Sparked by Words

Archive for the ‘Alzheimer’s disease’ Category

From Art Caves to Alzheimer’s

 

This is the story of how a book about World War II sealed the friendship between me and the woman who gave me the courage to write Where Did Mama Go?

It begins with The Caves of Perigord by Martin Walker. I read it because it describes some of the prehistoric cave art discovered in France, a topic this artist and art teacher has always found fascinating. The exquisite shard of ancient art is only a part of the story, as the novel reveals the dangerous work of the French Resistance during World War II. When I finished the book I gave it to my friend, Madeleine Nussen.

I was a novice Hebrew teacher, barely two weeks ahead of the kids in skills. Madeleine was experienced and fluent at the same temple school, and she graciously mentored me when I got stuck, which was about once a class. After she read the book, she told me something I hadn’t known.

The book tells in part how the Nazis forced French citizens to sit on the front and top of reinforcement and supply trains in order to deter the French Resistance from bombing them as the invaders subjugated France. Allowing the trains to pass meant a more likely victory for the Nazis, but sabotaging the trains meant certain death for those who rode the trains as hostages.

Madeleine quietly relayed her personal story when she returned the book. She was a Holocaust survivor, her father a fighter with the Resistance. At least once, teenage Madeleine sat on the actual train, exposed and vulnerable. Her father saw her and did not bomb the train.

I knew of course the historical foundation of the book. But that moment when she described her part as a hostage, the enemy trains stormed around us. The wind roared like a cyclone, the acrid steam burned my face. A story that would have made me screech in fury, she relayed with her trademark composed dignity.

A few years later the temple held a dinner my husband and I attended with my parents. My father had quietly told me a family secret I was forbidden to share. I kept the promise. My mother, always a gregarious showstopper, made instant friends with the four other guests at our table, which included Madeleine. My mom loved the limelight and the event gave her the chance to perform. Mom chattered as deftly as if holding court, the other guests enchanted by her. My father expressed irritation after a while, and mom quieted down.

Months later, I noticed Madeleine looking weary, an emotion she rarely conveyed. When I asked if everything was OK, she told me about her beloved husband, also a Holocaust survivor and a renowned cantor. Now he was living in a facility for those who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, losing more and more of his identity and sense of presence every day. Madeleine was devastated because his most recent decline meant he no longer knew who she was – nor who he was. The Nazis had not defeated him, but his illness had.

It must have been because of Madeleine’s dignity that I felt comfortable enough to tell her my secret, despite my promise. “My mom has Alzheimer’s.”

“I know,” Madeleine said.

In the hallowed quiet between us, I realized she had spotted my mom’s illness at the dinner party. What my father and I thought was hidden as long as we told no one, was easily detected by Madeleine with her long experience in dealing with her husband’s disease.

Over the next years, Madeleine was a willing listener to my concerns and worries. Sometimes she gave great advice. Sometimes she just listened and let me vent my frustration, confusion, and rage. Always, she was a friend who kept my confidence and my mother’s secret.

My dad died nine years ago, my mom’s disease still so well hidden that some family members didn’t detect it. At his death, it became obvious that mom could not live at home, and I made the heartbreaking decision to place her in a memory care residence.

I regret my action every day of my life because it forced my mother out of her home overlooking the Pacific Ocean into a locked facility. There was no other way to keep her safe, to have her needs met 24-7 by a compassionate, professional staff.

I was already writing novels long before my dad passed, but my stories had nothing to do with Alzheimer’s. It took all my strength to deal with my mom’s mutable and fractured condition. I often drove to the residence in tears, knowing the woman I headed to visit was losing parts of herself as if she were a pillow ripped open, feathers strewn to the heavens. I often drove home sobbing about how the disease attacked my mom and left her tattered. I was too close to the volatile situation to be able to write about it, so I never tried.

Madeleine passed away about three years ago. Her death was painful for her family and friends, her loss palpable as a burn on flesh.

