Last month I was in the hospital a lot. Not for myself, but for my Old Ladies. Not because they had covid-19 at the time, but one for sepsis and the other who was refusing to swallow.
Old Ladies: Aunt & Mother ca 1970’s
The Old Lady refusing to swallow was my mother who after two weeks of getting fed through a nasal gastric tube had to have a feeding tube put in. The refusing to swallow apparently is a symptom of dementia. The other Old Lady, my aunt, is back in the nursing home and seems to be beating the odds (this is where I knock on wood). The nursing home where my aunt resides is reporting six deaths due to the virus, but from what I can tell from our Facetime chats, she has not succumbed to it.
I am not sure how long I can keep from succumbing to a dementia of my own. A dementia brought on by the stress of making life-changing decisions for other people on top of the guilt that has been gnawing away at me since I took over the Old Ladies’ care back in 2011.
But I don’t want to let them down.
There are people who I know are dead
and people I suppose are dead
and people who I fear are dead
and dead people long forgotten
and dead people who never leave
excerpted from “There Are People Who I Know Are Dead”
by Robert Hershon
My mother spent many nights making dinner for me and my dad. Dinner was one of the few aspects of my confounding childhood that made sense: a small proof of normalcy. By 2011, my mother had mostly stopped cooking. I took this as a sign that she’d given up trying.
Making dinner 2013
But dementia takes away your life. My mother had been so vigilant about buying fresh ingredients so she could feed us real food, so when I see her not being able to feed herself, I find it devastating.
Making dinner 2007
I find the act of cooking and sharing food a great joy. When I make food for you, it means that I care about you. What I may not be able to express with words, I can say with dumplings.
Chez Anna & Paul, 2007
Just like I learned from my mother.
Children who grow up without having a warm rapport with their parents will most probably turn into parents no better than theirs. I am sure the short cut to a warm, close family is having meals together. The joy of working in the kitchen and setting the table for their family is a lesson children can learn only from their parents.
––Chang Sun-Young, from A Mother’s Cooking Notes
My mother, M.I.A all my life.
Where did you go?
My mother was diagnosed with “early onset” dementia by doctors in Montefiore Hospital in 2012, and I have been lost ever since.
She was straddling two worlds––past and present––for most of my childhood and never found footing in either. As a child of war, she has been living in trauma for most of her life, haunted by its aftermath ever more. She married my father, another child of the same war, and they muddled through together by the skin of their teeth.
My mother was damaged. Did she know she was damaged? I don’t have the answer to that, but I know I am. Because I lived through a war too. The constant fighting between my parents put me in daily emotional and physical peril.
In many ways I am also straddling two worlds because my childhood is merely a part of the continuum that is my life: No matter how old I am, I am still the child I once was.
December 24, 2014
Occurred to me the other day
You’ve been gone now a couple years
Well, I guess it takes while
For someone to really disappear…
–Patty Griffin, “Goodbye”
It is so pleasureable to write about food.
I started a food blog in 2012, writing mostly about Korean food. I will tell you that the best Korean food you’ll eat is the food you make at home. I learned how to make it from my mom and aunt. Before being admitted into a nursing home, they used to live on their own in the Bronx where they were sometimes cooking the basics: noodles and soups. But when they both came down with dementia, they just kept burning their pots and pans, and once my mom set an electric kettle on the stove and nearly burnt their building down.
Toss your noodle
I like my food blog and can’t bring myself to dismantle it, but over these months I have noticed my posting has slowed down (but certainly not my eating!) It feels like the beginning of the end…but I want to remember everything.
We’ve been cooking
cassava for hours
while the men drink beer
and skin all they can grab
tonight it’s rat
turning over an agitated fire
spitting out sparks
good eating for the emperors
––Jiwon Choi, “To Eat.” Rigorous. 2017
Old poems are where new poems come from.
While rummaging through folders of old poems, I found the genesis of a current poem I wrote about my mother, and her diagnosed dementia. Most of the work that I generate about my mother is not for public consumption, with the exception of the published pieces that hopefully provide a little insight.
This ‘mother’ poem was the spawn of two poems I’d written back when it became clear that there was something wrong with her mental capacity. Both poems work to piece together bits of what I know and imagine of my mother’s childhood.
Parent One: The Law of Gravity
She was diagnosed with this affliction back in 2011. But I suspect that there was something wrong with her way before. I am certain she had a strain of PTSD that was neither diagnosed nor addressed while I was growing up with her.
Both of my parents had it. How could they not? They’d lived through a war, had their family members sent to work camps, killed or drop dead from disease.
Parent Two: Knowing This is the End
I probably have it too. Though I don’t dwell on it too often, it’s good to be aware of one’s fault lines and where they be. I am not immune.
The poem these two old ones birthed has been published in the current issue, #109, of Hanging Loose Magazine:
…so what I have always known is true––you were a mother made up entirely of memories…
–from You Live in the Space Behind Your Eyes
Incidentally, this issue also features two remarkable poets who I just found out about: Jose Angel Araguz and Carole Bernstein. They are worth a read.