Cook­ing With Love

As her mother lives with mem­ory loss, singer Jann Ar­den re­flects on how they found com­fort in the kitchen

Reader's Digest (Canada) - - Contents - FROM FEED­ING MY MOTHER

As her mother lives with mem­ory loss, singer Jann Ar­den re­flects on how they found com­fort in the kitchen. FROM FEED­ING MY MOTHER

I re­mem­ber the first time Mom for­got some­thing big. It wasn’t the kind of lapse we all have from time to time—for­get­ting where we put our keys or where we parked the car. This was a big sud­den void. Right af­ter it hap­pened, on that morn­ing in 2009, I felt a dis­com­fort in­sert it­self at the back of my throat that hasn’t re­ally eased up since.

We had been sit­ting in my par­ents’ kitchen in ru­ral Al­berta, hav­ing a visit with my sis­ter-in-law, Lori. Ev­ery­thing seemed nor­mal. At some point Lori brought up the sub­ject of her old cat. “I didn’t want to tell you, Joan,” she said to my mom, “but we had to have her put down a few days ago. God, what­ever you guys do, don’t tell Du­ray about it. He’ll be devastated.”

My older brother Du­ray was in jail for first-de­gree mur­der—a mur­der he has al­ways de­nied com­mit­ting. He’s very sen­si­tive to any­thing that is the least bit up­set­ting, prob­a­bly be­cause he feels so help­less.

“I would never say a word,” Mom said. Lori went on about how sick the cat had been and that she hadn’t found quite the right mo­ment to tell Du­ray. We talked about it in de­tail for at least 15 min­utes, Mom con­sol­ing and re­spond­ing in all the right places. Lori re­peated as she walked out the door, “Please don’t say any­thing. Okay, you guys?”

Mom an­swered, “We won’t, Lori. Mom’s the word.” And we all had a bit of a laugh.

Be­fore Lori’s car had dis­ap­peared down the road, Mom’s phone rang: Du­ray. The first thing that came out of her mouth was, “You wouldn’t be­lieve it, but your cat died!”

“Mom!” I waved my arms in the air try­ing to get her at­ten­tion.

“What?” she asked with her hand over the re­ceiver. “I’m on the phone!”

“Je­sus, you weren’t sup­posed to tell him that!”

“Tell him what?” She looked at me blankly. She re­ally didn’t know.

“About their cat dy­ing! What are you think­ing?”

That was the day. From one sec­ond to the next, my mom had started down the lonely, con­fus­ing road called Alzheimer’s disease.

I WOULD SPEND the next two years in de­nial. I made ex­cuses for both my par­ents over and over again as the mem­ory thieves slowly stole things from be­neath our noses. I chalked the lapses up to gar­den-va­ri­ety old age. My dad had suf­fered a stroke sev­eral years ear­lier, so he had se­vere mem­ory and mo­bil­ity is­sues, but my mom was the “nor­mal” one. She was the glue. She ded­i­cated her days to look­ing af­ter Dad, their house, their yard and their meals. She did all the driv­ing. I des­per­ately needed her to be okay. I was also too scared to think about what was hap­pen­ing.

I must have hoped that if I wished the sit­u­a­tion away of­ten enough, my mom would start re­mem­ber­ing again. But that’s not how Alzheimer’s op­er­ates. A cruel sculp­tor, it chis­els away at a per­son, one minis­cule piece at a time, ex­pos­ing a mind to ev­ery form of loss and sad­ness. It doesn’t stop un­til it cuts away the last breath.

I have cy­cled through var­i­ous stages of grief, fear, frus­tra­tion and anger. I’m not sure half the time if I’m do­ing things right with my mom or screw­ing them up, but I do know that what mat­ters are the mo­ments spent with the peo­ple you love. What mat­ters is set­ting judg­ment and re­sent­ment aside so that tol­er­ance, pa­tience and kind­ness can move into your soul.

Mom’s jour­ney, and my jour­ney with her, is far from over, and for that I am grate­ful. In these last eight years, I’ve learned more about com­pas­sion and em­pa­thy and for­give­ness than I ever thought pos­si­ble. I’ve learned that some­thing good can come from some­thing bad: fac­ing ad­ver­sity can make you a much bet­ter ver­sion of your­self. I’ve learned that hav­ing a sense of hu­mour is cru­cial. I’ve also learned that feed­ing my mother, mak­ing her a home-cooked meal, pro­vides both of us with grace, so­lace and peace, and that food is vi­tal for our well­ness and con­tent­ment.