About two years ago I realized I knew more than many other people who needed, sometimes desperately, to find a safe place for mom or dad or husband or wife to live. Their loved ones who suffered with Alzheimer’s. I consoled, gave advice, and listened to the newbies, all of them wondering if they had made the right and the best decision.

Eventually I thought of Madeleine’s courage. A survivor of the Holocaust who had started her life again in a new country, a loving daughter, wife, and mother, a talented musician, a gifted teacher, and a compassionate confidante, she modeled for me that not only could I tell this story, I could show that living with this disease is miserable but possible. That being an involved advocate for the one you love is more important than making the perfect choice because there is no perfect choice.

Madeleine never knew I wrote a story about Alzheimer’s, but without her friendship I might not have done so.

Madeleine Nussen, zt’l. May the memory of this righteous person be a blessing. Thank you for giving me the courage to write Where Did Mama Go? I miss you but I carry you in my heart.

 

Note: I’ve written a novel, Where Did Mama Go? about the devastation Alzheimer’s disease inflicts on families. It’s in the process of being edited. Then I’ll start querying for an agent to represent my work. My credentials for writing this story are eighteen years of assisting my mom through the labyrinth of this illness.

 

Prehistoric art, Bison, Altamira Cave in Spain, courtesy CCO Creative Commons

 

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Coming Back to You

I’ve been away from this blog far longer than intended and was not sure how to return. Still sitting here in my house working at the computer, but not here on the blog. What do I say to those of you who’ve stayed in touch and sent notes of encouragement while maintaining the respect not to ask what’s taking me so long? How much do I reveal, how much do I keep private, even secret?

A long list of topics and partial articles waits to be written or completed. My anemic advice about writing, my head-over-heels book reviews, the Just a Thought series, and the longer articles that peek into my own history or divulge my current interests and run parallel to the subjects of my books. Same-same as what’s been on this blog in past, just more of.

I had a mom who suffered Alzheimer’s disease but my promise to her was to not write about her, her dignity and pride to remain private. “My Mom” in all my articles was someone else’s mom – or dad, husband, wife – in disguise. You don’t know my mom because she wouldn’t have wanted you to see her like that. So I promised her you wouldn’t, even though she was unaware of the promise.

I really wanted to write more on what I’ve learned about Alzheimer’s disease as an observer, as an anecdotist. My studies are personal and also lies. Personal because I sat by her side, watched, listened, interacted, cried, and pondered. Lies because when I told you stories about Mom, I made them up.

You might have figured out that Mom is deceased. Yes. All I’m going to say. Except…

This was not what I imagined when I first announced my Quiet Time. I thought I’d actually have an extended period to contemplate and reconsider, to rewrite my direction, to refocus Mom’s attention.

Death has its own way of reorganizing priorities. Instead of planning new activities geared to Mom’s newest state of presence, I planned a funeral, a shiva, a way to say good-bye, a propensity for getting lost, a need to be forgiven, and a means of going forward.

Today Mom would be 90 years old. A good gift for a 90-year-old might be a coupon book good for snuggles and kisses and walks in the park. A new blouse and a fragrant bouquet of pink peonies. A candlelit cake to defy dietary restrictions.

In Mom’s case a perfect gift would be a memory she could hold on to. Something from her childhood, like the day she glowed in the class spotlight for the story she’d written. Her first kiss, tasted years before she met my Dad. A new dress purchased with money she earned at her teenage job at the five and dime store. Any memory would do, even something I exaggerated or made up. Just to give a memory to someone with Alzheimer’s is the most incredible gift one can imagine.

Pay attention to that word incredible. Its weight throws the scale into panic, its force throws the dike wide open. Memory is the first lost cause of Alzheimer’s disease. Victims make up their lives anew and family members learn to play along because arguing in favor of truth never aligns with reality.

The ninetieth birthday party wasn’t necessary. Mom almost but in the end didn’t get that far. There will be no cake or gifts or photos. Mom was buried in the white lace blouse she would have worn to her party. She looked beautiful, and this I’m not making up. She looked ready to get up and blow out those 90 candles.

