Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” On the first of each month, Catching Days hosts a guest writer in the series, “How We Spend Our Days.” Today, please welcome writer LOUISE ELLS.
In my afternoon support group for caregivers, we talk about non-verbal communication, keeping our loved ones safe, making difficult choices. Two years ago, I was unable to have these conversations without crying, and yet it is interesting that I explore many of the same questions in my stories. I was well into writing my collection before I understood that its thematic link is loss.
As much as I love summer, April is my favourite time of year. Last week it was still winter—we had three days of rain—and now it’s spring, complete with the first of the crocuses in the garden poking up through the last patches of snow. The evenings are longer, lighter, and I can imagine months of summer stretching before me.
When I wake in the morning, I am no longer waking to darkness. Our bedroom faces the lake, and I leave the curtains open, so I can watch the pink sky through the tangled branches of two maple trees. On my left, my husband is finally dozing after a fitful night. Sprawled across me, Piper, our cat, is purring. I have perhaps five minutes before she starts grooming me, a sign that she’s ready for her breakfast. I could use this time to plan my day—instead I look for bright red maple buds (none yet, but soon), stroke Piper, and think about the book I am reading (Waubgeshig Rice’s Moon of the Crusted Snow). These five minutes are precious, and I am grateful for them.
My husband is living with early-onset Alzheimer’s, and this dictates our days. When we recited our wedding vows seven years ago, we did not imagine dementia. Two years later, when I was completing my doctoral dissertation at Anglia Ruskin University, he was formally diagnosed with MCI (Mild Cognitive Impairment). “It is NOT mild!” I complained to my sister. (Had I only known then how mild it was.) We returned to Canada from the U.K., and I was lucky enough to find a job at our local university, first as a secretary, now as an adjunct member of faculty. I am fortunate to live in a community where respite care is available. My husband is an exit-seeker and cannot be left alone.
Now he wakes, looks out at the maples, and tells me that he climbed those walnut trees in the ravine as a child. He believes he is back in his childhood home, two hundred miles to the south: this is a positive start to our day. (A less positive start involves horrific delusions.) And the morning begins: breakfast for Piper, breakfast and morning meds for my husband, and then coffee. It is warm enough today to sit in the sun room with our coffee—soon we’ll be sitting on the deck. Piper joins us, and I turn on the “kitty TV.” I scatter squirrel food for squirrels, duck food for ducks, wild bird food for wild birds . . . even though I am well aware some of the animals are not picky about whose food they eat.
Although I converted a box room into my study, I always work at the dining room table with its view of the lake. This semester I taught The Contemporary Short Story; I have finished marking the final essays and reading journals, and this morning I am double, triple checking all the final marks before submitting them to the Dean for approval. I already miss my class—a wonderful group of students who are bright, hardworking, engaged . . . our weekly discussions were the highlight of my winter. I know I am dithering because when I press ‘submit’ the semester will truly have come to an end. I take a deep breath, laugh at myself, and submit.
Our weeks are organized according to the local Alzheimer Society schedule. On Mondays, my husband attends a day programme. Tuesdays, he goes to an art class, and I meet other caregivers for facilitated support. Wednesdays and Thursdays, more activities. Fridays start with breakfast with our new group of friends (comprising partners, one who is living with dementia and his or her caregiver) and are a highlight of the week for both of us. On the weekends, we spend time with my sister and her family, and also often my Mum. I can’t imagine how difficult this journey would be if we were facing it alone.
But next week will be different. My sister-in-law is coming to stay with her brother for six days while I go to a writing retreat. Six days to do nothing but write and revise my own work; I am a great fan of retreats and am trying not to count down the hours.
I move on to ten partial manuscripts, entries for a writing contest I was invited to judge. I read them all twice last week. Today I re-read and compose comments that I hope will be both encouraging and helpful to the contestants. My husband naps on the sofa; Piper comes to sit on my keyboard, but I’m able to convince her to settle beside the laptop instead. I am accomplishing so much I’m loathe to stop and wake my husband for lunch, but we have our groups in an hour.
On the drive home, my husband asks if his Mum and Dad know where he is. In the hopes that he’ll forget that his parents have passed away, I distract—pointing out a hawk in the sky, a film crew returning Main Street to Christmas splendour, a dump truck carting away a load of snow from a parking lot. It would be easy to list all the things my intelligent, adventurous husband (a journalist and editor for his entire working life) can no longer do, but that would not change what is, and I choose instead to focus on what he still enjoys, to be relentlessly cheerful, and to slip from my reality into his as often as necessary.
