Poetry Monday–Finding Beauty in Aging and Alzheimer’s

 

For our first poetry Monday I’d like to highlight Jane Kenyon who I was introduced to by Laurie Lamon. The three poems I will post are out of her collection titled Otherwise. One of the many reasons why I enjoy Kenyon’s writing as much as a I do is because of her poetry’s accessibility. While she is by no means a simplistic poet, she takes simple topics and expands them beyond anything I could imagine.

Much of the poetry in this collection touches on the topic of aging and death. I chose these three poems for today because in my initial reading of them all, they instantly reminded me of my great grandmother who died at age 96 from Alzheimer’s disease. I would love to hear what you think about them; hopefully you find them as beautifully heartbreaking as I do.

In The Nursing Home

She is like a horse grazing
a hill pasture that someone makes
smaller by coming every night
to pull the fences in and in.

She has stopped running wide loops,
stopped even the tight circles.
She drops her head to feed; grass
is dust, and the creekbed’s dry.

Master, come with your light
halter. Come and bring her in.

 

The Needle

Grandmother, you are as pale
as Christ’s hands on the wall above you.
When you close your eyes you are all 
white–hair, skin, gown. I blink
to find you again in the bed.

I remember once you told me
you weighed a hundred and twenty-three,
the day you married Grandfather.
You had handsome legs. He watched you 
working at the sink.

The soft ring is loose on your hand.
I hated coming here.
I know you can’t understand me.
I’ll try again,
like the young nurse with the needle.

 

Ironing Grandmother’s Tablecloth

As a bride, you made it smooth,
pulling the edges straight, the corners square.
For years you went over the same piece
of cloth, the way Grandfather walked to work.

This morning I move the iron across the damask,
back and forth, up and down. You are ninety-four.
Each day you dress yourself, then go back to bed
and listen to radio sermons, staring at the ceiling.

When I visit, you tell me your troubles: 
how my father left poisoned grapefruit on the back 
porch at Christmas, how somebody comes at night
to throw stones at the house.

The streets of your brain become smaller,
old houses torn down. Talking to me
is hard work, keeping things straight,
whose child I am, whether I have children. 

 

To me, Kenyon is summing up the heartbreaking, yet beautiful aspects of growing old through these poems; how she does both simultaneously is inspiring to me.

What do you think?

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3 thoughts on “Poetry Monday–Finding Beauty in Aging and Alzheimer’s

  1. Jessica, I have never read Jane’s poetry. Her writing is beautiful in the way that is a raw expression of the real feelings, real experiences and thoughts that engulf loved ones upon visiting a failing elder and/or trying to cope with visiting a loved one who has alzheimer’s.

    My Grandfather died early in life from Emphysema. As a 13 year old, dealing with my own emotions about it was confusing and difficult. But watching my Grandmother and my aunts and uncles go through it was heartbreaking for me and at the same time, a learning experience from God. I ached physically to see all the sadness; and it went on for at least a few years. Sometimes it was like the “elephant in the room” and even at the young age of around 11, I could detect that. I remember pretending that everything was OK and that Grandpa would live forever, as I tried not to cry seeing him attached to an oxygen tank at the dinner table, knowing that he would die sometime soon; that he would not see my wedding, or hold my children on his lap like he did with me. It was so sad. I am sure you and Whitney experienced some of the same emotions going through what you did with Uncle Lenny.

    Her first poem reminds me of my Grandpa Bill, our Grandmother Hattie and your Grandpa/my Uncle Lenny. They were all fully aware of their weakness. They had to struggle to understand and accept God’s will to be done. But watching them let down their guard, letting go of having control, was to them like the fences getting closer to the point that their entire focus was simply living; taking their next breath in hopes that God would deliver them to heaven or restore them to good health on earth. A sort of “stand-still” in their lives. A sad, yet calming realization of leaving this earth and their family but knowing that God was walking with them in the end.

    Her other two poems brought tears to my eyes. Before my Grandmother Loretta died of alzheimer’s I could only imagine how horrible that experience was for a family to endure. What I discovered is that I could have never imagined anything close to the reality of that horror. The emotions I went through had incredible control over my mind. I found myself avoiding my Grandmother because seeing her devastated me and I was more fearful of her not knowing who I was than of her dying. I wanted her to die and I wanted that to happen before I might see her one day and have her ask me, “who are you?”.
    To visit her, I would have to pray and talk myself into it. I would have to talk myself into a protective state of denial. Having someone you love die, even a terrible death is unfortunate, sad and very emotional but knowing that they heard you say, “I love you” for the last time, or knowing they laughed at a memory you shared with them can give you comfort with that kind of loss. When someone you love dearly like a Grandmother who suffers several years of alzheimers and dies, it is devastating. I prayed to God to take my Grandmother long before he did. I was even mad at God for not doing it sooner. I know that sounds terrible but I hated to see her lose her mind to the degree that she could not remember her life; that she could not remember me. And in the end, she did not remember me. My worst fear came true twice when she looked at me like a total stranger and asked me who I was. And understanding the disease did not set my mind at ease. I can only hope that God has restored her mind and that in heaven, she will remember me and all of my cousins, my aunts (her daughters) and my uncles. .

    Thanks for sharing Jess. Love you sweetie!

    • Shelley,
      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. I’m glad you enjoyed these three poems I choose, and hopefully you will have an opportunity to read more of her work (I’ll have to let you borrow my collection of her’s).
      I think one of the reasons why I have developed an interest in reading and writing poetry is because of how it can give a fresh light to topics that we may have trouble only seeing one way. For instance, in all three of these poems Kenyon writes about the same subject, yet we are able to see it in at least three different ways. Kenyon brings a sense of peace and perspective to something as painful as losing a loved one, or losing a mind. I think you said it best when you described the moment just before death as being

      A sad, yet calming realization of leaving this earth and their family but knowing that God was walking with them in the end.

      I think this also ties in nicely about how you were wishing for your grandmother to die long before she did. I think no matter how cruel this wish may sound, it is a natural feeling. When my grandpa was fighting against cancer, I hoped he would stop treatment and give himself over to the cancer. Not only were the treatments making his last days on earth miserable, but it was clear that although he was still living, his battle had long been over before we discovered the cancer in his body. Watching my grandma and mom tending to his every need, including carrying his then frail body to the shower and rolling him over to prevent bedsores, I too wished he would die because not only was his body falling apart, but my family’s mental strength was failing as well. When he finally did pass, the day after I built up the courage to visit him, I felt the calming sense of relief you described. Through Kenyon’s writing, she shows us how this feeling is natural and not one to be guilty over.

  2. Pingback: Poetry Monday and Family Secrets | Obscure Meandre

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