I’m coming back now. Back to writing on this blog. Back to writing books, querying agents, pleading for mercy, and all the other mishegoss on the potholed path to publication.

Back, to see Mom in a new light. Happy Birthday to you, Mom. I’m celebrating your life today.

Love you, Mom.

Miss you.

Shari

 

Photo from Bonin-Pratt family archives: Mom, Dad, me at 4, baby brother, Hawaii 1953

 

This is the Wrong Post

I planned to write about the majestic launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy. I didn’t want to write this story.

I’m mad. Angry and insane with grief. I want to throw the computer across the room, tear out the plastic cartridges that hold the ink, drag the printer down the street till it shatters into a thousand pieces. Then I wouldn’t be able to tell this story.

This is a story of death. Four people died this past week. Four people I know and love. The doctor, the mother, the judge, and the animal rescuer.

The doctor was the father of my friend. I taught my friend’s children at our temple. She proved to be a parent on whom I could count to bring cookies, to call other parents, to compliment me on the lesson. She made sure her son and daughter were well prepared. We shared confidences. I looked up to her as someone whose low key demeanor belied her inner strength. We spoke often about our dads, each of us proud of these two men who were family physicians – heroes to us. I don’t know about her genetic inheritance but it is evident her father impressed on her a strong work and community ethic. He raised a good person who became a good friend to me. My hero has been gone nearly ten years. Now hers is gone also, a tragic catch-up of circumstances.

The mother lived at the memory care residence where my mother lives. Her daughter is my friend. My friend’s mother bequeathed her remarkable beauty to her daughter, also her grace and composure. My friend’s mother did not speak often but she always looked at me with a smile and sparkling eyes. She and my mom shared meals together, afternoons of music, discussions, or games, and casual walks around the gardens, happy to be in each other’s presence. I’m not certain my mom will realize she’s lost another friend. When you have Alzheimer’s, it’s the blessing of the disease that you cannot remember who your friends are or when they are gone. I’ve been holding my friend’s hand as she remembers her mother before the disease.

The judge was a family friend. Forty years ago, his mother- and father-in-law danced with my parents every week. Thirty years ago I drove his older daughter to Hebrew school with my son. Fifteen years ago he married my older son to the loving woman who bore our two older grandchildren. Ten years ago, his younger daughter became friends with my nephew at the party we threw for my parent’s sixtieth anniversary. Two years later my father, the doctor, died. The calendar marched in step with the moments that annotated our families’ lives. Important moments in three generations were shared as if we were family. In a few days we will bury the judge only a few yards from the doctor’s grave.

It is the final death, of the animal rescuer, K, that is killing me. She died last night after a nearly five year battle with very aggressive cancer. My younger son’s wife, our daughter-in-law, has lost her mother. She treated my son as her son. My younger grandchildren have lost the woman who watched them every Wednesday so my daughter-in-law could work. She got to know our shared grandson, now four, and our shared granddaughter, only two. She underwent surgeries, chemotherapy rounds, and traditional and experimental drug protocols, trying to find a cure, or at least gain more time.

When K was well she ran a wild creature rescue service. She was respected in her community as a fiercely independent spirit with an intellect as bright as lightning. She had many, many friends. She and her husband were active in their church, and lifelong advocates for social justice. I only got to meet her a half dozen times as they live more than a ten hour drive away from us. Not the kind of situation where you can drop in on someone frequently. But I enjoyed every moment I got to be with her.

She struggled. We prayed. I wish she’d had more time – for all of the family, more time. I grieve for my children and grandchildren whose grief is unbearable.

At the end of the evening, a few hours after hearing of the deaths of the judge and the animal rescuer, when I thought I’d shed all the tears my body could muster, we watched NBC’s  This Is Us. It was the episode about the funeral of the father. A TV show, reminding me of four actual upcoming funerals. From the launch of a rocket to the funeral of a television character, the day has collapsed from elation to sorrow. I really didn’t want to write this story. Please imagine something majestic.