I’ve learned that feed­ing my mother, mak­ing her a home-cooked meal, pro­vides us both with grace, so­lace and peace.

And I’ve learned that no mat­ter what comes, you’ve got to wrap your­self in all the good­ness you can muster. That’s what my mom does ev­ery sin­gle day.

A few weeks ago, as we were driv­ing into town to buy a few gro­ceries, she told me that she was 80 per cent happy. That made me laugh re­ally hard. “Eighty per cent, Mom? Well, that’s way bet­ter than me!”

She told me that I would have to work on that.

July 13, 2014

Of course I al­ways knew that my par­ents would get older, that things would change. But I wasn’t pre­pared for how much they would change or how quickly. It’s been up­lift­ing and heart­break­ing and mind-bog­gling watch­ing what a 56-year mar­riage means to two peo­ple when things start to fall apart.

My par­ents do this kind of dance in the house, weav­ing in and around each other with­out hav­ing to think about who will move where or how or when. It is a dance cre­ated over time.

“I can tell he’s asleep by how he’s breath­ing,” Mom will say. “I can tell if he’s sick by the way his face changes colour. You wouldn’t no­tice, but I do.”

Last night, my dad was star­ing at my mom’s teacup, which was sit­ting next to her din­ner plate. I thought to my­self, What the hell is he think­ing about? My mom glanced up at me and said, “He wants a glass of wa­ter.” He nod­ded and looked at me as if to say, “What took you so long to fig­ure that out, you silly goose?”

One of those re­li­able things that hasn’t changed with my par­ents is the sim­ple joy of hav­ing a good meal to­gether. I started cook­ing reg­u­larly for them af­ter sev­eral trips over to their place—just 15 me­tres from my own door—to help them “fig­ure out this god­damn can opener.” (My dad has al­ways had a way with words.) I was march­ing home in a bit of a huff af­ter open­ing the third can of soup in as many days—won­der­ing why the heck they were eat­ing so many meals from a can—when it dawned on me. Heat­ing up soup was some­thing my mom could still man­age.

I started cook­ing for my par­ents af­ter sev­eral trips to their place to help them “fig­ure

out this god­damn can opener.”

I started by cook­ing din­ner for them once or twice a week. Within a month, they were com­ing arm in arm across the drive­way to­wards my house al­most ev­ery even­ing, chat­ter­ing away. It was all they could do to wait un­til 5:30 p.m. If Dad had had his way, he would have been on my doorstep by 3 p.m.

I hadn’t re­ally done a lot of cook­ing be­fore then. Life as a singer-song­writer has meant a lot of time on the road tour­ing—and a lot of eat­ing out. Now I had to fig­ure out how to pre­pare fun but nu­tri­tious meals Mom and Dad would en­joy. (Thank heaven for cook­ing shows.) Luck­ily, my folks would try any­thing I put in front of them, and they al­ways seemed to like it.

Oc­to­ber 11, 2014

I spent the af­ter­noon yes­ter­day in the yard with my par­ents. There was some­thing about the au­tumn leaves fall­ing from the poplars through the sun, like thin gold coins, that eased my heart. Ev­ery­thing just seemed so fa­mil­iar and easy.

My mother did warn my broth­ers and me about what was com­ing. Many years ago, she told us we’d have to fend for our­selves some­day, that she and Dad wouldn’t al­ways be there to do ev­ery­thing.

Yeah right, I’d thought to my­self at the time. Like that will ever hap­pen.

Yes­ter­day the air was cool enough for us to need our old sweaters and hats. Mom was wear­ing a ball cap from 1994 that says “In­sen­si­tive,” the ti­tle of one of my songs.

“You still have that crazy old hat,” I said to her.

“What hat?”

“The one that’s on your head.” “What’s the mat­ter with it?”

“It’s just funny that you still have it.” “I have ev­ery­thing I ever had,” she said, mat­ter-of-factly.

And she may be right, be­cause my par­ents’ house is be­gin­ning to look rather clut­tered.

Mom started laugh­ing when I asked her why she was sav­ing all this stuff. She said, “I just need it and I don’t know why. So there. You can burn it all when I die.”

