out of all the party balloons.

I suspect my blue mood had a lot to do with the fact that my mother totally forgot my birthday again this year. Of course, I’m not surprised. Mom’s dementia has progressed to the point where she no longer looks at the calendar I gave her, nor does she care what day or month it is. She still remembers her own birth date when hospital staffers ask her for it, but she can’t keep track of holidays and other special events — even when we write them down to remind her.

Not so long ago, before vascular dementia consumed her former, thoughtful self, my mother would call to schedule my birthday dinners at least a week in advance. And she’d always treat me to something special on a shopping trip we’d take together. Though I’ve learned how to deal with a new and difficult version of my mother, last week I found myself battling the same waves of grief I experienced on my birthday following my father’s death in the summer of 1992.

Watching our parents turn ill (or die) is a grim reminder of our own mortality — not exactly the frosting anyone would choose for her proverbial birthday cake.

It didn’t help that August 4th was blistering hot in St. Joe. And just before we left for dinner that night, a huge turkey vulture swooped down to perch in a poplar tree behind our house. It seemed like an awful omen of some kind. (Another vicious year ahead? Or am I reading too much Alice Hoffman?) Topping it off, a violent storm erupted while we were driving to a local restaurant for my birthday dinner.

Thankfully, my dark mood lifted with the brighter weather on Sunday. Doug and I spent a memorable evening on a gorgeous Lake Michigan beach, then rode the Silver Beach carousel after a casual dinner in St. Joe. (I chose the horse representing Michigan State, my alma mater.) Riding the carousel with my dear husband made me feel like a kid again, which is quite a feat, given that I just turned 58 years old.

Taking a long walk back to the car, the two of us watched the sunset on the beach. The majesty of Lake Michigan — my favorite lake in the world — reminded me that my problems are relatively small; that my mother’s dementia is part of a midlife journey that many others have traveled before me. Blessed with an incredibly patient and loving husband, I know I can handle any rough water ahead. And so turns another year. — Cindy La Ferle

Top photo: The sun begins to set on Lake Michigan in St. Joe. Bottom photo: Doug walks the beach.

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 —

“Forgetfulness”

I love how a poem, an essay, or a novel can shimmer with new meaning when you reread it years later — when the defining moments of your own life realign with the story. It’s sort of like running into an old friend who looks better as he ages.

I first read Billy Collins’ “Forgetfulness” in Questions About Angels more than 10 years ago. While I found it amusing, it didn’t really hit me where I lived at the time.

This week, while thumbing through Collins’ anthology, Sailing Alone Around the Room, the poem found me again.

And this time my heart jumped as I read the line, “one by one, the memories you used to harbor decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain….” Of course, I thought immediately of my mother’s current struggle with dementia; her inability to access key dates and events, including the year her mother died; the city where she was born; the time she was hit by a car in a parking lot.

My middle-aged friends and I often chuckle over the fact that we sometimes walk into a room and forget what we’re looking for. And we get a little nervous when we can’t recall the name of a film classic we’ve enjoyed for years. We laugh, yet we’re all secretly haunted by the unnerving possibility that we could misplace our most important memories and never retrieve them. Likewise, this poem is laced with Collins’ trademark wit, but ends on a wistful note. — CL

Forgetfulness

By Billy Collins

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

— Top Photo: Collage detail from an altered book by Cindy La Ferle. Please click on the image for a full view. —