 

A Hopeless Dawn by Frank Bramley, image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Rage and Reason

Candace asks for another cookie and when denied because it’s so close to dinner time, she wails the annoying cry recognized the world over as brat syndrome. She’s two and a half years old, and her self-centered demands come with the territory of preschoolers.

James also asks for another cookie and when denied because it’s so close to dinner time, he lets off with a string of foul language demands. He’s eighty-seven years old and his unfiltered anger comes with the territory of one who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.

Candace will grow up to become an engineer or a software developer or an astronaut. James* was a Major General in the United States military, and worked at NASA developing critical rocket defense systems. I sobbed at his memorial because I’d never gotten to know the brilliant man in his prime and only met him when the disease that eventually killed him had reduced him to behaving like a toddler.

You may think that Alzheimer’s only affects those with a low IQ, or who eat like sumo wrestlers, or who lie around on the sofa all day clicking the remote and guzzling diet sodas. It doesn’t. It’s an equal opportunity monster that drags victims from every demographic and forces them into the pit of loss of executive function. Loss of every human function. When we discuss the disease, we’re talking about traumatic brain dysfunction moving people backwards. We forget their achievements and focus on the bathroom problems, the odd clothing choice problems, the inability to communicate effectively problems. We focus on the problems because they are always front and center.

Pearl walks out of the dining room, her purse stuffed with essentials like socks, a scarf, comb and brush, and bedroom slippers. She has only taken a bite of her lunch but now stands at the reception desk of the community residence where she lives insisting that her daughter is coming to take her home. The receptionist reminds Pearl, for the fourth time (the seventh, the fourteenth) that her daughter went home after visiting in the morning. Pearl curses the receptionist, declares her daughter doesn’t love her, and wants to phone the police to complain about the service at this awful place. I ask if she’s had dessert yet. When her eyes open wide at that word, I lead her back to her seat and encourage her to take a bite of her meal, promising that she’ll have ice cream soon. She’ll be up in another minute or so, back at the front desk demanding to phone her daughter and insisting she doesn’t live at this place. I know she does – she’s my mom’s roommate.

Gladys’ hair is coiffed in a silver cap of curls, her jacket and slacks are highlighted with a string of glass art beads, her pedicured toes peak out from open front silver flats. She was a model when younger and walks with grace. A few days ago she mumbled unintelligible speech to me and I answered with pleasantries suited for any occasion. I wasn’t prepared when she quickly got up from her chair, cast me a look of fury, grabbed my coffee mug, and tried to throw it at me. I managed to hold on to the mug so only a tiny bit of the hot brew splashed on another resident. Her husband has told me she owned her own business for more than two decades and made decisions that her employees complied with.

Melvin wants to go to the bank. He’s concerned about his taxes and shows me his briefcase. Inside are a blank yellow legal pad and two pens. He asks if I know the bus schedule so he can be on time. I take his arm and lead him to the table where a jigsaw puzzle is half put together. We sit down and find a corner piece and two other pieces that fit together. When I leave five minutes later, he’s peering intently at the puzzle and holding pieces in each hand, trying to figure out where they fit. His briefcase sits on the chair next to him, his taxes forgotten. He used to be a high school math teacher much beloved by his students.

This is the everyday world of Alzheimer’s sufferers. It’s a realm of behavioral inconsistencies – from intelligence to gibberish, from reason to meltdown, from joy to confusion, anger, and rage. Those of us who love them, family members and caregivers, struggle to engage and care for them. We try not to raise hackles, to antagonize, to remind them that they should “know better.” It’s we who must know better. We sons and daughters, husbands and wives, have become their parents and bosses. We hate the job.

I will always remember James, the man who was involved in our space program at NASA. The man who had become a child by the time I met him but who always greeted me with a smile. I remember all of the men and women who once were someone else.