My mother did warn my broth­ers and me about what was com­ing. Many years ago, she told us we’d have to fend for our­selves some­day.

“Maybe I will burn it, or maybe I’ll sell it all on eBay.”

“You should just have a big yard sale. You could wait a few months at least af­ter I’m dead….”

“I’ll wait at least three months.” “Good.”


Then we both laughed, and Dad told us we needed to get back to work. Then he laughed, too.

We spent the rest of the day gath­er­ing up pota­toes, car­rots and onions from the gar­den and putting them down in the root cel­lar Dad built years ago.

That night, we ate roasted veg­eta­bles from our land.

Novem­ber 15, 2014

Yes­ter­day, my dad turned 79. I told him I couldn’t be­lieve he was al­most 80. He said that he still felt like he was a kid. “When I look in the mir­ror, I just see me like I al­ways was. I look the same as I ever did.”

My par­ents, along with my lit­tle brother, Pa­trick, and his family, came over to my place to cel­e­brate the big day. Dad seemed very un­moved by the whole thing. He said, “What’s so dif­fer­ent about to­day? We eat over here ev­ery day, so I guess ev­ery day is my birth­day?”

Good point.

I made pizza, be­cause that’s what Dad wanted, and a gi­ant salad. Pa­trick brought some evil yet de­li­cious cup­cakes that were mostly but­ter­cream ic­ing. Mom loved them. She thought it was Pa­trick’s birth­day most of the day, so we all had a good laugh about that.

Af­ter din­ner we sang a bad ver­sion of “Happy Birth­day,” and Dad sang along, too, which was clas­sic. These times are good ones. I keep try­ing to lock the mem­o­ries away some­where safe, so the “me” of the fu­ture will re­mem­ber and smile.

Jan­uary 7, 2015

A few days ago, I asked my mom if she thought she would ever for­get me. She said, “Well, my brain might, but my heart won’t.” Those eight

I am a mother to my mother. It is a mas­sive learn­ing curve, not only be­cause I didn’t have

chil­dren but be­cause there is no hand­book.

words took my breath away. I felt a weight that I’d been car­ry­ing for the past few years lift off my shoul­ders.

Au­gust 18, 2015

I haven’t writ­ten any­thing in a long time. Life has a way of pick­ing you up and drop­ping you off a few weeks later at an un­known des­ti­na­tion.

Dad is fad­ing away. Lit­er­ally. He’s lost 18 kilo­grams in the past six months. The weight is fall­ing off him like it wants to go some­where else, any­where but where his body has found it­self. He looks at me like I have an an­swer to his quandary. I do not.

Au­gust 31, 2015

I am sit­ting in the Chicago air­port, try­ing to get home. Dad is barely hang­ing on. Pneu­mo­nia. An­other stroke. Low blood pres­sure and rac­ing heart. The man is worn out.

Pa­trick and his wife, Jodi, have stayed with him at the hos­pi­tal. Mom has been there, too. Pa­trick and Jodi brought Mom to their house to sleep while I’ve been away.

Ev­ery damn time I go away that dad of mine gets him­self hauled off to a hos­pi­tal. Per­haps he likes hav­ing me fran­ti­cally try­ing to get home to him. Still, look­ing af­ter Mom and Dad these past six years is the best thing I’ve ever done. The lessons learned have been too many to count.

Au­gust 31, 2015

With Dad now.

Au­gust 31, 2015

Dad passed away at 8:15 p.m. We love you.

De­cem­ber 20, 2015

It’s been al­most four months since Dad died.

Mom al­ways wants to do some­thing for me, to help in some small way. She never wants to be idle. I hate to ad­mit this, but from time to time I feel like I take ad­van­tage of the fact that she likes to mop and vac­uum. In my de­fence, it makes her happy.

Mom still wants to have a pur­pose­ful life. She can fold a bas­ket of tea tow­els for an hour and not be the least bit both­ered—in fact, she’ll tell me how much she en­joyed it. She also loves wip­ing down coun­ters and wa­ter­ing plants. That said, it’s very dif­fi­cult for her to stay on task. She will have a potato peeler in one hand and a potato in the other and still have to ask me what she’s do­ing. Then she’ll peel the potato down to a nub­bin if I don’t keep an eye on her.

