Lights Will Guide You Home

by Susan Pogorzelski on July 14, 2009 · 10 comments

And the tears come streaming down your face
When you lose something you can’t replace
When you love someone…

Coldplay, “Fix You”

revisiting the butterfly by basilly (flickr)

Lately my mind has been filled with ideas and situations related to work and projects and books and writing and possibility. But there’s a heavier weight there that I haven’t been willing to talk about because I haven’t been able to put it into words and it’s so incredibly personal. And I’m not going to touch on it fully here because what is happening presently is a private matter. But I will write about something that is just as personal and, perhaps, just as interconnected.

For those who have been following my other creative writing site, you’ll know that I’ve been writing the Annie Summer Series for approximately a year. The series is centered around a 12 year old girl during the summer of 1979 in which she struggles to make sense of her ever-changing world. Had anyone asked me what it was about when I started it, I would have shrugged and said I had no idea. It started out as a single short story, after all. But that story said it all, beginning a journey of discovery and healing that I didn’t even realize was needed.

I’ve had people ask if Annie Summer was actually 12-year-old me, and I kind of laughed it off and explained that I think every writer leaves a part of themselves in a character — that whole “write what you know” mantra. But I didn’t realize how true this was. I didn’t realize how easy it would be to replace 1979 Annie with 1994 Susan.

Writing has incredible healing abilities, uncovering truths and showing you things that you may have repressed, for whatever reason. I don’t believe anymore that it was a coincidence that I began to write the Annie Summer Series when I did or just how strongly I feel for it. It was meant for something, something very personal, and I understand that now.

As I said recently on Twitter, I think that sometimes events, situations — things — in life tend to parallel each other so that we can better learn, better appreciate, better understand. I’m writing the Annie Summer Series, I’m starting to see, so that I can come to terms with all those emotions I felt when I watched my mom’s mother fade away with Alzheimers. And while the situation now is very different, I can see some of the parallels and understand the connection.

The Annie Summer Series is without a doubt a work of fiction, but it is grounded in reality — my own reality.

Ever since I was a baby my grandmother had lived with us and watched out for us. She was there when we came home from school, was at the dinner table with us each night, and was there sitting and listening patiently as I rambled and played with my Barbies — a memory that is so insignificant but so crystal clear.

There had always been my dad, my mom, and my grandma as the adults in our close-knit family — exactly as it should have been. Slowly, imperceptibly, however, the roles began to shift. I was too young to fully realize what was happening, but I think I knew that something was different, that something was changing.

Grandma began to refuse to eat, but we would find bologna sandwiches in her dresser drawers, food stockpiled, saved; she would ask for her sisters, her brothers, her mother — all long passed. When she fell later on, the ambulance showed up in our driveway, taking her to the emergency room. I remember crying. I remember my brother holding me. I remember not really understanding.

I remember, though, that she didn’t come home, instead moving to an assisted-care facility — one of the first until she went to a full-care nursing home a few years later. It was the hardest decision my mom had ever made, and I remember the sympathy I felt for her, not imagining that I would be able to do the same, coming to the startling revelation that maybe, someday, I would have to. Because people aren’t invincible. And no matter how hard you try to protect them, life and age happens. And it’s never, ever easy.

I remember the first time I told my mom I wanted to go with her to visit Grandma. She didn’t want me to; she wanted me to remember her as she was, didn’t want me to see her in the home. But I wanted to see Grandma as much to support my mom and dad as for myself. It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t as hard as I expected. She still remembered me, my brothers, though she occasionally called us by different names. Slowly, that began to change, too, though. Slowly, she slipped further and further away as she passed the various stages of Alzheimer’s.

Sometimes we left laughing after a visit, after hearing her sing “one, two, buckle my shoe” or another nursery rhyme. Other times, we cried and tried to hold on to each other and what we had as best as we could. When Grandma moved into the final full-care facility, we were beyond recognition to her. She called out for her sisters and her mother, a desperate plea that we couldn’t answer.