 

*James, like all the residents whose lives I’ve presented here, is based on a real person whose true identity I will not reveal.

 

Note: I’ve written a novel, Where Did Mama Go? about the devastation Alzheimer’s inflicts on families. It’s in the process of being edited, and then I’ll start querying for an agent to represent my work. My credentials for writing this story are sixteen years of assisting my mom through the labyrinth of this illness.

 

 

Photo of pier and ocean courtesy CCO Creative Commons, not requiring attribution

 

 

 

Open Me First

The holiday dilemma: what do you get for the person who has everything?

Perhaps something goofy like slippers that sing Rock Around the Clock, or something extravagant like a set of diamond encrusted napkins rings, the kind of thing that becomes an expensive party joke. Maybe a bauble like a garden statue of lighted snowmen or a set of holiday themed coffee mugs, useless most of the year because, well, they’re holiday themed and who wants to drink coffee in July with Rudolph’s red nose stenciled on it? We can get truly original: a dozen bottles of wine with personalized labels, Humphrey Malarkey Family Reserve Chardonnay, so it looks like Uncle Humph became a boutique vintner on Christmas Eve.  Another possibility is the very exclusive Himalayan Cilantro Sea Salt Spa Scrub with Acai Crystals – imagine how much fun Great Aunt Agnes will have trying to figure out if she should eat the stuff or bathe in it.

My favorite is the two-pound box of Belgian dark chocolate covered bacon bits because dark chocolate is so good for you and bacon bits are not very good for you but, hey, they’re bacon bits – you get it, right? These are the kinds of gifts we consider when we must give something to a person who can afford to buy a new car for each of their nephews and nieces and then pay all the speeding tickets they rack up. Because people who have everything have, well, everything, and anything we might buy is nothing they need and that’s the whole point.

So now we come to the other side of the gift list, the folks who have nothing and need it all. You know what to do about gifting the less fortunate – write a check and deposit it at your favorite charity. Someone is always in genuine need and your check will do wonders for those lacking anything wonderful in their lives.

But what about gifts for another group that’s nearly impossible to choose something for? What about mom or dad or husband or wife who has Alzheimer’s – what do you get people with fragile health and declining mental faculties? At the memory care residence where my mom lives, I notice the usual solutions: a bouquet of roses or potted bamboo twig for their rooms; a warm scarf or some funny socks; a box of shortbread cookies or a bag of gourmet pretzels; cologne or hand lotion; a costume bracelet or sweater vest. All of them are useful and will be appreciated to a degree, but none will fulfill the most desired wishes of the person who is ill. What they really want, and what you really want to give, is restored health. But you can’t.

Here then is the solution to both giftee dilemmas: The very best present you can give is yourself. To someone richer than Midas or ill with an incurable disease, following are the presents they will all love.

Spend time with them. Commit to an extra hour at each visit, an extra day each month. Worth about a million bucks and comes with bragging rights. My daughter-husband-son-wife is here with me because they love me. No dazzling outfits required, no ticket reservations, just sitting next to your loved one in comfy sweats is fine.

Do an activity you can share. Work an easy crossword puzzle or play Bingo or watch an old movie or take a twenty minute walk in the garden or frost sugar cookies or sing the songs they love or make snowman decorations out of cotton balls with them. It’s the with them part that’s the gift and it’s free.

Make a memory bank. Put together a photo album or collage with name tags to identify their family and closest friends. Listen to their delighted comments as they turn the pages or point at pictures. This is so much richer than a traditional financial investment, and the dividends can be spent over and over without ever depleting the assets.

Take them for a safe and simple outing. A half hour drive through the woods or along the lakefront or by the seashore or around a neighborhood where the houses are festooned with holiday lights is a wonderful change of pace. Point out the ordinary and extraordinary with equal delight because they’ll see everything with equal delight.