I think she misses cook­ing a lot; she wants to be in the kitchen as much as she can. Be­ing around food and help­ing to pre­pare it makes her feel like a reg­u­lar per­son.

May 8, 2016

I am so grate­ful as I sit here next to my sleep­ing mother. She is hav­ing a nap af­ter a great visit with Pa­trick and Jodi and their twins, Ethan and Ryan.

I’m grate­ful for all the times she dragged her­self out of bed to drive us to our hockey prac­tices and our base­ball games, not to men­tion our bas­ket­ball and volleyball and bad­minton tour­na­ments.

For the thou­sands of Crock-Pot meals and words of en­cour­age­ment, and for her lim­it­less sup­port no mat­ter how badly we’d screwed up.

For telling me my arms were just right and my freck­les were per­fect and that I was sturdy and not the least bit fat.

For look­ing past my mis­takes and see­ing my po­ten­tial. For let­ting me fail. For hop­ing for me when I couldn’t seem to hope my­self. For pick­ing us all up even when she was down. For in­spir­ing all of us with her de­ter­mi­na­tion and brav­ery.

I have a good mother, and her voice is still what keeps me here.

Oc­to­ber 28, 2016

I am a mother to my mother. It’s a mas­sive learn­ing curve, not only be­cause I didn’t have chil­dren of my own, but be­cause there isn’t a hand­book. Alzheimer’s is a dif­fer­ent disease for ev­ery per­son it in­hab­its.

My big­gest en­emy is pa­tience or, more pre­cisely, the lack thereof. I feel my­self crum­ble as my mom’s mem­ory crum­bles. I feel part of my­self die a lit­tle bit more ev­ery time she for­gets some­thing new. It’s as if we are still joined by the cord that con­nected us all those life­times ago.

De­cem­ber 24, 2016

Mom and I are sit­ting here wait­ing for every­body to ar­rive. She is sur­prised that we are hav­ing Christ­mas again. We just had it. We have some time to our­selves to drink tea and eat good­ies, and she is mow­ing through the short­bread and caramels and choco­late.

I’m so grate­ful for all the lessons this past year. I’m grate­ful for the mishaps and the mis­takes.

There is so much joy.

I DON’T KNOW WHAT the fu­ture holds for me or my mom. I have a few ideas as to what’s go­ing to un­fold, but they aren’t worth spread­ing out on the ta­ble and star­ing at. There are far too many things that will re­main com­pletely un­known un­til the very last sec­ond. That’s what life is good at— be­ing mys­te­ri­ous and un­pre­dictable.

My mom doesn’t know what she did or said even two min­utes ago. Things are lost al­most as soon as they are ex­pe­ri­enced. I’ve learned to let all her fleet­ing mem­o­ries float up into the air.

As my mother’s daugh­ter and care­giver, I have to stay in the mo­ment that my mom lives in. I have to hold her hand and go down the road that she is on with­out hes­i­ta­tion. I’ve learned that it’s lib­er­at­ing to sur­ren­der.

When this all started, I thought that if I rolled up my sleeves and went to war with Alzheimer’s, I could buy my mother some time and keep the disease at bay. But that’s not the way it works. The harder I pushed, the harder my mother pulled. I found out pretty quickly how de­ter­mined she and her Alzheimer’s were go­ing to be.

I know that things are go­ing to get worse for my mom—that she will suc­cumb to this thing even­tu­ally— but I still feel a won­der­ful sense of hope­ful­ness. I don’t know a lot, but I do know that we are go­ing to be some ver­sion of fine. That I am go­ing to be fine and that Mom will be cush­ioned by a whole lot of love from a whole lot of peo­ple.

When we go on our morn­ing walks down the road, I tell Mom about all the peo­ple who think she is so cool and so funny and so beau­ti­ful. Her face lights up, and for a mo­ment she looks so fa­mil­iar to me. I cher­ish those few min­utes more than I can ex­press.

As we go for­ward, those times when she re­veals her­self to me will be­come fewer and far­ther be­tween, but I’m not go­ing to lose faith. I will keep re­mind­ing my­self that what’s go­ing on with me and my mom is just life. So Alzheimer’s and I have de­cided that we will work to­gether in or­der to be as well as we can be.

No mat­ter what hap­pens, I’m go­ing to be feed­ing my mother.


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