It starts to rain and I think this is a fine excuse to avoid yard work for one more day—as well, our neighbour says there will be snow overnight. I have been asked back to teach at Churchill College this summer and start working on a lesson plan around the play we’ll watch at the Cambridge Shakespeare Festival, but I struggle to concentrate with a cat on my lap and a shadow at my side. “Remember when the man did the thing?” When my husband first started losing his nouns, I’d press for details in an effort to understand him. When? Where? Now I nod, looking closely for clues—if he’s smiling, I’ll laugh, if he looks worried, I’ll comfort him. Yes, I lie. I remember when the man did the thing.
He retreats to the sofa and a conversation with someone I can’t see—but he sounds cheerful, so I don’t intervene. Instead I check my email, pay a bill, think about sneaking on to social media, but, knowing that I could easily get sucked down a rabbit hole, close my laptop. This evening my writing critique group, The Book Club, meets, so I abandon my lesson plan and re-read the piece we’re going to discuss, ensuring the comments I made last week still make sense to me today. We are a group of three and the other two members are generous enough to meet here. A side bonus to hosting is that I hoover, move piles of books which seem to accumulate of their own accord, give the house a lick & a promise, and make snacks. A clean(ish) home and the smell of caramelizing onions—life is good.
My husband wakes from a nightmare, so I make us both a cup of tea and put on Simon and Garfunkel. My husband sings along, and this makes me happy. I believe the words of songs from his past are more important than knowing what day of the week it is, or the town where we live, or, sometimes, my name. I love the man my husband is now, but I miss the man I married. We talked about books, and history, and writing; we baked bread together, and went on week-long hikes, and snowshoed in winter, and canoed in summer.
The rain has stopped, and we have time for a stroll before supper; the lesson plan and remaining contest entries can wait. We celebrate spring by forgoing hats, mittens, and scarves. My husband trusts me to lead the way but grows increasingly anxious when he recognizes nothing along the route we walk almost daily. We go only as far as the bridge over the La Vase but are rewarded with the sight of a heron. My husband relaxes when we turn and head back the way we came and makes a bad pun about the heron. I cherish these moments—when he’s here, when we connect, when we laugh together.
After supper, I slather a Brie with the caramelized onions and fresh thyme, wrap asparagus with prosciutto, and put them both into the oven with a French stick. The Book Club reminds me, as much as teaching, as much as judging a writing contest, how much I love to write, to read, to revise. We talk about the fine line between giving voice to the voiceless, and what is not our story to tell, and I wonder how my husband would feel about my telling strangers about his memory loss. We talk about voice, backstory, the fragmented nature of recollections. We also talk about the most challenging issues facing our community and what can be done, and then end on a happier note, discussing the upcoming wedding of one of our members. As we speak, we watch the sunset; the peaches turn to pinks then fade to progressively deeper blues. Last summer a pair of loons lived in our bay. I hope we’ll be as lucky again this summer; loon calls at dusk are my favourite summer sound.
NOT THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
1. When you’re writing, is there something you return to again and again for inspiration?
- Yes, poetry. And walking. And a paragraph from this blog which I printed out soon after I arrived back in Canada, and have pinned above my desk:
“I didn’t know how I would make the story work without them. I stared into the ocean. The tide went out and it came back in again. I couldn’t figure out how I would land safely. But I jumped anyway. I cut the pages.”
— Cynthia Newberry Martin
2. What one word best describes your reading life?
- Haphazard. I often go off on wild tangents. If I ‘discover’ a new-to-me author, I binge on her backlist. I love bookstores—used, independent, and chain, and have lists of books I must buy or borrow from the library. There are canonical books I have not yet read I feel guilty about ignoring, and I regret leaving shelves of books behind me when I moved again, and again. I absolutely trust the opinions of Roxane Gay and Stephanie Steakley Howell and Kerry Clare and add all their recommendations to my TBR list. I will die before I read everything I want (and need!) to read, and yet I continue to re-read favourites.
3. What question do you wish someone would ask you?
- “What scares you the most? Write about it.” This is a prompt I sometimes offer my students towards the end of our semester (when we have created a safe and close community). I am always in awe of their bravery, not only in answering the question, but also in sharing their responses. (I do ask myself . . . but find I can evade the truth.)
By LOUISE ELLS