Be old school. Send a snail mail letter. I’ve watched folks open cards and letters, running fingers over the words, putting them back in the envelopes and pulling them out again,  over and over and over, grinning the whole time. Even if you can’t be there, even if you can, even if they can no longer read, send a card with a pretty image or a letter with a photograph. Write the word love, sign your name. The best stamp you’ll ever stick.

Share the stories of their youth. Remind them of when they were young and if they can, encourage them to tell you more than you knew before, even if the stories they tell are tall tales. Special events like weddings, births of babies, career advancement, and vacations generate hundreds of topics to discuss. It doesn’t matter if they call their husband their father, their sister their best friend, or you by your hated birth certificate name, or if they get dates and places mixed up. You don’t need to correct errors (who cares?) but you can add your own comments as you build moments in the present with remembrances of the past.

Neither very rich nor very ill folks need more stuff to fill closets. They need stuff to fill their hearts. Yours will fill as well. It’s the Open Me First present and it’s the absolute best. And wait till you see those smiles as they enjoy their favorite gifts of the season.

 

Note: I’ve written a novel, Where Did Mama Go? about the devastation Alzheimer’s inflicts on families. It’s in the process of being edited, and then I’ll start querying for an agent to represent my work. My credentials for writing this story are sixteen years of assisting my mom through the labyrinth of this illness.

 

Gift box image courtesy Pixabay.com

To Grandmother’s House We Go

We’re trying to get to Grandmother’s House. We’re trying to take her home, even though she’s lost.

Those of us who love and care for our family members who suffer with Alzheimer’s disease know that when they say they want to go home, it’s unlikely to be the last place they lived. Because they probably can no longer remember that more recent place, and taking them there may instigate even more despair for everyone. Grasping their desires is a moon shot from making them content. They want to go back to when they were seven and felt safe with their parents; to when they were sixteen and flirting with independence; to when they were twenty-four and exploring young adulthood; to when they were thirty-two and involved with marriage, children, and mortgages; to when they were fifty-eight and celebrating the birth of a first grandchild, a  child’s marriage, another’s college graduation; to when they were sixty-four and enduring their final career years; to when they were seventy-eight and Alzheimer’s knocked down all the retirement ideas they ever thought possible. All of their life collapsed like a block tower that can’t be rebuilt.

The holiday season arrives wrought with expectations and memories that tangle our celebrations by not meeting our high hopes. No matter how much we declare not wanting presents, parties to attend, and over-the-top fashions, if we’re caring for someone who is ill, we’re likely to have our plans changed, our hopes derailed, and at least one event cut short by a crisis. Tears, anger, aggression, bathroom accidents, bathroom refusals, eating problems, repetitive motions and comments, sleepiness, anxiety, total confusion – they all show up like a beggar at our feet. It isn’t Grandmother’s fault. It can’t be, because someone ill with Alzheimer’s is no longer in charge. The disease is in charge – peculiar and heavy handed, blistering with fever and glittering with promises that can’t be kept. I hate you, they say, I love you. You must not love me or you wouldn’t leave me here. I want to go home. And we, the accused, we cringe and cry and dig our nails into our hearts. We have to leave you here at this assisted living residence because we no longer have the strength or skills to care for you “at home.” Their home, our home, someplace other than the residence where they reside – we can’t.

My friends and I discuss whether or not we’re bringing mom (or dad or our spouse) home for the Christmas Day gift exchange or lighting the Chanukah menorah. If we’ll instead replicate the event at the residence where they are cared for by professionals, then abide the guilt of the empty place at the table, the missing voice of the blessings. Can we enjoy the home celebration when they aren’t there, the absence painfully obvious but so much more sane because they aren’t? Will the rest of the family blame us for their inclusion or exclusion? Will extended family support our decision, knowing we’re crying either way?

We do what we can to reconstruct the holidays and celebrations of the times when we were younger and our loved ones were healthy. Some create second weddings so dad can be present because he couldn’t attend his daughter’s nuptials in Arizona. Others arrange for a caregiver to bring grandma to three hours on Christmas morning so she can see her great-grandchildren unwrap gifts. I’m facilitating a Chanukah dessert party at the place where my mom lives, for her, the other Jewish residents, and anyone who wants to stop by for a cookie.

