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Posts Tagged ‘Alzheimer’s Disease’

[with 2 poems by Beth Copeland]

February 23, 2021

It’s all downhill from here. That’s what someone told me when I retired last September and it didn’t sound much like a benediction. Today though, sitting down to eat lunch half way through my long day’s hike and knowing that this is, indeed, the highest point on the Blue Ridge I’ll reach, all downhill sounds pretty inviting.

Today is my “birthday hike.” Every February I spend one day hiking the 17-mile perimeter trail at Doughton Park on the Blue Ridge Parkway. A few times I’ve had to break trail through fresh snow, once freezing sleet slicked my balaclava into a glass helmet, but today it’s supposed to reach the 40’s up here near 3,000 feet. I might get sunburned. I’m eating lunch at the 8.5 mile mark, a stone NPS shelter at the top of Alligator Back that looks down into Basin Cove, and across the holler I can trace this morning’s elevation profile.

Park at Basin Creek, climb the trail a quick 800 feet or so, then another more gradual 800, then continue following the ridgeline to encircle the cove – up / down \ up / down \ up / up / up, the final ice-encased switchbacks climbing Alligator Back especially gruesome. But here I am half way done and now it’s all downhill! Hmmm, after more than 20 years of hiking this trail I know better. For every moderate descent there’s another knob rising up ahead, down \ up /down until the final mile of narrow white-knuckle hairpins back to the creek.

It’s not how long the trail, it’s the elevation change. Mom turns 93 tomorrow and Dad at 94 is right there with her. She can hear better than he; he can remember better than she. They practice exercises the Therapist is teaching them so they can walk the mild uphills and downhills around their block every afternoon. So far this year they haven’t really had any net elevation change in independence, well, not enough to sweat; we’re all living day to day on pretty level ground. For her birthday Linda and I have given Mom a book of animal photography by Joel Sartore – her face shines as she turns each page. My sister Mary Ellen and her partner Wendy gave her a patio fire pit table and Mom and Dad look happy as Hobbits hunched around it.

From this vantage that we call today we can look across the blue mountains of time and retrace in memory what brought us here. The trail ahead is less clear, or maybe our vision is perfectly clear even if not clearly perfect. Rough paths, slick spots – inevitable. It can get steep. For today let’s share the view together.

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I’m reading Beth Copeland’s Blue Honey for the second time and I know I will be reading it yet again. Most of the poems are set during the years her parents were entering their 90’s and declining as Alzheimer’s Disease progressed. She meets each waypoint of loss, theirs and hers, with tenderness and clarity. From vignettes of memories and intense moments she paints a portrait of their lives and reveals her own.

When we lose a parent to death the moment is etched on our hearts but also the calendar. We recall where we were, what was said; we commemorate the date. With Alzheimer’s we lose our parent in random bits like sparks that fly up from a campfire and extinguish in the night. Eventually the body sitting before us contains nothing of the person except an occasional glimpse as ephemeral as ash. Beth Copeland shows us that this sort of loss will make you cry, will make you pissing angry, and will also sometimes thank God make you laugh! Her poems are intensely personal but I also discover myself in so many of them. These lines are, from their first step along the trail and through all the sweaty climbs and bittersweet descents, perfectly human.

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Sandhills Gold

. . . in the Sandhills of North Carolina,
a few lucky beekeepers strike blue gold.
– Chick Jacobs

The year Daddy died, beekeepers found blue
honey in their hives. How it turns

blue or why it only happens
here no one knows. Some

think bees feed on bruised huckleberries, scuppernongs
or kudzu blossoms. Too far inland, Daddy

never found it in the forty-five years
he kept hives. In the nursing home, I talked

blue honey into blue eyes that
stared back in a blur

of lost memory and sleep. What
was he thinking? I spoke

of his veiled hat and long gloves,
bellowing hives

with smoke so he could pull combs and
honey from inside, and pour sourwood

into old Mason jars in slow motion
like the lengthening summer day

when the sky was so delphinium
it could be music, or the blue

shadow that followed me through the doorway
into the buzzing of bees when I

was thirteen, crying behind the pear tree because
I wasn’t popular enough to be

May Queen. This is what I choose
to keep against forgetting:

You’ll always
be my queen,

he said, bending
to kiss my forehead. I carry

that moment like a bee
in amber on a gold chain

above my heart to ward off wintering
broods and dark swarms, a queen without

a country or hive, standing in slanted light
as bees droned

around my head, weaving a crown of wings
and buzzing with sweetness.

* * * * *

Grief like honey left too long in the jar,
like the pint we bought last year

from a beekeeper who used to sell pot,
in the pantry all winter flanked by bottles

of blackstrap and Hungry Jack
crystallizing in the dark,

too solid to spoon onto bread unless you melt it
in water on the stove. Impatient,

I spread the gold grains on my toast, remembering
when he was alive and it

poured in slow
measures onto my mother’s home-baked bread. One

summer he visited me in Chicago after robbing
his hive of a quart jar of sourwood, his

ankles so swollen
from stings he slept with his feet propped

on pillows. I want this
grief to dissolve like a lemon

lozenge on my tongue, I want
to taste the sweetness

of mornings
before sorrow, anger, remorse

soured my vision of being
young and oblivious to his

pain, I want my words to flow
like a vein

onto the blue-lined page as holy
honey flowed from his white

hives onto our bread, our tongues, our lives.

from Blue Honey, Beth Copeland, The Broadkill River Press, © 2017

 

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Nothing Blue

When I leave she asks, Are you
going to that cabin with Phil? She can’t

recall our wedding. She wore
a periwinkle dress she bought at Belk’s

so she wouldn’t
embarrass me garbed in something

old as she sipped champagne and nibbled
cake. I live there. We’re

married, remember? She blinks. Oh,
that’s right. Not her fault, but I’m so

tired of wanting
her to hold onto that

one day. When I arrive to chauffeur
her to the doctor, she’s not

dressed but tells the nurse, I could live
on my own if I had a family. What

am I, chopped
liver? She tells her friends I never

visit because she forgets. On the drive
home, I pass a blur of chicory

growing wild around
a crinoline of Queen Anne’s

Lace – something
old, nothing

new, one thing borrowed,
almost blue

from Blue Honey, Beth Copeland, The Broadkill River Press, © 2017

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Blue Honey won the 2017 Dogfish Head Poetry Prize from The Broadkill River Press. Not long after the book’s release Beth, Teresa Price, and I read together at Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville. A brilliant day! I still have the Poetrio Author! April 8, 2018 bookmark in my copy of Beth’s book. Zoom is a congenial gathering of sorts but reading beside another author you admire before a phalanx of expectant mostly strangers, well, that’s adrenaline.

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View across Basin Cove from Flat Rock Ridge — see the speck of a tree all by itself in the bald patch on the horizon? Watch for it . . . !

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