Sixes and Sevens

In keeping with the spirit of this book, I would like to examine, or at least try to examine, the effect my mother’s Alzheimer’s-fueled descent into mental oblivion is having on me in terms of my art and my outlook, as well as my own physical and mental health.

First, there is no question that my art has been affected, and that it is still being transformed. There is also no doubt that I cling to my work in the same way a sailor clings to a piece of wreckage in a storm.

The fact is, my mother has already lost her mind:

Knowing her as I do,
and living with her, I know.
She is beautiful and she is old,
but she is a ghost of herself
chasing shadows.

I said to my wife the other day, “It’s as if we are trying to let her down gracefully,” and she agreed. Precious-tiny-profound connections evaporate before our eyes. The first of her sisters to die bid farewell to this world not quite two weeks ago; she has been trying to wrap her mind around the loss and her own mortality ever since. She has accepted the fact, but it disturbs her at a deeper level. The stress of trying to understand wears on her. Last night, just before she went to bed, she asked me if she would ever get well. By now I am used to such questions, and have become adept at answering them in a way that is vague, meaningful, and suited to the moment. Eventually, her puzzled frown became a smile. She said good night and closed her door. By now, time and sleep will have erased her concern. But I am left to remember, knowing it will sprout again soon in another form.

And later today I will cook her a pan of string beans with olive oil and lamb. This is how, from sheer necessity, my own mind runs. Write a poem, trim some beans, give her her breakfast and her pills, patiently answer her new-old questions. Feel the pain of too little sleep, the frustration of work left undone, the nagging of personal matters postponed and unresolved. Water the jade plant we gave her almost a year ago, then put it outside on the front step. Marvel at the morning light lapping against the foundation of the house. Wonder if she has had a stroke in her sleep. Be glad she doesn’t recall her most recent nightmare.

*   *   *

So — how has my work been affected? For one thing, I have been writing more poems, and they are shorter and more condensed. Have they become more melancholy? Perhaps — although I do believe each contains its own peculiar moment of triumph and leap of joy. These tiny works bring me great pleasure — also relief. The days are long. When I look out the window at the spring-wet overgrown lawn, I imagine sheep grazing beside an old stone church. When I hear the sudden roar of the neighbor’s lawn mower, I think, “Good God, has everyone gone mad?”

At the same time, the poems are connected to one another. They are part of a much larger, longer poem — the poem of my life, which is also connected to other beloved life-poems, and the poem that is this book.

When the day ends, I rarely feel I have accomplished enough. But then I reason with myself: “Such is life. Under the circumstances, what more can be done?” Indeed, for in this mad world, even the tiniest poem, or the simplest thought well expressed, has the power to transform.

*   *   *

What about my mental health? Should I be concerned? Has my behavior become erratic? Do I have trouble putting two and two together? I assume the answer is still
five — five of the most beautiful things you dare imagine: five ponds, five newborn children, five mountains, five haunted moons, five fingers, five forevers in which to live and love and imagine more fives.

Or sixes, if you prefer, or lucky sevens.

In other words, I am here. Isn’t that crazy enough?

March 30, 2007

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