We put together albums with name tags on the photos so our loved ones whose minds are drifting in and out of reality can identify their spouses, their kids, their closest friends. We collect mementos for the shelf in their room, things they can hold and turn in their hands – the carved shell from the anniversary trip to Hawaii, the bronze award for signing the most contracts twenty years ago, the lifetime membership pin for the service organization to which they’d devoted so many years of altruistic fervor.  We coax them to recall names even when they forget them ten seconds later. Even when they are our names. Even when it’s hopeless.

These are the waning years when their moon has left its natural orbit and traverses an alternate route through space. We try to fill their mutilated minds with lifelines and safety nets and touchstones, hoping for memories to be lastingly imprinted. But it is only on our memories they’ll survive, and we wearily know that too, the failures of all our efforts. My mom’s brain will continue to retract, to default to a younger and younger self as she seeks familiarity.

And I’ll find solace in my memories of the occasions when we all gathered to light candles and say blessings for the wealth of our lives. When Mom was well a very long time ago, when my dad was with us. We take our ill loved ones to Grandmother’s House wherever it might be, and there we wait, praying for a few moments of shared joy and the flicker of recognition that makes all the work worthwhile. See you at home, Mom, see you at home.

 

 

Note: I’ve written a novel about the devastation Alzheimer’s forces on families. It’s in the process of being edited, and then I’ll start querying for an agent to represent my work. My credentials for writing this story are sixteen years of assisting my mom through the labyrinth of this illness.

 

Image courtesy Pixabay

Five Across, Four Down

That which we encounter everyday should be that which we celebrate. That which we celebrate can be that which teaches us how better to do what we love. And that which we love can inspire us to write, even when we think our inspiration took off with the last Mongol invasion of Central Asia.

Crossword puzzles occupy a lot of my time, especially true in the last eight years. I don’t have an obsessive love of crosswords, but my mom always did. A pop-in visit to see my folks was as likely to be met with the urgently asked, “What’s a seven letter word for something important?” (gravity) as a heartfelt, “Glad you came by.” Right there, the beginning of a story for NaNoWriMo. Whose mom wants the right puzzle word more than a visit from her progeny? Yours, course. (Well, mine, but you know what I mean.) You thought you were empty headed, completely bereft of words to fill a book, and yet right in front of you, there they are: words a-plenty. Just have to pluck them from her puzzle and plop them into your 50,000 word story.

After my father’s death, crossword puzzles became a link between mom and me, one of the essential strategies for keeping her Alzheimer’s diseased brain as highly functioning as possible. We work them together, and I’m still amazed that she often knows answers I don’t. (Clue: Precedes while. “Erst,” she said. Oh yeah, erstwhile. Now I get it.) These clever word games have taught me a lot in eight years, skills I didn’t know I needed but now seek to augment as much as possible. The more I sit beside my mom, helping her focus on crossword clues and answers, the more I learn about writing. There’s another NaNoWriMo story waiting for a keyboard, should I want to use it: cross word puzzling through mom’s illness. Sort of a mental travelogue.

Patience, spelling prowess, trivia knowledge, peculiar humor, vocabulary building, archaic words, unusual context, flash fiction, courage, tenacity, personal relationships – all these are benefits of doing crosswords. All are applicable skills for writing.

I’ve developed the patience to work at solving a puzzle even when I know the answer is in the back of the book. There’s a certain satisfaction when mom and I complete an entire puzzle and we haven’t cheated once. She contributes about one tenth of the answers, an amazing fact given her condition. The rest is up to me and I’m often stumped. I lean over the book, staring at clues and wondering what could have possibly been on the puzzle creator’s mind to have written such an obscure clue. Kiln: oast. She knew the answer and spelled it correctly. I didn’t. (By the way, beer lovers, did you know that the hops were dried in an oast? What interesting trivia we gather in puzzles.) By the time we’ve finally completed the challenge, I’m thoroughly pleased for having stuck it out. Mom beams. I write a personal note across the top of each puzzle to its creator: Harry, can’t you find any modern words, or, You’ve got a sense of humor, Martha, a wicked one, but humor all the same. Mom loves reading the notes later in the week so I make sure to write one every time. My silly comments make her smile.  My writing has an appreciative audience. I value whatever readers I have.