I don’t remember how old I was exactly — maybe sixteen or so at the time — but I was with my Mom in the car when she received a call that my Grandma wasn’t doing well. Mom wanted to drop me off at home. I insisted on going, knowing that Dad was at work and Mom would need someone now. It had been awhile since I had gone for a visit — it was getting harder and harder — but Mom understood, and Grandma really didn’t know the difference. But I did. I knew. Just like I knew that I had to go then, on the day that Mom got that phone call, in the car.

She was frail and I barely recognized her, though someone had done her hair and painted her nails. I don’t remember much, but I remember the light — a soft kind of yellow glow from the lamp in the room — and I remember Mom and I trying to find humor in the obscenities her roommate was yelling. But it wasn’t funny. And I think we both knew that. I think we both tried our hardest to mask our tears.

If there is one thing I will always be grateful for in this life, it’s the fact that I always got to say goodbye to the people and animals I’ve cared about who have passed. This was my goodbye — I don’t think I realized it then, but I think, somehow, we both knew. I think it might have been that very same night where, late into the evening, the phone rang. I jumped out of bed and ran down the hall, immediately knowing what had happened, and Mom and Dad gathered my brothers and I in the living room and we talked and we shared memories and we grieved.

Her funeral was one of the most heartwarming and bittersweet moments I have ever experienced, as the room felt like it glowed with the love of our closest family of aunts and uncles and cousins while we laughed and shared memories and passed around pictures.

I’ve been met with loss since then, but that had been my first experience with it. And all of those memories had been repressed — not for any conscious reason, but, rather, because life had moved on and I had come to terms with it. Maybe because it affected me so, and maybe because, in a similar, but at the same time different, way I’m becoming affected by it again, is it resurfacing, with the Annie Summer Series allowing me to reflect and understand and learn.

I can never really explain how or give a suitable answer for why Annie Summer was imagined that day I started writing the series. I didn’t intend for her to appear and never expected her to start talking. I certainly didn’t expect that she had this to say. All I can wonder is maybe she really is a part of 12-year-old me, waiting for the moment when it would seem right, when I needed to remember, when I needed to learn, when I needed to heal.

When I needed to write about then in order to understand now.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Sam July 15, 2009

Susan, this is so beautiful, and I can totally relate. My grandma suffered from dementia, and though I was a little older when she got sick, I witnessed the same progression…I watched her fade away. I think the best thing we can do in tough situations is learn from them, and the lesson you shared is an incredibly powerful one: “People aren’t invincible. And no matter how hard you try to protect them, life and age happens.”

I could honestly write for hours on this subject, but I think that’s better reserved for a one-on-one conversation. Just know that you’re not alone. Alzheimer’s doesn’t just affect the one who is suffering from it, it also deeply affects that person’s loved ones and it’s hard to understand unless you’ve gone through it yourself. I understand. Wonderful post!

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Susan Pogorzelski - admin July 15, 2009

Sam: I don’t even know where to begin, to be honest. This post came out of the blue for me, but I think it’s been something I’ve needed to write about for a very, very long time. While I’m sorry that you can relate, I’m also selfishly really glad for that — because it helps to have someone who understands completely what it’s like.

I think most people know what it feels like to see another person change and fade away and maybe even suffer — through dementia, through illness…And you’re absolutely right in that it doesn’t just affect that person, but that spreads to everyone around them as well. I think that’s the hardest part — the heartache…it’s contagious. And maybe, sometimes, there’s no cure. And it’s just as hard to watch others struggle with what’s going on as it is to fight to understand it yourself. Like I said, you want to protect everyone, but you can’t.

Life, as beautiful as it is, can be shaded in harsh realities. My grandmother lived a long and beautiful life, which I think made it easier in the end for everyone to reconcile with her loss. Easier, but never easy.

Sam, I meant for this to be a comment to thank you so much for your understanding and support, but it turned into something else entirely! Thank you. I believe in kindred spirits and I absolutely count you as one of them. Thank you for your friendship, thank you for being there, and thank you for your understanding. I know you get it. And that means everything.

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