Sparked by Words

Posts tagged ‘courage’

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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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