Puzzle solving teaches about unexpected humor. Most crosswords incorporate several clues related to the title. “Rare Gems” clues included 20 across: Unpolished. No spaces between words, no hint about how many words needed, and the answer: diamondintherough. The clue for 30 across: Had an appetite for Lillian Russell: DiamondJimBrady. The last clue in the gem category, 40 across: Faceted field: baseballdiamond. I groaned that it wasn’t a fair clue, but mom reminded me, “It’s just crosswords.” I grinned. She was right, and it was funny to think about diamonds in so many ways. Rare gems indeed.

A writer needs a broad vocabulary, an internal thesaurus stuffed with words to suit every occasion. Especially useful for me was the reminder that rectos are “right hand pages” (the answer to 14 down,) and then I remembered that left hand pages are verso, which brought me to recall that a leaf is paper with two sides. Yes, all paper has front and back, but a leaf has writing on both sides. Now I’m on to leaf with all its meanings and applications. Every tot learns to gather leaves as soon as she can toddle outside, but leafing through a book has more to do with recto and verso than biology. Leaf sounds poetic to my ear while bract is emphatic, frond drifts in the breeze, pad sunbathes, and petiole and stipule put me back in seventh grade science class. The puzzle proved a useful meandering through related words as a leaf is a major player in one of my books. At my next revision, I’ll check for variety and intent of its synonymous words.  At the moment, mom wants to know what clue I’m reading, and we move on. Alzheimer’s doesn’t make her want to wait for me.

The puzzle entitled “Cut Me a Deal” provided a mini course in flash fiction. The answers included (I’m making it easy on you by separating the words, though the puzzle didn’t) Shuffle the deck, Shuffle off to Buffalo, Stacking the deck, and Deal me in. That’s a pretty generous prompt for writing flash fiction. The story is nearly there; all you need is a main character. So, Ronald Rucinski, you thought you were just a puzzle crafter, cribbed in your corner with naught but the computer light fending the darkness of the room. Now you’re also a high stakes player in a grimy casino off the main drag in Las Vegas, trying to bolster your flagging bank account with a poker faced attempt at betting the bank, working the room, and raking it in. “Deal me in,” Ronald Rucinski said, sliding his toothpick between the amber ivories in his mouth and narrowing his eyes as the dealer shuffled the deck. He hoped the slick bastard didn’t stack the deck like the last chiseler. As a story, it needs work, but all work needs more work. Still, it’s a start, and all stories must start someplace. “Cut Me a Deal” is even a decent working title.

Mom and I exhibit courage when doing puzzles. We write in pen. Pencils dull too fast and I have the courage of my convictions, though evidence suggests I’m often wrong. A writer must be courageous as she faces that blank page each day, grasping at flitting words and forcing them to her tome. Commit to the pen and you’re halfway there. OK, maybe a hundredth of the way there, a thousandth, but still, have pen, will write, and there you are, off on your book’s journey, wherever it may take you, down the occasional false path, but writing all the time. Writing quickly, as NaNoWriMo demands, because 50,000 words can be wrought from crossword books, but you still have to arrange them in a story order of some kind.

The more I’ve worked crosswords with my mom, the more I’ve learned about life. The more I learn about life, the better I write. It’s been an odd place to glean an education and a peculiar way of building a relationship with an ill person. Thank you, Mom, for all you’ve given me, 50,000 words and more. May God protect you and keep you as long as possible from the worst ravages of your disease.

 

 

Crossword puzzle image courtesy: Wikimedia.Commons