Cooking With Love
As her mother lives with memory loss, singer Jann Arden reflects on how they found comfort in the kitchen
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.
“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?”
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.